Homesteading Utah

My family and I just got back from an extended road trip. And one of our first stops on that road trip was Homestead National Historic Park in Nebraska. It was actually our second time visiting and, seriously, if you get the chance to visit, you absolutely should. (It’s only about an hour and a half from Winter Quarters.)

The Homestead Act was fascinating. Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, it allowed heads of household or anyone over 21 to claim a 160-acre parcel of land, provided they were, or intended to become, a citizen.[fn1] To get the land, a homesteader had to live on the land for five years, built a home, make improvements to the land, and farm it. At the end of five years, for only the cost of a filing fee, a successful homesteader would own the land.

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Loving by Hearing and Listening

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Christianity, at its core, comes down to one word, love.  The radical egalitarianism implicit in Jesus’s use of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to explain his gospel message is what draws me in:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-39). 

Indeed, as Jeffrey R. Holland recently explained, the “first great truth in the universe” is that “God loves… wholeheartedly, without reservation or compromise, with all of His heart, might, mind, and strength” (emphasis original).  Love crosses all boundaries and traverses all borders.  Love is the beginning and the end. 

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A French perspective on secularism

Par François Dubois (1529 – 1584); Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts

David Aubril is a French teacher, fond of didactics, literature, UNIX systems and free diving (with no order of preference). He follows with great interest contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters, from across the Atlantic Ocean.

On the French version of the Church website, there is a video called “religious freedom brings balance”, with many excerpts of Elder’s Rasband last talk. As far as I can tell, there is no English version. I supposed it was especially made for French-speaking people, to make us aware of the dangers of secularism. How kind. Indeed, we have gone quite a long way with the principle of secularism in France. Maybe our experience can shed some useful light on the topic?

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Why I have a Pro-Choice Sign in my Front Yard (Even Though I Don’t Call Myself That)

[The publication Current asked me to write up my thoughts about abortion; I ended up writing nearly 3000 words. A much, much shortened version of the essay below is available on their website this morning, but if you want to read the full thing, go for it. Cross-posted to In Medias Res.]

That sign is in our front yard, signalling our support for defeating the “Value Them Both” amendment on the ballot here in Kansas this August. If the amendment referendum succeeds, it would overturn a state supreme court decision which determined that the Kansas state constitution guarantees at least minimal abortion rights to Kansas women, thus allowing Kansans opposed to abortion rights to follow our neighboring states of Oklahoma and Missouri and push for a total abortion ban. The sign thus betokens a “pro-choice” position, even though I’ve never called myself that and think the language of individual “choice” when it comes to abortion is part of the whole problem. So why am I, some who was raised in a politically conservative (but not, as I later came to see, particularly ideological) Mormon home and thoroughly absorbed the repugnance of abortion which was communicated to me, taking this position all these years later? Well, that’s a story, mostly having to do with what my wife and four daughters have taught me along the way. [Read more…]

A Rant about Self-Reliance

Self-Reliance is not a gospel principle. It is found nowhere in the scriptures. The closest we come to it are various verses requesting that one not be idle. But we appear to have made an idol out of the “self-made” man that is antithetical to the gospel and really needs to stop.

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Asking the Right Questions: Four Theses on Framing the Abortion Debate

Texts are tricky things, whether they are scriptural, historical, literary, or constitutional. People who claim to be “textualists,” or even (in constitutional circles) “originalists” often hide behind the rhetorical value of being such a thing without acknowledging the actual difficulty of doing it. Texts are not self-interpreting units of meaning that will yield their secrets with no effort, but only to the pure in heart. 

Textual interpretation is a process of asking certain, well-defined questions and then trying to answer them from the words on a page. It has always been more art than science, and the value of the answers ultimately depends on the quality of the questions. The process of asking questions of a text is sometimes called “framing.” The way we frame a textual question controls the kind of answer we get, because it determines the kinds of things we look for. 

