On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The act itself was not terribly momentous, because this was a usual way of announcing an academic disputation. More conspicuous was the subject: the formal title of the theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” signaling a challenge to Church doctrine and power. Print technology then facilitated the rapid spread of Luther’s words throughout Europe; within two months they were widely available on the Continent. From this apparently simple beginning ushered forth a world-changing series of events. [Read more...]
Happy news: the people responsible for the llama credits have been sacked, and the General Women’s meeting will henceforth be called “General Women’s Session of general conference.” It’s a gesture that matters, despite its bureaucratic nature and relatively small impact. I hope it will be received graciously, with a recognition that “out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”
Okay, not actually a mailbag. But a couple months ago, somebody asked a question on my tax blog:
LDS mission presidents’ compensation/tax advice? Sam, are you aware of the tax advice in the mission presidents handbook – that living expenses for self & family (housing, food, transport, medical, etc.) are paid by the Church, but are not to be reported as income?
Honestly, I wasn’t aware of it but some quick Googling indicates that, yes, the church disclaims any employer-employee relationship with mission presidents and advises them that they’re not taxable on reimbursements from the church.
Could that possibly be right? [Read more...]
If you’re in the SLC area, don’t miss David Campbell tomorrow night at the SLC Library. David is an engaging, fun speaker (besides being wicked smaht!) Details below: [Read more...]
Pretty much immediately after changes in BYU’s Religious Education curriculum were leaked yesterday a lot of people busted out their sackcloth and ashes. I confess that in looking over the four core classes I was less than enthused. I think Julie Smith made some great points about the way we study our scriptures, too. But before we sound the requiem bell let’s take a second, breathe, and think about a few things. [Read more...]
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
One week before election day here in the United States, let’s consider, both politically and philosophically, a couple of recent, superb, highly thoughtful books which ask Mormons to embrace–in one case explicitly (Richard Davis’s The Liberal Soul), in the other case only implicitly and probably unintentionally (Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt)–a highly contested label: “liberalism.” And while we’re at it, let’s also consider one relatively prominent voice of opposition to that embrace, and see if it makes its case. (Preview: I don’t think it does.) [Read more...]
Helmuth Hübener, a 16-year-old Mormon youth living in Hitler’s Germany, exhibited unprecedented moral courage in opposing the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime in the summer of 1941. For his trouble he was arrested on February 5, 1942 (less than a month after turning 17), brutally interrogated and later tortured in Gestapo prisons in Hamburg and Berlin, and then finally beheaded by guillotine in the Gestapo’s Berlin Plötzensee prison on October 27, 1942 as the youngest person (at age 17) to be sentenced by Hitler’s special “People’s Court” and executed for conspiracy to commit treason against the Nazi regime. [Read more...]
Diwali is a festival of renewal and celebration observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world and by just about everyone living in India today. The festival follows the lunar calendar, so its dates vary from year to year, but generally fall in mid-autumn (late October/early November). This year, Diwali begins on the night of October 23 and continues for the next five days. During this time, families come together, the house is given a thorough cleaning, new clothes are bought or made, and neighbors exchange treats or other gifts with one another. But most of all, there are lights.
In religious traditions and cultures across the world, the triumph of good over evil, of order over chaos, and of love over fear are all represented by the universal symbolism of light, and Diwali is known as the festival of lights, celebrating all of these themes. People hang lights in their homes and across streets, they light lanterns, kindle fires; and in the evenings, fireworks light up courtyards, patios, rooftops, and the night sky as people celebrate their lives together. [Read more...]
The premise of Avi Steinberg’s The Lost Book of Mormon is of undeniable interest to many: a quirky, somewhat narcissistic author composes a travelogue as he voyages through the lands of the Book of Mormon: Jerusalem, central America, upstate NY and Missouri. It has the potential of a Sedaris-esque memoir coupled with a somewhat whimsical view of Mormonism — in other words, Mormon-nip. Unfortunately, Steinberg’s tale does not quite live up to its potential, and while some readers may find the book entertaining, it is ultimately a frustrating journey, and perhaps offensive to some. [Read more...]
