Author: James Olsen

Reading Nephi – 6

This was a chapter break in the original edition (end of Chapter Two), but I’m not terribly impressed with whoever’s editorial decision that was. This is clearly not a break. Nephi’s switched from discussing his father’s reading of the Plates of Brass to discussing his own writing—but it’s not meant to be a substantive shift; rather, it’s mean to draw a continuity. I don’t know that Nephi’s being audacious in the same way that you or I (or a General Authority for that matter) might be being audacious if we declared our writings scripture. But he is being audacious in the sense that he sees himself as continuing the record. There are the Plates of Brass, there is the Book of Lehi, and here are Nephi’s writings, and they all fall into the same category. Being the new caretakers of this record, the obligation is clearly to continue it. And this sense of things continues, even amongst later record keepers…

Reading Nephi – 5:10-22

I’m first struck by what a joy this must’ve been for Lehi. At this point, he’s as committed as he could be, completely immersed in living the life of a prophet that he feels he’s been called to. Of course, it’s a serious question whether or to what extent he’d been exposed to scripture prior to this point. We see here that he was obviously familiar with the fact that there were five books of Moses, and the story of Joseph of Egypt was known to him (as was, of course, the story of Moses that Nephi used earlier). But clearly he had no copy of the scriptures himself—no one did back then. There were only communal copies, and it’s not clear that Laban would’ve been any more liberal with the plates back when Lehi was a normal merchant of Jerusalem than he was when Laman went to speak to him (for that matter, it’s not at all clear that…

Reading Nephi – 5:1-9

Here is a poignant scene. Reunions are an important trope in all stories, because they’re an important element in all of our lives. As Mormonism’s grand cosmological narrative makes clear, our very life is about separation from our parents and working toward an eventual reunion—after we’ve made our (usually very messy) journey and acted in faith to do the things that we’ve been commanded to do. Verse one gives us a nice twist, however. It’s not that the brothers have completed their quest and come home like every other Odysseus. Rather, they’ve completed their quest and having done so returned to the wilderness. The Book of Mormon is indeed, as Jacob who was born in the wilderness will later state, a story of strangers wandering in the wilderness. Grant Hardy offers a compelling argument that this scene is a matter of artful obfuscation. Nephi distracts his readers from his murder and what was surely an awkward reunion—one can almost hear…

Reading Nephi – 4:20-38

Zoram is another critical element of this narrative. Once again, we learn later in the Book of Mormon that there was controversy concerning Zoram’s departure from Jerusalem and joining Lehi’s expedition—enough controversy to eventually fuel a serious political movement and secession (Alma 31-35). It’s another instance of Nephi portraying himself as heroic, faithful and possessed of a liberal spirit. One certainly hopes that Lehi’s later blessing of Zoram corroborates Nephi’s account—but Zoram’s joining the Lehite project is another oddity. Why does Zoram join them so readily? He was from the lower classes, perhaps made naturally compliant on account of his life circumstances. He might well have felt compelled or lacking better alternatives. I suspect that this is where Nephi’s murder is revealed. I imagine a terrified Zoram asking what Nephi (who is “large in stature,” and this time the description is obviously physical—he’s just physically restrained Zoram from fleeing) what he did with his master Laban and how he had…

Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part II)

So is this my contemporary sensibilities, my modern moral compass set in a fantastically different, less physically grueling and brutal world that recoils from Nephi’s terrifying justification? Undoubtedly—although that in itself certainly makes it no less right. But the text itself and Nephi’s manner of disclosing and addressing this event offers evidence that something was rotten in Nephi’s Denmark.

Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part I)

Once again, reading these difficult passages, I see something prodigious in Nephi, something my soul longs after. At the same time, however, my soul recoils, and chapter four is the realization of the danger inherent in Nephi’s faithful outlook. I want to think that Nephi’s mistake was youthful inexperience—faith and zeal untempered by the wisdom and moral constraint of realizing that every human one confronts is a child of Heavenly Parents and a brother or sister [see comment 1]. Contextualizing our lives within the scriptures seems so right. This is how I want to read them—this is how I want to live. This is what I hope I’m doing as I read and write my thoughts, weaving myself into a temporally extended web, binding myself within the covenants that I have made, which are the covenants of God with his people in former and latter times, which binds me to the mothers and fathers who’ve gone before. With Nephi, I…

Reading Nephi – 3:31-4:3

They misplaced the chapter break. We’ve reached a hard spot in the Book of Mormon for me—perhaps the hardest spot in Nephi’s record. The text in chapter four challenges me on multiple fronts every time I read it. I hope that my wrestling with it is fruitful and faithful, but often it’s merely implacable. One thing that I can see clearly is that we here get Nephi’s commentary on the nature of miracles and the way they interact with human reason and trust. All of us have Laman and Lemuel within us. Analyzing the variables of our life, we simply cannot see a solution to a given problem—there is no plausible way out of whatever bind we find ourselves in. Laban has twice now sent his henchman to threaten Laman. The reality of Laban’s ability to kill him is obviously quite firmly in the forefront of Laman’s mind—encounters with those who are perfectly comfortable using violence to coerce others is…

Reading Nephi – 3:15-30

There really is something terribly compelling about Nephi. It’s hard not to be won over by his absolute commitment and tenacity. I want to bracket all my inevitable reading of an older political authority justifying the legitimacy of his reign, countering his opposition’s narratives concerning crucial events at the genesis. Instead, I want here to simply let myself be taken in by a youth who displays this unyielding faith and optimism. It strikes me that this is precisely the attitude and commitment that brings about change. How—in the context of ancient Holy Land Jerusalem—can God transplant a faithful family, a family whose faith is rooted in the framework of their people’s having obtained a promised land and established a House of God? It would seem that either God would need a family whose faith was secondary, thin, perhaps non-existent (i.e., they weren’t all that faithfully Jewish and so weren’t committed to the Holy Land); or else God would have to…

Reading Nephi – 3:1-14

There’s a reason why this—the return for the plates—is the first event Nephi mentions following their departure from Jerusalem. I wonder if there’s not also an inspired reason for it to come upfront. Lehi’s theophany and departure is the rupture that opens a new dispensation. The story of the retrieval of the record of Laban is the founding of Nephite history, the origin of Nephite political legitimacy, and perhaps even the founding of Nephite religion. Once again, there is a great deal going on in this story, with absences that are as revealing as what gets stated. Nephi subtly lets us know that he speaks with Lehi in confidence, that Lehi already spoke with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam, and that this meeting(s) didn’t go well. Lehi attempts to pre-empt what he assumes will be Nephi’s similar balking at the idea of returning for the record. Why do the others balk? Especially at the idea of a return trip—even temporary—to Jerusalem?…

Reading Nephi – 2:16-24

I’ve no desire to rob those who are physically large with a means of relating themselves to Nephi. But I can’t for the life of me see how we connect “large in stature” with physically large. [Note: later in the text we do get a direct connection between Nephi’s stature and physical size, so perhaps that later connection colors things here; but for all we know, these were different words all together that both came out as ‘stature’ on Joseph’s stone.] The contrast in this clause is with young—which I suppose might be intuitively connected to physical size—my children do this all the time (they can’t quite understand that mommy is older since daddy is bigger). Just yesterday they nearly came to blows over whose foot was larger, which is apparently a genetic marker of natural aristocracy and right to rule. But it’s the right to rule that matters—and as soon as I convinced my children that there was no…

Reading Nephi – 2:8-15

This passage doesn’t seem to reflect well on Nephi. I don’t blame Nephi. To the degree that any of us have good reason to think poorly of family members who have wronged us, I think that the older man Nephi has cause to think poorly of his brothers. But how can we not also see the older, embittered Nephi projecting back on his brothers here? Our memories are inevitably colonized by our present experiences—sometimes glamorized and sometimes darkened. If I read past Nephi’s retrospectively projected interpretation, however, I am deeply moved by Lehi’s wisdom and love. There is no way to see what this family is going through as anything other than wrenching and difficult. I keenly remember feeling like my whole life was torn out from under me when as a melodramatic young teenager my family moved towns. I certainly murmured. I continue to feel my feet kicked out from under me as I move through life (and alas,…

