Fog. Your (Nearly) Sunday Brunch Special

I’m something like seven years old and our house sits at the boundary of the town. Our backyard has some kind of tree in it, I remember. Beyond the backyard barbed wire fence, there is empty treeless rolling grassland populated by magpies, rabbits, and stray cats in summer. At the front of the house, the house I was not born in but came home to from the birth-hospital, there is a narrow blacktopped street. On the other side of the street is more treeless grass, long grass, but at this point in time, long grass that has laid over in its silent brown death agony. I think about the old green “push mower” my brothers use to cut the grass in our yard. It’s cold. I can’t see much beyond the road, but I know very well that there are, far out there, railroad tracks. I have sometimes wakened at the 2am whistle for the crossroads. The fog is thick this evening, I mean it looks like evening. Really it’s more like four in the afternoon I guess. I want to walk out there toward the tracks but I know there are half-frozen pools that could waylay a seven-year-old, if not in life-danger, then mother danger. As in, how did you manage to get soaked just after I put clean clothes on you? I don’t go out. But I stand there, indecisive. Should I take a step into the fog?

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Speaking Tips

In the early 90s I was a young associate attorney in the public finance department of a large Chicago law firm. There was a public conference that our group was involved in, and we had to provide one of the speakers at this conference, and the senior partners gave me that assignment. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t because they knew I would do a good job, as they had never heard me give a public speech. I suspect I got the assignment because none of them wanted to do it, and as low man on the totem pole declining was not really a live option for me. (Public finance does not involve giving orations in courtrooms, it mostly involves drafting hella-complicated documents.) So I gave the speech, in a large Chicago conference center with about 200 attorneys from across the City in attendance. I honestly have no recollection what the topic of my speech was, but I do clearly remember the reaction of my firm colleagues. And that was back slapping and high fives. They were thrilled at the result and told me what a great job I had done. I was grateful for the praise, but not surprised that I had done an adequate job with the speech. Little did my partners know I had an advantage; as a life-long Mormon I have given many public speeches to audiences exceeding 100 people. I estimate that since my mid-teens I have given on average one such public speech (or in our vernacular, “talk”) a year, which means at the time I probably had given something like 15 such speeches in my life. Now that I’m in my 60s, that number has probably increased to something like 50.  And public speaking is one of those things that can really only be improved by the doing of it. And giving public speeches is just not something that the average non-Mormon does, unless they join Toastmasters or something like that.

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Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I’d missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall’s surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God’s seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal taken from God’s altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God’s will). [Read more…]

Not Your Parents’ Apostasy and Restoration: A Review of Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, eds. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Cathrine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022. $49.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (Kindle)

Launching this week, just in time for the savvy Christmas shopper, is the Maxwell Institute’s first word on the 2023 Come Follow Me curriculum, in which Latter-day Saints will venture forth on their quadrennial adventure with the New Testament. This volume focuses, not on the people who wrote the New Testament, but on its readers and devotees in the two hundred years or so that followed.

Right off the bat, the editors make it clear that they are not going to encourage, or even tolerate, the standard LDS view of early Christianity—the one where those silly Christians broke away from the truth after the apostles died and permitted Greek philosophy and Roman culture to permeate the plain and precious doctrines of Jesus Christ and turn His true church into something Great, Abominable, and of the Devil

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The LDS Church Supports the Respect for Marriage Act

You may have heard that yesterday the church came out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act. For reasons I’ll describe in a minute, this support is, in my humble opinion, a big deal.

But before we get to why it’s a big deal, it’s probably worth looking and what and why the Respect for Marriage Act is.

In broad strokes, the Respect for Marriage Act is a replacement for the Defense of Marriage Act from the 1990s. (And I mean that literally—Section 3 of RfMA repeals a provision of federal law added by DOMA that expressly allows states and the federal government to decline to recognize same-sex marriages enacted in other states.)

