Year: 2012

Vote for Mormon of the Year 2012!

This post opens the voting for Mormon of the Year. Votes will be taken until midnight Eastern Time on Monday, January 7th, at which time the voting will close. The voting mechanism will attempt to restrict votes to one per person. The order of the choices is set at random, and is different each time the form is presented. THE WINNER OF THE ONLINE VOTE IS NOT NECESSARILY THE MORMON OF THE YEAR!!!


I generally hate New Year’s Resolutions, mostly because experience has taught me that I will fail to carry through. I don’t like failing. It seems that we usually pick for resolutions something about which we are conflicted. The resolution may be about losing weight, which is the conflict of habit and genetics against a health or aesthetic ideal. Or it may be about exercising, or getting enough sleep, or devoting time for personal scripture study and meditation, or it may be about losing weight. Most Mormons are able to avoid the common resolutions about drinking and smoking less, but we still want to spend more time with our families, get out of debt, and volunteer more. But this year, in a moment of inspiration, I hit upon a resolution for this year, one that I believe I can actually keep. Here’s the rub though: I can’t tell you what it is. This isn’t like blowing out the candles on your birthday cake and not telling anyone the wish because if you do, it won’t come true. It’s because speaking the resolution would be a violation of the resolution. For example, let’s say I had some difficulty getting along with a family member in the past, and my resolution is to not complain about that person any more. By saying, “My resolution is to complain about X,” I am actually in a passive aggressive way complaining about X. Saying that I’m…

Literary DCGD #1: On the Latter-day Dispensation

The initial lesson in the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History course of study points out that the revelations found in the text are meant for our time and cover our dispensation, while the history presented is the history of our people, as opposed to those who lived aeons ago. This course should, therefore, be relevant to us today in a way that the other Gospel Doctrine courses can’t hope to accomplish. The poem below discusses not only a few of the major events that opened our dispensation, but also follows the prediction often made; that our dispensation has a great destiny leading to the coming of our Lord.

Glory to God; Peace on Earth

Some time ago while singing Christmas carols at a non-Mormon event, I suggested that the group sing “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.” I was greeted with blank stares and questions. “What song?” “Never heard of it.” It turns out I was so immersed in Mormon culture (I still am to a large degree) that I didn’t know that “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” is an LDS hymn by a 19th century Utah author, and is therefore unknown to most non-Mormon audiences, even though its doctrine is universal enough for most of them.

A Mission Dream For the Last Day of Autumn

Five-Sense Gray.  9:15 in the morning in the very late autumn in Belgium.              It’s barely and unenthusiastically light because the sun has just come grudgingly up (if you call ten feet above the horizon up), and because the heavens are so blanketed with clouds that whatever slivers of rays manage to get through are absorbed right away into the gray. Belgian towns aren’t colorful in any sort of autumn or winter light, but in this particular flannel-gray sort they might as well just go ahead and say it: we are thoroughgoingly monochrome.

A Letter to a Friend

Below is the text of a letter that I wrote about a year ago to a close friend who was in the midst of a crisis of faith.  I have edited it to remove any identifying information: Dear Friend, It was a pleasure to talk with you earlier.  I am sorry to hear about the spiritual and intellectual difficulties that you have been struggling with.  You are — quite literally — in my prayers.  I have thought a great deal about what you told me of your struggles with faith and the Restoration.  I hesitate to offer any advice or “solutions” to your difficulties, both because I don’t know precisely what troubles you and because I realize that when one opens up the hurting parts of one’s soul often a sympathetic listener rather than a fix-it guy is what is of most value.  With that apology, let me offer a couple of thoughts. I don’t think that a faithful life is something that flows out of a full theological reconciliation.  That is, I don’t think that we are tasked with answering all of our theological questions and doubts and only once that reconciliation has been effected commit ourselves to living a faithful life.  I realize that this runs counter to much of the rhetoric in the church, rhetoric that is borrowed in large part from our proselytizing efforts.  According to this model, one is given a revelation of the truthfulness…

Can Books Cause Problems? Reflections on Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

I recently did a quick read of John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet and posted notes here. Here is my one-sentence summary: “Turner gives a balanced if candid portrayal of Brigham, one that mainstream Mormons should be able to read without serious difficulties.” But not everyone agrees. Some very bright people think the book might very well cause problems for mainstream Mormons and should therefore perhaps be avoided. It’s a serious question: Can books cause problems? If so, what do we do with those problem books: Ignore them? Hide them in locked cases? Burn them?

