Let There Be Light, If Only We Could Agree on What Light Was

“The assault on moral principles and religious freedom has never been stronger…. there are also people who are determined to both destroy faith and reject any religious influence in society….” Quentin L. Cook, Let There Be Light, October 2010 General Conference.

It is hard to understand what Cook, as well as other Mormon speakers in recent years making similar arguments, means when he refers to “religious freedom.” I am, as always, tempted to ask what is happening today which limits our ability to worship more than the conflict between the church and the US government over plural marriage, when the church was disincorporated and lost most of its property. But restraint on ability to worship seems not to be central to what Cook has in mind in referring to religious freedom. Instead, the operative issue here involves a perceived rejection of “religious influence in society.” Let me allow Cook to elaborate: [Read more...]

Honorable Reasons

A few days ago, someone made the comment to me that (full or partial) Mormon disbelievers sometimes choose to stay in the church and the community for reasons that are both honorable and dishonorable. This, to me, is a provocative thought. Many, both among believers and disbelievers, assert as a matter of principle that there can be no honorable reasons to stay in the Mormon world for those who are not full believers, or at least believers in the core tenets of standard Mormon testimony. Others claim that there are a range of such honorable reasons. Who is right? [Read more...]

Exit, Voice, and Change

One sometimes hears calls among Mormons of a certain stripe for faithful believers to extend more love and acceptance to people who leave Mormonism. I am well aware of this discourse for the very good reason that I have on more than a couple of occasions initiated such discussions. Yet on further reflection it seems to me that this message has potential dangers for Mormonism as a community that are at least worth thinking through. [Read more...]

Teaching the War in Heaven

After hearing several discussions of the very real challenges involved in teaching the Gospel Essentials manual to Relief Societies and quorums made up largely of established members, I wanted to share the approach to the lessons that Sam Brunson (law professor, jazz fanatic, occasional Prius driver, and father of the third- and fourth-best young kids that I know in the Chicago area) has been using — quite successfully. Please enjoy, below, his notes on the War in Heaven lesson.

A couple prefatory/introductory notes to the lessons: in preparing to teach Elders Quorum, I’ve decided to focus on figuring out how we know what we know about the topics covered by the Gospel Principles manual.  Doing so, I’ve largely limited myself to canonized scripture, even where I know there’s something a prophet has said about the subject. [Read more...]

Eden: Hebrew Bible Back Row 2

Many readers will remember my Back Row series on the Doctrine and Covenants. I wanted to continue writing about the scriptures connected with Sunday School, but the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is far more complex than the Doctrine and Covenants, and I’m just an interested amateur. So I’m calling in reinforcements. This week, I’m joined by Kiskilili from Zelophehad’s Daughters, as well as Ronan, John C., and Kristine all from BCC. (Because the documents are all complicated and in some ways different, this series will focus on Hebrew Bible texts discussed in Sunday School, with Pearl of Great Price and JST texts referred to when they are of interest for the Hebrew Bible but not placed at the center of attention.)

JNS: This week’s Back Row discussion focuses on Genesis 2-3, the Hebrew Bible reading for the fourth Sunday School lesson this year.  Here, we’re asked to talk about one of the most-interpreted narratives in human history, the Adam and Eve narrative.  To get things started on the right note, I’d like to make the popular point that the narrative is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. [Read more...]

Creation: Hebrew Bible Back Row 1

Many readers will remember my Back Row series on the Doctrine and Covenants.  I wanted to continue writing about the scriptures connected with Sunday School, but the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is far more complex than the Doctrine and Covenants, and I’m just an interested amateur.  So I’m calling in reinforcements.  This week, I’m joined by Seraphine and Kiskilili from Zelophehad’s Daughters.  (Because the documents are all complicated and in some ways different, this series will focus on Hebrew Bible texts discussed in Sunday School, with Pearl of Great Price and JST texts referred to when they are of interest for the Hebrew Bible but not placed at the center of attention.)

