So I’m interested in learning about your family’s Christmas traditions. I’ll begin by suggesting a possible outline to follow, then share my own traditions, and then ask you to share yours with us. [Read more…]

Outsourcing Morality or: Watching Deadpool on VidAngel

Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper (Source)

One of the best known episodes in The Odyssey addresses a universal truth—namely, mankind’s struggle with deadly but irresistible appeal:

“Now pay attention to what I am about to tell you—heaven itself, indeed, will recall it to your recollection. First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

A Syrian Ready to Perish Was My Father

And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, “a Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” — Deuteronomy 6:5 [Read more…]

What I Learned from the Old Testament

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Recently a friend of mine shared a story with several of us about how he, while on vacation and with some spare time on his hands, decided to re-read some parts of the Old Testament. His strongest impression of what he read, he said, was that these were the records of a people struggling to understand what it means to no longer be God’s chosen people–or, if they were still chosen, why being chosen did not protect them from being defeated, occupied, and driven into exile, their temple desecrated and their community destroyed. He commended a reading of the Old Testament to us all, saying that it would remind us of the importance of humility, and endurance, and maintaining faith and hope even while our assumptions about the world all around us are being shattered.

(Please, no 2016 elections jokes. I’ve heard enough already. Besides, my friend is a Republican.) [Read more…]

Third Advent: Rejoicing and the Cross

2016 has been a hard year for many of us, bringing crises both personal and public, meaning that the tradition of rejoicing on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) may not come easy. The awaited redemption that we celebrate today, when God “gives justice to the oppressed, / And food to those who hunger,” and finally “sets the prisoners free” and “lifts up those who are bowed down,” can seem very far away. Indeed, we seem to languish ever more irredeemably.

Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?

Try wrapping your mind around this. Source

So how do you respond to the overwhelming complexity of the universe? If you’re like me, you get up, put your pants on one leg at a time, and try not to think about it too much. But from time to time, you’ll wonder what the point of life is, why you are here, how soon is now and who ate the last piece of cheesecake. You will not be content with a life lived uncertainly–you will look for, and find, answers. Well, at least what will pass for answers. [Read more…]

Index to #BOM2016 Posts

Several people have asked whether or not there would be a general index of all of the posts that were part of my #BOM2016 series this year, which came about when I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in more than 25 years and tried to blog about it from the perspective of a trained literary critic encountering its narratives for the first time. Well, yes. Here are all 45 posts. I trust BCC readers to use these for good, and never for evil.

Samuel, the prophet. #BOM2016

These past weeks I’ve thought a lot about Samuel, the Lamanite. And as I’ve re-read the Book of Mormon this year, I’ve realized that in the past, I’ve glossed over how significant Samuel is to the latter end of the Book of Mormon, and how appropriate a figure he is for advent.

Arguably, the three figures that loom the largest over Helaman through Ether are Jesus, Mormon, and Moroni. And all three of them draw attention to Samuel and his prophecy. When we read Samuel’s prophecy about the destruction of the Nephites, it’s easy to see that as referring to the destruction that befell them at the time of Jesus’ death. But Mormon sees it, along with the prophecy of Abinadi, as referring to his own day (see Mormon 1-3). When Moroni describes the curse that befell the Jaredites, while abridging the record of Ether, he uses the same language that Samuel used when pronouncing his curse on the Nephites, and that his father, Mormon used when describing it’s fulfillment, suggesting that Samuel’s curse and prophecy permeated not just the way Mormon and Moroni thought about their present, but the way they thought about the past. Mormon and Moroni appear to have seen Samuel as perhaps the major prophetic figure of the latter parts of the Book of Mormon. Jesus also arguably identifies Samuel as the major prophet for the descendants of Lehi (see 3 Nephi, 20:24, more on that below).

Trump’s Tax Proposals and Mormons

It occurred to me this morning that Trump’s tax plan, if it passed in its current form, would impact many middle- (and some high-) income U.S. Mormons.[fn1] I mean, it would affect U.S. taxpayers in general, but it would have a particular effect on the deductibility of tithing.

The church cares about deductibility. In 2011, Elder Oaks gave testimony to the Senate Finance Committee that the charitable deduction is vital to the nation’s welfare.

