Margaret Merrill Toscano’s Theology: An Appreciation

One of the most frustrating, perplexing, bewildering, thought-provoking, and finally powerful books on Mormon theology that I have ever read is Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology by Margaret Merrill Toscano and her husband, Paul Toscano. In celebration of Margaret Toscano’s recent guest post at Feminist Mormon Housewives, and also as an opportunity to express the exhilarations and frustrations that are my subjective response to her work, I would like to offer a brief appreciation of her contributions to Mormon theology. In my view, Toscano is one of the most important Mormon theological writers of our generation. She, more than perhaps anyone else currently writing, asks the right questions and offers fascinating, challenging, and sometimes flabbergasting responses. I am hard-pressed to think of any other recent writer who has done more creative work with the theological symbols of Mormonism. [Read more…]

Fighting the Good Fight

When we think about morality in our personal lives, we often focus on the simple, mundane choices that we face. Should we pay our tithing or not? How hard should we work at our jobs? How should we react when others criticize us? These are indeed moral choices, yet all of us face larger, more defining decisions every day. Let me sketch one such decision that we all currently face, as well as my belief about what the moral decision is — and some of the reasons that I’m not making that moral choice.

The longstanding genocidal conflict in the Darfur region of the Sudan has spread into the eastern regions of neighboring Chad. As in Darfur, Arab militias from Chad and from across the border in the Sudan (called the janjaweed) are now slaughtering black African residents of the region wholesale. There are political aspects of the struggle, but much of the killing seems purely racial, purely genocidal. [Read more…]

Let the Fundamentalist Speak?

There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. For instance, in answering the following questions, consider a fundamentalist Mormon who advocates polygamy, the Adam-God doctrine, racial restrictions on priesthood, and other elements of the Mormon past as eternal truths. [Read more…]

Race and the Spencer W. Kimball Manual

In future historical treatments of Spencer W. Kimball’s ministry, race will almost certainly be seen as a central theme. Indeed, perhaps the single most influential act in his religious life was the elimination of Mormonism’s ban on priesthood ordination and temple ordinances for people racially conceptualized as being of African descent.[1] The most recent addition to the Mormon canon is the official statement, by Kimball and his subordinates in the First Presidency, granting priesthood to black men, and access to temple ceremonies to black men and women. Beyond this major change in church racial policy, Kimball’s life also incorporated other important racial themes, including his racially-defined special ministry to the Lamanites (i.e., Native Americans and Polynesians), and his famous teachings on avoiding interracial and inter-cultural marriages. In light of the centrality of racial themes to Kimball’s life and ministry, we might expect race to play some role in this year’s priesthood/Relief Society lesson manual on his teachings. Are we to be disappointed in that expectation? [Read more…]

The Parable of the Bad Shepherd

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7, NRSV)

We are all familiar with the famous good shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost one, who is the keeper of the gate, who lays down his life for the sheep. This brief essay is about the good shepherd’s younger brother, the bad shepherd. We all know him well, although he usually goes by another name. [Read more…]

Six Anti-Mormonisms

What is an anti-Mormon? Latter-day Saints tend to have quite strong, and quite negative, feelings about anti-Mormons. My guess is that they might be our least-liked group — the one that Mormons would feel most reservations about allowing to speak at a library or teach at a high school (standard indicators used to measure social tolerance in survey research). But defining the boundaries of this highly-disliked group is a bit difficult to do. Some of us define anti-Mormonism in such broad terms that virtually all non-Mormons, and some faithful Mormons, fit in the category. Others choose a more narrow definition.

Terminological debates like these are typically painful and difficult to resolve. If a major moral taint didn’t attach to the word, it probably wouldn’t be worth thinking about what it actually means. But moral stigma does attach, with anti-Mormons thought of by some Latter-day Saints in the same ways that anti-Semites are thought of by World War II-era Jewish folks. So it may be worth tracing through definitions and thinking about who would be included. [Read more…]

Wresting the Scriptures

Our canonical texts are stridently negative about the practice of “wresting the scriptures.” Wresting the scriptures is said to lead to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20), to lead us far astray (Alma 41:1), and to produce contention (D&C 10:63). What, exactly, is this dangerous thing, this sower of chaos, this “wresting” of the scriptures? [Read more…]

The Prophet Jesse James

On June 9th, 1844, Joseph Smith may have sent James J. Strang (a relatively obscure Mormon living at Burlington, Wisconsin, who was known as Jesse James before he reversed his first and middle names in about 1834), a letter appointing Strang as Smith’s successor as Mormon prophet. In conjunction with an angelic ordination, this letter launched Strang’s 12-year career as one of the most colorful individuals in Mormon history. During that time, Strang played the parts of the prophet, the seer, the translator of ancient scripture, the polygamist, the colonizer, the theocratic king, the democratic legislator, and, last but not least, the martyr.

