In Praise of Boring Sunday School Lessons

 

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Shawn Tucker is an Associate Professor at Elon University and occasional voice of bloggernacle satire

Imagine a ship made with millions of popsicle sticks intricately bound together with dental floss. The many rows of wooden sticks make it waterproof and seaworthy. It is not a flashy boat, but it can move forward in the water toward a destination. That boat is how I imagine the church—each popsicle stick is a member, and the members are all tied together with bonds of testimony, commitment, and love.

I describe the church in this manner to do something perhaps unexpected—to praise boring Sunday School lessons. [Read more…]

The Meetinghouse and the Temple

Michael Haycock has a bachelor’s from Yale and a master’s in religion from Claremont Graduate University.  He currently serves as the Ecumenical/Christian Life Coordinator at Georgetown.  Views are, of course, his own.

LDS theology is like the double helix of DNA, unzipped:  it has two parallel strands that circle around each other, but which rarely connect. 

DNA

On one strand rests the Meetinghouse, with much of the Christianity we received through scripture ancient and modern and which we share with much of Christendom. 

On the other is the Temple, the divine anthropology of the eternal family, and eternal progression, which we hold unique among Christian faiths. [1]

I am convinced that much of the theological friction within the LDS Church is born of the gaps between these two theological strands, amplified by official near-silence on how to bind them together. [Read more…]

Enos and the Joy of the Saints

Authors Note: For reasons that are lost to me know, I did not write anything about the Book of Enos in my 2016 series of posts that became the recently published book Buried Treasures. Today, I was assigned to lead a Priesthood-Meeting discussion about Elder Christofferson’s talk, “The Joy of the Saints,” which references Enos extensively. Always looking for messages from the Universe, I took this as a sign and prepared the following lesson, which readers of the book should feel free to print off, insert, and pretend that it was always there.

Enos 1

When I ask people to define “joy”–which I do from time to time because I am weird like that–they usually come up with one (or more) of three related synonyms. Joy, they say, is like happiness. Or it is like pleasure. Or it is like a deep and abiding feeling peace that convinces us that everything is going to be OK.

These, I would suggest, are exactly the three things that look like joy but are not. And perhaps the best way to define joy is to place it in contrast with these three look-alikes.

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January Is Book of Mormon Month at BCC Press

Here at BCC Press, we are starting our fourth year with a bang. Well, not literally with a bang. But, literally, with three new books desgined to complement the Come Follow Me Book of Mormon curriculum this year. Our offeringts are varied across generes and rhetorical modes, but they are united in their purpose to help you see and appreciate a familiar book in new and exciting ways.

We will be releasing one new book a week–today, next Friday, and the Friday after that so that, by the end of the month, you can line them all up on your shelf and nod with satisfaction that you are ready for the year.

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Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Editor’s Note: In the month of January, BCC Press will publish three new books about the Book of Mormon, in conjunction with the beginning of the 2020 Come Follow Me reading plan. The first book, which will be published this week in print and Kindle versions, is Michael Austin’s Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. This book collects the 44 #BOM2016 blog posts that Michael did at BCC during 2016 into a single book. The amazing Christian Harrison designed both the book and the cover. Below is the introduction to the volume.

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In 2016, I decided to read the Book of Mormon for the first time in 30 years. The last time I read it was in 1986, during my mission to Central California. Our mission president challenged us to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day that year reading the Book of Mormon from cover to cover, which I did. And that was the last time.

At first, I didn’t read it because I never got around to it. I had stuff to do. Important stuff. I was studying “Literature,” about which I thought very highly. And I had read the Book of Mormon several times before and during my mission. I know enough to get by, and even to teach Gospel Doctrine in three different wards. I read the lesson material and scanned the relevant chapters, usually during Sacrament Meeting, and I faked the rest.

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I’m terrified about having kids.

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I just spent the holidays with family. I’ve been married a year. I’m approaching my mid-30s. And due to an unrelenting year at work, I’ve gained some weight. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the last few weeks have featured a conversational dance of hinted “are-you-pregnant” questions.

I’ve ignored the hints and laughed off the passing comments about future grandchildren. What I haven’t responded with is my honest answer: I’m terrified about having kids. [Read more…]

“Unwed Pregnancy” and Agency

In June of 2002, local leaders received a letter from the First Presidency to be read in high priests group, elders quorum, and Relief Society meetings. This document outlined the church’s policy on “Adoption and Unwed Parents.” [n1]
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The Mormon-American Boy Scout, 1913-2019. RIP.

