The Settled and the Strange: Seven Thoughts for Sukkot

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Today is the first full day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, one of several Jewish holidays that I have long felt a certain amount of holy envy for. I love it for several reasons: because it is, at heart, a harvest festival, associated with the “ingathering” of crops and taking comfort in the bounties of the land; because it focuses our attention on the element of “place” in those rituals (both divine and mundane) that attend our building of our own homes and lives; but mostly, I think, because it conveys a permanent sense of the transitional in those very same bounties and that same sense of hominess and belonging. All Israel was commanded, during the days of the feast, to build booths or temporary shelters for themselves out in the fields, to leave their homes and beds and sleep and eat their meals inside them for seven days, to remind them of their special–but also always perilous–dependent relationship with God, who led them out of Egypt and made possible everything they were or had. Anyway, herewith, seven thoughts: [Read more...]

Meeting the Ups

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Just so you know, there’s probably no way that anyone who doesn’t fit into the very narrow Venn overlap of “church-going Mormons” and “Up completists” will be able to understand this post. So that means just about everyone can now safely skip over it. [Read more...]

Defending God’s Sovereignty (Who is God?, Part 2)

The title of this post is a lie: I’m not going to defend God’s sovereignty, not really anyway. I’m not not going to do it for two reasons. First, because I have no theological belief about God’s nature or power or personality or sovereignty firm enough to qualify as something that I am genuinely capable of “defending.” Frankly, God is a mystery to me, and I tend to believe that He wants it to be that way, for His own mostly unknowable reasons. Second, because to engage in a defense means to present an argument–in this case, one against the position that Jason has sketched out, which presents some questions and possibilities in connection with the idea that the Mormon notion of God presents Him as vulnerable, not sovereign–and while I’d like to think I’m at least minimally well-read in the theological literature, my disagreement with him, and my belief that the God which Christians like ourselves worship is not essentially vulnerable, but rather is essentially sovereign, is rooted in other perceptions that lack the rigor of theological argument. The best I can do, then, is talk about where those perceptions came from, and what they’ve meant to me. [Read more...]

Are More Missionaries Returning Early?

earlyreturnOver the past year, I’ve become aware of something which I wonder might be a new trend, or at least a new understanding, abroad in the American church. Specifically, I have seen missionaries (invariably elders; none of my examples involve sisters) returning from their missions early, never (or at least never explicitly) for reasons of disobedience or financial obligations or sin, but rather for reasons of stress, or stomach-aches, or homesickness, or a fear of losing their testimony, or anxiety, or anger management issues arising from conflicts with companions, or depression, or headaches, or some combination of all of the above. I am not in any way disparaging any of those reasons for returning from one’s mission; every one of the half-dozen or so cases I know of personally–and all of those I’ve learned about from others, of which there seem to be many–involve genuine struggle and legitimate concerns, and I have a lot of sympathy for the hard choices these former missionaries (a few of whom being young men I’ve known for years) have had to make. But still, I’ve seen these boys return, and attend church and receive callings and make plans for college or finding jobs or going on dates or returning to the mission field (though that option, while always spoken of, has never actually been taken by any of the ex-elders I’m thinking of), all without dealing with any church discipline or any kind of medical supervision or really from any real social costs that I’m able to see, and I think to myself: man, times have changed. [Read more...]

The Tale of a Mission, 40 Years Later

Craig Harline, a BYU professor of European history and fairly prolific author (by my standards, anyway) as well as the presenter of a speech on how religions and cultures change that every informed person ought to listen to, has written a beautiful, hilarious, and haunting book. Titled Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, you may have caught a couple of glimpses of it a while ago on Times and Seasons. It is a mission memoir, one that Harline states he’d wanted to write for many years, but didn’t really feel like he could until nearly 40 years had passed since his mid-70s sojourn in the short-lived Belgium Antwerp Mission (opened in 1975, closed in 1982, later re-opened as part of the Belgium/Netherlands Mission). The reflective wisdom and writing skill which he’s developed over those decades is very much on display in this book; it’s the best, most thoughtful, funniest and truest recreation of missionary life–especially the internal life of a missionary–that I’ve ever read. [Read more...]

