Pope Francis has been getting a lot of good press lately. He’s shown himself to be visionary, courageous, and disruptive. In the Christian world at large right now there is a remarkable rapprochement underway between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, due in no small measure to the pope’s efforts, but also to another religious figure that makes fewer headlines but who has been steadily preaching a gospel of care for the poor and disadvantaged, of our moral responsibility for the way we use natural resources, and of the real linkages between those two concerns. Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the Orthodox branch of Christianity, is known as the Green Patriarch because he has traveled and sponsored conferences and symposia to promote ecumenism and environmental stewardship, most recently at his own monastery on an island off the cost of Istanbul. In March of 2013, he attended the inauguration of Pope Francis, the first Orthodox patriarch to attend a papal inauguration since the Great Schism in 1054. The two leaders clearly admire one another and have continued to show signs of solidarity over such issues as care for the poor and the environment. In his own recent landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si‘, for example, Pope Francis, makes particular mention of Patriarch Bartholomew’s environmentalist teachings, and this year the pope has invited his own flock and all people to join the Orthodox faithful in observing today, September 1, as a day of prayer for the care of creation—a tradition that the Orthodox Church has has observed since 1989 and which now the Catholic Church will officially observe as well. [Read more…]
My favorite novel is Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century masterpiece Don Quixote. I love its mixture of comedy and tragedy, pathos and satire, and its deep exploration of what it means to be a human being who reads books and tries to make sense of the world through them. I have read Don Quixote in three different English translations. But I always read it in English. [Read more…]
In Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen warns against the temptation to treat David Foster Wallace as some brand of postmodern saint, wrecked and hallowed by his mental illness. He argues that “the people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms” (39). Perhaps inevitably a compensatory impulse to hagiography followed Wallace’s suicide. This effect, Franzen thinks, may even have been part of what Wallace blackly intended.
“But if you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more lovable—funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies—than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.” (38-39)
This may be true and Franzen’s pain is surely genuine. But it’s also hard not to hear something self-serving in his pitch. Wallace wasn’t just a friend, he was Franzen’s literary competition. Franzen will always bear the burden of being compared to Wallace and Wallace’s suicide, he indicates, has not only wounded him personally but rigged their game professionally. How can he compete with Saint David? Pushing back against Wallace’s posthumous image, Franzen aims to reclaim some control of his own celebrity. [Read more…]
Along with her close friend (and sister wife twice over) Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young was part of the power duo of Mormon women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Popular wisdom held that Eliza was the head and Zina the heart, complementing each other as they traveled indefatigably around Utah (and beyond) to do the work of the Relief Society. (Picture two women in their late 50s, traveling alone through the deserts of Utah, camping together under the stars when they didn’t manage to reach a settlement.) [Read more…]
My Relief Society is implementing a weekly “spotlight” so we can get to know each other a little better. The questions, emailed in advance to the featured sister, are as follows:
1) What’s your family nickname?
2) What’s your favorite food?
3) What’s your favorite color? [Read more…]
The term “church” seems straightforward enough, but I suspect that in explaining to someone what it means you will quickly find that it’s a convenient shorthand for a slippery bundle of denotations and connotations. Of course the word refers to a building as well as a meeting schedule, a body of teachings and practices, and a group of people that more or less shares those teachings and practices. But its usage may also evoke what a church does does–inform, convert, reaffirm, succor, challenge, etc.–as well as the objects of such actions–the seeking, the repentant, the converted, the wounded, the complacent, etc. Those who invoke the term also swim in cultural currents–some strong, others tepid, but always present, and are variously affected by ignorance and prejudice in communicating with others.
The net result of all of this is that ambiguity is introduced and more is communicated than is said. The accompanying potential for communication breakdown presents speakers with a challenge: How to bring listeners up to speed with the user’s intent or vision in a way that doesn’t lose them? Enter the figure of speech–a staple of scripture, General Conference talks, Sunday school lessons and, well, daily life. And so for this post I would like to do three things:
- Present examples of metaphors for the Church by General Authorities;
- propose one of my own; and
- solicit your suggestions.
So, on to the non-exhaustive yet authoritative list! [Read more…]
I served my mission in the Spanish-speaking wards and branches of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The overwhelming majority of the people that I knew, taught, baptized, served, and loved were undocumented immigrants from Latin America. As missions often are, this was a life-changing, perspective-altering experience.
I was serving in Watsonville in 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered a path to residency for millions of undocumented workers. For about three months, our full-time job as missionaries—with the full support of the stake and the mission—was to help Church members negotiate the bureaucracy required to become legal residents. It was holy work, and I remain proud that I, and my Church, were part of it. [Read more…]
A lot of posts in the bloggernacle focus on the difficulties of being a woman in a church (and society) that has sexist and patriarchal norms. What about the ways in which that culture is difficult for men? Feminists acknowledge that men are harmed and limited by these same systems, albeit in different ways than women are. In Golden Rule fashion, I thought I’d take a little time to brainstorm on what our brothers in the gospel experience, just as I want them to understand things from a woman’s perspective. [Read more…]
These last couple days, there’s been a thing going around on Facebook. Maybe you’ve seen it. Some anonymous poster’s friend’s relative is high-up in the Boy Scouts and has the inside scoop on why the BSA allowed gay leaders, knows that the church is going to leave BSA, and knows that it’s going to be over gay issues, not in the interest of gender fairness.
