Three sub-degrees in the Celestial Kingdom?

Shannon Flynn is a life long student of Mormon History and a member of the Mormon History Association. 

About four weeks ago a discussion was started on the Mormon Historians Facebook page that asked about the common belief that there are three distinct sub-degrees or separate places within the celestial kingdom.  The reference that is usually pointed to is D&C section 131 verses 1-4 especially verse 1. “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.”

In the discussion that followed it was my contention that there are not, in fact, three sub-degrees or divisions. Moreover, this idea and all of the variations and speculations on the nature of the sub-degrees has become one of the most significant pieces of false doctrine that pervades the LDS church today. Part of the discussion came from Kevin Barney who linked a post he had done back in 2006 on BCC, that the three sub-degrees was not the original interpretation of the verses in section 131.  I had an experience similar to what Kevin describes in his post when he said he heard it from a friend who heard it from California temple president. [Read more…]

The Burden of Choosing to Believe

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Image Credit: Delphine Devos

“I envy you your faith, somedays,” an agnostic friend in college once remarked as we ate lunch in the spring sunshine.  “I wish I could have faith.”

“You can, you know.   Faith is a choice,” I urged with perhaps a touch too much missionary zeal.  “In the Book of Mormon there’s a famous sermon about how faith is like a science experiment.  If you even have just a ‘desire to believe,” and choose to act on that desire, you’ll feel God’s love, and see results.”

 

“But logic is too deeply engrained in me for that to work,” he responded.  “I’d just dismiss any positive feeling as a weird firing of brain chemicals, a manufactured emotional manipulation.  It’s not tangible or real.” [Read more…]

Lesson 11: Because the Lord Was With Him #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Genesis 34, 37-39[fn1]

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Discuss how and why the scriptures subvert our expectations as readers.
  2. Identify different models of divine aid illustrated in the scriptures.

Introduction

In many ways, the story of Joseph in Egypt is the superhero origin story of the Israelite people. I mean, yeah, we’ve had some feints at origin already, everything from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham. And Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all received a covenant wherein God promised them land, descendants, and blessings.

But it’s Moses and the exodus from Egypt that really kicks things off. And without Joseph? The Israelites wouldn’t have been in Egypt to miraculously escape, and Moses wouldn’t have led them in the desert for forty years (and created the typology embraced by everybody from Jesus to the Nephites to African-Americans to Mormon pioneers). [Read more…]

Lesson 10: Marriage in the Covenant #BCCSundaySchool2018

ReadingsGenesis 24 – 29.

Introduction:   I volunteered to give this lesson for BCC precisely because I’m a temple-divorced, now-engaged-to-a-Catholic Mormon woman.  The Old Testament manual instructs teachers “As you discuss the importance of eternal marriage, be sensitive to the feelings of class members who have not been married in the temple or whose parents have not been married in the temple.”  But other than that note, it doesn’t provide any practical tips about what that “sensitivity” might look like.  I hope here to provide a model for how we can use this episode in Genesis to spark discussion on how everyone can achieve more Christlike relationships, without assuming that all temple marriages are happy, nor that all non-temple marriages are miserable.

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Lesson 6: Noah Prepared an Ark to the Saving of His House #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Moses 8

Genesis 6-9, 11

Learning Outcomes

To understand the importance of the story of Noah and the flood.

To come away with an appreciation for the complexities of Godhood, prophethood, regularpersonhood.

Introduction

I know there are many spiritual lessons to be learned from the story of Noah and the flood, but what I really want to focus on is exactly how large the ark was, how many cubits deep the water would have been, and how the animals managed to not eat each other. [Read more…]

Lesson 2: God Knew Abraham #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Abraham 3, Moses 4:1-4

Learning Outcomes

By the end of class, class members will be able to

  1. Describe strategies for profitably reading Abraham.
  2. Evaluate what it means that God knew us before we were born.

Introduction

Eight years ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School class in Chicago with my daughter in my lap. I was probably half paying attention to the lesson, when suddenly the discussion started getting heated. People were arguing that we definitely, most certainly don’t believe in predestination. We’re foreordination people! Then others would pipe in that they didn’t see any substantive difference between predestination and foreordination. [Read more…]

The Psychology of the Good Samaritan

O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8).

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While attending a legal ethics seminar last Saturday, I surprisingly had the most spiritual moment of my year.  A speaker there relayed the story of From Jerusalem to Jericho, an (apparently famous, but I had never heard of it) psychology study from 1973.  (A more readable journalistic summary is here.)  The authors specialized in research regarding what conditions prompt bystanders to help ailing strangers, rather than to ignore them.