Leaving a Changed Magazine Behind

churchmagazinesMy wife and I have subscribed to the church magazines–The Ensign, for our tweens and teen-agers The New Era, and for our younger children The Friend–for all of our married life, more than 20 years. But this year, after some discussion, we simply decided that we were giving up on them entirely. No more subscribing. We’ve saved ourselves $26. [Read more...]

The Surprising Nativity: A Chrismas Homily

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The passage from the New Testament which always hear this time of year includes these important, well-known lines:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

The phrase “sore afraid” is a translation of the Greek word phobeō; it communicates the idea of, not just fear, but of taking alarm, and of sudden surprise. The shepherds, in other words, were terrified–not because, or at least not solely because, the appearance of the angel was a terrifying vision, but also because it was unexpected, and shocking. This was not something they ever could have been prepared for. [Read more...]

Why I Like Popes (Some of Them, Sometimes)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. I didn’t take any notice–but then, I’m neither Catholic, nor from Argentina. (Of the tens of millions of people who do fit that description, the word is quite a few of them noticed it very much.) Perhaps I should have, though, because one of the most important things John Paul II did during his 26+ years as the Bishop of Rome (the second-longest period of service in all of Catholic history) was bring into the College of Cardinals large numbers of bishops whom he trusted to carry forward the church in a manner that he understood to be where the Holy Spirit was calling it. And Francis, the current Roman Pontiff and now Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is certainly a servant of God very much after the pattern of John Paul the Great. [Read more...]

Thank You, Bloggernacle

Ten years ago today, I entered the Bloggernacle. A decade on, I’m still here (despite evidence–or rather the lack of it–which might suggest the contrary). For whatever they’re worth, here are some thoughts: [Read more...]

Does America Need a Civil Religion?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The website Patheos has revived their excellent feature “The Public Square” with one of the more interesting topics that can be asked in conjunction with religion and public life: namely, that of civil religion. I was asked to contribute something–in no more than 800 words, which anyone who knows me knows is difficult. I’m attaching below the unedited version of what they ran; I strongly encourage you to read all the contributions, as there is some good thinking on display there: [Read more...]

Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

Exactly 50 years ago today, on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–an evangelical Southern Baptist, a democratic socialist, a troublemaker, an agitator, an idealist, a patriot, a sinner, a saint, and, in the words of the announcer, “the moral leader of our nation”–gave the climactic address to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people who had marched on Washington DC to demand the end to all those obstacles which stood in the way of both the equal rights and the full employment of African-Americans. Like all prophets, his voice that day was only heard and heeded partially. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop us from hearing and reading his words again today, his words which call us again to equality and forgiveness and justice and community and peace, and honoring them: honoring them with our hearts and our minds and our votes and our taxes and our democratic activities. That’s the good thing about dreams.

Three Notes on President Uchtdorf (and His Wonderful Priesthood Session Sermon)

Dnews 20.CESUchtdorf.0113.chn Let me confess that I’ve become a little suspicious of the deep affection which seems to characterize so many discussions about President Dieter F. Uchtdorf amongst the Intellectual Mormons (use whatever definition your prefer) that I frequently associate with. I have a hard time buying the idea that this man is some kind of Great Liberal Hope for the church; there’s no way any person (even a non-American!) can get to the highest levels of church leadership and not be fundamentally at peace with–and have real faith in the divinity behind–the corporate Mormon institution which we all know and love. He’s a general authority, a man we give the title “apostle” to, and that ought to be more than good enough. There’s no need to look at him as one who has great and unique and needed insights which his fellow general authorities lack.

Except that, well, he keeps giving beautiful, thoughtful, wise talks after which I have to tell myself: “Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the Church Office Building who would have said that.” His sermon in Priesthood session this past Saturday is a case in point.