And why might that be? Basically, because it reduces the cost of charitable giving, at least for taxpayers who itemize their deductions (more on that in a minute). For example, imagine I’m in the 25-percent tax bracket and I itemize. If I write a tithing check for $1,000, I’ve made a$1,000 charitable donation, and the church has an additional $1,000. But the after-tax cost to me of that donation was$750. [Read more…]

War, Famine and Economics #BOM2016

Helaman 11 is a pretty darned fascinating piece of scripture. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of God, the ability of humans to affect the will of God, and the nature of humans to choose evil over good — and that’s just the first 20 verses. The latter half of the chapter speaks to our penchant for recidivism, our inability to root evil out from among us, and how the only way to vanquish evil is to fight it relentlessly and tirelessly.

But for this post I want to talk about the narrative in the first 20 verses, when the Lord begins to make good on Nephi’s promise from Helaman 10: repent or be destroyed. [Read more…]

Moroni’s Message in a Bottle: How to (Re)Build a Church #BOM2016

Moroni 1-10

Perhaps no chapter in the Book of Mormon seems more out of place than the eighth chapter of Moroni. It occurs towards the end of a genocidal campaign against Moroni’s people. He is quite likely the last Nephite left on earth. The record has already been completed, and he is now traveling across the hemisphere schlepping about 500 pounds of gold plates and trying to avoid all of the people who want to kill him, which is pretty much everybody. What a strange time to transcribe a letter from his father about infant baptism.

What’s going on? The standard Sunday School answer would be that the Lord saw our day and knew that we would struggle with the question of infant baptism, so he inspired Mormon and Moroni to include this epistle. And the standard anti-Mormon answer would be that Joseph Smith was making stuff up to speak to a major religious controversy of his day. Both of these answers, I think, treat the actual text of the Book of Mormon as evidence to support or refute a historical argument. [Read more…]

Reflections on Empathy and Listening

Regular readers of BCC will have noticed that posts expressing women’s discomfort or anger produce intense comment threads. Almost invariably, a male commenter comes along and attempts to engage with the ideas that he sees operating in the post, only to find himself accused of not listening. Frequently, these male commenters respond by suggesting that women don’t want discussion, but simply want their feelings affirmed. Many threads have led to this impasse—to a “conversation about the conversation” instead of whatever the original post happened to be about.

As a man, I’ve struggled to know how to respond to these threads. Knowing the women of BCC has been the most morally transformative experience of my recent life, and I feel urgently the need to honor their perspectives, for which I am deeply grateful. And yet I’ve had a hard time knowing what to say beyond “thanks.” That’s important, to be sure, but as a form of engagement it’s rather inert. At other times, I’ve tried to engage by calling out mansplaining, by, you know, mansplaining to mansplainers about how mansplaining works, and these efforts have been neither helpful nor productive. I’ve even been modded!

I’ve come to believe that both of these responses—the bare thanks and the aggressive calling out—resulted from a lack of empathy on my part. I’d listened enough to know what mansplaining was, and I valued listening enough to believe that my BCC sisters’ voices were worth hearing, but I hadn’t yet learned how listening and empathy really work. No doubt I still have quite a bit to learn, but in this post I’d like to share some of what I’ve figured out this past while. [Read more…]

If life were a football game, I’d be receiving a penalty for excessive celebration tonight. [Read more…]

Second Advent Sunday: Prophecy of New Hearts

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, a day that recognizes the importance of God’s voice on earth, through prophecy and scripture. It is a Sunday that follows the first advent Sunday’s focus of hope in Christ.

As I seek to prepare my heart for this Christmas season, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a truly cruddy year 2016 has been, for a plethora of reasons (although Slate reminds me that 2016 actually hasn’t been nearly as bad as 1348, 1836, or 1919, so I should count my blessings), and I find 2017 approaching me simultaneously with the promise of a fresh slate and the dread of looming 2016 aftermath. [Read more…]

Should Bishops Be Able to Counsel Divorce?

Let me start with a disclaimer. I have virtually no personal experience with divorce. Also, I don’t have access to Handbook 1, so I don’t know for sure what it currently says on this topic. But I know that in recent history, the Handbook provided that bishops were not allowed to counsel couples to divorce. See for instance this 2007 GC talk by Elder Oaks, which includes the matter of fact line “Bishops do not counsel members to divorce.” Whether that is the current standard is on-topic for this post. But whatever the current standard, I’m interested in what you think the standard should be. Are there ever circumstances where it would/should be appropriate for a bishop to counsel divorce? [Read more…]

“You might as well argue with the wind.”

Something about early American preaching that may have things to say about the Mormon pulpit and pew.

