You’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better: Steven Pinker and “The World”

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.
                          —Barack Obama, 2016 graduation speech at Howard University


51sBWhI4e9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Christianity is based on a narrative of decline that goes something like this: The world began as a perfect place where people walked and talked with God and lived in harmony with the natural world. But human beings sinned and were cast of paradise, where they became wickeder and wickeder until God had to destroy all but eight of them. Those eight started a new society that also became wicked, and God had to periodically destroy cities and send Assyrians and Babylonians to punish His chosen people. Then he sent his only son into the world, and we killed him. Since then, we have been getting wickeder and wickeder and, sometime in the near future, everything will be destroyed again and Jesus will come back and be king. [Read more…]

Lesson 9: “God Will Provide Himself a Lamb” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Silently he arranged the firewood, bound Isaac; silently he drew the knife. Then he saw the ram that God had appointed. He sacrificed that and returned home . . . From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before; but Abraham’s eye was darkened, he saw joy no more.  —Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Abraham 1:1, 5–20
Genesis 15–17; 21
Genesis 22

I once wrote a thing about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. It was a chapter in Julie Smith’s award-winning collection As Iron Sharpens Iron. Mine was the free sample, so you can read it here (but you should definitely buy the book anyway). Following the design of the volume, I wrote a dialogue between Abraham and Job, with Job asking Abraham, “why did you agree to sacrifice your son?”

The original intent of the piece was to have Job, who had lost ten of his children when God took them without asking, attack Abraham viciously for agreeing to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham would wither under this questioning and admit his error. And thus we would see that Job was right to resist God while Abraham was wrong to give in to divine bullying. That is pretty much how I saw things before Julie asked me to write the chapter. [Read more…]

Armageddon, Guns, and Walking Away from Omelas

They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas. –Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”


I’ve been to Armageddon, and it’s not as bad as they say. It’s actually called Har Megiddo, and it is a major archaeological site in Israel. It is the highest place for miles, so you can always see what is coming. It has an ingenious tunnel to its water source, which shows that its inhabitants were willing to do extraordinary things to keep its people safe. And it is in a country that strictly controls access to guns for non-military use. [Read more…]

Moral Choices Are Hard Because They Are Supposed to Be Hard


Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right.
You decide what’s good.
—”No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods


As I understand it, the main point of Stephen Sondheim’s magnificent musical, Into the Woods, is that moral decision making is hard. The scripts that our culture gives us are wrong. But they aren’t always wrong, or wrong in entirely predictable ways, so we can’t just reject them and do the opposite of what they say. We have to muddle through and make our own moral decisions, even though that means we will make mistakes.

This argument resonates with me a lot because, as a Latter-day Saint, I believe that this is also the main point of the founding myth of the Judeo-Christian world—the story of Adam and Eve—and a reasonably good description of the moral universe that we inhabit. [Read more…]

On Flatterers and Friends


I have no need of a friend who changes places when I do and nods in agreement when I do; my shadow is better at that. I need a friend who helps me by telling the truth and having discrimination. —Plutarch, Moralia

I agree with Steve Evans’ most recent post on arguing with people you love. But even if I didn’t, I would still consider Steve to be a good friend. And that, I think, is the point of the post. Friendship doesn’t preclude disagreement, but it does structure how we choose to disagree. I would go even further and say that, in some very tangible ways, friendship requires disagreement. I’m going to quote some Greeks here, so hear me out. [Read more…]

The Omni-Political Kingdom of God

Why do the members of Christ tear one another? Why do we rise up against our own body in such madness? Have we forgotten that we are all members of one another?—Pope St. Clement of Rome


One of the first people I baptized on my mission was a communist. Guillermo was from Nicaragua and had supported the Sandinista government. When the United States started to fund the Contras, he fled here to avoid reprisals there.

The Ward Mission Leader, in whose home we taught Guillermo most of the discussions, was from Chile. He had been a supporter of Augusto Pinochet, the right-wing dictator who seized power and killed the country’s leftist president in 1973. I’m not sure why he came to the United States, but I always got the impression that it had something to do with politics. [Read more…]

Killing Humbaba

The story of David and Goliath is one of the Bible’s really great tales. It is exciting, easy to put on a flannel board, and it has a great spiritual message: you can always overcome your obstacles, no matter how big they are, if you just have faith in God (and a reasonably good sling shot). Goliath has become a good metaphor for problems in our lives that seem to big to tackle. This, in fact, is the theme of one of President Monson’s most well-known talks and the book in which it was collected. We must all confront our Goliaths.

