Korihor the Witch

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18) I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.

The Anthropocentric Shift: Secular Age, round 6

Links to posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 In the last several posts, we’ve covered how the enchanted, hierarchical world of pre-modern Europe slowly shifted in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries to a “disciplinary” society, where human beings began to perceive themselves as rational agents and masters of their own will and destiny, and increasingly related to each other in terms of mutual benefit, exchange, and equality. This shift corresponded with the changes in scientific views (with the “mechanized” universe), sociopolitical views (i.e. government as an instrument for mutual benefit), and economic developments (the rise of the “invisible hand” free market) . In this post covering chapters 6 and 7, we’ll see corresponding religious changes during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in what Taylor calls “Providential Deism” — the bridge between the transcendence of pre-modern Christianity and the immanence of secular humanism and atheism. Providential Deism encapsulated what Taylor calls the anthropocentric shift, or the reduction of…

Don’t free BYU

Michaelsberg Abbey

Brigham Young University requires LDS students who leave the church to withdraw from the university. While some people have lobbied for change, this policy is in the best interest of the students – both those who stay and those who leave – and should stay in place.

“Come Back” — with some thoughts on why they left in the first place

A couple of weeks ago I taught Lesson #12 in the Howard W. Hunter manual, titled Come Back and Feast at the Table of the Lord. The title comes from Pres. Hunter’s remarks at the press conference given the day after he became President of the Church in 1994. I want to point out that he was well ahead of his time. He gave these remarks years before “faith crisis” became a thing in the Church and years before Pres. Monson’s theme of The Rescue became emphasized. As he is quoted in the manual: To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say, come back. To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say, let us stand with you and dry your tears. To those who are confused and assailed by error on every side, we say, come to the God of all truth and the Church of continuing revelation. Come back. Stand with us. Carry on.…

Whom say ye that I am? A review of John Turner’s Mormon Jesus

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This is the first in a series on John Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. John Turner’s latest book — The Mormon Jesus: A Biography — is wonderful. The book opens with Jesus’ question to his apostles, as recorded in Mark 8:29, “But whom say ye that I am?” Over the succeeding nine chapters, Turner explores how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have answered that question over time. By themes, Turner constructs a rich historical narrative of the evolution of Mormon belief. Along the way, he places Mormon views in the context of broader Christianity: Joseph Smith revised the Bible? So did Thomas Jefferson and others, but in very different ways. This anchoring of Latter-day Saint views in their time and place doesn’t make Mormonism’s brand of Christianity the same as other groups; rather, it serves to highlight what is actually distinctive. Furthermore, Turner illustrates each theme with well-told illustrations, such as ordinary members of…

SMPT Conference October 13-15th, 2016: “Christ, Our Forerunner”

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 2016 Annual Meeting on October 13-15th at BYU, with the theme, “Christ, Our Forerunner.” Below is the text of the call for papers (adjusted for blog format), or click here for a printable PDF version. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology invites paper proposals on any aspect of Mormon belief, including its philosophical ramifications. We particularly encourage submissions on this year’s theme. Jesus Christ stands at the center of Mormon belief, understood through many roles, as co-creator of the earth, as the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the bringer of the new covenant, as redeemer from sin and forerunner into the presence of the Father (Hebrews 6:20, 9:24), among others. In some ways the Mormon understanding of Christ aligns closely with that of other Christians, while in other ways it differs dramatically. Who is this Jesus, and why is it vital for us to know him? Topics falling…

Wherefore Should Not the Heavens Weep?

Photo of the statue "Jesus Wept" at the Oklahoma City Memorial by Crimsonedge34.

