In celebrating a great post-structuralist thinker through lectionary readings and a homily, it seems only appropriate to “go meta.” What, then, can Roland Barthes teach us about how to read the scriptures, as we try to use the scriptures to read Roland Barthes? In what follows, I’m going to put today’s readings in conversation with key works and concepts from Barthes’s varied career.
If the Third Sunday of Lent marks, as Ronan wrote, the point where our observance flags, today’s readings allow for the hyperbolic suggestion that by now we’re just a pile of dry bones, crying to God from the depths of misery. Looking upon such histrionics, even a good friend might suggest that we just go and eat some chocolate already, if only to relieve others from the burden of witnessing our embarrassing display. [Read more…]
When several Nauvoo women gathered on 17 March 1842 to organize a society devoted to good works in the community, Joseph Smith read the revelation to Emma Smith now contained in D&C 25, emphasizing that she had been “ordained … to expound scriptures, and to exhort the Church” (D&C 25:7). The establishment of the Relief Society on that day, and Emma’s election as its first president, brought this ordination for the first time into the formal structure of the Church.  To what, then, does Relief Society as an organization exhort the Church—not just the women, but all of us? [Read more…]
Harriet Tubman’s life is one case where reality exceeds the legend. Although she led “only” about 70 slaves out of bondage (instead of the hundreds sometimes attributed to her), she lived for a half-century after her last liberation mission and continued to work in the same spirit of fiery determination for the betterment of African Americans, and African-American women in particular. [Read more…]
There is a much arid earth between Egypt and the Promised Land and thus the complaint to Moses sounds reasonable, given the circumstances:
The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? (Exodus 17).
Here we are a few weeks into Lent and for many of us so many of those good intentions we had back in Egypt are broken. In the wilderness, we have failed. On Ash Wednesday we thought that this Lent would be the one, the one in which spiritual discipline would whisk us all the way to Easter on a cloud of religious glory. Not so, for in our wilderness of Sin, there seems to be no water, despite our hope that things would be different this time. God is right: “This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways” (Psalm 95). Yes, but that is the way of us, Lord. Have mercy and let the water flow anew. [Read more…]
“I feel ours is the mission to serve and to save, to build and to exalt.”
- Howard W. HunterHoward W. Hunter served for only nine months as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from June 4, 1994 until his death on March 3, 1995, the shortest period of any Church President so far. A banker, lawyer, and accomplished musician, he was called to be an Apostle on October 10, 1959 by President David O. McKay, who had recently dedicated the Los Angeles, California temple (1956) with the support of President Hunter, who was then serving as the President of the Pasadena, California Stake with the responsibility of organizing the open house and dedication of that temple.
President Hunter faced many medical problems during his time in Church service, for which he became somewhat known, including a heart attack, broken ribs from a fall at general conference, heart bypass surgery, bleeding ulcers, kidney failure, hospitalization for exhaustion, and finally prostate cancer that spread to his bones in the last few months of his life. He had faced health problems since his earliest childhood when as a four year old — and nearly half a century before the polio vaccine was revealed through painstaking scientific discovery — he suffered from polio, which reportedly affected his back for the rest of his life. His dedicated service through much pain and suffering occasioned by these medical problems made his life a model of “enduring to the end,” an important tenet of Mormon doctrine closely associated with exercising faith in Jesus Christ and regular repentance for falling short of true Christian discipleship as the way to demonstrate acceptance of and dedication to the Atonement of Jesus Christ in one’s personal life (1 Nephi 13:37). [Read more…]
Psalm 121, BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662, St Paul’s Cathedral Choir
* * *
For the high born, whose name and social position — and wealth — often stems directly from his or her birth, the doctrine that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) is a troubling proposition. This certainly seems to have been the case with the Pharisee Nicodemus, a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) and a “master of Israel” (John 3:10), who flirted with Christian discipleship during Christ’s ministry. Will I lose my name, my status, my wealth if I am thus “born again”? These considerations perhaps reveal Nicodemus’ question to Jesus — “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4) — as a sincere concern rather than the smart-alecky provocation visible in some popular versions of the story. [Read more…]
The 1630s—the decade of George Herbert’s death—were a tense period in the history of the English church. William Laud, bishop of London since 1628, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He came to office with an ambitious program of reform designed to bring unity to a fracturing polity. The fault lines had begun to show in 1625 when Puritans began to turn the methods honed in the anti-Catholic pamphlet wars on the bishops of their own church. Laud hoped to bring unity by simmering down the conflict with Rome, but this of course only fostered further accusations that he was a crypto-papist. Instead of bringing peace, Laud’s program culminated in two disastrous wars with Scotland—events that helped precipitate the civil wars of the 1640s. [Read more…]
That Lent should be a season of joy seems, well, not quite right. Why voluntarily enter a world of deprivation when life is usually hard enough as it is? We can hardly follow Jesus into the wilderness if that’s where we’re already living, having been cast out of Eden alongside Adam and Eve. Sin and death really do seem to have the dominion here.
