A thoughtful young person approached me at church the other day, curious about the Journal of Discourses, and through them the rest of nineteenth-century Mormonism. I had recently shared with him an historical essay I wrote on Smithian Mormonism, and he was curious to read more. He asked for advice about how to orient himself to the world of nineteenth-century Mormonism, and I realized that it’s been two decades since I immersed myself in the literature surrounding the world of early Mormonism and that I have probably lost the capacity to understand that first transition into broader awareness of historical contexts. [Read more...]
In recent months I have felt called to consider hypocrisy more carefully than I have in the past. I think by now most of us are aware that the term employed in the New Testament describes people who act, who put on a show. In Russian, the word comes from roots meaning ‘measured faces,’ which represents to me a similar insight. But there is a sense in which hypocrisy is the enactment of religious ideals that is very difficult to distinguish from earnest aspiration. In what I consider a malignant phrase, some modern LDS recommend that people “fake it till you make it,” a phrase that misrepresents holy aspiration and that offends many who accuse LDS of hypocrisy. I think both sides generally talk past each other on this fraught topic. [Read more...]
The Women’s History breakfast is starting soon, kicking off the last day of active scholarly content for MHA. I thought it would be useful to have a new post for the new day.
My mind and heart are full today on this latest instance of Adventist disappointment. Most of my friends have enjoyed reasonably good-natured if sometimes hostile humor at the expense of the current iteration of muddled arithmetical exegesis, this time by a Protestant entrepreneur named Harold Camping. I’m sympathetic to their responses–the way Protestant millenarianism often presents itself is both arrogant and xenophobic. But one of my closest friends lost his mother this week, and today we bid her farewell in the LDS chapel that sheltered me for a crucial decade of my life. My heart is not in the Rapture parties staged by my friends and coworkers because my heart is with my friend and his family. As I reflected on the juxtaposition of C*’s funeral and the mostly good-natured mockery of Camping and his followers, I felt to attend more closely to the meanings that lurk behind Rapture rhetoric. In our shared grief, I want to draw out some of the important meanings hiding behind the half-silly, half-spiteful rhetoric that circulates around Rapture predictions. [Read more...]
Review of David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 275pp. + index
Sacred Borders represents a rigorous and compelling consideration of traditions about the state of the biblical canon in American religion. For bookish Latter-day Saints, this volume will provide much-needed context for early Mormon beliefs about their open canon as well as a subtle and sympathetic view of both sides of the debate over the closed canon. While the style is highly accessible, given the complexity of the subject matter a reader may benefit from having digested a book like Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America (Yale 2005) or perhaps the survey by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer, Religion in American Life (Oxford 2003). Many of Holland’s arguments will make more sense when the reader recognizes some of the actors, concepts, and traditions involved. Even so, I believe that Sacred Borders will be useful even to non-specialist audiences. I apologize that this review is as long as it is: the length of the review reflects the extensive insights of the book as well as the scope of the topic it treats. For expository clarity, I have divided the review into three sections. [Read more...]
As a close friend has suffered a particularly difficult miscarriage recently, I want to pause from the usual vocations of life to express solidarity to and love for the many women who have similarly suffered. [Read more...]
I have recently had the pleasure of participating again in priesthood blessings, an LDS ritual based on New Testament precedent in which believers place olive oil and then their hands on a person’s head before pronouncing a prayerful blessing on the recipient. As I indicated a few years ago, these blessings are a sacred part of my attachment to the LDS Church. These recent experiences, blessings of support in the midst of complex and challenging life circumstances, returned to my mind an episode some years ago in my practice as an ICU physician. [Read more...]
In Sunday School recently we discussed the story of Nicodemus, whose encounter with Jesus is depicted in John 3. In this famous encounter, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being “born again” (or “born from above,” as most interpreters probably correctly argue) is a prerequisite for “see[ing] the kingdom of God.” A member of my ward argued against a view he sees as prevalent in which being “born again” is seen in typically evangelicalistic terms as a one-time event at which time a person is first and finally saved. This class member worried that a) not every LDS has such a powerful spiritual experience, and b) even those who have such a powerful spiritual experience will often waver in their sense of having been born again.
I agreed with this gentleman, a view that has been strengthened by my study of early Mormon adoption theology. [Read more...]
I love the winter holidays and am fascinated by the ways people employ ideas about the meaning of these national (and complexly religious) ritual observances. Many of us have been reminded in various avenues to keep the “true meaning of Christmas” in mind; less often do I hear requests to keep the true meaning of New Years in mind. This seems to me to be a problem. [Read more...]