And with that description, you know it’s not true, right? Like, it’s as credible as those email forwards your uncle sends every election cycle (frankly, whether your uncle is liberal or conservative, because what really matters is, your uncle’s crazy, amirite?).
And yet, people are credulously sharing and believing it. So, as a public service, and in the interest of not getting email forwards or seeing these kinds of things on Facebook, a quick review of how to evaluate the plausibility of internet rumors: [Read more…]
Around the age of thirteen I became deeply interested in the Millennium. When I was in the seventh grade I hung a picture of the second coming in my room. It showed Jesus descending to (what now looks like) the deserts of southern Utah, flanked on the right and left by angels with long trumpets. Truth be told, I was actually more interested in the “signs of the times” than in the peace Jesus’s millennial reign would inaugurate. The most vivid sign of all, for me, was that the moon would turn red with blood. Without recognizing it at the time, I was especially thrilled with the idea that some sort of complete upheaval was on the way, that “the world” and “the wicked” (usually synonymous) would get their just desserts while good church members like me would miraculously escape harm. [Read more…]
Go see this film! It’s one of those rare Mormon films that you’ll love, whether you’re Mormon or not. If you live in Utah, it’s playing in theaters until Thursday, August 27, 2015.
I do not pretend to be a connoisseur of Mormon film by any stretch of the imagination, or a movie critic in general, for that matter. In truth, I can add very little to film and theater critic Eric Samuelsen’s excellent review of Once I Was a Beehive, in which he highly recommends the film. I fully endorse his review in the sense that he says exactly what I would have wanted to say but much better than I could have. (Samuelsen’s glowing recommendation means a lot because he is known as somewhat of a cynic or at least a critic — he calls himself the Mormon Iconoclast — about Mormon culture.) But I had a few brief thoughts about it based on my own tastes in literature, film, and culture, and perhaps most importantly, from my perspective as a Mormon father of four Mormon daughters. [Read more…]
When I arrived in the mission field, nineteen and green as grass, I was mostly frightened and homesick. That lasted about four weeks. The homesick part. Fortunately my parents, though poor, were entirely in favor of this adventure. After spending a night in the mission home, sleeping alone upstairs in a quiet Cambridge neighborhood, where I didn’t actually sleep, I was sent to the airport at 9 a.m. where I had to buy a ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I just learned that a twenty-two-year-old friend of our family died in a car accident this morning. I was immediately wrenched back seven years to when my nephew died. I can still hardly talk about it. I wrote this short piece after I came home from his funeral. In the time since I have researched and written on related topics, I’ve had two more children, and the pain still smolders. God be with my friends as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. May they know that they are never alone.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
–Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”
Robert Browning was the poet laureate of my sophomore year in college. His poetry is the reason that I became an English major. It showed me how fun poems could be. Browning’s major technique, the dramatic monologue, invites readers to piece together a story from the words of a single character. Reading a poem becomes something like solving a puzzle. And there are great intellectual rewards in the solution. [Read more…]
As a new semi-regular feature at BCC, we’ll answer questions from our readers. Have a question you want us to answer? Send us an email!
What’s the best Book of Mormon name to give a kid? I think if you are going to do a BOM name you’ve got to stick with Nephi. That makes it easier for everyone to hate you.
Want to pass muster back in the day? Here’s a list of [real] questions for you:
Even though I retired quite a long time ago, I’ve gotten a lot of attention recently. I’ve heard it all before–you’re impossibly smooth, your roundness is nearly perfect, and your chocolate-colored sworls are positively mesmerizing. I get it; I’m visually quite the catch. But I’m more than just another pretty stone. I have talents and skills, passions and interests, hopes and dreams. I can make a difference in the world. [Read more…]
If I had the power to do such things, I would make a rule that anyone who wanted to write or speak about the Old Testament had to first read the entire Book of Leviticus three times in a modern translation. By my reckoning, this would take care of about 90% of the really stupid things that people say about our oldest standard work–nearly all of which comes from the starting assumption that the people of Ancient Israel were basically like us except without air conditioning. [Read more…]
It’s been really hot here in Vienna. Like hottest-month-ever-recorded hot. By the end of this week, Vienna will have seen more “desert days” (temperatures above 35°C/95°F) in 2015 (15) than in the previous ten years together (14). Despite all this record breaking, however, air conditioning is still rare (back in the good (and not so) old days you didn’t really need it, plus it’s widely believed to be unhealthy). So once the thick brick walls of your fin de siècle apartment heat up–even sooner for those inhabiting less substantial modern structures–the only escape from the heat is to one of many outdoor swimming pools or more rustic bathing areas along the Danube. [Read more…]
It’s a commonplace to note that in the Church nobody chooses her calling. Rather, God, through the mediation of priesthood leaders, calls us to serve, typically only for a limited time, in any of a wide variety of capacities. There is much to be said for this approach: sometimes, by doing things we never would have chosen for ourselves, we, like Moses, learn things “we never had supposed.” Having this potential for divine surprises built into the system is a good thing.
