John, The Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith: Part 1-Introduction and the Construction of the Gospels.

I wanted to say goodbye to our New Testament year and hello to the Book of Mormon. I did a few posts in 2015 about the NT, but nothing much about John. John’s Gospel is a key text in the restoration, and I think it’s important to see how the genesis of the Gospel finds a home in early Mormon works of scripture and discourse. I’m just scratching the surface here. There are book-length treatments that await this point of view. This stands as a kind of prelude to some Easter material I want to post around the holiday.
[You can read the whole series here.]
[Part 2, here.]

John the apostle of Jesus and brother of James | the beloved disciple | John the Evangelist? | John the Elder | John the Redactor | John the Revelator. Five or six identities, possibly six different persons/traditions, associated with the New Testament and in a number of ways, early Mormonism, including the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith’s revelations. To start out, I want to consider the Gospel of John and then to some extent the rest of what usually goes by the name, Johannine corpus. That includes the Gospel, the Letters (1, 2, 3 John) and Revelation.[1]
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Review: First Principles and Ordinances

First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple
Samuel M. Brown
Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014. 168 pages. ISBN 978-0-8425-2880-1
Amazon: $16.95, Kindle: $6.99.

Joseph Smith was born into the Second Great Awakening. Gravitating to Methodist preaching, he ranked it above his other experience. Visions and golden plates prompted a New Covenant, born in April 1830. At first the New Covenant looked for a place in the landscape of antebellum Protestant thought and doctrine but gradually that seeking turned to renewal and rethinking. Mormonism moved from the American individualism that played over the billions of pages of Protestant imprints and wrote a new way of seeing the ancient. It didn’t simply try to restore (unsuccessfully) the all things in common of Jerusalem’s Acts. It wrote a story of ritual and liturgy that made family of believers and eternal friends of family.
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The Christmas Story (XII). The Christmas Hymns

[Part 11 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

I’ve said something about the early hymns that Luke introduced in the nativity story and here for your enjoyment then, are some of the earliest Christmas Songs in various settings. That’s the end of our Christmas journey together. All of us at BCC wish you a Holy and a Merry Christmas, and, repeat the sounding joy.
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The Christmas Story (XI). Luke: The Temple

[Part 10 is here. Part 12 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

The first born child of a Jewish marriage at the time of Jesus had to be in effect, given to God. In place of actually turning the child over to the temple cult, a sum was paid (this was symbolic since only Levites could perform the temple service–it was a remembrance of the Golden Calf episode–Num. 18). The parents are not really involved here, but the mother must come after a waiting time for a purification rite (offer a sacrifice). (Lev. 12)

When priests like Zacharias offered sacrifice or incense, they had to be purified. They had to come out of the secular, leave it behind, so that they could enter the presence of God. They had to change their clothing, put on special vestments, wash, and so forth. There were well defined rituals to create this separation.[1] Birth was seen as a creative act (see the second post on the status of Mary) and much like the priestly acts, there was a holiness about birth, a participation with God.
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The Christmas Story (X). Luke: The Scene of Jesus’ Birth.

[Part 9 is here. Part 11 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Luke has told us about the birth and the circumcision of John the Baptist, and now he begins his narrative of the birth and presentation of Jesus. He spends more ink here since obviously this is his main point in the prologue of the ministry.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled [RSV Luke 2]

It’s a census. It’s known that Augustus had a census now and then to get an idea of the population in various places, however he never commanded an empire-wide census. But remember that Luke’s view is a global one, and he wants this to follow that picture. Another thing to recall is that Luke is writing many years after the death of Augustus (August 14AD -yes the month is named for him) and the other events he’s telling us about. Consider trying to recall the highlights of the years of the U.S. presidency of William Howard Taft. It gives you some idea about Luke’s story. You have some general ideas about Taft perhaps, but probably not details about him. You probably don’t recall details of his role in the “Big Burn” and the forest service in 1910. But you may have some kind of general picture, legends of Augustus, if you’re Luke. Luke wants us to understand that this is an event that has world-wide significance.
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The Christmas Story (IX). Luke: Mary, Elizabeth, and Prayers/Hymns of the Early Church

[Part 8 is here. Part 10 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Luke has given us two traditions, one about Zacharias and Elizabeth, one about Mary, and both involve Gabriel and angelic announcements. Now Luke is going to bring them together by telling us about a visit Mary makes to Elizabeth. This cements the blood relationship between Jesus and John. Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who knows about this, and he uses this to blend the two traditions.