Jacob Baker began a long, public Facebook post this way: I’m willing to bet that there are many people out there right now feeling conflicted about the mass murder that happened yesterday. I’m not talking about the outspoken blatant homophobes and bigots, but essentially good people who find themselves somewhat confused by this tragic event. He went on to allege that such people have less empathy for the victims of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando because of a “feeling of disapproval or discomfort” that is “cultivated within your religion.” Thus, such people feel “both compassion and disgust.” An early commenter replied that this “mirrors some of my own experience” and explained that his views on the LGBT community changed as a result of “realizing that they are very honest, genuine people who want many of the same things I want and who struggle in life just as I do.” In a similar vein, Lindsay Hansen Park publicly shared her…

“A Preparatory Redemption,” June 15, Berkeley CA

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“A Preparatory Redemption: Reading Alma 13” The Third Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology Conference is free and open to the public Wednesday, June 15, 9am-5pm The Chapel of the Great Commission The Graduate Theological Union 1798 Scenic Avenue Berkeley, CA 94709 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 Hosted by the Graduate Theological Union Speakers include: Kristeen Black Matthew Bowman Rosemary Demos David Gore Bridget Jeffries Adam Miller Bob Rees Joseph Spencer Sheila Taylor

The Gospels and Rape Culture

By Andrey Mironov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite the fact that the term rape culture–and the increasing attention devoted to it–are recent developments, that does not mean that the stories of the life of Jesus have nothing to say about the topic. In fact, there is quite a bit of material in the gospels which is relevant to the current discussion.

Reading Nephi – 14:8-17 part I

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The angel begins by reminding or interrogating or raising the covenants of the House of Israel. I’m not sure the angel’s intent. Is this pedagogical priming? Is it interrogation? Is it a test, with the angel serving as guardian or gate-keeper, not allowing Nephi to pass on to the next part of the vision until he’s proven his gnosis? Is it the divine teaching that incorporates Socrates’s great insight that knowledge begins with acknowledgment of ignorance?

DesNews Expanding Beyond Mormons

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It’s no secret that in the ever increasingly unstable newspaper market that the Deseret New has been trying to increase it’s market beyond both Utah and even the Mormon audience. It’s always been a bit odd being a metro paper in competition with the Salt Lake Tribune in a tiny market but also publishing the Church News. I remember as a kid my parents having a subscription to the Church News in way off Halifax, Nova Scotia. With the loss of classified dollars and the shift to the internet with low ad rates, all newspapers have been struggling. In a small market with two competing papers (plus the Provo Herald and Ogden Standard Examiner) it’s hard to stay in business.

Reading Nephi – 13:42-14:7

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We return now to the grand parallel Nephi makes in the articulation of his vision—Lehite afflictedness and Gentile blindness. While this passage focuses on the binary possibilities for the fate of the Gentiles, in the context of the parallel there’s a critical message for the Lehites as well—if the Gentiles can assuredly repent, then the remnant of Lehi can assuredly be restored. Overall, it’s a passage concerning the universal possibility of reconciliation and union under the covenant.

Mount Nebo: a fable

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As is well known, the prophet Nephi was so beloved of the Lord that he was given power to command all things. If he called for famine, there would be famine. If he commanded Mount Nebo to be moved, it would be moved from its place. And in fact, one morning Nephi walked out of his house, looked at Mount Nebo, and commanded it to be moved thirty miles to the north. The mountain rose into the air, drifted north, and set itself down again in the place it stands today.

Reading Nephi – 13:38-41

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Theses passages are tremendously challenging. On the one hand they insist on the historical nature of their prophecies—an understanding of history and of God’s movement in history is their whole raison d’etre. But even retrospectively it’s difficult to get much traction, to pin down events or movements or historical happenings, or to see these passages as illuminating particular events.