The set-up was simple. At Princeton Theological Seminary, 40 theology students were assigned to prepare lectures as part of a final exam.  The exam occurred in a tight time frame: in 15-minute increments, instructors told individual students they needed to either leisurely wend their way across campus, or rush across campus, in order to make it to the building where their graded lecture would be recorded.  Half of the students were specifically assigned to speak on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

But the lecture wasn’t the real test.  The real test was that as they darted across campus, each student would encounter a sick and distressed man, lying in their path. [Read more…]

Baptism, Resurrection, and Women Witnesses

Mormon-landia is abuzz today with the news (broken by This Week in Mormons) that youth can now more fully participate in baptisms for the dead on youth temple trips.  Specifically, Priests (age 16+) can now perform and witness temple baptisms, just like they already perform and witness live baptisms.  And young women (age 12-18) can perform any baptistry assignment (i.e. logistics, temple clothing, towels) currently done by adult women.   Previously, all of these functions could only be performed by endowed members.

There is much to celebrate here.  I fully support increased responsibility and participation in the workings of the church for our incredible youth.  Hopefully, these additional spiritual and service opportunities will help all youth feel closer to Christ and strengthen their faith.  This change also reduces the burden on finding sufficient adults to officiate youth temple trips, hopefully increasing the total number of opportunities to perform baptisms.  In addition, it may help those young women who are uncomfortable being baptized while on their periods (despite temple pronunciations that this is permitted), feel more comfortable having an awkward-question-free opportunity to serve.

And yet.  This policy change was a major missed opportunity to increase the spiritual role of young women in the Church.  [Read more…]

What if Beehives Passed the Sacrament Too?

I can still remember turning 12. At least the church parts of it. After I turned 12, my dad ordained me to the Aaronic priesthood, and then I got to pass the sacrament.

And I continued to pass it for the next two years.[fn1]

Passing the sacrament was an important part of my development as a Mormon. It provided me with a tangible connection to the church. My participation in the church stopped being passive, the receipt of knowledge and culture, and started being, well, participatory. I felt a certain amount of pride, a certain amount of responsibility, and even a certain amount of ownership over my church experience. I remember intricately figuring out who would go where, negotiating the pews to make sure that everybody got the sacrament, watching the priests, waiting for them to stand up so I could return my tray.

And lately I’ve been thinking, what if Beehives passed the sacrament, too? [Read more…]

Adam Miller’s The Sun Has Burned My Skin

Boom-chic-a-wah-wah. This is Adam Miller’s hot take on a sexy Biblical classic, so put on some Barry White and slip into something a little more comfortable, because it’s business time.

I remember as a young Mormon being made aware of this titillating book of pseudo-scripture. It was also a welcome loophole to the missionary injunction against reading novels (scriptures only!). Reading it secretly every now and again made me feel like a normal human being for five minutes, a feeling that never seemed to last as a missionary. Partly this was because it was clearly erotically themed, but also because some GAs had angrily suggested that it not be read, or even, in Dead Poets’ Society fashion, that it be ripped out of the Bible! Doing something forbidden was the easiest path to feeling normal. [Read more…]

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the JST?

One of the most important facets of Mormonism that sets us apart from other faiths is that we don’t believe the Bible to be inerrant. We believe that it contains errors. This belief alone causes us to be viewed as unChristian by many evangelicals and other sola scriptura believers who consider any alteration of the Bible to be heretical. Reformists, in breaking with the Roman Catholic church’s authority, placed greater weight on scripture as the sole voice of God (not through the filter of papal authority, but accessible to all believers directly through reading the Bible). For some, if the Bible is fallible, then Christianity has no leg to stand on in proclaiming it has access to God’s truth. [Read more…]

Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness: Why a Temple? Why Sacraments?

Terryl Givens gave the following talk in my Provo ward yesterday. I couldn’t pass up the chance to ask Professor Givens if I could post it as part of our occasional “Sunday Sermons” series, and he graciously accepted.