My daughter asked me to speak on “Loving God” for her baptism, a topic that sharpened my focus on themes I had been considering for some time. Though I respect the important contribution of a book like CS Lewis’s Four Loves, I have been drawn to the image of two loves rather than the Greek four. In the dichotomization of love into two, though, I want to draw attention to the need to have these loves in constant dialogue. I call these two loves the love we feel and the love we choose. [Read more...]
My dad was a troubled man. If he had lived in the time of Christ, I think he might have undergone an exorcism of the melancholy devil that short-circuited his attempts to be good and prevented his participation in meaningful relationships. Since he was born in the baby boom of the 1940s, he was instead diagnosed with manic depression and a personality disorder. We are all of us inclined to embellish in retrospect, to amplify faults in our cloudy memory—my father had moments of love and kindness that blessed the lives of the people around him. But his mind was broken, and his broken mind generally seemed to keep his soul hostage. [Read more...]
I have twice been mistaken for a homeless person. Once was funny, the other devastating. Both happened in college. The first time, I was wandering from my dormitory to the Student Union for breakfast, when a pleasant middle-aged woman started chatting with me about the Boston area. After several minutes of gentle circumlocution that left me uncertain what she wanted, she revealed that she needed advice on where best to solicit donations (“panhandle”). I was so delighted that she had thought I was homeless and been such a pleasant companion on my walk, that I tried to take her out to breakfast (she was embarrassed despite my reassurances, so I brought her breakfast outside the Union).
The second experience was devastating. [Read more...]
I took my oldest camping last night for her daddy-daughter activity. We ended up in a canyon we didn’t know long after dark, trying to find a place to camp. We finally found an official campground (packing had consisted of throwing random warm clothing and sleeping bags into an old duffle; I remembered a stove but forgot to bring any food), but couldn’t find a tent spot amidst the endless rows of RVs. We ultimately found the camp host, who revealed to us that there was one tent spot that had just become available, and my daughter glowed with satisfaction at a prayer answered, as she revealed to me that she had prayed when we turned off the main road into the campground that we would find a spot. Her satisfaction turned to bemusement when we discovered that the only reason the spot became available was that the prior occupant had broken her wrist. [Read more...]
I have confessed to some of you my growing interest in a collection of interrelated ideas that have born various titles over the centuries. Where they were once considered sophisticated and respectable philosophy, they are now generally termed “hermetic” or “metaphysical” or “esoteric.” When I first began to read them in the hopes of better contextualizing my work on the history of earliest Mormonism, I mostly chuckled in my sleeve. As I have spent more time with their texts and ideas, I think I have come to understand some of the impulses motivating their ideologies. [Read more...]
I’m pressed for time but wanted to draw your attention to a very interesting number of the New England Journal of Medicine, the top medical journal in the country. There are three fascinating features.
First, it turns out you can get, I kid you not, anthrax, from using animal-hide drums made in the developing world. Overpowered by funk, indeed. (old spores are liberated by the banging on the drum and then inhaled or swallowed.)
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of my theism. In 1990 I was an angry autodidact in semi-rural Utah, reading Sartres and announcing my agnosticism to audiences both willing and unwilling. I wore my hair long and my clothing torn as badges of adolescent independence.
Over a long summer, I came to a muted respect for the tradition of my family, for the clear-sighted and powerful faith of my mother. I remained agnostic but felt open to involvement in a church community and to the moral responsibilities of the adulthood I sensed before me. An experience involving the LDS sacramental prayers on the first Sunday in August gave me my first experience of the Divine in a formally religious setting. That numinous conversion—were I evangelical I think I would call it my rebirth or regeneration—forever changed my life. Four weeks after that converting experience, I left the Rocky Mountains to begin college in the Northeast. [Read more...]
Reading Steve Fleming’s review of Edward Bever’s new book on what we might call the physiology of witchcraft, I was struck by a potent cultural image. William James called the practice “medical materialism,” seeking to describe the desire to find scientific explanations for religious or spiritual phenomena. It’s a natural impulse–our culture often allows itself to be dominated by scientific, pseudo-scientific, and scientistic narratives, and they can provide significant authority to the speaker or writer (my brother called it “Test Tube Envy” in his first book of literary criticism). Bever’s apparent reliance on a narrative of “immune dysfunction” related to stress as an explanation for the effects of witchcraft (not terribly valid physiologically, though that makes the narrative no less powerful for many audiences) reminded me of a condition we see a few times a year. The Japanese call it “tako-tsubo,” or “octopus pot.” [Read more...]