[Edited to add link to Gospel Topic essay on the end of plural marriage]
In a recent article, Cardinal Schönborn and Archbishop of Vienna analyzed the response to the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” : “At the moment there is a massive wave of attack on the Pope from various circles.” It turns out that these circles also include traditionalists:
There is growing concern from conservative groups who are concerned that Francis and his approach to concrete problems and his compassionate image could soften the official doctrinal positions. […] Maintaining dual loyalty both to the existing teachings of the Church and to the many problems of the people is a balancing act. […] The areas of tension that manifest themselves here are now open to further discussion. [My own translation of remarks made in the article linked above by Jan-Heiner Tück, head of the Department of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Vienna]
I don’t have a testimony.1
This doesn’t mean I don’t seek to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, or that I don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet or that the Book of Mormon is scripture or that the Church is the vehicle through which we can be sealed in lasting relationships, etc. But nevertheless, I don’t have a testimony. It might seem like I’m playing little word games here, but the idea of “having a testimony” doesn’t seem adequate to what I actually experience as a devoted student of Mormonism. Having suggests solidity, perhaps a sense of completeness, or a claim that I possess something. Over time, instead, my religious experiences have left me feeling incomplete in some ways (and not just in the “I’m not perfect yet” sense), and feeling possessed by faith more than being a possessor of it.
So I don’t have a testimony because I don’t feel like a testimony is something I can personally and actually have.
Especially not all to myself. [Read more...]
Here’s a computer science lesson and craft activity that speaks to my geeky heart. I do it with groups of all ages, and it would be perfect for Activity Day girls. It could also work for Cub Scouts, perhaps with a hemp cord for a masculine look. It was inspired by the Code.org-sponsored “Hour of Code” event last year. The lesson plan by Thinkersmith is excellent, and covers everything you need to know. It is comprehensive enough for someone without any computer science background to run the activity successfully. I’ll summarize a few points here, but you should go read it. The necklace craft was my own addition. My daughter is modeling her necklace in the photo at left.
So while I watch college football (go Irish!) I’m looking over tomorrow’s GD reading, which begins in Isaiah 40. Scholars widely consider the setting of chapter 40 to be in the Divine Council. In part this is because God commands not just Isaiah in the singular, but a group of persons in the plural to comfort His people. (Even without knowing Hebrew you can figure this out from the y- forms in “comfort ye” and “your God,” since y- form second person pronouns in the Jacobean English of the KJV are always plural.) So the Lord directs the Divine Council as a whole, of which the prophet Isaiah is an invited member, to comfort His people. [Read more...]
As Mormons we believe strongly in the principle of agency. Modern scripture tells us that the War in Heaven was fought over it.  And yet this belief sometimes leads us to believe that, as W. E. Henley famously put it, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”  Aside from the doctrinal insistence that Jesus should be the captain of our souls, and acknowledging that Henley’s poem can be of use when we need to rouse ourselves against the troubles that surround us, the reality remains that much about our lives remains outside our control.  It may be true in the ultimate sense that we control our destinies, but in many ways we simply don’t have such control in the short, medium, and even the long term of our mortal lives. The unexpected has a way of occurring, no matter how righteous we may be. And in this respect, it sometimes seems as though Life—or its nefarious human agents—is out to get us.
In September, I blogged about The Myth of Traditional Marriage, reviewing studies from Stephenie Coontz’ book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. As a follow up, I wanted to explore how we as Mormons can build stronger marriages.
The world is changing, and if we want to strengthen marriages, we need to deal with the reality that exists. A few things have drastically changed in the last fifty years. [Read more...]
One of the benefits of having lived so close to the edge for so long is not taking things for granted. I know what it’s like to be facing losing (and then actually losing) my home. I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to addiction, to parent alone, to be afraid, to be facing homelessness, to be dependent on the charity of others. I know the sting and humiliation of throwing my lot at the mercy of an overworked DSHS caseworker in hopes of receiving aid. I know what it feels like to have our names on paper ornaments on the Giving Christmas Tree, where a “Boy, Age 8″ would like some Legos and a coat. I know well the spaces inhabiting our periphery, the margins of our lives, where we all hope to never go, and where hope is all you’ve got if you get there. [Read more...]
Those who hunger and thirst after religious news have been blessed over the last week, as the Roman Catholic church has held an extraordinary general assembly synod (or council) of bishops with the subject, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. In other words, this group of bishops is particularly focused on ministering to families in the modern age, and in finding answers quickly. Some basic information on the Synod can be found here, but the newsworthy item is that the Synod has just issued its mid-term report, and it is a really interesting read. It presents some limited parallels to Mormon approaches to families (including non-traditional families), and provides an interesting comparison to our own Proclamation on the Family.
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
FEBRUARY 27-28, 2015
The Faith and Knowledge Conference was established in 2006 to bring together LDS graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines in order to explore the interactions between religious faith and scholarship. During the past four conferences, students have shared their experiences in the church and the academy and the new ideas that have emerged as a result. Papers and conversations provided thought-provoking historical, exegetical, and theoretical insights and compelling models of how to reconcile one’s discipleship with scholarly discipline.
