Humming a Whistle

As I was picking my youngest out of a carseat the other day, she grabbed a soccer-shaped whistle from her proud sister and began to blow on it. She had seen her older sisters make loud, attention-grabbing noises with the whistle and, as in much of her life right now, wanted to be able to do what the older girls are doing. She discovered rapidly that her attempts to blow the whistle resulted in no substantial noise. So she created a solution that would work for her: [Read more…]

MMM panel this Friday

For those of you who are a) prepared to feel exhausted by the Minnesota Convention (did Providence actually cancel George Bush’s speech? My head is spinning), b) within striking distance of Salt Lake City, and c) interested in a new take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre book just published by OUP, may I recommend that you consider attending the following event (I am aware of and grateful to the others who had publicized this, but I have great respect for the organizers and participants so want to give them maximal exposure):

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Spoken Fatherhood: Communion and Community

Delivered today in my ward

Many of you know that I often worry about how careful we are to nurture women of all physical, emotional, social, and familial descriptions. As I began to think through a talk for Father’s Day, I was filled with ideas about how best to explain ways we could improve many of our older traditions about fatherhood. As I thought and prayed over my message for today, though, I felt to reserve such proposals for another setting. Instead, I hope to share today that fatherhood is both a communion and a community. [Read more…]

To My Wife

On this the tenth birthday of our covenant. [Read more…]

Knowledge before the Abyss

As many of you know, I am a long-time student of how we (as human beings, Western Christians, Latter-day Saints) face our ends, both personal and collective. The historical period I know best, roughly 1780-1850 or so, possessed a death culture that the Victorians and the Victorianists prefer to call the Good Death, though the radical French social historian Philippe Aries prefers the Beautiful Death, while I prefer the Holy Death. Though this death culture is complex and even ritualized to a surprising extent for the brutally anti-Catholic Protestant milieu in which it existed, I want to focus on one key piece, the necessity for foreknowledge in the face of death. [Read more…]

Speaking Fathers

I’ve just been asked to speak on Father’s Day for my ward’s sacrament service. As I consider the possible topics, it occurs to me to ask for input and advice, particularly from mothers. (I’m reminded of the joke whose details I can’t recall but which relies on the punchline: “I thought every day was Father’s Day.” What say ye?

And for those of you who don’t follow inside jokes (or read comments), Lars Glenson is a made-up personality, and Mark’s diatribe against this made-up character is part of the same inside joke. No one at BCC is being that mean.

Melons in Ohio

Frances Trollope, the 48-year-old mother of Anthony, the more famous novelist, came to reside in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1828. A leisure class proto-Victorian almost to the point of caricature, she found a great deal in America to disapprove of, from the mosquitos and slimy Mississippi delta, to our incessant spitting (of tobacco, primarily) and our filthy habit of shaking everyone’s hands at every possible encounter, to our religious voluntarism (which she claimed was religiously regressive, depriving rural Americans of their access to religion, she having visited apparently between circuit rides of the responsible Methodist) and our inability to talk about anything but politics and money. As one sample of her general intolerance of American egalitarianism and coarseness, I offer the following. [Read more…]


This is an open post for anyone wanting to remember those who are gone but mattered or matter to them a great deal. Today I miss my grandfather the most, a kind but unsentimental biochemist who loved to share with me his latest discoveries from the lab, his wonderful and underplayed wit, and his abiding love of the senses–the feel and smell and flavor of cheese on the tongue, the texture of rocks on the fingerpads, the sounds of birds and bushes. God bless you, Howard. I wish you were here to watch my children grow into your posterity.

Yes, this is a reprisal of last year.

