Meet Josephine Spencer: Mormon Writer, Editor, Teacher of Youth, and Communist

Faint and far in the night the wail of a child
Borne on heedful winds to a heedless ear;
Then, in the gray of a startled dawn, the wild,
Curdling cry of a million voices near. 
–Josephine Spencer, “Revolution”

You know from the book club that BCC Press will be publishing the unpublished work of Maurine Whipple next month. What you might not know is that we will also be publishing the first volume of the collected works of Josephine Spencer (1861-1928), edited by Ardis Parshall and Michael Austin. Spencer, we estimate, is the most important figure in Mormon literature that most people have never heard of.  

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A Deep Dive into the “Flyover Books”

On page 72 of the Maxwell Institute’s newest Brief Theological Introductions book, Sharon Harris writes a passage that will forever change the way I read the “itty-bitty books” of Enos, Jerom, and Omni. Speaking of the common charge that Jarom just wasn’t as invested in keeping the record as his ancestors were, Harris counters:

Rather than seeing them as a lag or a slowdown in the narrative of spirituality among Lehi and Sariah’s descendants, perhaps we have more in common with them than we realize. It has now been over a century since a revelation was received that was added to the Doctrine and Covenants. Would we say of our day, however, that revelation has ceased? Of course not. In many ways it feels as though revelation continues to increase within the church. But if people 2,500 years from now were to look back, with one narrow selection of records with which to draw their conclusions, would it look as though revelation was booming in the early twenty-first century? Perhaps not (72-73).

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Sunday Sermon: “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”

Gonna lay down my burden / Down by the riverside / Ain’t gonna study war no more. Refrain to “Down by the Riverside”

A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules.–Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 14

Last week, for reasons that will matter only to me, I listened to more than a hundred versions of “Down by the Riverside.” The classic spiritual traces back to before the Civil War. First published in 1918, it has been recorded by just about every artist I have ever considered important: Mahalia JacksonSister Rosetta Tharpe, and Lois Armstrong, certainly, but also Elvis PresleyPete Segar, and RaffiPeter, Paul, and Mary did the hippie version, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir did the respectable conservative recording. And who could forget Papa Bue’s Viking Jazzband’s classic take on the classic?

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Can One Good Apple Unspoil the Whole Bunch? Thoughts on Healing the Church and the Nation

Bad apples are in the news again. This often happens when we have a national debate over the behavior of individualswho can be assigned to a category. “Bad apple” theory is the most common way to push back against  “systemic problem” theory. [Read more…]

Look at a Snake and Live (or Maybe Just Wear a Mask)

The story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent is one of the most fascinating narratives in the standard works. I say this because the same story is referenced in three different scriptures, and each time it is invoked to demonstrate a different set of principles.

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New Audiobooks from BCC Press

We wept for a time that we had no more world to conquer. But then we realized that 1) weeping was silly; and 2) we did have a new world to conquer. The world of audiobooks. So, we conquered it.

And thus, BCC Press is pleased to announce that three more of its titles have now been released in audiobook format. They can be purchased anywhere that fine audiobooks are sold. Well, that isn’t quite true. They can be purchased through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. Both are read by their authors and lovingly sound-engineered by the people at BCC Press.

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Persecuting Christians: Power, Privilege, and Propaganda in the Book of Mormon

But it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church of God began to persecute those that did belong to the church of God, and had taken upon them the name of Christ. (Alma 1: 19)

One of the most important skills in understanding scripture, or reading any other kind of text, consists of knowing when to read with, and when to read against, the narrator.

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The Risk of Embrace

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miraslov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Much has been written about the classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario. To put the matter succinctly, a prisoner’s dilemma is created when two parties are faced with the choice of cooperating or not cooperating with each other in a situation with the following components:

  1. If they both choose to cooperate, they will both be rewarded.
  2. If they both choose not to cooperate, they will both be punished.
  3. If they make different choices, then cooperator will be punished more–and the non-cooperator will be rewarded more–than would be the case if both made the same choice.
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A Two-step Program for Going Back to Church

For the last few weeks, and for the rest of the summer, pretty much my whole day job is to plan various scenarios under which a university might open in the fall. It turns out this is a job with about a billion moving pieces, any one of which could blow up at any time and make it impossible to launch a semester. 

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In My Ideal Foyer. . . .

Eugène Burnand, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection” (1898)

Fair warning: this is going to be one of those posts where I ask you to do something at the end–to post YOUR ideal foyer art (or, at least, a link to your ideal foyer art if there are copyright issues) and explain why. Because I really want to know. And because I want to document a space on the Internet where BCC’s legions of readers register their preferences for the LDS foyers of the future.

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The Graven Image in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics. –Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

As of today, it appears, the art in meetinghouse foyers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be limited to 22 officially approved reproductions. Most of the paintings will be familiar to Latter-day Saints. They are mainly the ones by Del Parson and Harry Anderson that Mormons have been using for years. But there are a few newer ones too, including one of Jesus in what appears to be the African Savannah holding a black child. I call this one “Diversity Jesus.”

