My New Year’s Resolution: No More Cheap Outrage

It’s called “outrage porn” for a good reason. Like pornography, it provides all of the sensations of a strong emotion without incurring any of the costs (time, relationship building, risk of rejection). It briefly satisfies our need to experience sensation but does not lead to meaningful engagement with anything. It is risk free, and, ultimately, it is an addiction that works against real human interaction. [Read more…]

“The Height to Be Superb Humanity”: Walt Whitman’s Christmas Greeting to a New Democracy (Poems for Christmas #3)

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It is quite possible that Walt Whitman sent the best Christmas card ever in 1889, and he sent it to an entire country. That year, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the nation a republic. On Christmas Day, seventy-year-old Whitman wrote a brief poem called “Christmas Greeting” to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. Unlike nearly every other Christmas poem I admire, this is not a poem about the birth of Christ. It is a poem about the birth of democracy.

Whitman thought a lot about what it meant to live in a democracy. He was born at a time when self-government was a new thing—an exciting experiment whose success was by no means guaranteed. And he lived through the cataclysm of the American Civil War—one of the most severe tests that any democracy has ever faced. [Read more…]

The Journey of the Magi: Christ Must Change Us (Poems for Christmas #2)

journey-of-the-magiT.S. Eliot, the versatile American (later British) poet who wrote both “The Wasteland” and the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats also wrote what I consider to be the best Christmas poem in the history of ever that is not W.H. Auden’s magnificent book-length oratorio For the Time Being. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” is much shorter—just 43 lines, into which the remarkable poet packs pretty much everything that matters about the meaning of Christmas.

The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is one of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, who travel from Eastern lands to visit the baby Jesus. It is a hard journey, a really hard journey—which is pretty much all that the poem is about. [Read more…]

In the Bleak Midwinter; or How Christmas Helps Us Love Bad Weather (Poems for Christmas #1)

140219132955-10-snow-days-horizontal-large-galleryI’m going to spend this week blogging about my favorite Christmas poems. I mean, I plan to do other things too, like all of my Christmas shopping and my ritualistic Messiah-sing-a-long-for-introverts, which occurs late at night and with no witnesses. I also plan to eat a lot of cookies. In between bites, though, I will blog about poems that, I think, get to some of the essential things about the Christmas season.

We start with a moderately famous Christmas poem that is also a moderately famous Christmas carol: Christiana Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter, first published in 1872.” Most people have probably heard the song, which has been recorded by everyone from the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge to Erasure. Even without hearing the song or reading the poem, though, most people know instinctively upon hearing the tile that it is about things like bleakness and winter. It is also a lovely poem about the birth of Christ, as the first two stanzas make clear: [Read more…]

A Syrian Ready to Perish Was My Father

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

 

And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, “a Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” — Deuteronomy 6:5 [Read more…]

Index to #BOM2016 Posts

Several people have asked whether or not there would be a general index of all of the posts that were part of my #BOM2016 series this year, which came about when I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in more than 25 years and tried to blog about it from the perspective of a trained literary critic encountering its narratives for the first time. Well, yes. Here are all 45 posts. I trust BCC readers to use these for good, and never for evil.
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Moroni’s Message in a Bottle: How to (Re)Build a Church #BOM2016

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Perhaps no chapter in the Book of Mormon seems more out of place than the eighth chapter of Moroni. It occurs towards the end of a genocidal campaign against Moroni’s people. He is quite likely the last Nephite left on earth. The record has already been completed, and he is now traveling across the hemisphere schlepping about 500 pounds of gold plates and trying to avoid all of the people who want to kill him, which is pretty much everybody. What a strange time to transcribe a letter from his father about infant baptism.

