Year: 2018

2018 The Year that Was

It’s that time of year when everyone does their year in review columns. He’s mine with a more Church focus. I don’t claim this is comprehensive but it’s the major stories I saw over the last year.

A homophobic church ?

LGTB issues continue to haunt our Church’s leaders, and for some time will continue to do so. Recently, The Advocate, a platform for gay expression, drew up a list of top ‘homo- and transphobics’ in the world, and here I was unpleasantly surprised to see listed among the three top homophobics, Dallin Oaks. He was rated on a par with Jair Bolsano, the recently elected strong-man-president of Brazil and Governor Paul Makonda of Dar es Salaam. The latter is tracking down homosexuals in order to arrest and execute them, the former has told reporters that he would rather see his son dead than gay. Whatever political leanings one might have, this is not the company in which I like to find any member of our church, let alone an apostle. Of course, ‘The Advocate’ is not exactly the voice of gospel authority, but their branding of Oaks as a top-homophobic does harm the church. So as member of the Public Affairs Committee in The Netherlands, I am a bit concerned, for three reasons. 1. The family orientation of the church, which I heartily endorse, is being drawn into a debate on LGTB acceptability, which is not at all the same. The present discussion sounds as if affirmation of family importance implies a denial for the right of existence of LGTB’s. Family should be primarily about raising and nurturing the next generation of incarnated spirits destined to inhabit the wonderful planet…

Sing a Christmas Carol: Christmas Music in the Latter-day Saint Hymnbooks

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather today around the world for their Christmas Sunday meetings, Christmas hymns and songs will be sung and performed as an important part of those meetings. One thing that not everyone may realize, however, is that the options for that music varies around the world. As a teenager, I had a strange obsession with collecting Church materials in different languages. When I picked up a few hymnbooks, I was surprised to find that they were not only much smaller than the English hymnbook I was used to, but that there were some different hymns in them. This was most noticeable in the Christmas section, where I was able to spot a few carols that I knew but that weren’t in the hymnbook as I knew it. I have been curious since then what Christmas songs have received approval from the Correlation Department to become part of the corpus of Latter-day Saint Christmas music that aren’t in the English hymnbook or children’s songbook. Finally, I sat down this weekend to spend a few hours browsing in order to find out. My first area of interest was in the hymnbooks. Do you agree with the Living Scriptures blog that “He is Born” (“Il est Né, le Divin Enfant”) is one of the most gorgeous Christmas hymns not in our hymnbook?[1] It actually turns out that it is in the Latter-day…


What is paradise? We all know it’s the place where the spirits of the righteous go. (Alma 40:12-14) The word comes out of the New Testament where there are three references. At least one of these, Rev 2:7, ties it to the Garden of Eden where one eats of the tree of life which is in the midsts of paradise. The other is Paul talking of someone (usually assumed to be Paul himself) “caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words…” (2 Corinthians 12:4) This is very much like accounts in apocalypses and heavenly ascents where the third heaven is often equated with Eden.

Moving on up

So the announcement that youth would rotate up in each January came as a surprise to a lot of people. Here are my first thoughts on the matter: I have heard more concern expressed recently that children in Senior Primary needed to be getting more attention than they were. This pushes the eldest part of that group into the youth organization and under the eyes of the Bishopric and mutual leaders.

10 Questions: Wes Granberg-Michaelson

We’re happy to share Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Wes Granberg-Michaelson. He’s the author of Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century. His book, which I’ve not yet read, is about the social incentives that are changing Christianity. As many know we’ve discussed a lot how rising generations are different religiously (and in particular far more secular) and how this affects retention in the Church. Granberg-Michaelson isn’t a member. He was actually the secretary of the Reformed Church in America, one of the oldest US denominations. While much of what he addresses is an analysis of Christianity in general, I think a lot is particularly relevant for past discussions we’ve had here. He thinks that current changes are at least as important as the conversion of Constantine or the break with Catholicism by Martin Luther.

The Celestial North

After hearing a lot of griping over the weekend about the snowstorms, I thought I’d give a somewhat tongue in cheek defense of winter, the greatest of all the seasons. Winter is coming.

Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology 2019 Conference

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 2019 Annual Meeting at the University of Utah, March 14-16. The theme is “More Nations Than One: Theology, Culture, and Pluralism.” As always, however, they will give full consideration to papers on any aspect of Latter-day Saint belief. They particularly encourage submissions on this year’s theme. Submissions are due by January 15th.

10 Questions with Robert Millet

We’re happy to share Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Robert Millet. Millet is a well known professor of ancient scripture at BYU. He was Dean of Religious Education there and is the author of numerous well regarded books including the Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon along with Joseph Fielding McConkie. He was part of the move in the 1990’s to emphasize the rhetoric of grace theologically in the Church.

Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism

Here’s the shortest review possible. If you’re even moderately interested in Church history or theology or even just in close reading of scripture you should get Foundational Texts of Mormonism. If it’s not already in your library, ask for it for Christmas.

Grace & Middle Way Mormonism

A lot has been written of late on so-called “middle way Mormons.” There’s not really much consistency what people mean by the term. The idea seems close to what in prior decades some disparaged as cafeteria Mormons or jack Mormons. (I don’t think that a good thing to say, mind you) That is people who still have ties to the Church and often even attend services but typically don’t follow major observable practices. When I was young the usual culprit was Word of Wisdom. By my 20’s I found there were those who still had a loose testimony but weren’t following the law of chastity, paying tithing, or other such things. Many of those people eventually just completely fell away but some, especially after they started having children, made efforts to come back. The question becomes whether middle way Mormonism is a new phenomena or just a new name for a common long term phenomena.

Once More Evolution

I admit I have a bit of a fascination with evolution and theology. Not just in terms of trying to figure out how to reconcile them but also people’s stances towards the theology and science. I’ve long been dissatisfied with many polls on the subject since they tend to frame the questions in terms of Protestant (typically more “literalist” Evangelical) views. Those questions for various reasons never quite fit Mormon approaches. Usually I could even figure out clearly how I’d answer the poll beyond trying to guess what they were after. Today there’s a fascinating paper on the question that seems to get at the details in a much better way. More interestingly it’s a longitudinal study showing how views have changed.

The Meekness of the Soldier and Servant

First, I must recognize that today is Veteran’s Day. Armistice Day.[1] I lived in Belgium for a year. This poppy brooch is from Flanders Fields. Every city, every village, has memorials to soldiers and civilians killed in the Great War. In the nature reserve and fields near my home were old craters from explosive shells, softened by time into small ponds. The bucolic landscape, the unassuming people are impossible to reconcile with the No Man’s Land of trench warfare. I was thanked, as a American, for the role my country played in the conclusion of the war, and for providing flour—food—for a starving population that had been occupied by hostile forces for years. It is a thanks I have not earned, but I accept on behalf of others, many of whose graves are dutifully tended today and throughout the year. I do not understand the impulse to war. This aggression. The impulse to hurt and control. So much hurt and sorrow. Defense, I can understand. And like Captain Moroni, I would kill to protect my children. But I have not sent them off to die. I don’t know how to do that. As a student of ancient Greek, I read Xenophon’s Anabasis, about the march of ten thousand Greek mercenaries to the interior of Babylon. Two other famous works by Xenophon are The Art of Horsemanship[2]  and The Calvary Commander.[3] In them, Xenophon talks about the selection and training of war horses.…

5 lessons from Schmidt and Taylor’s book Carried: How One Mother’s Trust in God Helped Her through the Unthinkable

In late 2016, Annie Schmidt went hiking in the mountains of Oregon. When she didn’t reappear, a mix of professionals and amateurs, friends and relatives and strangers, searched for weeks to find her. Annie’s mother, Michelle Schmidt, teamed up with her sister, Angie Taylor, to write the story of Annie’s disappearance, the search, and the eventual conclusion of the efforts of so many in their book Carried: How One Mother’s Trust in God Helped Her through the Unthinkable. Schmidt alternates between the story of the search and the life experiences that prepared her to face this great ordeal. The book is ultimately a tale of joy amidst trial. My normal fare is more historical than devotional, but I have to admit that Schmidt and Taylor’s book carried me along: I learned from Schmidt’s story, and I couldn’t help but be moved by the end. Here are five lessons that I learned (or re-learned). 1. A literal faith in a gloriously happy afterlife affects actual behavior here on earth. On the first day of the mountain search for her daughter Annie, Michelle has a spiritual experience when she hears Annie’s voice, happily speaking to her. She then interprets that experience as meaning that Annie was in the spirit world and that she was happy. Michelle acted according to her beliefs: “When the first search began and the on-camera interviews ensured, which were so surreal and raw, I was unguarded, vulnerable, unscripted,…