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Today, the Mormon church officially ends its formal involvement with Boy Scouts of America. This change was announced more than a year and a half ago, but when you’re looking at a form of social organization that has shaped the lives of millions of people, involved the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, and has more than 100 years of history and tradition and norm-building behind, change can be hard. While I have no direct knowledge of this–though perhaps someone reading this blog does–I am confident that in some ward or branch (maybe many wards and branches) in the United States there is, right at this moment, some teen-age boy or weary Scoutmaster or desperate mother scrambling to get forms filled out for the last merit badge the boy in question will ever earn, or setting up the flags and rushing to get the tablecloths for that last Eagle Court ever to be held in the local chapel or stake center, all with the aim of squeezing everything under the wire at the last possible second. I’d like to pay tribute to such folks, if I may. All of us Mormon believers and members who, one way or another, will get caught up in the church’s new youth program owe them our respect. They’re holding on, until the bitter end, to something that the church as a whole may very well be better off without–but which I am positive we’re going to miss in a more than a few ways, all the same. [Read more…]

So You Have $100 Billion.

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple weeks (interrupted, of course, for impeachment and Christmas) about the church’s $100 billion endowment. And I want to add to that discussion. Specifically, I want to think about the question of how the church could change with a $100 billion endowment.

I’ll note that in the earliest iterations of this post, I thought about freaking this as some sort of (unsatiric) modest proposal.

But that has a couple significant problems. What I’m going to lay out here is not at all modest; it would represent a sea change in church finances. Moreover, it’s not a proposal so much as it is brainstorming. But a $100 billion endowment absolutely requires brainstorming. And my brainstorm?

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Lesson 46: “He Will Dwell with Them, and They Shall Be His People” #BCCSundaySchool2019

John . . . wants to do more than tell what happens; he wants to show what such events mean. He wants to speak to the urgent question that people have asked throughout human history, wherever they first imagined divine justice: how long will evil prevail, and when will justice be done?

–Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

I can say one thing about the Book of Revelation that is helpful, useful, and unproblematically true: It is called Revelation, not Revelations. The “s” has been added in casual discourse to create an incorrect parallel to books like Acts, Corinthians, Hebrews, Romans, and etcs. So, if you have been referring to it as “Revelations,” then stop it.

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My Christmas Traditions

On this Christmas Eve I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you a bit about the Christmas holiday traditions I have developed over the years with the hope it will inspire you to share your traditions with us as well. [Read more…]

Practicing What We Preach: Ministering Charity Globally

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Today’s Guest Post comes from Dr. Warner Woodworth. He is a Global Social Entrepreneur and Professor Emeritus of the Department of Management at the Marriott School of Business, Brigham Young University where he designed and taught the first U.S. courses in Microcredit and Social Entrepreneurship.

Did you enjoy General Conference in October? Reflecting back today, I feel more strongly than ever that Conference was a blessing to me, and I hope my friends within and beyond the LDS Church had similar experiences.

In the weeks before and since Conference I’ve labored among the poor, refugees and the disenfranchised in the Middle East, Croatia, upstate New York, Romania, Native American reservations, and just returned two days ago from Indonesia. Abundant conference themes that stood out to me included an emphasis on faith, hope and charity. I especially was inspired by President Russell M. Nelson’s Sunday talk in the morning session as he emphasized our mission as Latter-day Saints to serve the poor and reduce human suffering. [Read more…]

Call for Applications: 2020 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar

The 7th Annual Summer Seminar on Latter-day Saint Theology

“A Wrestle Before God: Reading Enos 1”

Université Bordeaux Montaigne, Bordeaux, France
June 22–July 4, 2020

[Read more…]

Christmastime, Still (Sometimes) in the Dark

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I woke up this morning early, the day following last night’s arrival of the Winter Solstice, of Midwinter, giving us the shortest and darkest day of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere). The only light in the house was from our tomten display–the nissen and gnomes who watch over our home, every Christmas season. Did someone forget to unplug the lights, as we are supposed to before everyone goes to sleep? Or did our watchful friends want to remind us of something? I wouldn’t doubt the latter at all. The whole house is silent, but that’s understandable; after all, as Astrid Lindgren taught us long ago, the tomten speak a “silent little language,” that presumably only our dog Stella could understand.

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote about the way some of our family’s holiday traditions revolve around the silence, and the dark. Well, children grow, and times change (as Lindgren wrote, “winters come, and winters go”). Some of our story-telling traditions have been retired, perhaps to return when our children return with their children. But midwinter still comes every year, and I remember (or am reminded, by our small, silent wintertime companions), of all that is happening out there in the darkness. So I am reposting it below. I’m the Sunday school president in our ward, but still, this is not a lesson that I would teach this Sabbath day, the final Sunday of Advent. More’s the pity, perhaps. Anyway, there will be family and friends at our home this evening all the same, as some traditions endure, even as they change. So this foggy, silent morning, I listen to the day’s most appropriate carol (whether you prefer the majestic version, or the humble one) and I am thankful for a God–and, perhaps, His little servants–who moves in the dark. [Read more…]

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace

It is hard for me to think about the Advent Theme of Peace without also thinking about what one of Christ’s near-contemporaries said about peace just a few years after most of the books in the New Testament were written.

