“Behold the Condescension of God”

Quanta dignatio Dei! quanta Virginis excellentia! Currite, matres; currite, filiae; currite, omnes quae post Evam, et ex Eva, et parturimini cum tristitia, et parturitis. Adite virginalem thalamum, ingredimini, si potestis, pudicum sororis vestrae cubiculum.

How great the condescension of God! How great the excellence of the Virgin! Hasten, all ye mothers! And hasten, all ye daughters! Hasten, all ye who after Eve and on account of Eve, are born and give birth in sorrow! Approach the Virgin’s chamber ; enter, if you can, the modest room of your Sister

—Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) 

The central event of the Christmas season—the incarnation of God as a human infant born in humble circumstances to a peasant woman in an unimportant part of the great Roman Empire—is introduced in the Book of Mormon as the interpretation of a dream about a tree.

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How Democracies Die: A Cautionary Tale from the Book of Mormon

The world is becoming more authoritarian as non-democratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many  democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a “new normal” of Covid-19 restrictions.

  —The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) 2021 Report on the Global State of Democracy

The bi-annual Global State of Democracy report released this week did not bring good news for the world. Since 1995, the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has coordinated the efforts of the world’s democratic nations to improve representative democracy and discourage authoritarianism throughout the world.

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Weasleys, Rostovs, and Mormons–Oh My!

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the Harry Potter franchise. . . .

The Weasleys are the Mormons of the Wizarding World. This was clear to me the first time I saw a Harry Potter movie (though it didn’t come through as clearly in the books). Lots of things suggest the comparison, but the two most obvious ones are the quantity and the quality of their family life: They have lots of kids—7 in all—and they support them all on a (magical) civil servant’s salary. This means lots of hand-me-downs, used spell books, taped wands, and sack lunches. But it also means that they are fiercely loyal to each other, always know that they are loved, and always feel like they are part of a family.

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Dante and the Singing Sufferers of Purgatory

While we began to move in that direction,
Beati pauperes spiritu was sung
so sweetly—it cannot be told in words.
How different were these entryways from those
of Hell! For here it is with song one enters;
down there, it is with savage lamentations.

—Purgatorio, Canto XII, Allen Mandelbaum Translation

(The following post is based on an Elder’s Quorum lesson given on November 14, 2021.)

I have always liked the middle parts best: The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Goblet of Fire. My favorite Stooge is Larry, and my favorite Brady is Jan. Middle parts tend to lack both the drama necessary to bring closure to a story and the deep explanation required to begin one. If a story doesn’t have a strong middle, then it probably isn’t a very good story.

It should be no surprise that my favorite book of Dante’s Commedia is Purgatorio, or Purgatory. Inferno is fascinating, but it is basically the Medieval Italian version of the Jerry Springer Show. We watch it because we can’t turn away from the grotesque spectacle of unfiltered human folly. And Paradiso is wonderful and serene, but who wants to read 33 cantos of serenity? Bo-ring.

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Thanksgiving on the Tower of Rameumptom

It is November again, a month famous for growing mustaches, writing novels, complaining about Christmas music, and, not at all least, practicing gratitude. It’s the gratitude that I want to talk about. For several years, I have really tried to use the ubiquitous November messaging—let’s call it “Big Gratitude”—to try to improve the way that I feel and express thankfulness about many things. It’s harder than it looks, I keep discovering, because of the Rameumptom Problem.  

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The Political Threat of Priestcraft

Cover for the pamphlet “The Crimes of the Clergy; or The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken,” London, 1823

I am not entirely sure that the world of Mormon blogs needs another post defining “priestcraft.” The current status of the word as a fill-in-the-blank insult that means something like “making money from a religious belief that I disagree with” has been a frequent topic of Morminish blogs. Here, all the way from 2012, is Sam Brunson wondering if Deseret Book is engaging in priestcraft by profiting from religious books. And, from 2017, here is Blair Hodges wondering the same about BCC Press.  

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Loving the Darkness: A Halloween Sermon

When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.
                        —Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 5

I am an inveterate and unrepentant lover of Halloween. Every October, both my house and my mind play host to the darkest things I can imagine: ghosts and witches, monsters and demons, and evil things that I would be ashamed to even imagine until very late in September. I have a wide selection of Halloween ties to wear to work, virtual costumes for all of my social media sites, and two Spotify playlists of dark Halloween music—one classical and one contemporary—that I listen to all day, every day of the month. (Please feel free to steal them).   

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Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

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On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

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The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

This is not a post about the recent disclosures regarding the LDS Church’s investment in the City Creek Mall, but it is inspired by some of the discussions I have had about those disclosures. More than anything else, it is about the difference between managing (including investing) money and spending money, which, I think, is at the heart of the disagreement. If the Church has been spending tithing dollars on city malls, that is a big problem. If they have been investing savings — wherever the origin —in a in a city mall, then, it seems to me, that is no different than investing in oil companies, or tech stocks, or bitcoin. The management of resources, I think, follows a different set of moral rules than their expenditure.

