Category: Features

Sunday School lessons – Book Reviews – Interviews

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…

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…

‘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.

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.

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and…

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the…

Clark Goble on deck.

We’re delighted to welcome Clark Goble back to T&S! Clark grew up in Canada in that part that appears like a strange looking foot extending south and east of Maine. There in the city of Halifax he watched the church grow from a small branch into numerous wards eventually even getting a temple. His father taught physics there which must have been addictive since both Clark and his brother studied physics as well. Clark always dreamt of going on a foreign mission and prayed that this would be so. He soon realized that God both had a sense of humor and that it was tied to overly literal interpretations of prayers when he was sent from Canada to Louisiana. Upon returning to BYU Clark decided he had a masochistic streak and studied mathematics, physics and philosophy until being informed by numerous letters that he had far too many credits to be allowed to continue at BYU. During this era Clark…

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

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(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had…

Conference Theme: No Trouble Here, Move Along

After a turbulent six months, many were expecting some bold declarations at this weekend’s General Conference. That did not come to pass. Just a few weeks ago, Elder Ballard directed CES teachers to stop teaching folklore, stop evading tough questions from students, and start reading publications by faithful LDS scholars. In his Saturday afternoon Conference talk, Elder Ballard talked about … family councils. Late last year, President Nelson announced that what has become known as “the Exclusion Policy” was not a policy, it was a revelation and is here to stay. In his Priesthood session talk, President Nelson talked about … the role of men in the Church. Elder Steven E. Snow, the Church Historian, talked not about one of the Gospel Topics essays that addresses a key issue in LDS history but about the LDS hymnal and humility. The theme for this Conference seems to be: Don’t rock the boat. Nothing controversial here. Perhaps it is a good time…

Go the Distance

Migrants reach out for bread distributed by volunteers, at a border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia, in Trnovec, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have spent the night in rain and cold at Croatia's border after being refused entry into Slovenia.   (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

I was struck in yesterday’s morning conference session by the quotation Elder Renlund gave, “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” What gave me pause at this, since I agree with the statement, is a simple question: What do we do about the distance? This seems like a crucial question. Elder Renlund points out that this is the reason why the Church’s welfare system is designed for those in needs to seek help from family first, and then from their local leaders–i.e., from their ward and branch. But it doesn’t seem to me like this solves enough of the distance between givers and recievers; I see lots of distance within wards and branches, and sometimes even within families. Too often givers and receivers simply have completely different viewpoints and even different cultures. I have wrestled with understanding the issues and principles surrounding welfare and giving support to those…

Entitled

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I very much enjoyed Elder Renlund’s comments on entitlement. First, because he made clear one of the reasons why we should be very conscientious about how we give help. It affects the receiver’s spiritual progression. Second, the King Benjamin-esque tie-in to all of us who, like any Church welfare recipient, are beggars before God. Lastly, because while he laid into bad attitudes, whining, and murmuring, his central story was about someone missing the sacrament. A story whose happy ending relied upon a saint telling the Branch President, one hopes charitably, that a priesthood holder, a deacon in this case, made a mistake in performing his calling. And a Branch President who took care to see that mistake corrected. Because people do make mistakes. I think there was an implicit lesson, secondary to the main one about the Sacrament and the Savior, that we can and should give leaders information to help them correct mistakes. We just need to do it…

“A Supreme Act of Love”

This past Sunday, we covered chapter 6 of the Howard W. Hunter manual titled “The Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The lesson quotes President Hunter as saying that the Atonement “was an act of love by our Heavenly Father to permit his Only Begotten to make an atoning sacrifice. And it was a supreme act of love by his beloved Son to carry out the Atonement.” We lingered on this section for a while, which prompted me to comment. I recalled how I had been asked before, “What does the Atonement mean to you personally?” (Or something along those lines.) This is obviously a deep and rather broad question, but for me, the Atonement sends at least one major message: I’m worth something. I rest this largely on the evangelical favorite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In an ancient world full…

