Our Own Vines and Our Own Fig Trees: a Post-Independence Day, Post-Hamilton-Watching Sermon

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Like plenty of other Americans (and, given likely demographics, probably in particular like plenty of readers of this blog), my family and I watched the musical Hamilton over the July 4th weekend. Our second-oldest daughter, who was home to join us yesterday, had actually seen the show in 2016 on Broadway; for the rest of us, as familiar as we were with the music, watching the show was a new experience–and it was a lovely one, a wonderfully funny and dramatic, visually and aurally compelling, and historically challenging (in more ways than one), piece of filmed theater. It was three hours very well spent. [Read more…]

July 4th, Amulek Day, and a Mighty Change of Heart

Lori Thompson Forsyth is a long-time New Englander, a part-time aspirational Spaniard, and a current resident of Utah Valley. She edits manuscripts for BCC Press and blogs at lorinotes.wordpress.com.

Brianna Santellan, Unsplash. 

Through the past several weeks of mourning and protests, as our national attention has turned once again to the power that systemic racism holds over many aspects of our communities, a passage from Alma chapter 10 has been running through my mind. It provides guidance as I ponder how to respond to the outpouring of emotions I see on the news and in the streets. It may even have some bearing on the ways in which we, as Latter-day Saints, could commemorate the Fourth of July, which I’m beginning to think of as Amulek Day.

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The KJV in the BoM

Review of Royal Skousen, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, Part Five: The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Brigham Young University Studies, 2019).

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Internet Videos, The Second Coming, and Conspiracy Theory

Recently, a YouTube video called “7 Year Tribulation in the SEVENTH Seal Timeline” has become extremely popular. There’s no way to know whether most or all of its more than half million viewers are LDS or not, but it’s targeted directly at Church members. The video uses LDS scripture, cites Church leaders and publications, and makes a case for the Second Coming happening most likely in 2024 but no later than 2033.

Of course, there have been no shortage of millennial prophecies both inside and outside of the Church, but those willing to specify dates with the precision of this video producer are few and far between. There are a number of reasons why people might avoid being so bold as to offer precise dates.
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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?

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In Defense of Iconoclasm

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I hate statues.

Not just Confederate statues.  Not just slave trader statues.  All statues.  Queens.  Presidents.  Generals.  Prophets.  Take them all down.

No person should be a permanent symbol of public adoration.  And that’s what statues are:  they freeze people in faux-perfect time.  If commissioned during a leader’s lifetime, they’re often exaggerated ego trips.  If created after death, they’re expensive icons to a fabricated mythology.  Statues celebrate wealth, conquest, or other worldly success while implying perfection and eliding flaws.  Pedestals are cages.  I hate them. [Read more…]

Faculty Demographics at BYU

A couple weeks ago, President Nelson issued a joint statement with the NAACP condemning racial injustice. Toward the end of that statement, they said:

We likewise call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.

(Emphasis mine.) It occurred to me that, while at BYU-P, very few of my professors were people of color. (It’s been a couple decades, so my memory isn’t perfect, but as best I can remember, I had two Brazilian professors, which is probably the closest I came.) I wondered what BYU faculty looks like today.

It isn’t pretty.  [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…]

Last chance to shop before Father’s Day

Mother’s Day was not a big deal in my house when I was growing up. This is most likely because my father didn’t teach us kids to observe it, and my mother was too much of a martyr to insist upon it. As a result, I don’t expect a great deal for Mother’s Day myself, although I am fortunate enough to have a husband who ensures that I don’t have to cook or do the dishes on that day. Sometimes my kids make me cards. I appreciate all of this because it’s nice, but the nicest thing about Mother’s Day this year was not having to go to church and listen to some bullcrap about how important women are. That may be the only good thing about 2020 so far. [Read more…]

Mormonism and the Moral Imagination

Robert Bennett is Professor of English at Montana State University. He is the author of Pill (Bloomsbury Object Lessons) and the co-editor of Deconstructing Brad Pitt (Bloomsbury).

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”—1 Corinthians 13:11

Our country is undergoing a long overdue moral reckoning with its ongoing history of racism. Not since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has race so dramatically occupied the center stage of our national discourse, and the nation’s collective cry for racial equality is rapidly approaching another “I Have a Dream” moment. Only this time we have a more somber national refrain: “I can’t breathe.” These tragic last words of George Floyd have galvanized our nation to demand greater racial justice and accountability.

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Who’s on the Lord’s Side, Who?

I have been thinking a lot about the Book of Jonah, these last few months, as everyone has become a prophet of various sorts of physical, financial, or psychic doom.

