Dear Mormon Voters of the American West: Maybe You’re the White Horse We’ve Been Waiting For

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Just forget about the White Horse Prophecy. It’s a fun bit of Mormon folklore, but like most folklore it’s fictitious nonsense. More important is the fact that–again, like most folklore–this fictitious nonsense is revealing of, and gives us American Mormons reason to remember, what was at one time a widely shared assumption among Mormon leaders: specifically that, as Brigham Young (and John Taylor, and Harold B. Lee, and multiple others) reportedly said, “if the Constitution of the United States is to be saved at all it must be done by this people” (see, for example, Journal of Discourses 12:204, April 8, 1868).

That’s not a reference to an LDS President of the United States–not a Romney, not a Huntsman, not a Hatch, despite the weird interpretations inspired by the aforementioned ersatz prophecy. It’s not a reference to any particular person at all. Rather, that’s a reference of the Mormon people. Many of whom will be eligible to vote this November. And maybe that is where this old teaching will unexpectedly come into its own as truth. [Read more…]

Invisible Church, Immanent Community

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

In the liturgical calendar of the Christian tradition, today is Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, a day to commemorate a marvelous, mostly invisible miracle. As the story goes, the resurrected Lord had left His disciples 10 days earlier; as Ronan Head put it in a fine post just a week and a half ago, “Jesus was, in some profound way, with God and not, in bodily form at least, any longer on the earth.” But the disciples continued to meet has they had been commanded, and on Shavuot, as thousands of Jews from parts both far and near gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, the miracle occurred. As the King James Version puts it (Acts 2:2-4):

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. [Read more…]

The Passing of a Senator

bennettSenator Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator from Utah, passed away Wednesday evening. I never met him, and never particularly cared for his political views. But my wish to bow my head, offer condolences to his family, and wish his soul godspeed at this time isn’t simply a consequence of the vague imperative we all so often feel to speak well of the departed. The plain fact of the matter is that Bob Bennett in so many ways very clearly embodied the classic ideal of a “senator” (the original meaning of which being, quite simply, “wise old man”), and that is a thing worth high praise. [Read more…]

What Matters Endures

I’m not much of a temple guy myself, but when my tribe takes a building that was so much a part of the civil and religious topography a particular, historically meaningful place, accepts what was lost, and then rebuilds…well, it makes me happy. I see they kept the staircases, and I see Mt. Timpanogos in the Telestial Room, and it makes me happier still. Despite all that is worth complaining about, I look at this and I say: this is a good day. The Tabernacle is still there, and in a small but real way, that matters.

A Year of Hard Love

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I’ve joked for years about being a closet Lutheran–joked about it for so long, in fact, I can’t remember when I first started doing it. I know it wasn’t because one day I read and found myself converted to the Lutheran Book of Concord or any such thing (though over the decades I have read and found myself agreeing with its contents a whole lot more than I disagree). It may go way back t my childhood, back to reading scriptures like Matthew 18:7, in the King James Version: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (A nearly identical passage can be found in Luke 17:1.) There was a terrible, yet comforting, logic to those passages as I understood them, so long ago: first, that this will be world of offenses, of horrors, of hardness, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it–and second, that God will still hold by whom those offenses, those horrors, that hardness comes accountable. This was a God, I thought, with whom you can know where you stand. [Read more…]

Ten Psalms to Remember

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last week, continuing my slow journey through the Old Testament, I finished the Book of Psalms, aided as always by the work of Robert Alter. It was a strange, often difficult and boring, but sometimes surprising and even inspiring. If reading poetry isn’t something you normally do–and I don’t–then I suspect going straight through the entire Book of Psalms and confronting its mish-mash collection of 150 ancient works of temple liturgy, private devotion, celebratory hymns, and meditative practice isn’t an ideal beginning spot. [Read more…]

The Shepherds and The Magoi

wise_men_passing_shepherds [A guest post from Glen Henshaw, a husband, a father, an engineer, a lover and raiser of animals, and a longtime reader of the blog.]

I’m looking at our family nativity scene in our bay window right now. There are Mary and Joseph, some angels, a few shepherds, and three wise men, all surrounding a creche that contains the baby Jesus, who is the focal point of the scene. When we talk about “the meaning of Christmas”, this is what we usually mean: Christmas is a story about the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

But what is the Christmas story about, really? Is it a story about the birth of a baby who would become the Savior of the world? I don’t think so. [Read more…]

Tyler Glenn at Provo’s Affirmation Conference

Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.

(Video provided by Wendy Williams Montgomery.)