Moreover, this privation is supposed to make us like God, knowing good and evil. Knowing as much about evil as we apparently do, might not some good usefully correct the balance? Meanwhile, we kvetch: our bones wither away, because of our groaning all day long. [Read more…]
Where to start with Lowell Bennion, a man whose virtues almost defy enumeration? Best, perhaps, to follow his own example and cut to “the weightier matters.”  Although he was a theologian, teaching thousands of students in his decades as director of the Salt Lake City Institute that religion should involve the mind and the spirit (a message distilled into his classic book Religion and the Pursuit of Truth), Bennion’s greatest theological impact came from how he lived his life, inspired by these favorite words from Micah: “what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Mormon Lectionary Project: Ash Wednesday
The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Like Advent, Lent signals new life on the horizon. Shorn of all the secular trappings of Easter, the beginning of Lent is thus, along with First Advent, perhaps holier than the holiday it precedes. It is a day worth paying attention to, but in doing so, we admit our Anglo-Catholic tendencies. We Protestants (and Mormonism, whatever its doctrinal divergences, is culturally low church Protestant) have had an uneasy relationship with Lent, the 40 days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Henry VIII, for example, allowed the eating of dairy products, hitherto forbidden during Lent, in his new English church. The Puritans abolished Lent altogether before it was reinstated by Charles II in 1664. By Victorian times, it had almost disappeared from English custom as one Yorkshireman ruefully noted in 1865: [Read more…]
I assure you that the message of Mormon women is needed by women of the world today.
― Belle S. Spafford, “Latter-day Saint Women in Today’s Changing World,” February 1975Belle Spafford served as General Relief Society President of the Church for nearly 30 years, from 1945 to 1972. During that time she also served as a delegate to the National Women’s Council in New York for 42 years, including as the President of the Council from 1968 to 1970. Her tenure as General Relief Society President began at the close of World War II and later encompassed President David O. McKay’s mission of expanding the reach of the Church internationally to bring the Gospel to many nations. President Spafford served as General Relief Society President under six different Presidents of the Church. [Read more…]
Nephi famously delights in plainness, pledging to speak the doctrine of Christ “according to the plainness of [his] prophesying.” Surely the core doctrine of baptism—the topic of Nephi’s discussion—needs to be presented in a straightforward manner, lest confusion arise. And yet, what does “plainness” mean, exactly? Does plainness require that a speaker eschew all ornamentation, or style? Beyond that, what does it mean to “delight in plainness”? [Read more…]
Church life gets messy sometimes: people say weird things in testimony meeting or Sunday School, have failures of social tact, or occasionally behave in outright ugly ways. Barring the more extreme instances, this is all more or less normal, and every now and again, amidst the humdrum strangeness of it all, holiness manages to occur.
From the Gospel accounts, it would seem that the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Jesus was a bustling place, a place of great social, political, and religious importance. A young couple bringing their child into the Temple for the presentation required by the law—which they fulfilled as humbly as possible, with the poor person’s sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves”—would not ordinarily merit much notice. One might see them, perhaps, but likely not for long, amidst the pressures of other business. Such may even have been the experience of the priest who assisted them. [Read more…]
Life is hard. At a stake conference a few years back, I heard Pres. Eyring speak words to the effect that if you feel like you’re swimming upstream, you’re on the right path. Those words have encouraged me many times since, prompting me when life gets difficult in ways large or small to tack into the wind and keep on sailing. This idea has a potential problem, though, in that it can quickly spill over into militaristic metaphor. Sailing into the wind risks being transmuted into swashbuckling. What’s the difference, and why does it matter? Why care what metaphor we use if enduring to the end is the outcome? [Read more…]
“For some unknown reason there is constantly appearing the false rationalization
that at one time in the long-ago, virtue was easy and that now it is difficult.”
