Author: Nate Oman

Thoughts on a Modern English Translation of the Scriptures

The Church recently announced that is going to be publishing an LDS “translation” of the Bible in Portuguese. I put “translation” in scare quotes because this is not a new Portuguese version of the Bible translated from the original Greek and Hebrew. Rather, it takes a previous Portuguese translation now in the public domain and updates its archaic language for modern Portuguese readers, adding LDS study aids. This is not the first time that the Church has issued new versions of the scriptures to make their language more digestible for members. For example, the original translation of the Book of Mormon into Korean used a very elevated and archaic form of the language that was difficult for modern Korean speakers to understand. My understanding is that the Church produced a new translation that was easier to read, and that it has done similar things in other languages. These efforts on behalf of non-English-speaking Latter-day Saints raise the question, why not…

Covenant and Speech

Membership in the Church is a covenant relationship. We repeat this to ourselves a great deal but generally aren’t clear exactly what we mean by it. Often, we imagine a covenant as a contract, a set of reciprocal promises. Given what the scriptures say about covenants, this isn’t a false way of thinking about it, but it is seriously incomplete. The most powerful image of covenant in the scriptures for me is the image of marriage. Israel, we are told, is like the (often faithless) spouse of God. A marriage is a relationship that is defined by reciprocal promises, but it isn’t just defined by reciprocal promises. It is also defined by love, passion, and what I think of as habits of affection. We often think of love as a kind of Dionysian force that assaults us, but married love is more than simply Dionysian. It is also agricultural, something that one treasures, cultivates, and seeks to protect. I think…

The Most Important Question about the Future of Mormonism

A couple of weeks ago, Patheos had a fun series of blog posts on the future of the Mormonism. (I’m too lazy to provide a link; Google it.) Most of the contributions were insightful and interesting, but I was struck that none of them put front and center what I think is the more important question facing the Church today. Mormonism is driven, ultimately, by missionary work. If you look at the development of our theology, for example, it has largely been formulated in the context of polemics driven by the needs of proselytizing. We articulate our theology through the process of trying to convert people, rather than trying to covert people to our previously articulate theology. More dramatically, whatever seems to be the most successful missionary message tends to come to dominate Church discourse and transform Church practices. We don’t necessarily invent new doctrines or the like for missionary purposes, but the way in which we present those doctrines…

My Theory of the Church’s Statement on the Change in BSA Policy

Yesterday my Facebook feed erupted with posts by LDS friends expressing dismay over the Church’s announcement that it would reconsider its relationship with the BSA in light of the BSA’s announcement that it would now allow gay scoutmasters. After all, the BSA policy allows local troops to set their own guidelines regarding gay scoutmasters, and in any case the Church has no objection to gay scoutmasters, so long as they are living the law of chastity. Why the sharp response from the Church? I have a theory about, this, but it is only a theory. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called Boy Scouts v. Dale. Dale sued the BSA under a New Jersey anti-discrimination law, arguing that the BSA’s policy excluding him from being a scout leader because he was gay violated the law. The BSA argued that the application of the New Jersey law violated its rights of expressive association under the First Amendment. The…

Some things Jana Riess gets wrong about the Church and religious freedom

I like and respect Jana Riess a great deal, but she has a blog post up on religious freedom in which she makes a number of mistaken claims that are worth pointing out. First, she suggests that the Church´s commitment to religious freedom is shallow or poorly thought out. After all, she says, wouldn´t a robust support for religious freedom include minority religions such Rastafarians? Yes it would. However, since 1990 at least the Church has vigorously supported legislation that allows Rastafarians and other minority religions to challenge laws burdening their practices. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the Church helped to pass, was in direct response to Supreme Court opinion holding that the State of Oregon could criminalize the use of peyote by Native Americans. Jana also claims that “The LDS Church has lobbied hard for the right of conservative religious persons – like, say, those who are members of the LDS Church! – to refuse [service in public]…

The Influence of Law on Mormon Theology in the 20th Century

I recently published an article that T&S readers might find interesting. It traces the legal issues faced by the Church as a result of its international expansion after 1945, arguing that the pressures created by these concerns tended to modify Mormon theologies of the state in the last half of the twentieth century. There is a bunch of interesting stuff in the paper (or at least I think that there is), but it mainly makes two contributions. First, it tries to provide an overarching narrative for Mormon legal history in the late twentieth century. Second, it shows that just as with the abandonment of polygamy at the end of the 19th century, law has been an important force in the development of Mormonism in the twentieth century. Here’s the abstract from SSRN, along with a link for those who want to read it: International Legal Experience and the Mormon Theology of the State, 1945-2012 Nathan B. Oman William & Mary…

