Sunday Sermon: Take the Grace

Nineteenth-Century England produced many greater poets than Francis Thompson and many, many better poems than “The Hound of Heaven.” But it probably didn’t produce a better metaphor for God’s grace than this now-mostly-forgotten, 182-line divine Gothic romance first published in 1890.

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“Roland Is Good; Oliver Is Wise”: Thoughts on Helping and Asking for Help

Roland is good, and Oliver is wise,
both these vassals men of amazing courage:
once they are armed and mounted on their horses,
they will not run, though they die for it, from battle.
Good men, these Counts, and their words full of spirit.
Traitor pagans are riding up in fury.
Said Oliver: “Roland, look – the first ones,
on top of us – and Charles is far away.
You did not think it right to sound your olifant:
if the King were here, we’d come out without losses.
–“The Song of Roland,” Stanza 87

The “Song of Roland,” composed anonymously some time in the 11th century,  is one of a handful of poems now considered national epics–works like the Aurtherian legends, El Cid, and the Nibelungenlied that helped the emerging nation-states of Europe create a future by convincing everyone that they had a common past. “The Song of Roland” is a little bit closer to history than other national epics. Its principal heroes–Roland and Charlemagne–actual existed, and the Battle of Roncevaux in 778, which the poem describes, really occurred.

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“The Ministry of Reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 1–7) #BCCSundaySchool2019

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation
–2 Corinthians 5:18

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians presents us with a context that is difficult to understand. There is a good reason for this: it is not Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. It is at least his Third Letter to the Corinthians, and it may be an amalgamation of parts of his Third and Fourth Letters to the Corinthians. But we know that Paul refers to at least four letters to the Church at Corinth, and we know that only two of them appear in our scriptures. So we have to infer a lot.

Scholars today call the missing letter to the Corinthians “the Severe Letter” or “the Letter of Tears” after Paul’s description of it in 2 Cor. 2:4, “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” The Severe Letter, most surmise, involved Paul chastising the Church for something that he perceived on a previous visit. The two most common contenders are the toleration of sexual immorality and the encouragement of rival Christian missionaries. Both explanations have plenty of partisans.

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Designated Drinkers: Power, Privilege, and the Word of Wisdom

I recently had my first experience with designated drinkers–the opposite of designated drivers–who are assigned to drink heavily on behalf of someone who cannot or will not use alcohol. 

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Lorem Ipsum Dolor

Anyone who spends much time writing things is probably familiar with the universal “dummy text” that begins Lorem ipsum dolor. Supposedly, typesetters in the 16th century used this scrambled Latin text to mock up books and show off designs. Lorem ipsum dolor now means something like, “don’t read the text; that will change when we have something better to say. Just look at the beautiful design. Oh, and also, something about pain.”

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“Be Perfectly Joined Together” (1 Corinthians 1-7) #BCCSundaySchool2019

Sometime ago–I won’t say where or when–I was in a ward that got swept up in parties where people were expected to buy stuff. The two brands I remember most were “Creative Memories” and “Pampered Chef”–and something about Chinese magnets that were supposed to realign your feng shui or some such thing. Lots of people were into these businesses, and, for a few months, it seemed that there was a “party” every week or so that doubled as a ward activity

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Dialogue Names New Editor


The Dialogue Foundation’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce that Taylor Petrey, Associate Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, has been appointed the next Editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Petrey holds a BA in philosophy and religion from Pace University, and both an MTS  and a Th.D. degree from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament and Early Christianity. He joined the faculty of Kalamazoo College in 2010 and served as the Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program from 2012 through 2016. He is currently chair of the Religion Department.

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When Jack Weyland Taught Me How to Be a Christian

Over at Sunstone this week, the inimitable Andi Pitcher Davis is, inimitably, launching a year-long project in participatory performance art. It is an ingenious project, really, even for Andi, and that is saying a lot. It’s called “Books of Mormons.” Here is the official description.

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“The Word of God Grew and Multiplied, Acts 10-15” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Part One: Spooky Jewish Hell Dream

I do not know, and certainly cannot prove, that the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number in the Book of Mormon musical is based on Peter’s remarkable dream in Acts 10:10-15. But it could have been. It is exactly the sort of image that I would use to try to convey to contemporary Latter-day Saints–dancing coffee cups and other forbidden items torturing the young Mormon with their forbiddenness and demanding to be consumed. I would probably throw in some cigarettes and beer–and maybe a Playboy or two. But you get the point. It was dream designed to confront Peter with the things that made him the most religiously uncomfortable.

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Why Stand Ye Gazing Up into Heaven?

This is not your BCC Gospel Doctrine Post for the week. But it is a post inspired by the first chapter of the Book of Acts, which is part of this week’s reading. It’s one of those passages that I’ve read before but never really noticed. It’s the time that the angels told the apostles to quit looking for God in the sky.