What’s going on? The standard Sunday School answer would be that the Lord saw our day and knew that we would struggle with the question of infant baptism, so he inspired Mormon and Moroni to include this epistle. And the standard anti-Mormon answer would be that Joseph Smith was making stuff up to speak to a major religious controversy of his day. Both of these answers, I think, treat the actual text of the Book of Mormon as evidence to support or refute a historical argument. [Read more…]

Meeting Mormon #BOM2016

Mormon 1-7

One thing about narratives is that you always have to be revising your assumptions as you get more information. What you think you are reading at the beginning of a book may very well not be what will think you have read when you are done. We see this dramatically in “surprise ending” kinds of narratives—think of the ending of movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, which force you to reinterpret everything you have seen in light of the information presented in the last reel. [Read more…]

We’ve Seen this Show Before (and We We Will See It All Again): Ether and the Patterns of Sacred History #BOM2016

From a narrative perspective, the Book of Ether is a frustrating problem. It comes just as the Book of Mormon is winding down–after the chief redactor hands the whole work over to his son, who then writes several chapters of his own and seems to say “goodbye.” And then, “wham,” the narrative hits us with 1600 years or so of history that we didn’t know about before. At precisely the moment that we anticipate closure, the narrative opens up wider than it has ever been.

I want to try to answer the question, “why”? That’s kind of a hard question, because any possible answer will be colored by one’s assumptions about what the Book of Mormon is. One answer is, “God wanted it this way.” But even if we accept that as unproblematically true, all it does is shift the uncertainty to a new question. Why did God want it this way? What is the spiritual value of this particular story in the place that it occupies? [Read more…]

Mystic Chords and Better Angels: Building Zion When We Disagree

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”–Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Times have been worse in America. Much worse. After Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the Southern states resolved to secede. They were dead serious about their #notmypresident hashtag, and we know how that worked out.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln made one last, desperate plea for unity. He told the South that they had registered no oath in heaven to destroy the Union, while he had taken a sacred oath to defend it. He told them that they would have war only if they wanted war. He appealed to everybody to stand down and consider the things that bound them together rather than the things that drove them apart. It was his last pitch for the Union, and though it was not successful, his words still matter. [Read more…]

On Kindness

Like approximately half of the people in the United States, I woke up today bitter and disappointed that last night’s election, which I had every reason to believe was going to turn out the way I wanted it to, turned out the other way instead. I knew that approximately half of the country was going to feel exactly this way this morning, but I sincerely hoped and believed that it would be the other half. [Read more…]

Losing Zion: Economic Inequality and the Tragedy of 4th Nephi #BOM2016

4 Nephi

Books like 4th Nephi remind us that the Book of Mormon does not really present itself as a continuous thousand-year history. It is more like three snapshots of periods within a thousand year history: one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from the end. And we should always keep in mind that cultures and languages change a lot in a thousand years. There is as much cultural and historical distance between Mormon and Nephi as there is between 21st Century Americans and William the Conqueror.

For me, this makes the very brief transitions between snapshots the most fascinating parts of the entire Book of Mormon. Fourth Nephi, for example, gives us 400 years of history in about four pages. Imagine trying to write a four-page history of the United States from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump. What would you include? What would you exclude? How would you frame the entire American narrative in 49 verses? That is roughly the task that Mormon had when putting together 4th Nephi. [Read more…]

A Mormon Mafia? Heck Yeah. And It’s Yuge!

Lou Dobbs is on to us. Yesterday, one of the few human beings left in the world awful enough to qualify as a surrogate for Donald Trump tweeted the following about Mormon candidate Evan McMullin: “Look Deeper, He’s nothing but a Globalist, Romney and Mormon Mafia Tool.” As soon as I saw this, I knew that the jig was up. You see, for the last few months, I have been researching precisely this thing: the deadly, highly secretive bands of Mormon enforcers who sparked terror into the hearts of the Old West. They usually went by the names “Danites” or “Destroying Angels.” And they were a bad lot. [Read more…]

When Forgiveness Changes the World

 

“No, Rensei is not my enemy. Pray for me again, oh pray for me again.”–“Atsumori”

sadanobu_3_hasegawa-no_series-kumagai_and_atsumori-00042484-100830-f06Japanese Nō drama is a hard taste to acquire. A play with a ten-page script can go on for hours, as actors invest their barely perceptible gestures with monumental significance. It is an art form whose pleasures lie more in the journey than the destination.