Reading Nephi – 13:30-37

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Verses 30-33 give the logic of this vision. There’s a grand parallel going on between the dramatically afflicted and nearly destroyed remnant of the Lehites and the “awful blindness” of the Gentiles. God’s ultimate covenant with Israel is rich enough to offer provisions to both in their different but analogously wretched lots. While I find this passage tremendously uplifting and profound, I also can’t simply run away from the stone of stumbling that is this language of God smiting whole peoples and generations. My Mormonism keeps me from being fully modern in many ways, and as communitarian as I believe myself to be, I simply can’t grasp the idea that historical, trans-generational, trans-millennial conglomerates of humans can be both accountable and justifiably acted upon in the same way that an individual can. I want to say that these claims of God smiting people is merely the way Nephi understands and elaborates historical tragedies. And maybe that’s right. But it’s also…

Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

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After successfully subverting the lands and economies of the natives and then violently refusing to remain party to their political contracts with their countries of origin, Nephi now sees the new immigrant population prospering. What does it mean that they prospered? I immediately think of things like infant mortality and economic growth. What would Nephi have meant by this? Is it a foil to their being in captivity? Does it refer to the fact that they geographically spread? Is it their continued subjugations of and thefts from among the native populations? What were Nephi’s family’s own experiences in the New World? Did they prosper? Did the biblical accounts of displacement together with their own displacement of natives make Nephi desensitized to the latter-day slaughter? Or was that facet simply absent from or downplayed in the dream itself? Or did Joseph’s own view of a righteous American Revolution cover over its dark sides? These questions spring up at me throughout this…

Reading Nephi – 13:10-19

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I wonder what we’re getting here in this passage. How much of this is straightforwardly the details of the vision? In particular, is Nephi’s understanding of the vision a part of the vision, in the same way that one comes into a dream already comprehending the background and meaning of the events that one dreams? Or is the interpretation all Nephi? Was he even capable of making the distinction? How much of this is the evolved interpretation of a man who has pondered for decades on the vision’s meaning? Then again, how much of this is from the mind of Joseph Smith for whom no historical events would’ve loomed larger than the American Revolution? One of course need not deny historicity to think that the details of at least the meaning of the vision were something different on the gold plates than as they came out on Oliver’s parchment stack. The wrath of God stands out to me. What is…

Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

First let me say upfront that I simply don’t read that many apologetic papers anymore. That’s less about any problems with the genre so much as just a lack of time. I have to be a little pickier about what I read than I used to. One day when little kids aren’t waking up all hours of the night that may change. Second let me say I’m not really interested in doing apologetics in the below. I’ll do my best to refrain from answering tangents that head in that direction. Rather, what I’m more interested in is the theoretic scaffolding behind different eras and trends in Mormon apologetics. I’ve been thinking about this a lot primarily in reaction to some of Dave’s post and Brad L’s comments to it last week. Brad in particular justifiably called me out on staking out a stronger position than I could defend. That said, I’m not sure I agree with taxonomy of apologetics many…

Reading Nephi – 13:1-9

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A consistent feature that distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Bible is its pan-human focus. Nephi does not strike me as very cosmopolitan—rather the opposite. He cares about his family and posterity, and his overriding focus even there is not love and loyalty but theology; he cares that they’re tied into God’s covenant with the House of Israel, that their history is sacred and thus legitimate. It’s easy to see Nephi as exactly the sort of overzealous man who devotes his time and attention to his calling at the expense of his personal family (which he never mentions outside of confessing that he took a wife; maybe this is, as Hardy speculates, a form of coping with his failures as a husband and father; or maybe this was Nephi’s form of coping with the pain of having lost his family, the way that church service functioned originally for Brigham Young). Nephi is single-mindedly focused on his tribe and their…

Keeping Our Boys Safe

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As you are probably well aware, BYU is reviewing its policies related to sexual assault victims and Honor Code violations. One proposal which seems to have a good bit of currency–especially since it appears to be the norm at other schools, including SVU, which have similar Honor Codes–is an “amnesty” for offenses which might have been committed in the context of the sexual assault. The motive here is to remove the disincentive for victims not to report assaults–or for assailants to assault Honor Code scofflaws because they are well aware that their victim is less likely to report the assault in that case.