JNS: The Old Testament begins with a slight surplus of creation narratives.  Chapter 1 and the first three verses of Chapter 2 tell one complete story of the creation of the world and all life.  Chapter 2 begins a basically different story that continues into Chapter 3 (and therefore beyond the confines of this Sunday School lesson).  So let’s quickly acknowledge two familiar explanations for the excess of creation.  First is the Documentary Hypothesis, which I think convincingly argues that the two Hebrew Bible creation stories were drawn from different texts and then placed side by side in the Book of Genesis.  Note, among other classic evidences for this argument, that God in Chapter 1 is named God, whereas in Chapter 2 he’s named the LORD/YHWH.

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My Top Ten of the Decade

10.  Anathem

9.  Filmspotting

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Hate Crimes

A key part of Elder Oaks’s much-discussed argument regarding endangered religious freedom from earlier this year was the idea that religious people, and presumably Mormons in particular, are subject to a disproportionate set of attacks based on religion with the goal of silencing our political voice.  The goal side of that equation is hard to tackle, but the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics, 2008, report provides some hard evidence regarding the comparative identity-based victimization of different groups during 2008 — the Year of the California Proposition.

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D&C Catch-Up

I’ve fallen behind in writing about the D&C Sunday School lesson scriptures!  Woe is us.  Will there ever be a time when I do not regret this failure?  Perhaps, after I write this post covering lessons 38-40, my shame will subside enough that I can come creeping out of the closet that I’ve been hiding in for the last three days — the very closet from which I write these words, O Beloved Reader.

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Hooray, Utah! Hooray, Prophets: D&C Lessons 36 and 37

As noted in my last Back-Row Questions post, the D&C manual really stops revolving around the scriptures after it reaches the death of Joseph Smith.  Lesson 36 epitomizes this; the text for the lesson is Chapter 7 in the Our Heritage manual, and it doesn’t involve any material from the scriptures.  I really have nothing to say about this lesson.  It’s a good week to serve in the Primary, I guess. [Read more...]

Pioneers and Rescuing: D&C Lessons 34 and 35

The D&C manual runs into a kind of genre divide when Joseph Smith dies; there is no longer a constant series of canonized revelations with which to partner a discussion of church history.  Some lessons, such as 34, have a directly relevant section to take advantage of, while others, like 35, do not.  Both lessons are really built around extra-canonical materials, which makes my project awkward: I’m only talking about the canon, but it just isn’t the center of the discussion anymore.

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Succession: D&C Lesson 33

What a great opportunity to engage with the scriptures we have this week in Sunday School!  Three verses of the scriptures, to be specific.  The only scriptural content for this week’s lesson is D&C 107: 22-24.  Here, let me do you a favor:

Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.  The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world –— thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.  And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.  (D&C 107: 22-24)

Now, if the teacher in your Gospel Doctrine class asks whether you did the reading for this week, you can answer in all honesty in the affirmative.

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Save Jesus Only! D&C Lesson 32

This week’s Sunday School lesson is about the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum.  The only scriptural text is Doctrine and Covenants Section 135, which I think has been much more important in the cultural and institutional development of Mormonism than your average, run-of-the-mill section. [Read more...]

Why Do We Redeem the Dead? D&C Lesson 30

Section 2 is largely a quotation of the fathers/children/hearts text from Malachi.  I like this passage for a number of reasons.  It’s graceful in style, to start with.  I also like the image of reciprocity across generational lines that it conveys: new generations get the blessings of old generations, and in return they honor their forebears.  This is a very different image regarding respect for past generations from the sometimes superficial and bureaucratic geneology mode of gathering the bare minimum of information necessary to perform proxy ordinances. [Read more...]


My work has recently taken me to Independencia, a relatively rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Lima that began life some decades ago substantially as a collection of self-built houses on land taken in settler invasions.  During the course of the visit, I ended up walking down the main street of the area, right past the municipal headquarters building.  Just across the street was a striking LDS chapel complex. [Read more...]

