The Perspectives of Faith: Why Mormon Faithful Scholarship is a Self-Cannibalizing Project

If one were to offer sweeping generalizations and a broad periodizing scheme regarding dominant intellectual movements in Mormon Studies, one might suggest that the “New Mormon History” was the focal point of excitement and energy from perhaps the late 1960s until the middle of the 1980s. Its successor, from the middle of the 1980s until probably the present, is the “Faithful Scholarship” project. The two movements differ in a number of ways, but perhaps most explicitly in that Faithful Scholarship attempts to present a specifically Mormon and explicitly believing account of Mormon history and society, while the New Mormon History attempts to analyze Mormonism in terms that are acceptable to both Mormons and non-Mormons. [Read more...]

Knowledge of the Book of Mormon

How much do Mormons really know about the Book of Mormon? Have we immersed ourselves in the text to the point where quotations from it are immediately recognizable, like long-lost friends? Or is our experience of the text more like attending our spouse’s family reunion, where we have a handful of very close connections but a much larger number of people who may be vaguely familiar but to whom we still need to be introduced? [Read more...]

The Risks of Being a Questioning Mormon

As most BCC readers will know, I have fielded a pilot survey on people’s experiences of the Book of Mormon over the last several days. Thanks to all who have participated!

I want to comment briefly on an unexpected aspect of this survey. I’ve administered a number of surveys before, all in South America. For each of those experiences, very few respondents contact the project administration team to ask for additional details or to complain about the survey instrument. For this survey, by contrast, a little over 5% of respondents have emailed me, usually to complain. [Read more...]

Book of Mormon Survey Appeal

I am currently seeking respondents for a survey of people’s experiences with and connection to the Book of Mormon. Many BCC readers have already probably received a link to the survey in one way or another, but I would ask those who have not to consider participating. It will be even more helpful to the usefulness of the project if you can pass a link to the survey along to friends, neighbors, and family members who don’t participate too regularly in the Mormon internet. All that’s necessary to participate in the survey is some present or historical connection to Mormonism; the perspectives of active Mormons are essential, as are the points of view of inactive Mormons, ex-Mormons, and even members of other denominations within the Latter Day Saint movement. The survey can be accessed at http://nelsonseawright.bookofmormon.sgizmo.com [Read more...]

Coming Clean

Yesterday, Taryn and I received our April issue of Sunstone — which included an advertisement urging us to attend the MHA Conference on May 22-25, 2008. (I hope the MHA didn’t have to pay for that one?) In any case, the magazine asks for reader submissions for a future issue on the theme of “coming clean.” This is an intriguing idea, but why should I wait three and a half years until the December 2008 issue comes out to share my coming clean stories and to ask other Mormons to share theirs? [Read more...]

Things We Can Argue About Other than Gay People

Here is a list of topics that we could argue about other than gay people, their marriages, and whether they have cooties. [Read more...]

Through the Valley of the Shadow

As Taryn and I walked through the residential streets near downtown Evanston, it began to rain. Late March is still winter here; there were no leaves on the trees and no green in the grass as yet. The rain began to leave streak marks on Taryn’s glasses. We admired the eminently practical hat of a passing mail carrier, which suspended a small umbrella above her head. The early stages of Taryn’s labor continued as we walked; it was all terribly romantic. [Read more...]

Capitalism and Mormonism

In this time of economic uncertainty and crisis, it seems perhaps worthwhile to reflect on our basic theological orientation toward capitalism. After all, some aspects of late 20th-century and early 21st-century capitalism seem to be responsible for our recent run of investment bubbles and collapses, and for the current credit crisis that has placed the U.S. at greater potential economic risk than at any other time in recent memory. How does the Mormon gospel see the seemingly imperfect but nearly ubiquitous economic system that we call capitalism? [Read more...]

Mormonism is No Longer a Missionary Faith

Actually, this post’s title overstates the case a little bit. Mormonism in a general, worldwide sense is still very much a missionary endeavor. U.S. Mormonism, however, now has the demographic profile of an established intergenerational church more than a missionary one. These are the conclusions that I draw from Chapter 2 of the recent Pew Forum report on the U.S. Religious Landscape. [Read more...]

Monson’s Age Considered

It is something of a commonplace to note that the system of Apostolic succession all but guarantees that presidents of the LDS church are quite old by the beginning of their time in office. Thomas S. Monson (barring unprecedented changes in Apostolic succession) will be no exception; he is currently 80 years old. What this means substantively is a complicated issue. Medical developments stretch people’s lives substantially compared with past centuries, and they often also help people retain higher levels of physical and emotional functioning than would have been the case for people at a similar age in past generations. [Read more...]

The Problem of 2 Nephi 25:23

The use of 2 Nephi 25:23 as raw material for theological reflection about the relationship between grace and works creates no end of trouble for Mormons, although many of us seem unaware of the difficulties. Two theological interpretations, one traditional and one revisionist, are widespread. Neither is satisfactory, and, indeed, either is corrosive of Mormon theological positions if really taken seriously. [Read more...]

