Author: James Olsen

James is the husband of Erin Fairlight Olsen. Together they have conspired to doom their four children to a lifetime of mispronounced names: Gaebriel Joseph, Magdeleine Ysabelle, Myriam Reevkahleh, and Ewa Nuhr. Raised where the buffalo still roam in northeastern Wyoming, James learned how to Anglicize French while serving in the Missouri, St. Louis Mission. Afterward he thought so long and indecisively and with such passionately committed existential anguish about what to do with his life that finally BYU simply granted him a degree in philosophy. He then received a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. Unable to subsequently handle the pressures of looming heteronormativity, however, he once again took up philosophy, this time at Georgetown. Currently he is in Doha, Qatar, hiding out from Georgetown, which, much like his wife, would really appreciate it if he just graduated.

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Mormons and Modernism

Mormons and Modernism: Modernism, Secularism — and the Mormon Response? Thinkers as diverse as Charles Taylor, Marcel Gauchet, John Milbank, Mark Lilla, and Louis Dupré have written about the origins of the modern period—the radical change in thought and society from the medieval period…

Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

The first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly…

Reading Nephi – 11:1-7

I’ll confess, I feel a mixture of serious disappointment and jealousy as I’m struck by the utterly exotic nature of this event. Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for…

Reading Nephi – 10:17-22

Nephi does it again right at the start of this passage, though this time it’s in reverse: he talks about faith in the Son of God, and then realizing that his reader would need clarification on that, he inserts the…

Reading Nephi – 10:11-16

At the end of this section Nephi notes that there were many other prophecies of Lehi, and many of those prophecies Nephi wrote in his other plates. Here he’s only written what he thought appropriate. Well then, what has he…

Reading Nephi – 10:1-10

The first lines go right along with the confusion and different worldview conspicuous in 9. Having just stated the Lord’s intention for Nephi to focus on the spiritual as opposed to the secular and his own confusion over this point,…

Reading Nephi – 9

This is an extraordinarily odd chapter—and odd in ways that really do support the either prophet or genius narrative of Joseph Smith. Why, if one were simply trying to cover up their mistake in losing 116 pages and the first…

Reading Nephi – 8:29-38

The folks who make it to the tree via the path-rod fall down. Its exhausting. This seems so significant, and seems to confirm my earlier reading of the path-rod as not the optimal means of getting to the tree; we…

Reading Nephi – 8:13-22

There are patterns here in the partaking of the fruit: self, then family, then others; self, then the righteous, then the wicked; self, then one’s people, then others. Enos later repeats this pattern in his great prayer. I don’t think…

Reading Nephi – 8:9-12

How did Lehi know that the fruit was desirable to make one happy? Usually in dreams we just know things; we know the context or the background that makes the dream sensible. Is that what it was? What about in…

Reading Nephi – 8:1-8

Verse 1: it seems clear that they lived in the Valley for quite some time. Lehi’s dream. This labyrinth makes the whole book worthwhile. I too have had dreams that make me deeply question the future and my relationships, that…

Reading Nephi – 7:6-22

Here again we get a narrative, and in the perceptible foil of a competitor narrative. Once again, Nephi works hard to discredit Laman & Lemuel, and here we can see clearly what their major point is: returning to Jerusalem. It’s…

My petition for a bill of…

The law that God gave to ancient Israel was pretty clear and unambiguous: divorce isn’t part of the program. Then the people sued Moses for a bill of divorcement. I have no idea what that conversation between Moses and God…

Reading Nephi – 7:1-5

Sometimes I feel like I deeply understand the tight integration of extended family, covenant, and connection to God—a trinity that is indeed one in substance. And sometimes, as here, it feels so exotic. I feel like I stand in between…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

Statements on Heavenly Mother

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…

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…