Author: James Olsen



I have family members who have died recently, others who are dying, and some who tell me confidently every time we talk, “You know, I won’t be around much longer…”

Damnable Terminology

I now genuinely regret my use of the term ‘violence’ in my recent post. My intention was to be completely candid and point out a phenomenon of our collective experience. As I often tell my students, however, the thoughts, intentions and arguments that might genuinely be running through our heads when we compose something does not change the meaning of the end product.

Damnable Defaults

A great deal of the discussion on women in the priesthood that I see happening right now[1] concerns our efforts to control and propagate various narratives. Personally, I find our current default narratives even more upsetting than our current practices.

Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World – Online!

The 2013 Church History Symposium now has most of the videos from the conference online (you can see the lineup for the conference here). I think the conference, it’s organization and execution, was a significant step forward for church-sponsored scholarship (or more precisely, was a continuation of the significant steps the church has been taking recently) – that is, the event itself is worth celebrating. But there were also some really interesting addresses. And now, it’s all online, gratuitement! Click here.

Church History Conference

2013 Church History Conference Poster

There is a Church History Conference at BYU March 7-8 entitled “Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World” (see details below). I find two things interesting about this conference: 1. The structure of the conference itself. The Church History Department and the BYU Department of Religion are co-sponsoring the conference, and while most of the lineup consists of BYU Religion professors there is also a significant lineup of non-BYU scholars, including Richard Bushman, Matt Bowman, and Kevin Barney. This strikes me as something different than I might have expected. 2. The content of the conference. To date much of the discussion about Joseph Smith and the ancient world has been a polemic between those who see Joseph’s knowledge and use of ancient themes, symbols, practices, and the like to be clear evidence of divine intervention, and those who see Joseph as a crafty religious plagiarist, creatively selecting a la carte from the various ancient studies resources he came across in…

The Temple and The Tempest

Miranda by John Williams Waterhouse

Shakespeare’s been critical for me at critical junctures in my life. In Mormonism where The Bard is revered, I think this is common. In Junior High Hamlet was the gift of language that bootstrapped the monkey into a meaningful world. Celebrating the Ides of March together with the woman I desperately wanted to marry reversed the obvious set-up for a tragedy. It’s a memorial my family continues to celebrate each year with a brief family Shakespearapalooza. This last week has been filled with Shakespeare, culminating last night with a dream date my wife took me on to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Tempest at Stratford-Upon-Avon. The artistic detail of the play was brilliant; Prospero mildly interesting and passable; Miranda simplistic and dull; Sebastian (a woman) very genuine and convincing; Ariel completely mesmerizing, haunting, and utterly unforgettable. Taken together it was a transformative production that upheld the troupe’s “royal” reputation. All of this is mere intro. What inspires me…

Happy Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day is a bit like Christmas time in terms of the mass solicitations sent out from various NGOs. To be honest, these are perhaps the only mass emails that I don’t mind. And I frankly agree with their general point: what better way to wish your own mother a Happy Mother’s Day than by contributing to another mother in her name?

Mormon Intellectuals Part III: My Postscript

(See here for Jim’s original post, here for part I, and here for part II)  In my original response to Jim, I wrote the following: While I’ve tried to be fair and accurate, it may be that I’m misreading [Toscano or Faulconer], that I’m mistaken in my analysis of their position. Even if that turns out to be the case, I believe that explicitly laying out this Toscano-Faulconer spectrum is a very useful tool, one that helps us all to orient ourselves to the various possibilities that exist for intellectuals, and allows me to argue in favor of a third position. In the wake of Jim’s comments it seems clear that I did misunderstand some of what he had to say, and that we’re closer together than I originally thought – if nothing else, I’m happy to help clarify and advertise his position. I still think there’s a difference between what we’re advocating (as do a number of the commenters)…

Mormon Intellectuals Part II: Jim’s Comments

I had previously intended to post some of Jim’s comments from an email. Instead, I’m re-posting his response to Part I here in order to further highlight what he has to say. I’ll follow this up with one more post tomorrow. Jim’s comments are as follows: I cannot tell you how touched and flattered I am by your piece, both by the kind things you say in the beginning and by the very fact that you’ve thought something I wrote worthy of such a careful, thoughtful response. My response to your essay is that I disagree with almost nothing. I think there is perhaps a minor difference between us, but most of the difference is occasioned by the difference between a column of restricted length that, therefore, requires a rhetorical stance as much as a philosophical one. I deliberately took a rhetorical stance that I knew would be bothersome because I wanted to raise an issue that I had been thinking about…