The Opposite of Epistemic Humility

[This is Part 4 of a 4-part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.] In my first three pieces I’ve spent an awful lot of time talking about epistemic humility. Now I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the antithesis of epistemic humility: extremism. My definition of the term is non-standard, but I believe it both fits as the antithesis of epistemic humility and matches our intuition that there’s something to extremism that is more than merely being far removed from the mainstream. After all, if you live in a society where child sacrifice is the norm and you consider it an abomination you are an extremist in a technical sense, but that lacks the pejorative connotations that we typically bundle in with the term. People believe things for a lot of reasons, but the very last reason is that they have gone through some kind of rational evaluation of the evidence and logic and concluded that the belief in question is likely to be true. It is my experience that, almost without exception, our explanation of our positions (political, religious, aesthetic, etc.) are not explanations, but post hoc rationalizations. I initially came to this conclusion as an undergraduate philosophy major (and promptly switched my major to math), but the really exciting work is coming out of behavioral economics where, as Bryan Caplan argues in The Myth of the Rational Voter, people are understood to have preferences over beliefs. Simply…

On Learning from False Models

[This is Part 3 of a 4-part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 4] In this post I want to present a secular example of epistemic humility. As with the religious example, I hope that this one will also provide some intrinsically interesting ideas. I also plan on reusing these ideas in the next couple of posts. Like my first example, the second highlights the fertility that arises from knowingly maintaining contradictory views. In this case the conflict is between the highly stylized model of human behavior used by economists (homo economicus or the rational agent) and real, live human beings. It was John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith who put homo economicus through an early beta stage, but it was the generation of economists writing in the early 20th century who created version 1.0 of this model by rendering it mathematically precise. They did this because economics was suffering at the time, and perhaps suffers acutely to this day, from physics envy. The core assumption of the model held that individuals are constantly optimizing a mathematically tractable utility function that converts things like the amount of goods consumed (good) or the amount of hours worked (bad) given constraints (income) into a nebulous concept known as “utility”. Predicting behavior (and thus doing useful things like solving for market-clearing prices) was therefore a matter of applying optimization techniques from physics to the economic models. In short: take derivative, set equal to 0. (There…

Book of Mormon (Stories) Girl

I’m no longer of the opinion that religion matters because it makes life meaningful. Religion, it seems to me, makes meaning rather the way breathing makes CO2: as leavings, as tailings. That’s fine. Meaning may follow, but it’s meant to be exhaled. If you hold your breath, you’ll suffocate.

Why Literary Gospel Doctrine Lesson Posts

For the past year each Monday afternoon my “Literary BMGD” posts have appeared each Monday — perhaps confusing some readers who have wondered exactly what these posts were all about. And those who clicked on them to read what they had may have been surprised to find that they were… poetry. What exactly is BMGD and why poetry? If I am going to continue these posts, I should probably explain:

A Prayer of Sorrow and Hope

On this day, on every day, let us mourn with those who mourn. For our hearts are broken, and all the sorrow and pain and suffering of the world has fallen in the shattered shells of ourselves. Let us take us these fragile broken pieces and lay them on Thine altar. Let us make our broken hearts an offering unto Thee. O, God, we hurt. O God, let us find some comfort, some peace, in doing Thy work, in mourning with those who mourn, and comforting those who stand in need of comfort. Lord, forgive us our sins, on this day, on every day.