[Read more...]

The Three Trees: A Folk Tale for Good Friday

[An old and oft-told story, one which gets better with age.]

Once upon a time, three trees stood in a forest high on a mountain, dreaming of what they might become one day.

[Read more...]

Resolving Existential Crises Through Philosophy and/or Film (or, My Dinner with Megan)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last night, our delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, and very smart oldest daughter, now aged sixteen (and getting ready to graduate a year early; help support her year abroad in India here!), had an existential crisis. She’s been studying other religions–particularly Buddhism–at school, and while at an activity at our own church last night, it suddenly struck her: what if Buddhism (or, as I would emphasize to her, the version of Buddhism she’d become familiar with) was correct, and all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation? Late-night bull-session thoughts, you might say, but they really shook her, and by late that evening she was crying and shaking, desperate to make some sense of the world. What did it all mean? Was there such a thing as meaning? Was there such a thing as herself–much less God or reality or anything else? [Read more...]

The Strange Missing Element in Elder Oaks’s Very Fine Stargazing Analogy

stargazingIf you live in anywhere in the Upper Midwest, and you’re the sort of Mormon who goes to stake conference, then yesterday you were sitting in a church building somewhere listening to some piped-in talks from Salt Lake City, the concluding one being given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. His remarks were very Hinckley-ish, running over a wide range of topics pertinent to both administering the affairs of the church and living a Christ-like life. At one point he directed his comments to the single adult members in the church, and he told a short story, which I actually thought was an almost perfect analogy of the situation facing most single adult members of the church. Almost. To summarize as best as I can recall, his analogy went like this: [Read more...]

My Final (?) Mormon Moment Thoughts

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Over the past 20 months or so, I–like a lot of other Mormon academics and bloggers–have found myself being contacted by reporters, being invited to conferences, and being asked to write up some thoughts, all of which had to do with the “Mormon Moment” which the coincidence of several pop culture trends and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign combined to create. (You can find versions of those thoughts here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That moment isn’t over, I think, though it’s obviously moved into a different phase, one that is far less public than was the case a year ago. In any case, there was recently yet another Mormon Moment gathering, this one held at Utah Valley University, and I was privileged to be a part of it, along with Kristine Haglund, James Falconer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Matt Bowman, and others. UVU has now put up a video of the main presentation (which doesn’t include the wonderful Q&A with Matt, unfortunately); my contribution begins at 53:15, but really, if you’re at all interested in any of the issues which pertained to the Mormon Moment, however you defined it, you should take two hours and watch the whole thing. [Read more...]

My Giant

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Today, February 11, my father James Russell Fox (who was named after his father, James Wesley “Little Bill” Fox, who was in turn named after his father, James William “Big Bill” Fox), turns 70. Even in this era of plastic surgery, third or fourth careers, and aging rock-and-rollers, that still counts as old. (Check it out: my father is older than three out of the four current surviving members of the Rolling Stones. That’s saying something.) He carries his age well: still waking up early, still golfing almost every day, still heading in to the office for a day’s work, still laboring with Young Men’s organization at church. He is, seven decades into his mortal life, the most healthy and firm and disciplined and well-rounded and loving and accomplished and thoroughly good man I have ever personally known, and probably ever will personally know. I am taller than him, and have more university degrees beside my name, and I suppose can–in a few ways–see some things which he cannot. But if that is so, it is only because I am, like my eight siblings, a dwarf who stands upon the shoulder of a giant. I am lifted up by him, yet I am also in his shadow as well. So he is above me as well as beneath me, and all around me as well. Jim Fox will follow me all my life, and for all the ways we disagree, I feel that as an enormous blessing, one I am unworthy of in so many ways. [Read more...]