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Epistemic Humility and the Crisis in the Church

Human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.
                                    —Francis Bacon, Novum Organon

You are wrong. You are profoundly and disturbingly wrong about a spectacularly large number of things. You accept facts that are not facts, values that are incompatible with each other, and a fair number of truly dumb ideas about how to change the world. If you ever really understood the extent of your wrongness, you would never trust another word you said.

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“Not as I Will, but as Thou Wilt” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 18

Son of Man, Huh? What Does That Even Mean?
The four chapters in this lesson correlate, to a remarkable degree, the events leading up to Christ’s arrest by Jewish authorities on the Thursday night of Holy week. These events include the Last Supper, the prayer in Gethsemane, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, and Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of his Master. I will use the text in Matthew as the basis for the lesson, adding in insights from the other Gospels as appropriate.

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Review of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy

Barbara Brown Taylor is perhaps the best thinker and writer that I ever blew the chance to hear live. Several years ago, I attended a conference at which she and Miroslov Volf were the featured speakers. Volf was the opening plenary speaker, and Taylor was the closing plenary speaker. I was not familiar with Taylor at the time, and I had a fairly small menu of flights to choose from when I booked the flight. So I chose an evening flight back home that required me to miss the closing session. To make up for it, I bought An Altar in the World and read it in the flight. By the time I landed, I realized what a mistake I had made.

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Dialogue Editor Search Announcement

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought has long served as the journal of record for the intellectual and cultural life of the Mormon people. Thanks to five decades of work by editors, authors, and the Board, Dialogue  continues to provide space for some of the faith’s most vibrant thinking on cultural, historical, theological, and social issues. To further this mission, we have recently completed a transition that has made all content freely available on our new website at the moment of publication and given us a more substantial internet presence with web-only content. Beginning in 2020, we will transition our production operations to the University of Illinois Press. With these actions, Dialogue will retain its status as a crucial voice in modern Mormonism. To continue this tradition, and in accordance with the journal’s transition to a new production model, Dialogue’s Board of Directors announces a search for a new editor to take control starting with the Summer 2020 issue.

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Things that Aren’t Religious Freedom

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Rejoice with Me; for I Have Found My Sheep Which Was Lost”: #BCCSundaySchool2019:

Luke 12–17
John 11

The centerpiece of this week’s lesson comes in three interlinked parables about finding lost things. In the Christian tradition, the three parables have been given the titles “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Coin,” and “The Prodigal Son.” We need to keep in mind though, that Jesus did not name these parables–and sticking too closely to the traditional titles can cause us to focus our attention on the wrong things.

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“What Shall I Do to Inherit Eternal Life” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Matthew 18, Luke 10

The Sapiential, Constitutive, Consequential Kingdom of God

To read the Gospels is to become obsessed with a vision. And the name of the vision is “the Kingdom of God,” or, sometimes, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or just “the Kingdom.” It is the most powerful vision in any of the standard works, where it occasionally also goes by the name of “Zion.” It is the focus of nearly all of Christ’s parables, and of the vast majority of His teaching and ministry. And it remains one of the most poorly understood concepts in the churches that use His name.

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Palm Sunday: Being on the Right Side When it Is Easy

Today is Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly on the back of a donkey. All four gospels tell the story, as well they should. It is the moment that Christ is recognized as the king that he is. As Mark relates it,

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God the Father vs The Godfather: When Forever Families become Eternal Hostages

 

In “The Problem of Pain,” CS Lewis famously says that many people mistake the Father in Heaven for the Grandfather in Heaven—”a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.”

The Grandfather in Heaven is a perversion of the Christian doctrine of God because he does not ask anything of his followers. He doesn’t care if they eat ice cream for breakfast, or if they do their homework, or if they progress in any way into adulthood. He doesn’t have to deal with them when they are the spiritual equivalent of 30 years old and failing to launch. He just wants to make sure that everybody has a good time on his watch.

There is another common perversion of God the Father that rears its head from time to time in both Christian and Latter-day Saint circles. Let’s call him “The Godfather.” Unlike God the Father, the Godfather works through fear and intimidation. He gives us presents and helps us find our car keys, of course. And we may, from time, discreetly ask him to whack an enemy or two and make it looks like an accident. But, in exchange he demands our absolute loyalty. And if we fail him, we may end up sleeping with the fishes.

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The Kingdom of Hell Is Within You Too

Last night I dreamed about Hell. Here’s what it looked like.

It was a hilly region filled with big boulders that people were pushing, at great effort, in big circles. There were two groups of people in this version of hell–Mormons and ex-Mormons–and they were pushing the rocks in opposite, though circular, directions. Boulder pushing took most of their effort, but, when they passed each other on their circular paths, they summoned all of their remaining strength to shout accusations at each other in the form of two rhetorical questions. The Mormons shouted, “Why did you leave?” and the ex-Mormons shouted “Why do you stay?”

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“Who Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 13; Luke 8-13


The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them. Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time. . . . Reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential. This surplus of meaning is how poetry and storytelling work, and it is all to the good.”

–Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

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This week we launch into the Kingdom Parables–those brief narratives in which Jesus tries to eff the ineffable and give ordinary mortals some frame of reference for talking about the Kingdom of God. This is beyond a hard sell. The Kingdom that Jesus spent most of his ministry talking about is an earthly kingdom, but it is like no earthly kingdom that has ever existed, and its governing logic is absolutely foreign to natural humanity.

But we have to see it to be it, so Jesus tells us about the parts–much like the blind men describing the elephant in the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small and becomes a place of shelter; like a fishing net, it draws in everyone and throws back what it can’t keep; like a great treasure, a person who knows about it will be willing to sacrifice everything to get it. And so on. These are all imperfect and incomplete, but every one of them contributes something to the picture, and, if we add them all up, we might be able to imagine the whole elephant.

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Visit a Mosque, Read the Quran, Pray Together, Share a Meal

Carolyn Homer makes an exceptionally strong case that we have a religious duty, as Mormons and as Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and these are two different things), to mourn with our Muslim brothers and sisters, to comfort them, and to share their burdens. I agree wholeheartedly.

And I am willing to go further still. I believe that we have a responsibility as both Latter-day Saints, and as citizens of a pluralistic democracy, to get to know our Muslim neighbors better, to understand them as we want them to understand us, and to love them as we want to be loved.

We have this responsibility with all of our neighbors, of course. It is basically what “the Gospel” means. But I believe that this responsibility is greater when it comes to those who practice Islam. There are several reasons for this. Here are three:

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Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Perhaps the most important single moment in my spiritual development was the moment that I realized that grown-ups aren’t supposed to be comfortable all, or even most of the time. We all need to be more comfortable being uncomfortable.
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Matthew 6–7: “He Taught Them as One Having Authority” #BCCSundaySchool2019

The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
  –TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

We are now on week two of the Sermon on the Mount, and, like week one, there is no way that we could cover everything that needs to be covered in one blog post. But one blog post is all we (read: I) have time for this week, so we will have to make do. We must make choices–difficult choices–to make sure that all of the highlights get hit. So I am going to trace one theme and one rhetorical style through the two chapters, with an emphasis on Chapter 6, which I think is the more important.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (3 of 3)

Part Three: Rules, what are they good for?

There is a moment in one of the Terminator movies that perfectly encapsulates one of the key tensions in the Sermon on the Mount. In this scene, a young boy learns that his future self has sent back a killer robot (played by a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger) to protect him and make sure that he grows up to save humanity and stuff. Naturally, the boy is nervous about hanging around with a killer robot, so he makes a rule: no killing. Being a robot and all, Arnold Schwarzenegger has to follow rules, so the kid makes him take an oath not to kill anyone.

About ten seconds later, they are stopped by a security guard who tries to prevent them from entering a compound. Without saying a word, Schwarzenegger pulls out his gun and shoots the guy twice. While the poor guard is writing and screaming on the ground, the boy shouts, “what the hell are you doing?”

“He’ll live,” says the Robot. And they go in.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (2 of 3)

Part Two: Salt and Light, huh. Well let me tell you….


Ye are the salt of the earth, huh? But let me tell you: if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world, huh? Well let me tell you: A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5:13-14)

This is my translation of the text in Matthew 5: 13-14. After each opening declarative sentence (“You are the. . .”), I add a huh? and a let me tell you. . . . This translation is not based on knowing Greek or being a great theologian; I don’t, and I’m not. But this is how I represent what I am pretty sure Jesus was trying to convey when he told his listeners that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

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“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (1 of 3)

Part One: Blessedness and Happiness

Matthew 5; Luke 6

NB: Though this week’s reading is limited to Matthew 5, and the corresponding verses in Luke, it is still too much for one post. Or even two. So this will be the first of three posts this week on the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, covering verses 1-10: the Beatitudes.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore
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Mormon. And Free. Forever. Introducing The New Dialogue

 

The Dialogue Board has today unveiled some new things. A new website. A new journal. And a new philosophy of how to be the cultural and intellectual center of the Mormon world. And the essence of this philosophy is “free.” Free as in speech. Free as in (root) beer. And free as in Dialogue.

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Loaves and Babies

Half a loaf is better than none. But half a baby is not. The secret to being Solomon is knowing the difference.

I have recently started dividing my work problems into loaves and babies based on whether or not half-solutions will work. Loaf problems are problems where a partial solution is better than no solution at all. Baby problems are problems where partial solutions are worse than no solution at all.

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Lesson #2: “Be It unto Me According to Thy Word” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (Matthew 1/Luke 1)


What did the Jews of Jesus’s time think about the Messiah? Who, exactly, were they expecting to show up? Why would anybody think that Jesus would fit the bill? These, I believe, are questions we need to try to answer before beginning to read the New Testament, and, especially, the Book of Matthew.

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