Except for one. This is the story of Atsumori.

The roots of the Nō play Atsumori go back to a particularly poignant passage in the Japanese Epic, Tale of the Heike. In this episode, the warrior Kumagai, whose side has been victorious in a great battle, stumbles across a youthful, retreating soldier from the other side and debates whether or not to kill him. I will quote here at some length because it is important:
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The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon at the Temple: A Study in Rhetorical Contrasts #BOM2016

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My scriptures still have green markings in Matthew and 3 Nephi that highlight all of the differences between the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the Sermon at the Temple (3 Ne. 12-14). I did this on my mission because I thought it was important. “Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT WHO COME UNTO ME,” says the Book of Mormon, lest we think that actual poverty is either necessary or sufficient. And don’t forget that the BOM doesn’t say “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. That’s because it already has. These comparisons got me through my mission, a BYU term paper, and the first two times I taught Gospel Doctrine.

It is only recently that I have begun to see what a gnat-straining, camel-swallowing approach to the texts this is. Read from one perspective, of course, the two texts are extremely similar and we can learn a lot by comparing the small differences. From another perspective, however, the texts don’t even have much in common. This other perspective is sometimes called “rhetorical criticism.” [Read more…]

Seven Ways of Looking at a Lamanite #BOM2016

3 Nephi 2

For Modern readers, one of the most awkward and difficult passages in the Book of Mormon occurs in the second chapter of 3 Nephi, amid the resurgence of the Gadianton Robbers and the big to-do over the signs for Christ’s birth. It’s the passage where the righteous Lamanites have the curse removed from their skin, turning them into a lovely shade of white:

And it came to pass that those Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites; And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites; And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year. (3 Ne 2: 14-16)

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Samuel the Lamanite and Who We Call a Prophet #BOM2016

We and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent…. The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.—Abraham Heschel, The Prophets

I was well into my 30s before I realized that Latter-day Saints use the word “prophet” in places that most religious people don’t. For us, it is a specific office within a well-organized hierarchy. We rightly apply the term to the President of the Church and to the other fourteen members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Someone is a “prophet” by virtue of their standing within an institution. [Read more…]

We Don’t Need Another Hiroo: Holdout Soldiers in the Culture Wars

dtmanage-000000020140117155220181-1This picture was taken on March 9, 1974–the day that Lieutenant Hiroo Onda officially surrendered his sword and his rifle and acknowledged the defeat of the Japanese Empire in World War II–nearly 30 years after the formal surrender on September 2, 1945.

Lieutenant Onda was the most famous of the zanryū nipponhei, or the Japanese holdouts—fighters in the Pacific theater who either did not hear or did not believe that the war was over. They stayed on their assigned islands for years—sometimes even decades—and followed the orders that they were given. Ondoo was the head of a small guerrilla band on the Philippine island of Lubang. He and the others spent most of the time between 1944 and 1974 hiding in the mountains and trying to survive, descending into the villages only to look for food and occasionally burn a rice field in the name of “harassing the enemy.”  [Read more…]

Nephi’s Lament and the Perils of Historiolatry #BOM2016

Nephi Son of Helaman lived in a world turned upside down. During the course of his lifetime, the Nephites went from being the good guys who had the Church of Christ in their midst to being the bad guys controlled by secret combinations, robbers, wealth-getters, and other doers of dastardly deeds. The Lamanites, on the other hand, had become the righteous ones—the ones who had to warn the Nephites to return to God. So it is certainly understandable that Nephi longed for better days: [Read more…]