Sharing the Word with my small people

I will confess that I am not always perfectly up-to-date about expectations for family behavior within the Church. Along those lines, it has recently occurred to me that I would like to read the scriptures with my kids (all younger than 6). Simultaneously it occurs to me that I have no idea how. [Read more…]

On this often tense day

I wish to honor my mother, the professor’s daughter who married into the collapse of the American dream. The woman who coaxed weavils out of home-made granola, cultured yogurt in Kerr jars in a water bath in our dilapidated oven, and tried forty-five different ways to hide goat meat in suppers; who withstood accusations of Satanic possession or insufficient faith to protect her family from her partner’s mental illness through divorce; who took calls from threatening neighbors angry that I would walk to school in winter without a coat (I hid it by the door as I left each morning); who held me as I cried about schoolyard bullies, whom I held as she cried about the monstrosity of desperate poverty and her defunct marriage; whom I proudly carried on my shoulders when I turned twelve and was taller than she; who was God’s messenger to her agnostic son in 1990, the human mediator of my conversion; who authored my favorite devotional phrase (“God is not a vending machine”); who taught me by example to love the printed and spoken word; who married again, badly, and divorced again, well; who creates life and survives tornados in America’s middle section; who scolded me for giving my only winter coat to a homeless man one Christmas then apologized years later as she helped me understand the complex valences of charity and Christ’s love; who has one of the most creative and wide-ranging minds I know; who is the beloved mother-in-law and granny to the people I love most in the world; who is more Hermes plus Athena than Gaia, and who is me and I her.

God bless you, Mom, for all that we are and clumsily strive to be. I am of all men most blessed.

A name for uncertainty

When people learn I studied linguistics in college, they are generally unimpressed to discover that I frittered away my four years studying theoretical syntax–c-command, head movement, control theory, and a host of other words and word combinations whose meanings I no longer remember or frankly understand. What they had hoped to hear more often than not was that I had studied how people use language to shape and interpret their world, what the “meanings” of words are, something like the academic discipline of sociolinguistics, perhaps merged with popular semiotics. I confess I had a great time as a Chomskyan linguist, but this decade-or-so later, I feel the same fascination non-linguists do with how language can be used rather than with the formal structures of meta-syntax, as intriguing as they are (with apologies to my former teachers). [Read more…]

Surrogates for the earliest Mormons

If you were unable to access the contemporary primary documents of the earliest Mormons (pre-Utah) but wanted nevertheless to learn about them, which group would you study most intently, and why?

twentieth-century Utah LDS
twentieth-century RLDS
nineteenth-century schismatics (e.g., Strangites)
American Methodists, ca. 1800-1840
Campbellite Baptists–“Christians”–pre 1840
the revolutionary prophets, ca. 1780-1820 (e.g. Southcote and Wilkinson)
Old Northwest unchurched frontierspeople
Yourself, placing a monocle atop your navel and squinting hard

Devotional Literature

To make a long and self-absorbed story short, I’m looking for some devotional reading again, something for the spare hour or two after lunch on a Sunday I have off work. Something warm and exciting and conducive to intimacy with the divine. When I was in college I loved C.S. Lewis and some G.K. Chesterton. Within Mormonism, I tended toward Hugh Nibley and Hugh Brown with some old-school Matthew Cowley thrown in. I’m not entirely energized at East Coast Episcopalian or Unitarian-Universalist meetings, though they tend to represent the reading level I prefer. I’m not personally drawn on a general level to American importations of Eastern religious traditions, but if the book were right I’d try it. Any suggestions? The first one I’m meaning to try is Wendell Berry, so if anyone knows his work and wanted to guide me to the first book/essay, that would be great too.

Two Unexpected Conversations

1. 5-year-old announces, “Yep, Mama is easiest.” When asked to clarify, she explains, “when a baby cries, it’s always Mama, and when a kid needs something or has a pain, she says Mama too. Mama is easiest to say.”

2. Dignified 75-year-old woman (one you would assume is extremely orthodox) pauses in the foyer of a wardhouse in Salt Lake City to comment to two men, skipping Sunday School with a young child each as they argue about how to effect cultural change on environmental stewardship. “It’s so wonderful to see fathers involved in caring for the children. It warms my heart. In my generation, it was all the woman’s job. I love to see you young fathers.” She walks away, smiling.