Thoughts of fasting last month have turned me to other forms of physical deprivation that have been used in religious communities to great effect. During the Kirtland holy season (1835-36), the Saints occasionally held portentous meetings, familiar from broader evangelical culture, in which they stayed up all night praying and singing and worshiping, waiting for the endowment of power that would attend their earnest pleas for the divine presence. [Read more...]
My wife and I recently agreed to write an essay on “embodiment and sexuality” in Mormonism and as I have often confessed to many of you I know very little about the Utah period of Mormonism. I suspect that, other than being a little tired of the constant fights about the status of Joseph Smith’s dual wives in Nauvoo, many others are curious about how participants in polygamy might have talked about or understood sexuality, how the Mormon family system might have resisted or intersected with trends in the broader American society. Any of you out there have any primary or secondary sources that you strongly recommend for someone interested in understanding more about sexuality in 19th-century Mormon polygamy? I think it’s fair to say that the Victorian polygamy romance novels are not at the top of my interest list, though if there was one you thought was absolutely exemplary it might be interesting.
I have just completed a sabbatical from blogging related to pressing professional obligations. In the time away I have made good progress on a variety of work projects such that I think I can once again contribute at BCC. I have decided to return with a monthly post on Fast Sunday at least initially including meditations on fasting.
Fasting means a lot to me. It was 20 years ago this August that I engaged in a fast that changed the course of my life. (More about that this August.) [Read more...]
Last week I discovered that my grandfather had given my family one final gift. My aunt has been settling his estate, and despite the many outflows that accumulated over the years, there was enough left in my grandfather’s estate to patch a few roofs, repair a few cars, and replace lost furniture (or a rug), kindnesses spread across the lives of my siblings and their families. My grandfather died just after August ended this year, in the drug-induced stupefaction that American hospice workers seem to favor (we didn’t get the call that he was terminally declining until they had already knocked him out with lorazepam and morphine). In the haziness of his last week or two, there were two overarching themes in his conversations with my aunt. He worried that he had not lived up to his family name (he was the son of a mid-twentieth-century church leader), and he worried about his namesake son, my father.
We just got back from Montreal, where my wife gave an absolutely outstanding paper on ways the Nation of Islam employed food and diet to craft a new identity, to overturn the malignant, dehumanizing narratives of slavery. What made her talk more brilliant still (aside from its great analysis, outstanding sources, and impeccable delivery) was that it was in a panel on boundary maintenance in Islam. So amidst fascinating papers by Islamic scholars on medieval Islam and the scandals the Quranic word could generate for gender mores (what does it mean for a woman to pronounce a Quranic text that normally requires immediate prayerful prostration of all hearers, including men? Islamic jurists debated the question heartily) and other fascinating topics, this Mormon woman stands up, describes and analyzes the idiosyncratic and fascinating foodways propounded by Elijah Mohammed, and then, because Delta moved up our flight and customs at Montreal reportedly takes forever, disappears to find a taxicab.
That’s just part of the drama that was AAR. Unfortunately because of childcare issues and other obligations, we were unable to attend many of the other sessions we wanted to. Was anyone else at AAR? Anybody care to share some details?
Reading Nick Litterski’s thoughtful review of a recent book on Mormonism and Masonry made me think again about how difficult it has been for many people within and without the tradition to wrap their minds around the origins of Masonry. It occurred to me that I have done some reading in this area, and as someone with no strongly held beliefs about what the answer ought to be, I might be able to offer a brief summary of the literature I’ve read. As I’m pressed for time, the prose will not be polished, and footnotes will be notable in their absence, but I suspect that the best sources will appear in the comments. I recommend that any discussion of the intersections between Mormonism and Masonry be directed to Nick’s thoughtful post rather than my canceled threadjack. With that preamble: [Read more...]
I recently attended sacrament meeting in the Mormon settlements, where a passionate orator discussed the power, through covenants, that we have to bind the Lord. I have been sheltered from this doctrine for several years, but when he held up his hands bound like a prisoner’s to demonstrate how we bind God, I instantly recognized a longstanding tradition in both official and folk Mormonism. While my response to this doctrine, other than several miserable months on a mission in the American South, has generally been one of revulsion, my understanding of the historical contexts of this tradition have matured substantially since I last encountered it on my mission in the early 1990s.