Reading Nephi – 2:1-7

Here is the great rupture. Nephi acknowledges that it came in a dream—a dream that made a coherent narrative of the details of Lehi’s life. Did he feel like a failed prophet? Did his heart break? Or did he feel vindicated or at least consoled in joining that host of ancient prophets who were rejected by their people—or was that a later, literary reconciliation? Regardless, the dream tells him to leave the Land of Promise. Again, forsaking the idea that this was a dramatic overnight event, and recognizing instead that it likely took place over the course of some time—what were the conversations with Sariah (goodness, I hope he had them) and his children? Neighbors or friends? Or if not with others, what were the conversations with himself? Jeremiah (whom Nephi later extolls) had not been commanded to leave, but to stay and preach and get himself locked up in prison. Other prophets had been killed. Why was Lehi spared?…

Reading Nephi – 1:18-20

Two contrasts strike me in verse 18: a contrast between the way that Nephi uses the word ‘marvelous’ and a contrast between the visions and prophesying he attributes to Lehi here, and what we just got in verse 14. To begin with a word on the latter, I’m heartened that Lehi’s prophesying included beautiful, affirming, psalms; I trust his public messages did too, even if Nephi didn’t note this fact. I never hear the word ‘marvelous’ used to neutrally reference a marvel. It’s always used as a synonym to ‘wonderful.’ Marvels and wonders only receive a positive valence today; but Nephi’s clearly not using it that way. Which hints at something else buried here that is easy for us to miss today: it was indeed a marvel, something that defied common reason and common sense of the day, that Jerusalem, the holy city, the Lord’s city, the house of the artifacts of Moses and Aaron and the seat of God’s…

Statements on Heavenly Mother

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I appreciated the loving tribute Elder Holland just gave to all mothers, and in particular to our Heavenly Mother. In the wake of that talk, I’m reposting[1] some of the quotes on Heavenly Mother collected in Paulsen’s & Pulido’s BYU Studies article, “A Mother There.” [2] It’s a valuable resource to actually have before us a sampling of what church authorities have said over the years, and is one way to express the love and gratitude in my own heart. And now the quotes: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign Nov. 1995: 102) “We were created . . . in the image of our father and our mother, the image of our God.” (Brigham Young, Discourses of…

Reading Nephi – 1:7-17

Joseph Smith remarked on visions that they are something that overcomes the visionary—that is, they’re physically exhausting. After the famous vision he shared with Sidney Rigdon (D&C 76), Sidney was apparently quite overcome, and Joseph quipped, “He’s not as used to this as I am” (or something to that effect, a la Truman Madsen). Thus it appears to have been the case with Lehi—overcome after his experience in the presence of God (a pillar of fire being a typological Old Testament symbol for the presence of God), he casts himself upon his bed. But God wasn’t yet done with him. Hardy points out that this appears to be something of a cover-up, that Nephi appears to be intentionally blurring the lines between visions (note that Nephi’s narrative begins with what is clearly denoted as a conscious, daytime vision) and dreams, which Nephi often parenthesizes as a “vision.” Hardy sees Nephi as responding to the criticism lodged by Jeremiah that dreams…

Reading Nephi – 1:1-6

‘I, Nephi’ begins his record in a remarkable manner, and I’m tempted to write long-windedly exploring the labyrinth of the first verse. I’m grateful that he acknowledges goodly parents and not just a goodly father. Some have certainly had only goodly fathers and not goodly mothers (Disney loves this scenario), but as written, I see a reflection of my own life in the first line of the Book of Mormon—of all of our lives. We have goodly Parents — Heavenly Parents. And, accordingly as Nephi notes, we have been taught somewhat in all of their learning, and are continuing to be so taught, which is the purpose of our sojourn. Indistinguishable from this learning is Nephi’s frank admission of affliction being integral to the whole process. And too often this can come to dominate our view of life. Nevertheless, there is goodness. And how these things are able to comingle in a divine setting is itself the substance of the…

My morning with McBaine and Wiman

As happens every now and then, I had a furious, fortuitous conjoining that so filled the boughs with fruit that they now creak and threaten to break. And language—especially quick language—isn’t likely to succeed in conveying the experience. What follows is a quick, momentary set of notes. But I don’t want to let it pass or hold back; I want to attempt to capture and share a moment of clear resonation. Riding in to work I was reading two books: Christian Wiman’s utterly unparalleled My Bright Abyss (review forthcoming) and Neylan McBaine’s desperately needed Women at Church. The one prepared me for the other, but I’ll share them in reverse order. At the end of Chapter One Sister McBaine seems to strike right at the heart of our paradox with women’s issues: “How do we protect the traditions, practices, and truths of our earliest progenitors while holding sacred the rebel explosion of the Restoration?” I’ve no desire to dilute or…

Faithful priesthood narratives?