Still, this approach comes at a price: we lose the concept of vocation—the idea that God calls us individually to walk a particular path of divine service. (See Angela C’s excellent post about this.) To be sure, patriarchal blessings can provide something like an individual call, but in most cases there are not formal institutional venues for performing the things that we in the depths of our souls feel that God has called us to do. If a person in another denomination feels called to the ministry, in many cases there are formal processes of discernment and training to guide that person in working out whether this is really what God wants him or her to do. In Mormonism a person who feels so called must either wait for a formal calling or figure out some less formal way of acting as a minister. This latter option can mean “doing much good of [one’s] own accord,” but it can also lead to tensions with the institutional Church. [Read more…]
“The boat is not the shore.”
I say that a lot, usually in meetings. I have no idea what it means. It comes from the misremembered title of a book I saw on a shelf once. I use the expression, not because it conveys meaning, but because it sounds smart. Whenever I say it, people start nodding vaguely while mulling it over. People usually don’t want to admit that they don’t get it, so they start filling in the blanks themselves. Watch: [Read more…]
BCC has been critical of Public Affairs recently. It is fair to say that emotions have sometimes run regrettably high at times but that is only because the Newsroom wields great public power in Mormonism and some of us feel frustrated when it (in our view) does so clumsily. The following is a genuine attempt to understand the place of the usually excellent Newsroom in LDS life. Answers to the following questions would be very useful.
1. What is the functional difference between a statement signed by the Brethren (e.g. a First Presidency letter) and a Newsroom release, which, we are told, seems to have the de facto approval of the same?
in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down
(Extract from the so-called Salamander Letter) [Read more…]
Here at BCC, amidst the recent interest in Joseph Smith’s seerstone (here, here, and here), we’ve also been revisiting the Gospel Topics essays (here and here). Collectively, the Church’s decision to publish pictures of the seerstone (and let’s not forget that the pictures appear in a landmark edition of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon) and the publication of the essays all participate in an institutional trend toward transparency about the Church’s history. Although I personally applaud this trend, it admittedly also adds some complications to the already challenging project of building Zion.
The basic problem is that some members have known about most of this stuff for years, while it comes as a sometimes unpleasant surprise to others, some of whom have been taught that ideas now given the imprimatur of lds.org were anti-Mormon lies. This reality presents the urgent question of how these two groups of members (and all of the people in between) are to live together in Christian community. Sam has recently written about one approach to teaching these materials in a Church setting, and I wish to add some theological reflections to his pragmatic discussion.
“Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”–Oliver Cromwell, letter to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (3 August 1650)
Five years ago, I wrote a book about evolution and human cognition. This was a stretch for me, as I am a three-time English major, so I did a lot of research. It was fascinating research, which taught me a lot of important things about knowledge, human nature, cognition, and storytelling. It also taught me the single most depressing thing that I know, which is this: human reason did not evolve to help us find the truth; it evolved to help us defend positions arrived at in largely unreasonable ways. [Read more…]
Something pretty incredible occurred this week for lovers of the Book of Mormon. People will be talking about it for a long while yet. For the first time ever, the Church made available full color photographs of the entire printer’s manuscript (except for three lines which have been missing from the manuscript for a very long time). Of course, everyone’s talking about two pages out of the two-part volume’s apx. 976 pages: photographic images of the chocolate-colored stone Joseph is reported to have used for much of the Book of Mormon translation. (See Richard Bushman’s reaction here.)
During the press conference, Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard Turley briefly discussed the decision to publish the photographs: [Read more…]
Richard Bushman is an American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. He is the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder. He also serves on the general advisory board of the Joseph Smith Papers. We’re very grateful for his thoughts.
In a way the pictures of the seerstone are nothing new. We have known for a long time that Joseph found a stone that he used to discover lost objects and later to help him translate. The Urim and Thummim which has long been part of the story consisted of crystal stones, and there is the passage in D&C 130:10 about celestial beings receiving a white stone to reveal things about higher kingdoms. (Something like each missionary receiving an ipad.) This is all tucked away in corners of our memories as part of the technology of revelation. [Read more…]
(Find below a handful of loose notes from a friend of mine, David Gore, on testimony. Put them to work as you’re interested and able.)
It makes more sense to me to think about a testimony as an open-ended set of possibilities and relationships rather than a closed system of agreed-to propositions.
Another thing we need to emphasize in testimony discourse is the way it can be alive to different degrees at different stages of our life, the fact that a testimony is more a project of development over the human lifespan than a single event or experience at any given moment. Sometimes we are bereft of God, other times things move along smoothly and we’re lighthearted and grateful for the ride.
No one of us is more than a couple of decisions here or there from losing our faith and falling away. The opposite seems to have proven to be the case in my life, too. A small decision here or there, to take up and read or to kneel down and pray, yields dividends which I never anticipate and which I don’t always have the good sense to appreciate. [Read more…]