Now that Luke has this backstory of John and Jesus, what does he do with it? Essentially nothing, directly, at least. The other Gospel writers seem ignorant of it, and in the Gospel of John, the Baptist actually says that he never knew Jesus! So this is a little like the infancy stories in general. They create this backstory of Jesus, they provide an Israelite foundation, there are these spectacular events: stars, wise men, murder of children, shepherds who tell the story of angels, and then no one knows about this at all later on. It’s as though Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, never see each other again. The story of this linkage comes to us and then disappears.
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The Christmas Story (VIII). Luke: Gabriel- – -Mary as Disciple

[Part 7 is here. Part 9 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Luke sees Mary as the model disciple. He gives us a picture of Mary as the first to hear, however frightening it might be, and she believes though not fully understanding (hence Luke’s repeated, “and Mary pondered these things in her heart” phrase). Luke has Gabriel come to Nazereth. Thus, Luke tells us that Mary lives in Nazereth. Matthew doesn’t: he thinks Mary (and Joseph) lived in Bethlehem. She is betrothed to a man named Joseph “of the house of David.” Again, it’s Joseph that is a descendant of the great king. David is a symbol for the kingdom itself. Luke writes that Gabriel tells Mary that she is favored of the Lord, God wants in effect to bestow grace on her, and that’s the way St. Jerome translated it, full of grace.

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)


The calling, grace, power, she is about to experience is that she is to conceive a child. God’s Son. The words seem to mean that Mary is already a graceful, a faithful person, one who already stands in favor with God. Now she is to stand in greater favor with him.[1]
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The Christmas Story (VII). Luke: Gabriel, Zacharias/Elizabeth, and John

[Part 6 is here. Part 8 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew doesn’t tell anything about John’s nativity. He pops onto the scene baptizing. He’s part of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. John (the Evangelist) puts him in his Gospel in a very weird way. He’s talking about Jesus existing before creation and all of a sudden he inserts the Baptist into the narrative. It’s a powerful part of the message for him.
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The Christmas Story (VI). Luke and the Roman World

[Part 5 is here., Part 7 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew sees things in terms of God’s plan, and the last times are at hand. He sees parallels between the birth of Jesus and the Christological events of his death. Matthew has these very dramatic Jewish motifs that are quite characteristic. Stars, the quaking earth, darkness, turmoil in the elements, angels and the intervention of God. Luke contrasts with this. His is a global view, one that extends to the world as he understood it. He’s not much interested in the kinds of events Matthew emphasizes. He knows the Roman empire as the boundary of the known world and that’s where his story takes us. The (Luke’s) Gospel and Acts were probably in a fluid state after being written ca. 90AD and there is manuscript as well as historical evidence for this. Indeed, it is not until the turn of the third century (200 AD) that the New Testament texts settle into a more fixed state. The key here was the attitude of Christians about these texts and their status compared to the Hebrew Bible.[1]

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Luke’s structure is tripartite. Part one is the story of Israel, the Law and the Prophets. Part two is the life of Jesus–the Gospel of Luke. Part three is the story of how the message moves out into the gentile world by direction of the Spirit–Acts.
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The Christmas Story (V). Matthew: A Wicked King.

[Part 4 is here. Part 6 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

One of the things about Matthew and the other gospels is their very essential orality. Meaning that, at least in part, they arise out of a naturally fluid oral tradition. Christians were rather late in taking up the pen. It’s useful in dealing with these texts to remember that they developed out of preaching.[1] For example: Herod. A Herod appears at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, and there is a Herod at the end of the Gospel. It seems hard to believe that people who heard the Christian preachers understood that they were two different people. The Herodian family is complicated, mostly because of all the wives. Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Herod Agrippa, people would not have understood the distinctions, and I suspect that most people still don’t who hear or read the accounts.[2] Matthew and Luke have this theme of a Herod as antagonist either to Jesus himself, or to Christians. Matthew has this at the birth of Jesus (Herod the Great), Luke has another Herod at the trial of Jesus, Herod is trying to kill Jesus, and in Acts another Herod kills James the apostle, the brother of John, and another Herod shows up in Paul’s trial.
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The Christmas Story (IV). Matthew: Sex and Wise Men.

[Part 3 is here. Part 5 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew: “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” It’s difficult to know where Matthew might get such detail, but it may be a nod to some kind of purification. Possibly this is Matthew seeing Jesus as divine and therefore holy and so the discharge of semen in Mary meant that Joseph was defiled and should not come near the holy child–thus, no sex. Rabbinic rules varied, but in the end, sex during pregnancy was the decision of the wife (according to the male rule makers in the writings at least). But who knows?[1] [Read more…]

The Christmas Story (III). Matthew and the Birth.