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Look. At. The. Damn. Snake.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.

—The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 12, 2021

God must have known that the Latter-day Saints would be a stiff-necked people, as he gave the second half of the story only to us. In the Old Testament, we can read about Moses and the Brazen Serpent: the Children of Israel were tired of wandering, so they did what they do best: they complained about it. And they complained so much that God decided to send them fiery serpents. Poison Fiery serpents that could fly, even, as if regular old fiery serpents weren’t scary enough.

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What Do We Mean When We Say that the Scriptures Are True?

The walls of Jericho fall downBible story from the book of Joshua chapter 6 verse 20. From an original woodcut published in 1860 by George Wigland LeipzigArists Julius Schnorr (d. 1872)

I can remember the exact moment that I decided that the Bible was true. It was about ten years ago, while I was reading The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, encountering for the first tie the wealth of archaeological evidence that neither the Exodus from Egypt nor the conquest of Canaan ever occured. Rather, the evidence suggests, the YHWH cult emerged from within the native Canaanite population, grew to dominate the society, and then created a martial history for itself to give significance to the movement.

I cannot express the relief that I felt when I read these arguments. By that time, I had concluded that the Bible could not be true if the stories of conquest and genocide were historically accurate. I could not accept that the god of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges–a god who favors one race of people over another and does not merely tolerate, but affirmatively commands, genocidal slaughter. I simply could not accept such a being as my loving and merciful father.

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On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B

Whether dealing with monkeys, rats, or human beings, it is hardly controversial to state that most organisms seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded. . . . Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that behaviors which are rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior he desires is not being rewarded at all. –Steven Kerr

There are not many business management articles that I would consider “classics,” and there is perhaps only one that I would be tempted to call “indispensable”: Steven Kerr’s excellent 1975 article, “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.” Nearly everything important about the article can be derived from the title: human institutions have a habit of rewarding one thing while expecting another. And this is dumb. Everything else is just examples.

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Running Towards Hope on the Morning of the Resurrection: An Easter Sermon

Eugène Burnand, Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection  (1898)

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first (John 20:1-4)

The essential meaning of Easter—for me at least—can be found in a single painting, which I have mentioned here before as my favorite work of devotional art. The painting is by Eugène Burnand, about whom I know nothing else except that he was Swiss. The text it illustrates is in the Gospel of John. And the unwieldy title, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection,” tells us everything we need to know to understand what is going on. Peter and John are running towards the tomb that Jesus was buried in because Mary Magdalene told them that his body was no longer there.

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The First Work of Mormon Science Fiction? Maybe, but at Least the Pterodactyls are Cool

The original cover and title page of A Trip to the North Pole; or, Discovery of the Ten Tribes (1903)

On the first Sunday of December in 1903, a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune announced the startling news, NORTH POLE DISCOVERED—six years before explorer Robert Peary’s famous, if disputed, expedition. According to the article, a Mr. O.J.S. Lindelof had, on a recent trip to Europe, been given a waterlogged manuscript that he brought back with him to Salt Lake City. When he finally got around to reading it, the manuscript turned out to be a record of the discovery of the North Pole by a San Francisco-based expedition some years earlier. Unlike Peary, who discovered an uninhabitable frozen wasteland, the explorers in Lindelof’s manuscript describe a verdant, densely populated region that has been hidden from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

As the Tribune reported, “it tells of finding a white and civilized people; tells of their customs, habits, wars, and dissentions, their flora and their fauna, and gives a complete record of their country from the time they arrived until the record was sealed up.”  And, as the book’s subtitle reveals, these are not just ordinary people living in a hidden population center around the North Pole. They speak a form of Hebrew and make sacrifices to “the God of Abraham” (97)—because, as the narrator concludes, they are indeed the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel (9). 

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Killing the Buddha

If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him.

According to tradition, the 9th century Zen Master Linji Yixuan instructed his students with the koan, “if you meet the Budha on the road, kill him.” I am fairly sure that he did not mean this literally. Let’s be clear. Nobody should kill anybody, of any religion, on or off of the road, for any reason. Don’t do it. 

But, as Zen koans go, this one is easier than most. The whole idea of a koan is that it is supposed to make you think for, like, ten years about all of the nooks and crannies of meaning that it contains. Koans are supposed to be confusing. They are supposed to challenge our understanding of what “meaning” means.

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Love for Christmas

Each year during the Christmas season, I try to write a blog post on a Christmas poem that has been meaningful for me. In the last six years, this has meant poems by Whitman, Rossetti, Auden, Elliot, Hardy, and Brodsky. I have also, over this time, managed three of the four Advent themes: Hope, Peace, and Joy. So this post is going to be a twofer: the seve th installment of the Christmas poetry theme, and the final installment on the Advent series. I want to talk about love.