Easter Bodies

This Easter I have had the privilege of excising blisters from a burnt hand, wiping tenacious green excrement from the tender buttocks of a screaming child, placing a whining child on time-out, and picking up pens and toy dolls from the floor as a fussy child decides to play a game of fetch with her parent. My Easters were not always like this. I still remember with emotional and visual clarity a morning perhaps a decade ago. [Read more…]

Best Sermon I’ve Heard in Years

I just spent a half hour feeling the spine tingles and intermittently moist eyes I associate with the presence of God. I do not mean for a moment to deify a politician, no matter how eloquent. I do not intend to urge any particular voting patterns and am sympathetic to those who support all three current contenders for the American presidency. I do not intend to imply that God has provided his seal of approval for any particular political campaign. I do not mean that our own church leaders do not write and deliver magnificent sermons. I do not mean by this post to attack the Romney campaign, the conservative movement, or the Republican Party. I am also self-conscious about the complaints about the sentimentalization of the youthful senator from Illinois or the crowds of fawning liberal groupies wandering after the self-proclaimed agent of change. Even so, I felt to confess that the first thirty minutes of Obama’s speech today stirred my soul. Whatever happens in the US election, I thank God for this moment of moral and spiritual clarity.

Why I Quit Swearing (Again)

For whatever reason, I’ve never been particularly couth. Sometimes my language will pass muster within traditional white evangelical culture, other times it will not. For the last couple years I’ve been swearing again. I never felt to invoke the name of deity in coarseness or frustration, nor do I pronounce the most vulgar of vulgar American words, but I have found applications for the pair of monosyllables that begin with a sibilant or a fricative and explode at the end with a puff of air. It started in my interactions with frightened patients who seemed disoriented by the rush of medicalese and doctorate-wielding practitioners in white laboratory coats. Several patients were visibly relieved when I cursed to express my sympathy with their difficult plight or to ease the tension surrounding a difficult decision they had to make. I felt inspired to be a Roman to Romans and a Greek to Greeks. I still feel that I was inspired. [Read more…]

Can Anyone Articulate Adam-God?

I will confess, again, that my interest in Mormonism’s history tapers off dramatically after about 1846. In some recent work on Joseph Smith’s divine anthropology, I have returned to Adam-God issues, which I had laid to rest a decade or so ago after a quick review of the literature had suggested that a) Brigham Young did in fact teach something that was later discountenanced, and b) it only left much of an echo among Mormon sectarians and fundamentalists on the one hand and evangelical critics on the other. As my belief in Mormonism does not depend on Brigham Young never saying anything strange, I did not find Adam-God sufficiently compelling to turn a more serious eye toward it. Even now, as I turn to it with a more scholarly interest, I find it rather a tempest in a teapot. What has struck me more than anything is what appears to me to be a lack of any clear, reproducible definition of what this Adam-God doctrine is. Without such a definition, connecting it to or disambiguating it from Joseph Smith’s divine anthropology is exceedingly difficult. [Read more…]

A Gorgeous Essay

I’ll leave to colleagues with better organizational skills the provision of a methodical review of the latest Dialogue, which arrived in my mailbox today.
I just want to praise “Joseph Smith: Lost and Found,” a gorgeous essay from Jane Barnes, one of the key writers for the Helen Whitney documentary. Jane, a lapsed Episcopalian with Buddhist and post-theological spiritual leanings, provides one of the most sympathetic and thoughtful views of Mormonism by an outsider I have read in a long time. She captures what Harold Bloom was after, and does it much more clearly than he. She also knows her stuff–when I spoke with her at length a year or so ago, she clearly had mastered a substantial portion of the scholarship on Mormonism. I’m delighted that the Dialogue crew was able to provide a forum for her moving and delightful essay, a view of ourselves from a highly sympathetic observer. Her enthusiasm for the young Joseph is infectious, her sense of his insight into the great tragicomedy of life refreshing.

The Life Ethereal with Steve Zissou

I recently watched Wes Anderson’s film Life Aquatic again, something like an annual ritual for me now.

