Book Review—Courage To Be You, by Gail Miller

I’m Larry’s wife.”

That’s how Gail Miller constantly introduced herself during the mid-eighties as Larry H. Miller’s business was on the rise. His name was plastered on successful car dealerships. He’d saved the Utah Jazz basketball team. He’d expand to movie theaters and baseball teams. Through it all, he’d frequently relied on his wife Gail’s input; she was even a partner in the business. But as a stay-at-home mom with no formal higher education she noticed how seldom she referred to herself, her interests, her desires. And in not referring to them, she began to forget what they were.

“I was living in a shadow that grew every single day…I felt completely invisible,” she writes in the candid new book Courage to Be You (149-150). [Read more…]

Let’s talk about the remarkable Psalms #BCCSundaySchool2018

The 104th Psalm is an arresting remix of Genesis 1, making it one of the earliest examples of hip-hop on record.1 As the King James Version has it:

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain…

Here we see God appearing with the grandeur of a king, donning his royal robe in preparation for his work of creation—”don” is the term Robert Alter uses in his translation:

LORD, my God, You are very great.
Grandeur and glory you don.
Wrapped in light like a cloak,
stretching out heavens like a tent-cloth.2

This psalm heavily samples from the creation account where God said “Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good…And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night…” (Genesis 1:3–4, 14).

[Read more…]

Confessing God’s hand in all things

My three-year-old son loudly announced that the incense smelled “yucky” just as the priest walked by, censer swinging from chains, bells jingling. And the priest smiled.

I recently finished reading a book by religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, who once suggested that “if it doesn’t offer you the opportunity to taste something, lick something, kiss something, or put something into your mouth, it’s not a religion.” I’m sure he’d have included “smell something” in this list had he been thinking about it. One of the things I enjoy most about attending Eastern Orthodox Pascha each year with my family is the way it engages the body—sight, sound, touch, and yes, smell. While the LDS Church is my home, these occasional pilgrimages help renew my faith.  [Read more…]

On the State of Mormon Book Reviewing–a guest post from Professor Warren G. Harding, Mervin Peake Online University of the Arts and Science

BCC received the following guest post, delivered via the US Postal Service and re-typed by several former BCC permabloggers, from Professor Warren G. Harding last week. Dr. Harding is the R. L. Stine Chair of Esoteric Literature at Mervin Peake Online University of the Arts and Science.

Your correspondent was pleased to receive recently a clipping from the latest issue of Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought: a review of Kattrim G. Mender’s master’s thesis, “Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats.” Your Mormon people might like to know that Mender’s thesis caused much controversy within the university on the eve of our latest accreditation review. (Results pending.) Mender’s very acceptance as a student at MPOUAS raised red flags throughout the faculty, considering his having previously flunked out of a small university none of us had heard of in Rexburg, Idaho. [Read more…]

The blue jacket

There’s a blue jacket hanging in our entryway closet. I’ve owned it for twenty-one years. I’ve worn it maybe twice. It’s neither attractive or ugly and it would fit me well enough. But I don’t wear it, and I’m not sure when (or if) I ever will again.

I’m not going to get rid of it. Not yet, anyway, even though it’s a source of emotional pain. If I spend more than a second thinking about that jacket I start to feel a pointed grief begin to collect right down in my actual guts, pressure rising, until I slam the lid shut.  [Read more…]

BCC Press and priestcraft!

Scrooge-McDuck-Money-BinIt isn’t uncommon for people who sell LDS-directed products to be accused of priestcraft. As an employee of the church (through Brigham Young University) I’ve spent some time thinking about the implications of priestcraft, considering the nature of my job and source of my salary. Check out my thoughts and then please share yours. [Read more…]

“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head”—Gathering resources against racism

Suppose you wanted to teach a Sunday school lesson on the Word of Wisdom. If you perform a search at LDS.org you’ll find a long list of ready-to-go full lesson outlines. Suppose you wanted to give a talk warning about pornography. A search there will yield a long list of conference addresses from which you could draw. But suppose you wanted to teach a lesson on racism. It gets a lot more difficult.

Why? And what can be done? [Read more…]

Happy Birthday, James Baldwin

jamesbaldwinToday is the anniversary of the birth of James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers.
His technique is masterful, and it matches the depth of his insight—a rare combination in an author, I think. I’ll be forever indebted to Baldwin for helping me better understand what it means to be a white person like me in America. He did this by writing and speaking about how he felt and experienced life as a black man in America. Here’s one way he described why he became a writer:
I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.

[Read more…]

Lesson 28: “O God, Where Art Thou?” #DandC2017

Doctrine & Covenants 121, 122

In preparation for this lesson I enjoyed reading Justin Bray’s Revelations in Context essay, “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail.” Especially useful are the links to images of the letter the sections are drawn from, thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers Project folks. People love seeing the documents.