All Creatures Great and Small

cows_in_snow[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

My father decided that we needed to learn how to work–and since he ran a feed mill, getting farm animals that we could feed relatively cheap seemed like the best idea. My father had been part of the world of alfalfa fields and cattle auctions since he was a child, but he wasn’t a farmer, per se; just someone who knew and respected the social and economic place of farm life, and saw an opportunity to continue to make it a part of his children’s lives. As so we got dairy cows, and starting around age nine, I and my older brother Daniel and older sister Samatha would milk them (usually two, sometimes three, sometimes only one) by hand, morning and night. Of course, that would include Christmas. [Read more...]

Elders Quorum and the Secret of Measuring Success in the Church

asleepAs a new member of a bishopric in a ward with all-new boundaries, I now get to attend all sorts of stake training meetings which I’d never been expected to get out to before. This is, to be clear, not exactly my favorite part of my new calling. But I have to admit that I learned something at a stake training meeting last night–or at least had a thought planted in my head which is probably worth some discussion. [Read more...]

Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called “home teaching” or “visit teaching.”) They’re a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way–enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He’s now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family’s efforts that the woman he’d met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them–the legal as well as spiritual one–as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I’m a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I’d like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it’s hard to tell. Our congregation’s boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made–as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are–I do the best I can….but you never know what will come of these interruptions. [Read more...]

Mocking Romney’s Mormon Self-Sufficiency, and What That Misses

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Amy Sullivan has an article on The New Republic’s website this morning, calling Mitt Romney “insufferably cheap,” and arguing that the “frugal quirks” which have been well-documented in recent news stories–according to the Washington Post, Romney “duct-tapes the holes in his gloves….rinses and stacks the dishes at the sink before loading the dishwasher after family holiday meals….picks up his own dry cleaning, pulls his own suitcase, eats at burger joints, counts his change”–reveal a “pathological” personality, make Romney “sound like a complete loon,” and “must make him a bit annoying to be around.” I respectfully disagree with all those claims. Far from making Romney seem like a tightwad jerk, learning about Romney’s devotion to personal penny-pinching–though only in some areas of his life–does more to make him seem to my eyes like an authentic human being I can relate to, than anything else that he’s done or has been said about him in all his years in the public eye. I’m not going to vote for him, but for the first time, I feel as though I kind of like the guy. [Read more...]

Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text: [Read more...]

How Mitt Romney Deflated the Mormon Moment

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Before we get too far into this week’s Democratic National Convention, let me get off my chest something about last week’s, something that I’ve alluded to in other places before, but now, having watched and read up on all the Mormon-centric stuff that came out of Tampa last week, I’m more certain of than ever. The speeches given last Thursday, culminating in Mitt Romney’s speech accepting the presidential nomination of the Republican Party wasn’t just a “climax” for the Mormon Moment–it was the effective sublimation and emptying of it as well. [Read more...]

Blessed, Honored Pioneers

Caitlyn–our second daughter, age 12–gave her first talk in sacrament meeting on Sunday. The topic was, as no doubt was the case in wards and branches all across the country, the Mormon pioneers. She genuinely struggled over it, asking smart questions (like “Why did they go all the way to Utah; could they have just set up a new city once they’d escaped from Illinois?”), and wondering whether it was appropriate or not to mention our family’s pioneer heritage (Brigham Young on my father’s mother’s side; C.C.A. Christensen–and hundreds of other Scandinavian saints–on my wife’s father’s), or whether that would seem like bragging. In the end, she gave fine 7-minute talk, telling stories and expressing appreciation for the way the pioneer experience “gave us a church we have today.” Which is true, mostly. Her ancestors would have been proud. Really, it was a good sacrament meeting, all around. The only way it could have been improved is if we’d sung The Handcart Song as a congregation–you know, the real one. [Read more...]