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Josephine Spencer: If Mormon Literature Wants a Future, It Has to Get a Past

If you want a future, darlin’,
Why don’t you get a past?

–Cole Porter, “Let’s Misbehave”

The last BCC Press book of 2020 is here, just in time. Years in the making, Josephine Spencer: Her Collected Works, Volume One–edited by Ardis Parshall and Yours Truly. is the second offering in our new Classics of Mormon Literature series, joining A Craving for Beauty: The Collected Writings of Maurine Whipple, which we published in November. These are the first; there will be more. In the coming year, look for a critical edition of Orson F. Witney’s Elias: Epic of the Ages and a collection of works surrounding B.H. Roberts’ Corianton. And we’re just getting started.

The governing principle of the Classics series is that, as Cole Porter wrote (and countless crooners have sung), if we want a futre in Mormon literature, we have got to get a past. We have to do a better job of recognizing that there is a tradition of literature in the Mormon community. Traditions are important to those who want to build on them. They are also important for those who want to break from them. And they are especially important for those, like me, who want to study and write about them. So, these books are necessary acts of reclamation. We are reclaiming our culture and our literary tradition before we forget about them forever.

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We Are All on the Island of Misfit Toys

I come from a generation of kids who had to plan their television binging far in advance. I’m sure you have heard of these days: we had three channels (plus PBS for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers), we used rabbit-ear antennas to improve reception, and we got the TV schedule every Sunday in the newspaper and read through it carefully to see what was coming on TV that week so we could plan our schedules.

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Costly Signaling, Cheap Grace, and Loving Our Enemies after an Election

(Post adapted from a lesson in the Newburgh Ward priesthood meeting on Sunday, November 8, 2020)

In the aftermath of last week’s election, I have had two books on my mind. Two very different books from two very different parts of my life, but their central messages have come together for me in the aftermath of a national election that has stirred more emotions in me than I thought could be stirred. In such moments, I usually turn to books. It’s how I roll.

The first book is the classic, if highly specialized monograph The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems by William A. Searcy and Stephen Nowicki. This is the book that introduced me to the concept of “costly signaling” in evolutionary biology (something that proved very important to my own book on a related topic about ten years ago).

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Grace Like Water, Poems by Merrijane Rice

Two of my favorite poems in the English language are Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” and GK Chesterton’s “The Donkey.” Both are poems about the New Testament, and both are about domesticated animals, but they are still very different poems. “The Oxen” is a poem by an agnostic who yearns for the story of the Nativity and yearns for it to be true. “The Donkey” is by a deeply religious poet who writes from the perspective of the Donkey that Christ rode triumphantly through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But they are both acts of deep private devotion.

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Sacred Stories, Political Debate, and the Problem of Disagreement in Zion

In 1680, England had a problem. For a century and a half–since Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534–the nation’s politics had been driven by religious disputes, with the three major factions–Catholics, Anglican Protestant, and Calvinist Dissenters–taking turn running the country and killing thousands of people in the process.

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The Other Side: A Defense of the Pro-Choice Position

In a recent and much-discussed post, Terryl Givens articulates a powerful argument against abortion. His position is well-thought-out, deeply moral, and will no doubt be persuasive to members of a faith that cherishes human life and human dignity. I share many of his concerns about the casualness with which many people–saints and sinners alike–approach the profoundly serious issues that he raises.

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The Giant Joshua – Chapters 13 and 14: Temple Celebrations and Private Despair

By Lynne Larson

[See below for the announcement of a Zoom event on October 11 where we will discuss Maurine Whipple and The Giant Joshua, featuring several people who knew Maurine, including Carol Lynn Pearson.]

 “The building arose from the barren ground like a great white wedding cake. It was eighty-four feet high to the top of the parapet, battlemented like an old castle, and there was a hundred-and-thirty-five-foot tower on top of that . . . Long before the ceremonies were to start, a vast throng of people wandered around the block, squinted upward from the roadway, felt of the solid rock walls with their hands as if to bolster the evidence of their eyes. A temple that would cost a million dollars. The world would have said it couldn’t be done, and so they did it.”

Chapter Thirteen of The Giant Joshua contains one of the novel’s most stirring scenes, a portrait of the aging Brigham Young as he dedicates the temple which the Dixie Saints have worked so hard to build. It is April 1877, and the pioneer leader, with but four more months to live, has traveled to St. George to perform the ordinance. It is the first temple completed in Utah, which Brigham has yearned to see before his death. Maurine Whipple’s description of the cheering multitudes, of their breathless anticipation, of their tears at the prophet’s words, and of the man himself – “His eyes glinted beneath his brows, his white beard trembled . . . the skin of his cheeks stretched tightly over his bones”—is a remarkable gift to Mormon letters, to Mormon heritage, and to southern Utah.

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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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