Wearing Pants

Everybody’s talking about pants. And having already recently conducted my own private (and unrelated) “wear pants to church” event, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my thoughts here. I had been contemplating wearing pants to church for awhile and had several reasons for doing it, although when it actually came down to it, the choice to wear pants on that particular Sunday had mostly to do with the fact that I was exhausted from taking care of sick family members and my dress pants were clean and pressed, while my skirt was not. Turns out, though, I liked wearing pants. They worked a lot better for playing the organ than my knee-length skirts (which tend to ride up as I move my feet around on the pedals) or my long skirts (which I never wear on Sundays when it’s my turn to play because they trip me up on the pedals). I was comfortably warm in the chapel for the first time in many months. I got a chance to wear the nice slacks my mother-in-law bought me last year, and which I don’t really have much occasion to don in my stay-at-home Mormon mom life. Wearing pants also made me more aware of how members or visitors might feel who stand out as different at church, whether it’s because of their clothing, marital status, race, tobacco odor, or whatever other reason. My biggest reason for…

A Mission Story: Tigre

I met Tigre pretty soon after arriving in my second area. He was a solid man, all muscle but his midsection. As I got to know him, I learned that both his muscle and his gut were well-earned. The muscle because Tigre taught karate for a living, and owned his own studio. The gut? You have never seen such a mountain of rice, covered with an avalanche of beans, as this man ate for lunch.

Faith is a Work in Progress

[This is Part 2 of a 4-part series. Part 1. Part 3. Part 4] I appreciate the kind welcome to T&S and all the good comments and questions. I know I haven’t responded to some of them yet, and I’ll try to rectify that soon, but I wanted to make sure I had this post ready to go. My goal is to live up to my promise to walk through a religious example of epistemic humility in action. At the end of the last post, I suggested that one of the dangers we face when our beliefs conflict with each other is that we will fictionalize one of those beliefs by compartmentalizing it. At the other extreme, we can so privilege certain beliefs that anything which contradicts them is dismissed out of hand. Both of these approaches spare us from the anxiety and frustration of cognitive dissonance, and both of them also cut us off from further growth. The alternative, and this is where my example begins, is to frankly admit that we are confused. When I was a teenager, Nephi’s description of the “great and abominable church” provided me with just such an opportunity for confusion. The problem arises with Nephi’s claim that there are only two churches (one of the Lamb of God and the other of the devil). This cheerful disregard for what appear to be the most fundamental elements of social reality (formal institutions) created a mild but uncomfortable…

The Mormon moment abroad: thank you, Jim Dabakis.

Michael Otterson advised the press: to understand Mormonism, go to the source and allow Mormons to define themselves. But what if these Mormons are survivalist Joel Skousen, Tea Party painter Jon McNaughton, or Tammy, an anti-government gun-toting rodeo queen from Overton, Nevada? All three were lengthily interviewed on French national radio.

Twelve hundred words on pants

A few disjointed thoughts, first on the pants event itself and then on the response. I have a lot of sympathy for the goals of the pants-protest group, as I understand them. I too would like to see a broadening of Mormon femininity; I would be very pleased to see symbolic changes in practice that would underscore the spiritual equality of the genders; I think the church will benefit from a more open and more compassionate acknowledgment of Mormon feminists’ concerns. To that extent, I say Brava, sisters! I think there were some errors in the conception and planning of the event. Framing something explicitly as a protest (or direct action) rather than an outreach will immediately put the community on the defensive, not only out of pure self-protection but also because an idealized unity is at the heart of the Mormon worldview and central to the felt power of Mormonism. Choosing as an arbitrary symbol (because it’s not about the pants, right?) something that appears to threaten a central social organizing principle of the community, gender difference, was unfortunate. And the rather mixed messages about the event’s aims, including  mention of women’s ordination, together with the various groups that were drawn to the event, including hostile ex-Mormons who vigorously identified with the protest on the FB page, probably turned otherwise fair-minded  observers against the group. In defense of the planners, it’s difficult to predict the life of a meme…

