Why we need theology


Something about proving contraries?

It’s a well-worn trope that Mormons don’t do theology. To the extent that this is true (it probably is), it is to be regretted. I believe that “doing theology” is essential and its absence leads us into all kinds of religious dead ends.

Absent theology — i.e. reasoned argument about the truth of God — we are left with little more than noise and counter-noise. To apply this to a current controversy, here are some rather ad hoc thoughts on the usefulness of a theology of women: [Read more…]

“What has not been assumed has not been healed”: Ordain Women and the “androgyny” of Christ

4475E11A-D598-47D0-B6DB1BB7A0CC9F48One of the unfortunate consequences of Mormon Great Apostasy rhetoric is that it causes an almost complete disregard for two millennia of Christian debate about the sorts of issues with which we currently wrestle. Let me be the first to point out that there are, of course, some small corners of Mormonism that are conversant with, and appreciative of, the Church Fathers or Aquinas or John Wesley, but these are voices largely missing from official Mormon discourse.

Let me also point out that the solution to the problem of women in Mormonism will not come because of a meditation upon St. Gregory Nazianzen. For Mormons to accept any change in women’s status, the means must be Mormon, i.e. be believed to come through authoritative revelation. All that said, there is no compulsion to believe that such revelation comes unprompted. Herewith is one potential prompt from the Church Fathers. [Read more…]

My faith crises

“Go on then!” said Frodo. “What do you know?”

“Too much; too many dark things,” said Strider grimly.


Aged 9, Malvern, England

I am at a St. George’s Day service with the Scouts held in our local Church of England church. It could not be more different than my Mormon ward and I am now at an age when I am starting to learn that Mormons believe their church is the “one true.” I suppose I believe this too . . . and yet the music and the aesthetics of this ancient church are wonderful. I feel good. I “feel the Spirit” . . . so is this church also not true in its own way? Holy envy has been with me ever since and has enriched my Mormon life. [Read more…]

Tolkien: The Quenta Silmarillion

ImageThe Tale of the Silmarils introduces readers to many of the themes found in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR): the lust for power, the struggle against an evil lord, the frailty of men (and elves), war, and ultimate redemption. It is altogether a grimmer tale than LOTR but one which enriches any reading of Tolkien’s main works.

The Quenta Silmarillion (QS) raises several questions which are interesting in the philosophy of religion. I say religion deliberately as the QS offers a rather useful view of the construction and development of myth, sacred or otherwise. Obviously Tolkienism is not a religion: His sub-creative sojourn in Faerie is consciously fictional but the creation itself is, I think, in some ways true. More basically, his is also simply the construction of a story, which is how most religions begin. More on this here.

Two philosophical problems present themselves in the QS: free will and theodicy. On free will, the term employed by Tolkien is “doom.” The elves who vow to regain the Silmarils, leave Valinor, and kill their kin at Alqualondë, find themselves under the Doom of Mandos:

Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever. [Read more…]

Q&A with Jeffrey Walker on Joseph Smith and Habeas Corpus

Jeffrey N. Walker, “Habeas Corpus in Early Nineteenth-Century Mormonism: Joseph Smith’s Legal Bulwark for Personal Freedom,” BYU Studies Quarterly Vol. 52, No. 1, 2013, 4-97.

BCC: Tell us about your background and your interest in Joseph Smith and the law. [Read more…]

Priesthood commemoration talk

Given in the Worcester Ward, Cheltenham England Stake on 12.v.2013 and heavily indebted to Lowell Bennion’s “What it means to be a Christian.”

I should like to add my voice of praise to the young men who have spoken to us today and also to their leaders, who serve them so selflessly. My talk today is directed towards these young people, among whose number is my own son. President Hinckley used to say that the purpose of the church is to make bad men good and good men better. Here are six things that I think, if followed, will make the youth — and indeed all of us — better Christians. In preparing this short talk, I have been influenced by Mormon writer and educator Lowell Bennion and I shall frequently be quoting from him. [Read more…]

Tolkien: Tom Bombadil as God

tom-bombadilHey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

I am going to return to The Silmarillion anon but in the meantime, here’s something to cause MCQ and RAF certain pain. [Read more…]

Pratt: American Hero

Givens and Grow‘s account of Pratt the missionary is not only innately interesting, it also invites thoughts about Mormon missionary historiography. Owing to my own background, I am naturally drawn to his British missions. Here is what came to my mind as I read the book: [Read more…]


Givens and Grown want Parley P. Pratt to be the “apostle Paul of Mormonism.” I am intrigued by this suggestion and think it deserves some attention. [Read more…]

(Malchus’) Ear

All four Gospels record that in the melee that surrounded the arrest of Jesus in the Garden, someone cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Mark records it thus:

Mark 14:47 One of the bystanders drew his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear.