Strang’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while still nominally in existence, effectively died with its founding prophet. Hence, the man and his organization are of almost purely abstract, historical interest. In spite of the relatively limited religious legacy of Strang and his version of the Mormon church, however, a surprisingly broad collection of quite good books have been written about the man. The most recent addition to this library is Vickie Cleverley Speek’s excellent “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons. [Read more…]

Collective Action

Why aren’t we active enough in helping the poor to eliminate poverty in at least those countries which are reasonably democratic and lacking in corruption? It is clear that we have a gospel obligation to do so, and that there are programs available that work, at least to some extent. Why, then, are the poor still with us?

One factor in the explanation is almost certainly the problem known to social scientists as the “collective action dilemma.” This problem, most famously expounded by the economist Mancur Olson in 1965, involves a special set of difficulties that arise in persuading large groups of people to work together for the common good. The idea is a bit complex, but it is also quite directly relevant to problems of poverty — and the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a radical and breathtaking solution to it. Hence, I hope you will bear with a bit of explanation. [Read more…]

Accountability; or, Don’t Vote Republican

Both the empirical study of politics and political philosophy have identified two competing models of voting. People sometimes engage in issue/ideological voting, in which they evaluate the competing candidates’ or parties’ stands on the major political debates of the day and vote in favor of whoever is closest to what they believe to be right. Alternatively, people can engage in approval voting, in which they evaluate the job performance of the politician or party currently in power, voting in favor of that party if things are going well and in favor of the opposition if things are going badly. Both models of voting have important roles to play in keeping a democratic political regime on track. Without issue voting, popular views on what policy ought to be really never enter into the policy-making debate. Without approval voting, parties and politicians face no consequences for misbehavior.

This post is an argument that, in 2006, Mormons ought to engage in approval voting and work to remove Republicans from political office — regardless of whether the Democrats seem to be better or worse on the issues. [Read more…]

Treasure Digging: A Drama in Three Acts

Deaths and supernatural visions are said to come in threes; perhaps it is, therefore, fitting that I tell the story of my encounters with treasure digging in three vignettes.


When I was younger, my father served in the military, so our family lived in base housing. Our home had a sandbox that was remarkably important to me and my neighborhood friends. You see, we had concluded — using reasoning that now strikes me as somewhat opaque — that below the sandbox was a significant cache of “rich oil.” This belief was reinforced by an “old map” that one of the children drew, showing an X marking the spot of the sandbox. As we dug, we could almost feel the oil churning beneath our feet. [Read more…]

Books I Have a Testimony Of

A few months ago, on a fast Sunday, Taryn (my wife) stood up during fast and testimony meeting and expressed her emotional and spiritual conviction of the value of our community fasts. Perhaps somewhat unusually, she didn’t emphasize the spiritual learning or comfort that she received through fasting; nor did she discuss miraculous, divine interventions that had been prompted through fasting. Instead, she talked about the social and economic solidarity reasons that, in Leonard Arrington’s interpretation, were the original reasons for the development of community fast days among the Mormons. In effect, my wife bore her testimony of Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, a book that is neither canonized nor even published by the church. [Read more…]

Confessions of Faith

For reasons that I can’t quite get my mind around, my personal faith status has, in recent weeks, become one of the hot topics of discussion in the LDS blog community. I wouldn’t generally choose to respond to such remarks, but the widespread discussion about my beliefs provides a good opportunity for posting some comments that I’ve wanted to present for quite some time: my personal confession of faith. [Read more…]

Wars and Rumors

The Catholic church has spent centuries refining its theology of “just wars.” This theology partly reflects biblical ideas, including Old Testament and New Testament statements about the necessity of conflict to defend the Kingdom of God. In part, the just war doctrine also reflects the pragmatic needs of a church that has helped govern much of a continent for hundreds to thousands of years.