Reading Nephi – 12:13-23

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The pattern goes from “normal” chaotic, difficult, mortal life, to intense trial and darkness, to the burst of light when God comes and establishes an order that results in Zion, to apostasy from Zion leading to apocalyptical violence. Interestingly, however, the apocalypse isn’t the end here; rather it’s followed by more everyday, mortal struggle before the next chapter—which expands the scope of this drama from tribal to global. But this is the same pattern that Joseph Smith prophesies for our own dispensation: a prophet sets up a people who go through chaotic, difficult, mortal struggles, often assailed by our enemies (for which we are always or often at fault), leading toward an intense trial and darkness (the pre-millennial wickedness that we’re always so convinced is right now, where even our very elect are deceived), which is to be followed by the parousia par excellence when Christ reigns personally upon the earth together with everything else we prophesy in our 10th…

Reading Nephi – 12:6-12

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And here it is, the climax of the whole story. God himself comes down from the heavens to visit his people. Note that this is how we always experience that singular (even if repeated) event: it’s in the future. We’re always waiting for the parousia and never ourselves experiencing it.

God’s Condescension

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I’ve been enjoying James’ recent close readings of the Book of Mormon. His last post on 1 Nephi 11 got me really thinking about what the condescension of God is. Around the same time I read Ralph Hancock’s recent essay at First Things about common ground between Mormons and traditional Christians. The big divide between Mormons is usually taken to be our theology of the relationship between God and humans. “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be,” to quote Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet. Within that couplet we find some huge divides with traditional Christianity. First we absolutely reject Augustine’s notion of creation ex nihilo. That absolute gap between God and humans disappears. That isn’t to say we necessarily have no gap. Most Mormon theology tends towards a flat ontology so there’s no ontologic difference between God and humans. Yet many such as Blake Ostler do put God in a special place we can never reach.…

‘A Reason For Faith’: A Review

During the lesson in Elders Quorum this past Sunday, we discussed ways to enhance our study of the scriptures. As usual, I raised my hand and recommended that we study the scriptures within their historical and cultural context so that our “likening” of them does not turn into “making stuff up.” I said that this should also include a study of Church history in order to understand our own doctrines, revelations, and controversies. And to top it all off, I suggested we work on developing religious literacy in order to have fruitful conversations with those outside our faith tradition. This class discussion also featured a number of stories about gospel conversations with co-workers. This reminded me of an encounter I had with a manager a couple years ago.

Nothing New Under the Sun: An Excerpt

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An excerpt from the first chapter of my recently released book, Nothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes: Chapter One Privileged, loved, educated, wealthy, this is what I saw: emptiness, futility, vanity. Everything is ephemeral. Everything crumbles to dust in your hands. Everything passes away. There is no escape. What good does it do to work hard and get ahead? Whole generations are born, suffer, work themselves to exhaustion, and die with nothing to show for it—all while the world spins in place, unmoved by their coming or going. The sun rises, the sun sets, and then it rises again. The winds, indifferent, rush past. Rivers empty endlessly into a sea that will never be full. All of this, relentless, repeats again and again. It uses me up. No matter how many stories I’m told or how much beauty I see, it’s never enough. I’m still left wanting more.

Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

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Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.

Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

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Behold the condescension of God. Earlier, the angel asked Nephi if he understands it, and Nephi admits that he does not. Now the angel tries to show him. But what is it that Nephi sees? First is the mere fact of the Redeemer going forth. I’ve often heard it interpreted that the condescension is actually that of Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, willing to come down incarnate among mortals and subject himself to their rejection and cruelty. I’ve nothing against this interpretation, though it strikes me as merely a remnant of traditional Christian theology. But here there is the following series of “Looks!” with no other direction, taking us to the end of the chapter. It seems that this whole series of events is the condescension of God. There is a Redeemer sent, a prophet sent to prepare the way, rituals and ordinances given to humans, angels that descend to minister, an atonement performed, twelve apostles to testify…