Not Even Close: Faculty Gender Balance at the BYUs

Last week I had a conversation with a friend whose son had recently started at BYU-I and had yet to encounter a female professor. After 25 years in higher education, mainly in “the world,” I was a bit surprised. But then I remembered my own experience at BYU back in the 1980s: in four years of undergraduate study (as an English major no less), I had exactly one female professor. To my discredit, I had never before bothered to count. [Read more…]

Dialogue, and Me, at 50

unnamedDialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought turns 50 this year. So do I, and the similarities don’t end there. Both of us were both polite and orthodox in our youth and reasonably well behaved in our adolescence, but we both started to push up against institutional boundaries in our early adulthood. We tried hard to walk the line between scholarly inquiry and faithful discourse, but it was a tough line to walk, and sometimes we ended up too much on one side or the other. A lot of our friends left the Church, but we both knew we never could. Mormonism was too much a part of our core identity for us to ever give it up. [Read more…]

Gadianton, the State, and the Kingdom of God #BOM2016

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Every friend you make, you’ll wonder, could just be about the money. Every conversation, that’s underneath. “Maybe he’ll give me money.” You’re not a home teacher. You’re not even Mahonri Ward anymore. You’re three hundred million dollars, and that’s all you are for the rest of your life. –Eric Samuelsen, Gadianton

 

BUSINESSMAN WITH KNIFE BEHIND BACK

There is a healthy debate in Mormon Studies—rapidly approaching a cottage industry—about whether or not Book of Mormon’s portrayal of the Gadianton Robbers has anything to do with the anti-Masonic furor that swept across the nation in the late 1820s. One dead giveaway, say the Masonizers, is that the term “secret combinations” was commonly (some even say only) used by the anti-Masonic press in their diatribes against the order of Freemasons—an order that included such American luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and the current president, Andrew Jackson. [Read more…]

Can We Judge Captain Moroni by Contemporary Moral Standards? #BOM2016

Well, of course we can. We are free to apply any standards we choose to any text that we read. That’s how judging stuff works.

But should we judge Book of Mormon characters by contemporary standards on things like religious freedom, separation of church and state, the treatment of prisoners of war, and, well, genocide? After all, this was a different culture and a different time. Should we judge them by the same standards we would apply to someone today?

Again, the answer is, “of course we should”—if we want to take the Book of Mormon seriously on its own terms. [Read more…]

How Did Mormon Know That? History and Propaganda in the Amalakiahite War #BOM2016

Alma 47

enlist-posterLet’s start with one of the most devastating satirical moments in Don Quixote. This scene begins in Chapter VIII of the first book. Quixote has already had his adventures with the windmills and the prostitute at the roadside inn, and now he encounters a group of travelers accompanying a lady on her way to meet her husband. Assuming (as he is wont to do) that the woman is being held against her will, Quixote rushes to her defense, starting a fight with a Biscayan gentleman attending her.

Quixote and the Biscayan fight for a while, and the latter gains the advantage. He raises his sword for a killing blow, and just as he does, the narrative stops abruptly–and the narrator tells us that the record doesn’t go any further and that this is everything we now can say about Don Quixote de la Mancha. But the narrator refuses to give up, and, one day he finds an Arabic manuscript in a marketplace that references Dulcinea del Toboso. This turns out to be the work of the famous Arab historian, Cid Hamete Benengeli and, conveniently, it begins at exactly same point in the story that the previous manuscript left off. The narrative problem is solved. [Read more…]

How Mormons Could Matter: The Machiavellian Case for Dumping Trump

There are lots of good reasons for Mormons to vote against Donald Trump in November. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to value the Mormon vote much. His recent Op-Ed in the Deseret News was just a cut-and-paste job from his standard stump speech with no attempt to consider how Mormons, or Utah voters, might see the world in unique ways. Unlike Hillary Clinton, he could not be bothered even to pay a staffer to get the Mormon stuff right.