Compared with the Catholics, Mormons have unique theological resources for constructing a theology of war. The Book of Mormon, in particular, contains extensive texts about righteous and wicked warfare. If we were to describe a theory of righteous warfare on the basis of the Book of Mormon, what would it look like? [Read more…]

Speaking Truth to Power

The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has become something of a cliche among people on the political left. Street protesters, urban activists, and environmental organizers often think of and talk about their work in these terms. Implicit in this phrase, I think, is the idea that the truth (about poverty, the environment, the morality of abortion, civil rights, etc.) is self-evident to anyone who is willing to look. Furthermore, authority figures are probably willfully blind to this truth. So, protest and social communication are not only justified but, perhaps, mandatory: people in power need to be made to see the truth. Once they recognize the world for what it is, the social truth will overwhelm leaders’ decision to disregard a given problem and force them to take righteous action. [Read more…]

Moses Most Mormon

Paul Y. Hoskisson, ed. Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament. Salt Lake: Religious Studies Center, BYU, and Deseret Book, 2005.

Andrew C. Skinner. Prophets, Priests, and Kings: Old Testament Figures Who Symbolize Christ. Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 2005.

Mainstream Mormon publications on scripture studies follow a four-year calendar; after all, how large would the market be among rank-and-file Mormons for a book on the Old Testament in a year when the Sunday School reading is the Doctrine and Covenants or the Book of Mormon? Don’t most Mormons like to basically pretend that the Old Testament doesn’t even exist during the off years in the Sunday School calendar? [Read more…]

Famine for the Words of the Lord

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. (Amos 8:11)

In Mormon contexts, this Old Testament text is often taken as a prophecy of the Great Apostasy, and sometimes as a description of people outside the LDS church today. Sadly, there is a sense in which this statement is true, as well, of many active, faithful Latter-day Saints. [Read more…]

“All Major Political Parties”

The hot church-related news of the week involves this year’s variant on the traditional statement on political parties. In addition to the standard instructions about not using church buildings for political purposes and participating in the democratic process, this year’s statement contains something new. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the statement says:

Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties.

[Read more…]

A Civility Pledge

Note: although this is posted in my name, in fact it is a collective statement by Steve Evans, Ronan, Ed Snow, Davis Bell, Kaimipono Wenger, Karen Hall, Kris Wright, J. Stapley, Aaron Brown, Elisabeth Calvert Smith, John Hatch, and me.


Just before a mass baptism of the people that he led, Alma explained the baptismal covenant. The ordinance is for those who

are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death (Mosiah 18:8-9).

If these requirements are binding on us “at all times and in all things, and in all places,” then surely they apply to our interactions within the world of the Mormon internet. We have all, at times, failed in our obligation to comfort and bear the burdens of others within our community, and we recommit here to do better.

Accordingly, we pledge: [Read more…]

Suffer the Little Children (To Give Tax Credits to Wealthy Families)

In President Bush’s press conference of November 4, 2004, our fearless leader stated that, “We must reform our complicated and outdated tax code.” And reform it the government has certainly done. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests a wide range of possible definitions of the word “reform.” The two most relevant to this year’s changes in the tax code are: (a) “To make a change for the better in (an arrangement, state of things, practice or proceeding, institution, etc.); to amend or improve by removal of faults or abuses,” and (b) “ironically: to alter to a worse state.” Which kind of “reform,” then, has been made to the tax code? [Read more…]

Poverty and Resurrection

Poverty is perhaps the major curse of our world. The many millions of poor and even destitute people throughout the world certainly suffer from reduced quality of life in comparison with those of us who are lucky enough to live in better economic conditions. Perhaps even more vivid is the reduction in quantity of life that often accompanies poverty: according to the United Nations World Development Report, people born into the least developed countries in the world in 2002 had a life expectancy of 51.06 years; those born into high income countries, by contrast, had a life expectancy of 78.19 years. Would all those who would happily sacrifice 27.13 years of their lives please raise their hands? [Read more…]

Interpretation: A Place of Peace in the Book of Mormon Wars

Everyone who pays attention to the academic Mormon Studies literature is aware of what Terryl Givens, among others, has described as the “Book of Mormon wars”
(see By the Hand of Mormon, pgs. 130, 132, 143, 173, 175, and 179). In short, the Book of Mormon wars revolve around questions of historicity: did the events described in the Book of Mormon actually happen somewhere in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD, and should Latter-day Saints condition their religious loyalty on the answer to this question? [Read more…]