The gospels do not record this incident in the same way. In Matthew, the slave’s ear is cut off; Jesus then rebukes his disciples, calling for calm, and rebukes the mob for their clandestine malevolence. In Mark, the slave’s ear is cut off but Jesus only rebukes the crowd. In Luke, all three elements are narrated and a fourth is introduced: Jesus heals the ear. In John, Simon Peter is named as the one who wielded the sword and Malchus is named as the slave. Jesus only rebukes his disciples. There is no healing.

Here is a nice opportunity to do some source criticism, given the elements that are the same and those that are different. [Read more…]

Why Santiago de Compostela?

caminodesantiagoOn Easter Monday, some of us here at BCC are converging on a small town in Galicia, Spain. The journey to our meeting place in Sarria begins for us from Germany, from England, and from the United States. In Sarria we shall meet as old friends, shake hands, chew the cud. And then for the following five days we will be walking the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago) to the cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela.

How it is that a group of Mormons are making this most Catholic of pilgrimages will be further explored in a later post. In the meantime, here is why I personally feel the draw of St. James’s shrine: [Read more…]

Habemus papam

That was quick!

This is my body, this is my blood

I have recently become more interested in the historical Jesus. For me, the starting point of my Christian faith must be an understanding of who the mortal Jesus was and what he was trying to do for his contemporaries. There are other Jesuses, of course — the premortal Word and the Christ of the Church — but given the absolute theological centrality of the historical Incarnation, I want to know how Jesus of Nazareth was meant to be understood in the context of 1st century Palestinian Judaism. I believe in Jesus’ divinity but it is his divinity as uniquely embedded in a historical moment that most compels me. I am also more and more convinced that Jesus was attempting to change men’s hearts in the here and now. That is not to ignore the promise of “treasure in heaven” but I think the real value of that promise is to guarantee a happy ending — and thus provide a relief — to our mortal travails. It is in this context that I would like to offer the following reading of the Last Supper. [Read more…]

Gospel Doctrine Lesson #7: “The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel”

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.


The intent of lesson seven is to discuss the “first principles and ordinances of the gospel,” a reference to the fourth Article of Faith (AoF) in which they are presented:

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

My take on this lesson will be to compare the doctrine of Article 4 with the related confessions in the Anglican formulation known as the Thirty-Nine Articles (39A). As a Mormon living in England, it seems worthwhile to consider what these ideas mean in the common religious tongue before considering whether there is a distinctly Mormon reading. (It would also be interesting, but beyond my ken, to understand these ideas in their Second Great Awakening context. Please add literature in the comments.) [Read more…]


“[I]n today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Tolkien: Cosmogony

Blogging the Ainulindalë and Valaquenta from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion


[Read more…]

Tree of Life II

A substantive discussion of one of the most interesting videos the church has ever made is taking place over at T&S. Just as interesting is the fact that the church media people seem to have employed Terrence Malick. [Read more…]

Tolkien: On Fairy Stories III

imagesHaving briefly considered Tolkien’s defense of fantasy fiction and asked whether the Book of Mormon partially treads the borderlands of Faërie, I want to finish this look at Tolkien’s thought by saying something about three works that further illuminate Faërie: the poem Mythopoeia, and the short stories Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major. We thereby cover the canon of Tolkien’s literary philosophy.  [Read more…]

A few words about Les Mis

Some of the puritanical naysaying is depressingly predictable (although it seems to be a minority view) and I suppose if you’re sniffy about the musical, you’ll probably find reasons to dislike the movie . . .

. . . but that aside, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (hereafter Les Mis because I’m too lazy to do the accent) is really great. [Read more…]

Tolkien: On Fairy Stories II

I think the Book of Mormon treads the borderlands of Faërie.


[Read more…]

Tolkien: On Fairy Stories

First let us raise a toast to “the Professor” on this his 121st birthday.