The Real Handcart Song

Exactly ten years ago I posted one Pioneer Day plea: could we please at least sing the whole original song? It’s so much better than the shortened version the majority of us American Mormons learned in Primary. A decade on, unfortunately, the plea is as timely as ever. So come along every, let’s sing! [Read more…]

The Unavoidable Reality of Generational Change

sunday-school It’s become rather common here on the Bloggernacle to talk about Mormonism in terms of a “two church” theory–namely, that there are those who are internet-savvy, who have a fair amount of education, who are somewhat critical in the way the make use of science, philosophy, and history in how they think about the truth claims of the church, and then there are those who mostly are and do none of those things. Some people have made a big deal about this divide, whereas others have pushed back against it just as strongly. I don’t think it’s necessary to commit to strong sociological arguments about who belongs to which group or whether they even exist to acknowledge the very simple fact that, as times change, and especially as technologies change, the ways people think about and teach about their own religious experiences change also. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see the church’s effort to embrace better scholarship, nor the discussions those efforts give rise to. That these changes are both motivated by and received by populations of the faithful of different ages in different ways is probably an unavoidable reality. [Read more…]

Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we’ll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It’s a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done. [Read more…]

Blessed Easter, Blessed Spring, Blessed Day

It’s morning. Which means, as always, by God’s grace, it’s time to begin again.

A Mormon Easter Sermon, Again

Very nearly exactly 30 years ago, on the Saturday morning before Easter, April 6, 1985, a sermon, just like those which will begin a half-hour from now, was given during the first session of general conference. Except that it wasn’t “just like” any other sermon given that day–and, I strongly suspect, won’t be like any of those who read this are likely to hear this morning, or through all conference. The sermon I’m talking about is Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s final general conference address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane”, given on that Holy Saturday. He’d come from the hospital, where was dying of cancer, to the old Tabernacle to give this sermon; he passed away 13 days later. Whoever may or may not speak this morning, trust me: they will almost certainly not have anything as important, or as appropriate, to say this Eastertide as Elder McConkie did, thirty years ago. I remember watching it, long ago, and it moved me. Though I struggle with McConkie’s influence on the church and his Christian theology and interpretation of scripture, I cannot deny: it moves me still.
[Read more…]

Should Mormons (or Anyone) Hope to Change the World?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

For many decades at least–and maybe, depending on whose history you most trust, maybe ever since our beginning–the dominant American Mormon mode for thinking about this thing which the scriptures and those who claim to be able to authoritatively comment upon them tend to call “the world” has been to, if not completely flee it, then at least stand at a remove from it: to be “in the world, but not of the world.” There’s a deep scriptural truth to this formulation, reflecting as it does one of the final statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. But just as many Christians–and, of late, more and more Mormons–have been equally inspired by the tradition of the Great Commission: that we are called to go about into the world, and change it for the better. This means evangelization and missionary work, of course, something which the Mormon church has embraced from the start. But it also means many other kinds of service and charitable works as well–something which, to our credit, we’ve done our best to get caught up on in recent years.

Jesus taught the eternal value of changing lives through loving service, and that is more than enough for most Christians. Mormons, though, might imagine that there is an additional endpoint to all that going out into and changing of the world, one which which distinguishes us from many (not all, for certain, but nonetheless many) other Christian groups: the ultimate aim of building up the kingdom of God upon the earth and establishing Zion–which for Mormons like me means a community and/or state of being where all are of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and no one is poor. [Read more…]

Just Whom Are We Inoculating?

inoculationLast week, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote another of her typically insightful surveys of current trends in Mormon life–this one focusing on the impact which the LDS Church’s recent openness regarding various complicated historical and theological issues (from the origin of the priesthood ban to the historicity of the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith’s personal involvement in plural marriage) are likely to have as the church continues to grow and change. It was widely shared on social media–and that sharing led an old friend of mine, who no longer associates with the church, to share some thoughts with me: [Read more…]

Sunday sermon: On Spiritual Responsibility and Self-Sufficiency

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a sermon I gave in sacrament meeting, on January 11, 2015, in Wichita, KS.

Recently, a thought got stuck in my head: do I really take responsibility for my own beliefs? That is, do I attend to what I believe, to determine what it is and what it means for me, and to decide whether I still believe whatever I used to say I believed or not? If beliefs lead to actions–and they don’t always, but surely they do often enough–then the gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to action of behalf of our fellow human beings (and particularly the gospel as it is interpreted through Mormonism, which additionally calls upon us to build Zion), demands that we take the time to really think over, and get clear on, and be forthright about, both what we do and what we do not believe. And I really mean we there. I’m not talking about what our church teaches us to believe, or even about what we tend to say we believe in response to questions asked by others, but rather what we, looking inside ourselves, can honestly say we–not anyone else–truly hope and affirm. [Read more…]