[Part 2 is here. Part 4 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew begins his narrative of Jesus’ birth with the information that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. And before they came together as sexual partners, it’s discovered that she’s already pregnant. Matthew says the pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t mean that other people knew this—he makes you an insider here. He’s writing from long distance, many years after the events (and we don’t have any idea how he can know stuff like this—in fact he probably does some interpolation of tradition—backwriting the gospel narrative into the preamble of the birth as Luke does—they also seem to incorporate their contemporary knowledge here and there—imparting a presentism to the story—more on this later).

Coming back to his narrative, he’s going to explain and explore the struggle of Joseph over this. Indeed, Matthew’s story is really a story of Joseph, not Mary (Luke does that, without knowing the complementarity of Matthew).
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The Joseph Smith Papers Releases the Final Volume in the Journals Series.

Steve Evans broke the news about this volume last week. I’m just giving my two cents about it here. It probably won’t be the last time someone posts about it at BCC.

Capturing Joseph Smith on paper has been a goal of Mormon church historians for almost two hundred years. First efforts involved scribal minutes of church meetings, recording revelations and commandments that fell from Smith’s lips, and keeping a history of the early church. Those early efforts went to writing a canonical faith promoting history, one that steered the internal dialogue of Mormonism for more than a century. The primary sources that supported that faithful dialogue were largely under wraps. Why would anyone be interested?
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The Christmas Story (II). Matthew’s Genealogy.

[Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.]
[You can find the whole series here.]

In a lot of the posts in this series, I’ll quote from the Revised Standard Version (RSV). It’s still a very good translation and a great study Bible. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is also quite good. One of the things no one thought about in producing the RSV was inclusive language. the NRSV rectifies that, but it may go too far in representing some passages as inclusive, when they are intentionally not. Anyway, the RSV is online and free, it’s nearly always superior to the King James Version (KJV) [see also here] and I’ll point out a few places where that’s important for the story of Jesus’ birth as I go along. (Sometimes I use the New English Translation (NET) also free online, and the English Standard Version (ESV) a few times. As I often tell my wife, I like to do different things.)

Matthew’s two chapters begin with the phrase (RSV) “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, the son of David, and the son of Abraham.” Matthew knows what he is going to write in his Gospel, and this introduction is perspicacious. Two things: people at the time (ca. 70AD+) will not likely read this, they will hear it, and it is written in Greek.[1] Matthew begins with the word “genesis” (in Greek) and that’s the same Greek word for the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and this is styled as a New Genesis. There is a new creation, a new “God’s people” if you will, and the colophon above has things in a new order. Jesus comes first, then Abraham. And of course, David. The kingdom is always in view. And it’s clear that for Matthew, the Christmas story begins with Abraham. Right away you can feel the tension over Jew and Gentile, and what it means for a gentile to become a Christian.
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The Christmas Story (I). Introduction.

[Part 2 is here.]
[You can find the whole series here.]

This begins a series of posts on Jesus’ birth, and how the New Testament tells that story. The Twelve Days of Christmas, New Testament style. Your December bedtime reading fodder. No guarantee of twelve installments, however. See you every evening for the next 12? days.

The canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John make up about 40% of the New Testament. That 40% amounts to about ninety chapters. Of those ~ninety, four discuss the birth and childhood of Jesus. This is a tiny section of the New Testament, but it has had an enormous effect on human culture and of course, Mormonism is a subset of that culture. Whatever one thinks about the commercialization of Christmas, it cannot be denied that Christmas and the Christmas story stand at the center of much of religious consciousness.
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Priesthood

Once upon a time, Judaism and Christianity were one. That is, Christians were seen as a Jewish sect. You can see this in Luke’s account of what Paul says at Rome, Acts 28. The Jewish community there (it was pretty important, some Jewish high priests ended up there) speak about the believers in Jesus as a sect, a division of Jews.[1] While Paul does a lot among Gentiles, it’s mainly because he can’t get Jews in the diaspora to listen to him. And of course then he grows angry over Jerusalem Jews coming into to his Gentile branches and breaking the rules agreed to about preaching to Gentiles—a long story I won’t engage here.
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Politics, Polygamy, and King Follett

In 1903, a tectonic shift was taking place in the way Latter-day Saints saw themselves and in the way non-Mormons saw Utah and the Mormons. Since the end of public Mormon polygamy in 1890, the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893, Wilford Woodruff’s revelation of 1894, and Utah statehood in 1896, Mormons were gradually, scratchingly, slowly, drifting into the mainstream of American culture, a change largely driven by technological forces. Politically, Mormonism had weathered a terrible storm and paid a large price in terms of self-definition, self-understanding, and theological position.
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Babylon, Daniel, and the Power of Faith: Dieter F. Uchtdorf #ldsconf

President Uchtdorf’s priesthood session address mixed the modern with the ancient, using the book of Daniel as teaching platform for the power of faith in God in the face of ridicule.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: How Might Mormons Reconcile Scriptural Scholarship with Inspiration?