All of the Jesuses in the approved collection are lilly-white and vaguely Scandanavian. Diversity Jesus is the whitest of all, with shoulder-length hair and piercing blue eyes highlighted by his equally blue robe. If someone told me that this was a painting of Kenny Loggins circa 1975, rather than a Middle-Eastern Jew from the Ancient Roman period, I would not be terribly surprised.

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Consecrating Attention: The Two Great Commandments

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
–Simone Weil, Letter to Joë Bousquet, 13 April 1942

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Attention is an economic good. We know this intuitively because we almost always talk about it in financial terms. We can pay attention. We can grab it, hoard it, and monopolize it. We can also be robbed of it, and, if we don’t have enough attention, we call it a “deficit.” Every day, thousands of companies spend millions of dollars to try to get us to trade ours for something shiny.

And also, what you give, or sell, your attention to almost entirely defines who you are.

Perhaps nobody thought as much about attention as a commodity than Simone Weil, the French philosopher and theologian that Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our times.” I have read Weil’s great essay about attention–“Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”–perhaps a dozen times, and I still don’t really understand what she is saying. But it strikes me as more important than ever in a world whose attention is almost completely focused on COVID-19.

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Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair
!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” 

Shelly’s great poem “Ozymandias” teaches us that civilization is a fragile thing. Human history is not a march of progress from barbarism to shopping malls. We do not always move forward in wisdom, intelligence, and technology, or in economic or political accomplishment. Sometimes we go backward. And sometimes we collapse.

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Mourning with Those Who Mourn: COVID-19 Edition

I have been thinking about Job a lot lately. No surprise, really. I think about Job a lot. It’s kind of my schtick.

But I have been thinking specifically about Job’s Comforters–Zophar, Eliphaz, and Bildad–who spend most of the poem portion of Job saying stupid things to make themselves feel better about God. These men have become, collectively, a term for false friends–people who pretend to comfort you when all they really want to do is comfort themselves by telling you all the reasons that what happened to you won’t happen to them.

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The Quarantined Mind

“The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything possible . . . . The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals.”
― Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun

I was 15 years old the first time that I read Isaac Asimov’s novel The Naked Sunthe sequel to The Caves of Steel and the second of his science-fiction/mystery novels designed to prove that the two genres could co-exist comfortably in the same book.

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Ordinariness in Exile: Some Thoughts on the Banality of Goodness

        There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”
        “What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.
        “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”–Albert Camus
, The Plague

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt famously examines the “banality of evil.” If I understand her correctly, what she means by this is something like the ordinariness of evil. The horrific evil of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by inhuman monsters with horns and talons, but by ordinary people (like Adolf Eichmann) just doing their jobs.

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“Be Still and Know that I am God”: Stillness and Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

This is a sermon about stillness. About being still. About doing nothing because there is nothing you can do. About listening. About compassion. And about faith. But mainly about stillness, because, like so many of you, I have been forced to be still by a national crisis that has shut down the place I work, closed the places I worship, and asked me to stay away from people and places other than my home. 

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LGBTPDA@BYU: Moral Reasoning in a Purity Culture

Brigham Young University–my alma mater and an institution that I care about deeply–has been in the news this week for two debates that they are currently having with themselves. One of these debates concerns a contemporary pastoral issue. The other one concerns a fundamental question about the way that BYU, or anyone affiliated with it, should understand and exercise moral reasoning. And here is the tricky thing: they both look like the same argument, and most people don’t realize that there are two separate sets of questions at issue.

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Sunday Sermon: Zion Shall Be Redeemed Through Justice, not Judgment

This is a story about, among other things, how reading the Bible in different translations can open up vistas that the church-approved King James Version closes down—not by being wrong or inaccurate, but by being more than 400 years old in a language, and a culture, that continue to change.

It is also a story about how slight changes in meaning can have huge implications for how we understand both God and our responsibility to each other.

But mostly it is a story about Zion and how we are supposed to make it.

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A Home Is the Material Manifestation of an Unconditional Responsibility

Opening Remarks to the Eighth Annual Evansville Student Symposium on Homelessness, University of Southern Indiana, February 17, 2020

I am deeply touched and impressed when I look out at this room full of students from our city’s three great institutions of higher education—students studying medicine, nursing, education, social work, and many other fields—and realize that you are all here to address a serious social issue in our community as part of your education. It gives me hope.

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An Open Letter to Republican Senators: You Must Stand Up for Mitt

To Senator Todd Young and Mike Braun of Indiana and the other Republican members of the United States Senate

Dear Senators,

Here is something that I wish I were making up, but I am not.

Yesterday, Jerry Falwell Jr., an American Evangelical leader and president of Liberty University, appeared on Fox News to discuss Senator Mitt Romney’s vote to convict and remove President Trump. Senator Romney, as you know, cited his personal religious faith as a reason that he could not be false to his oath to uphold impartial justice, and he believed that the evidence pointed clearly to the President’s guilt. He did not criticize the religious faith of anybody who came to a different conclusion.

Mr. Falwell said two things that disturbed me greatly and that represent ideas now common in conservative circles. Both, I believe, warrant a response from you as Senator Romney’s colleagues.