But I want to talk about another great hero who killed a huge opponent–one whose story was ancient even to the people who wrote the Old Testament: the Mesopotamian proto-hero Gilgamesh. Like David (and nearly every other hero in the Ancient or Modern world), Gilgamesh makes a name for himself by killing a big thing–the semi-divine Humbaba, whose name even means “hugeness.” [Read more…]

Moses 1: A God’s-Eye View of the World #BCCSundaySchool2018

First a few items of business. Well, one item of business anyway: BCC will be blogging about the Old Testament this year. Big time. We’ve divided the world between us, and we will be following along with the Gospel Doctrine schedule, once a week, all year. Our goal is to give you the same profound, faith-driven inquiry that BCC is famous for on a schedule that can enrich your personal study and gospel doctrine discussions. [Read more…]

The Three Opposites of Friendship


“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 will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

—Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

“Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom.”

—Walt Whitman, “Calamus”

If you want to see American democracy through the eyes of a cultivated foreigner, drop everything you are doing and read Democracy in America. But if you want to see it through the eyes of a young child on Christmas morning, read Walt Whitman. In Whitman’s eyes, America never lost its new-country smell, and democracy was always full of possibility and wonder. [Read more…]

The Faith to Leave Mountains Where They Are

Some thoughts inspired by “Move Forward with Faith,” Lesson #25 in the Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley


To my knowledge, nobody has ever moved a mountain with faith. I can’t be completely sure, but that seems like the kind of thing that we would have heard about. Mountains don’t move easily. There is usually going to be some kind of trace.

But do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite, that’s what. Tons and tons of dynamite. This actually happens in West Virginia, where I lived for 11 years at the start of my career. “Mountaintop removal” is a technique for mining coal. Rather than spending the time and money necessary to dig mines, put up shafts, haul in equipment, and all of that, you just blow the top off of the mountain, dump it in a nearby valley, and Bob’s your coal-faced uncle.

In 2017, moving mountains is relatively easy. It requires no faith at all. Faith is what we exercise when we trust God enough to leave the mountain where it is. [Read more…]

The Miracle of Belief (Poems for Christmas #4)

716mY1qbPcLThe Christmas season is, among other wonderful things, one of the times that I try to inflict my taste in poetry on the unsuspecting readers of BCC. In past years, this has involved T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Christina Rosetti  and W.H. Auden. This year, I turn to the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky, who made it a habit to write a nativity poem (almost) every Christmas from 1962 through 1995. The poems have been translated by some of the greatest poets in the English language–folks like Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur–and published as a single volume. It is one of the most frustrating, beautiful, contradictory, profane, and sacred things that I have ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. [Read more…]

December 25, 1914: The Christmas Truce


It did not change the course of the war, or even effect the outcome of a single battle, but the truce that broke out among French, German, and English troops on the first Christmas of World War I is one of those few grace-filled moments in history that tells us that human beings may not be as bad as we thought. [Read more…]

The Ten Virgins: A Parable of Environmental Stewardship

Back in 1995, I was serving in the bishopric of a student ward at the same time that I was teaching freshman composition at UCSB. From time to time, one of the members of the ward showed up in my class, which gave me the dual role of spiritual and academic adviser. On one such occasion, a young freshman came into my office and told men that he had changed his mind about going to medical school when he graduated because of something he heard in Church.

The reason? He learned in an institute class that Christ was going to return in, or very close to, the year 2000, and he didn’t want to go through eight years of college if Jesus was just going to show up and make everything perfect. Not knowing what to say, I told him that he should probably go to med. school anyway because Jesus was probably going to be too busy to heal everyone. [Read more…]

30 Years on Death Row: A Voice of Prophecy

When I was a college freshman in 1984, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life somehow affiliated with a university. And, since then, I have been. The reason I decided this is that I loved the company, both the professors and students, but also all of the really interesting, life-changing people that regularly show up on a college campus. There is really nothing like it.

One such person came to my university tonight: Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American many who spent 30 years on the Alabama death row for crimes he did not commit. In 1985, Hinton was arrested for a robbery and picked out of a police lineup in which he was the only person of color. When his alibi proved airtight he was charged with two counts of murder connected to other robberies committed around the same time. The only witness was the victim of the robbery that he was not charged with because he was in a warehouse full of other people when it occurred. The police produced a statement that the same gun was used in all three events. [Read more…]

Cattle in Sackcloth


**NB: This is a follow-up to my earlier post about teaching the lesson “Fellowship with Those of Other Faiths” in Priesthood Meeting. When I actually taught the lesson, for reasons that have a lot to do with the way that High Priest groups tend to wander, much of it ended up being about the Book of Jonah,


I will admit that I used to have a difficult time believing that a full-sized man—be he Jonah or Geppetto—could be swallowed whole by a “great fish” and then spewed forth alive to pick up life right where he left off. That is just not, in my experience, how things work.