I began this lesson with B.H. Roberts’s eloquent description of Liberty Jail as the temple-prison. [Read more…]

Using or abusing dystopian fiction

burnbookLike a lot of people, I spent some time leading up to and following the recent American presidential election reading some dystopian fiction in my spare time. I’ll recommend a few titles at the end of this post. But first, this morning I read K. E. Colombini’s provocative First Things post about dysfic. In a nutshell, Colombini raises the specter of technology and its corrupting influence on our lives, the way it crowds out classic literature and other influences that no longer refine our culture. [Read more…]

Troubling the old stories with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recently published one of the best books ever written about nineteenth-century Mormonism. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s called A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835 to 1870. The folks at Juvenile Instructor are hosting an online book club this summer; it begins later this week.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Ulrich on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, where I ask her about how she paints a fuller, richer, grittier and more complex portrait of the early church: [Read more…]

Great children’s books for International Women’s Day (and every day)

Name three prominent scientists who aren’t men.

I don’t remember where I encountered this question, but it found me wanting a few years ago. Why was it so easy to rattle off the names of men (Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Watson and Crick) but not women? My mind’s hero filenames stashed away from various science fairs, book reports, and TV specialsseems fully stocked with men. I’m playing catch-up now.

I want a greater variety of heroes to populate my kids’ subconscious than what I had growing up. Here are some recommendations that I’ve enjoyed as much as my kids. Please add your own in the comments. [Read more…]

My daughter’s Christmas talk (or, how to help a 4-year-old speak in Primary)

wise-man-starMy daughter was asked to give a little talk on Sunday. Her assigned topic was “the birth of Jesus, and the second coming.” Strange combo for a four year old. My wife came up with a great strategy for helping with these talks. [Read more…]

I see you

boyglasses

The boy wanted to try on my glasses

“Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion.” (Mosiah 12.22)

My son is almost two years old. We play a game when I’m getting him dressed to keep him from trying to roll away. I take my time as I pull his shirt over his head, leaving his eyes covered, asking “Where’s Dorian?” He’s surprisingly patient with this game. Eventually, as his turtle head emerges, his eyes invariably lock onto mine like magnets and he laughs. He’s found again.

It’s a common phenomenon—little children seem to believe they can’t be seen when their own eyes are covered. Psychologists have explained this as egocentrism. A child can’t yet view the world through any other perspective than their own. If they can’t see, nobody can. This is how I’ve thought of Dorian’s game until this morning. [Read more…]

Catharsis and empathy in David Bazan’s “Dark Sacred Night”

bazan_darksacrednight1400_1024x1024At first glance, David Bazan might seem as unlikely an artist to release a Christmas album as Neil Diamond, not least of all because neither are Christian. Religion seems to have played a very small role—if at all—in Diamond’s career, whereas Christianity has been a central theme in Bazan’s discography from his Pedro the Lion days to his present solo work. But Bazan “broke up” with Christianity in 2009 when he released his album “Curse Your Branches.” Why a holiday album now? [Read more…]

Book Review: Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty

enns-sin-of-certaintyThe Sin of Certainty is a confessional book about how biblical scholar Peter Enns came to understand “belief” and “faith” less in terms of facts and knowledge, and more in terms of trust and love. Many Christians, Enns says, place being “correct” about God at the center of faith, which sets them on a shaky foundation that sometimes results in crisis and loss of that very belief. Enns speaks from personal experience here. He’s encountered what he calls “uh-oh moments,” times when what he thought he knew no longer seemed viable in the least. Such moments may be God’s way of inviting us to a more nuanced, closer relationship, breaking down the barriers of certainty in order to let faith flourish within our messy human lives:

I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me that the journey is at an end but that I am still on it” (154). [Read more…]

A few more white guys talking about Black Lives Matter

The Deseret News just published a column by Ralph Hancock, a Harvard-trained BYU professor of political science. Hancock suggests black people in America would be better off if they could learn to see the world through his white male eyes. “Black stories matter,” the headline says, and the substance of the piece is that the biggest problems facing black people are ultimately their own fault, or at least the solution to their problems are chiefly in their hands.  [Read more…]

For the church in Russia, sustaining doesn’t mean agreeing

russia2

His wife, Kristen

russia1

Her husband, Blair

My wife served in the Russia, St. Petersburg mission. Her body left Russia but her heart stayed there. We had the chance to visit a few years ago and it was an amazing trip. Without her connection to Russia through the church I’m sure I never would have visited, and I never would have experienced the heft of that incredible country.