Every time I watch the climax, my eyes moisten. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray as an Andersonian Cousteau) is surrounded by the people he loves and who love him, straining to see an unimaginably beautiful creature that killed his closest friend at the beginning of the film. Then this “jaguar shark” swims overhead, so close it almost destroys the submarine Steve is piloting. Mourning lost friends and faded youth as he confronts Nature’s terrible beauty, Steve asks, “I wonder if he remembers me.” This line and the ensuing scene may be the highlight of Murray’s increasingly impressive acting career. [Read more…]

A Long, Strange Trip

For the last few months, my down-time reading has been the main church organ of the Nauvoo period, the Times and Seasons. I guess it became my version of reading the Ensign. Tonight I finally finished volume 6. I read the History of the Church when I was in college, then my way of proving that I could “handle” Mormon history as a faithful Mormon (I could). I turned to the Times and Seasons this time for material relevant to my research on the meaning of death and religious enthusiasm in early Mormonism. This newspaper is a fascinating and exciting window into the lives of early Mormons. In honor of the time I spent with these texts and, figuratively, the people who produced and first read them, I thought I’d mention a few of the things I have learned from reading this newspaper. [Read more…]

“The highest point in the faith of the Latter Day Saints”

In summer 1844, shortly after Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by a lynch mob, young Samuel Smith also died, probably from pneumonia unrelated to mob violence (contra the martyrology of many early LDS).[1] In eulogizing him for the church organ, the editorialist, likely John Taylor, had the following to say about the “highest point in the faith of the Latter Day Saints” [Read more…]

Neighbors and stories

As I’ve been reflecting today about Gordon B. Hinckley’s legacy, I returned to what an old friend said about marriage as he wedded two of our close friends, that it’s the stories we create about, the “attributions” we assign to, people’s actions that both determine and reflect the quality of our relationships. [Read more…]

Call for Study: the Buena Vista Social Feud

I finally met someone associated with the private LDS university on the East Coast called Southern Virginia University. Meant to serve as an alternative to Brigham Young’s University, this recently founded institution has come to dominate a small mill-town in rural Virginia. By report, the town, Buena Vista, has the densest geographical wards of any East of the Mississippi, housing a variety of student and married wards, as the vast majority of students, faculty and administrators are involved Latter-day Saints. By report, some local residents have strongly resented the encroachment of the LDS, have staged “secret” town meetings, and have actively sought to have life return to what it was before the Mormons arrived. For those of us who have been wanting more access to the Missouri or Illinois conflicts, this seems an ideal experiment occurring before our very eyes. [Read more…]

Judge Not By Appearances

In Fall 1843, John Taylor reprinted a story from the Christian Messenger, which I sense he wanted to share with BCC tonight.

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The Story of the Stones and the Hat

Kevin’s recent post on abstaining from commentary (or having seizures, I couldn’t tell from the title), brought to my mind the fact that our current level of discussion about Smith’s use of seerstones in translation hovers around the voyeuristic (rather than exploit my well-intentioned threadjack on Kevin’s thoughtful post, I started a new thread). I would like to think about implications and broader narratives for the mode of Book of Mormon translation. First, though, the “facts”: [Read more…]

Swedenborg and Smith

A variety of authors have long sought to associate Joseph Smith with ancient traditions variously termed hermetic, esoteric, gnostic, mystical, magical, or metaphysical. Many of those seeking to demonstrate an association between Smith and such thinkers (recognizing that these terms are not mutually inclusive and many will dispute the unity of thought these analyses imply) have sought the missing link in Emmanuel Swedenborg, perhaps the dominant image of American mysticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As I’ve been researching Mormon cultural history, I’ve encountered a variety of possible associations between Smith and Swedenborg. [Read more…]

Brainstorm on air pollution

As someone recently moving into the Wasatch Front, I’ve been stunned by the air pollution here. (I apologize in advance for posing a question that’s fairly exclusive to people with a particular geography; I didn’t care at all about Utah’s air pollution when I didn’t live here.) I’ve been thinking that there ought to be better ways to work through the problem of air pollution, and I’m starting to toy with the idea of an ad campaign to help those of us with LDS roots and commitments to express our concerns about air pollution. I’m wondering whether people could help with brainstorming ideas. [Read more…]

Very brief review: The Littlest Angel

What can I say? My mom read it to me growing up. Reading it to my kids on the front porch, wrapped in sleeping bags and watching the snow fall, I got all choked up.

To those looking in

Listening to the sometimes vehement discussions of our faith tradition in the national media, I wanted to share an experience to give a feel for what it can mean to be a Mormon. I am an active reader and participant in academic and secular discourse, while I also cherish my religion and my church, whatever missteps they may have made and will yet make. [Read more…]