Year: 2017

A Credible Case for Universalism — A Review of Givens and Givens’s The Christ Who Heals

In their new book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us, Fiona and Terryl Givens make the case for how “the doctrines and scriptures of the Restoration have enriched our knowledge of the rock and foundation of our faith — Jesus Christ.” The book is a delight: The Givenses draw on a rich cast of characters — from spiritual leaders in the second century after Christ to General Authorities in the present — to map out the evolution of our understanding of the Savior. Each chapter explores a distinct aspect of our restored understanding of the Savior, and I was inspired again and again as I read (okay, listened to) this book. The final chapter, “The Saving Christ,” expounds one of the boldest themes of the book. The Givenses make a credible case that every soul will have an eternity to work their way to exaltation. They suggest that “no loving parent would propose a plan that shuts the door of happiness to any of his or her children” and that “heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” But how then can we have both a “familial heaven” where all our loved ones are with us and “the freedom to reject heaven?” They reject the false dichotomy of either God as a “sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath” who condemns most souls OR God as a permissive being…

“This Way Up”: An Outline for LDS Primary Temple and Priesthood Preparation Meeting

I’m excited about this new meeting. I’ve created a sample teaching outline for Primary presidencies below, so if that’s what you’re mainly here for, scroll down. For those who are interested, though, here’s how I’m thinking at this early stage about the deeper structure and future possibilities for this meeting. The pairing of priesthood power with temple proxy ordinances has intriguing theological implications. It effectively shifts the locus of priesthood in the children’s minds from the chapel (where the deacons pass the sacrament, the focus of the old Priesthood Preview) to the temple. I find this quite significant. It has the potential to recenter our discourse of priesthood away from the male-only administrative hierarchy evident in sacrament meeting and toward the more collaborative, expansive and inclusive vision of priesthood we glimpse in the temple. I’m thinking here of the interesting work done by scholars like J. Stapley, Sam Brown and Kathleen Flake on what they call the “cosmological priesthood”, a picture that is still coming into focus but seems to center on kinship structures (broadly conceived) that endow men and women with power and priestly authority. Granted, I won’t be doing a rigorous survey of cutting edge Mormon history with my 11 year olds! But this is the frame I’ll be working from as I try to devise an empowering, equitable, and age-appropriate experience for the children. (True, the temple baptistry is not a place where that female priestly power…

Moderate Worship Losing Ground

While it’s not really new news, Sociological Science had an interesting story on how American religion is becoming polarized and losing its middle ground. We’ve known for quite some time that mainline churches were rapidly losing members since the 1980’s. Further we’ve known that the rise of the Nones the past 15 years often came from people objecting politically to the social conservatism of religion. The question was whether the United States was secularizing like Europe. Quoting from the study,

Some Brief Thoughts on 2 Nephi 25

2 Nephi 25:23’s “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” has proved surprisingly controversial the past few decades. I mentioned last week some of the views on grace during that period. My own view is that this is much more a rhetorical issue than a doctrinal one, despite the way the debate has frequently raged. That said the exegesis of 2 Nephi 25 does seem to be a point of disagreement. BCC a few years back did a nice overview of the issues.

Reeder and Holbrook’s At the Pulpit: The book I hope becomes a fixture in Latter-day Saint homes

The first account we have of a woman speaking in General Conference is Lucy Mack Smith, speaking in Nauvoo, Illinois, in October 1845. But women were teaching in the Church long before that, and the continued long after that — not just in General Conference. In their collection At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook have created a wonderful thing. They have brought us the strong, inspired voices of 54 Mormon women (plus 7 more in the e-book), from Lucy Mack Smith speaking a “gathering of emigrating saints at Lake Erie” in 1831 to Gladys Sitati speaking at the BYU Women’s Conference in 2016. The book works elegantly as both a historical document and a devotional reading. From a historical perspective, Reeder and Holbrook provide a biographical sketch of each woman before her talk, and they follow each talk with extensive footnotes providing context. They make it so easy for us: When a speaker alludes to a passage of poetry or a popular quote from the day, Reeder and Holbrook tell us where it came from. Some of the talks highlight a key historical episode in the growth of the Church, such as Judy Brummer’s 2012 fireside talk characterizing her experience translating the Book of Mormon into the Xhosa language.