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Supporting Life — Every Life

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning overturned Roe v. Wade. The effect of the ruling will be to eliminate access to abortion in about half of the states. This “victory” reflects decades of work by the “pro-life” movement. Pundits, legal scholars, and activists will no doubt dominate the airwaves today, dissecting the consequences of the opinion and plotting political action. I leave that exegesis to them. Instead, I’d like to turn the discussion to what a fullsome “pro-life” society would actually look like.

This post assumes that proponents of the “pro-life” movement with respect to abortion are sincere in wanting to protect infant life.[*] It also assumes that being “pro-life” generally is one of the most important goals of human society. Whether grounded in faith, ethics, or post-enlightenment philosophy, we all should recognize the dignity of every person and support a social contract that promotes life.

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Missionaries’ Discomfort: A Parent’s Perspective

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

Last year, Elder Kopischke’s talk on mental health finally spoke of missionaries’ discomfort. But as things go back to normal after the pandemic, and Church leaders repeatedly ask young men to prepare to serve missions, I feel that there are some more things that need to be said.

I remember attending a youth meeting a few years ago in Western Europe. One of the highlights of this meeting was the broadcast of several videos of missionaries performing wonders: a team of sisters taught dozens of investigators by video conference, a team of Elders had made a video that had been viewed 180,000 times.  Instead of inspiring me, however, these perfect stories made me worried that any missionary who is not as successful will doubt their faith or self-worth.  Missionary work should not be measured by clicks or other quantified goals.

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The Great Plan of Happiness and (Apple TV’s) Severance

Apple TV’s series Severance is brilliant. Its topology in multiple dimensions is novel, strange, and thought-provoking. I want to talk about it because it problematizes Mormon theology in interesting ways. It is bursting at the seams with possible discussion topics, lesson plans, and late-night talks with family members among members of the Church. If you haven’t seen the show, there is really no point in reading on because this post is full of spoilers that will ruin the surprise in the unexpected directions the show takes. The series is just too beautiful to let my blog post ruin it with untimely reveals. So, back away if you haven’t watched it. Some future version of yourself will thank you.

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Depression, anxiety, and promises of healing

I’ve experienced depression and generalized anxiety for as long as I can remember. It comes and goes and sometimes I’m not really aware I’m experiencing it until the clouds start to lift and I suddenly realize the sun feels good on my skin again, surprised at the revelation that I hadn’t been feeling it for a while.

When I started elementary school I was also diagnosed with ADD (now more commonly called ADHD, although the diagnostic labels overall could use some improvement). With all good intentions my parents decided to hold off on getting me medication for those conditions. Until my thirteenth year or thereabouts when I started junior high school and the increased organizational load became unbearable.

My mom tells a story that I can’t recall happening. I’m arriving home from school. I’m frazzled. I’m being asked about homework—again, and I take a multi-subject folder out of my backpack. I accidentally drop it on the floor. A flock of papers from 7 classes (was it 7?) burst forth and scatter to the four winds. I break down in tears.

That was the moment she decided it was time for me to know about my diagnosis and to see if medication could help.

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Sunday Sermon: On Faith and Being Enough

And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:29-31)

There are two ways to look at Peter’s nautical adventures in the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

We can look at the failure. Peter is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on water, and he blows it. Christ stretches out His hand and assures Peter that it is going to be OK, and, after a few hesitant steps, Peter stops believing and starts thinking. He trusts his own reason and concludes that walking on water is impossible, so he begins to doubt Christ’s ability to sustain him. When he loses his faith, he sinks, fully earning the rebuke, “O thou of little faith” (33).

But we can read the same scene as a triumph and a miracle. While all of the other apostles huddle in the safety of the boat (a dubious safety because of the storm they are experiencing), Peter asks Christ to call him forth. And then Peter actually walks on water, becoming only the second person in the history of humanity to overcome the straightforward laws of physics.

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Lectures on Obedience

David Aubril is a French teacher, fond of didactics, literature, UNIX systems and free diving (with no order of preference). He follows with great interest the contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters, but from afar, from “the other side of the water”, as Pascal says.

When I was in high school, my reading of Pascal’s Thoughts and my friendship with a Latter-day Saint classmate made me wonder about the existence of God. The answers I found in the Bible and the Book of Mormon gave me a deep desire to obey His commandments.