RfMA replaces that with its opposite: under the RfMA, states must give full faith and credit to marriages performed in other states, and cannot deny marriage benefits on the basis of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married persons.

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Introducing Rachel Rueckert’s East Winds—It’s Great!

BCC Press is proud to introduce one of the most remarkable books we have ever seen, much less published. East Winds, by Rachel Rueckert—a memoir, a travel narrative, a cultural tour-de-force, a love story, and a profound meditation on the core meaning of concepts like marriage, commitment, and eternity. And that’s just in Chapter One. This book will knock your socks off (if you wear socks, which you definitely should, especially in November, because it’s getting cold).

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2022 Christmas gift book guide

Happy 2022, folks! We have another year’s Christmas book list, and I hope that we all find a measure of peace, hope, and joy. Note that Benchmark has 20% off on new books and ships widely.

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The Two Great Commandments for Modern Samaritans

Adapted from a RS lesson taught in the Sacramento, CA metro area on 11/13/22

Luke 10:25-28

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up…saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
And he answering said, what is written in the law? What readest thou?
And he answering said, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

Good morning, sisters. Today’s lesson might be a little tough, so if you need to leave and get a drink of water, check on something that just came up outside the room, etc., it’s okay. No judgment.

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Your Sunday Brunch Special: Joseph Smith, Black Holes, and Minds

Fun nonsense on a Sunday Morning. I’ve been working on a book about Joseph Smith’s (JS) King Follett Discourse (April 7, 1844) for quite a few years and it could appear in print next year. In the book I don’t go into theoretical critique much since the book is focused on an oral text, its recovery, and interpretive critiques and receptive evolution over time. One aspect that I’m fascinated about is JS’s talk about human spirits, or souls, or minds (he uses the terms interchangeably and so I will do that here). I mention black holes in the title, and I don’t want to get down deep into that much. Briefly, the quandary about BH’s is that they seem to form a laboratory where questions about the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (gravity) come together to form sharp paradoxes.

The two things team up when you take JS seriously about what he says late in his career. Minds, spirits, whatever, are eternal beings, without beginning or end. I won’t try to drill down much here but it seems to be an empty exercise to explicate much beyond this except to say that JS deploys the idea as a notion of comfort in terms of fleeting mortality. You don’t have to worry about losing a child or other loved person because the thought, person, mind is not going away (there are issues here but they are irrelevant the point I want to crawl around) to put it his way: anything that has a beginning will have an end (there is much more to say about this idea but not here). What does this have to do with black holes? Well, go with me a bit. A black hole is a space time singularity surrounded by a kind of shell called the event horizon–stuff that may be inside can’t get out. The diameter of the shell can be very large. What’s inside? Some current thought, when I used to keep up with that–its been a few years, is that there is maybe nothing inside–what’s ought to be inside is actually reflected far away in Hawking radiation. The big problem is about information. Think of information in terms of “bits” in this case a bit might be represented as a very low frequency photon which heads toward the black hole. What happens to information that heads “into” a black hole? Does it disappear? That’s a no, no. Information has to be conserved. Now there are things like entropy and such that come in here but I don’t think we need to go there. The idea is, for JS, people are like black holes. Mind is the central, indivisible thing. There’s stuff smeared around on the event horizon that is linked into the far field but nothing else inside the horizon. It’s inviolate. And I’m off to church.

A Brief Note on Stewart Udall

I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Politics of Beauty,” a new documentary (currently touring film festivals around the country) on Stewart Udall, who was the Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and one of the strongest voices in the U.S. government on behalf of environmental protection during the whole history of the Cold War. He was also a product of the politically influential Udall family out of Arizona; the movie’s brief references to Udall’s identity as a cultural Mormon, and his relationship to the Mormon church and its people, is one of the few elements of the film which I think miss the mark, however slightly. (Marc Bohn’s tribute to Udall on Times & Seasons back in 2010 remains excellent reading in that regard.) I’ve written a post diving into Udall’s ideas, and both how they went beyond the environmental thinking of his time, and how subsequent developments in our thinking about the natural world (particularly as driven by climate change) show their limitations; you can read it here, if you’re interested. In the meantime, here is a preview sample of the documentary; the movie is quite wonderful overall, and well worth watching. At a time when, unfortunately, a majority of Mormon voters in Utah continue to support, however reluctantly, a fascist-adjacent flunky, it’s nice to be reminded of the progressives our tradition has produced as well.