Mormons and Politics

Readers may be interested in a recent episode of the “Research on Religion Podcast,” featuring Quin Monson (BYU) and Dave Campbell (Notre Dame) discussing their new book Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics (also co-authored with John C. Green). The book is the first full length study by professional political scientists of the place of Mormons in contemporary American politics. Scholarly discussions of Mormonism tend to be dominated by those trained either as historians or else (more recently) in religious studies. The work of Monson, Campbell, and Green is important because it brings in a bit more disciplinary diversity to the discussion. Among other things, they have actual new data on Mormon political attitudes — as opposed to opinions based on political discussions in the foyer at church — and a social scientist’s sense for what is unique about Mormons and what is not. The podcast provides a nice summary of a some of their research. Enjoy!

Doux Commerce in the City of God

I just put up an essay at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) that readers of this blog might find interesting. It’s a response to some of Hugh Nibley’s writings on Zion and commerce. Nibley was famously critical of the mercantile ethic, arguing that trade and capitalism were fundamentally hostile to the ideal of Zion. This essay takes a more optimistic view of commerce, drawing on the ideas eighteenth-century thinkers like Montesquieu, who saw in the rise of markets a fundamentally pro-social force with the potential to limit violence and conflict. I’ll let readers judge the ultimate merits of my mash-up between Joseph Smith and Adam Smith, but hopefully it’s worth taking a look at it. Along the way, I offer a critical reading of some nineteenth-century Zion building that may interest Mormon history nerds, particularly those enamored of Leonard Arrington’s work. Enjoy! Here’s the abstract and a link to the article: Doux Commerce in the City of God: Trade…

Announcement: Faith & Knowledge Conference at UVa

THE FIFTH BIENNIAL FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE CONFERENCE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA FEBRUARY 27-28, 2015 The Faith and Knowledge Conference was established in 2006 to bring together LDS graduate students in religious studies and related disciplines in order to explore the interactions between religious faith and scholarship. During the past four conferences, students have shared their experiences in the church and the academy and the new ideas that have emerged as a result. Papers and conversations provided thought-provoking historical, exegetical, and theoretical insights and compelling models of how to reconcile one’s discipleship with scholarly discipline. In keeping with these past objectives, we invite graduate students and early career scholars in religious studies and related disciplines (e.g., women’s studies, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, literature, etc.) to join the conversation. We welcome proposals addressing historical, exegetical, and theoretical issues that arise from the intersections of LDS religious experience and academic scholarship. Final papers presented at the conference should be brief, pointed comments…

Discussion, Advocacy, and Some Thoughts on Practical Reasoning

I am saddened by Kate Kelly’s excommunication. I wish that events had played out differently. Excommunication in this case strikes me as the worst outcome for all concerned, although obviously my opinion on this matter does not – and should not – matter. I believe her when she says that the decision is extremely painful for her and her family. They have my sympathy and my prayers. I do worry that part of the public meaning that she and her supporters are assigning to her excommunication is both inaccurate and potentially destructive. In her letter to her bishop, she wrote: Please keep in mind that if you choose to punish me today, you are not only punishing me. You are punishing hundreds of women and men who have questions about female ordination, and have publicly stated them. You are punishing thousands of Mormons who have questions and concerns with gender inequality in the church and want a place to voice…

Why is the Church Handbook of Instructions not Public?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Let me suggest some possibilities: Perhaps the Brethren are worried that publishing the Handbook will encourage people to treat it as a legal text. There are two possible problems with this. It might then encourage people to use deviation from the Handbook to attack priesthood leaders, when the Handbook is merely intended to orient them in particular ways not necessarily limit their ability to deviate. Alternatively, treating the Handbook as a legal text might discourage members from approaching issues prayerfully and flexibly rather than legalistically. By keeping it private, the thinking might go, we limit its public authority as a text and thus limit legalism. The problem, it seems to me, is that it tends to function as a legal text anyway, just a problematic one because it is not public. Perhaps the Brethren are worried that the deep secrets of the Church will be revealed if the Handbook is made public…

Some Thoughts on Church Courts

Karen Hall has an interesting post on church courts that’s worth reading. Her basic point is that church courts fail to comply with some rule of law norms. I would quibble with some of her points. For example I think she slips from the idea of rule of law to the narrower idea of an adversarial judicial process involving juries. Most of the world, however, uses the civil law system which has no juries and uses an inquisitorial rather than adversarial structure. (I do not mean inquisitorial to be pejorative. It simply means a system where the judge actively inquires into the case rather than passively judging a contest.) Still, I think that she makes some valid points about how procedures might be improved. In some important ways, however, I think it misses some key issues. The kind of process Karen lauds serves two functions. First, it generates legitimacy for judicial outcomes. Second, it improves the quality of judicial determinations.…