I had a long conversation a few days ago with a much beloved daughter. We were talking about a family dear to us, of whom the last of the children just made an exit from the church. I asked what she thought the common thread to their stories might be. She said it wasn’t what I often hear to be the culprit: different accounts of the First vision, or Joseph’s seer stone, or horses in the Book of Mormon — or even polygamy or social policy. No, it was something much more fundamental. She said, the whole framework of the Restored Gospel — especially the emphasis on temples and ordinances — just doesn’t seem meaningful to many of her generation. So much structure, so many rules, so many seemingly empty rituals and ordinances. She then noted that as she was preparing her lesson for Young Women on sacraments and ordinances, she too struggled to find a convincing language, a resonant rationale. “Authority” and “obedience” don’t hold the same sway with generations who have not grown up with an almost innate deference to such concepts because, as Richard Rohr notes, they never experienced the framework of stable certainties and widely accepted verities. As the poet Robinson Jeffers noted wistfully, “O happy Homer! Taking the stars and the gods for granted.”[1] [Read more…]

Death by (Correlation) Committee

Image result for primary teacher ldsA topic that often comes up in online discussion groups among Mormons is the teaching manuals. As most of us know, these are written by a committee called the Curriculum Committee (under the oversight of the Correlation Committee). [3] “Correlation” was a byproduct of decades-long efforts to standardize materials, culminating in the 1960s, a huge effort to amass all leadership, budgets, publications, and teaching materials under one hierarchical, priesthood-overseen umbrella rather than separate auxilliary heads as it had been in the past. (See footnote 3 for a much more thorough explanation of the history.) This was to quash rogue teaching that might occur when these things were being done under separate oversight. As with anything where uniformity is the goal, blandness and groupthink is often the result (whereas rogue teaching, inequity, and folklore is often the result of the other approach). Because teachers in the church are average church members using these manuals to the best of their ability, lesson quality varies greatly. Additionally, everyone who has held a teaching calling (and that’s most active members) has an opinion on the materials they are provided and how effective they are.

You can listen to a podcast describing the curriculum process here. Just reading the overview of it on that same page is very interesting. You can read the transcript of an interview with Dan Peterson about his time on the Curriculum Writing committee here.
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Lesson 17: The Law of Tithing #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes

At the end of class, students will be able to

  1. Describe the roots of tithing in the Hebrew Bible and in American Protestantism.
  2. Assess how scriptural text relates to contemporary practice in Mormonism.
  3. Explain how the blessings from tithing compare to Prosperity Gospel ideas.

[Read more…]

Lesson 14: The Law of Consecration #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes

At the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Identify commonalities between the Law of Consecration and other communitarian religious movements.
  2. Explain the roots of consecration in the Mormon church.
  3. Assess how consecration fits in the modern church.

What Is Consecration?

In October of 1830, Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, Parley Pratt, and Ziba Peterson went west on a mission to the “Lamanites.” As they travelled, they came to the Morely farm near Kirtland, Ohio. Morely, along with fifty or sixty others, were part of “the Family” or “the Big Family.” Eleven core families moved onto the Morely farm and established a communitarian society, where they held goods and property in common. [Read more…]

Poverty in the scriptures: An introduction


D.T. Bell lives in Salt Lake with his wife and three kids. He works in technology, but used to work in international aid and development. He first developed an interest in issues relating to poverty while serving a mission in Argentina. He was into the Bloggernacle before it was cool. Just kidding, it will never be cool. 

I’ve jesus-and-the-poorbeen trying to read the Book of Mormon sequentially, which is something I don’t usually do as part of my scripture study. As I’ve read sequentially, I’ve been surprised by the amount of scriptures I’ve encountered that deal with how the disciples of Christ are to treat those who are poor, as well as by the intensity of the content of these scriptures.

 

Curious to see whether my impression of the frequency and intensity of poverty-related scriptures was borne out by a more analytical approach, I cracked open my old friend, the Topical Guide.

 

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LGBT Questions: An Essay

Bryce CookThis week, Bryce Cook published a new comprehensive essay on the church’s stance toward LGBT members. Bryce Cook is a founding member of ALL (Arizona LDS LGBT) Friends & Family and a co-director of the annual “ALL Are Alike Unto God” Conference held every April in Mesa, Arizona. He is married to Sara Spencer Cook and together they have six children, two of whom are gay. Since their oldest son came out publicly in 2012, Bryce and Sara have become public allies for LGBT people in and out of the church.

The essay is a long but fascinating read. I’ll cover a few highlights here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirety for yourself here[Read more…]

Lesson 6: “I Will Tell You in Your Mind and in Your Heart” #DandC2017

This week’s lesson is a continuation of the aborted Oliver Cowdery translation attempt. Bummer for you teachers who rotate weeks with another teacher; there’s a BIG overlap in chapters here with both this week and last week’s lesson focusing on the same three sections of the Doctrine & Covenants: 6, 8, and 9. This one throws section 11 in the cart, but really, the majority of the lesson is still focused on the same material as last week. You’re the loser who drew the short straw because your rotating cohort got first dibs on the good stuff.