Despite the incomprehension of many relatives, I was baptized and went on a mission. When I got home, I went back to the studies I had left for a while and got married.

My wife and I firmly believed in the promises repeated in the Book of Mormon: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 4:4). We were confident that our obedience would enable us to obtain the blessing of an eternal family.

It is difficult to express how affected we were when a series of trials shook our home. Not only was our dream collapsing, but our certainties were shattered.

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What Does it Mean When Most of Us Are Not at the Table?

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Christian historian Justo Gonzalez notes that in the ancient Christian church Communion (what we in the LDS faith tradition call “the Sacrament,” a shortened version of “the Sacrament of the Lords Supper”) was a time when believers, the Body of Christ, came together to share in the joy that Jesus’s resurrection offered.  By celebrating the resurrection as a community, the burgeoning church embodied what Communion represented: believers were expressing their faith in, and physically enacting the belief that, a community of disciples from different walks of life, through Jesus’ atoning work, can (1) be bound together, (2) be collectively bound to Jesus and (3) become a community that takes part in the divine destiny of creation.[1]  It was bold, and theologically powerful, statement of unification.  In fact, at times, this celebration was held at the tombs of faithful Christians, thereby joining “the living and the dead into a single body.”[2]

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On Bewaring of Pride

My freshman year at BYU, my Book of Mormon professor took a couple classes to warn us of the dangers of self-esteem. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember precisely how she got to self-esteem being a dangerous concept (except something something less than the dust of the earth). It was dumb and harmful, and I objected to it in class, though as an 18-year-old I didn’t have the language to articulate why it was stupid and harmful.[fn1]

While I’m not clear how she derived the idea that self-esteem was harmful, I wouldn’t be shocked if it found its roots in Pres. Benson’s infamous talk “Beware of Pride.”

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Review: Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, by Matthew Wickman

There is an ironic, even impish innocence to earth, an endless provocation to the human impulse towards wonder that provides no recourse for satisfying that impulse. Humans, then, live at odds with nature, forever, seeking to graft meaning, purpose onto a branch that cannot support the weight of our need. To live is to want to understand, but to seek understanding is to look past the wordless bounties of living.

—Matthew Wickman, Life to the Whole Being, p. 101

To the extent that we can believe Aristotle about such things, the Ancient Greeks had a single word to represent the entire purpose of philosophy and all other human endeavors. This word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), describes the highest good of human life. The word literally means good ( ) spirit or minor deity (daímōn). In English texts, this word has been translated as “happiness,” “virtue,” “welfare,” “thriving,” and, my personal favorite, “human flourishing.”

For Aristotle, a eudemonic life is one that has all of the elements of flourishing—intellectual fulfillment, physical health, satisfying relationships, material prosperity, and spiritual understanding—in exactly the right proportions needed for a person to thrive. Though Matthew Wickman does not use the word in his remarkable new memoir Life to the Whole Being—a phrase that Parley P. Pratt used to explain the gift of the Holy Ghost—a key objective of the book is to describe a spiritual ideal of eudaimonia. In fact, “life to the whole being” would be a reasonably good translation of eudemonia, should the author ever want to take up his hand at translating, or even paraphrasing, the Nicomachean Ethics.

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When there’s love at home

June 5, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Austen Diamond

Robert George is in a difficult spot. As co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, opposing same-sex relationships has been a major focus of his public intellectual work even while the tide has been shifting in the United States—polls show more and more people approve of gay marriage. A record high 70% support it today according to the latest Gallup poll. Even Latter-day Saints follow this trajectory, with support doubling in the past decade.

I’m not optimistic enough to think the battle is over. America’s political makeup ensures that for the foreseeable future an increasing minority will have outsized influence on all kinds of things, from abortion rights to the contents of elementary school libraries. George seeks allies among conservative religious groups to keep his hope alive, that the state can be used to discourage and even prevent queer relationships from flourishing. George seeks allies to further his cause, including among Latter-day Saints. One recent think piece of his can be found at the unofficial LDS publication Public Square.

