Elder Cornish’s talk participates in the LDS turn toward grace that’s come in the wake of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ. So, I’m going to reflect briefly on how exactly he understands the theology of grace. He begins with what superficially seems like a classic Calvinist moment of redemption, where an external force lifts him from utter despair about the adequacy of his own capacity and efforts. He was a young medical intern, faced with a case of pediatric pneumonia he had no idea how to address, when a senior resident came along and believed in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. The manner of salvation isn’t quite Calvinist, though: instead of affirming the election of an omnipotent God, the resident affirmed Cornish’s own capacities. [Read more…]
Good morning, brothers and sisters.
Before I dive into the meat of my comments, I’d like to ask you to do something with me. I’d like for you to close your eyes for just a moment and to keep them closed until I ask you to open them…
Please close them now.
With your eyes now closed, I’d like for you to imagine that you’re at the ballet… you have the best seats in the house… the lights dim… and a small troupe of dancers come on stage. They’re strong and graceful. They take their places as the orchestra cues up, and they begin to dance…
[ Hum one verse of “Where Can I Turn for Peace” ]
The music ends, and the dancers exit the stage. [Read more…]
It’s Reformation Day yet again, number 498 with 500 coming soon, and to commemorate it yet again Craig H. (a professor of Reformation history) delivered the DeLamar Jensen lecture at BYU on Thursday, on the twin themes of 1) how a Mormon farm-boy like DeLamar Jensen (or for that matter a Mormon suburb-boy like himself) ever in the world got interested in the Reformation, and 2) what the youngish sixteenth-century monk Martin Luther might possibly have to say to other Mormons too. Jason K. was in attendance, squished among the Axe-sprayed hordes (as certain BYU colleagues affectionately call them), and asked Craig whether he might publish excerpts at BCC, especially Craig’s assorted Luther-style theses on what an infusion of Luther-style grace into Mormonism might possibly look like. Though Craig is a (very occasional) blogger at T&S, he, in good ecumenical spirit, agreed. And though he has written mostly about the Reformation, Craig is also the author of a missionary memoir, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, which is exactly as amazing as that title makes it sound (see Russell Arben Fox’s review here). We’re glad to welcome Craig as a guest at BCC.
The body of the talk went something like this: most Mormons (like most people) don’t know much about Luther, but plenty still tend to think of him as a sort of forerunner of their own religion. Maybe. But his big main point, that justification comes by grace, through faith, isn’t exactly the dominant Mormon way of thinking about salvation.
In fact, despite some recent flashes of something close to Luther-style grace in Mormonism (coming from Stephen Robinson, Elder Uchtdorf, or Adam Miller), Mormons are still more likely to believe the version of salvation Luther was protesting against: justification by grace, through doing every dang thing you can possibly do to earn that grace. Or more formally, doing all that lies within you.
In a memorable moment of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ, he relates his wife Janet’s intense burnout under the pressure of all she had to do. Famously, Robinson answers this situation with the parable of the bicycle. The result is a theory of grace according to which we do what we can (which isn’t much) and Christ makes up the rest. If we feel despair, it’s because we don’t take Jesus at his word: we believe in Christ without believing Christ. 
Robinson’s book has had the effect of making Mormons not as entirely allergic to the concept of grace as we had been back when we were eager to differentiate ourselves from “born again” Christians. Even so, I don’t think that grace has led us home just yet. Part of the issue, I want to suggest, is that we tend to conceive of salvation in individualistic terms, notwithstanding the strong family orientation of our theology. To get to heaven we have to read the Book of Mormon every day, by ourselves and in our families (and if we don’t have a family, we are to acquire one tout de suite); we have to hold family prayer, family scripture study, and family home evening; we have to do our home and visiting teaching with a diligence extending beyond the required monthly visit; we must actively seek opportunities to share the gospel with nonmembers, while making time to fellowship less-active members in our area; we are to worship in the temple regularly, performing ordinances for deceased ancestors whom we have diligently searched out, even if we are sixth-generation Mormons with faithful BIC ancestors whose work has nevertheless been vicariously performed at least a dozen times, just to make sure, and whose non-BIC ancestors are in much the same boat; on top of all this, we must serve in time-intensive Church callings, all without detracting from precious family time. Nobody else can do this stuff for us. Grandma’s extraordinary commitment to family history work in no way lets you off the hook, and so on ad infinitum. [Read more…]
Here at BCC, amidst the recent interest in Joseph Smith’s seerstone (here, here, and here), we’ve also been revisiting the Gospel Topics essays (here and here). Collectively, the Church’s decision to publish pictures of the seerstone (and let’s not forget that the pictures appear in a landmark edition of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon) and the publication of the essays all participate in an institutional trend toward transparency about the Church’s history. Although I personally applaud this trend, it admittedly also adds some complications to the already challenging project of building Zion.
The basic problem is that some members have known about most of this stuff for years, while it comes as a sometimes unpleasant surprise to others, some of whom have been taught that ideas now given the imprimatur of lds.org were anti-Mormon lies. This reality presents the urgent question of how these two groups of members (and all of the people in between) are to live together in Christian community. Sam has recently written about one approach to teaching these materials in a Church setting, and I wish to add some theological reflections to his pragmatic discussion.
I’ve been trying to figure out when “broken” became the new normal. I don’t remember the term “broken people” being thrown around much when I was a lad. We talked about broken homes, I remember, and sometimes an occasional broken family. But as far as I can tell, people didn’t get broken until sometime in the late 1990s. But now it seems that broken people are everywhere. And the phrase “we are all broken” seems to have become a favorite theme of Church talks from General Conference on down. [Read more…]
Some of life’s best examples of grace come through friendship, in little moments of surprise that remind us of the whole world that exists beyond ourselves. Sure, there are the graces that happen when strangers are unexpectedly kind, but what makes grace in friendship interesting is that we expect goodness from the other person. What is grace when kindness and generosity are the rule (even if moments of prickliness do intrude, as they will)? [Read more…]
Bishop Caussé opens his talk with a stunning acknowledgement about failing to pay attention: his family lived in Paris for 22 years without ever making time to visit the Eiffel Tower! Similarly, he suggests, we can all too easily miss occasions for spiritual wonder all around us. In a monitory tone, he says:
Our ability to marvel is fragile. Over the long term, such things as casual commandment-keeping, apathy, or even weariness may set in and make us insensitive to the most remarkable signs and miracles of the gospel.
Later, he quotes Marcel Proust by way of inviting us to undertake a wondrous spiritual journey made possible by the simple mechanism of paying attention: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” This quote marvelously captures both the “renewing of [the] mind” that Paul makes a consequence of grace and the spiritual riches that await those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Adam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Self-published, 2015). Amazon: $8.99 paperback; $3.99 Kindle.
John Locke, in the preface to his posthumously published paraphrases of Paul’s letters, inveighs against the division of the text into chapters and verses because it hinders comprehension of the text as a unified whole. To understand Paul, Locke says, one ought to read the epistles in a single sitting, again and again, until the big picture begins to coalesce. This advice is the most difficult to implement with Romans, Paul’s longest and most complicated epistle, so a well-done paraphrase offers a way in.
Adam Miller’s new paraphrase sets out to address another obstacle: the difficulty that emerges in the culturally specific details and rhetorical tangles of Paul’s complex argument, which becomes only slightly less difficult when read in the NIV or NRSV than it was in the 400-year-old KJV. Miller, then, aims to “translate” Paul not just into a modern idiom, but into a modern context. Since he considers the message of Romans “urgent,” as his title proclaims, he strives to show the relevance of its argument for 21st century readers. [Read more…]