The first “attention activity” is the suggestion to bring a radio to class. Apparently, a radio is an old-timey electronic device that was used to receive transmitted sound waves from the air. People used to use these devices to listen to talk show programs as well as music, all interspersed with housewives gushing about the newest dish washing soap and doctors recommending their favorite brand of cigarette “for your health.” Radios were also used in the Netflix series Stranger Things to communicate with the Upside Down. Since it’s probably impractical to drive your car into the classroom, perhaps there are some functional portable radios at the Desert Industries or in your grandfather’s attic you could pick up for your object lesson. [1] [Read more…]

On Moral Issues and Trump – Updated

iwasastranger_siteToday, the church is hesitant to enter into the political sphere. For the most part, I think that’s the right decision: church leaders don’t have any expertise in public policy or governance.

The church has, however, reserved the right to speak to “issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences.” Over the last couple years, it has invoked its right—duty, even—to speak to issues ranging from the legalization of recreational marijuana and physician-assisted suicide to alcohol laws in Utah to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

It has been outspoken in its support of religious liberty. As far back as 1992, Elder Oaks testified in support of of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and he has continued to emphasize the importance of religious liberty. [Read more…]

Lesson 3: “I Had Seen a Vision” #DandC2017

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of class, students will be able to:

  1. Describe the religious and cultural context in which Joseph Smith had his First Vision.
  2. Compare the various accounts of the First Vision.
  3. Summarize the relevance of the First Vision to contemporary Mormon belief and practice.

Vermont, New York, and Religious Liberty

Joseph lived in Vermont until he was about 10. In Vermont, there was no state-established church. Rather, each town could select its own minister, effectively establishing a church. Most towns chose a Congregationalist (or “Puritan”) minister.  [Read more…]

Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation

I’ve got a book in the editing process at Greg Kofford Books [it’s about D&C 132]. With luck, it may appear this December or possibly February 2017. Here’s a bit of the preface (excuse typos, it’s in progress):

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Are You Listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast?

There’s no delicate way to put this: if you’re not listening, you should be. Blair Hodges is an excellent, thoughtful interviewer who invites really smart, thoughtful people on the show. He talks with his smart, thoughtful guests about really interesting religious topics, which sometimes touch on Mormonism, but more often, introduce listeners to religious thought that isn’t Mormon-specific.  [Read more…]

Columbus and Accountability

“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles,
who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters;
and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man;
and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren,
who were in the promised land.”

1 Nephi 13:12

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source: http://tinyurl.com/zrkzztj)

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source: http://tinyurl.com/zrkzztj)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an opinion piece by David Tucker, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Dr. Tucker is willing to go part of the distance in reducing cultural adoration of Christopher Columbus. After acknowledging many of the negative consequences for native peoples of Columbus’s actions — and rehabilitating Columbus by arguing that we only condemn him now because of the European values that he brought to the New World, primarily the notion of Equality (?!) enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — Dr. Tucker states “[t]his Columbus Day we need no triumphalism. Let it be a day instead to ponder the human capability for good and evil and wonder how we might encourage more of the good.”[1]

I don’t think this goes far enough in dealing with Columbus’s legacy — especially for me as a Mormon who has so deeply internalized the Church’s teachings about the importance of the principle of accountability in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for the past few years, I’ve posted my thoughts about Columbus and Columbus Day on social media and I’ve received substantial push back on my criticism of Columbus, specifically from Mormon friends and family. Again, today, I’m aware that many are claiming that denouncing Columbus is just an example of political correctness run amok. [Read more…]

Book Review: As Iron Sharpens Iron.

By proving contrarieties truth is made manifest. –Joseph Smith, Jr., 1844 [1]JSmith_Iron_cover_1024x1024

Without Contraries is no progression. –William Blake, ca. 1790 [2]

[I]t must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. –Lehi, ca. 588-570, B.C. [3]

As iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. –Attributed to Solomon, recorded ca. 8th Century, B.C., by the scribes of Hezekiah [4]

As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture, is a collection of 17 fictional dialogues between men and women in the scriptures addressing topics on which the interlocutors seem to have different viewpoints. The title is taken from the proverb that as one piece of metal can be used to sharpen another, debate with a friend sharpens a person’s wit, insight, and perception (Proverbs 27:17). [Read more…]

Scripture and Mormonism: A Brief Look at Some Useful Ideas.

I want to point out some good reads in scriptural understanding here, and I’ll focus on the Bible since it’s the primary book of scripture on which other Mormon scripture comments, quotes, or critiques.