The discussion of the balance between the rational and the intuitive (in Mormonism we might say, reason vs. revelation, or the “mantle” vs. the “intellect”) is not a new one. Roughly 300 years ago New England pulpits rang with polemics, preacher against preacher, over things like itinerancy, extemporaneous sermons, lay testimony and emotional conversion experiences. Each might be seen as either the work of the Devil or the work of God. Clerical conferences, used to a few quiet conversations over theological points, were torn asunder by bitter conflicts between extremes. The enlightened vs. the pious.

Meeting Mormon #BOM2016

Mormon 1-7

One thing about narratives is that you always have to be revising your assumptions as you get more information. What you think you are reading at the beginning of a book may very well not be what will think you have read when you are done. We see this dramatically in “surprise ending” kinds of narratives—think of the ending of movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, which force you to reinterpret everything you have seen in light of the information presented in the last reel. [Read more…]

Another year, another Christmas gift book guide. I’m not going to call out the books germane to the 2017 Gospel Doctrine curriculum; however you can see those recommendations here.

Playing God

Hannah J. has guested with us before.

In the interest of strategy sharing, let me start by saying that having our class act out scriptures is the only thing my husband and I can do to harness the crazy energy of our CTR 4 class of eight kids. They love it. We started with the Nativity at Christmas time and have done stories ranging from Daniel and the lions’ den to the council in heaven. Every time we do it, the kids insist that we spend the entire lesson replaying the scene to give everyone a chance to act out different characters. The enjoyment and learning value of donning costumes and acting out scriptures aside, we always face a casting imbalance since our class has six girls and two boys. Roles such as King Herod, the wise men, and the angel Gabriel do not appeal to these young girls. Honestly, I do not blame them. When I was learning to read as a kid I was not interested in books with male protagonists. I loved Ramona Quimby, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew because, in the act of reading, I could imagine myself as these girls and women. This reality continually challenges my husband and I as we try to find meaningful ways for the girls to act and experience scriptural stories and learn the truths therein. We have to re-negotiate the roles for the talent available; our actresses instead act as Queen Herod, the wise women, and the angel Gabrielle. [Read more…]

Tools for teachers 2017: Doctrine and Covenants and church history [Updated]

2017 brings to Adult Sunday School the Doctrine and Covenants and church history. Let’s just take a moment and offer up thanks that the plan for topical Sunday School lessons was scrapped. Now, the Doctrine and Covenants is a great opportunity, because we have more context for it than any other scripture in our canon. There is also a fair amount of terrible material masquerading as study helps out there. This post is an outline of the best resources we have for approaching the text and preparing lessons in the coming year. Also, as a bonus, BCCers will be putting up lessons throughout the year, including lesson-specific resources.

Mormon Was A Lamanite

James W. Lucas (JWL) is a long-time friend of BCC and a scholar and historian.

While teaching Gospel Doctrine this year, I have tried to view the text from Mormon’s perspective. Why did he include this or that, what was his motivation, etc. – all those questions about authors we were taught to ask in literature classes. In doing so I have come to what may be either a fascinating insight, or a crazy speculation. That insight/speculation is that Mormon was a Lamanite, and that this profoundly affected the text which he produced. [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Sharon Jones and Christmas

This year has been lousy with the deaths of prominent musicians. Between Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and Merle Haggard, one could certainly be forgiven for missing some of the less-famous deaths.

Of all of the musician deaths this year, though, the one that hit me hardest was Sharon Jones.[fn1] I’m not going to get too biographical here—the Rolling Stone obituary is pretty thorough, and has some incredible videos of her performing—but I will say that the world has lost an incredible singer (and, based on the videos, and incredibly charismatic performer).  [Read more…]

“For We Are Here, But Little Time to Stay”

Yes, it’s been an awful year for many of us, my own family at least partly included. But, thankfully, only partly. We still have many blessings. We have each other, we still have our jobs, we still have our extended family and friends, we still have–we think, we hope, we pray–a loving God who mourns the awfulness that we endure and sometimes, just sometimes, “appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion…beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:3). No planting lasts forever, of course–but for the moment, it’s an experience worth being grateful for. So happy Thanksgiving Day, everyone. Remember to count your blessings, one by one by one.

