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


His wife, Kristen


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.

So I chose 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.


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…]

Tips for Teachers—New Testament lesson 39: “For the Perfecting of the Saints”

ntmanualLesson 39 covers Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians—although it may not have been written by Paul, might not have been an epistle, and likely wasn’t originally for the Ephesians! One of this book’s overall themes, however, reflects something that comes up in many of Paul’s writings: the desire to unite a diverse group of people into a body of Christians. Truths don’t seem to hinge on authorship here. It also has a rousing section on grace which segued nicely with one of President Uchtdorf’s recent conference addresses.

Much of my lesson focused on that perennial Pauline problem of promoting unity in diversity (you can see my entire lesson outline here). This post focuses on lesson 39 but really serves to provide three tips to help teachers hone their craft for youth and adult Sunday school classes. (More of my tips for teachers are linked here.) [Read more…]

Sins of immorality and misshapen creatures

Part 9 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
See also parts 1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

2015-01-00-teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-ezra-taft-benson-eng-1Next week is Disability Awareness Week at BYU, so I thought it would be nice to write a post on the subject. A few weeks ago I was asked to substitute teach for elder’s quorum (I usually teach Sunday school). The lesson happened to be chapter 17 of the President Benson manual, “Keeping the Law of Chastity.” While reading over the lesson I found a few good quotes to build the discussion around.1 While preparing the lesson I came across a certain manual balrog.

“Manual balrogs” are excerpts that seem troubling, confusing, or otherwise inappropriate for your particular class. The manuals instruct teachers to “prayerfully select…teachings that you feel will be most helpful to those you teach,” and this particular quote was not selected for inclusion in my lesson:

“Purity is life-giving; impurity is deadly. God’s holy laws cannot be broken with impunity. Great nations have fallen when they became morally corrupt, because the sins of immorality left their people scarred and misshapen creatures who were unable to face the challenge of their times.”

[Read more…]

Expanding on President Nelson’s plea to sisters #ldsconf

sallyridePresident Russell M. Nelson’s talk began with some personal reflections on the loss of his dear friends and fellow quorum members over the past year but soon turned to focus on the wives of two of them: Donna Smith Packer and Barbara Dayton Perry. This made me realize again how little I know about these women and how much more I’d like to know. President Nelson held them forth as exemplars of the powerful influence that strong and courageous women can have “not only on families, but on the Lord’s Church, as wives, mothers, and grandmothers; as sisters and aunts; as teachers and leaders; and especially as exemplars and devout defenders of the faith.” While much could be said about this engaging talk, I’d like to focus on the last point about women as “exemplars and devout defenders of the faith.”  [Read more…] updated the “Race and the Priesthood” gospel topic essay, and it’s still pretty great

It’s incredibly easy these days to update online content. It’s also relatively easy to compare updated content to older content, especially with the help of that magical “Way Back Machine.”1 (Check out in its original “Under Construction” phase, and its first full iteration. Pretty nifty but it needs more animated gifs.) When I was told the “Race and the Priesthood” essay on the Church’s excellent Gospel Topics section of the website was updated it only took a few minutes to make a comparison using that website and Microsoft Word. But before I continue let me say if you haven’t read the essay already, I urge you to read the whole thing rather than focusing on the parts that were updated merely to verify if they comport with your political, religious, or cultural sensibilities. Even if you have already read it, you might read it in full again because we could all use a refresher. So go here first:

I’ll wait for you, continuing when you get back. [Read more…]

We’re in the LAST DAYS (just like we’ve always been)

moonsAround the age of thirteen I became deeply interested in the Millennium. When I was in the seventh grade I hung a picture of the second coming in my room. It showed Jesus descending to (what now looks like) the deserts of southern Utah, flanked on the right and left by angels with long trumpets. Truth be told, I was actually more interested in the “signs of the times” than in the peace Jesus’s millennial reign would inaugurate. The most vivid sign of all, for me, was that the moon would turn red with blood. Without recognizing it at the time, I was especially thrilled with the idea that some sort of complete upheaval was on the way, that “the world” and “the wicked” (usually synonymous) would get their just desserts while good church members like me would miraculously escape harm. [Read more…]

Joseph’s rough stone rolls on

I-got-a-rockSomething pretty incredible occurred this week for lovers of the Book of Mormon. People will be talking about it for a long while yet. For the first time ever, the Church made available full color photographs of the entire printer’s manuscript (except for three lines which have been missing from the manuscript for a very long time). Of course, everyone’s talking about two pages out of the two-part volume’s apx. 976 pages: photographic images of the chocolate-colored stone Joseph is reported to have used for much of the Book of Mormon translation. (See Richard Bushman’s reaction here.)

