A Poem for Holy Thursday (2019)

I posted this two years ago on Holy Thursday. I’ve tweaked it and made some revisions. [Read more…]

Come Follow Me as a Quasi-, or Proto-Lectionary

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a traditional Christian liturgical calendar, and the Come Follow Me New Testament manual is not a traditional lectionary. But Come Follow Me is also not entirely like a traditional Latter-day Saint Sunday School manual, and the ways that it departs from that form nudge it closer to functioning almost like a lectionary in some interesting ways. [Read more…]

Today is (probably) not Jesus’s Birthday

thIt’s a fun calendrical coincidence this year that the first general session of General Conference falls on today, April 6. This is a big date for the church. It’s the date we recognize as the date that the church started as a church. (See this guest post yesterday for a discussion of what that actually means). But there’s a tradition in the church that says Jesus was born on April 6, 1 BC, exactly 1830 years to the day before the church was organized on April 6, 1830. This tradition is almost certainly wrong. [Read more…]

“Thou Art the Christ” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 16-17, Mark 8-9, Luke 9*

There is so much we could say about these readings, but this post will focus on the episode of Peter’s testimony of Jesus. The manual places the most emphasis on this part of these readings, and it uses Peter’s testimony as support for the idea that prophets and apostles are revelators and have revealed knowledge that’s worth listening to. This is a timely message, with general conference coming up, and the manual specifically asks us to ponder the testimonies we will hear from the apostles at conference this weekend along with Peter’s testimony.

That message is fine as far as it goes. But I think we sometimes misread Peter’s interaction with Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:19-21 if we overemphasize Peter’s role as an institutional revelator as the salient thing from this passage. [Read more…]

Glossopoeia: The Gift of (Invented) Tongues

 

“Atan lantanë tana atani ëuvar; ar atani ëar tana haryar olassë.”

– 2 Nephi 2:27, author’s translation in Quenya

andries_ataremma

A calligraphic tengwar version of The Ataramma, the Lord’s Prayer in Quenya, by Danny Andries. Tengwar is one writing system that Tolkien invented for his invented languages. Source: http://www.ambar-eldaron.com/gwaith/andries.htm#aeadarnin.

 

Warning: this post is weird. It descends into depths of Tolkien nerdery previously unheard-of at BCC. Ye be warned.

Today is Tolkien Reading Day. Every March 25th the Tolkien Society chooses a theme and encourages readers to read their favorite passages from the professor’s work that relate to that theme, and read them on this day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. That’s a topic with a lot of material, but one of the elements that contributes most to the sense of mystery—the sense that there is more to the story behind the story, is the presence of invented languages in Tolkien’s stories. Not just nonsense words with a “translation” in English, but full languages with internal rules of grammar, etymologies, and alphabets. This post will be an exploration of the idea of invented languages as it relates to the idea of the gift of tongues. [Read more…]

“I’m sort of rules oriented”: What one man’s involvement in the college cheating scandal can teach us about moral reasoning.

By now everybody has heard of the college fraud, bribery and cheating scandal. In case you haven’t: a bunch of rich folks paid a sketchy dude to find ways to cheat on college entrance exams and college applications, including lying and flat-out bribery to get their kids into high-ranked colleges that they would not have been able to get into on their academic or athletic merit.

We could say a lot about it, but one thing that really jumped out at me was a pair of statements made by Gordon Caplan, one of the parents caught cheating, and what they tell us about the nature of morality and rules. [Read more…]

Missionary Communication Rules: How Folk Theology Works (and Doesn’t Work).

 

rawpixel-1054561-unsplash

The church announced today that effective immediately, missionaries can text, call, instant message, and video chat with their families at home on their preparation day, repealing the old rule that missionaries were only allowed to call home twice a year (Christmas and Mother’s Day), and were otherwise only allowed to email (and before sometime in the early 2000s, only write letters).