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Review: Brunson’s God and the IRS

I don’t frequently write about the intersection of religion and US taxation, but when I do, I, like a lot of people recently, point to Sam Brunson. There was no surprise when accusations of malfeasance against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke, that professionals of all sorts turned to Sam for his reasoned and perspicacious analysis. He is the expert, and last year Cambridge University Press published his monograph.
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Options for Financial Transparency

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In today’s Deseret News, Boyd and Chapman then acknowledge:

Of course, it’s fair game to question whether the reserves are adequate or excessive, or whether specific actions with funds are proper, as the Post article and the whistleblower does.  Vast assets require controls and nonprofit reserve investments can be controversial.

I agree wholeheartedly: let’s start asking questions about Church finances.  But first, we need Church financial disclosures. [Read more…]

Some Thoughts About Ensign Peak Advisers and the Church

The Religion Unplugged and Washington Post stories raise (at least) three important questions. I’m going to try to address all three here (though at least one will be really quick), and I suspect that this post will be unsatisfying both to those who want to see the church vindicated and those who want to see it get its comeuppance. And that’s because, contrary to popular perception, the tax law isn’t an area full of clear answers and bright lines. It’s also because many tax issues are fact-dependent, and we lack many of the facts. To the extent that you want more information and analysis, Peggy Fletcher Stack has been doing some great reporting on this.

The three main issues I see are these:

  1. Does the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  2. Should the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  3. Does the $100 billion in investments violate the tax law?

Now, I have absolutely no answer to number 1. I’m slightly skeptical, just because growing $12 billion in 1997 to $100 billion today (with two significant market downturns happening in those 22 years) strikes me as requiring some pretty aggressive assumptions. On the other hand, it’s at least plausible. And notably, the church has the ability to tell us how much it’s worth. To the extent it chooses not to do so, assertions like this will continue to find traction. Since the ball’s in the church’s court here, and since I have neither knowledge of nor the ability to find out the net asset value of the church’s investments on my own, for purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that he’s right, and that the church has $100 billion invested in Ensign Peak Advisers.

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$100 Billion?!? (A Placeholder)

Hey all, I assume by now you’ve all seen the Washington Post story about the tax whistleblower. If your Twitter is anything at all like mine, your mentions have simply exploded over the last hour or two.

And I’m planning on writing something about it. But it broke as I was getting dinner in kids and kids in bed, and one of the advantages to being in academia rather than legal practice is that when news breaks, I can go to bed and look at it the next day.

There are some fascinating questions here, and I’ll try to address them in a careful, reasoned way. But I’m not going to do it until tomorrow. So until then, have a wonderful night! (And dream of taxes. Or Baby Yoda. I’m cool either way.)

Utah’s New Tax Bill

If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably heard by now that the Utah legislature passed a tax bill last week in a special session. The governor has apparently said he plans to sign the bill.

The bill has been controversial, to say the least. It was even protested by an odd assortment of characters including not only Utah Legislative Watch and Alliance for a Better Utah, but also Santa Claus and the Grinch. A lot of the objections seem to be to process—the bill went from proposed to passed in less than a couple days, and was passed in a special session (though, as a non-Utahn, I don’t actually know what that means). But there has been pushback against the substance, too. A lot of that pushback resonates with me: there have been significant complaints that the changes amount to a more-regressive tax burden on Utahns, with new taxes burdening the poor, while tax cuts redounding to the benefit of the wealthy.  And that, in the words of both of Isaiah and the Twitter feed of the greatest blog in the universe, would be grinding the faces of the poor.

So is that what Utah’s doing? Not entirely, it turns out. [Read more…]

Merry Christmas from BCC Press

Here at BCC Press, we want no part of the War on Christmas. We love Christmas. We love it so much that we have marked down nearly all of our 2019 line of books by 40%. From now until the end of the year (in case you have Christmas money that you need to spend), you can get any or all of the following books for a price that is closer to free than it is to any other book of the same great quality and value.

