Blessings

This past general conference was…fun. Change is generally exciting. Even though our stake still hasn’t reorganized the various Elders’ quorums yet, “Ministering” is on the move. Ecclesiology is fun for me, so as an observer as well as practitioner, I’m having a good time of this. However, perhaps the most interesting bit of conference to me was President Nelson’s concluding remarks at the Priesthood Session on liturgy:
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Making Your Calling and Election Sure IV. Hard Times. When Pioneer Living is not Enough.

I was in the LDS Church History Library some time back, dwelling amid the dusty productions of yesteryear as is my wont, when I came across a transcription of the diary of James Cantwell.[1] Cantwell was an Irishman. Cantwell became a Mormon in 1842, but financial issues kept him in Britain until 1850 when he took his family to St. Louis. Six years passed before he could get to the Valley.
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James The Mormon, Round Two

I’m eating hot dogs and chips, and across the table from me is James Curran, a serial entrepreneur and app developer, who “as a hobby” has had a #1 track on iTunes for hip hop/rap under the name James the Mormon. We’re talking about artistic integrity, “clean” rap, the future of Mormon culture, the LDS Deseret Book culture machine, and what representation looks like. [Read more…]

A Bunny Juggling Whipped Cream

I’ve always been horrible at expressing sympathy.  Not that I don’t feel it–I feel it deeply.  I just feel so paralyzed by others’ grief, and I get so worried that what I say or do will be wrong and cause more pain.  So sometimes I back away slowly and feel guilty.  I’m not proud, but if I’m being honest, I’ve definitely taken the coward’s way out and just left people alone who clearly needed love and support.

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Announcing: The Little Purple Book

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By Common Consent Press is proud to announce our newest offering. We have teamed up with the team at Mormon Women for Ethical Government to publish The Little Purple Book-a collection of founding documents, core principles, and devotional readings that define a remarkable organization that is only a year old and has already had a huge impact on our  national and ecclesiastical conversations. [Read more…]

Male Friendships

A quick observation, one backed up by science (at least as a five minute google search revealed): it’s getting more difficult to have male friends as I get older. Yes, my time is largely taken up with family and work. Yes, there are lots of activities in the elders’ quorum. But I find that I simply don’t have very many close friendships with men. Maybe a handful. Most live far away. [Read more…]

Book Announcement: God and the IRS

I’m thrilled to announce that my book God and the IRS: Accommodating Religious Practice in United States Tax Law (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) has just been published and is available for your reading pleasure.

As background to the book, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment (as well as the jurisprudence courts have used to interpret and apply the Religion Clauses) have a sometimes-complicated interplay. Because the law sometimes imposes on individuals’ ability to practice their religion, the government can sometimes accommodate their religious practice, exempting religious individuals from generally-applicable laws. At the same time, though, in general, the law can’t favor religion over non-religion; as a result, sometimes religious people can’t get an exemption from the generally-applicable law. A lot of religious litigation turns on where, in a given situation, the line between permissible and impermissible accommodation falls. [Read more…]

Lesson 17: “Beware Lest Thou Forget” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey.
–Deuteronomy 6:3

I was very fortunate that during my one and only trip to the Holy Land last year, I had an amazing expert tour guide: Dr. Norma Franklin of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Norma patiently answered every question I had ever had about Israel, archeology, and the Bible. I learned more about all of these things that week that I had managed to gather during the previous 50 years of my life.

One of the questions I asked her was supposed to be sarcastic. When we reached a particularly inhospitable hilltop in the Jezreel Valley, I turned to her and said, “Is this where they keep all the milk and honey?” She looked at me quizzically and said, “you know that that was a joke, right?” I knew no such thing, so she patiently explained it with an interpretation that I had never seen before and have not been able to find since, but that fundamentally changed the way I saw the covenant of the Old Testament. [Read more…]

10 Reasons Why Mormons Should Love “A Quiet Place”

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This post contains spoilers-ish.

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Review: Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington

Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless doves. Matthew 10:16

I didn’t know Leonard Arrington. I never met him. I have met several of the people who worked with him in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And among them is one who I consider the dearest of friends. We have had Leonard’s Adventures of a Church Historian, a chatty memoir, and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s biography of the historian years (1972-1982), Doves and Serpents. The latter, Lavina explains in the front-matter, was derived largely from Arrington’s copious journal. [Read more…]

The Islam I Know

Sometimes I have moments working with my international students that are just transcendent. After my dad died, I received heartfelt messages containing prayers to Allah, one of them saying “may Allah lead his soul to paradise.” It was utterly lovely and so comforting.  I could repeat a hundred variations on this anecdote from the past 15 years of my career.