I imagine that this change is motivated at least in part by a concern for the emotional and mental health of missionaries. As long-distance communication has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, the world has become more and more interconnected. This is a double-edged sword: it makes long-distance and online friendships easier, but a side effect of that is that many people find it easier to primarily make friends with people online which means that IRL connection and friendship get harder. It can also be even more isolating when you grow up using online communication to make and maintain friendships, and then the ability to have online and log-distance connection is suddenly taken away. I’m no expert, but I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that many missionaries today find the mission experience, as rewarding and fulfilling as it is, to be seriously challenging to their emotional and mental health. And at some point, we have to ask ourselves whether that challenge is a necessary or worthwhile one. The church has now decided that it’s not. I think this is a very good thing. [Read more…]

“Ye must be born again” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: John 2-4

We’re back in John for this week’s reading. And John moves really fast through Jesus’ life and early ministry. It’s almost like an anthology of snippets of Jesus’s greatest hits. And Jesus is travelling all over the place. In these chapters we get these episodes:

  • Jesus in Galilee: Jesus turns water into wine at the marriage in Cana, his first miracle, according to John (John 2:1-11).
  • Jesus back in Jerusalem: Jesus turns the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:12-17).
  • Jesus prophesies of his death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:18-22)
  • Jesus meets with Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:1-21).
  • John in the desert: John the baptizer testifies of Jesus (John 3:22-36).
  • Jesus in Samaria, on his way back to Galilee: Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and makes a lot of converts in Samaria (John 4:1-42).
  • Jesus back in Cana: Jesus remotely heals a nobleman’s son (his second miracle) (John 4:46-54).

John is so compact and dense, and Jesus and John both speak in such mystical, prophetic language in John, that you could have many weeks of discussion about these chapters. In this post, I’m going to look at just a couple of these episodes. [Read more…]

“The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Matthew 4, Luke 4-5.

In the chapters that immediately precede these chapters, Matthew and Luke have just shown us the moment where Jesus is baptized and as he comes up out of the water, the voice of the Father, speaking from heaven, declares that Jesus is his son (Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22). This is an important reminder because the chapters for this lesson recount Satan’s immediate challenge to the Father’s declaration, Jesus rejecting that challenge, and then Jesus showing the signs that prove his messiahship–his status of having been anointed by the Spirit–to the people of Galilee. [Read more…]

The Pitfalls of Grading in Religious Education

Yesterday, this pair of tweets by a current BYU student sparked some interesting discussion about the role of grading in religious educations:

 

 

Though it was about a decade ago, I remember similar things as a BYU student myself. [Read more…]

Nephi’s iron rod may not be what you think it is.

This post might be a little oddly timed because we’re not doing the Book of Mormon Sunday School curriculum this year. But it’s a passage that we frequently refer to in talks and lessons, in my experience, and it’s on my mind lately because I’ve heard people invoke the old iron rod / liahona dichotomy. I confess I don’t like that distinction, because I think it distorts the meaning of the iron rod to place it in contrast with the liahona. This post, written as a sort of dialogue with myself, explains why.

rod-of-iron

I. The Iron Rod in Nephi’s Vision

Thesis: The iron rod from Nephi’s vision of his father’s vision of the tree of life does not represent the scriptures. [Read more…]

God’s Name is Dangerous to Hold in Your Lips

This is a post about what President Nelson’s counsel to use the church’s full name challenges us as church members to do.

However you feel about his declaration that using “Mormon” was a victory for Satan and an offense to God, there are lots of other places where that conversation has happened and is still happening. I don’t want to replicate that here. I want to focus on the core of his message: that the church’s formal name is important because it is connected to taking upon ourselves the name of Christ. President Nelson’s counsel to speak Jesus’s name more often may be both dangerous and rewarding, because God’s name is not to be taken lightly, and doing it will require us to either receive the spirit through repentance and faith in Christ and his grace, or condemn ourselves by using his name in vain. [Read more…]

The 60-Minute Sacrament Meeting: An opportunity to build a new Christ-centered worship service.

The change about two-hour church that has attracted the most attention is the elimination of the “third hour” and the alternating classes for the “second hour.” Kevin’s post yesterday discusses some of the logistics of these changes. But as I’ve read through the October 6, 2018 first presidency letter and enclosure, one part that has caught my attention is the potential to use this change to radically re-work sacrament meetings. [Read more…]

Is it such a fast that I have chosen?

You may have heard that President Nelson asked the youth of the church back in June to take a seven day “fast” from social media, and that he repeated the same counsel (but for ten days) was to the women of the church during conference. I’ve taken breaks from social media in the past, but I always thought of it more as a “Sabbath” rather than a “fast”: a time to disconnect from worldly influences, to re-connect with the real world of creation and with the Spirit of God, and to reset and renew ourselves.