Transformation and Flourishing: A Secular Age, Round 2

(Link to Round 1) This post revisits the theme of fullness from Taylor’s introduction that I mentioned briefly in the last post. In the universal quest for the “good life”—the telos that determines what makes life valuable and what is the normative way to live— Taylor distinguishes the believer and the unbeliever by where they locate this fullness (the transcendent or the immanent frame), and what fullness entails (transformation or flourishing). What does Taylor mean by “transformation” and “flourishing”? In short, flourishing is the perfection or fulfillment of our “human material” (i.e. sexual fulfillment, security and success, health and prosperity, etc.), while transformation entails a “radical change in identity” that “takes us beyond merely human perfection”—or requires its very renunciation– in the name of a higher good. More specifically, “the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case…to the point of the extinction of self in one case [Buddhism],…

Conditions of Belief in A Secular Age: Secular Age Round 1

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I finished Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age last summer, and it was one of those books that you finish reading and the world feels like an entirely different place. In this book, Taylor examines not only the emergence of Western secularism, but the experience of living in it. His project is phenomenological as much as it is genealogical; tracing the winding paths and new terrain that deposited us in this creedally pluralistic society, while also examining the pathos, the uncertainty, the limitations and fruits of navigating our way through the midst of many plausible alternatives of how to believe and how to live.  For this reason, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening, but spiritually awakening. In this series of blog posts, I hope to sketch some of his insights and observations on the history of our secular condition and the “cross-pressures” we experience within it. I will interweave some musings on some of the implications for or intersections with [my…

Introducing Rachael Givens Johnson

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I’m pleased to introduce Rachael Givens Johnson as a guest blogger here at Times And Seasons. Rachael will be doing a series of posts on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Rachael is a PhD candidate in the history department of the University of Virginia. She studies Baroque Catholicism in the Iberian Enlightenment and is writing a dissertation on how marginal social groups preserved corporeal, communal religious practices. She’s blogged at Peculiar People and Juvenile Instructor, and lives in Charlottesville with her hubs, Bryce, and their two cats until archival research takes them to fun and exotic places (gods of the grants be willing). Rachael is the daughter of Terryl and Fiona Givens (which also makes her my sister.) Her first post will be up shortly!

The Influence of the Book of Mormon on the Mormon Temple

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One of Joseph Smith’s earliest impulses was to build temples. Just 5 months after the Church’s organization, September 1830, Smith sent a delegation to the west to the Lamanites, but also, according to the delegation’s leader Oliver Cowdery, “to rear up a pillar as a witness where the Temple of God shall be built, in the glorious New-Jerusalem.” This was an unusual quest in a world of cathedrals, basilicas, chapels, and synagogues. “During the course of his life,” wrote Richard Bushman, “[Joseph Smith] never built a standard meetinghouse, even in Nauvoo, where the Mormon population exceeded 10,000.” Smith’s singular temple impulse was remarkable, but defining what temple worship should be in a modern world was a mystifying challenge. Smith saw his role as a restorer of truths once lost. But where could he turn for inspiration? To heaven for sure, but what would he restore since, according to Christian tradition, the purpose of the ancient temple had been fulfilled with…

The Provenance of Mormon Baptism

Mikveh in Herodium, late Second Temple period, approximately 69 CE. Photo by Deror avi.

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Gerald Smith covering the release of his book Schooling the Prophet, How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration. Read the first one here. Fifteen years ago a professor friend of mine at Boston College – a Jesuit Catholic university – walked into my office and asked a puzzling question: Why did the Catholic Church not recognize Mormon baptisms? It recognized the baptisms of other Protestant faiths – Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc., but not Mormon. Thus a Methodist converting to Catholicism, for example, would not need to be baptized again; however a Mormon converting to Catholicism would. What could explain this unusual policy? After all some Protestants baptize by immersion just as Mormons do – for example, Baptists or Adventists. The Mormon baptismal prayer invokes the name of Jesus Christ and concludes in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, invoking the Godhead,…

The Provenance of Mormonism

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Thank you Nathaniel for your introduction, and thank you to Times & Seasons for the opportunity to share my thoughts and observations with you. A curious paradox of modern Mormonism is how Mormons and non-Mormons frame its heritage. Mormonism appeared in early nineteenth century North America as a new religion amidst a largely Protestant setting. Joseph Smith proclaimed new revelation – the First Vision of 1820; followed by a vibrant stream of additional revelations in the decades that followed; and new scripture – the Book of Mormon – introduced in the visions of Moroni beginning in 1823. All of this leads naturally to an outsider’s framing of Mormonism as a revealed religion, but less so as a historical religion with a palpable religious provenance or lineage tracing back through time to an original source. Thus Yale scholar Harold Bloom admired Joseph Smith as an imaginative genius, but he dismissed the Book of Mormon as Joseph’s “first work; it is the…