The view that humans can command God is one that is most traditionally associated with magic. Douglas Davies has rather graciously referred to this Mormon tradition as “manipulationist,” by which he means that some LDS believe that they can gain control over God by token of an idiosyncratic reading of “covenants.” For a Christian tradition which defines God axiomatically as incontingent, such a view is a serious heresy. Such a view even strikes many Latter-day Saints as heresy–my mother quotably rejected this teaching with a phrase I have treasured for almost 20 years–”God is not a vending machine.”
I ordered my copy of JSP Revelations way back in June, on pre-order from Amazon for about $67 (price “guaranteed”). Someone on JI reported receipt of a copy, so I checked, and the price had risen and the official story was that the book had not been received from the publisher. Now of course it is out of stock, and they write that I can cancel the order if I would like to. [Read more...]
To dissipate a little bit of the stress of being massively overcommitted these last few months, I have recently begun to try to follow in my wife’s footsteps and learn a little piano. As myriad Latter-day Saints before me, I have elected to do so on the basis of the familiar hymns. Yesterday, I spent some time struggling through two beautiful hymns, and I thought I would just acknowledge how marvelous Be Still, My Soul (go Luther/Spener!) and Where Can I Turn for Peace? (go Emma Lou!) are. That is all (now if only I could figure out how to get the left hand to work on the piano I’d be golden).
PS, how is it that this Lutheran pietist hymn ended up copyrighted by Westminster Press? At first I thought it was a Presbyterian hymn, but some random info on the web suggested she was a follower of Spener and a Lutheran.
I’m writing about Phelps’s much-discussed hymn because a) I love that hymn, and b) I need some help. For my book on the death culture of early Mormonism, I would really like to be able to cite the original version of the hymn. Unfortunately, although everyone gestures toward a Deseret News publication in 1856, neither I nor several partners in crime has been able to find the actual original publication, not in the Phelps papers at BYU, not in the electronic archive of the DesNews, not scrounging around all the usual places. So, who’s up to the challenge? Where and in what form was “If You Could Hie to Kolob” first published?
The Sunstone session memorializing the Cambridge, MA LDS Chapel featured Claudia Bushman, Phil Barlow, Mary Webster, me, and audience participants (including Morris and Dawn Thurston, Charlotte England, Richard Bushman, and a variety of others). The session was a wonderful time of remembering, with important contributions from all participants. Because I have severe limits on my time right now, I’m unable to summarize much the fascinating content of the panel, but I will post the text of my talk here. (Claudia’s lively reminisces are slated for print publications, and Phil’s and Mary’s thoughtful and engaging talks were not written.)
A few years after the Civil War, enacting a tragedy that had occurred hundreds of mournful times throughout the nineteenth century, a steamboat on Lake Erie sank on its approach to the Port of Cleveland. Though the main lighthouse was operating normally, for uncertain reasons the lower lights—flames kept by houses along the banks to illuminate the location of channels and treacherous parts of the shoreline—were not visible to the ship’s crew. Unable to see the dark shore, the steamboat struck ground and sank, with significant loss of life.
In the aftermath of the Cleveland steamboat tragedy, the mega-evangelist Dwight Moody reflected to his bard Philip Bliss that these lower lights were the lights individual Christians were to keep. These would be small, weak, pale compared to the Light of the Savior, but without them our sisters and brothers might perish even as they approached the brighter light of the lighthouse.
Much to the delight of Moody and generations of worshipers since, Philip Bliss promptly turned these reflections into the hopeful and inspiring hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” In his hymn Bliss calls to us to keep aflame our “feeble lamp[s]” in the hopes that some “poor fainting, struggling seaman” we “may rescue,” we “may save.”
Shortly before 2am today a lower light whose pale fire rescued and saved me almost twenty years ago sputtered and then died.
I had the great good fortune of accompanying my wife to a session at MHA on race in the church. Alongside two other great presentations (one on a complex “branch” in Appalachia, the other on BYU student views of Civil Rights), was Stirling’s thoughtful consideration of race in Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. In the discussion that followed after the presentations, several voices discussed why we continue to have Mormon Doctrine circulating among church members. A variety of reasons for the persistence of that text were proposed, not least the fact that the author is now dead and unable to edit out the offensive material for a revised edition and that the book is one of the best sellers for Deseret Book. As I reflected on the conversation, I wonder about the following proposal: