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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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). 

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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).

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.  

[Read more…]

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).

[Read more…]

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?

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Persecuting Christians: Power, Privilege, and Propaganda in the Book of Mormon

But it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church of God began to persecute those that did belong to the church of God, and had taken upon them the name of Christ. (Alma 1: 19)

One of the most important skills in understanding scripture, or reading any other kind of text, consists of knowing when to read with, and when to read against, the narrator.

[Read more…]

The Risk of Embrace

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.

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

Much has been written about the classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario. To put the matter succinctly, a prisoner’s dilemma is created when two parties are faced with the choice of cooperating or not cooperating with each other in a situation with the following components:

  1. If they both choose to cooperate, they will both be rewarded.
  2. If they both choose not to cooperate, they will both be punished.
  3. If they make different choices, then cooperator will be punished more–and the non-cooperator will be rewarded more–than would be the case if both made the same choice.
[Read more…]

A Two-step Program for Going Back to Church

For the last few weeks, and for the rest of the summer, pretty much my whole day job is to plan various scenarios under which a university might open in the fall. It turns out this is a job with about a billion moving pieces, any one of which could blow up at any time and make it impossible to launch a semester. 

[Read more…]

In My Ideal Foyer. . . .

Eugène Burnand, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection” (1898)

Fair warning: this is going to be one of those posts where I ask you to do something at the end–to post YOUR ideal foyer art (or, at least, a link to your ideal foyer art if there are copyright issues) and explain why. Because I really want to know. And because I want to document a space on the Internet where BCC’s legions of readers register their preferences for the LDS foyers of the future.

[Read more…]

The Graven Image in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics. –Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

As of today, it appears, the art in meetinghouse foyers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be limited to 22 officially approved reproductions. Most of the paintings will be familiar to Latter-day Saints. They are mainly the ones by Del Parson and Harry Anderson that Mormons have been using for years. But there are a few newer ones too, including one of Jesus in what appears to be the African Savannah holding a black child. I call this one “Diversity Jesus.”

All of the Jesuses in the approved collection are lilly-white and vaguely Scandanavian. Diversity Jesus is the whitest of all, with shoulder-length hair and piercing blue eyes highlighted by his equally blue robe. If someone told me that this was a painting of Kenny Loggins circa 1975, rather than a Middle-Eastern Jew from the Ancient Roman period, I would not be terribly surprised.

[Read more…]

Consecrating Attention: The Two Great Commandments

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
–Simone Weil, Letter to Joë Bousquet, 13 April 1942

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is weil55.jpg

Attention is an economic good. We know this intuitively because we almost always talk about it in financial terms. We can pay attention. We can grab it, hoard it, and monopolize it. We can also be robbed of it, and, if we don’t have enough attention, we call it a “deficit.” Every day, thousands of companies spend millions of dollars to try to get us to trade ours for something shiny.

And also, what you give, or sell, your attention to almost entirely defines who you are.

Perhaps nobody thought as much about attention as a commodity than Simone Weil, the French philosopher and theologian that Albert Camus called “the only great spirit of our times.” I have read Weil’s great essay about attention–“Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”–perhaps a dozen times, and I still don’t really understand what she is saying. But it strikes me as more important than ever in a world whose attention is almost completely focused on COVID-19.

[Read more…]

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair
!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias” 

Shelly’s great poem “Ozymandias” teaches us that civilization is a fragile thing. Human history is not a march of progress from barbarism to shopping malls. We do not always move forward in wisdom, intelligence, and technology, or in economic or political accomplishment. Sometimes we go backward. And sometimes we collapse.

[Read more…]

Mourning with Those Who Mourn: COVID-19 Edition

I have been thinking about Job a lot lately. No surprise, really. I think about Job a lot. It’s kind of my schtick.

But I have been thinking specifically about Job’s Comforters–Zophar, Eliphaz, and Bildad–who spend most of the poem portion of Job saying stupid things to make themselves feel better about God. These men have become, collectively, a term for false friends–people who pretend to comfort you when all they really want to do is comfort themselves by telling you all the reasons that what happened to you won’t happen to them.

[Read more…]

The Quarantined Mind

“The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything possible . . . . The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals.”
― Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun

I was 15 years old the first time that I read Isaac Asimov’s novel The Naked Sunthe sequel to The Caves of Steel and the second of his science-fiction/mystery novels designed to prove that the two genres could co-exist comfortably in the same book.

[Read more…]

Ordinariness in Exile: Some Thoughts on the Banality of Goodness

        There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”
        “What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.
        “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”–Albert Camus
, The Plague

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt famously examines the “banality of evil.” If I understand her correctly, what she means by this is something like the ordinariness of evil. The horrific evil of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by inhuman monsters with horns and talons, but by ordinary people (like Adolf Eichmann) just doing their jobs.

[Read more…]

“Be Still and Know that I am God”: Stillness and Faith in the Time of Coronavirus

This is a sermon about stillness. About being still. About doing nothing because there is nothing you can do. About listening. About compassion. And about faith. But mainly about stillness, because, like so many of you, I have been forced to be still by a national crisis that has shut down the place I work, closed the places I worship, and asked me to stay away from people and places other than my home. 

[Read more…]