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A Quick Note re: the Church and Gun Safety Legislation

I was reading the WBEZ website yesterday, and came across a story about Cardinal Cupich, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Cardinal Cupich called on legislators to pass legislation to curb gun violence.

“The Second Amendment, unlike the second commandment, did not come down from Sinai,” Cupich told NPR. “There is an understanding that we all have in our hearts, engraved in our hearts, a natural law about the value of human life. And there is no amendment that can trump that.”

So can he do that? Can he speak out about political issues? Is he, the leader of the 3rd largest archdiocese in the United States, with more than 2 million Catholics, risking the Catholic Church’s tax exemption?

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Conspiracy Theory, Ritual Abuse, and the Rise of QAnon in Mormondom, Part II

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my fourth post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here, the most recent here, and part I of this post here.

Current news is this: According to David Leavitt, Utah County attorney, Utah County sheriff Mike Smith has accused Leavitt of participation in what Smith calls “ritualistic child sexual abuse,” involving cannibalism and child sex trafficking.

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BCC Press Announces: The Burning Book: A Jewish-Mormon Memoir

BCC Press is proud to announce the publication of The Burning Book: A Jewish-Mormon Memoir, by Jason Olson and James Goldberg—the true story of Jason Olson’s conversion from Judaism to Mormonism and his life spent reconciling the two cultures and religions into something beautiful, coherent, and whole. Along with the amazing James Goldberg, one of the Mormon world’s premier novelists and poets, Olson weaves a remarkable story of faith and change that makes room for everybody.

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Mormon Abusers

The Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven has a lot of people asking “Does the Church create violent, abusive men? Does it foster the attitudes that lead to violence?” At the same time, many progressive Mormons have criticized the portrayal of supposedly mainstream Church members in the show, claiming that they are unfamiliar to us, that we don’t see ourselves and our experiences here.

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Nephi, Alma, Batman, Superman

Photo by Yulia Matvienko on Unsplash

Eric Hachenberger comes originally from Austria. He served his mission in Barcelona, Spain, studied Peacebuilding at BYU-Hawaii, and lives with his wife and daughter in Berlin now. He loves writing and everything outdoors.

I can tell you the exact moment I stopped liking Nephi. It was when the church released the Book of Mormon Videos. Laman and Lemuel were just so much more relatable than Nephi. Their response to Lehi leaving Jerusalem was human. Nephi’s response was that of an unfeeling robot. Most people I talked to during that period of time about the videos felt the same. We all felt much more like Laman and Lemuel than like Nephi. 

And therein lies a problem. Nephi in his perfectionism becomes unrelatable. His youthful zeal borders on fanaticism, his treatment of his brothers lacks empathy or at least evinces an inability to read the room. Although Nephi is the first ‘hero’ we meet in the Book of Mormon, he becomes somewhat stale over time.

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Chariots of Fire

Jessica Moss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

2 Kings 6:15-17

The few times that I have heard the story of Elisha and his servant, found in 2 Kings 6, the servant is likened unto us – the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or to Christians in general.  The narrative is often as follows: we are a small and oppressed group that is being persecuted by the big bad world, out there. I understand the draw of this position. It helps us build solidarity, it motivates faith in the divine, but it also sets us up as innocent.  We are not always innocent.

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What Can We Do About Gun Violence?

Like so many others right now, I’m numb with sadness and rage about the murder today of at least fifteen people (14 of whom were elementary school children) in Texas, following on the heels of the murder a week and a half ago of one in a California church, following the racist murder of ten in Buffalo. And that’s not to mention the mass shooting that killed two in Chicago (in fact, a block north of my office) last week, or countless other acts of gun violence and murder we and our neighbors endure on a far-too-regular basis.

So what can we, as Latter-day Saints and as U.S. citizens and residents[fn1] do?