Why I Think I Was Wrong About Proposition 8 and Same-Sex Marriage

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The only time I have had the opportunity to actually vote on–as opposed to pontificate about–same-sex marriage was in 2004 when I lived in Arkansas, when an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the legal recognition of anything besides a union of one man and one woman as a marriage was on the ballot. I voted in favor of it. In 2008, though I wasn’t living in California, Proposition 8–the ballot initiative to re-establish what was, at the time, the exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in that state–was obviously something just about every informed American Mormon, due to our church’s heavy involvement in its passage, had an opinion on. My opinion, which was published as part of a roundtable in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, was that I would have, if I’d lived in California, reluctantly voted in support of the referendum. I now think both my vote on same-sex marriage in Arkansas, and the arguments I laid out regarding Proposition 8, were wrong. [Read more...]

“What Think Ye of Christ?”

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Twice in the past week, I have been asked, in essence, this very question, though not exactly as it is recorded in Matthew 22:42. Once the question came from a student of mine, a young person, unfamiliar with the Mormon church but filled with questions, a person generally uninterested in Christianity; the other came from a fellow Mormon blogger, an academic like myself, trying to make sense of certain statements I’d made in response to some of the temple-related controversies which the Mormon Moment has thrust upon us. I found myself responding as I did in both cases, I suppose, because I’m mostly unconcerned with, and admittedly sometimes outright dismissive of, many of the doctrines in question: the point of the church, for me at least, is to get close to God, and experience the condescension, love, and grace of Jesus, and I often find the need to justify or make sense of much of the rest of our teachings a distraction, at best. What follows is my attempt to recreate the answers I gave to those two questioners, with some help from Elders Holland and Uchtdorf along the way. [Read more...]

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This is a sermon which I gave in sacrament meeting on January 1, 2012. It was the day after our third daughter, Alison, was baptized, and my parents and parents-in-law were in attendance, which all made for a wonderful occasion. I don’t think I would have done anything different with this sermon it had been just another Sunday though. In any case, I think it turned out well, and enough people told me afterwards that they liked it that I decided to post it here. Enjoy. [Read more...]

Happy Christmas, Everyone

This, or something very much like this, is perhaps my oldest Christmas memory. Also one of my best.

Best wishes for a great holiday tomorrow.

The (Not So) Radical(ly Conseravtive) Mormon Priesthood

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

That Mormonism was at one time a radical movement which challenged dominant American liberal norms–most famously regarding marriage and sexuality, but also (and I think more importantly) regarding economics and government–is pretty well understood by most who have even a passing familiarity with Mormon history. (If that’s not you, see here and here.) That Mormonism today–at least American Mormonism, at least if the dominant voting patterns and preferred modes of discourse amongst the majority of American Mormon wards are taken as evidence–is no longer much committed to radical communitarianism and egalitarianism, to radical re-organizations of social life, to radical distinctions in how one talks about sovereignty and loyalty, is also pretty well understood. (Again, if you’re lost, begin here and here.) America is a different place than it was in the late 19th-century, to be sure, when the U.S. government invested considerable effort to imprison church members and break apart church operations…but then, we are also a significantly different church than we were then, far more at peace with, and far more aligned to, dominant American ways of socializing, making money, electing our leaders and living our lives. Sure, we could point to all sorts of contrasting evidence–but we’re much more sexually traditional than most Americans! we challenge all sorts of trends regarding divorce and family! we’re considered weird by people in Hollywood!–but all that is, I would assert, fairly circumstantial: fundamentally, for better or worse (or both), the “Mormon moment” has come, in all its multicolored variety, and its conclusion is: even allowing for our mostly traditional mores and mostly conservative politics, here in America we are, I think, undeniably a pretty modern mix of mostly independent individuals, just like nearly everybody else (or, more honestly, just like nearly every other mostly white, mostly suburban church in America). [Read more...]

Mormonism and Utopian Politics

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I don’t mean to make a habit of responding to Matt Bowman’s essays in The New Republic, if for no other reason than that the man’s scholarly chops and writing skills are both impressive and intimidating. Both those talents are fully on display in his latest piece, which thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney’s technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism’s history of progressive-style responses to social problems. But there’s a problem with Bowman’s essay: what he identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon “classical American progressivism” isn’t really, or at least isn’t at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance–one which, I’m sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all. [Read more...]

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