This post is an attempt to think about some of the implications of casting this social media break as a “fast.” Fasting has important implications, both inward looking and outward looking. [Read more…]

I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger.

My wife and I just took our kids on a fairly ambitious road trip: Leaving our home in upstate New York, we traveled along interstate 90 and then 80 across the Midwest and the high plains, through the Great Basin, over the Sierra Nevada and down to the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. We spent several days in the Bay Area, then climbed the Sierra again and we spent a day and a night in Sequoia National Park. We then crossed the Mojave Desert and went west and north on interstate 15 through Nevada and nearly the whole length of Utah and then spent several days in the Logan area. After that, we traveled east through the Bear River mountains and through Wyoming on two-lane roads that approximate the old pioneer trails, joining back up with interstate 80 in Cheyenne, and making our way back home on interstate 80 and then 90 again. [Read more…]

Lesson 26: “King Solomon: Man of Wisdom, Man of Foolishness.” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Luca_Giordano_-_Dream_of_Solomon_-_WGA09004

Luca Giordano – Dream of Solomon

 

This week’s lesson overviews the life of David’s successor and son, Solomon. The overall theme of his life, as it is presented in the biblical text is, much like the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba, a theme of the King’s glory, favor with God, and ultimately, fall from grace. [Read more…]

Lesson 24: “Create in me a clean heart.” #BCCSundaySchool2018

This lesson has two parts: (1) The story of David’s rape of /adultery with Bathsheba, his murder of Uriah to cover it up, and his discovery by the prophet Nathan, and (2) Psalm 51, which tradition says is David’s repentant response to the episode. [Read more…]

Prophetic Fallibility, Institutional Revelation, and Institutional Salvation.

This post is inspired by some of the discussion on Stapely’s recent excellent post on the problems with defending the church’s pre-1978 policy to exclude black members from receiving the priesthood or the blessings of the temple. One of Stapely’s points is that the reasons that Brigham Young gave for the ban were demonstrably wrong. Several commenters asked a variation of these questions: If we acknowledge that church leaders can be wrong about something so important, then can we ever trust them? And if so, how can we distinguish between when they are speaking by revelation and when they are just wrong?

[Read more…]

Church Conferences

Circuit_rider_illustration_Eggleston

Illustration from Edward Eggleston’s The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age

I was recently given an assignment to speak in sacrament meeting. That’s a normal part of my calling. But the topic was unusual: The assignment was to speak on “the history and doctrine of conferences in the church.” I’m not a historian, but I love reading history, so I was excited to speak on a historical topic. It gave me a good excuse to learn about a part of church history that I hadn’t studied before. This post is adapted from that talk.

 

In 1829 and early 1830, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were working on organizing the church. They had finished translating the Book of Mormon in June 1829 and the prophet had received a revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery that instructed him to “build up my church” and to “rely upon the things that are written,” (that is, the Book of Mormon) to do so.

Oliver took the revelation seriously and in the summer of 1829 he prepared a sort of constitution for the church called the Articles of the Church of Christ. Joseph Smith used his prophetic gift to add to Oliver’s work, and the resulting document, the Articles and Covenants of the Church, is the source of our modern section 20 in the Doctrine and Covenants. As the June 1829 revelation had directed, Oliver relied heavily on the Book of Mormon: the Articles and Covenants follows the Book of Mormon to establish the church offices of Elder, Priest, and Teacher, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon, as well as the sacrament prayers, which are taken word-for-word from the Book of Mormon.

But, from Joseph Smith’s additions, the Articles and Covenants also establishes certain church practices that are not found in the Book of Mormon. One of these is the practice of holding conferences. [Read more…]

Lesson 16: “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” #BCCSundaySchool2018

 

P1150002_Cognacq-Jay_Rembrandt_anesse_de_Balaam_rwk

Rembrandt’s visualization of Balaam, his ass, and the angel- Mbzt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23551459

[Read more…]

Lesson 15: “Look to God and Live” #BCCSundaySchool2018

SNL-Bill-Hader-as-Stefon

The Old Testament’s hottest book is Numbers. This week’s reading has it all: burnings, plagues, miraculous leprosy, poisonous flying hell-snakes, and a meat sneeze. What’s a meat sneeze? It’s that thing where you complain about eating manna, so God makes you eat meat for a month until it comes out of your nostrils. [Read more…]

Easter Morning (A poem)

Here’s a poem I wrote for Easter a few years ago and that I’ve tinkered with recently.