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*Separation IS the Curse: An Urgent Re-reading of 2 Nephi 5:21

Over the last few weeks, Latter-day Saints have had an intense and necessary discussion with ourselves about what Laman’s curse in the Book of Mormon was not: it was not dark skin, it was not wild savagery, and it was absolutely, unequivocally not the origin of any racial phenotypes that still exist today. 

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Enos and the Joy of the Saints

Authors Note: For reasons that are lost to me know, I did not write anything about the Book of Enos in my 2016 series of posts that became the recently published book Buried Treasures. Today, I was assigned to lead a Priesthood-Meeting discussion about Elder Christofferson’s talk, “The Joy of the Saints,” which references Enos extensively. Always looking for messages from the Universe, I took this as a sign and prepared the following lesson, which readers of the book should feel free to print off, insert, and pretend that it was always there.

Enos 1

When I ask people to define “joy”–which I do from time to time because I am weird like that–they usually come up with one (or more) of three related synonyms. Joy, they say, is like happiness. Or it is like pleasure. Or it is like a deep and abiding feeling peace that convinces us that everything is going to be OK.

These, I would suggest, are exactly the three things that look like joy but are not. And perhaps the best way to define joy is to place it in contrast with these three look-alikes.

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Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Editor’s Note: In the month of January, BCC Press will publish three new books about the Book of Mormon, in conjunction with the beginning of the 2020 Come Follow Me reading plan. The first book, which will be published this week in print and Kindle versions, is Michael Austin’s Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. This book collects the 44 #BOM2016 blog posts that Michael did at BCC during 2016 into a single book. The amazing Christian Harrison designed both the book and the cover. Below is the introduction to the volume.

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In 2016, I decided to read the Book of Mormon for the first time in 30 years. The last time I read it was in 1986, during my mission to Central California. Our mission president challenged us to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day that year reading the Book of Mormon from cover to cover, which I did. And that was the last time.

At first, I didn’t read it because I never got around to it. I had stuff to do. Important stuff. I was studying “Literature,” about which I thought very highly. And I had read the Book of Mormon several times before and during my mission. I know enough to get by, and even to teach Gospel Doctrine in three different wards. I read the lesson material and scanned the relevant chapters, usually during Sacrament Meeting, and I faked the rest.

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Lesson 46: “He Will Dwell with Them, and They Shall Be His People” #BCCSundaySchool2019

John . . . wants to do more than tell what happens; he wants to show what such events mean. He wants to speak to the urgent question that people have asked throughout human history, wherever they first imagined divine justice: how long will evil prevail, and when will justice be done?

–Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

I can say one thing about the Book of Revelation that is helpful, useful, and unproblematically true: It is called Revelation, not Revelations. The “s” has been added in casual discourse to create an incorrect parallel to books like Acts, Corinthians, Hebrews, Romans, and etcs. So, if you have been referring to it as “Revelations,” then stop it.

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace

It is hard for me to think about the Advent Theme of Peace without also thinking about what one of Christ’s near-contemporaries said about peace just a few years after most of the books in the New Testament were written.

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The Equal Rights Amendment, Cooties, and the Constitution

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

In another period of my life–the insufferable thirteen-year-old boy who already knows everything phase–I was a deeply committed opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. Informed by several pamphlets distributed by the youth leaders at our church, I stalked the halls of Waller Junior High school just looking for hippies and feminists to punch (metaphorically) with my superior intellect and rhetorical skill. I knew, in the same way that young Mormons “know” so many things, that if three more states ratified the ERA, our society would be plunged into a morass of unisex bathrooms, women in combat, and people of the same gender getting married to each other.

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The Massacre of the Innocents

When Wisdom’s acolytes did not return to divulge the location of the Child who would be King, Herod “sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” Many, if not most, are incapable of complete recovery from such horrific loss.. . . . It is instructive that the massacre of the innocents follows rather than precedes the Christ Child’s coming. The joy of Advent neither prevented nor ameliorated the tragedy. Fiona Givens, “On Solace”


This was going to be a post about the theme of love, traditionally observed on the second Sunday of the Advent Season, and perhaps it will be still. But before we get to love, we have to go through grief and work through one of the most difficult parts of the Advent narrative. We have to talk about the deaths of children.

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The Voice of the People: A Review

The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon, by David Charles Gore. Maxwell Institute: Groundwork Books, 2019.

The Voice of the People is something that we need a lot more of in the Mormon Studies world: a book about the Book of Mormon that does not try to prove anything about its historical nature, or use it to illustrate a particular theological point, but rather makes it the basis for a productive engagement with an academic discipline and a cultural value.

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Struggling to Believe: John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”

The Holiday Seasons are a time for us to deepen our understanding of, and appreciation for God. And for me at least that means poetry. Not all poets are prophets, but all prophets are poets–and a few of them even got anthologized in the Bible. But there has been a lot of prophetic poetry since then, and a good bit of it is in the 2013 anthology Before the Door of God, edited by Jay Hopler and (Amazing BYU English Professor) Kimberly Johnson. The book covers devotional poetry from the ever-popular “beginning of time” through the present focusing, not entirely exclusively, on the English tradition. This is easily enough work for a lifetime, and I plan to make it my work during this year’s holiday season.

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