It some point, however, I realized that the whole belly-of-the-whale thing was only the third most ridiculous thing that happens in the Book of Jonah. Much weirder, and much less probable, is the following passage from Chapter 3:

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. (:6-8) [Read more…]

Mormon Ecumenism

I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.
—President Gordon B. Hinckley

Tomorrow is the day that I have been waiting for since being called to teach the High Priests group in my ward earlier this year: Lesson 20: Fellowship with Those Who Are Not of Our Faith. It is something that I have been thinking about for a long time.

I started thinking about it 20 years ago, when I was in the bishopric of my student ward at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There had been a stabbing in the student enclave of Isla Vista, where our Church/Institute building was located, and a number of religious groups got together to demonstrate for better lighting. I went to the organizing meeting with a half a dozen other religious leaders, one of whom said, in the meeting, “I am so glad you are here. The Mormons usually keep to themselves.” [Read more…]

Stephen Greenblatt’s Great New Book—And What It Misses about the Mormon Adam and Eve

For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (pp. 5-6).


It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Stephen Greenblatt on literary culture. As the general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, he shapes the textbooks used in about 90% of undergraduate British Literature survey and period courses. If literature is “what gets taught,” then Greenblatt is the guy who decides what literature is for the English-speaking world.

Fortunately for all of us, Greenblatt has excellent taste—and a whole lot of knowledge about the contexts in which literature is produced. His recent books for general audiences are the best examples that I know of literary criticism for real people. Will in the World, his context-heavy biography of William Shakespeare, was a surprise bestseller in 2004. And The Swerve, How the World Became Modern (2011)—a literary detective story about how Lucretius’s lost poem “On the Nature of Things” was discovered in the 15th century—won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. [Read more…]

On Human Evil

“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”–G.K. Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown


I hold two literary opinions that I rarely discuss with friends, because they are the sorts of opinions that make one unpopular. The first is that CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series is better than JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The second is that GK Chesterton’s Father Brown is a better detective than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both cases, my reasoning is the same: there are far more serious and profound ideas at stake in Lewis and Chesterton’s work than there are in Tolkien’s and Doyle’s. The latter works are entertaining. The former are important. [Read more…]

Ten Axioms towards the Academic Study of the Book of Mormon as Scripture


(1)   The Book of Mormon is neither history nor literature; it is scripture. It makes historical claims and uses literary devices. The academic study of both history and literature can aid in its interpretation, but employing such tools comes with a price. The price is treating the text like something that it isn’t, which often leads to bad readings of the text itself.

(2) The Book of Mormon is unlike any ancient history that we know anything about. It is also unlike any 19th century work of fiction that we know anything about. It is a lot like other scriptures that we know about, but the textual record that we have access to does not permit the same kind of analyses that are possible with other scriptures. For the purposes of textual interpretation, comparing the Book of Mormon to anything else is full of peril. It is in a genre of one. [Read more…]

Positive Virtue, Pornography, and the Buttonmoulder

If the maxim ‘He who does
No ill does good” is valid—then
I can be sure, more than most people,
That my past mistakes will be overlooked
And my virtues be seen to outweigh my sins.

—Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt,  Act IV


Ibsen’s Peer Gynt operates from the maxim that “he who does no ill does good.” He is quite wrong. His life is a mashup of good and evil—but he is generally good natured and usually tries to avoid doing harm. When he comes to the end of his life, he finds that simply not doing evil won’t count as doing good. In the end, he faces neither God or the devil, but the “Buttonmoulder”–a soul recycler who takes the essences of those who qualify for neither heaven nor hell and melts them down to make brand new souls.

When he discovers that his ultimate fate will be to cease existing, he approaches the devil and begs to be admitted into hell. He gives a catalog of his sins, but he is rebuffed because, as the Buttonmoulder says, “it takes more than paddling in the dirt; It takes strength and a serious mind to sin.” [Read more…]

Caffeine and the Hedge around the Law

For the record, I think that BYU’s decision to resume selling caffeinated beverages after a 70 year ban is a horrible thing that will not be good for the Church. As many have noted, this will go a long way towards normalizing those same beverages in the Mormon rank and file. People will start drinking Coke and Pepsi willy nilly without even a nagging hint of guilt. It will be absolutely normal. And this is why I mourn.

Don’t get me wrong. I like caffeinated drinks. I drink far too many of them for my health. Diet Dr. Pepper is my favorite. I have had the caffeine-free version, but it just isn’t the same. Oh, all of the same flavors are there, but the guilt is missing. I like my beverage choices tinged with sin and regret. They just taste better that way. [Read more…]

The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Whichever Way We Bend It

Yesterday, a well-known radio personality went on a cable news show and told a female anchor that the only two things in this country that he believes in absolutely are “the first amendment and boobs.” Exactly one month ago, white supremacists and actual Nazi’s marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting Nazi slogans and doing the Hitler salute. In both cases, my initial reaction was the same, “it is 2017, how can this stuff still be happening?”