Elliot Rodger, Sex, the Good Life, and the Peril of Rights

There are certain things that we need and desire. Among these is love and sex. I conjoin two words, but I mean it to refer to a single whole, the embodied connection of affection, commitment, and pleasure that comes in the mutual giving of two people of themselves to each other. That. It’s a longing that has deep roots in biology and human experience. It seems a good candidate for a necessary component of a good life. The problem comes when that truth – that a good and complete life includes love and sex – combines with our dominant moral discourse, the discourse of rights. Consider Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago who has spent the last couple of decades thinking about the links between development and human rights. She has produced something that she calls capabilities theory. The idea is that when we think about what society owes us, what our fundamental rights are, we should…

The Message of Mormonism (pt. 2): Angels, Visions, Prophets, and Gifts of the Spirit

In my last post I talked about Mormonism as an answer to the question, “Which church is true?” and suggested that this question has only been compelling on a large scale in fairly limited circumstances. I ought to note here that I am not trying to come up with some kind of general explanation for why people adopt religions or even of church growth in general. I am just interested in the kinds of messages that we have given about the Restoration and why those messages might or might not be compelling in differing social contexts. Another message on which preaching the Restoration has relied is one that emphasizes the continuation of the supernatural world of the scriptures in the present. This is the message of angelic visitors, gold plates, the gifts of the spirit, continuing revelation, and a re-established and literal Israel preparing the world for an imminent second coming. It promises to believers a religious life filled with…

The Message of Mormonism (pt. 1): Which Church is True?

This is the first in a series of posts in which I lay out some of my thoughts on what Mormonism’s message to the world has been and what it might become in the next generation or two. It’s a big topic, and I’m likely to yammer on at some length. You have been warned. Since the beginning of the Restoration Mormonism’s central message to the world has been “Join us!” We are and have always been a missionary religion. From an internal perspective missionary work serves three basic purposes. The first is to assist individuals work out their cosmic salvation by persuading them to make and keep sacred covenants under the authority of the priesthood as instructed by God. The second is to make the lives of converts in the here-and-now better by giving them a set of disciplines that will allow them to avoid much of the misery of the world for themselves and their families. Finally, missionary…

So Who Gets a Press Conference in Front of the Tabernacle?

One of the aspects of the Church’s recent statement to OW regarding the priesthood session that strikes me as eminently sensible is the insistence that OW not invite media on to Temple Square and confine their demonstrations to public property. It’s worth noting that the letter didn’t say that OW members could not come on to Temple Square as worshipers. It said that they couldn’t conduct a press conference in front of the Tabernacle during a General Conference session. There are three reasons that this makes good sense to me. First, inviting television crews onto Temple Square and holding a press conference during a session of General Conference actually is inconsistent with the spirit of the event. This really isn’t a difficult call. We are not talking about wearing pants to church. (Something that I didn’t even realize was a thing until it was a thing.) We are talking about a media event. On Temple Square. In front of the…

A Discarded Draft

The following draft of a letter was discovered in the waste paper basket at the Church Public Affairs Office:* Dear Sister Kelly, We have received your request for a ticket to attend the Priesthood Session of April General Conference. The purpose of this session is to provide instruction from Church leaders specifically for men and boys. Each year the Church receives more requests for tickets from men and boys than it can accommodate. Accordingly, your request for tickets is refused. We appreciate your desire to hear from Church leaders, however, and invite you to watch the live broadcast of the meeting and the other sessions of General Conference. We welcome your interest in finding ways that the Church can better serve its female members. God loves and values all of his children, and the Church is always eager to find additional ways of advancing His work. By divine revelation, the priesthood is conferred only on men. The leaders of the…

Some Ironies of Continuing Revelation

I was recently having a conversation with an orthodox Jewish law professor about the challenges faced by Mormons and orthodox Jews as they seek to adapt their religion to life in liberal societies. He was struck by the parallels between Jewish and Mormon discussions, and then said, “Of course, I assume that the idea of continuing revelation makes things much different for Mormons.” His comment got me thinking, and here’s what I wrote in response: Chaim, You’d think that ideas of continuing revelation would make discussions of change — including basic theological and liturgical change — easier for Mormons, and in a sense it does. However, there are two reasons that the idea of continuing revelation provides less flexibility than many folks — including many Mormons — assume. First, very early on in the church ideas of personal revelation and continuing revelation led to antinomian chaos. This isn’t that surprising to anyone that has studied the history of religion. In…