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some of those who speak in opposition to women’s ecclesiastical enfranchisement do so because they can’t imagine what a faithful, coherent narrative of our dispensation could possibly look like if women’s priesthood role were restored and developed or if they did receive the Melchizedek Priesthood

Knocking With My Sisters

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One of my most recent posts was an attempt to honestly explore (or at least ask) the question: “How do faithful members collectively petition our prophets to petition the heavens?” The scriptures and the early days of our church are replete with faith-inspiring examples. How do we do it now that we’re millions strong? The answer – as the events of the last two weeks have thrown in dramatic relief – is that we don’t have one.[1] Many others have noted the fact of Kate Kelly’s disciplinary council arising from (as many think) her aggressive tactics courting media and engaging non-Mormons on this issue. She has done so (many think) because it’s the only way she was able to actually engage Church leadership. Again, if staying quiet or staying local is not a practically effective means of knocking (and it’s not), and if going public is effective but off-limits (as tonight’s council seems to say), then how do we collectively knock and gain…

Mourning with those that mourn

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Job 1: 20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, 21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly. Job 2: 11 ¶Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.  12 And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.  13 So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.…

Awkward Discourse, Awkward Practice

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Let me say up front that I’m a big fan of the Church’s new Gospel Topics section. And the most recent entry “Becoming Like God” is perhaps my favorite. I thought the author contextualized the topic well, and I especially liked the section entitled “How do Latter-day Saints envision exaltation?” In part because of the nature of the topic, and in part because the author courageously included two full paragraphs on our Heavenly Parents, however, this article manifests our incongruent, sometimes incoherent, and at the least wholly awkward way of discussing all things women in the Church. There’s nothing special about this awkwardness showing up in this particular article – as I just mentioned, the author was courageous in candidly discussing Heavenly Mother. Unfortunately, this awkwardness seems to show up in nearly everything we say as a Church. To be specific: I find directly analogous the way we talk about and treat women generally and the way “Becoming Like God”…

Everyday Redemption

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Strutting down the driveway, whistling with a snow shovel over my shoulder I had a moment where I was struck by the absurdity of the scene. I smiled. Then I wondered at it and how it came to be. Late morning, and gloriously the DC area shuts down at the mention of snow. So I’m still in my pajamas, hanging the picture frames I’ve been meaning to get at for some time. “James, quick, there’s a car stuck out there. Get your shovel and go help.” “Oh. Sure.” That was it in terms of words and thought. But even if the proximate cause, it didn’t really explain much. Why hadn’t we thought or discussed it some more? Why no hesitation? Why was I whistling like a Disney dwarf? Growing up in northern Wyoming surely has a lot to do with it. Boy did I have a lot of opportunities to shovel snow and freeze my hands pushing on car bumpers.…

Reasoning Together – Zion

We talk about Zion in a lot of different senses, but I think most of these share the general idea of communally gathering, developing, sharing, and partaking in everything that is lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy or of good report. How do we do this, both collectively and individually, on both a theological and political level? Once again (obviously) I can’t adequately answer that question here. But once again I’m bothered by a lot of the discussions I see flying around our virtual and ward-level worlds. I don’t like the divisive,  polemical way in which these discussions are framed – especially when the discussion revolves around whether all is well in Zion or whether Zion is in need of some serious, often non-contiguous reform. In what follows, this question is my main target and what I want you to consider. Is the good ship Zion sinking while the crew and passengers obliviously bask in what they take to be the sunlight?…

Responding as Mandela

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Driving [1] to work Friday morning the news reports were of course all about Nelson Mandela who had passed away the night before. Mandela was unquestionably a savior on Mt. Zion in the Mormon sense