It was a bad reaction, or, at least, one built on the very dangerous notion that there is something about the passage of time that guarantees both the advancement of social ideas or the permanence of social achievements. We take too much comfort, I think, in Martin Luther King’s statement that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

[Read more…]


 All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
–Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”

“Essay on Man” is a rotten poem. [Read more…]

Reasoning Not the Need


O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. 
—King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

So says King Lear when his daughters are trying to strip away his retinue—the 100 knights who accompany him wherever he goes and whose maintenance was the only thing he asked of Goneril and Regan when he divided his kingdom among them. He doesn’t need any knights, they say, he is safe enough in their care. But he wants them because, well, it is the sort of thing that kings are supposed to have, and he is a king, isn’t he? Reason not the need! [Read more…]

White Is Not a Culture


I hate, in Rome, a Grecian town to find;
To see the scum of Greece transplanted here,
Received like gods, is what I cannot bear.
Nor Greeks alone, but Syrians here abound;
Obscene Orontes, diving under ground,
Conveys his wealth to Tiber’s hungry shores,
And fattens Italy with foreign whores:
–Juvenal, Third Satire, 118 A.D.

For all of the bandwidth it has been getting recently, one might be tempted to think that “white culture” is an actual thing. When the LDS Church issued its forceful condemnation of white supremacy yesterday, the most controversial thing it did was put “white culture” in scare quotes. This was appropriate as “white culture” is not, in fact, a thing. And it never has been. [Read more…]

Call Nothing a “Blessing” Until You Are Dead

“Call no man happy until he is dead.”–Herodotus


This oft-quoted line from Herodotus requires some unpacking before it makes sense to modern ears. In the first place, Herodotus is not speaking for himself. He is quoting a conversation between Solon, the great Athenian lawmaker, and Croesus, the fabulously wealthy and magnificently powerful King of Lydia.

This is the point at which (unless you are a Classics student or ancient historian) you say, “wait a minute, I’ve never heard of Croesus. And where the heck was Lydia?” This, it turns out, is precisely the point. [Read more…]

When Satan Was a Trickster

About a week before he went into the MTC, my son, who had been studying the scriptures earnestly like a good missionary should, came down stairs with a look of amazement on his face and said, “dad, guess what I just figured out: the Book of Genesis never actually says that the serpent was Satan. It just says it was a snake.”

That meant, of course, that it was time for “the talk.” It went something like this.

Satan, my son, was a fairly late addition to the Hebrew scriptures. When the Book of Genesis was first set down, there was no concept of a being of utter darkness and evil. The God of these people, Yahweh, was plenty scary. But as Yahweh came to be seen ever more as a good and loving father figure, they needed a place to put all of the evil scary things that were once a part of God. And it didn’t hurt that the Jews at this time were deeply influenced by the Persians, who were theological dualists, meaning that they had a figure of of ultimate evil (Ahriman) to oppose their otherwise monotheistic God (Ahura Mazda).

Even in the Book of Job, which was written around 500 years after the earliest Genesis texts, Satan is not yet the Prince of Darkness. He is not even Satan. He is “the satan,” a member of God’s court who functions something like a prosecuting attorney combined with a store detective—he goes throughout the kingdom looking for people who are disloyal to the King (God in this case) and then prosecutes them before God for their disloyalty. [Read more…]

Peace Like a River/Peace Like a Desert

“Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” (They make a desert and call it peace)—Tacitus

 “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” (Isaiah 66:12 NIV)

For years I have been haunted by two different symbols of peace. [Read more…]

What Kind of Rules are Commandments?

“There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments — there are consequences.”— Robert G. Ingersoll

If I had to select one thing that sets my adult spiritual understanding apart from the one I had as a child (i.e. until my late 30s or so) it would be that the adult me has adopted of a religious version of the decidedly non-religious writer Robert Ingersoll’s perspective above: I no longer see God as a rewarder or punisher in the sky, but as a natural force that helps us understand natural consequences. [Read more…]

Zion and the State

Like many Americans, I traveled last weekend. It wasn’t a horrible trip—about six hundred miles each way, all but about three blocks of it on big four- and six-lane highways. It was around 18 hours of driving and two and a half days of visiting friends and family. It was a good trip, and I will probably do it again. Family is important.

I can only do this, of course, because the federal government spent 35 years and hundreds of billions of dollars to create the most extensive and impressive engineering project of the 20th century: the US Interstate Highway System. Most of us take this system for granted these days, but there was plenty of opposition to it in 1956. Without the strong endorsement of a popular president—Dwight Eisenhower, who saw it as a national defense imperative—it would likely have never received the funding required to make it happen.

This is pretty much how democracy is supposed to work. The Founders gave us a Constitution designed to make it possible for us to have the society we want—as long as enough of us want it for a long enough period of time. Limits on taxation and spending are, and were designed to be political, not structural. Read Federalist 30-35. It’s all there. [Read more…]