Marked down from $12.95 to $7.77

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A Response to Hales on “Spirit Birth”

I’ve known Brian Hales for a while now. He is a talented and dedicated researcher and author. We both work on history outside of our day jobs, and our interests overlap in a few areas. He is a good guy and I consider him a friend. At a recent conference where as a part of my presentation I had tangentially mentioned Joseph Smith’s documented teaching that God did not create human spirits, Brian and I chatted. He asked why I hadn’t responded to his JMH article arguing that JS actually did teach spirit creation AKA “spirit birth.” I generally don’t like to do this sort of public critique, but he asked and I do think I owe it to him. What follows is fairly long, and somewhat technical response.
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The Equal Rights Amendment, Cooties, and the Constitution

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

In another period of my life–the insufferable thirteen-year-old boy who already knows everything phase–I was a deeply committed opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. Informed by several pamphlets distributed by the youth leaders at our church, I stalked the halls of Waller Junior High school just looking for hippies and feminists to punch (metaphorically) with my superior intellect and rhetorical skill. I knew, in the same way that young Mormons “know” so many things, that if three more states ratified the ERA, our society would be plunged into a morass of unisex bathrooms, women in combat, and people of the same gender getting married to each other.

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#BCCSundaySchool 2019: “Glory and Power Be Unto the Lamb Forever,” Revelation 1-11

It’s fun to talk about how incomprehensible the book of Revelation is. Famously written in pretty rough Greek, and full of lurid imagery that’s thrown at you in a rather boggling order—in general, the structure is built around multiple series of seven things (dishes, trumpets, wax seals on a very long scroll), but not always, and it’s easy to lose track because within any given one of these series there are long lists of other things—the book seems designed to be confusing and mysterious and esoteric.

(That sentence, of course, gives you something of a sense of the book.)

Perhaps that aura is why it’s proven so attractive to people interested in lurid and esoteric things, like conspiracy theories about the New World Order.  But it’s critical to observe that within its text Revelation nowhere claims to be a coded timeline of the events leading to the Second Coming and Last Judgment. Claims that it is that are understandable; they’re attempts to reduce an extremely difficult text to something easily comprehensible.

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The Massacre of the Innocents

When Wisdom’s acolytes did not return to divulge the location of the Child who would be King, Herod “sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” Many, if not most, are incapable of complete recovery from such horrific loss.. . . . It is instructive that the massacre of the innocents follows rather than precedes the Christ Child’s coming. The joy of Advent neither prevented nor ameliorated the tragedy. Fiona Givens, “On Solace”


This was going to be a post about the theme of love, traditionally observed on the second Sunday of the Advent Season, and perhaps it will be still. But before we get to love, we have to go through grief and work through one of the most difficult parts of the Advent narrative. We have to talk about the deaths of children.

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The Author and Finisher of our Faith: Reflections On #NaNoWriMo

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell

November 30th marked the end of #NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, an online write-athon where writers all over the internet attempt to finish a novel in November. The word-count goal is 50k, which in 2019 came out to 1,667 words a day. There’s a whole website dedicated to helping motivate writers through the slog that is putting words on a page, and a whole other website called Twitter where writers go to complain about how hard writing is. (George Orwell would have had plenty to add.) 

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“Rejoice With Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory,” 1 and 2 Peter #BCCSundaySchool2019

I misread the calendar and did not post this last week. I apologize that it’s late, but I hope it may be useful to some.

I. 1 Peter

Peter’s first epistle has some of the most interesting and some of the most misunderstood passages in the new testament. And we’ll look at those passages, but in my view, the more interesting and more overlooked thing to look at is the overall themes and structure of Peter’s first letter.[1] It’s a short letter, but it is dense, and it refers in just a few words or lines to complex ideas that take up whole chapters in Paul’s letters. [Read more…]

The Evils of the Dole: What Is This “Dole” Thing, Anyway?

Last week, Kristine A wrote an excellent post from last week, highlighting the BYU-I Medicaid omnishambles. In the post, she mentioned that one rumored reason for the policy was to get students “off the dole.”

Now, I’ve been meaning to write about church (and government) welfare for a while, and that comment got me thinking: variously in lesson manuals and other church contexts growing up, I’ve heard about the evils of the dole. But outside of church contexts, I can’t say I’ve heard the word “dole” very often.[fn1]

Originally, I had a long, comprehensive post vaguely mapped out in my head. But it turns out this is the holiday season, and also the writing-and-grading-finals season, so in place of the comprehensive exegesis of church welfare, I’m going to look at use of the word dole. [Read more…]

The Voice of the People: A Review

The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon, by David Charles Gore. Maxwell Institute: Groundwork Books, 2019.

The Voice of the People is something that we need a lot more of in the Mormon Studies world: a book about the Book of Mormon that does not try to prove anything about its historical nature, or use it to illustrate a particular theological point, but rather makes it the basis for a productive engagement with an academic discipline and a cultural value.

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The Christ Child

The Church has just put out a new video on its You Tube Channel: The Christ Child: A Nativity Story #LightTheWorld, available here . On Facebook Daniel McClellan had high praise for it, so I thought I would check it out.

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