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Lesson 16: “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” #BCCSundaySchool2018

 

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Rembrandt’s visualization of Balaam, his ass, and the angel- Mbzt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23551459

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Stand with Muslims as they fight against bigotry

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Carolyn at the impromptu Muslim Ban protest march on January 29, 2017

The Supreme Court hears arguments on the Muslim Ban tomorrow.  I’ll be in the courtroom, and with hundreds of civil rights supporters at the rally on the courthouse steps.  Join me.  As the Fourth Circuit has declared, the Muslim Ban violates the Establishment Clause and is “unconstitutionally tainted with animus towards Islam.”

Everytime I talk to Muslim friends, colleagues, and even taxi drivers, I hear the same themes over and over again – children bullied as “terrorists” at school, women harangued for wearing headscarfs (with aggressors sometimes forcibly yanking religious headcoverings off), graffiti and vandalism to businesses, threats and firebombs at mosques.

 

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When Your Calling and Election is [in Doubt]. III. Fundamentalism (part 2).

There is a contradiction between a Church tightly held together by a strong hierarchical authority, which will nevertheless be filled with practitioners of heartfelt devotion. There are, of course, people whose devotional life is enhanced by the sense that they live under this kind of authority, but for the masses who do not respond this way the choices are either to knuckle under, or leave, or live a semi-clandestine life.
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So far this peripatetic series has wandered from the Jerusalem Bishopric to Intelligent Design, and now to 20th-century Physics™ and Conservative Christianity (see part 1).

I’m afraid it’s nothing this interesting.


Election has been a Christain puzzle for two thousand years since Paul and then the Johannine community and all these posts hover around it with one or another valence. This post is part 2 of a previous post on Christian fundamentalism mostly conceived in terms of biblical literalism. This time I’m really wandering, with seemingly unconnected dots—to evoke Steven Peck.
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Teaching Old Testament, Primary-style

I’m having a pretty good time teaching the Old Testament to my Valiant 9 class. They’re a good group of kids, and the Old Testament is a wack book of scripture, so it’s kind of hard not to have fun with it. One of my kids is a natural thespian. When we had the lesson on the Creation, he wanted to act it out, and I, having nothing better to do with our time, said sure, why not. So he took on the role of Creator, and the other kids…well, one of them handled the lights, and the others sort of took turns embodying things like water and springtime. It was a little avant garde. At some point I did remember that it’s against the rules to let anyone portray a member of the Godhead in role-play situations, but by then it was too late, so I figured God would just have to forgive us this one time. Unfortunately, re-enacting the Creation turned out to be their favorite activity, so God has had to forgive us multiple times, but I like to think the Godhead understands these things.

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Stoic Maxims to Enhance Your Mormonism

Glen Fewkes is a health policy attorney in DC.  He listens to podcasts at double-speed and lives life at half-speed.

For a 2,000 year-old philosophy, Stoicism is currently having a bit of a moment.  For some reason, it’s particularly resonant amongst the “bro” set, and if they don’t find a way to wreck it then we’ll know it’s really built to last.  At its core, Stoicism offers a useful way of engaging with the world and has a rich history of interactions with the Apostle Paul and the peoples of the New Testament.

Stoics, ancient and modern, love to repeat maxims – condensed phrases of wisdom – in the hopes that certain virtues will sink into people’s psyches through repetition, much like repeated bicep curls build muscle (OK, maybe I’m starting to see the “bro” connection). These maxims are meant to be applicable to people of all walks of life.  Indeed, example sources span the spectrum from a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), to a freed slave (Epictetus), to a playwright (Seneca), a fact that is not at all irrelevant to the Stoic philosophy. [Read more…]

Invisible and Overqualified

“Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies” is a statement often used in Mormondom to give us hope that our volunteer workforce will be able to fulfill callings if they rely on the Lord. It’s a fine sentiment, one that should be humbling and aspirational all at once. But what about when a calling requires specific qualifications, such as a certification or degree, to be able to perform that role? Well, in those cases we are a bit more specific in whom we call. I noticed decades ago that our stake had called someone to the role of financial auditor who had no financial acumen, despite the fact that there were women in the stake who were CPAs and had the right qualifications; however, it was deemed a “priesthood” calling for some mysterious reason, so these women were not considered, essentially invisible to those extending the callings. That was decades ago, though, and we’ve entered a new era of gender inclusiveness, right?

Perhaps not. [Read more…]

God of the Deluge

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Mette Ivie Harrison is a well-known mystery and young-adult novelist and frequent guest here. She is the author of The Book of Laman, published by BCC Press.