The Expanded Canon: A Review

Several months ago, my wife Lissette gave a talk in sacrament meeting on the topic of modern prophets and continuing revelation. She wanted to provide something different, something the congregation could really chew on (no “theological Twinkies“). She ended up discussing how modern-day prophets model the process of revelation for us. Drawing on Elder Bednar’s analogy of revelation as light, she illustrated that revelation could come in a sudden burst of inspiration (like a light switch) or as more gradual, increasing discernment (like a sunrise). Yet, those singular, sudden revelatory events are often incremental steps in a bigger picture. What’s more, future revelations often shed even more light on past ones. As an example, she used Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision. “While Joseph Smith’s vision was a singular event (akin to Bednar’s example of the light switch),” she said, its significance and impact evolved with additional experience and revelation (much like Bednar’s sunrise). The four major accounts of the First Vision differ in their details, with perhaps the biggest one being Joseph’s interpretation of the visitation’s purpose. The 1832 account focuses on Joseph’s forgiveness of sins; a kind of personal conversion story. By 1838, the narrative shifted to concerns regarding religious confusion and the eventual establishment of the Lord’s church. While these purposes are not mutually exclusive, Joseph’s understanding of the experience nonetheless expanded over time. I believe that this example of gradual development should not be seen as an…


Bonsai tree

In one of the most profound scenes in The Karate Kid—a movie that fortunately has had no sequels or modern remakes, la la la la I can’t hear you—Daniel LaRusso comes upon Mr. Miyagi pruning his bonsai trees.

Political Turmoil and Church Change

About every 50 years in US history there’s a major conflagration of political turmoil. This manifests with both positive change along with sometimes negative changes or retrenchment. The last major turbulence in the US (and in many ways the west in general) was in the late 60’s through early 70’s. We’re now in a similar period which almost certainly has yet to reach its peak. It’s hard not to notice that when looking at Church history that major changes in the Church are loosely tied to these periods.

Call For Applications: 2019 Mormon Theology Seminar

I am delighted to share the Call for Applications announcement for next year’s Mormon Theology Seminar. I will be co-directing the seminar at New York’s Union Theological Seminary with Joseph Spencer on the text of D&C 25. We believe the seminar text, process, and leadership have the potential to produce important work on gender and scripture. We hope to spread the word to draw from a diverse pool of applicants. Please share this announcement. The Sixth Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology “Given Thee by My Spirit: Reading D&C 25” Union Theological Seminary, New York City June 16–June 29, 2019 Sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar in partnership with The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship In the summer of 2019, the Mormon Theology Seminar, in partnership with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and faculty devoted to reading Doctrine and Covenants 25. The seminar will be hosted at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, from June 16 through June 29, 2019. Travel arrangements, housing, and a $1000 stipend will be provided for admitted participants. The seminar will be led by Joseph M. Spencer and Rosalynde Welch. This sixth 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…

Some Conference Reflections…

I always like a few days to reflect on conference. Partially that’s because I’m usually dealing with a bunch of kids during conference. Partially because I’ll admit I don’t learn well from lectures. It’s hard not to fall asleep. I also just learn better from the printed talks and it takes a few days for those to appear. Mainly though it’s because I just like to get an idea for what people see as the big concerns in the Church. So here’s my musings after they’ve had a few days to congeal.

