A Few Minor, and Hopefully Helpful Editing Suggestions on the LDS Church’s Recent Statement about Abuse

Church Offers Statement on Help Line and Abuse

The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands with the victims and survivors of abuse and desires to use its resources to prevent abuse and to protect those who experience it. The Church must never be used as a screen to hide abusers from the consequences of their actions.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this, and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.

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Asking the Right Questions: Four Theses on Framing the Abortion Debate

Texts are tricky things, whether they are scriptural, historical, literary, or constitutional. People who claim to be “textualists,” or even (in constitutional circles) “originalists” often hide behind the rhetorical value of being such a thing without acknowledging the actual difficulty of doing it. Texts are not self-interpreting units of meaning that will yield their secrets with no effort, but only to the pure in heart. 

Textual interpretation is a process of asking certain, well-defined questions and then trying to answer them from the words on a page. It has always been more art than science, and the value of the answers ultimately depends on the quality of the questions. The process of asking questions of a text is sometimes called “framing.” The way we frame a textual question controls the kind of answer we get, because it determines the kinds of things we look for. 

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Sunday Sermon: On Faith and Being Enough

And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:29-31)

There are two ways to look at Peter’s nautical adventures in the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

We can look at the failure. Peter is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on water, and he blows it. Christ stretches out His hand and assures Peter that it is going to be OK, and, after a few hesitant steps, Peter stops believing and starts thinking. He trusts his own reason and concludes that walking on water is impossible, so he begins to doubt Christ’s ability to sustain him. When he loses his faith, he sinks, fully earning the rebuke, “O thou of little faith” (33).

But we can read the same scene as a triumph and a miracle. While all of the other apostles huddle in the safety of the boat (a dubious safety because of the storm they are experiencing), Peter asks Christ to call him forth. And then Peter actually walks on water, becoming only the second person in the history of humanity to overcome the straightforward laws of physics.

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Review: Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, by Matthew Wickman

There is an ironic, even impish innocence to earth, an endless provocation to the human impulse towards wonder that provides no recourse for satisfying that impulse. Humans, then, live at odds with nature, forever, seeking to graft meaning, purpose onto a branch that cannot support the weight of our need. To live is to want to understand, but to seek understanding is to look past the wordless bounties of living.

—Matthew Wickman, Life to the Whole Being, p. 101

To the extent that we can believe Aristotle about such things, the Ancient Greeks had a single word to represent the entire purpose of philosophy and all other human endeavors. This word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), describes the highest good of human life. The word literally means good ( ) spirit or minor deity (daímōn). In English texts, this word has been translated as “happiness,” “virtue,” “welfare,” “thriving,” and, my personal favorite, “human flourishing.”

For Aristotle, a eudemonic life is one that has all of the elements of flourishing—intellectual fulfillment, physical health, satisfying relationships, material prosperity, and spiritual understanding—in exactly the right proportions needed for a person to thrive. Though Matthew Wickman does not use the word in his remarkable new memoir Life to the Whole Being—a phrase that Parley P. Pratt used to explain the gift of the Holy Ghost—a key objective of the book is to describe a spiritual ideal of eudaimonia. In fact, “life to the whole being” would be a reasonably good translation of eudemonia, should the author ever want to take up his hand at translating, or even paraphrasing, the Nicomachean Ethics.

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No Words

I don’t have any more words. I used them all up.

I used to believe that my country was capable of solving problems big problems by having big discussions. As I read over posts that I have written over the last ten years, I can’t help but pity the naivete of someone who once thought that reasoned discourse mattered. Here are the last ten things that I tried to say:

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The Desert of Faith

It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on. If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Somehow, I managed to make it through both an awkward teenage phase and a college wanna-be-intellectual phase without reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I read all the other required books: The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land, Slaughterhouse-Five, Siddhartha. And I owned Dune–all three of the original trilogy. I displayed them proudly, and never got past a few pages. I knew it was about sand.

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Movie Messiahs, Eschatological Events, and a Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
                                                —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I have been impressed recently by how much of our culture’s touchstone literature operates from a messianic view of history. And I am not talking about explicitly religious texts like the Bible and the Qur’an. Nearly all of the great mythic sagas of our time—think about Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dune, Percy Jackson, and hundreds more—reproduce a basic trope of messianic salvation borrowed from the Abrahamic religions. 

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Sunday Sermon: The Kingdom of God Is Within You (Some Assembly Required)

The difference between the Christian doctrine and those which preceded it is that the social doctrine said: “Live in opposition to your nature [understanding by this only the animal nature], make it subject to the external law of family, society, and state.” Christianity says: “Live according to your nature [understanding by this the divine nature]; do not make it subject to anything—neither you (an animal self) nor that of others—and you will attain the very aim to which you are striving when you subject your external self.”

—Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

There is a vigorous debate among New Testament scholars about what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.” Unlike most debates within the rarefied realms of academia, this one is actually fairly important, at least for Christians, because the different sides represent two very different ways of being Christian in the world.

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The Hope of Easter

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

The central message of Easter is hope—hope that death is not the end of us, hope that our separation from God is not permanent, hope that a human being is more than just a random collection of subatomic particles that can do a little math. Doubt and fear seem to inhere in the human condition because we can only inhabit the middle of our own stories. We weren’t here for the beginning, we can’t see clearly to the end, and almost everything about the parts that we can see seems calculated to increase our anxiety, our depression, and our despair.

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Good Friday: “It Is Finished”

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)


There are two mutually exclusive ways that we can read Christ’s sixth statement from the Cross. “It is finished.” We might read it as “it’s over,” the way that one might react after a grueling day or a long trip. In such cases, we celebrate the mere fact of overness. It doesn’t matter if we did well or poorly, or if we won or lost. The important thing is that it’s finished. When you get paid by the hour, your day is finished when the clock strikes 5.

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The Last Words from the Cross: Day Five

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

I think we misread the experience of Christ on the cross when we present it as extraordinary suffering. It was agonizing, but not atypical. The Romans crucified tens of thousands of people exactly the same way that they crucified Jesus. Other cruel regimes have inflicted equally horrific things on their perceived enemies. People have been burned alive because they believed the wrong thing about the Eucharist or because somebody thought they were witches. People have been raped and tortured and murdered for being affiliated with the wrong sides in military confrontations. The Holocaust happened. Human beings have always been good at creating ways for other human beings to suffer.

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The Last Words from the Cross: Day Four

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

On the brink of death, Christ quotes scripture. Specifically, he quotes the first line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Both Matthew and Mark depict Jesus quoting this line (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34), and it is something that almost everybody remembers.

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The Last Words from the Cross: Day Three

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. —John 19: 25-28

Christ’s third saying from the Cross depicts Jesus at one of his most human moments. Through great suffering, he sees his mother and his beloved disciple standing in a crowd, and he understands how profoundly his death is going to affect them. He knows that they will be emotionally shattered—John by losing a beloved friend and mentor and Mary by the anguish of losing her child. But Mary will likely face financial difficulties too. If Joseph is already dead (and this appears to be the case, since he is not mentioned at all in any crucifixion narrative), then Mary will have nobody to support her.

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The Last Words from the Cross: Day Two

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

The second words that Christ speaks from the cross are to one of the thieves who is being crucified with him. The text comes from Luke, though Matthew (27:44) and Mark (15:27) also mentions the thieves. Luke reports a conversation between Jesus and the two malefactors:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

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The Last Words from the Cross: Day One

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

There is a grand tradition in Christian liturgy of using the days of Holy Week to reflect on the last words that Jesus spoke in his mortal life. The tradition goes back to the middle ages and has been a formal exercise at least since 1618, when Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Jesuit during the Counter-Reformation, published his book, The Seven Last Words Spoken from the Cross. Not being a liturgical religion, Latter-day Saints do not usually participate in this tradition, which is a shame. For Holy Week this year 2022, I will put my own spin on this liturgical exercise by devoting one post a day to each of the seven last statements from the Cross.

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Sunday Sermon: Singing about War while Praying for Peace

A good friend told me today that they sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in his ward. It seemed odd, he said, to be singing about war at a time when our leaders have instructed us to pray for peace. “We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly,” said the First Presidency message released last month after Russia attacked Ukraine, “and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts.

This seemed like a reasonable point, and it propelled me to take a few minutes looking through our hymnal to see how many of our hymns are essentially martial ballads or songs about war. The number I got was 11—not overwhelming, but also not trivial.

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What Part of Gender Is Eternal? A Meditation on Culture, Cognition, and Parts

Having an eternal gender does not mean an unchanged or static gender. If having a static gender were the intended meaning of “gender is eternal,” the authors of the text could have written “gender is static,” “gender never changes,” “don’t be trans,” or “God doesn’t want your gender to change,” but that is not what the text says. The text says gender is an essential characteristic of an eternal existence and purpose. This allows a lot of room for interpretation and dynamic change.—Blaire Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, p. 56

There can be no doubt that, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gender is eternal. It says so right in the Proclamation on the Family “Gender,” it says, “is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” There, that settles it.

Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t say what happens when premortal, mortal, and eternal definitions of gender don’t align, and we know they don’t always align. Not does it say that the eternalness of gender must always fall into one of two binary choices. And it doesn’t specify what kind of “gender” we mean when we talk about an eternal and everlasting characteristic of human beings.

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How Much Federal Money Do the BYUs Receive?

The Short Answer: About $275,000,000 a year.

The Long Answer: Read on

BYU is a private institution and can do whatever it wants to do. If you don’t believe me, read any comment section on any recent article about BYU’s accreditation status, labor practices, or student policies. Enforced wokeness is for public schools only, or private schools that just don’t know any better. By refusing to sup at the government’s table, the BYUs free themselves from the tyranny of the government’s yoke. Or so the story goes.

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Esau’s Embrace: Thoughts on Genesis 33

Bleker, Gerrit Claesz.; The Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Shipley Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-meeting-of-jacob-and-esau-35430

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

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

One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it is supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel-board versions of the story (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures to the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it shifts the narrative and says something different.

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The Wordles of Zion

Like about 20% of the English-speaking world—and a much higher portion of my personal friends and acquaintances—I play Wordle every day. I start at exactly midnight, play the day’s Wordle, and then post my result to Facebook, where dozens of friends post their scores, commiserate with me when my score sucks, and celebrate with me when it doesn’t. It has become an important ritual in my life.

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God Under the Bus

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” —C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

In his classic essay, “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis spoke to the difficulties he encountered when he tried to talk about religion with modern secular audiences. The core of the problem, as he outlines it, is that people expect God to conform to their secular moral perspectives. God, he lamented, is constantly on trial in the modern world because people are not willing to let go of their own assumptions about right and wrong. [Read more…]

Kristine Haglund, Eugene England and the Possibility of Mormon Liberalism

My most vivid memory of Eugene England goes like this: In the early 1990s, I was a teaching assistant in the BYU English Department—a position that, under certain circumstances, and only when accompanied by the professor I teaching-assisted, permitted me to enter the faculty lounge on the second floor of the old JKHB. Once when I was in these hallowed halls working on final grades for a Victorian Lit class, Gene was there doing the same with his American Lit TAs. My group was using a calculator to compute points from quizzes, tests, and papers, using attendance and participation points to raise or lower a close call. Gene was leading his TAs in prayer.

This was not a general, “please help us be sensitive to our students’ needs” kind of prayer. They were going through the class list in alphabetical order, and Gene was asking God for inspiration about every student by name. Even at BYU in the 1990s, this was a little bit strange—made even stranger by the fact that the prayers were completely sincere. Gene was not playing to a crowd. He really, genuinely wanted to know what God thought about his students’ grades.

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BYU’s New Demonstration Policy Explained

Dear students,

As you have no doubt heard, the Lord has revealed a new demonstration policy for students at His university. This policy is designed to maximize our students’ moral agency–which we define as “the ability to exercise uncompromising obedience in the face of difficult moral choices while not being gay.” There has been a lot of discussion about these new regulations, and we want to make sure that our expectations are clear. To do this, we have devised the following scenarios–each represented by a photograph that illustrates the deep gospel truths of this policy. Please keep in mind that any drawings or photographs of rule-breaking behaviors are simulations only. No student testimonies were harmed to create these scenarios.

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No Future Without Forgiveness: Desmond Tutu’s Big Idea

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

― Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), No Future Without Forgivenes

The death of a great person gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways that their lives have touched ours. Few people impacted the 20th century as profoundly, or as positively, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu did, so I expect (and hope) to see a lot of reflections about him in the coming weeks. In writing my own I hope only to be part of a long line celebrating a wonderful life.

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Call for Essays on Gene England

A Special Invitation

to

Family, friends, colleagues and students of

Eugene England

to submit brief personal expressions

for a proposed published collection of essays

from individuals

whose faith in and devotion to Christ

were inspired by Gene’s writing, teaching and discipleship 

Length: from 800-1500 words

Format: Microsoft Word

Deadline: April 6, 2022

Submit to: EEnglandmemories@gmail.com

Scrupulous: A New Book from BCC Press

The newest offering from BCC Press, Taylor Kerby’s memoir Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God treats issues that resonate with me on a very personal level. Rather than a typical marketing post, I want to share the foreword that I wrote for the book. Like Taylor Kerby, I struggled for much of my life with the anxiety disorder known as scrupulosity, which affects people from strong religious backgrounds. As an adult, I have discovered that many members of the Church suffer from this disorder without realizing it because it looks and feels a lot like the things we learned to call morality and repentance. We have made this book part of our year-end sale, and we hope that it will help start important conversations that many Latter-day Saints need to have.


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“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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