The Church also built the Conference Center in Salt Lake City under his direction, and he presided over the renovation and rededication of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. He was an astute, media-savvy leader, adept at public relations, and tireless in his care and interest for the well-being and progress of the Church as a whole and its individual members. The Psalmist wrote “he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4), a description aptly applied to President Hinckley’s stewardship, despite being the oldest man to have ever served as President of the Church (as of November 2, 2006 when he surpassed David O. McKay on this count). It could be accurately observed that the affairs of the Church have never been better managed than under the care of President Hinckley. [Read more…]
- His length of service: Ordained an apostle at the age of 32, he served in that capacity longer than anyone else.
- His emphasis on education: As an educator himself, President McKay promoted the value of education among the saints and emphasized the importance of women’s education
- The development of the correlation program
- His teachings about the importance of the nuclear family: He popularized the dictum of James Edward McCulloch that no other success in life can compensate for failure in the home, and formalized the Family Home Evening program in the Church by publishing a manual for it and by asking that local leaders protect one night of each week from all other meetings and activities.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely
for the hateful words and actions of the bad people
but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.Looking upon his people “seared in the flames of withering injustice”, God told Moses that he had observed their affliction and sorrows, had heard their cries, and that he intended “to bring them up out of [Egypt] unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8, KJV).
Thousands of years later, God looked upon another of his peoples. Though this people had been technically emancipated from American chattel slavery — one of the most pronounced moral evils in the modern era — fully 100 years previously, they were still “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” in this American promised land. Through the words of some of the most powerful biblical prophets (Moses, Isaiah, the Psalmist, Amos), and through His Holy Spirit, God whispered to a modern prophet, inspiring Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to demand, on behalf of not just “his people” but also all Americans, payment upon the great American “promissory note” signed with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which guaranteed “the riches of freedom and the security of justice” to all Americans. [Read more…]
Given how frequently we come across other people in our day-to-day lives, it’s somewhat shocking how rarely the depths of their humanity become manifest to us. Even walking down the street in a crowd, as often as not we perceive people primarily as objects to be taken into consideration as we navigate the spatial world. Through mindfulness and other such techniques we can, in the novelistic manner advocated by David Foster Wallace, work toward empathy by imagining stories for the people around us. While there’s much to be said for this approach, in the end it only makes the prospect of our really coming to see another person seem all the more improbable. [Read more…]
“The Book of Nature,” wrote Galileo (d. January 8, 1642), “is written in mathematics.”
“Philosophy [i.e. physics] is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”1
In these words from Saggiatore—his mid-career manifesto setting out the principles of the scientific method—we find one of many examples of Galileo’s genius. Everyone knows him for his adaptation and improvement of the telescope and for the astronomical discoveries he immediately began to make as he pointed it toward the sky. But he revolutionized more than just astronomy. It was Galileo who brought the promethean fire of celestial mathematics to the dark labyrinth of the Earth and physical bodies in motion here below. [Read more…]
The Collect: Our Father in Heaven, we thank thee for the life of thy Only Begotten Son who is our Good Shepherd leading us through the darkness in the paths of salvation just as the light of thy star led wise men in ancient days, and all people, to thy Son’s presence; and we ask thee to ever fortify our faith in Him, through the latter-day revelations of Him and the Restoration of thy Priesthood authority, by which we as disciples of Jesus Christ may join in the act of anointing each other kings and queens, priests and priestesses unto thee, the Most High God, as our Lord was once Anointed as the Messiah to reign with thee and thy Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen. [Read more…]
The Mormon Lectionary Project: Holy Innocents
The Collect: We remember today, Heavenly Father, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Let us not deceive ourselves: The collect is wholly at odds with the narrative in Matthew 2:13-18. We pray, of course, that “innocent victims” be received into God’s eternal love, but we sadly wonder why God’s “great might” does not actually seem to turn very often to the “designs of evil tyrants” despite our prayers. As I write this I am thinking of the recent slaughter of the innocents in a school in Pakistan. No doubt if the Christ child had been born in Peshawar, an angel would have warned his parents to flee before the bullets started to fly. No matter that the murder of so many children in Bethlehem by Herod is historically questionable; the fact remains that innocents do die “among wailing and loud lamentation” every single day. Could not God have saved all of the children of Bethlehem, helped them all “escape . . . the snare of the fowler” (Psalm 124)? [Read more…]
Every year the same thing happens. Once Christmas week arrives, the profane calendar stops. No more Wednesday or Thursday, just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yesterday was Sunday but didn’t feel like it, just Christmas + 3. The effect lasts until about New Year before we return again to the rhythms of the sun and the times and seasons bequeathed to us by the Romans. This is why marking sacred time is so important, not because we are fundamentalists who despise the secular calendar but because we are Christians who need to find some way to extricate ourselves from its utter dominance. Christmastime offers a glimpse of how this works. [Read more…]
The Collect: Heavenly Father, as we celebrate thy Son’s birth of the virgin Mary this day, we thank thee that thou hast sent him as a beacon in the gathering darkness, and we ask thee to lead us to this light, granting us power through thy Spirit to overcome the natural man as we learn to trust the Grace available to us through the Atonement of thy Son in our effort to create a Zion based on the teachings of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we give honor and glory, together with thee and thy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen. [Read more…]
From Luke’s account of the shepherds we get the idea that Jesus was born at night. In telling us of a people walking in darkness, the reading from Isaiah invites us to see this circumstance of Jesus’ birth as symbolic of our lives without him. If the babe in the manger is Isaiah’s “great light,” though, why does such darkness persist in our lives, even for us who believe? Should not the holy event have wiped forever the tears from our eyes?