Or there is the fact that Trump has built his campaign by stoking resentment towards both minority religion, as Mormons once were, and immigrants from Hispanic countries, who are quickly becoming the most important constituency in the International Church.

And let’s not forget that a Trump surrogate recently ridiculed Mormons by referring to the moderate pro-immigration stance that LDS leaders have taken as an instance of “moral incoherence.”

But I am not going to talk about any of that (well, except for the fact that I just talked about all of it,  but I’m done now). Instead, I want to talk about another reason that Mormon voters should reject Donald Trump and his brand of conservatism decisively. This is a purely self-interested, cynical, Machiavellian reason to vote for Hillary Clinton (or even a third-party candidate). If Trump is defeated in Utah, Mormons will actually start to matter in the world of politics. [Read more…]

Captain Moroni’s “Religious Freedom” Problem–and Ours #BOM2016

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It is no secret that Mormon has a massive man-crush on Captain Moroni. We see this both in the name of his son and in his effusive statement that, if everyone were like the good Captain, “the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). Hero-worship can be a dangerous trait in a historian, though, and Mormon’s unqualified adoration often conflicts with the story he is trying to tell. A close reading of one of these conflicts might help us better understand one of our own. [Read more…]

The Worst of All Possible Worlds? Religious Pessimism and the Gospel of Hope

There is no room in the city
for respectable skills…and no reward for one’s efforts.
Today my means are less than yesterday; come tomorrow,
the little left will be further reduced. So I’m going to make for
the place where Daedalus laid aside his weary wings.
                                    —Juvenal, Satire 3, lines 21– 26

Something is profoundly wrong in our country. Once, we were a great power, but our standing has been jeopardized by corrupt rulers, burdensome taxes, and a population that has lost its spiritual moorings. Unchecked immigration has flooded our nation with cheap labor and a large population that does not even speak our language. Sexual perversions abound, and it is becoming impossible to tell the difference between men and women. This is without a doubt most corrupt and lascivious generation that has ever lived on earth.

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The Second Post on Etiology and Race in the Book of Mormon #BOM2016

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In an earlier post, I argued that, early Mormon traditions to the contrary, we should not view the story of Laman and Lemuel’s curse as an etiological tale about the origins of Native Americans. In this second post, I will argue that, after a certain point in the text, it is not even correct to see the this story as an etiological tale about the origins of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. At this point, the definition of the term “Lamanite” shifts to include things that cannot be accounted for by the curse narrative in 2 Nephi 4.

I cannot locate this point exactly in the text, but I am pretty sure that it occurs some time between two crucial passages set during the two continental wars that frame the book of Alma.

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King David, Corianton, and Sex #BOM2016

Alma 39-42

DavidThe Latter-day Saint scriptural tradition contains two great cautionary tales about sex: the first is the story of King David, who saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof and summoned her to his quarters—an assignation that ended with the betrayal and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. The second is the story of Corianton, the son of Alma the Younger, who abandoned his missionary duties among the Zoramites and dallied with “the harlot Isabel”—thus imperiling the entire mission and bringing disrepute on the followers of Christ.

On the surface, these cautionary tales seem to have the same message, which is something like, “don’t follow your sexual impulses (except under carefully controlled circumstances) or bad stuff will happen.” It’s a message that Mormons hear a lot. But when we start looking at the differences between the two stories, we start to see very different understandings of human sexuality and religion at work. And, in this case, the differences are much more important than the similarities. [Read more…]

Korihor and the Freedom to Believe Correctly #BOM 2016

Alma 30

Imagine that a man comes into town and starts preaching a religion that flatly contradicts what most people believe. Nearly everything he says offends religious orthodoxy, and the most powerful members of the community regularly refute him in public. Despite this, he starts to make progress with the people–especially the ones on the margins of society. Enough people convert to his religion to make him a concern to the authorities, who arrest him, detain him, subject him to violent treatment–and then expel from the community. Would you say that this man was treated justly? [Read more…]