The Wise Man Doubts Often, And Changes His Mind

[This is Part 1 of a 4-part series. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4] I’m happy to have a chance to do a guest stint here at Times and Seasons, and over the next two weeks I want to use my borrowed soap box to talk about epistemic humility. Epistemic humility is an awareness of the limits of our ability to know. It is an admission that we are ignorant of things that are true and that we accept as true things which are not. Hence the title, which comes from a longer saying of Akhenaten: “The wise man doubts often, and changes his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubts not; he knows all things but his own ignorance.” In this piece I hope to explain why epistemic humility is a serious concern, and in subsequent pieces I’ll shift the focus to implications and responses. Although it has become something of a buzzword recently, the philosophical history of epistemic humility is long and rich, with Plato’s Socrates serving as the original model.  In his Meditations, Descartes outlined a radical doubt that cast everything we perceive through our senses into question. Hume forcefully argued that induction is irrational. Box famously said “all models are wrong”, and there’s no reason to except our cognitive models. And of course we have Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns: Because our ignorance is by definition unbounded, nothing that we currently take as fact is safe from…

Guest blogger: Nathaniel Givens

After much prodding from the folks here at Times & Seasons, circumstances have finally led Nathaniel Givens to accept our invitation to guest blog.  Lurking on the bloggernacle for years, he says, made him realize that his ideas aren’t getting any fresher.  So, finding himself with a surplus of unoccupied evenings (due to the necessity of working far from home), he discovered that now is the “later” he previously had in mind whenever he procrastinated the task of committing his ideas to digital paper, and he’s agreed to publish those ideas at T&S. Nathaniel earned a BS in mathematics from the University of Richmond, then an ME in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, and most recently an MA in economics from the University of Michigan. His primary interest is the use of formal and informal models to understand ourselves and the world around us, e.g. in disciplines such as artificial intelligence and economic decision theory. What does this have to do with Mormonism? Hopefully that will become evident in his posts over the next two weeks. When he’s not working in the DC area, Nathaniel lives with his wife and two kids in Williamsburg, VA. He is the son of Terryl and Fiona Givens, authors of “The God Who Weeps” (, and brother of Rachael Givens Johnson, who writes for Patheos ( Nathaniel runs his own blog: Difficult Run (

An MTC Story

Mid-December is creeping up on us, bringing with it finals and the end of another semester. This year, as a result in the change in missionary ages, mid-December may also herald a tidal wave of new missionaries. Growing up, I heard not-infrequent stories about missions. But I remember only the rarest stories of the MTC. So, To better prepare you for the MTC,1 here’s an MTC story. Merry Christmas! When I was in the MTC, we had three classes a day, for three to three-and-a-half hours per class. To break up the monotony and make sure missionaries had some minimal daily physical activity, we took a walk every day in our afternoon class. My district considered itself musically talented–when we sang hymns in class, we sang them in 3-part harmony. At some point during our two months in the MTC, we decided to take our act on the road. As we walked, we sang, Portuguese hymn books in hand. We practiced our language, our singing, and made the people we passed smile. Until one day, our afternoon teacher came in without his customary smile. He told us that someone had told him that singing during our walks was inappropriate (it disturbed others, maybe? or made them feel bad about themselves because they weren’t as talented as we were?) and to knock it off. That day on our walk, we hummed hymns in 3-part harmony.2

Book of Mormon (Afghan) Girl

You thought you were going to get it right. Right. Instead, you’re morphing into that crazy guy who sits on the front row in Sunday School with two hands up and three incompatible opinions. Given your extremity, making you crazy may well be God’s worst best way of saving you. Plan A is out the window. Now, the only way to get there from here is through that.