The Ever-So-Slightly Endangered BYU Man

A recent leak revealed what appears to be an old scale for evaluating potential BYU students. Basically, you take 10*GPA + ACT and then add points for stuff, like being from outside the West or taking AP classes. The most one could possibly get is 100 points, but this would require being… rather unique. There was some excitement because, although this no longer is true, at the time BYU gave 1 point for being male, presumably to try and bring the gender balance closer to equality.

Mormons and Doubt

I really wanted to comment on recent articles of polls on doubt and Mormons but didn’t have time due to other commitments. I hope you don’t mind a few comments on the Huffington Post article about doubt based upon the Next Mormons Survey. The author Benjamin Knolls is a contributer with Jana Reiss in the recent Dialogue issue on doubt. He gets at an issue I’ve long been interested in – more objective analysis of Mormon retention. Polls and surveys over the past two decades have really allowed us to see what’s going on in a fashion that really wasn’t possible when I was younger. To my eyes, what’s been surprising about Mormon retention has always been just how high it has been.

Talking About Grace

The Deseret News today had an interesting article “Grace is not a Mormon heresy, LDS leaders and scholars say after doctrinal ‘climate change’” It’s an interesting story about how Mormons came to accept talking about grace. Reading it though I realized that the author seemed to make a fundamental confusion that really bothered me. He conflates the language we use to talk about grace with the doctrinal meaning of our beliefs. After all we may believe something yet simply use different language to describe it. Likewise a common problem in discussions with our Evangelical friends is finding we use the same language yet mean completely different things by it.

Temple Scriptures: A Mountaintop Experience

I had been studying the scriptures quite intently for the year or so before I first went to the temple. This really added to the experience for me, because I could see all the ways that temple worship connects with everything we know from the scriptures. The form of temple worship is quite different from what we experience elsewhere in the church, and I know some people who have found it a bit disorienting at first. In my case, though, with so much from the scriptures fresh in my mind, everything made sense and felt that much more right and beautiful. My sister Emily had given me the excellent suggestion that I especially study the Pearl of Great Price, which I totally recommend. Since then she and I have also noticed a lot of other passages that have special meaning in connection with the temple, and I thought I would share some. Here is one set, which includes a lot from the Pearl of Great Price but also positions it within a larger, quite striking pattern. The temple is often referred to as the mountain of the Lord (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-3). It is illuminating to consider what happens on mountaintops in the scriptures. Several prophets describe a mountaintop experience that helps to prepare them for their calling. For example, Nephi was carried away into a high mountain and shown the plan of salvation, the big picture, from the beginning (1…

Unintended Consequences (or How Bad People Can Lead to Good Results)

There’s an interesting issue of distinguishing good consequences from good people. Good people can make bad decisions leading to bad consequences. My favorite example of that is apostle Reed Smoot who was made a Senator in 1902. I take it for granted that he was a good man. However he sponsored the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in 1930 which many think led to a deeper and longer depression than was necessary.[1] I think the opposite is true as well. Bad people can do good things. Two examples from the past are Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I think the moral failings of both are well known but it’s easy to point to important policies they led the way on that many feel were extremely good. Often importantly so.[2] Recently the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault have come up. Many see the personal actions of our current President in this regard as deeply problematic at best and horrific at worst. It’s an interesting question though whether the current focus on sexual harassment and assault would have happened without him. I’m not arguing he intended this social change. Far from it. Yet would people have written about Harvey Weinstein with the associated actions had there been no Trump as President? It’s hard to know for sure, but given the past it’s unlikely. As I write more traditional attempts to avoid consequences from sexual scandal are ongoing in the Alabama election but…

SMPT Events

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology has a few upcoming events. 

Fiction and History

I’ll give you a couple of book discussions after one short paragraph on fiction and history. Both fiction and history are a form of narrative. Historical narrative is (ideally) constrained by facts and historical evidence; both fiction and history are constrained in a looser sense by the sensibilities of their reading audience, as few people will read a boring or irrelevant or uncredible narrative, whether packaged as fiction, nonfiction, history, or scripture. We readers want plausible, relevant, interesting narratives. Life is too short to bother with anything else. So let’s start with some fiction, Mette Ivie Harrison’s His Right Hand, the second installment in an ongoing series. The blurb on the front cover describes it as “A Linda Wallheim mystery set in Mormon Utah.”