Introducing Gerald Smith

Schooling the Prophet

I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Gerald Smith for a round of guest posts here at Times & Seasons. He will be sharing a series of posts about his new book, Schooling the Prophet, How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration (published by BYU Press and the Maxwell Institute.) I was lucky enough to be an early reader for the project, and was really struck by his unique approach to studying the Book of Mormon and how it had shaped the views and beliefs of Joseph Smith. Outside of Mormon studies, Dr. Smith is a business professor at Boston College in the Carroll School of Management, advisor to American and European business leaders, and advisor to leaders and administrators in education. He is an award-winning teacher and has been featured in leading executive programs at corporations and universities throughout the world. In business his latest book, The Opt-Out Effect: Marketing Strategies that Empower Consumers and Win…

Beatus Vir

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 10434, fol. 17r.

Throughout the middle ages, the popularity of the Book of Psalms caused it to be reproduced in Latin as a separate volume of devotional literature called the Psalter. In medieval manuscripts, the opening phrase of Psalm 1, “Beatus vir,” was often richly decorated, as in this example from the thirteenth-century. The Latin Beatus is related to the modern English words beatific and beatitude and translates as happy or blessed. Vir is the Latin word for man with variations persisting in modern language: virile, virtue, and virtuoso. The King James Version of the Psalms (which did not exist yet in the middle ages) opens with the close English equivalent “Blessed is the man.” The university library in Utrecht preserves an early ninth-century manuscript of the Psalter, likely originating from the family of Charlemagne. This rare volume, known today as the Utrecht Psalter, is unique in that it presents pen-drawing illustrations for each of the 150 psalms. It recently became available online,…

The Sabbath Day: Its Meaning and Observance

This was a talk I gave a month or so ago as part of High Council Sunday. In preparation for this talk, I read through Elder Nelson’s April Conference address on the Sabbath, in which he stated, “I am intrigued by the words of Isaiah, who called the Sabbath “a delight.” Yet,” he continued, “I wonder, is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?”[1] Well, Joseph Smith revealed that the Lord’s day should consist of “confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12), so here’s my confession: the answer to Elder Nelson’s question, for me personally and on average, is a big No. My Sabbath experience has often been far from a delight. Maybe some of you can relate to this. For one, I work every other weekend. Half of my Sabbaths each year are typical workdays. But even those I have off don’t fend much better. I end up leaving church with…

The General Conference Mirth Index – Take 2

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I always enjoy the opportunity to laugh a little bit in general conference. In January, I introduced the General Conference Mirth Index (for the October 2014 conference), which sums up the number of laughs for each talk. As we enter into the next General Conference this weekend, let’s see how much laughing we did last April. A quick recap. To calculate this, I listen to each conference talk and record the number of instances of laughter that I hear. (Note that I’m not counting jokes or judging what is a joke; I’m only counting what induces laughter.) I listen to each talk in the language in which it was delivered, since the English voiceover often covers the laughter. I then adjust by the length of the talk. This has limitations – it weighs equally Elder Gibson’s chuckle from not eating dinner with Elder Pearson’s medium-sized laugh from #spaciousbuilding. Big picture. More than half the talks had at least one laugh…

Introducing Meg Conley

Utah wedding and portrait photography

I am excited to introduce Meg Conley as our newest guest-blogger here at Times and Seasons! Meg Conley is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in topics of womanhood and motherhood. Her website, megconley.com, is quickly becoming a nationally recognized platform for women’s issues and day to day inspiration. She has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline and The Steve Harvey Show. Her writing regularly appears on The Huffington Post. She is also, as she puts it, “the mother of two sparkling girls and married to the kind of man that lights the days.” I’ve been a big fan of Meg’s writing for a long time now, and I’ve been consistently nagging her to write for Times and Seasons. She will be joining us for two posts a month over the next two months. I’ve already read her first post, and it’s great. I hope y’all enjoy her pieces as much as I do.