Udall Sampler 12 min from Greg Davis on Vimeo.

Not yet

The Policy regarding the children of same-sex couples introduced in November of 2015 and later rescinded in April of 2019 was a watershed moment in modern Mormonism. Many of my friends in the church left over the policy and, strangely enough, its recension did not tempt them back. I didn’t leave, but I was tempted.

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Church Finances in Canada and Australia

Over the last week or so, a number of people have pointed me to investigative journalism regarding the church’s finances in Canada and Australia and asked my opinion on them. Which is flattering but, unfortunately, right now I don’t have a ton of spare time. So rather than go through in detail, I’m going to try to contextualize a little bit of what I think is going on.

And what I think is going on is two things. First, the church thinks of itself and, to the extent it legally can, operates as a single economic entity. Over the last several decades or so, it has consolidated its finances in Salt Lake (which significantly diverges from most religious organizations I’m familiar with, including other hierarchical religions like the Catholic church).

Second, the church is obsessed with being financially opaque. It values its financial privacy to a degree that it can be harmful to the public’s perception. (I’m sure I’ve blogged about this, but I’ve also written about the history of the church’s varying levels of financial transparency/opacity for Dialogue.)

And these two things, I believe, underlie the stories coming out of Canada and Australia. And frankly, my quick blog post (written between getting kids up for school, getting them breakfast, and getting ready for work) may or may not be satisfying. It’s not meant to convict or exonerate the church. And pretty much everything I know about this comes from two articles. And I believe that the church should be more financially transparent, and that such transparency would be good for it in both the short and the long run.

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“I’m a Mormon” Campaign

Guest post by Taylor Kerby

I went on my mission at the high peak of the “I’m a Mormon Campaign.” We would often watch through the posted videos, ostensibly for the sake of our investigators, but also probably as a product of having no other entertainment. It was commonplace for us to play these videos during our lessons and, as a missionary assigned to a Chinese-speaking area, it was important to have something, anything, that featured a person who looked like the people I served.

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The Church Historian’s Press Announces Two New Publications

The Church Historian’s Press, well known as the imprint for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, has gradually expanded its offerings on several fronts both in print and online, publishing such outstanding offerings as The Journal of George Q. Cannon, At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, and The Journal of George F. Richards.

The Press has now announced the online publication of two more foundational texts that will be of interest to historians of nineteenth-century Utah and others with religious or academic interests in that period. The two collections are The Discourses of Eliza R. Snow, and The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells.

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Two Quick Questions About Attending BYU Devotionals

My memories of BYU are nearly 30 years old, so I am seeking more recent information. I teach Friends University, at a small Christian (originally Quaker, now non-denominational) liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, and the university community hosts, for most of the academic year, weekly chapel services. Those chapel services have evolved a great deal over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so. In times past, a certain amount of attendance at chapel meetings (which has gone by various names; when I arrived here in 2006, it was called “Faith and Learning”) was required of the student body; that stopped a while back, but now it looks it may be coming back. I am part of a committee attempting to design attendance policies, and at our last meeting, another faculty member–one strongly opposed to any required chapel whatsoever–surprised me by citing, as part of his comparative research, BYU’s devotionals, attendance at which is not required. [Read more…]

A Church Ombudsman

Several years ago, while we were waiting for the church to build a building in downtown Chicago, my ward met in a rented public school on Sundays. And honestly, it was a great location–the nursery was in the gym, with its basketball hoops and plenty of space to run (and/or toddle) around. Primary and adult classes met in classrooms, some with class pets you could watch if the lesson was less-than-completely interesting. And kids could play on the playground out back once church was over (and—shhh!—sometimes when their primary class took them out).