Art: Peter Speier

We know the first part of Jonah’s story well—being commanded to go to Nineveh, trying to avoid his vocation, being caught in the storm, swallowed by the fish, praying, being spat out to have another go at keeping God’s commandment to him. It’s the second part of the story I’ve been thinking about lately. [Read more…]

A Quick Note

This is for all of you out there who feel forced to choose between a racist god and a racist prophet in order to explain the priesthood ban. Even if God was a racist god (which he isn’t), the prophet being racist would still be racist. Doing the will of a racist doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for what you do. So, you’re actually just deciding if you think God is racist. He isn’t. There you go.

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.

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On Masks

A couple weeks ago, I was going to write a quick fun post asking whether, in a post-pandemic world, the church would start letting people wear masks to church Halloween parties.[fn1] After all, in the phased resumption of sacrament meeting, members can be encouraged to wear facemasks. And if at sacrament meeting, why not at Halloween?

To write the post, I did a quick Google search to see if the internet had any explanation of the origins of the church’s ban on masks. And you know what? If you Google “mormon no masks,” you get a lot of hits about the church’s mask-making activities and, right at the top, Elder Cook’s 2012 BYUI devotional titled, of all things, “Don’t Wear Masks.” [Read more…]

Notes on the revised missionary dress standards for elders

Today the church newsroom announced new clothing standards for the missions. On an area-by-area basis missionaries may variously wear blue shirts, and go without the tie. As we are wont to do, let look at how some of this has changed over time.

Here is an advertisement in the February 1900 Young Woman’s Journal. It looks like they are trying to branch out, as missionaries buy less of them.

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Mormonism and White Supremacy

It’s not hard to dunk on the Church when it comes to race issues. 42 years ago today, the First Presidency announced to Church leaders that the priesthood and temple ban on black members would end. 42 years is not a long time! The Church really is a particularly white subset of American Christianity, and yet we have consistently provided the message that we are not racist, that we treat all people as God has directed us. Joanna Brooks’ new book, Mormonism and White Supremacy, probably won’t tell the world or the Church anything it doesn’t already know — Church leaders have said and done a lot of terrible things throughout our history. Her perspectives on Mormon* racial innocence are provocative, and while her interpretations might sometimes be debatable, her book is timely and a worthwhile catalyst for self-examination.
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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.

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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.

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Wake up the world for the conflict of justice

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I live outside D.C.  I work blocks from the White House.  I have protested in Lafayette SquareSt. John’s Episcopal Church is a historic establishment.  It provides feeding ministries, holiday gift drives, and refugee assistance.

Five blocks away from St. Johns is a sister parish within the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the Church of the Epiphany.  Every Friday it transforms the chapel and multi-purpose room into a Jummah service for Muslims.  I have prayed there.

The D.C. Episcopal church embodies true Christianity.

What we’ve seen in the last 24 hours is profanity.  It is blasphemy.  In the words of Bishop Mariann Budde: it is an “abuse of sacred symbols.” [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.
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King Leere is one of our greatest novels

I’ve been rereading Steve Peck’s The Tragedy of King Leere and I’m convinced that it is one of the best works of Mormon fiction there is, but not just because Peck’s work is insanely creative or because his world-building is so hauntingly convincing. I believe it is a masterpiece because no one else captures the Mormon notions of stewardship, personal responsibility and family bonds better than Steve. This is your summer read. [Read more…]

Some Humor in a Hard Time: Liberty Jail

When Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin (Sidney Rigdon has been released on bail some months before after he delivered a touching sermon to onlookers at the jail) were released from Liberty Jail in the spring of 1839 to journey under escort to a Boone County trial court, the escorting officers let the prisoners escape. While they headed for Illinois, they traveled under the guise of land speculators. After they arrived in Quincy, Ill. where a large number of Saints had landed and were being helped by the local populous, they related one humorous story about their journey. Lyman Wight’s son (16 years old at the time of the Qunicy episode) told this story many years later (consider the usual memory fault warnings).

All the escapees took aliases. Alexander McRay [McRae] was “Mr. Brown”. They stopped at a ranch for some refreshment and hopefully to stay overnight. The next morning, everyone had gone outdoors except for McRay and the ranch owner. The owner “asked him his name said he had forgotten it. and Bro. McRay had also forgotten it- and it had the effect to cause Bro McRay to take a terrible cramp in his stomic [sic] it come near throughing [throwing] him into spasims. The man ran out where some of the other Brethren were and told them that their Friend was verry sick. They went in and said Mr Brown what is the matter with you. what have you been eating &c— that relieved Mr Brown to such an extent that he began to get Better right away. In the meantime the Proprieter had brought in a jug of whisky from some where and reccommended Mr Brown to take a glass of Whiskey—–thought it would help him. He down [did] so, and the others, they that were disposed that way—which were nearly all—took some for fear the desease [disease] was contagious. After they got to our house in Quincy and had been offered [a] stimulent of some kind to drink they [the escapees] would recommend to give Bro McRay some first, [as] he has the cramp and cant tell his name”[1]

I wonder how long it took McRae to live that down. And Whiskey: maybe it does cure a memory lapse.