Why Equality is a Feeling

This is a little long. Bear with me. “Equality is not a feeling” has emerged as something of a slogan among some Mormon feminists. It’s offered as a reply to those who insist that many (most?) Mormon women feel loved and valued within the Church, aren’t pushing for radical reforms, or the like. These women don’t feel unequal. But, equality is not a feeling. What might it mean to say that equality isn’t a feeling? It seems to me that there are two possible ways of understanding this claim. The first is that equality is an objective, empirical judgment rather than a normative or psychological judgment. This strikes me as wrong. Equality always involves normative judgment. To say that things are equal is not to say that they are the same. Rather it is to say that like things are being treated alike. We must make judgments, however, as to what makes two things alike. In doing this we pick…

Some Thoughts on the Inevitable Failure of the Ordain Women Movement

It’s hard to know the future, but I will hazard a prediction: the Ordain Women project will fail. If I understand its ambitions correctly, Ordain Women would define success as an announcement that the prophet, having followed the invitation of these faithfully agitating sisters, has gone to the Lord and has received a revelation that women are to be ordained to the priesthood. I don’t know if women will ever be ordained to the priesthood, but I would be shocked if this was to happen while any institutional breath breathed in the Ordain Women movement. There are two reasons for this. The first is that for pragmatic reasons Church leaders do not want to change basic doctrines or practices in response to what they see as attempts to publically embarrass the Church over its basic doctrines and practices. Doing so creates an incentive for others to seek to publically embarrass the Church. I suspect that Church leaders also worry that…

Brandon Flowers and the Song of Redeeming Love

This is going to meander a bit at first but bear with me. Each semester I have to grade something like 1,340,567 pages of student exams. It is horrible. To dull the pain, I pick a new music group each semester as my “grading discovery.” Last semester I picked Brandon Flowers and the Killers. I’d never paid much attention to them, but I got interested after I saw Brandon Flowers’s “I am a Mormon” video spot. It was a happy discovery. I like them. Much to my surprise a long-time friend of mine, an accomplished lawyer and former stake president, also recently discovered Flowers’s music through his daughter. After hearing that I was enjoying the Killers, he sent me a long and fascinating email with his theological interpretations of Brandon Flowers’s lyrics, which he finds filled with Mormon ideas. For example, in “Crossfire,” a song about a man rescued by his love he finds a reference to the Mormon interpretation…

Intellectual Disaffection and “The Biggest Tax Cut in History”

There are lots of stories on the Internet about people who have discovered things about Mormon history and left the Church. Indeed, these kinds of exit narratives have reached the point of cultural saliency that the New York Times and other media outlets have picked up on the story. I have repeatedly read or heard people claim that we are in the midst of an unprecedented wave of intellectual apostasy. I am skeptical. Before I explain why, I hasten to add that I have absolutely no doubt that many people learn things about Mormon history that they did not know and have a crisis of faith. I think that the Church as an institution and Mormon culture in general could do a much better job of talking and teaching about the Mormon past. I have great sympathy toward those that have such faith crises and to a certain extent I have been through something like them myself. That said, I…

Men, Women, and Priesthood Session

priesthood session

In case you haven’t heard, members of the Ordain Women movement tried to attend the priesthood session of general conference and were turned away. I think that turning them away was a mistake, but I also think that it would be a bad idea for women to begin attending the priesthood session of conference. First, why I think excluding Ordain Women was a mistake. I can understand why Church authorities would turn away the Ordain Women activists. The rationale, it seems to me, would be something along the lines of, “This is an attempt to turn a sacred meeting into an organized media event designed to embarrass the Church into changing its doctrine. We don’t want to encourage this group or other groups to use Church meetings in this way.” I understand and appreciate that reasoning, but I think in this case it was mistaken. As a threshold matter, regardless the meeting was going to be used as a media…

Chastity and Virginity

I have been trying to think through Elizabeth Smart’s remarks about chewed up gum and the way that we teach chastity to our youth. I have never heard the chewed up gum analogy, but I remember stories about cupcakes passed around and similar visual aids. I always thought there was something ugly about these lessons. It seems to me that the fundamental problem with all of these analogies is that they equate chastity with virginity. Virginity by definition is something that once lost is never regained. Historically, it has also been associated with a whole bunch of disturbing male attitudes towards women. In some contexts female virginity is literally a piece of property that can be sold to men titillated by the prospect of deflowering a virgin. There has never been a comparable treatment of male virginity. For example, historically a lot of legal systems have allowed parties to a marriage contract to back out of the deal if the…