But, like many Chicago public schools, this school didn’t have air conditioning. Now for real, that’s not a big deal in Chicago. It doesn’t get super-hot here, and, when it does, the heat only lasts a few weeks. (Also, those few weeks of heat tend to be in the summer, when school’s not in session.) But it could be uncomfortable, especially in the gym.

And one day, the gym was air conditioned. How? What I’m told is that a member of our ward who was related to a general authority in Salt Lake mentioned the heat and, because of that personal connection, the church provided air conditioning.

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Obviously, We’re Supporting McMullin (and So Should You)

And of course, it is equally obvious that there is no good reason to believe that anything which appears on this blog could actually convince any particular Utah voter to cast their ballot the way we’d prefer. But “no good reason” is not, in fact, the same as “absolutely no reason whatsoever.” In that bizarrely hopeful spirit, By Common Consent is happy to give voice to two Utah voters who really, really, really want every single one of their fellow Utah citizens who read this to cast a vote for Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate on or by November 8. We do this 1) because the wishes of these two voters are, in our judgment, both righteous and correct, and 2) because their perspectives—one from a self-described “conservative former Republican,” the other a self-described “independent voter”–likely express well those of many BCC readers, including, just possibly, some still unregistered voters somewhere in Utah. So consider this our public service this election year. And now, to our contributors!

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Vampires, Mormons, and Werewolves

Jack’s Back–this time with fangs.

When we met Jack Hardy of the Salt Lake City police in Vampires in the Temple, he was mainly worried about vampires. Not the Bela Lugosi types who dress in evening suits and seduce young ladies, or even the Nosferatu types who walk menacingly up the stairs and look like giant rats. These vampires are a separate humanoid species that the Mormons of Mette Harrison’s world found inhabiting Utah when they arrived in 1847, and now they have been confined to Vampire Island—a place that, in our world, was named after Antelope.

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The New FTSOY: Let Them Govern Themselves(?)

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Like many, I was genuinely pleased when I reviewed the recently released For the Strength of Youth (FTSOY) pamphlet. As Elder Deiter F. Uchtdorf explains, the new “guide”—a word that did not appear on the cover of older versions of FTSOY—“focuses on values, principles, and doctrine instead of every specific behavior.” Gone are the specific lists of “standards” to which youth are encouraged to adhere. (See here for a very good comparison of the 2011 and 2022 versions of FTSOY.) Of this shift, Uchtdorf states, “Is it wrong to have rules? Of course not. We all need them every day. But it is wrong to focus only on rules instead of focusing on the Savior.” Fundamentally, it seems, the new FTSOY is premised on an idea as old as the restoration itself: prophets teach people correct principles and the people govern themselves.

But letting go of lists can be so hard — especially when the items on those lists have become a visible part of our culture.

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On Choosing Each Other and Eating the Fruit

Taylor Kerby is an alumnus of Claremont Graduate University where he received master’s degrees in Religious Studies and Education. He is currently finishing his dissertation at Grand Canyon University in Arizona where he is a full-time educator. He has published his memoir, Scrupulous, with BCC Press. A father of two girls, he teaches Sunday school to the 12 and 13-year-olds in his ward

When I turned twelve, my uncle gave me a copy of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Answers to Gospel Questions. For most twelve-year-olds this would (rightly) be a dud of a gift, but for me (see my gripping memoir Scrupulous ) this was perfect. It was the full five-volume set bound in faux leather. As the title implies, each of the five volumes was written in a question/answer format, and often investigated painfully granular doctrinal issues, both of which made it all the easier for twelve-year-old me to indulge in the sort of morally superior trivial pursuit I craved.