Five Blessings from Reading (Really Reading) the Five Books of Moses

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

A few months ago, I began reading the Old Testament, a book of scripture which I have never before been able to read all the way through (the closest I ever came was 25 years ago while on my mission in South Korea; reading from Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version of the Bible, I made it all the way through Jeremiah, at which point I simply couldn’t take it any more and gave up). This reading, once I determined that I was going to do it right, involved my trusty Revised English Bible (my favorite translation out of the four or so I own) and Robert Alter’s wonderful translations and commentary. Just before Christmas I finished working through his largest chunk of the Old Testament, The Five Books of Moses, and I figured I ought to be able to come with at five statements of gratitude for my reading of this, the oldest and most foundational text of the whole Western religious and philosophical tradition. [Read more…]

Seeing Him in 2014

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This year our youngest daughter turned eight, and as her older sisters are busy with other things and her mother has been working, it’s been mostly me who has spent time with her, reading Christmas books (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas is the new favorite this year) and watching all the essentials. A few days ago she told me about a friend at school who told her “Santa Claus is fake,” and wanted to know what I thought. I told her the truth, of course: Santa Claus is real. She wanted assurance, and wrote him a letter, asking if he was real or not. I happen to have an advance copy of what Santa wrote back, which I share with his permission with you all here: [Read more…]

Christmas Memories from Korea

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Despite recent (and ongoing) changes to the Mormon missionary program, the majority of those charged with traveling the world and evangelizing on behalf of the LDS Church are (and will likely remain for a good while yet) young white men from supportive Mormon families in the western United States. Being young, usually not very worldly-wise, usually not very experienced in dealing with foreign cultures or differing sensibilities, and usually carrying around with them expectations shaped by growing up in a family- and tradition-centered church, the Christmas holidays can be a rough time. Twenty-five years ago I was one of them, going through my second Christmas as a Mormon missionary in South Korea. My second Christmas in the country was better than my first. Why? Well, let me explain. [Read more…]

Thanksgiving Morning Live Music: “Thanks A Lot”

I realized early this morning, while extracting the giblets from our now thawed turkey, that it had been ten years since I last shared these sentiments with anyone online on Thanksiving Day. So I decided to do so again.

I’m a lucky man. The Fox family has a home, we have our health, and–often, anyway–we have a lot of genuine happiness. We’re all together this holiday, and we also have many friends and large families spread all over, a small portion of which will be spending Thanksgiving with us this year. We have traditions that, however silly they may seem, bring meaning to our lives. We have our faith, however inconsistent and complicated our experience of it is. In the midst of a world filled with anger and confusion and disagreement and violence and despair, we have–if I am honest with myself, anyway–only minimal amounts of any of the above. We are, in short, very lucky, and have much to be thankful for. My holiday wish is that many of you, in your own distinct ways, will be able to say much the same.

Mormons and the American Liberal Order

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics is a superb work of social science. David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson make exhaustive use of numerous recent surveys conducted by the Pew Forum and Gallup, and a half-dozen surveys which they designed themselves, to produce about as detailed and revealing a look at the political preferences and peculiarities of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America as probably any group of scholars ever could. While some of the information which the authors make use of has already been reported in American Grace (a blockbuster in the sociology of religion in America which Campbell co-authored with Robert Putnam), here that information is packaged alongside numerous historic observations and other scholarly insights, resulting in something which stands entirely on its own. Of course, as with any academic study that depends largely upon survey research and the self-reporting of those interviewed, the compiled results need to be recognized for what they are: namely, the best conclusions that correlational and regression analysis allows. Still, I think it is fair to say that just as all serious discussions of actual religious practices and behaviors in the U.S. need to take Putnam and Campbell’s work into consideration, this book by Campbell, Green, and Monson is indisputably the new starting point for all serious conversations about American Mormons and politics from here on out. [Read more…]

On Being a Liberal Mormon: Two Defenses and an Attack

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

One week before election day here in the United States, let’s consider, both politically and philosophically, a couple of recent, superb, highly thoughtful books which ask Mormons to embrace–in one case explicitly (Richard Davis’s The Liberal Soul), in the other case only implicitly and probably unintentionally (Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt)–a highly contested label: “liberalism.” And while we’re at it, let’s also consider one relatively prominent voice of opposition to that embrace, and see if it makes its case. (Preview: I don’t think it does.) [Read more…]

The Settled and the Strange: Seven Thoughts for Sukkot

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Today is the first full day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, one of several Jewish holidays that I have long felt a certain amount of holy envy for. I love it for several reasons: because it is, at heart, a harvest festival, associated with the “ingathering” of crops and taking comfort in the bounties of the land; because it focuses our attention on the element of “place” in those rituals (both divine and mundane) that attend our building of our own homes and lives; but mostly, I think, because it conveys a permanent sense of the transitional in those very same bounties and that same sense of hominess and belonging. All Israel was commanded, during the days of the feast, to build booths or temporary shelters for themselves out in the fields, to leave their homes and beds and sleep and eat their meals inside them for seven days, to remind them of their special–but also always perilous–dependent relationship with God, who led them out of Egypt and made possible everything they were or had. Anyway, herewith, seven thoughts: [Read more…]