Why Gay Marriages are a Good Idea but Marriage Equality Worries Me

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8. I sat down to write a blog post about my thoughts on gay marriage and kept writing and writing and writing. You can read the results here. Like a lot of Latter-day Saints, I have spent a fair amount of time during the last two decades thinking about gay marriage. For better or for worse, it has been one of the main conundrums of Mormon intellectual discussions for my entire adult life. This essay is an attempt to distill my thinking and conclusions. (At least thus far.) Ultimately, I think that gay marriage is a good idea. I think that recognizing gay marriage has the potential to create stronger gay families and a better environment to grow up in for the children of homosexuals. It also carries within itself the possibility for an ethic of gay chastity, which ultimately strikes me as…

The Case Against Scouting

bsa

I think that the Church should end its relationship with the Scouting program, but not for the reasons you might think. No, this isn’t a post about homosexuality or even about gender equity, or at least about gender equity as it usually gets discussed on this issue. Indeed, in many ways, I think that girls are served better by the Church than are boys. This is because I think that in many ways that YW program is superior to the YM program. It is true that in some units more gets spent per young men than per young women. This issue is actually extremely complicated and varies from unit to unit. The complexity comes from the fact that youth spending comes from a variety of budgets at both the ward and the stake level and you need to include all sources of funding to get a clear sense of per capita budgeting. (Yes, I have got many headaches tying to…

A Letter to a Friend

Below is the text of a letter that I wrote about a year ago to a close friend who was in the midst of a crisis of faith.  I have edited it to remove any identifying information: Dear Friend, It was a pleasure to talk with you earlier.  I am sorry to hear about the spiritual and intellectual difficulties that you have been struggling with.  You are — quite literally — in my prayers.  I have thought a great deal about what you told me of your struggles with faith and the Restoration.  I hesitate to offer any advice or “solutions” to your difficulties, both because I don’t know precisely what troubles you and because I realize that when one opens up the hurting parts of one’s soul often a sympathetic listener rather than a fix-it guy is what is of most value.  With that apology, let me offer a couple of thoughts. I don’t think that a faithful life…

Another Surreply

Over at FMH, rah has a post responding to my “How Mormonism Changes” post.  As I read it, she has basically three objections to my post.  First, she insists that I misunderstand the motivations of liberal Mormons, which are grounded in genuine love and concern for others rather than ideological embarrassment.  Second, she suggests that historically the priesthood ban’s elimination had more to do with evolution within the hierarchy than it did with progression of the membership of the church.  Third, she claims that the model of prophecy I propose is mistaken or the like because it does not appear in the scriptures.  Here are some thoughts in responses. First, on the historical issue I actually agree with her.  I think that creating unanimity among the highest leadership made it very difficult to abandon the priesthood ban.  There was certainly a lot of racist theology taught in justification of the ban that ought to be examined and rejected.  What is interesting to me…

A Surreply to TT’s Critique of “How Mormonism Changes”

At Faith Promoting Rumor TT has a legthy response to my last post on how Mormonism changes. It’s worth a read and you should go over a take a look. I actually agree with a lot of what he says, but I’d like to push back on a couple of things. First, he writes: “Unity” of the church is selective, not a neutral category, one that excludes some in order to manufacture unity. That is, even the choice to “preserve” unity comes with costs measured in exclusion. There are a couple of ways of understanding this. It could just be saying that maintaining unity has costs, it is not an absolute good, and that those costs are not evenly borne. Delaying the abandonment of the priesthood ban had costs for Black Latter-day Saints and for potential converts and members pushed away by the ban. If this is what he is saying, then I completely agree. Maintaining unity has costs. (More…

How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations

One of the things that the Mormon interwebs do is imagine change within the Church, lament the lack of change within the Church, and (at times) agitate for change within the Church. Certainly there is historical precedent for change within the Church, the most dramatic recent example being the 1978 abandonment of the Church’s racial priesthood ban. This is an example worth thinking about. First, the shift came relatively late if you super-impose the Mormon timeline on the civil rights timeline in the United States. The Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1950s, although it didn’t do much to actually end it. During the same period, Martin Luther King’s mass movement was getting under way. By the 1960s you had rioting and – not coincidentally – congressional action. By the early to mid-1970s segregation was thoroughly discredited and almost all of its formal structures had been dismantled. Hence, for many a Mormon – especially those of a liberal variety…