Reading Thucydides at 40,000 Feet

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III

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Scripture as Genre: What It Means When We Call Something “True”

Let’s start with an observation that I hope will be uncontroversial: there is a big difference between how people solve crimes in the actual world and how readers try to solve crimes in mystery novels. Here is a crystal-clear example of the difference: in the real world, the person that all of the evidence points to is almost always the person who committed the crime. In a mystery novel, the person that all of the evidence points is the one person you can be sure did not commit the crime. [Read more…]

The Chosen People Are Always Wrong

Can we talk about CPS? I mean, of course, Chosen-People Syndrome, or the belief that one belongs to a race, people, or organization that has a unique and special relationship to God. Latter-day Saints generally believe that we fall into this category, but there is nothing special about that. Most people believe, and have always believed, that their kind of person is special. [Read more…]

Them That Are at Ease in Zion

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion. (Amos 6:1:)

I have not been able to get this verse out of my head since I learned yesterday that the US House of Representatives narrowly voted to eliminate 800 billion dollars of benefits designed to help the poorest Americans get health care in order to fund an 800 billion dollar tax cut for the wealthiest. I have never seen a starker example in my country of the wealthy and powerful manipulating the structures of society in order to enrich powerful people at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. This is exactly the sort of thing that the prophets were always talking about. [Read more…]

The Price of a Soul

For most of my academic life, I have had a minor obsession with stories based on the Faust legend—tales of human beings who wanted something so much that they were willing to sell their soul to the devil to get it. It’s not the oldest story in the world, but it’s up there. What intrigues me so much about the various Faust stories in literature is the wide variety of things that people want most. We learn a lot about individuals, and the cultures that produced them, by studying what they rate as more important than their souls. [Read more…]

Looking for God in All the Cool Places

You’ve probably heard that BCC has embarked on a publishing venture: the BCC Press. You may also know that our first book is Steven L. Peck’s remarkable work of scientific theology (or was that theological science) Science the Key to Theology. But if you haven’t read the book, you don’t yet know how thoroughly Peck’s work, if taken seriously, could change the way that Latter-day Saints interact with science. [Read more…]

Why is April “the Cruellest Month”? The Downside of Hope

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
–T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Here are two things that everybody should know about April. First, it is National Poetry Month, which means that anything I write for public consumption is going to be about poetry. Second, April is famously, according to actual poet T.S. Eliot, the “cruellest month.” [Read more…]

Minding the Gap: What a New Study Tells Us about Mormon Women in the Workplace

 

There is much good news for BYU in the massive longitudinal study on college attendance and income that came out in January. The study looks at millions of 2014 tax records that have been matched to tuition records from the late 1990s, in effect giving us income profiles for people who were born between 1980 and 1982. [Read more…]

Believing Fast and Slow

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
–Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy

The first time I read these lines—it was in a contemporary poetry class at BYU taught by the completely awesome Susan Howe—I gasped out loud right there in the first floor of the old Harold B. Lee Library. I gasped because I thought that the line “need is not quite belief” was true, and I didn’t want it to be. At the time, I knew that I needed the Church to be true, but I wasn’t at all sure that I believed it.

Conflation of need and belief seemed catastrophic to me at the time. Belief was about aligning my opinions and values with capital “T” Truth and ensuring both my terrestrial rightness and celestial glory. Need was just a pathetic form of self-delusion making me pretend to believer what wouldn’t mess up my life too much. It took me years to resolve this conflict, but resolve it I did, not by coming down on one side or another, but by rejecting the original premise. Need, it turns out, is pretty much the same thing as belief if you look at it from a certain perspective. This post is about that perspective. [Read more…]

Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars

“By taking seriously the canon, one confesses along with the church to the unique function that these writings have had in its life and faith as Sacred Scriptures. Then each new generation of interpreters seeks to be faithful in searching these Scriptures for renewed illumination. . . . Ultimately, to stand within the tradition of the church is a stance not made in the spirit of dogmatic restriction of the revelation of God, but in joyful wonder and even surprise as the Scripture becomes the bread of life for another generation.”–Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis

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On Hypocrisy: A Dialogue with Myself

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 

 Me: Trump is a fascist. We have to do stuff

Other Me: Oh please. Listen to yourself. Remember when Bush was a fascist? Cheney? It’s not an alternate spelling for “Republican,” you know? Weren’t you the guy who said, “democracy means that approximately half of the time everybody is going to be governed by people that they really, really don’t like.” Of course, that was when Obama was president and you were telling people to get over it.

Me: But this time is different. He really is a fascist. Muslim bans? “My authority will not be questioned”? I mean, we’re one step away from sieg heiling when he walks in. [Read more…]

Letter to a Young Jihadist

About ten years ago, I led a group of students on an art-viewing tour through Morocco. On the last day of the trip, I went to the marketplace in Marrakesh, where I found a beautiful, hand-crafted writing journal with only the first few pages written on in a beautiful Arabic script. I was still unclear about the currency, so I ended up paying more than a hundred dollars for it, which, my guide later told me, was ridiculous. But I was satisfied because it was beautiful, and it has been on our mantle ever since.

A week or so ago, Dr. Sid Hamete Benengeli, my colleague from the university, came to dinner. He was immediately taken with the journal, and he opened it up and said, “why do you have a book called “Letter to a Young Jihadist” on your mantel? I was shocked. I had no idea what was written in the journal, but I figured it was pretty ordinary. That night, Dr. Benengeli translated the whole text, which turns out to have been a letter from an uncle to his infant nephew. I am reproducing it here because of the potential interest in the topic and the author, though I have no way of knowing if it is a genuine letter or just the doodling of an idle child. 

September 10, 2001

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A Time for Prophecy

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Amos 3:7 reads, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” I know this because it was a Seminary scripture, a Missionary scripture, and perhaps the most important Latter-day Saint proof text in the entire Old Testament. At different points in my life, I have used it to “prove” that the Church is true because it has prophets, that revelation is and has always been important, and that God is a woman and her name is Shirley. It is really a remarkable proof text. [Read more…]

Newly discovered First Presidency Letter Clarifies Mormon Position on Civil Government

October 28, 1838,

Dear fellow Saints,

As many of you know, Governor Boggs issued an executive order yesterday relating to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missouri Executive Order 44 reads, in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” As a result, the armed forces of our Great State have been ordered to murder all of our men, women, and children or drive us from the state. [Read more…]

It Can Happen Here; Let’s Make Sure It Doesn’t

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”—Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

 

lewisEvery time that Doremus Jessup—the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here—tries to raise the specter of fascism in the United States, his concerns are dismissed by the phrase that becomes the novel’s title: “it can’t happen here.” There is too much democracy, too much freedom, and too much respect for individual rights for our country to ever go down the road that the Germans and the Italians were travelling when the novel was written.

It does, of course, happen here, and in fairly predictable ways. A populist demagogue named Buzz Windrup becomes president with a combination of ultra-nationalism and an attack on journalists, scientists, historians, and other people in a position to argue that one set of facts is superior to another. As president, Windrip begins by restricting the rights of women and minorities and ends by turning the United States into a security state, imprisoning dissidents, and arming for wars of conquest. [Read more…]

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

Moroni 1-10

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

sermon

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…]