20180325_172504

Crocuses in my backyard. Taken Tuesday of Holy Week, 2018.

 

 

I woke in the dark.
I climbed a nearby hill where I could spy the eastern horizon
through a break in the wet trees.
And I watched.

The walls of the world veiled the living sun,
and a wet, grey curtain was drawn across the sky.
But the life that was in the sun shone out
from beyond the walls of the world,
And the grey cloud-curtain glowed at its hem, the color of burnished copper.
And it turned here and there
from the color of wet stones,
to the color of herons’ wings,
and to the colors of the pale crocuses that pierce snow and brown turf
and the wreckage of last season’s leaves,
and to the color of saffron,
and the color of robins’ breasts,
and the color of blood.

And then it flamed.

And a pinprick of consuming light
pierced the circles of the world,
and grew.

And the light washed over the world,
and the sun rose, or maybe the world went down,
until the world was immersed in the light of life—
the earth, the turf, the trees,
the lichens and fungi,
worms and insects,
the robins, and blue-jays, the woodpeckers,
the mice, squirrels, deer, and all beasts,
and women and men, with all their cunning craft,
to walk (and creep, and fly, and run, and leap, and dance, and sing, and love, and build, and make) in newness of life
upon the old earth renewed.

But then the golden hour ended,
and the living light that had bathed the world drained off
and soaked into the soil,
and was gone.
And I walked back home to breakfast.

But the sun shone still,
with a cold light, a quick light,
a light to reach into dark corners and uncover secrets,
and drive out hidden things from dark places in deep woods
where snow lingers long.

“Woman, I know him not”: The Apostle Peter and the Testimony of Women.

Engraved_art_work_at_Gallicantu_Peter's_Church

Doors from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, the site where tradition says Caiphas’ house stood. Source: By Anton 17 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28493336

 

 

 

 

Late last night, after all my family was asleep and I was restless and sleepless, I reread the passages from the gospels about when Jesus is taken. And I noticed something I had never noticed before: When Peter denies Jesus, he is denying women.

In that dark, liminal night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Peter is put totally out of his reckoning. It begins in the upper room when Jesus tells Peter he will deny him. “Not so,” he says, “I’ll die first.” But then when Jesus asks him and the others to stay awake and just be present with him while he prays, Peter denies him that. Sleep overcomes Peter, and Jesus wakes him asking “what, could you not even stay awake with me one hour?” That must have stung. Maybe it was a desire to prove Jesus wrong, to keep the oath he made back in the upper room that he would die before denying Jesus, or a desire to justify himself or redeem himself after falling asleep that motivated Peter to take up his sword not long after that. But then Jesus rebukes him again. First he’s been rebuked for not being zealous enough to accompany Jesus in his agony, and now he’s been rebuked for being too zealous in his defense of Jesus. And on top of that, he sees his Lord and Messiah bound and taken as a captive. He is out of his reckoning. He has no idea what he should do.

So he follows Jesus at a distance and sneaks in to Caiaphas’ court. Unable to save him, but unable to leave him either, he goes along—not to do anything but just “to see the end,” as Matthew put it (Matthew 26:58).  [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of Our Religion.” Part II: The Significance of Willard Richards’ 1853 Revisions.

This is part two of my look at the textual history of Joseph Smith’s oft-quoted statement on “the fundamental principles of our religion.” In the first part, I tried to find the original source of the statement in the Elders’ Journal in 1838, and then traced it through three revisions as it was collected in Willard Richards’ Manuscript History of the Church in late 1843, published in the Deseret News in 1853, and then published again in B.H. Roberts’ History of the Church in 1905. As I noted, the statement was later published again in Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1938 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the church’s 2007 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, but these later publications did not further revise Roberts’ revised text. Roberts’ revision became the standard text quoted by church leaders and members in the 20th century and that tradition continues to this day, with the exception of Elder Ballard, who quoted the original Elder’s Journal text in his October 2014 Conference address.

In this part, we’re going to look at the significance of the revisions. [Read more…]

Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of our Religion.” Part I: Authorship, Attribution, Revision, and Publication.

President Nelson will soon give his first general conference address as the President of the Church. When he gave his first address as an apostle, then-Elder Nelson quoted Joseph Smith as saying that “[t]he fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” He quoted the same statement in his April 2017 conference address. It’s a familiar statement. Church leaders and members quote it regularly. But where does it come from? What’s the story behind it?

A few years ago I quoted this statement when I gave an Easter talk. As I was preparing that talk, I was curious about its original context and I decided to track down the original primary source. I’m no historian, but that curiosity later led me down a rabbit hole of authorship, attribution, publication, revision, edition, and republication.

I’ve gathered those notes now into a two-part series. This part deals with the authorship, the revision, the publication, and contemporary use of the statement. The next one explores the potential significance of the revisions that later editors made to the statement. [Read more…]

The Sabbath as a Celebration of Freedom

The Old Testament contains two versions of the ten commandments: the version in Exodus when Moses receives the commandments, and the version in Deuteronomy at the end of Israel’s wandering, just as the people are about to enter the promised land. But from Exodus to Deuteronomy, the reason for the Sabbath day shifts. The Sabbath goes from being a celebration of creation in Exodus to a celebration of freedom in Deuteronomy. Two weeks ago our teacher in a priesthood lesson pointed out this difference between the Exodus version and the Deuteronomy version. I had never noticed it before. It’s been on my mind since then. [Read more…]

How (not) to pass an Abrahamic test.

In the Old Testament God decides to “tempt” Abraham (Genesis 22:1) by asking that he sacrifice his miracle son, Isaac, in whom he rested all his hopes for God’s promises to him.

But what sort of a test was Abraham’s test? Was it a test with only one right answer?

There are different kinds of tests. A well-written true/false question has only one right answer, but an essay question might have many possible right answers. Some tests are meant to test our knowledge. Others, like a driver’s test, are meant to test our knowledge and ability. Others are meant to test the depth of our reasoning. In a law school exam, for example, a student could reach the wrong ultimate conclusion and still earn a good score based on her ability to identify the issues and reason through the problem. A psychological test doesn’t measure our knowledge or ability, but is supposed to evaluate our mental characteristics and wellness.

The Kobayashi Maru from the Star Trek universe is an example of a test with no right answer. The Kobayashi Maru is a simulation where the captain receives a distress call from a ship called the Kobayashi Maru. The simulation is programmed so that if the captain does not attempt the rescue, the Kobayashi Maru is destroyed but if the captain attempts to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, the attempt provokes a battle with Klingon ships that ends in the captain’s own ship’s destruction. All choices lead to failure. It’s designed to test how the officer will wrestle with competing principles. It’s designed more to test character than to test knowledge or ability. [Read more…]

The President of the Church and the Prophet to the Church.

In July of 1843, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said something that observers interpreted as a proposal to call his brother Hyrum as Prophet in his place. He was reportedly confronted by church members who protested on the basis that he, not Hyrum, enjoyed the gift of prophecy. A week later, Joseph explained that he had said it “ironically,” or “to try the church members’ faith.” He explained that “the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus,” quoting the Book of Revelation, and referred to the promises of the melchizedek priesthood. [1]

These statements are open to some interpretation, but I believe Joseph Smith was getting at two things: First, his reference to the priesthood suggests that the gift of prophecy he enjoyed was something that the Lord promised not to him alone, but to all those ordained to the melchizedek priesthood. [2] But second, even more radically democratic, his reference to the “testimony of Jesus” as the spirit of prophecy suggests that prophecy was a gift promised not just to melchizedek priesthood holders, and not even just to baptized members of the church, but to any person with a testimony of Jesus.  [Read more…]

Advent 2017: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Hornell

Hornell Branch Meetinghouse, December 17, 2017

This post is based on a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting in the Hornell, New York Branch on December 17, 2017.

This year, as we prepare for Christmas, I’ve been especially impressed by a line in Peter’s first letter to the church. Peter says this: “[B]e clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). [Read more…]

Tolkien on Scripture Study

The single most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve read is Tolkien’s essay, Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. Or, more precisely, the most important piece of writing about scripture study that I’ve ever read is Tolkien’s allegory of the man and the tower, contained in his essay, “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” I’ve written before about how I see the most pervasive themes in Tolkien’s writings as among the most pervasive themes of the Book of Mormon (see these posts). But this post is not about how Tolkien’s work relates to the content of the scriptures; it’s about how it relates to how we approach them. This allegory is probably the piece of writing that has most improved my scripture study. [Read more…]