We should advocate for better laws, laws that will make these deadly shooting less likely. And I use “should” deliberately; the church encourages us to “play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections” and to otherwise engage in the political process. And while the church has taken no formal stand on gun regulation, Pres. Nelson said, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, that “men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.” As Saints and as humans, we should recoil at the idea that someone can march in and murder elementary school children, or Black Buffalo residents doing their grocery shopping, or a physician worshiping at church.

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No Words

I don’t have any more words. I used them all up.

I used to believe that my country was capable of solving problems big problems by having big discussions. As I read over posts that I have written over the last ten years, I can’t help but pity the naivete of someone who once thought that reasoned discourse mattered. Here are the last ten things that I tried to say:

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The Desert of Faith

It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on. If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Somehow, I managed to make it through both an awkward teenage phase and a college wanna-be-intellectual phase without reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I read all the other required books: The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land, Slaughterhouse-Five, Siddhartha. And I owned Dune–all three of the original trilogy. I displayed them proudly, and never got past a few pages. I knew it was about sand.

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When I Was a Child: Kids Believe the Darndest Things

“If you lack wisdom in some areas, have someone bring you a funnel from Nuremberg.” Source

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

In a recent post responding to a column in The Salt Lake Tribune in which the author rather unhelpfully suggests that instead of “faking it” you should “believe what you believe” and “not believe what you do not believe,” Sam rightly observes that “belief isn’t static” but waxes and wanes over time: “The idea that you have to be fully committed or fully uncommitted is just unfathomable.”

In addition to the weaknesses Sam points out, the Tribune column misses—somewhat inexplicably given the attention they attract from adults during Sunday services—the fact that a sizable population shows up to church every week as blank slates, with no particular beliefs or even a concept of belief to call their own: infants and young children.

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On Faking It

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a column entitled “If You’re Faking Your Latter-day Saint Faith … Why?” The basic gist is, the columnist is puzzled why people who don’t believe in the church still participate, rather than living authentically. He writes about these fakers (and, if he were a Salinger fan, I supposed he would have used “phonies“):

They go to church, they fulfill congregational callings, they pay tithing, they socialize with believers and participate with family members in every aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, except for one.

They do not actually believe it to be the truth.

Call me naive, but this whole concept is tough to fit into my brain.

Why the heck would anyone pretend to believe in a religion that is as demanding, and often outright inconvenient, as the LDS Church is?

The column really got under my skin. In the first instance, it’s because I have no patience for people (inside and outside the church) who insist that, if you don’t buy into their conception of religion, you should leave. (I similarly have no patience for people who insist you have no choice but to stay—I’m equal opportunity impatient!)

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Movie Messiahs, Eschatological Events, and a Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
                                                —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I have been impressed recently by how much of our culture’s touchstone literature operates from a messianic view of history. And I am not talking about explicitly religious texts like the Bible and the Qur’an. Nearly all of the great mythic sagas of our time—think about Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dune, Percy Jackson, and hundreds more—reproduce a basic trope of messianic salvation borrowed from the Abrahamic religions. 

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Living Our Values: FTSOY and Tucker Carlson

When I was a teenager, I, like so many of my cohort, had a copy of the church’s 1990 pamphlet For the Strength of Youth. The pamphlet has a section entitled “Media: Movies, Television, Radio, Videocassettes, Books, and Magazines.” It said, among other things:

Our Heavenly Father has counseled us as Latter-day Saints to “seek after anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” . . . . Whatever you read, listen to, or watch makes an impression on you. Public entertainment and the media can provide you with much positive experience. They can uplift and inspire you, teach you good and moral principles, and bring you closer to the beauty this world offers. But they can also make what is wrong and evil look normal, exciting, and acceptable.

***

Don’t attend or participate in any form of entertainment . . . that is vulgar, immoral, inappropriate, suggestive, or pornographic in any way. . . . Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie, turn off a television set, or change a radio station if what’s being presented does not meet your Heavenly Father’s standards. And do not read books or magazines or look at pictures that are pornographic or that present immorality as acceptable.

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What’s New with the JST?

Kent P. Jackson, Understanding Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2022)

Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: The Joseph Smith Translation and the King James Translation in Parallel Columns (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2021)

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