Mormon Intellectuals: A Response to Jim Faulconer

I disagree with some important parts of Jim’s recent piece on intellectuals in the Church (please read what he said first). By the end, I hope it’s clear that it is (in part) for “Faulconerian” reasons that I disagree with him. To begin, I’m going to indulge in a bit of biographical narcissism in order to make a point about the nature of my disagreement. The semester recently began, and as I do at the beginning of nearly every course, I told the students a story about Jim Faulconer, or rather about my undergraduate self in one of Jim’s classes. Philosophers believe deeply in the intrinsic and instrumental good of criticism, argument, candid evaluation – in the overall value of dialectic. As an outside observer recently put it, “philosophers honor each other by disagreeing with each other.” For new philosophy students, however, the transition can be a bit rough; and I was no exception. One of my formative educational experiences involved…

Reassessing the theological side of the Compromise


Terryl Givens’ recently wrote about the American compromise with Mormonism, whereby Mormons agreed not to be so radical as to entirely alienate themselves from American society (i.e., ditch polygamy and our lovely Deseret) in exchange for the U.S. ceasing its explicit campaign to eradicate us. He describes the unwritten contours of that compromise as consisting in a willingness to accept and even promote the various cultural achievements of Mormonism (e.g., our choir, football, family focus), while agreeing to shelve any serious engagement with our theology. One can hear the variation on a popular General Conference theme when he writes: “In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. . . . But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction.” The upshot is that Mormons themselves need to help define their public image now that Presidential politics have disturbed our…

Sunday School Questions

Digital StillCamera

We recently had a teacher training workshop in our ward. There was a good turn out with lots of very positive contributions and an overall great discussion. For my own part I talked about the use of questions as a teacher. I’m sharing what I prepared since it may be useful for some of you, but even moreso because I’m interested in your feedback. Do you take issue with any of my points about the use of questions? Are there other reasons or ways we ought to use questions in a Sunday (or in our case, Friday) School setting? ****** As we all know, one of our primary responsibilities as teachers is to create an atmosphere where members of the class can commune with the spirit and receive revelation. One of the most important ways I’ve seen this done is by doing what God and angels are continually doing in the scriptures: asking questions.[fn1] Here are some tips about asking…

Book Review: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

Parley Pratt bio

“If Pratt wanted to leave for posterity a record of his apostolic role in providential history, he also wanted to leave for futurity the story of the flesh and blood Parley P. Pratt (393).” Regardless of whether we agree with Givens & Grow on this point, it is the lens through which we ought to view their recent biography. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism is a substantial addition to Pratt’s timeworn autobiography, an attempt to fill out our understanding of the man – both who Pratt was and also the critical (though often overlooked) contribution he made to Mormonism and its theology. While I take this to be the explicit aim of the authors, I’m more interested in the normative impact this biography will potentially make on its readers. Or maybe I’m merely so focused on my own agenda that I can’t help but exploit Givens & Grow toward this end.[1] Regardless, in this biography of one…

My testimony

I’m no stranger to doubt and scepticism – I’m as much a child of conflicted modernity as anyone and it has been years since the majority of those close to me have professed an unwavering belief – and context is as relevant to testimony as anything else. But tonight I want to state candidly and unreservedly: I believe. There’s something genuinely magical (and I feel that quickening magic now) in the bearing of a testimony – I count my experience with testimony as one of the grand mysteries I’ve encountered in life.  I can’t help but continually try to cast my conceptual net about it; to design new ways of trying to observe this thing that like an electron is better characterized by movement in a region than by determinate position; to articulate with analysis and plumb with nuance what goes on inside my collective soul. My perpetual failure doesn’t dissuade me; I continue to believe in it’s in-principle possibility;…