A note on my Reading Nephi series and scriptural interpretation generally

It’s hard for us, as humans, to pry apart the empirical from the normative—and for good reasons. Facts don’t come to us bare of value. Especially with regard to those facts that we appreciate and evaluate in existential contexts (i.e., contexts related to our identity and overall worldview), they always already appear normatively laden (i.e., as meaning something). At least as a pragmatic matter, bare facts are secondary abstractions (whatever metaphysical status we ultimately attribute to them). Nephi certainly saw Laman & Co. as acting in ways that had specific meaning and bearing, and I’m convinced that he saw his written record as likewise bearing an unavoidable upshot (this gets noted briefly in chapter 6 and becomes abundantly clear when we get to II Nephi 25). Similarly, we (all) do the same thing when we read commentary on the scriptures. Textual artifacts don’t simply get picked out—rather, the ways in which we pick combines with the social context in which we’re picking, and the picked artifacts’ display already has meaning (however neutral the language doing the displaying). In a public context like Times and Seasons, there are different, sometimes competing contexts, approaches to, and projects with regard to the scriptures. Consequently, a narrative that is candid about textual details is inevitably going to appear at least somewhat differently to different readers. [FN 1] For example, it’s an empirical fact of the text that Nephi only discusses Laman & Co. in…

What the LDS Can Learn From the NFL

It has been a tough year for the NFL. Football is a sport; the NFL is a brand. After years of growing viewership, energetic fan support, spiking television revenue, and multiplying sponsorships, a series of largely self-inflicted mishaps has tarnished the NFL brand. There is the national anthem protest controversy, initiated by Colin Kaepernick and carried on by a handful of other players and teams, stoked by comments from President Trump, and now sort of fading into the background — but leaving many fans feeling somewhat alienated from the game. There is the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, which turned into the Ezekiel Elliot court case (a court ruling yesterday reinstated his six-game suspension). This has somehow morphed into an ugly public feud between Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. And of course there is the mounting evidence that the regular jarring contact between NFL players causes long-term brain injury, whether or not concussions are sustained. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. Quarterbacks are dropping like flies. Here’s what passes for good news for the NFL in 2017: Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings got his leg back (he is back on the active roster as of this week) and Zach Miller of the Bears didn’t lose his (but it was a close call).

Future Mormon 5: The God Who Weeps

Welcome to the fifth chapter of the originally weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most. My apologies for the delay on this chapter. Future Mormon Chapter 5: The God Who Weeps Weeps is invigorating precisely because it does not mime the voice of authority. It speaks and thinks in its own name.

The Danger of Theology

Over at his blog, Tarik LaCour has an interesting post on Mormon theology. The actual focus is a review of the book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints. In the process of the review he mentions how Mormon theology is underdeveloped. I think that’s true, but I’m not sure a systematic theology such as our friends in mainstream Christianity have, is necessarily a good model. Allow me to quote Tarik:

Wilderness Starvation – Reading Nephi – 16:12-17

Food is a huge issue for Nephi. I’m tempted to add up the verses that account for the eight years between the Valley of Lemuel and Bountiful and divide them by the number of verses speaking about food. Quantitatively and qualitatively, this is the issue—in a way that it isn’t and really could never be for most of us.

Changes to the Mission Programs

There’s been quite an uproar the past day or so over announced changes to the missionary program. First up was the Deseret News story, “LDS Church plans to decrease missions; utilize tech savviness to locate religious-minded people.” Added in were more restrictions via interview questions regarding going on a mission. This includes asking more about not only what we’d call mental illness but things like ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome. We’ve noted here before some of the issues related to the age change of missionaries. These changes definitely show that the Church is rethinking how to do missionary work. That’s a good thing. Whether these particular changes will work out isn’t entirely clear.