[Read more…]

A quick rejoinder to fool Huckabee

Some people seem to think Mike Huckabee (winner of the 2008 Boggs-Doniphan) is voicing some important truth when claiming that we shouldn’t expect God to intervene in school tragedies if we have ourselves removed God from school. (His subsequent “clarifications” aren’t helping.) Here’s why Huckabee is a fool: [Read more…]

Less than 1200 words on pants


The Scientology Rule asks adherents to ponder how their actions would look if performed by a Scientologist. If they look cultish when others do it, they are cultish when you do it. The point is to escape the bubble and see yourself from the outside. It is not always pretty but generally worth it if you want to try to avoid fundamentalist, kooky, or pernicious behaviour.

Looking at Pantsgate from the outside, one sees nothing of good report. I wish I could dismiss it as a brouhaha only boiling in the Mormon bubble. After all, I am in a faraway ward in which women would wear trousers without much notice, so I ought not to care. But when these things reach the pages of the Daily Mail it is my religion that is being defined for the masses over here, whether I like it or not. So it is my business. [Read more…]

BYU Europe

Let me tell you a dream. [Read more…]

Thoughts on the Anglican decision

I was primed yesterday to cheer the Church of England’s decision to allow women bishops . . . and then they didn’t. Around three quarters of the church’s General Synod voted in favour of women bishops, but requiring a two thirds majority in all three Houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity), the proposal fell short by six votes in the Laity.

The disappointment was palpable. The next Archbishop of Canterbury has described yesterday as “grim” and carpers on the left are talking about the church’s “suicide.”

To understand my interest in the internal affairs of another church requires an understanding of the Church of England’s role in the United Kingdom. It is the nation’s established church — its Supreme Governor (a woman, note the irony) is the Queen, its bishops sit in the House of Lords, its rituals (seen on state occasions) are part of the public religion. Thus the Church of England belongs in some sense to all of us.

I have four things to say about yesterday’s vote and I would welcome your comments: [Read more…]

BYUSQ: The Mormon Church in Italy

The latest issue of BYU Studies Quarterly (51:3) has an article by James A. Toronto and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel that will be of interest both to scholars of European Mormonism and of ritual (“The LDS Church in Italy: The 1966 Rededication by Elder Ezra Taft Benson”). Jim Toronto responded to some of my questions: [Read more…]

Another thing…

The Pew Forum offers something of note — voter composition by religious affiliation (according to exit polls).

Romney won among all religious communities except Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants, and “other [non-Jewish/Christian] faiths.” There’s a confirmation of demographic swing against the GOP there, which isn’t surprising. More interesting to me is that the Evangelicals turned out for Romney (79% vs. 20% for Obama) in greater numbers than in 2008 (73% vs. 26%) and 2004. This would seem to suggest that there was no Evangelical anti-Mormon problem for Romney, at least in the composition of the electorate. White Christians can vote for a Mormon.

More thoughts on missions

One of the reasons for lowering the missionary service age to 18 for men in the UK seems to have been to prevent the “dead space” that otherwise existed between school and missions. The British education system has historically not allowed a pause in university studies. The new system allows a seemless transition from school to mission to education/career which has been attractive to some. [Read more…]


A Mormon friend asked me to comment on a recent BBC series called Andrew Marr’s History of the World. He was a little put out by the first programme’s depiction of prehistory, with its account of the homo sapiens migrations from Africa c. 70,000 BP, Neanderthals, and the origins of civilisation, given its deviance from typical Mormon beliefs regarding the same. Given that British Mormonism’s chattering classes are currently scandalised by a high profile falling away over the issue of “no death before the fall,” I hastily bodged together the following reply: [Read more…]

Why the caffeine statement is important

For those of us who have been imbibing caffeinated beverages (of the cold, carbonated variety) all of our Mormon lives, the church’s caffeine statement comes as no radical surprise. It’s not that I doubt Joanna Brooks’s accounts of childhood Coke avoidance, it’s just that in my neck of Zion, such zealotry has always been a minority position. So far, no big deal. Held up for scrutiny, it’s always been rather obvious to me that the church could take no logical position against this particular alkaloid per se. So, the statement is no Manifesto . . . except that it kind of is.

I bet many of you have heard Mormons talk about the specter of tannic acid as proof for the wisdom of the prohibition against tea. Such a bizarre proof represents a Mormon need to have the Word of Wisdom be a code of health. I know why we do it — the Enlightenment compels us to want religion to make sense and tannic acid renders explicable the otherwise inexplicable avoidance of camelia sinensis, especially given what appear to be its health benefits. You have studies that show that green tea is awesome, I have tannic acid. I win because “acid” sounds awful.

I can think of three models for interpreting the Word of Wisdom: [Read more…]


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