Data, Doctrines, & Doubts: Improving Gospel Instruction

I’m grateful for the invitation and excited to participate here at Times & Seasons. The following is a talk I gave in our recent Stake General Priesthood meeting as the newly called Stake Sunday School President. While many of the ideas below were conceived independently, I was heavily influenced by some of Ben Spackman’s writings (especially the quotes) when it came to their final form. Big thanks to him. I’ve been asked to speak tonight on improving gospel instruction in the home and at church. So much time could be dedicated to analyzing the best teaching methods and the how-to of engaging gospel lessons. However, I will forgo these particulars partially due to time constraints, but mainly because they don’t really get to the heart of the matter. There are plenty of resources provided by the Church that can assist us in improving the mechanics of our teaching. Manuals like Teaching, No Greater Call or Preach My Gospel as well as Leadership and Teaching tutorials…

Introducing Walker Wright

After citing him on multiple occasions here at Times and Seasons (for example here and here), I’m very pleased to announce that Walker Wright will be joining us for a guest blogging stint. Walker is an MBA student at the University of North Texas, and his primary interests are in the theology of work and sacralizing the mundane. Walker has written for Square Two, presented at Sunstone, Mormon Transhumanist Association, Faith & Knowledge, and Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, and is contributing a chapter to Julie Smith’s forthcoming Come, Let Us Reason Together: Dialogues with Scripture. He also blogs at Difficult Run, Worlds Without End, and at his own blog The Slow Hunch.

Review: First Principles and Ordinances

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I’m going to say some nice things about Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, published in 2014 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. But first some background. This short book (153 pages of text) is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series, which also includes Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. What I like about both books is that they take a relentlessly positive approach to the LDS doctrines and principles they discuss but avoid the oversimplified discussion that has become the norm for the LDS curriculum and mainstream LDS books. These are books directed at the intelligent Mormon reader.

Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding

You have probably heard about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015; publisher’s page) by Brian C. and Laura H. Hales. It has been getting a lot of attention, coming as it does in the wake of the recently released polygamy essays at LDS.org. Furthermore, the book follows the three-volume treatment of the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, authored by Brian C. Hales and (for volumes 1 and 2) Don Bradley and also published by Kofford. Not having read the three volumes, I assume the 100 pages of narrative text in this shorter volume, along with the 75 pages of biographical sketches of the 35 women who were, in one sense or another, plural wives of Joseph Smith, are something like a summary of the material discussed at greater length in the three longer volumes. An abridgement, if you will.

GenConf: Sunday Afternoon Session

Choir: He Is Risen President Uchtdorf conducted this opening session. Choir: My Redeemer Lives Invocation: S. Gilford Nielsen Choir: He Sent His Son Elder Robert D. Hales: Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom The blessings we enjoy now are because we made the choice to follow the Savior before this life. To everyone hearing or reading these words, whoever you are and whatever your past may be, remember this: it is not too late to make that same choice again and follow Him. As we walk the path of spiritual liberty in these last days, we must understand that the faithful use of our agency depends upon our having religious freedom. No one should be criticized, persecuted, or attacked by individuals or governments for what he or she believes about God. Some are offended when we bring our religion into the public square yet the same people who insist that their viewpoints and actions be tolerated in society are often very slow…

Sunday Morning Session of General Conference

President Eyring is conducting this session of Conference, with music by the Tabernacle Choir. Invocation by Sister Linda S. Reeves, Relief Society Second Counselor. Benediction by Elder Kevin S. Hamilton of the Seventy. For this on-the-fly summary, text in quotation marks is a direct quote of a speaker, subject to correction when transcripts are available; other text is my summary of remarks by a speaker; and text in brackets [like this] is my own helpful commentary.

GenConf: Priesthood Session Notes

President Uchtdorf conducted this opening session. Choir: For the Strength of the Hills Invocation: David L. Beck Choir: On This Day of Joy and Gladness President M. Russell Ballard: The Greatest Generation of Young Adults I know I speak for my brethren when I tell you that we wish it was possible for us to know all of you personally, and to be able to tell you that we love you and we support you. … what we need now is the greatest generation of young adults in the history of the Church. We need your whole heart and soul. We need vibrant, thinking, passionate young adults who know how to listen and respond to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit as you make your way through the daily trials and temptations of being a young contemporary Latter-day Saint. … it’s time to raise the bar not only for missionaries, but also for returned missionaries and for your entire generation. I…