Inside the mind of the Book of Mormon’s first antagonist — A review of Mette Harrison’s The Book of Laman

In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel often come across more as comic book villains more than fully fleshed out characters. As Grant Hardy put it, “In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel are stock characters, even caricatures.” In her new novel, The Book of Laman (with its cover art a stroke of brilliance), Mette Harrison implicitly poses the question: What might have been going through Laman’s head through all this? What might have led him to act the way he acted? To be clear, this is a work of fiction. Harrison makes no pretense to be doing textual inference; rather, she takes the broad events of First and Second Nephi as given and searches for a credible Laman. Her endeavor reminds me of Geraldine Brooks’s brilliant effort to flesh out David from the Old Testament in The Secret Chord. The Laman that Harrison draws for us is deeply human and relatable. He mostly wants to do right, but he repeatedly fails not in small ways but in disastrous ways (he beat up or tried to kill his brother). She constructs a back story that explains Laman and Lemuel’s ongoing reluctance to trust their father even in the face of Sam and Nephi unwavering confidence. And she plays out what might have happened to Laman and his people after Nephi and his followers left. That time that Laman and Lemuel start beating Nephi in the process of seeking the…

The Brigham Option: Living in a Post-Christian Nation

I have heard a lot about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), so I finally got a copy and read it. Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.

Onward, Mormon Soldier

Usually I reveal my ignorance gradually over the course of a blog post, perhaps saving the big reveal for the end. This time I’ll get it out of the way up front. I know how spiritual growth and progress toward engagement with the church at an adult level works in lives more or less like my own: high school graduation and transition to elders quorum or Relief Society, starting college and going on a mission (in roughly that order), finishing college and getting married (in roughly that order), and starting a career and accepting adult church callings. What I don’t understand well, despite a need to do so, is how typical milestones of spiritual growth fit into the lives of those who opt for military service.

Some Brief Thoughts On Columbus Day

To me Columbus Day is always really Thanksgiving given where I grew up. The harvest there was quite a bit earlier than in the states. By making it Thanksgiving rather than Columbus Day, Canada largely avoids all the political debate that rages in the United States. As I’ve read the stories about vandalism of Columbus statues along with defenses and attacks on the holiday, I had a few brief thoughts.

Call for Applicants: The Fifth Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology

“Are We Not All Beggars? Reading Mosiah 4” Cittadella Ospitalità, Assisi, Italy June 17–June 30, 2018 Sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar in partnership with The Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and the Wheatley Institution In the summer of 2018, the Mormon Theology Seminar, in partnership with the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, and the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and faculty devoted to reading Mosiah 4. The seminar will be hosted by the Cittadella Ospitalità in Assisi, Italy, from June 17 through June 30, 2018. Travel arrangements, housing, and a $1,000 stipend will be provided for admitted participants. The seminar will be led by Adam Miller and Joseph Spencer, directors of the Mormon Theology Seminar. ABOUT THE SEMINAR This fifth annual summer seminar will again adapt the Mormon Theology Seminar’s practice of facilitating intense, exploratory, interdisciplinary, and collaborative readings of Mormon scripture for a live two-week format. During the first week, the seminar will meet daily to work word-by-word through the text of Mosiah 4:4-25 from a variety of disciplinary perspectives (philosophical, historical, literary, anthropological, rhetorical, political, archeological, sociological, etc.) in order to promote theologically rich readings of the text. The second week will workshop conference papers and a joint-report based on the previous week’s collaboration…

Housework, resentment, and power, in a different light

For a period of my marriage I harbored resentment toward my husband, unfailingly gentle and hard-working, over questions of housework. It was all utterly typical. I felt my work was unappreciated and invisible to him. I felt I was left with more than my share of the work generated by the kids and the household. I felt resentful that he resented me when I got grumpy. There was little outward conflict between us–chilly silence is more my speed–but I would allow aggrieved accusations to play on repeat in my head as I stomped through my chores. Observing recent conversations, I’ve realized that I don’t carry that kind of resentment anymore. The exhausting work of caring for small children has ended for me; no doubt that’s part of the change. But the mental load and time demands of a larger home and busier household remain on my plate. I think I’ve come to see myself, my work and my relationship differently over the past few years, and those changes have contributed to my present composure on these matters (though new challenges always arise in family life). For me, the most generative ideas have not been about gender roles and sexual politics, but about how I understand myself, my desire, my agency, and my husband’s agency. Caveat: my experience is far from universal. I’m lead parent of our four kids, while my husband is lead breadwinner. I work at home as an…