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…]

“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…]

Excluding Our Fellow Saints From the Sacrament

In Illinois, we’re now halfway through our sixth week under a stay-at-home order (and my family’s seventh week at home). And the stay-at-home order looks like it’s going to last at least another month here. That means at least 12 Sundays in Illinois without meeting together at church (and, even when the stay-at-home order ends, some people may make the eminently responsible and defensible decision to continue social distancing, and delay their return to church).

Ultimately, I don’t think putting church meetings on hold is optimal. (To be clear, it’s both necessary and good. It’s just not ideal.) We need human contact, and we need the spiritual benefits that come from gathering together. That said, it’s necessary, and on net, saving the lives and the health of our fellow Saints is both beneficial and will bless us and them.

Still, this extended time away from church means that some people—single women and families without priesthood holders in the home, for example—won’t have the ability to take the sacrament for three months or more.

The church has made a tentative stab at recognizing the position these women and families are in. On April 16, the church provided instructions for administering the church during the pandemic. The instructions provide that “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by the priesthood.” [Read more…]

A First Vision: A Conference Prep.

Last year President Russell M. Nelson promised that this April church conference would be like nothing in the past. Circumstances have probably changed those plans. President Nelson advised church members to study Joseph Smith’s story in the Pearl of Great Price regarding his “first vision.” I’m not pointing to any particular observations or literature here, just thinking out loud a bit, if you will. I do think it’s worthwhile to point to JosephSmithPapers.org where various accounts and reports of this first vision have been collected.
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Books: Newly Published and Shortly to Appear

I thought I’d post a mini-review or two of recently published books in the Mormon genre and at least notice a few impressive pieces that will turn up shortly. Warning: not an exhaustive list.
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The Meetinghouse and the Temple

Michael Haycock has a bachelor’s from Yale and a master’s in religion from Claremont Graduate University.  He currently serves as the Ecumenical/Christian Life Coordinator at Georgetown.  Views are, of course, his own.

LDS theology is like the double helix of DNA, unzipped:  it has two parallel strands that circle around each other, but which rarely connect. 

DNA

On one strand rests the Meetinghouse, with much of the Christianity we received through scripture ancient and modern and which we share with much of Christendom. 

On the other is the Temple, the divine anthropology of the eternal family, and eternal progression, which we hold unique among Christian faiths. [1]

I am convinced that much of the theological friction within the LDS Church is born of the gaps between these two theological strands, amplified by official near-silence on how to bind them together. [Read more…]

The Pearl of Great Price in Brief

I wrote this little summary twenty years ago and a friend suggested that it might still be useful with a little updating, so I present it to you here. So much has been published on various aspects of the Pearl of Great Price (PGP) in the intervening years that I can only just gesture at it here. In particular, the Joseph Smith Papers contain still untapped riches on the subject, particularly in its Revelations and Translations series, and further work appears in recent volumes like Foundational Texts of Mormonism (Oxford, 2018), and the forthcoming, Producing Ancient Scripture (University of Utah Press, February 2020).

——–

The Pearl of Great Price is the smallest volume of LDS scripture, comprising about sixty pages in the current 2013 edition (this includes footnotes and illustrations). The book was the last among those constituting the Utah church canon to be officially recognized (1880). Other groups claiming a common heritage with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as the Community of Christ, Restoration Branches, etc., reject it as canon either wholly or in part.

The book was originally compiled by European church head and apostle Franklin D. Richards in England in 1851. Hence it is fundamentally a text of the Brigham Young led Utah church though its contents originate with Joseph Smith.
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A Conversation with my Catholic Husband on the Word of Wisdom

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“Did you see your Church just officially banned green tea?”

“And vaping. That’s days-old news.”

“Mormon news isn’t real to me until the Washington Post covers it.”

“Fair enough. The best take I’ve seen so far is Jana Riess’s.”

“The Washington Post agrees:  they quote her. The Word of Wisdom is ‘not necessarily a slam-dunk in terms of clarity.’ That seems accurate.”

“The problem is our cultural norms surrounding the Word of Wisdom have strayed so far from its literal text that we’re all left wading through layers of shame and confusion.”