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Rethinking Plagiarism

Last week, in the wake of General Conference, there was a mini-scandal: it appears that in Elder Bednar’s talk “Put on Thy Strength, O Zion,” he borrowed his interpretation of a parable from a 2016 article, sometimes even using that author’s precise words. He didn’t flag his intellectual debt in the oral version of his talk, though, and the original published version also failed to use quotation marks or footnotes for many of the ideas.

Now, I realize I’m idiosyncratic, but the first person who comes to mind when I hear about a plagiarism scandal is my friend and colleague Brian Frye, Dogecoin Professor of Law & Grifting Spears-Gilbert Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law.

Professor Frye is the preeminent plagiarism apologist in the legal academy. And his apologia pro plagiarism forces us to confront the question, why is plagiarism wrong? While the answer seems self-evident, he makes it clear that the question of the wrong of plagiarism is a lot murkier and harder to pin down.

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$906 Million

The church recently released its 2021 Annual Report. The church’s Annual Reports detail its humanitarian and social safety-net endeavors.[fn1] These endeavors should come as no surprise: as in years past, the church has been tremendously active in providing food, clean water, education, and vaccinations, among other things. It engages in these activites on its own and it partners with other charitable organizations.

The aid it provides is unsurprising because it’s the same kinds of things the church has highlighted in previous Annual Reports.

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FAIR and Me

My Engagement with FAIR

FAIR is an organization devoted to providing apologetic defenses of the Church and its history, scripture, doctrine and practice. I’m not entirely sure when it came into existence; I’m guessing in the mid-90s. I didn’t know of its early iteration, because back in those olden days pre-blogs and podcasts, the internet world of mass communication was divided between message boards and e-mail lists. FAIR’s original form of outreach was via a message board, but I wasn’t much of a message board guy, and I preferred e-mail lists. The big e-mail list back then was Mormon-L, which I was never on. I hung out on several niche e-mail lists: one devoted to history, another devoted to philosophy, but mainly I engaged with Scripture-L, which was operated by Greg Woodhouse out of California. I loved that old list. Brant Gardner was working out the draft of his Book of Mormon commentary there (now published by Kofford), and I first e-met Julie Smith there, author of the excellent Mark volume of the BYU New Testament Commentary series.

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Halloween Month Begins at BCC Press with The Darkest Abyss

From the very beginning of William Morris’s new book, The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories, we are presented with an interpretive problem. Are these strange stories about Mormons? Or are they stories about strange Mormons? Fortunately, we don’t have to think about this much, because the answer is both—clearly, abundantly, terrifyingly, and marvelously both.

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Empathy in the back seat

I am your older brother. I have been around the block a little more than you. I feel responsible for how you develop. I might even say it is my duty to teach you how to live a good life. But life isn’t easy and sorrows abound. That is why I feel your pain, even as I force you to hit yourself repeatedly in the face in the back seat of our car, currently driving to Grandma’s.

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Bishop Caussé’s talk was really good

The implications of stewardship and environmental issues are deeply profound. Even if the talk didn’t go into many specifics, it’s great to see environmental responsibility figure prominently in our doctrine. Tending to the earth is a salvific act.

Responding to Changes from On High, and Other Things that Never Happen in a Vacuum

Yesterday, the official organs of the LDS Church announced changes in the church’s For the Strength of Youth guide, which as just about anyone who was an active participant in church programs between the ages of 12 and 18 anytime in the past 60 years (but particularly the past 30) knows, has been a more-or-less official guide to the standards enforced at youth activities and the lessons preached in untold thousands of sacrament meeting talks, youth conferences, Girls Camp meetings, and more. This wholesale rewrite orients the publication around general principles and personal choices, with the explicit condemnations of tattoos, extra piercings, bare shoulders or midriffs, and “passionate kissing” now abandoned, and even same-sex attraction receiving, if not any kind of broad acceptance, at least much more tolerant language. It is a much-needed, wholly positive set of changes, and deserves nothing but applause. My wife and I a little upset about it (though about its roll-out, not its substance). [Read more…]

Oman, A Possible Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings

This morning, Nate Oman posted what may be the most important and consequential piece of Mormon theology I’ve read in a long time over on his Substack. In it, he explores whether and how same-sex sealings could fit in Latter-day Saint theology.