Now our missionaries in Russia are facing new restrictions due to a new anti-terrorism law Vladimir Putin recently signed. From the Deseret News:

The law creates a broad definition for missionary work, and will restrict any such activity if it is not undertaken by individuals who are affiliated with registered organizations. Additionally, the locations where such work can unfold would be restricted to houses of worship and other related religious sites, critics claim.

[Read more…]

Impaled on history like a butterfly

James Baldwin, Distinguished Visiting Professor

James Baldwin

Another black man in America was shot and killed by police yesterday. I involuntarily witnessed the slaying just before turning off the bedside lamp last night because it showed up in my Twitter feed, a video already playing, and I knew how it would end but couldn’t stop watching and couldn’t sleep and felt sick and felt angry. I personally know too few people of color intimately enough to reach out to them directly for solace. And really, it would be pretty unfair of me to do that anyway. So I go to James Baldwin, an African American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic who was an incredible and thoughtful writer, and who died in the eighties.

I picked up his 1965 piece, “The White Man’s Guilt.” [Read more…]

None of us with perfect knowledge, or all of us with love

calvin-susieFrom the Church’s new Doctrinal Mastery materials on “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge“:

Invite a student to read aloud the following account shared by Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Ask the class to listen for how a young woman acted in faith when faced with a challenging situation:

“Recently, I spoke with a Laurel from the United States. I quote from her email:

“‘This past year some of my friends on Facebook began posting their position on marriage. Many favored same-sex marriage, and several LDS youth indicated they “liked” the postings. I made no comment.

“‘I decided to declare my belief in traditional marriage in a thoughtful way.

“‘With my profile picture, I added the caption “I believe in marriage between a man and a woman.” Almost instantly I started receiving messages. “You are selfish.” “You are judgmental.” One compared me to a slave owner. And I received this post from a great friend who is a strong member of the Church: “You need to catch up with the times. Things are changing and so should you.”

“‘I did not fight back,’ she said, ‘but I did not take my statement down.’

“She concludes: ‘Sometimes, as President Monson said, “You have to stand alone.”

*   *   *

A different version of her experience might read something like this: [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s First [re]Vision and how historians think about the stories people tell

msr3-cover“That quilt shows all the different versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.”

I was caught flat-footed, a fifteen year old kid alone in a homely bookstore at the edge of Nauvoo, Illinois. She was a sweet grandmotherly type dripping with pity. If I doubted it before, it was now clear I wasn’t in an LDS bookstore despite the temples and angel Moronis gracing book covers all around. I stood in front of a nine-squared quilt hanging on the wall, each square depicting familiar but odd scenes. I understood the shopkeeper’s message loud and clear: Surprise! Joseph Smith made it all up.

I was surprised. My heartbeat quickened—it was my first encounter with an “anti-Mormon” in the flesh. I was a lifelong member of the LDS Church—a teacher’s quorum president for Pete’s sake! I’d read Joseph’s account of the First Vision countless times. I’d seen the film showing barefoot glowing Father and Son floating above the boy from Where the Red Fern GrowsMultiple versions? I knew what she was saying couldn’t be true. [Read more…]

Send a note of thanks to Richard Bushman

Bushman-RichardI started my first podcast from scratch six years ago after cajoling FAIR—now FairMormon—into sponsoring it (meaning they paid for the webhosting and the show carried their name). I started from scratch and I was thrilled when Richard Bushman agreed to be on that unknown show. He appeared in episodes 3 and 4. You can tell from the sound quality, if not from my nascent interview skills, what sort of popsicle stand I was operating at the time, but Richard’s candor, gentleness, and intelligence is evident throughout. He played a pretty substantial part in my then-growing interest in history. I owe a lot to him, and I’m glad I’ve been in a position to let him know that.

Chances are, many BCC readers have been impacted by Richard’s work, perhaps Rough Stone Rolling most of all, but also in many lesser known ways. Now’s your chance to express your gratitude. [Read more…]

Chalk circles and honor

Thanks to Google image search, I now know there's a band that goes by this name. From Wikipedia.

Thanks to Google image search, I now know about this band. From Wikipedia.

Karl G. Maeser was a pretty cool German. He was a Latter-day Saint convert, a key figure in establishing what became Brigham Young University. He believed in the importance of education and refused to disconnect it from moral formation. I think he was right about that. There’s an old story about Maeser that used to inspire me:

I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!

The underlying principle here is laudable. Our word of honor should mean something. We shouldn’t give it flippantly. We should do the utmost to keep it. Trust is a key ingredient in human relationships.

So far so good. But the story can also be seen as absurd—even potentially insidious—if taken the wrong way.  [Read more…]

David Foster Wallace’s gospel according to Adam Miller

miller-dfw[The conclusion of my Adam Miller 2-part post extravaganza. Here’s part 1.]