“You know what Jana or you or some other sassy Mormon feminist should do? Write a Rachel Held Evans style book: ‘A Year of Word of Wisdomhood.’ It would be hilarious.[Read more…]

The Word of God

When Joseph Smith was explaining our faith’s beliefs to John Wentworth, he wanted to point out that we believe in the Bible, but that he felt it had errors.  After all, he was working on a new translation of it.  He said:

8 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Literal and historical

But what does this mean exactly?  Given that Mormonism teaches that Christianity has essentially been the same from the dawn of time including before Christ (although under the Law of Moses), there is an inherent historical literalness implied, a belief that the events of ancient Israel are essentially like modern Israel (Mormonism).  The loophole provided in the 8th Article of Faith is explicitly around translation errors.  It also doesn’t include the Book of Mormon, as if the possibility of translation errors (or abridgment errors) wasn’t considered. [Read more…]

And in His name all oppression shall cease

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This post started as a reaction to President Dallin H. Oaks’s commentary on religious freedom published Tuesday in the Deseret News.  It morphed into a Christmastime commentary on social justice.  It still dissects Oaks’s words, but that’s relegated to the very end. 

Born into humble circumstances.  Trained as a carpenter.  Rejected as a prophet.  Crucified as a rabble-rouser because he dared speak truth to both secular and religious oppressive power.  Jesus Christ is my model of an activist. [Read more…]

Women Don’t Cast Sustaining Votes?

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My sister Cheryl called me this morning, annoyed at a procedure her Indiana stake just used to call a new counselor in her Stake Presidency.   An old counselor had moved and been released between Stake Conferences, so the new one was called and sustained during an interim Stake Priesthood meeting.

“This isn’t like an Elders Quorum President,” Cheryl mused.  “A Stake Counselor doesn’t just serve men in his quorum, he has stewardship over the entire stake.  But he can be set apart without a single woman knowing about the calling or sustaining him?” [Read more…]

Mormon Obedience: On Disregarding the Prophet’s Preferences

On Sunday morning, President Nelson dedicated his full full talk to shutting down the use of Mormon and other nicknames for the church. This seems to be something he feels passionate about, and something that has been weighing on his mind for a long time. He went so far as to assert that Jesus is offended if we use, or allow others to use, nicknames for the church, and at least intimates that the use of nicknames represents both a victory for Satan and disregard for the Atonement.

So what are we, as faithful members of the church, to do with this? We absolutely have to take it seriously.

But that raises the question of what taking it seriously means. And I believe that this is a tougher question that it appears at first blush. Because taking it seriously isn’t (necessarily) the same as obeying. To take it seriously requires that we engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with what Pres. Nelson has said. [Read more…]

Socialism and Satan’s Plan

Via GIPHY

It happened. Again. On Mormon Twitter, someone mentioned socialism, to which somebody responded that socialism was Satan’s plan. (There were a couple other responses I saw that hinted at the same thing, but didn’t explicitly say it. And maybe there were others who said something similar. It’s not like I looked for every response to the tweet.)

To which I reply: that’s not the stupidest assertion based on Mormon theology ever. But it may well be in the top ten. [Read more…]

The Unfinished Endowment

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Cory B. Jensen is a longtime temple worker and author of Completing Your Endowment, which traces the history of the endowment.

In May of 1842, Joseph Smith first introduced the temple endowment to nine men in the room above his Red Brick Store. Over the next eighteen months, Joseph continued to add to this basic endowment. He introduced separate prayer circle meetings, sealing for time and eternity of a husband and wife, and a capstone two-part ritual sometimes referred to as the second endowment or second anointing. By the time of his death in 1844, Joseph had endowed about thirty-seven men and thirty-two women.

Unfortunately, Joseph never had the completed Nauvoo temple to work with and he left Brigham Young a charge to complete the work. Brigham Young recalled: “Bro. Joseph turned to me and said: ‘Brother Brigham this is not arranged right but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies with the signs, tokens, penalties and key words.’ I did so, and each time I got something more, so that when we went through the temple at Nauvoo I understood and knew how to place them there. We had our ceremonies pretty correct.” [1] [Read more…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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.

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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…]

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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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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Easter. The Passion of Jesus XX. Crucifixion part 1. Mark and God’s Compassion on the Downtrodden.

Part 21, here.
Part 19, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Crucifixion 1. Mark and God’s compassion on the downtrodden.

Crucifixion was designed as a public event, meant to control by fear. People were meant to be allowed up close and personal to the cross. Of all the people who show up at Jesus’ cross, the most historically certain are the soldiers. Also likely are passersby, it’s entirely plausible that Jesus would be seen by those moving about in normal activity. However, the Psalms are so evidently used as framework, and the pictured audiences so contemptuous, it seems impossible to know whether there are specific memories of events of crucifixion in John and other Gospels. It’s certainly not implausible that members of the Sanhedrin might show up, for various reasons (but the priests are more problematic–it’s Passover eve for John, and lambs must be killed).
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