Rough Waters Carry Us Home

We often characterize the gospel as a distinctive source of peace. This is true enough, yet it is equally true that it’s a strange sort of peace we put on offer. Our gospel gives us a peace that is not of this world, to be sure: our scriptures characterize Christ’s peace as filled with strife, trial and sorrow. Matthew’s gospel, thus, gives us Jesus explaining to his followers,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Matthew 10: 34-36)

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Why Don’t We Trust Joseph Smith?

As has been widely discussed, the priesthood and Relief Society manual for the next two years focuses on the discourses and writings of Joseph Smith. A BCC post about the manual this summer, by friend of BCC Tom, expressed the opinion that the manual is very good and that those dissatisfied with earlier manuals will be pleased by this one. In fact, I think the manual has fixed all of the weaknesses of earlier manuals except the most important one: the pervasive lack of trust in the leaders being discussed. [Read more...]

The Sacrament of Doubt

“The Sacrament of Doubt” is a newly-published collection of speeches (plus one web post and one open letter) by Mormon thinker, theologian, dissident, humorist, and member of the September Six, Paul Toscano. John Crawford and I will review the book in the form of a conversation. [Read more...]

Let’s Give Life for Christmas

A central invitation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to give up our wealth in favor of those in need. King Benjamin expresses this imperative by instructing us to give our substance to the poor, just as freely as Christ gave his life for ours (Mosiah 4:16-26). Jesus invites a young man who wants to become perfect to sell all his possessions and give the resulting funds to the poor to obtain treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21). A revelation of Joseph Smith’s from 1832 invites us to make ourselves materially equal with the poor, “for if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things; for if you will that I give unto you a place in the celestial world, you must prepare yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you” (D&C 78:6-7). What better Christmas offering could we make than to try to embrace Jesus’s words on this? [Read more...]

The Problem of Mormon Christianity

It is a matter of ongoing, unresolved, and deeply irritating debate whether Mormons are a kind of Christians or an alternative to Christianity. Mormons sometimes believe that this debate is strictly due to either a lack of information or a presence of malice on the part of non-Mormon interlocutors. However, this is not the case. At issue is a contest of definitions — and a power struggle in which each of two competing religious camps is proposing definitions that put their rivals in the worst available strategic position. [Read more...]

Needing the Poor

People sometimes argue, drawing on a thrice-repeated New Testament story of Jesus’s last days, that poverty is an inevitable part of mortality, and that efforts to end poverty are therefore unscriptural. The New Testament incident in question is narrated in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. In this account, a woman (identified by John as Mary of Lazarus’s household, but unnamed in the other two accounts) anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive ointment. Some of Jesus’s followers (unidentified, once again, in Matthew — “his disciples” — and Mark — “some that had indignation within themselves” — but labeled as the traitor-to-be Judas Iscariot in John) complain that the ointment could instead have been sold to provide a great deal of money for the poor. Jesus replies, with minor variations from account to account: “For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:8). [Read more...]

On Hope

It is an often-discussed state of affairs that Mormons usually emphasize knowledge to the exclusion of faith, at least at a rhetorical level. This move has, of course, distanced us from many passages in the scriptures that emphasize the imperfection of mortal vision and the lack of full knowledge about eternal things that is a characteristic of this life. Most of us walk by faith, even if we bear testimony of knowledge.

Yet a deeper and sadder aspect of our emphasis on knowledge is that we have mostly lost sight of the gift of the spirit that is hope. If faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things, hope is still further removed from knowledge. Hope is a combination of expectation and desire. It is a belief that something may be true, and that it would be a good thing if it were true. Far from condemning a stance of hope with respect to God, Jesus, and the gospel, the scriptures consistently describe hope as a gift from God and as a necessary step toward faith. [Read more...]

History and Theology

It is often said that, in place of a theology, Mormonism has a history. In fact, of course, Mormonism has many histories and many historiographies. Yet if there is plurality in our history, there is far more in our theology. Few, if any, major questions of theology are really permanently settled in Mormon thought. The Mormon tradition presents believers with a range of possible theological stances regarding the godhead, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the meaning and nature of revelation, the source and scope of priesthood, the nature of family, post-mortal life, the authoritativeness of scripture, and virtually every other important question. Ongoing debates among Mormons regarding the advisability of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the possible conditionality of God’s love, are instances of this general state of theological openness. [Read more...]

Mitt Romney’s Prospects

It isn’t impossible that Mitt Romney will become the next president of the United States. But if I were a gambler, I would invite any bets from BCC readers who find his prospects at all positive. [Read more...]

Doing the Works of Abraham

Mormon history often has an “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” quality for faithful Latter-day Saints. So much, it often seems, depends on the interpretive strategy of the historian that readers’ own perspectives are hard to change with anything other than direct reference to surprising or under-considered primary sources. Indeed, during the aftermath of the Hofmann forgeries, even primary sources — especially surprising ones — were suspect for many Mormons. Fortunately for us, that time of historical nihilism is largely past, but the broad skepticism of many Mormons that things were ever substantially different than they are today seems to persist. [Read more...]