I was surprised to meet the same epistlatory voice Miller used in Letters to a Young Mormon in his latest book, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace. The books are very similar and very different. Both are made up of a series of short, topic-focused chapters written in a friendly style. But rather than excavating Mormon scripture and thought as in Letters, he’s identifying a “gospel” within the writings of David Foster Wallace, author of one of the best novels of our time, Infinite Jest.

Those who are familiar with Miller’s theology (and perhaps Latour’s too, as I outlined in a previous post) will understand why he’s comfortable using the word “gospel” in his Wallace book when there isn’t a trace of Jesus—except maybe for that one typo where he calls DFW’s character Chris Fogle “Christ Fogle” (page 79; just squeezing Adam’s shoes here).  [Read more…]

What’s Adam Miller up to in Letters to a Young Mormon?

cover-miller-lettersLetters to a Young Mormon came out in 2013. It kicked off the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship’s Living Faith book series. I was the greenie at BYU’s Institute and it was thrilling to work on such an engaging and unique manuscript. We’ve published three more Living Faith books since then (I edit the series) and Miller kept on writing, too. His latest book is called The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction. It’s a nice foil to Letters, so I’ll risk spoiling some of the magic by dissecting it a bit here.

[Read more…]

The best way to prove people who leave the Church wrong

imgladshesgoneI get a message every other month or so from a friend or relative who knows someone who isn’t merely struggling with their faith but who has announced they’re past that point. They are leaving the church. Their exit narratives, like our monthly testimony meetings, often follow a similar formula including a list of problems they’ve discovered in church history, belief, or practice.

I got another message today. Chances are good you’ve received one at some point, too.  [Read more…]

I try to be politically correct. And I’m Mormon.

Politically-Correct

Full disclosure: I stole this image from a blog post attacking the concept. Then I saw they stole it from somewhere else and the origins are lost to space and time.

Or, how to stick up for political correctness when it gets ridiculed at church.

A few weeks ago in Sunday school I was chided for suggesting that Christopher Columbus didn’t merit our unalloyed appreciation. I did it with as much diplomacy as I could muster, making sure to emphasize everyone was entitled to their own opinion. My observation was dismissed as the product of too much “political correctness” in the world. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard “PC” being spoken of disparagingly at church—even some general authorities have spoken of it as something to be lamented if not rejected. But it was the first time my own observation directly provoked the disparagement. And it felt terrible. In the current political climate of the United States we’re seeing compelling evidence that dismissing the idea of political correctness wholesale is a huge mistake. [Read more…]

Seeing eye to eye in Sunday school

The following activity verse could be used to teach children to be thankful for God’s creations. It is taken from the Primary song “The World Is So Big”:

The world is so big and, oh, so round,
[form a large circle with arms]
And in it God’s creations are found;
Stars shining brightly through all the night,
[straighten and wiggle fingers]
Sun in the day so warm and so bright.
[form a large circle with arms]
The world is so big and, oh, so round.
God loves us all; our blessings abound.
[grasp arms and hug self]

(From Teaching, No Greater CallPart F: Methods of Teaching.)

I’ll get around to why I opened this post with an excerpt from the church’s teaching handbook, but first I should explain that I was going to open with a simple declaration:

Teaching Adult Sunday school is a very difficult church calling. [Read more…]

Book Note: The Name of God is Mercy, by Pope Francis

A reproduction of the front page of Pope Francis's book "The name of God is Mercy" is seen in this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 photo taken in Rome, Italy. This is the first time the Pope has put his name on a book since he was elected. It’s a book-length conversation with an Italian journalist, focusing on mercy, the real leitmotiv of his papacy and the Holy Year. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The Catholic church is currently celebrating a Holy Year of Mercy, a time designated by the Pope to focus the church more closely on what he considers to be God’s most important attribute and “the core of the Gospel message” (7). The Name of God is Mercy is an interview between Pope Francis and a Vatican reporter. It’s conversational and not overly polished, with a few striking moments of candor.

For example, the interview begins with the Pope describing the process of inspiration that led to his Holy Year declaration: [Read more…]

Tips for Teachers: Pinch hitting with scripture highlights

pinchhitterIt seems like too many times this year I’ve sat in a class (Elder’s Quorum invariably) where the teacher confesses complete lack of preparation. It’s a deflating experience. I look forward to reading some of yours in the comments!

Similar to the unprepared teacher is the absent one. I’ve had to pinch hit a few times this year. Luckily I’m a gospel doctrine instructor and so I’ve used already-prepared lesson plans. This is better than the usual go-to solution: reading straight from the manual and asking the class to share “personal experiences.” “Does anyone have anything to add to that? No? OK, moving to the next paragraph.”

But let’s say you’re supposed to pinch hit and you don’t have old lesson materials you can reuse. What do you do? What have you seen done?

Here’s one possibility: [Read more…]