I see you

The boy wanted to try on my glasses

“Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion.” (Mosiah 12.22)

My son is almost two years old. We play a game when I’m getting him dressed to keep him from trying to roll away. I take my time as I pull his shirt over his head, leaving his eyes covered, asking “Where’s Dorian?” He’s surprisingly patient with this game. Eventually, as his turtle head emerges, his eyes invariably lock onto mine like magnets and he laughs. He’s found again.

It’s a common phenomenon—little children seem to believe they can’t be seen when their own eyes are covered. Psychologists have explained this as egocentrism. A child can’t yet view the world through any other perspective than their own. If they can’t see, nobody can. This is how I’ve thought of Dorian’s game until this morning. [Read more…]

Ed Kimball, thank you

I never met Ed Kimball face-to-face, and I regret that. He passed away yesterday, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Into the Void

The void is an unimaginable place. Unimaginable because to imagine it is to negate its possible existence by creating a reference to it. One cannot paint it, write it, or put it in film. The empty space flung about the universe fails as a simile because it is filled to brim with districts of effect, like electromagnetic fields, strong and weak nuclear forces, quantum foam, dark energy and its like. Not so the void. It is a country without borders, contour lines, or designations–no measure can be made there to quantify (or qualify) its extent or content. It dances beyond the edge of knowing, I can talk about it, as I am now, but it does not bring it closer. I can only give suggestions and intimations; gestures that convey a general direction, but not its elevation from some base or its latitude or longitude. Does the void exist? What could that mean? Is it a transcendental thing like $\pi$ or $\infty$? Something whose existence can be used but cannot be found floating about in space, or hidden under rocks, or singing sad songs on the island of misfit toys? Nothing. No-thing. No thing. Nothing. [Read more…]

Why LDS Women Are (Often) Sexist

In a discussion about the election results, one of my friends asked why so many white women voted for Trump if he is so sexist. My intuitive response was “Because they are married to white men.” It was a guess that had a certain ring of truthiness to it, but I wasn’t entirely sure I could articulate why. What I meant by it is that, sexism aside, many Trump voters felt that the Republican platform will mean a better economic future for them, that they feel the Democrats have reduced their financial prospects, and that white men in particular feel held back and disenfranchised. If their wives are financially dependent on them (whether secondary income or no income), we shouldn’t be too surprised that they agreed with their husbands. [1] But to vote for Trump, even out of self-interest, voters in 2016 also had to overlook the misogyny of their candidate. To me, that was where the more interesting story was.

Becoming Converted

Below is an approximation of a talk I gave in sacrament meeting this morning on the assigned topic of “Becoming Converted.” (I had a little more time than I expected, so I also talked about several other practical ways to become converted that are not in this written out version, such as being humble = teachable [riffing on the become as little children part of the Matthew passage], studying the scriptures, and communing with the Saints.)

For Many Years My Voice Shook

I wrote a book for the Maxwell Institute.  It came out on November 1st.  In the last three weeks I have traveled and spoken at fifteen different events.  Up until November 1st, even when I practiced reading for my husband in our living room, my voice would shake so badly that the words would get caught up in my throat and finally stumble out in a bundle of nervousness.  I was quite serious in my consideration of hiring actors to read my work for me at the events I knew I was going to be speaking at.  I did not want to take up people’s time.  I did not want to be in the spotlight, I felt so much nervousness about what I wasn’t,  or at least the part of me that had spent a lifetime overdosing on what I thought humility meant.

On the opening night of the book, I stood in front of about 150 people and looked down at the words on the page, unsure if my voice would shake and render me incapable, or if it would carry steady.  I believe by an act of pure grace, and genuine love from the people in these audiences, my voice, for literally the first time in my life, read the words I had written without a crack or waver.  Something kind and believing has carried them each night as I’ve read the pieces about my own life, which are intensely personal and nakedly honest.

The curse of the land: dragon-sickness in Tolkien and in the Book of Mormon.

There’s a handful of books that I return to again and again. Among that handful are the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, and Tolkien’s works. And a recurring theme that I find winding through both the Book of Mormon and in Tolkien’s stories is that of cursed, elusive treasure.

The prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, pronounces this curse on the Nephites in his day, prophesying that “whoso shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more, because of the great curse of the land.” Helaman 13:18. Samuel goes on at length: “[Y]e are cursed because of your riches,” he says. “And also your riches are cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them.” Helaman 13:21. To put in concrete terms the elusiveness of the riches, Samuel uses the highly evocative adjective “slippery.” God “curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them,” he says. Helaman 18:31. [Read more…]