—————-
[1] Orange L. Wight, Reminiscences, MS 405, LDS Church History Library. Wight suggested in his account that the sheriff was bribed.

Review: 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction

Joseph Spencer, 1st Nephi: a brief theological introduction (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2020)

If you’re anything like me, you can relate the story of 1st Nephi in your sleep. Lehi, a goodly parent, has a dream that warns him to leave Jerusalem with his family. They go into the wilderness, at times grudgingly, at times not. His four sons return to Jerusalem twice, first to retrieve a record and next to retrieve a family. There are conflicts and blessings in the wilderness, they arrive at the sea, they build a boat, and they end up in a promised land. Lehi, in effect, leads an exodus of two families from the once-promised land into a new promised land.

And not infrequently, that’s the level at which we engage with the Book of Mormon. We take Nephi’s authorial voice as authoritative and objectively true. We find lessons in is obedience and his brothers’, well, grudging obedience. And we plow through the text again, annually or every four years, or when we remember.

In his brief theological introduction to 1st Nephi, Joseph Spencer doesn’t argue against reading the plot of 1st Nephi, and gleaning didactic lessons from it. It’s what we do, and there’s doubtless value in it.

But he argues—convincingly—that if our engagement with the text stays solely plot-focused, we’re missing important depths of the Book of Mormon. We’re giving up theological lessons that we could enjoy. [Read more…]

On Translating 1 Nephi 1:1 into Hebrew

Some years ago my friend Bryan Buchanan discovered a treasure in the Brigham Young office files. In January of 1846 an otherwise unknown man named Bernard Gadol sent Brigham Young unsolicited a translation of the first chapter of the Book of Mormon (equaling 1 Nephi 1:1 – 1 Nephi 5:22 in modern editions) into Hebrew. He offered to do more such translations into Hebrew, German and French in exchange for a team to take him with the Church into the wilderness. At the time Young was (as my first managing partner used to say) “up to his ass in alligators” and never responded. Absolutely nothing further is known of Gadol (although if Ardis sees this and takes it as a challenge, I won’t try to stop her from looking). His request might suggest he was a member, but he does not appear in early membership records.

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In Spirit and in Truth

I would have had the assignment this morning to speak in one of the branches in my area, but for the suspension of church meetings. So the branch president asked me to share an email message with the members of the branch. This post is based on that message.

The Woman of Samaria, image from churchofjesuschrist.org

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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. 

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(When) Are You Going Back?

In a letter dated 19 May 2020, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced “that meetings and activities may be resumed using a phased approach when local government regulations allow and Area Presidencies inform local leaders” (emphasis in the original). This comes as no surprise considering that a number of countries around the world never did impose a full lockdown on their citizenry or are now in the throes of a phased return to some semblance of life before COVID-19, and part of that now seemingly distant past involved things like large indoor gatherings with enthusiastic singing and food and drink passed among hundreds of people.

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“done in cleanliness”

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Over the last couple weeks, a number of family and friends have renewed their temple recommends over Zoom.

You may remember that about a year ago (in the pre-pandemic days!), the church updated the temple recommend questions. For these friends and family, then, this was the first time they were asked the new questions. Out of curiosity (both over their experience and my upcoming renewal), I took a quick look at the new questions, and something struck my eye: Question 5. According to the church’s website, question 5 now reads:

The Lord has said that all things are to be “done in cleanliness” before Him (Doctrine and Covenants 42:41).

Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?

Do you obey the law of chastity?

Now on the one hand, this is nothing new. The temple recommend interview has always asked about living the law of chastity. On the other, though, I don’t remember it having had a scripture attached to it before. So I took a look at D&C 42:41. [Read more…]

Some Reflections on Mormon Journal-Keeping

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This is Part 1 of a two-part series on journaling. Part 1 is a reflection on the changing role of journaling in Mormonism and my own experience finding my purpose and voice as a young journal-keeper. I end by asking: Do Mormons journal anymore? Part 2 will take up what it means to journal through the pandemic, with some practical suggestions and resources for starting or reinvigorating a journaling practice.

Early on during my own quarantine experience, about mid-March, I began to feel strongly that I’ll regret it if I don’t keep a record of how my life feels at this historic juncture. As difficult as it is to imagine, someday this pandemic will be behind us, a part of the past—even the distant past—and it won’t be as easy to summon the details of our thoughts and experiences as we may now assume. No matter how singular or memorable a moment feels, sooner or later it will recede with the tides of time and be difficult to retrieve without somehow preserving the memory.

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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.

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