Why Bloom, et al are wrong

Angel Moroni

Harold Bloom’s recent NY Times article on Mormonism & politics was tremendously disappointing. The sheer volume of poorly (or dishonestly) researched writing on Mormonism this season is exhausting; and to get this sort of long worn-out, conspiracy minded expression of clichés from someone as well educated as Bloom is downright disheartening[1] (though to be fair, we’ve gotten a good deal of serious journalism as well). But I’m actually not much interested in that side of Bloom’s article. Let me quickly bring up two other points from the article. First, Bloom states this: The founding prophet Joseph Smith[’s]…highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations. We could take note here – it’s a succinct and accurate response to those…

Times & Seasons Welcome Sarah Bringhurst Familia

Times & Seasons is pleased to introduce Sarah Bringhurst Familia as our newest guest blogger. Sarah grew up in California, where she and her four siblings were homeschooled (back in the good old days when homeschooling was weird and subversive, not hip and progressive). She received her BA in Near Eastern Studies at BYU, and served a mission in Santiago, Chile. After their marriage and the birth of their first child, Sarah and her husband Tony took their two-month-old baby on a summer field study to the Philippines, where they slept in nipa huts, backpacked into mountain villages, and caught an incurable travel bug. Since then, they’ve lived in Italy, Ireland, and most recently Tunisia. Sarah enjoys playing the piano and folk harp, writing poetry, learning languages, and ethnic cooking. She is continuing the family homeschooling tradition, and spends way too much time cobbling together the perfect curriculum while the kids dig for bugs in the dirt. She recently returned…

My Wife’s Exercise of the Priesthood in Our Home

Holy Family icon

My Wife’s Exercise of the Priesthood in Our Home (or Response to Alison part III) Here a people of godly race are born for heaven; the Spirit gives them life in the fertile waters. The Church-Mother, in these waves, bears her children like virginal fruit she has conceived by the Holy Spirit.[1] I love this inscription. For me, it makes of baptism the center of a multi-axes union of male and female, convert and community, earth and heaven – reminiscent of our earlier discussions, and a perfect preamble to this one. (Actually, the preamble’s going to on for a while – impatient folk are welcome to skip down to the numbered list below.) The reality is, there’s so much to discuss in the original issues raised in Alison’s “Serving on the Sidelines” post that I’ll never get around to saying all I’d like to (here’s part I and part II). But I need to at least get through part III…

Which Mormon are You Voting For?

Huntsman & Romney

One of the gloriously enriching experiences in marriage – at least in my marriage – is all of the truly wonderful people that my wife has brought into my life. One of these persons is Sarah Bringhurst Familia – a brilliant, homeschooling mother, who also happens to be a pillar of global citizenship. Since marrying, she and her husband have lived in a number of exotic locations, including Utah, California, The Philippines, Ireland, Italy, and most recently Tunisia. With both a degree and lots of life experience centering around the Middle East, she’s a trenchant observer of current affairs in the region. Her interests take her all over the place, however, and she recently posted this piece which I thought the Times & Seasons crowd would enjoy (you can follow her own blog here): Which Mormon are You Voting For? by Sarah Bringhurst Familia It’s the question of the hour. And if you forced me to choose between Huntsman and Romney, I’d…

Statements on Heavenly Mother

Lange - Migrant Mother

I thought a good companion to Jonathan’s recent post would be a list of quotations by church authorities on Heavenly Mother found in Paulsen’s & Pulido’s recent BYU studies article, “A Mother There.” I do not list them in the same order as they’re found in the article, nor do I list all of the quotations found in their article (not to mention the hundreds more that they’ve accumulated) – but let me be clear about the fact that I’ve culled them directly from the article. The quotes themselves are clearly in the public domain, but it still feels a bit like plagiarism. All credit goes to them. Nonetheless, it seems an extremely valuable resource to actually have before us at least a small sampling of what church authorities have said from then til now when we discuss this important doctrine. And now the quotes: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit…

12 Questions with Grant Hardy – part I

Grant Hardy

To cap off our roundtable review of Grant Hardy’s new book Understanding the Book of Mormon we’re fortunate to feature an interview with the book’s author. The interview will be posted in two parts. Our thanks to all who have participated, and especially Bro. Hardy.

Response to Alison – part II

Family after Ewa Nuhr's birth

Here’s a second post, responding to issues raised in Alison’s Serving on the Sidelines. Moses 6:59-60: That by reasons of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and by blood, and by the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; for by the water ye keep the commandment; by the spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified. I love these verses. I love the visceral, embodied symbolism. I’ve been personally moved and affected by the connection they make between…