Ignoring Commandments and Blessing Future Apostates: D&C Lesson 29

Section 124 opens with a commandment that Joseph Smith blew off.  In the early verses, God commands Smith to:

immediately to make a solemn proclamation of my gospel, and of this stake which I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace.
This proclamation shall be made to all the kings of the world, to the four corners thereof, to the honorable president-elect, and the high-minded governors of the nation in which you live, and to all the nations of the earth scattered abroad.

immediately to make a solemn proclamation of my gospel, and of this stake which I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace.  This proclamation shall be made to all the kings of the world, to the four corners thereof, to the honorable president-elect, and the high-minded governors of the nation in which you live, and to all the nations of the earth scattered abroad.  (124: 2-3)

But Joseph never wrote the proclamation!  Parley P. Pratt wrote it, in 1845 after Smith was murdered, in an apparent attempt to retroactively fulfill this instruction on which Joseph hadn’t followed through. [Read more...]

Back-Row Questions: Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 28

The sufferings of the Missouri period really bring out the Old Testament in our faith.  Lesson 27, which we talked about last week, focused on texts that really struggle with the problem of evil, a recurrent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible.  Lesson 28 is in many ways much more personal and poignant, focusing not on the logical problem of why the Saints get the short end of the stick, but instead on Joseph Smith’s need for personal comfort and reassurance.  Will the wicked triumph in the end?  Will his friends abandon him?  Both Joseph’s prayer as reported in Section 121 and the revelations of comfort offered in that section and the next show a man deep in depression and reaching out for hope. [Read more...]

Back-Row Questions: Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 27

Sometimes in Gospel Doctrine class, the scriptural text we’re reading raises more questions, concerns, or downright silliness in my mind than it can rightfully be expected to resolve.  I think of these as back-row questions, because they’re the sort of thing that Sunday School teachers dread when back-row class members raise their hands to contribute to the general discussion.  This week’s lesson materials raised several such thoughts in my mind; rather than impose them on a Gospel Doctrine class or whisper them to Taryn, I thought I’d just post them here.  What follows may well add up to nothing. [Read more...]

Is There a Trade-Off Between Rights for Women and Acceptance of Homosexuality?

BYU political scientist Valerie Hudson recently published a now much-discussed LDS feminist argument against same-sex marriage.  The central thrust of her argument is that there is a trade-off between gender equality and acceptance of homosexuality, and that Mormons should favor gender equality by opposing same-sex marriage and acquiescence toward homosexuality more generally.  The normative part of this argument depends on the empirical claim: that there is indeed a trade-off.  Can this assertion survive empirical scrutiny?  If not, Hudson’s entire essay basically fails. [Read more...]

Weighing DNA Evidence about the Book of Mormon

Over the last decade or so, there has been a voluminous, and often tiresome, debate about whether recent DNA evidence regarding the origins of Native Americans disproves the Book of Mormon.  The debate is wearying for several reasons.  To me, a key point is that the DNA evidence isn’t really providing very much new information; scholars have long had a variety of converging sources of data strongly supporting the hypothesis that Native Americans in general come from Siberia.  So DNA evidence is a useful piece of reinforcing data but not a revolution in understandings of Native American origins. [Read more...]

Same-Sex Marriage Debates in 2009 and Beyond

This is not a post about whether we should have same-sex marriage.  Rather, it is an exploration of the ways that strategic options for same-sex marriage proponents and advocates of traditional restrictions on marriage are evolving.  What kinds of arguments are likely to be meaningful to persuadable people? [Read more...]

Universalism with Boundaries

…[O]ur Father’s plan is big enough for all His children…

Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk from the recently concluded General Conference presents a useful and compelling presentation of what might be called a contemporary Mormon account of Christian universalism, a doctrine of how salvation can be extended to all.   One of the virtues of the talk is that it is clear enough in its presentation to make its own paradoxical limitations spring vividly to life: what Elder Cook discusses is a universalism with boundaries, a plan big enough to save all God’s children except the ones who are left out. [Read more...]

Apologetic Method

Apologetics in Mormonism is sometimes given an overly narrow definition.  Many in our community would regard as apologetic only the set of discourses that (in a tone that is vigorous, sometimes vicious, and rarely scholarly, civil, or notably charitable) seek to preserve contemporary understandings of Mormon orthodoxy at all costs and from all challengers.  However, apologetics in its technical sense is a much broader endeavor, involving efforts to relate faith and reason in ways that are in some sense true to both values.  With this broader technical meaning in mind, the Mormon apologetic community can be seen as including not only the traditional alpha males but also the more even-keeled authors associated with groups like FARMS and FAIR, as well as a clear majority of authors whose work is published in venues such as BYU Studies, Dialogue, and Sunstone.  Many or perhaps most bloggers at the well-known Mormon-themed sites would qualify as well. [Read more...]

My Truth Pathologies

While truth might seem like a simple and unitary concept (“It’s either true or it isn’t!”), nothing so important is ever really so simple.  Indeed, various competing conceptions of truth exist.  Truth might be regarded as a relation between sentences and worldviews; a sentence is true if it corresponds with the speaker’s (or the evaluator’s) sense of how best to think about things.  We might see truth as relative to some gold standard criterion; statements about historical documents, in this sense, are true if they correspond to what the relevant surviving document actually says — even if the document itself contains lies.  Some use truth to refer to human attempts at understanding the way the world works; a statement is provisionally true if it matches the current cutting-edge products of our best research methods, with the understanding that later information might qualify or reverse the truth judgment.  Or we might adopt a Platonic framework and regard truth as a substance or presence that exists in the universe independent of human thought or efforts, an entity that we might to some degree capture and possess but that we can never create. [Read more...]

The Church and the Debt Bubble

Let’s think about the church in 1990 and in 2008.  At the end of 1990, there were 44 temples; at the end of 2008, there were 128.  At the end of 1990, there were 1,784 stakes and 18,090 wards/branches; at the end of 2007, there were 2,790 stakes and 27,827 wards and branches.  This indicates a 191% increase in temples, a 56% increase in stakes, and a 54% increase in wards/branches. [Read more...]

Nauvoo Polygamy: Some Thoughts

For me, George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it celestial marriage” is one of the most anticipated Mormon books of recent years. A great deal of Mormon Studies writing about the origins of polygamy suffers, in my view, from a serious limitation: it regards the story of polygamy as a story about Joseph Smith. Of course, Joseph is central to the story. No other person had a greater role in shaping the way Mormons thought about and talked about plural marriage. [Read more...]

Two Irreverent Thoughts about George D. Smith’s New Book

George D. Smith’s massive new book on early Mormon polygamy promises to provide a perhaps unprecedented degree of detail regarding the many people other than Joseph Smith and his wives who engaged in plural marriage before the trek to the west. My reading of the early pages of the volume suggests a few points where the author’s tone is sublime almost beyond belief; let me quickly mention two of these. [Read more...]

Real Americans, Reality Checks, Kenyan Last Names

During the just-concluded U.S. presidential elections, various Republican candidates drew opprobrium for referring to “the real America,” “the real Virginia,” and so forth. Presumably, the “real” versions of these various geographic and political entities were basically Republican, made up of people with center-right ideology and conservative Christian faith. Such rhetoric is not particularly new; as a former resident of the San Francisco area, I have over the last decade routinely encountered dismissive comments about the Americanness of people like me who live in major metropolitan areas, have worldwide social networks, and occasionally eat spring mix salads in the place of iceberg lettuce. [Read more...]

How Not to Understand Brigham Young

It is probable that, at this point in history, Brigham Young is the most widely misinterpreted individual in Mormon history. Until relatively recently, Joseph Smith would have been a clear winner in such a contest. But as we witness the spread of the historiographical revolution regarding Smith that began roughly with the 1945 publication of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and that seems to have entered something of a lull in the aftermath of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, it would seem that many of the least plausible beliefs regarding Smith are waning rather than waxing. Such is probably not yet the case for Young. [Read more...]

Against Abortion

I have little sense of the prevailing views of BCC readers regarding either the morality of abortion or the desirability of government action to make abortions illegal, more difficult to obtain, and so forth. I can, however, imagine the picture that at least some readers must possess regarding the typical BCC writer’s views on these subjects. Being wildly liberal in all ways, as is widely known — are you even allowed to read BCC if you haven’t donated to a Ralph Nader presidential campaign at some point in your life — we are imagined to believe something like the following. Abortion is to be understood solely as an issue of women’s control over their own bodies. An embryo or a fetus are not alive and so deserve no consideration. Because abortion is really morally neutral, the government should not have any role in deciding who can have an abortion and under what circumstances. [Read more...]


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