Those of you who know Nate will be unsurprised to find that it is a thoughtful, careful, insightful, empathetic, and fundamentally faithful exploration. He takes as his cue D&C 9, which both describes a stupor of thought as evidence that what we do is not aligned with God’s will and instructs us to study questions out in our mind to figure out what is right, then present our findings to the Lord for confirmation.

Nate also doesn’t let ideas off easy. While acknowledging that the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community does not feel just or fair, he doesn’t consider that, of itself, a compelling theological argument for same-sex sealings. At the same time, he finds our assumption of “heterosexual exaltation” equally baseless.

Instead, he advocates what I will call a theology of humility. He sketches the gaps in our understanding and application of sealings both today and through church history, how those gaps undercut our easy assumptions, and why those gaps allow for same-sex sealings.

[Read more…]

Setting Apart Our Daughters to Prepare and Pass the Sacrament

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

“Dad, can I ask you a question about the priesthood?” my daughter inquired on a recent Saturday afternoon. 

“Sure… let’s hear it,” I encouraged.

“In our church we believe that when women are set apart to do a calling, they fulfil that calling using the priesthood.  Is that right?”

I affirmed that she was correct. “Yes, that is what Elder Oaks explained back in 2014. He said that when women act in any calling they exercise priesthood authority in performing duties associated with that calling.”

My daughter nodded at my reply (I guess she knew she was right), and continued along these lines: “Then why can’t the Bishop just call the young women to be ‘sacrament passers’ or ‘sacrament preparers’ and then set them apart to do the calling? I mean, if the church is going to keep saying that the priesthood is needed to do those things, and if women have access to the priesthood through callings, then by calling the young women to these responsibilities and setting them apart they should have all the priesthood they need… right?” She made eye-contact with me and waited patiently for a reply.

I took a few beats to think about her suggestion (honestly something I’d never considered before, at least not in the way she presented it).  “You know what?” I said, “that makes sense to me; I don’t know why we couldn’t do that.”  And with that, my daughter gave a little shrug and walked out of the room.

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A Comic (But Not Comical) Take on Mormon History

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

As an intellectually-inclined, book-obsessed, life-long member of the Mormon Church, I have read many histories of my religion. I’ve read so many, in fact, that unfortunately I sometimes forget that such histories aren’t necessarily being written for knowledgeable believers like myself, and I end up criticizing them for getting some small detail wrong or for skipping over some academic controversy, forgetting that the purpose of good histories is to tell a story, one that draws you in. And when it comes to telling a story about a religious movement, presenting something compelling is essential, because if the story-teller can’t convey the circumstances or the feeling that drew people into the faith in the first place, the history can’t succeed at all.

All of that is to say that I wish I had been able to get over my intellectual pre-occupations and more fully enjoy the amazing accomplishment of Noah Van Sciver’s Joseph Smith and the Mormonsa wonderfully researched and captivatingly (and sometimes quite beautifully) drawn graphic novel when I first read it. Across more than 400 pages, Sciver presents an unconventional telling of the 19th-century, frontier American beginnings of the faith he was raised in, departed long ago, but has maintained a curiosity about and a confused sympathy for ever since. The tale it tells is mostly straightforward; it emphasizes some characters who rarely get much attention in typical Mormon histories, mostly bypasses some of the most intriguing beats in the story of Mormonism, and some might even argue that it is overly apologetic in its treatment of Joseph Smith. But as a literary whole, it needs to be acknowledged as a history as solid as many more scholarly ones, something I didn’t appreciate at first. [Read more…]