Meeting the Ups

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Just so you know, there’s probably no way that anyone who doesn’t fit into the very narrow Venn overlap of “church-going Mormons” and “Up completists” will be able to understand this post. So that means just about everyone can now safely skip over it. [Read more…]

Defending God’s Sovereignty (Who is God?, Part 2)

The title of this post is a lie: I’m not going to defend God’s sovereignty, not really anyway. I’m not not going to do it for two reasons. First, because I have no theological belief about God’s nature or power or personality or sovereignty firm enough to qualify as something that I am genuinely capable of “defending.” Frankly, God is a mystery to me, and I tend to believe that He wants it to be that way, for His own mostly unknowable reasons. Second, because to engage in a defense means to present an argument–in this case, one against the position that Jason has sketched out, which presents some questions and possibilities in connection with the idea that the Mormon notion of God presents Him as vulnerable, not sovereign–and while I’d like to think I’m at least minimally well-read in the theological literature, my disagreement with him, and my belief that the God which Christians like ourselves worship is not essentially vulnerable, but rather is essentially sovereign, is rooted in other perceptions that lack the rigor of theological argument. The best I can do, then, is talk about where those perceptions came from, and what they’ve meant to me. [Read more…]

Are More Missionaries Returning Early?

earlyreturnOver the past year, I’ve become aware of something which I wonder might be a new trend, or at least a new understanding, abroad in the American church. Specifically, I have seen missionaries (invariably elders; none of my examples involve sisters) returning from their missions early, never (or at least never explicitly) for reasons of disobedience or financial obligations or sin, but rather for reasons of stress, or stomach-aches, or homesickness, or a fear of losing their testimony, or anxiety, or anger management issues arising from conflicts with companions, or depression, or headaches, or some combination of all of the above. I am not in any way disparaging any of those reasons for returning from one’s mission; every one of the half-dozen or so cases I know of personally–and all of those I’ve learned about from others, of which there seem to be many–involve genuine struggle and legitimate concerns, and I have a lot of sympathy for the hard choices these former missionaries (a few of whom being young men I’ve known for years) have had to make. But still, I’ve seen these boys return, and attend church and receive callings and make plans for college or finding jobs or going on dates or returning to the mission field (though that option, while always spoken of, has never actually been taken by any of the ex-elders I’m thinking of), all without dealing with any church discipline or any kind of medical supervision or really from any real social costs that I’m able to see, and I think to myself: man, times have changed. [Read more…]

The Tale of a Mission, 40 Years Later

Craig Harline, a BYU professor of European history and fairly prolific author (by my standards, anyway) as well as the presenter of a speech on how religions and cultures change that every informed person ought to listen to, has written a beautiful, hilarious, and haunting book. Titled Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, you may have caught a couple of glimpses of it a while ago on Times and Seasons. It is a mission memoir, one that Harline states he’d wanted to write for many years, but didn’t really feel like he could until nearly 40 years had passed since his mid-70s sojourn in the short-lived Belgium Antwerp Mission (opened in 1975, closed in 1982, later re-opened as part of the Belgium/Netherlands Mission). The reflective wisdom and writing skill which he’s developed over those decades is very much on display in this book; it’s the best, most thoughtful, funniest and truest recreation of missionary life–especially the internal life of a missionary–that I’ve ever read. [Read more…]

Leaving a Changed Magazine Behind

churchmagazinesMy wife and I have subscribed to the church magazines–The Ensign, for our tweens and teen-agers The New Era, and for our younger children The Friend–for all of our married life, more than 20 years. But this year, after some discussion, we simply decided that we were giving up on them entirely. No more subscribing. We’ve saved ourselves $26. [Read more…]

The Surprising Nativity: A Chrismas Homily

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The passage from the New Testament which always hear this time of year includes these important, well-known lines:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

The phrase “sore afraid” is a translation of the Greek word phobeō; it communicates the idea of, not just fear, but of taking alarm, and of sudden surprise. The shepherds, in other words, were terrified–not because, or at least not solely because, the appearance of the angel was a terrifying vision, but also because it was unexpected, and shocking. This was not something they ever could have been prepared for. [Read more…]

Why I Like Popes (Some of Them, Sometimes)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. I didn’t take any notice–but then, I’m neither Catholic, nor from Argentina. (Of the tens of millions of people who do fit that description, the word is quite a few of them noticed it very much.) Perhaps I should have, though, because one of the most important things John Paul II did during his 26+ years as the Bishop of Rome (the second-longest period of service in all of Catholic history) was bring into the College of Cardinals large numbers of bishops whom he trusted to carry forward the church in a manner that he understood to be where the Holy Spirit was calling it. And Francis, the current Roman Pontiff and now Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is certainly a servant of God very much after the pattern of John Paul the Great. [Read more…]

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