Liberty, Equality, and Hierarchy in Mormonism

Liberty and equality are routinely said to be conflicting foundational values in America. For example, a policy in favor of equality in the form of a high minimum wage law restricts liberties: the liberty of potential employers to hire workers at a lower wage and the liberty of workers to accept very poorly paid contracts. Whatever normative weight a given individual may attach to these two value poles in a given situation, we may often be able to agree that the two values create trade-offs. Does such a trade-off between liberty and equality arise within the Mormon polity? If so, which value is most heavily favored by our scriptural texts? [Read more...]

Secular

America is well known as the least secular of all the advanced industrial democracies on Earth. More Americans believe in God, attend church, and so forth than in any of the other wealthy countries. This has been true for decades, and the best data suggest that it remains the case. Yet there seems to be persistent worry from several quarters that America is, or is becoming, secular. What might these concerns mean? Do they have any validity? Can one be simultaneously secular and faithful? [Read more...]

Can Women Sin?

A persistent idea in Mormon thought is the proposition that women are inherently, on average, more spiritual than men. This idea can be found in many texts and discourses of Mormondom; a recent example arises in a discussion thread drawing on an excellent post by Kiskilili at Zelophehad’s Daughters. I have no doubt that an idea of this sort has a huge range of sources. This post sketches just one, with the purpose of showing that ideas about the superior spirituality of women can often arise from beliefs about women that are really quite malign. [Read more...]

Thinking the Temple

The Mormon temple is a place out of time. When I enter, I lose track of clocks, hours, minutes, and obligations. For the hour and a half or so that an endowment session lasts, I forget whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening. Admittedly, this effect is surely due in part to the fact that endowment rooms lack windows or natural light; I have sometimes experienced a similar loss of my sense of time during academic sessions in interior rooms of conference hotels. Yet the comparison emphasizes the difference. When in an academic meeting I lose track of time, it always seems to pass more slowly than it really does. In an endowment session, time instead seems to stop altogether, or better still to be entirely beside the point. [Read more...]

Sunday Services: Two Experiences

Being Mormon is a multi-dimensional affair, involving belief, practice, history, and community. Of the many aspects of Mormon-ness, one of the least-often discussed on LDS blogs is the simple experience of attending Sunday meetings. In this post, Steve Evans and I discuss our quite different personal experiences of the Mormon three-hour block. [Read more...]

Two Decades After the Ban: My Experience in the Black Caribbean Church

During the period of the racial priesthood ban, missionary work was nonexistent in entire regions of the world. Obviously, no missionary work was done in much of sub-Saharan Africa — the major exception being South Africa, where missionary work was largely confined to British and Afrikaner groups. Yet the ban also froze the church out of areas much closer to the church’s U.S. home. The Caribbean, for example, was considered largely off-limits until after the ban. For most islands in the region, no missionary work was done, the church had no congregations, and indeed there were often no members whatsoever. [Read more...]

Trusting GAs More than Ourselves

A recurring question in intellectual Mormonism involves what we should do when we disagree with advice or theology taught by the General Authorities. Two extreme answers to this question — what economists describe as “corner solutions” — are the most frequently considered in the ensuing discussions. Neither is sensible. The first corner solution involves always accepting what the General Authority says and disregarding our own moral sense or reasoning. This approach is unreasonable because it makes our own moral sense and spiritual insights unnecessary, or even dangerous. If we believe that God gave us these faculties for a reason, then it is uncomfortable to adopt a rule that totally disregards them. The second corner solution involves always accepting our own beliefs or preferences and disregarding the comments of the General Authority. This is unwise even if we believe that the General Authority has no special moral insight — because that leader does certainly have some moral insight, and it is always irrational to discard information for no good reason. [Read more...]

Dancing for the Devil

In an official statement of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church members were instructed to avoid “dances that require or permit the close embrace and suggestive movements.” Also condemned was immodesty in dress, “the shameless exhibitions of the human form purposely presented in modern styles of dress, or rather undress.” Here was the ringing conclusion: “Let not the brilliant prospects of a glorious millennium be clouded with such shadows as are threatened by customs and costumes and diversions of these licentious days.” (Davis Bitton, “These Licentious Days: Dancing Among the Mormons,” The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays, pg. 98)

[Read more...]

Hugh Nibley: Mormon Dissident

Hugh Nibley has entered the Mormon historical imagination as a defender of the orthodox faith, a crusader for belief in ancient origins for the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, a progenitor of FARMS and current Mormon apologetics. This is indeed an accurate sketch of one dimension of Nibley’s Mormon thought, but there was more to the man. A second facet, less often recognized but still fairly widely known, involves Nibley’s commitment to social reformism, economic equality, and even pacifism. A popular, and worthwhile, introduction to this component of Nibley’s thought can be found in his Approaching Zion. [Read more...]

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