How can we love God in our hours of darkness, when we feel that God’s presence is nowhere near? To have Jesus born at night means that God chose to become present precisely when the world was dark. His coming, though, divides the night into before and after, absence and presence—and yet many of us still await him, as though he were absent, the manger everlastingly empty in anticipation. The world, which should be light, taunts us with its continuing darkness. Although the Book of Mormon peoples were treated to an exception, the very moment of Jesus’ birth did not bring the dawn. Night persisted still. [Read more…]
Mormon Lectionary Project: Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Collect: Heavenly Father, purify us through the Spirit, that thy Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; and if not a mansion, then a manger, for there is room for him with us.
All of us, as Paul said to the Romans, sometimes do the very things we hate. We measure with wicked scales and bags of dishonest weights, and the consequences are just as Micah predicted: we eat and are not satisfied. The thing about injustice is that it harms everybody involved—both oppressor and oppressed—and yet the power dynamics of this relationship serve to perpetuate it. Oppressors enjoy the profits of deception, while the oppressed often lack means to improve their situation, no matter their personal qualities.
Such situations call for advocates to serve as mediators. What makes a good advocate? While Jesus is the model advocate, I believe that the life of Esther Eggertsen Peterson usefully illuminates what Jesus did for us all—both oppressors and oppressed. [Read more…]
Today we celebrate the life’s work of the Persian jurist and mystic al-Ghazali (d. 18 December 1111), one of the most important intellects in the history of Islam. In his autobiography, Deliverance from Error,1 he describes what we would today call a faith crisis during his youth. Like many who have had such an experience, he began early with a “thirst for grasping the real meaning of things.” He was devout, inquisitive, and quick to observe. He says, “I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims always grew up following the religion of Islam.” Al-Ghazali figured that this was because each generation in each different community was basically following in the footsteps of their parents without really questioning. So, he decided to question everything. He wanted to know the truth for himself. But the more he questioned, the less certain he became of everything he thought he knew, eventually reaching a point of doubt so deep that he lost confidence that he could know anything—even the nature of his own existence—with any certainty. He continued to write and speak as always, but inwardly, he wrote, “I was a skeptic.”2
Isaiah’s phrase—“Strengthen the weak hands, / and make firm the feeble knees”—has become, in LDS parlance, a key expression of our obligation to serve others. In the context of Advent, the most striking aspect of Isaiah 35:1-10 is the repetition of “shall,” which directs our expectation toward the Messianic Age, when “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, / the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” As Latter-day Saints these verses often turn our minds back to the pioneers’ cultivation of the Salt Lake valley, but Advent reminds us that something of this prophecy remains unfulfilled, calling us to rejoice now in anticipation of the rejoicing then.
Indeed, today’s readings use unfulfilled prophecy precisely to keep us in joyful expectation. The psalm tells us that the Lord “gives justice to those who are oppressed, / and food to those who hunger,” that he “cares for the stranger” and “sustains the orphan and widow.” Certainly the Lord does these things, but the work is just as certainly not complete. We must yet look forward to the time when we might with finality echo the Canticle, replacing Isaiah’s future tense with the past: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Our memories shadow forth the taste of divine nourishments past, stoking our present hunger for the banquet to come. [Read more…]