Probably the most familiar books in the Bible for Latter-day Saints are Genesis and the New Testament Gospels. Genesis is part of the Pentateuch or the first five book of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The current state of scholarship in the Pentateuch consists of three main approaches.
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Of Bodies and Temples

I teach Primary, and the theme for this year is “I know the scriptures are true.” As someone who loves the scriptures, and who deeply enjoys discussing them with my eight-and-nine-year-olds, this is a theme I can really get behind. Still, I have some reservations about how the Primary curriculum establishes children’s relationship to the scriptures. In this post I’ll use this month’s Sharing Time scripture to lay out those reservations and to discuss how we might do better.

This month, the designated scripture is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, slightly redacted to read: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … [F]or the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” I love this scripture. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. The Corinthian saints are having problems with schism (see 1:10), and here Paul uses the beautiful image of the collective church members as a temple, home of God’s Spirit, to invite them to greater unity. [Read more…]

I Believe the Book of Mormon is… Multidimensional

I had a vinyl banner that hung in my bedroom—a gift from one of my Primary teachers. It was distressed to look like an ancient manuscript, and on it were printed the Articles of Faith. Next to each Article, a blank circle hovered. As I memorized each Article, I would check them off with my teacher and she would give me a sticky-backed button to place in the circle… each Article had a different button, and I remember the anticipation I felt as I waited to see the image on the button’s obverse. The whole affair felt like an ancient rite of passage, passed down to me by those who’d paved the way before.

I never completed it.

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Adam Miller’s Nothing New Under the Sun

I just finished reading Adam Miller’s latest modernization of ancient scripture: Nothing New Under the Sun.  This is a very quick read, a modern version of Ecclesiastes:

Because the modern language made the parallels to modern wisdom literature so clear, I was curious about the links to Buddhism. According to Wikipedia, Ecclesiastes was written between 450 and 350 BCE.

The presence of Persian loan-words and Aramaisms points to a date no earlier than about 450 BCE, while the latest possible date for its composition is 180 BCE, when another Jewish writer, Ben Sira, quotes from it. The dispute as to whether Ecclesiastes belongs to the Persian or the Hellenistic periods (i.e., the earlier or later part of this period) revolves around the degree of Hellenization (influence of Greek culture and thought) present in the book. Scholars arguing for a Persian date (c. 450–330 BCE) hold that there is a complete lack of Greek influence; those who argue for a Hellenistic date (c. 330–180 BCE) argue that it shows internal evidence of Greek thought and social setting.

Is Ecclesiastes Buddhism in the Bible?  Or is it simply the case that all wisdom is roughly the same and there is nothing new under the sun.  Buddha dates to 600 BC. Adam Miller’s book doesn’t dwell on these parallels, but merely hints at them.  Wisdom is wisdom, no matter the source. It’s an interesting question, though. His modernized take on Ecclesiastes also demonstrates that there really is nothing new under the sun, including Christian wisdom.

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If Jane Austen Wrote the Book of Mormon

Where are our marriage prospects in this godforsaken wilderness?

I was considering a post on the Book of Mormon & the Bechdel test when it occurred to me that Gospel Doctrine class is kind of like a book club.[1]  Which got me thinking how much better, and perhaps with more vocal women in it (as well as a few more humorously identified human foibles), the Book of Mormon would be if Jane Austen had written it. [Read more…]

The Image of the Mothering God

I gave this talk in my ward today.

As a man tasked with speaking on Mother’s Day, I feel that my job is to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen,”[1] in the sense that I have to testify of things that I have grown up not knowing how to see, but which I believe are true. So, I begin in gratitude for the women in my life who have taught me to see, although for my part it is still through a glass, darkly.

In the first creation account in Genesis we read: “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.”[2] One question that this passage immediately raises is what it means for women to be created in the image of an apparently male God. On Mother’s Day, this question seems worth pondering. Can we think Lorenzo Snow’s couplet—“As man now is, God once was; / As God now is, man may become”—beyond the ostensibly universally-human “man” and toward something specifically feminine? In Mormon terms, if we cannot imagine exalted womanhood, I do not think that we can imagine women fully human. I have friends—faithful churchgoers 51 weeks out of the year—who stay home on Mother’s Day because they see the version of motherhood presented in our discourse as too cramped and narrow for their experience. Perhaps there are women in our own ward who make a similar choice (if you know one, go knock on her door and give her a hug, or a fist bump, or whatever seems right). Our talk of “angel mothers” seems exalted, but is it really “image of God” material? My friends’ experience suggests not.

Why does this matter? When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”[3] If we collectively do not know what it means for women to be created in the image of God, can any of us—female or male—truly see the image of God in ourselves, enough to love ourselves as we ought? Are we then loving our neighbors in impoverished ways? Is our love of God, however ample it may be, only half of what it could be?

[Read more…]