Trials, Tribulations, and a Movie: An LDS-themed Discussion of the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN

A well-known axiom in both life and storytelling states that the matters we find most personal are also the most universal. Whether it’s film, literature, or some other medium, stories with the most specific and distinctive settings and points of view are usually those an audience will find most relatable. In the words of Robert McKee: “An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.” A Serious Man, the 2009 masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a darkly comic film exploring the nature of God, religious inquiry, and human suffering. Set among a community of Jews living in Minnesota in the 1960s, the film mirrors the Coen’s formative years, arguably making it their most personal film to date. That level specificity brings with it a familiarity and universality that just isn’t present in most of their work, or anyone else’s for that matter. Mormons can have a hard time grappling with the same issues explored in A Serious Man. We seem to define periods of our lives by the struggles we face. Dealing with trials is the focus of countless conference talks, priesthood and Relief Society Lessons, and videos. Within Mormon doctrine and culture, there are recurring themes about the source and meaning of our mortal struggles. And, let’s be honest, quite often, they are…

Times & Seasons Re-Welcomes Bryan Hickman

Times & Seasons hopes you will join us in welcoming our latest guest blogger, Bryan Hickman, for his guest-blogging stint with us (see here for his prior posts). Bryan is a semi-reformed Utah Mormon (whatever that means) doing his best to rein in the knee-jerkedness of his worldview (whatever that means). He went to school in Utah, receiving both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Political Science from Utah State University. He then bravely trekked eastward in search of a law degree, a wife, and theaters that show independent films, eventually finding all three in Washington, DC. Earlier this year, after more than 12 years slaving away as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, Bryan recently set out on his own to become a freelance writer — like that’s his actual job. Since then, he’s been doing mostly policy writing for think tanks, trade associations, and corporations, while also spending way too much time on projects no one is paying him to write. For the T&S faithful, he hopes to express his semi-generic views about the principles of Mormonism as they relate to film and pop culture in a manner that some will find interesting.

Conference Weekend Rumors

It’s that time of year again. The time when Mormons hit the rumor mill. Normally this is pretty silly. Even the shocking rumors are pretty small in the scheme of things. However it seems clear that Pres. Nelson is doing some major reforms to Church structure. If last spring surprised people by getting rid of both home teaching and separate quorums this week probably will bring even more surprises. I suspect we’ll be getting more changes per year than we typically got in a decade. So here’s my list of rumors, how likely I think they are, and what the implications might be.

33% of Missionaries Coming Home?

Jana Riess had up a particularly interesting and provocative post out today. I suspect most readers are familiar with her excellent Next Mormon Survey which should be coming out in a complete form in March but which has also generated many articles and posts. Today Jana mentioned that her survey has 33% of Millennial missionaries coming home early from their missions.


As I’ve been re-reading talks from the latest general conference, something keeps standing out to me: the exclamation points. General authorities these days don’t shout when they give their talks. Had I been transcribing these talks when I listened to them last April, I wouldn’t have used many exclamation points. But reviewing the written talks, I see so many, and that made me wonder whether this is a new thing. Are general conference talks including more exclamation points than they have in the past? Of course, I don’t have to wonder. BYU linguistics professor Mark Davies has created a tool that allows anyone to answer questions like this for themselves. As this very blog reported in 2011, the Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks built by Professor Davies collects over 10,000 conference talks and makes them searchable. This tool can show you how often a word or phrase has been used in talks over time, charting the changes decade by decade and even year by year. The tool works for punctuation marks, too. Here’s what it shows: It turns out that my sense that the use of exclamation points in conference talks had shot up in recent years was incorrect. Talks certainly have more exclamation points now than they did a hundred years ago, but they’ve had a relatively high number of exclamation points since the 1980s. In the 2010s, we have 1,133.77 per million words; in the 1980s, we…

Gospel Haiku

A few years ago, a Texas lawyer named Keith Jaasma gained some notoriety for his poetry. Mr. Jaasma would take U.S. Supreme Court opinions and boil them down to haiku compositions that summed up the gist of the holding. For example, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, he summarized the opinion in haiku form as follows: Schools for black and whiteSeparate is not equalDesegregation I was charmed by Mr. Jaasma’s trick, and for a couple years now, I’ve been using it to help me break down things that are difficult to understand. The process of taking something complex and trying to pin down its core ideas in a 5-7-5 format can be a worthwhile challenge. Seventeen syllables are not nearly enough to capture all the nuances of a complex idea, and as you wrestle with that constricting form, you can’t help but analyze every part of whatever it is that you’re trying to “haikuify.” You think just as much about the parts that you are leaving out of the poem as the parts that you manage to fit in. And for the parts that you decide absolutely must fit into the poem, you find yourself grappling with different ways to express those parts. You search for shorter words that will substitute for the longer, fancier ones that you find in the text you are working with. You have to decide whether each line of the…