Eight weeks before the Boston marathon, my treadmill broke. I know, big deal, right? Most runners love the outdoors and it was starting to be spring. But I am not most runners. I love indoor training and the security it provides, from pitstops to water to Netflix and no dogs. I wasn’t happy to have to run outside, and this feeling was compounded when I found I had Achilles tendinitis. But I just kept training because I had to do Boston this one year I qualified. [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…]

“Confessions of a Mormon Historian” The diaries of Leonard J. Arrington. A Review.

Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, April 30, 2018. $150.00. 2,600 pages in three volumes.

Gary James Bergera, ed.

Foreword by Susan Arrington Madsen. A (delightful) introductory essay by Rebecca Foster Bartholomew on some of Arrington’s ancestors and his life to ca. 1971.

Each volume contains a chronology by Joseph Geisner and Lavina Fielding Anderson in the front matter. Editor Bergera provides helpful short biographical notes on persons who appear in the diaries along with citations for work LJA mentions and other brief but important bits of context, along with generally unobtrusive expansions of the text when LJA is terse with names, places, etc.

Volume 1: Church Historian, 1971-1975 876 pages (including an appendix listing LDS historians and some associates for the years 1830-1985) + front matter.
Volume 2: Centrifugal Forces, 1975-1980 922 pages.
Volume 3: Exile, 1980-1997 803 pages (includes an index for all volumes) with an Afterword by Thomas G. Alexander and an Arrington bibliography by Jeffery O. Johnson.

Signature Books very kindly gave me a look at their forthcoming publication of Leonard J. Arrington’s (LJA) diaries covering the period of his appointment as LDS Church Historian to two years before his death in 1999. The recent Arrington biography by Gregory A. Prince quoted liberally from LJA’s diaries, housed at the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.[1]
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Lesson 15: “Look to God and Live” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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The Old Testament’s hottest book is Numbers. This week’s reading has it all: burnings, plagues, miraculous leprosy, poisonous flying hell-snakes, and a meat sneeze. What’s a meat sneeze? It’s that thing where you complain about eating manna, so God makes you eat meat for a month until it comes out of your nostrils. [Read more…]

#TaxDay 2018: For Ye Were Strangers

The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.   —Leviticus 19:34

My liturgical calendar tells me today is Tax Day,[fn1] and so it’s time for another installment of my annual Mormons and Taxes post.

This year’s has nothing to do with the income tax, and, in fact, very little to do with the United States. Instead, we’re going to look south of the border to the Mormon colonies in Mexico. [Read more…]

The Little Things of General Conference

Amy Harris lives in the western US.  She enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with family. Some might classify her approach to gardening as “mildly unhinged.” Like nature, Amy abhors vacuums (and irons).

There has been a lot of talk about all the major changes and exciting announcements from General Conference. I just want to add a few of the “little things” I noticed that made this the most energizing/enjoyable/uplifting conference experience I’ve had in years.   [Read more…]

Avoiding Holier-Than-Thou Ministering

In a recent episode of Mormon Land, historian (and BCC blogger) Matt Bowman talked about the brand new changes to the home teaching/visiting teaching and looked at the history of the program. Matt explained that the home teaching program, under Harold B. Lee’s correlation, used to be more of a guardianship priesthood thing, with each home teaching companionship tasked with making sure the family to whom they were assigned, were completing the various church programs and ordinances, and came to their visits ready with a list of questions to complete their watchcare. Here’s a good Ensign article from 1973 that captures the old program’s aims.

Bowman, in comparing this to the new program and in explaining that in the intervening years we’ve moved farther and farther away from a list-based approach, noted that perhaps the new ministering program will allow for needed flexibility so that people can cater the ministration as the Spirit dictates.

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You knew what I was

JD grew up in the church in an area he affectionately terms “Zion Lite.”  He served a mission in a country with police with semi-automatic weaponry and weird fatty foods, went to BYU, did more than enough graduate school, and still goes to church.  Look around this Sunday, he may be sitting down the bench from you, possibly wearing fantastic socks. He could really use a friend there.

I am a gay man in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I battle despair daily, even though “to despair is to turn your back on God.” [1] I can understand the feelings that lead someone to consider suicide — the feeling that the Lord in this church has no plan of mortal happiness for me.  