Another Surreply

Over at FMH, rah has a post responding to my “How Mormonism Changes” post.  As I read it, she has basically three objections to my post.  First, she insists that I misunderstand the motivations of liberal Mormons, which are grounded in genuine love and concern for others rather than ideological embarrassment.  Second, she suggests that historically the priesthood ban’s elimination had more to do with evolution within the hierarchy than it did with progression of the membership of the church.  Third, she claims that the model of prophecy I propose is mistaken or the like because it does not appear in the scriptures.  Here are some thoughts in responses. First, on the historical issue I actually agree with her.  I think that creating unanimity among the highest leadership made it very difficult to abandon the priesthood ban.  There was certainly a lot of racist theology taught in justification of the ban that ought to be examined and rejected.  What is interesting to me is that despite the deep divisions among the leadership, the abandonment of the ban met with essentially zero opposition from the membership of the church.  This historically was not always been the case with major ecclesiastical changes in Mormonism.  I think that the lack of opposition among the membership was really quite striking and worth thinking about.  I certainly do not think that the priesthood ban was without enormous costs for individuals and the church. Second, the liberal Mormons that…

A Surreply to TT’s Critique of “How Mormonism Changes”

At Faith Promoting Rumor TT has a legthy response to my last post on how Mormonism changes. It’s worth a read and you should go over a take a look. I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but I’d like to push back on a couple of things. First, he writes: “Unity” of the church is selective, not a neutral category, one that excludes some in order to manufacture unity. That is, even the choice to “preserve” unity comes with costs measured in exclusion. There are a couple of ways of understanding this. It could just be saying that maintaining unity has costs, it is not an absolute good, and that those costs are not evenly borne. Delaying the abandonment of the priesthood ban had costs for Black Latter-day Saints and for potential converts and members pushed away by the ban. If this is what he is saying, then I completely agree. Maintaining unity has costs. (More on this anon.) He might be saying something else, however, something a little more radical. He might be suggesting that the idea of communal or institutional unity is itself an illusion, an epiphenomenon created through a discourse of exclusion, a mere nothing that gratuitously harms the Other upon whom its construction depends. This, I think, is mistaken. I think that it makes sense to talk about the cohesion of communities. I think it makes sense to talk about institutions being…

Nominate the 2012 Mormon of the Year

Its that time of year again. The media will soon start reviewing the important news stories of the year, Time will soon select its Person of the Year (Mitt Romney has been nominated); so we should get busy selecting the Mormon of the Year. For those who don’t remember, T&S selected Mitt Romney as the Mormon of the Year for 2008, Harry Reid for 2009, Elizabeth Smart for 2010 and Jimmer Fredette for 2011. As in the past, the choice does not mean that the person is a good Mormon or even a good person. This designation is solely about the impact the person has had. Note: Last year we changed the nomination procedure: Nominations must be seconded! In addition, we ask that when you nominate someone you use your real name, rather than an online nickname or pseudonym. We hope this will make sure that nominations are serious, and not in jest as some have been in the past. I think the other ground rules are basically the same as in the past (suggestions about changes to the rules are welcome – we try to improve the rules each year): Nominees must be Mormon somehow — nominees must have been baptized and must claim to be Mormon. Nominees must have been living at some point during the year. The LDS Church First Presidency (including the Prophet) and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are not eligible (because they would win every…

How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations

One of the things that the Mormon interwebs do is imagine change within the Church, lament the lack of change within the Church, and (at times) agitate for change within the Church. Certainly there is historical precedent for change within the Church, the most dramatic recent example being the 1978 abandonment of the Church’s racial priesthood ban. This is an example worth thinking about. First, the shift came relatively late if you super-impose the Mormon timeline on the civil rights timeline in the United States. The Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1950s, although it didn’t do much to actually end it. During the same period, Martin Luther King’s mass movement was getting under way. By the 1960s you had rioting and – not coincidentally – congressional action. By the early to mid-1970s segregation was thoroughly discredited and almost all of its formal structures had been dismantled. Hence, for many a Mormon – especially those of a liberal variety – the timing of the 1978 revelation is an embarrassment. The prophets, rather than moving in the vanguard of history seem to be trailing in its wake. Second, the shift exacted virtually no ecclesiastical costs for the Church. There were no mass apostasies in 1978. There were no splinter groups that formed as a result. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the revelation among conservative rank and file Mormons was relief and joy. There was no serious challenge within the Church…