During the press conference, Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard Turley briefly discussed the decision to publish the photographs: [Read more…]

Overlooked “Gospel Topics” topic: “Gospel Learning”

While I was looking at the Gospel Topics Essays a while back I noticed a link that says “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith, which led me to a short Gospel Topic called “Gospel Learning.” This Topic seems geared to help contextualize the Gospel Topics Essays for people who are unsettled by them. (See here for the difference between Gospel Topics Essays and Gospel Topics.) As usual, this Topic is unsigned, but at least part of it (the airplane analogy) borrows from Elder Marcus B. Nash’s 2012 General Conference address.


The 2012 Gospel Topic piece on “Education” from

[Read more…]

How to (currently) find the Gospel Topics Essays (and Topics!)

A lot of digital ink gets spilled on recent Gospel Topics essays about race, polygamy, the First Vision, Mormon scripture, etc. The Gospel Topics page itself is occasionally updated without public announcement. News of the more sensational pieces spreads via back-channel whispers followed by blog post and Facebook discussions and perhaps a Peggy Fletcher-Stack article or two. Some people have been frustrated that many church members are likely unaware of the Gospel Topics because they haven’t been highlighted in General Conference or in letters to local leadership. Newer church curriculum materials call direct attention to the essays, though. At the same time, they aren’t featured obviously on the home page of, but you can find them currently in the menu options under “Scriptures and Study>Learn More”:

gospeltopicmenu [Read more…]

Seasons of my imprecise, ambiguous, unfinished faith (a prayer)

cityrainThe last few months of my mission changed my relationship to God in a very unexpected way. That’s when it seemed to me God decided to go home early while I finished my full two years. I noticed God’s absence most during personal prayer. What formerly seemed like a welcome opportunity to express gratitude and ask for assistance, or like an intimate confession or reunion, became to me like speaking alone to a bare ceiling.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

[Read more…]

Elder Nielson and the dawn of the prodigal #ldsconf

Elder Brent H. Nielson spoke about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: interacting with people who no longer associate with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Mormonism burrows deep. Its roots spread throughout our soul’s soil. Disaffiliation can lead to heartache, anger, confusion, or shock for those who remain in communion with the Church as well as for those who don’t. Pulling up roots is disruptive and messy. [Read more…]

A few confessions to people who’ve left the church

anditwasallgoingsowellI have friends and family members who have left the church. A few actively removed their names from church records. Most of them simply slipped into “inactivity” and some even still consider themselves Mormons. I have some confessions to make about my various relationships with them.  [Read more…]

When the Mormons met Darwin’s Origin of the Species


A copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man from Brigham Young’s collection. Courtesy of Ardis Parshall.

Are science and religion mutually combative foes? The question’s not a new one, nor is it necessarily more pressing today than it’s been in the past. The turn of the twentieth century marked another period of intense cultural shifts, not least of all regarding widespread views about the relationship between the natural sciences and religion. [Read more…]

Taking on the princess problem

princessproblemLOADED TOPIC DISCLAIMER: Let me apologize in advance if you or your loved ones are fans of the Disney princesses or the “princess phenomenon” in general. I don’t mean to unduly demonize princess culture or depict it as though you must either be for or against princesses. Please bear with me because you might find something useful here after all.

I’m a relatively new dad. My daughter is just over two years old. Her mom and I love her with the heat of a thousand suns and we want the best for her. We want her to become faithful, independent minded, strong-willed, kind, and courageous. We want her to be herself. I used to always call her my “little baby” or “the tiniest baby in the whole wide world” and other diminutive and cute phrases parents attach to their little (there I go again) sweethearts. Over the past few months as she’s become more aware of the media and merchandise all around her my anxiety has increased. The Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet understates the problem this way:

“Choose wisely when using media because whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you.”[1]

[Read more…]

Seed from stone

slidingstonesThere’s a crazy man out by a river on the edge of the wilderness. He’s dressed in old rags. He’s eating insects. He’s putting people in the water and pulling them out again and telling them that they’re reborn naked newborn babies. He’s foretelling someone greater. The appearance of the expected Messiah.

What he says surprises the living daylights out of the covenant people. [Read more…]

Sunday sermon: Understanding atonement

A talk delivered in my ward on Jan. 11, 2015.


Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos.

Sometimes when I think about the atonement I think about an elephant. Most of you have heard the little story about the blind people who encounter, for the first time, an elephant. Each person feels a different part of the elephant’s body and offers a unique description of the strange beast. For two thousand years followers of Jesus have struggled to come to describe the most mysterious, puzzling aspect of the “good news” they’ve proclaimed. As I’ve spent some time reviewing various ways people have described the atonement through the years, and as I’ve thought about some of the ways I’ve personally experienced the atonement in my life, I have to confess that I feel like I’m blindly reaching out. [Read more…]