But I desperately hope the Lord does have a plan of mortal happiness for me. We still need to be actively seeking further light and knowledge, and the testimonies of God’s LGBT children are key.   [Read more…]

Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There

 

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.  And especially if it’s given from the heart.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.  Just take them in.  Listen to what they’re saying.  Care about it.  —Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom

 

A few weeks ago, I met with a group of students who had some legitimate concerns about the way they had been treated at the university. It was an uncomfortable meeting but a necessary one, and by the end of it I was ready to get to work. I told them that I would fix everything—we would create some student organizations, incorporate new material into our core curriculum, revise our conduct code, and take care of the problem once and for all.

“You are missing the point,” one of the students told me when I announced these plans. “We don’t need you to fix all of this today. We need you to listen to us. We need to know that we are being heard.” [Read more…]

Saint Mary the Protectress

Gold-plated spires of Lavra's main church.

Cathedral at Lavra

I recently returned from a business trip to Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine, including two days of just being a tourist. My tour guide was Olga, a well-informed host overflowing with love for her city and country. One of the most impressive places I visited with Olga was Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Києво-Печерська лавра in Ukrainian and Киeво-Печерская лавра in Russian). More like a small city than just a church, it is a historical center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and includes a magnificent cathedral, smaller (though still magnificent!) churches, an active seminary, monastery housing, and a historical underground cave monastery containing relics of saints.  [Read more…]

Roundtable on The Power of Godliness, Part III

Jonathan Stapley’s new book is only 129 pages of text, but it feels much longer. This is not, thankfully, because the prose slogs. Rather it is one of those books that makes every word count. There is no fluff here, only finely sanded insight after insight, with all coarse surface and redundancy polished away. Stapley’s strengths are twofold. First, his archival work is unparalleled. For every assertion he has an anecdote. He meticulously marks fine nuances in opinion among his subjects, and those subjects are as frequently obscure figures like Steven Markham, John Steele, or Margaret Anderton as they are more familiar Mormons like Joseph F. Smith or Zina D.H. Young. His attention to such figures is essential to his second strength: the deep pattern of his argument. The process of producing the Mormon liturgy in all its parts and rituals, he argues, was and often remains the collision between the planned and the inadvertent.

Mormon leaders—be they Joseph Smith or Joseph F. Smith or Eliza Snow—conceived or introduced new rites, like a ceremony to seal a couple together. Mormons balked, or reinterpreted them. Mormons began dedicating their graves or their homes; Mormon leaders scrambled to catch up and codify a ceremony already happening. Through this messiness, Stapley argues, not only have Mormons generated a liturgy, but—because, as he rightly notes, liturgy is a powerful route by which worshipers conceive of the cosmos—they have gradually altered the ways they conceive of what it means to be a Mormon in the universe. [Read more…]

Roundtable on The Power of Godliness, Part II

The next installment of our discussion on Stapley’s book comes from Taylor Petrey. Taylor is Associate Professor in the Religion Department at Kalamazoo College, with research interests in the body, gender, and sexuality in antiquity and the formation of Jewish and Christian identity in the ancient world.
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Stapley’s The Power of Godliness has cracked the code on Mormon discourse about priesthood. This book brings so much clarity to a complex topic that has confounded outsiders and insiders to the Mormon tradition alike. The key that unlocks the mystery is Stapley’s historical analysis revealing two different ways Mormons have used the term “priesthood” and two different conceptual universes behind them. Sometimes overlapping and sometimes diverging, these two different meanings of priesthood are based in notions of church order that date to different periods in Joseph Smith, Jr.’s prophetic ministry. Rather than harmonizing Mormon history or Mormon thought under a single rubric or organizing principle, Stapley points to a foundational tension in Mormonism that holds immense explanatory value. [Read more…]

Cling to your guns if you must, but leave the Holocaust out of it

Destroyed_Warsaw,_capital_of_Poland,_January_1945

The fruits of irregular armed resistance against a fascist state: Following the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising, the civilian population was expelled and the city systematically destroyed. (Source)

Recently, a friend on a popular social media site shared a photo of the pile of shoes at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum that was accompanied by the following text:

To all the kids that walked out of school to protest guns. These are the shoes of Jews that gave up their firearms to Hitler . They were led into gas chambers, murdered and buried in mass graves . Pick up a history book and you’ll realize what happens when u give up freedoms and why we have them.

I hadn’t pegged him as someone who would fall for such a cheap shot in the gun control debate. We had served together as missionaries in Austria where most of us had been to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Although primarily a forced labor camp for political and “antisocial” prisoners—in contrast to the death camps farther east that served no other purpose than mass killing—Mauthausen was a sobering and context-rich enough example of the Nazi regime’s horrifying crimes against humanity that I was surprised someone could visit the site and still believe that the problem with the Holocaust was that the victims simply “gave up” their freedom.

But maybe he hadn’t been there. [Read more…]