It says Sunday, but obviously, Sunday is conference. And anyway, this, for whatever it may be worth, is best contemplated before that. Happy Conference!

The question of how faith and the scholarship of scripture interface is an old one, but it has a somewhat different meaning for Latter-day Saints. Partly this relates to the canon. For Mormons the canon is at least technically not closed. The rulebook may change. But another even more sensitive matter is the notion of consistency between revelations. It’s one thing to consider biblical inerrancy in the face of historic issues about text and theology. But since Joseph Smith’s publication of the Book of Mormon and his subsequent Bible revision work (1830-33), it has been apparent that Mormons are at least as sensitive to the charge of internal inconsistency as other Christians. They have even more at stake, and they are doubly vulnerable. Since Joseph Smith, Mormons have considered Christian liturgy and theology to be hidden within Old Testament times since Adam and Eve. Adam was baptized! The gospel has been the same for all time, and at least the elites of the Old Testament (Moses, Abraham) were actually Christians (not a unique position among Christians –1,600 years ago it was a way to marginalize Jews).
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: The Lord’s Prayer, Ancient and Modern, (part II).

I suspect that most Latter-day Saints do not know that Joseph Smith revealed a new Lord’s Prayer. No, not in the Inspired Version or Joseph Smith Translation, revision, of the Bible. This was a revelation, almost certainly connected to that biblical revision work, but separate from it, a New Prayer for the Last Times, much like the original prayer was a prayer for the last times. To catch the vision here, I’ll take the Mathean prayer and place it in parallel with this new prayer, that was dictated on October 30, 1831. The context of the prayer is important, and it serves as a kind of preface for foundational revelations of November 1831 that defined church polity and established a form of government that carried on through modern manifestations of Mormonism.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Dealing with Dissent

I didn’t get to part II of the last post, but I’m going to work on it this week if I can. It turned out to be more complex than I thought, and my vision of what I should do about it got completely out of hand. So, here is some more New Testament stuff that I’ve been thinking about.

In the sixth chapter of Acts, Luke narrates a very old tradition about conflict and dissent in the early Christian church. When we talk of this episode, we usually ignore the meaning of the outcome, which may be the most important influence on the course of Christianity after Jesus.

Luke tells us this (Acts 6:1): “in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews.”[1] “Hellenists” refers to Christian believers in Jerusalem who had a Greek background in some way, Luke doesn’t explain, but he does give some names: Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (the proselyte), all are Greek names. They are Jews, but the text draws a distinction between them and the “Hebrews,” meaning natives of the city perhaps. That both groups are Jews and Christians, is the important point. As Luke tells us about Hellenist leaders he makes sure to say that one of them was a proselyte (convert to Judaism) meaning that the rest of them were born Jews.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: The Lord’s Prayer, Ancient and Modern (part I)

Conference is coming up and we do a lot of hymning, praying, and preaching there, so this seems appropriate. Sometime I want to write about early Christian prayer in general and the connected discourse of hymns and the Second Coming, but in this post I’m just going to think out loud about the Lord’s Prayer and especially the version in Matthew 6 and then in the second part of this post, consider that in light of what I call the New Lord’s Prayer.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Caleb.

When I arrived in the mission field, nineteen and green as grass, I was mostly frightened and homesick. That lasted about four weeks. The homesick part. Fortunately my parents, though poor, were entirely in favor of this adventure. After spending a night in the mission home, sleeping alone upstairs in a quiet Cambridge neighborhood, where I didn’t actually sleep, I was sent to the airport at 9 a.m. where I had to buy a ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Temple Recommend Interview 1856 Style

Want to pass muster back in the day? Here’s a list of [real] questions for you:
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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Contrafactuals, Lehi, History, and a Vision