Julie Smith over at Times and Seasons has done an excellent job of covering the decision to edit the word “fourth” out of Elder Bruce A. Carlson’s prayer opening the Priesthood session of General Conference. Public Affairs eventually responded to Smith’s request for an explanation by saying:
While the women’s meetings have long been an important part of general conference week, they are not usually referred to as a session of general conference. Edits are routinely made to general conference proceedings prior to publication of the official record. In this case a simple edit was made by the conference producer to reflect the usual numbering of the sessions.
What’s striking about this statement are the words “routinely” and “usual,” which have the effect of taking something many saw as significant and asserting that it was in fact banal all along—as if to say, to those of us who dared believe that something extraordinary had happened, “Everything is normal: nothing to see here.” That Carlson’s prayer apparently built on the momentum of President Uchtdorf’s words opening the General Women’s Meeting, only to have the effort stifled by the bureaucratic inertia of “routinely” and “usual,” indicates one of the challenges of bringing change to a large and complex organization. (At this point it’s worth noting that Carlson was taking his lead not from rabble-rousing feminists, but from a counselor in the First Presidency, someone we sustained last weekend as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Carlson, too, seems to have believed that the prophetic can occur at General Conference.)
Some reading inspiration for the weekend. [Read more...]
A recent article outlines a presentation by a family-friendly NGO, the UN Family Rights Caucus, to a panel discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as a follow-up to the successful passage of a resolution on the “Protection of the Family” (A/HRC/26/L.20/Rev.1) earlier in the summer. [Read more...]
I was asked to give the faculty address at Stanford’s annual LDS Convocation, held in Stanford Memorial Church. This is the text of my remarks.
October 9, 2014
In Computer Science, our traditional greeting is, “Hello, world” So, “Hello, world!”
My task this evening is to join our identities as scholars and saints, and so I want to explain what I think is a particularly Mormon moral obligation we assume as members of the Stanford community. [Read more...]
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Today is the first full day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, one of several Jewish holidays that I have long felt a certain amount of holy envy for. I love it for several reasons: because it is, at heart, a harvest festival, associated with the “ingathering” of crops and taking comfort in the bounties of the land; because it focuses our attention on the element of “place” in those rituals (both divine and mundane) that attend our building of our own homes and lives; but mostly, I think, because it conveys a permanent sense of the transitional in those very same bounties and that same sense of hominess and belonging. All Israel was commanded, during the days of the feast, to build booths or temporary shelters for themselves out in the fields, to leave their homes and beds and sleep and eat their meals inside them for seven days, to remind them of their special–but also always perilous–dependent relationship with God, who led them out of Egypt and made possible everything they were or had. Anyway, herewith, seven thoughts: [Read more...]
Does Mormonism have a theology? My gut response, as someone who reads 17th-century theological debate for fun, is to say “no.” We do not, as a people, engage in the sort of definitional arguments that characterize formal theology. Ask someone after sacrament meeting what kind of Christology Mormonism has and you’ll probably still make it to Sunday School on time (unless that someone is Blake Ostler). This isn’t to say that your typical Mormon is stupid for not knowing what Christology is, or for not being able to place Mormon belief within the historical arguments about it. The typical Catholic probably couldn’t do that either. The difference is that Catholicism has a long history of philosophical engagement with these questions, and Mormonism doesn’t. Our engagement tends to be more ad hoc, with an Orson Pratt here and a Sterling McMurrin there. At present, in addition to Ostler (and approaching theology in a quite different way), we have the triumvirate of Jim Faulconer, Adam Miller, and Joseph Spencer.
I’ve been a little . . . ill disciplined in continuing this series (sorry, Melody), but the next one seems very appropriate.
Of all the Spiritual Disciplines, none has been more abused than the Discipline of submission (Richard Foster).
The recent LDS General Conference has served another reminder that Mormons greatly value submission to God through his prophets, which submission is admitted to sometimes be difficult but always right. As the Lectures on Faith suggest, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”
One does not need to look far, however, to see the evils to which religious submission can be bent. Foster is probably right: “Nothing can be put people into bondage like religion, and nothing in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Let us be careful. [Read more...]
I watched Elder Oaks’ Saturday afternoon remarks with great interest; being somewhat familiar with talks he has given over the last few years, I anticipated that he would address the issue of same-sex marriage, as he has done in the past. And while same-sex marriage was one of the subtexts that ran throughout his address, Elder Oaks’ topic was instead on the challenge of loving others and living with differences. He focused on a key question: why is it so difficult to have Christlike love for one another? He addressed that question and by so doing, offered counsel that was heartily welcome if not new. [Read more...]
Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian and a Bible scholar—two identity markers that’ve raised a few conflicts for him. Which really is too bad, because he seems like a pretty faithful, intelligent, funny guy. At least, he seems like that based on this faithful, intelligent, and funny book he just wrote about the Bible. It’s called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
I think a lot of Mormons could really benefit from Enns’s experience. [Read more...]