In elementary logic the first steps mark out how normal (for my purposes, English) speech is used in deduction. Propositional logic discusses the ways in which complex (or compound) statements are constructed from atomic (or simple) statements. One of the ways this happens is the “conditional.” A conditional combines two statements like “the sky is blue” and “the grass is green” by connecting them with “if” and “then” as “If the sky is blue, then the grass is green.” Statements, compound or simple, such as these are thought to have a “truth value.” That is, they may be assigned one of the values, True or False. One can argue about this (and make money doing it) but I’d like to narrow the focus a bit and assume away some of the complexity.
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Jesus and Temptation

Once again, this just comes from me reading the Gospels and thinking a bit about them, and reading a bit from things like the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Finally, some of you may know I’m very interested in preaching. The Bible is fertile ground for thinking about that, and that’s one thing I do know a bit about.

Mark doesn’t say much about the temptations, he just says, Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke and Matthew repeat a tradition about three temptations, and Jesus answers them by quoting from Deuteronomy(!). Luke, who seems driven by logic in his presentation, rather than some sort of strictly historic narrative, puts this story at the beginning, perhaps because he is more interested in the Church, writing as he does from a later perspective.
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Preview/Review: The Cokeville Miracle. A New Film From T. C. Christensen.

Angels.
Angels have played a significant role in Christian thought through the centuries, and in recent years an important scholarly literature has developed around the subject. Books and articles treat many different genres and periods, from the apostolic, to the medieval, to the early modern era and beyond (our own Ben Park and Sam Brown have work in the area, among others). Such work is important for many reasons, among them the study of the function and nature of angels (as people considered them) as well how these beings link to epistemological, ontological, cosmological, and other areas of religious thought. Current work shows that ideas regarding angels have and do play fundamental roles in cultural, religious, social, and literary worlds with surprising cross-pollination. Mormons are certainly familiar with the role angels play in their religion, both in its founding and more subtly in its past and current lay devotional thought.

The idea of supernatural beings who carry messages from, and do the bidding of the gods is a very old one, and biblical stories of angels acting as divine agents often mark important theological turning points. The angelic experiences told by Joseph Smith seem to portray angels as dignified, somewhat impersonal extentions of divinity but angel stories are not restricted to this narrow vision. Just as the “cult” of angels replaced the cult of Saints in Reformation Europe, angelic ministers replaced in some sense the Protestant individualism of “personal savior” for Mormons. And Mormons found a somewhat unique angelology that allowed them to reinvent Saints and Angels, in effect as one and the same.
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Orson Pratt and God: Emergence as Fundamental Mormonism

ON the pioneer trail west, you can get bored. The cure for this is to contemplate questions like, where is the edge of universe, or where did God come from, or if we have bodies in heaven, do we have sex there? Obviously, the last question is the most interesting one, if sex is still interesting for you. If not, how about chocolate ice cream in heaven? You get the picture. Wilford Woodruff cautiously reported this from our friend Orson:
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Nineteenth-Century Mormon Materialism and the Cold Bloodedness of Science

Matthew Taylor (“Ghost-Humanism,” J19 1, no.2 (2013): 416ff) begins his interesting take on ghosts and nineteenth-century science with this quote from William Gilmore Simms: “we can no longer get a ghost story” because “the materialists” have made “the world . . . monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days.” Taylor writes that Simms’s corollary that the “cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons” is telling in this regard, but more indicative is the era’s endless fascination with ghostology, or the attempt to identify “a scientific theory . . . reconciling ghosts and natural phenomena.”
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How We See the Preaching of Past Eras – Joseph Smith’s Sermons. A Thought.

I gave fair warning that I would dump semi-discarded bits from my attempts to write an introduction to the Sermon Book. Since we’ve just been through a lot of preaching over the past weekend, now seems a good time to continue the torture. I think this may be applicable to the individual sermons we heard over the weekend in several senses. You may judge.

The cultural gulf that separates current Mormonism from an understanding and appreciation of its past is deep, and just as in any faith tradition, fully bridging that chasm is impossible. In the end, we can only see the past through the lens of the present. However, this does not require us to be satisfied with unexamined expression, terminology and epistemology. To understand early Mormonism is a much wider problem than understanding Joseph Smith or his momentary expressions on a Sunday morning. It is to understand the larger picture of idea, reason, belief, and the cloud of concerns that attended a life nearly two centuries ago in America. On the other hand, few people understand themselves in such broad terms even at their most introspective (something that usually means dwelling on regrets, incomplete tasks, missed opportunities or other “what ifs”). The events and perceptions of a life are packed with the immediate pressures of the day and the intrusion of memories triggered by those events.
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