Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

American Mormons Aren’t Leaving the GOP, the GOP is Leaving Us

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Believe me, no one wants to write about the Trump campaign (yet again) less than I do. However, events last week might have long-term consequences for the position of Mormonism in American society, and I thought it was worth a little bit of a look. The story starts with a major shake-up in the Trump campaign. As the NYT reported last week: Paul Manafort is out; Stephen K. Bannon is in. So, who are these two folks, and what do they have to do with Mormons? Paul Manafort is famous for, among other things, working to rehabilitate the image and career of Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is the authoritarian, pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was ousted in that country’s Orange Revolution. Manafort is the guy who was hired to get Yanukovych back in power. He overhauled Yanukovych’s image from clothes and haircut to people-skills, as this Slate article details. Surely, the idea went, if Manafort  could sell Yanukovych, he could also sell…

Eschatology or How it’s Always the End of Days

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Eschatology is the study of the end times. It’s hard to read much of the New Testament, Book of Mormon or even Doctrine and Covenants without noticing how much is focused on the end of the world. As some have recently noted a common refrain in the Church since it’s early days is how the end times are always nigh. In the 19th century many Mormons thought the Jesus would come before the 20th century. When I was a kid, we were constantly told we were a generation prepared for the last days. Most people thought a conflict between the USSR and America was inevitable. While all the apocalyptic movies from the 80’s now seem quaint (despite a resurgent Mad Max last year) it really was a time when people fully expected the end of the world. Is this pessimism though? I’m not sure it is. 

Musement and Alma 30

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One of the more controversial arguments in the Book of Mormon is found within Alma’s response to Korihor in Alma 30. Korihor asks Alma to “show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea show unto me that he hath power….” (43) Alma responds that “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (44) Most people cast this debate as between the humanist skeptic of religion and the believer. Alma’s response is thus seen as a variation on Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God. Paley argued that if we found a watch on the ground we’d assume an engineer had designed it. In the same way creation makes us assume a creator. Now the argument…

How is the Church True?

I regularly see people complain about common LDS phrases such as “I know the Church is True” or “I know the Book of Mormon is True.” People often think these sentences are meaningless. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the way we speak in this context is alien to our fellow Christians. Pedagogically it’s perhaps not the best terminology to use in trying to help people gain a testimony. I do think the sentences are completely sensical though and that most people have a reasonable grasp on what they mean. Usually if you ask someone who’s used the sentence, they’ll rephrase it as “this is really God’s Church on earth.” Part of the problem is that culturally we’ve largely adopted a way of speaking that comes out of philosophy. This largely starts with Aristotle. Truth is a property of propositions (the meaning of sentences) and not entities like churches, books or the like. Remnants of earlier ways of…

Reminder: SMPT Submissions due August 15

Paper proposals for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology’s 2016 Annual Meeting are due soon—Monday, August 15. Proposals are particularly invited on the theme, “Christ, Our Forerunner,” but proposals on any aspect of LDS belief will receive full consideration. For full details on the conference and the call for papers, see the original announcement.

Book Review: The Mormon Jesus

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I remain fundamentally unconvinced of the book’s central claim and argument, and am personally ambivalent about it—though in that I’m surely in the minority amongst Mormons (rank-and-file and all the rest) whom I suspect will heartily cheer the book’s primary claim: Mormonism, taken as a whole in it’s historic trajectory, is patently Christian.

What Was the Nephite Law of Moses?

Most scholars assume that the type of Judaism Jesus encountered had its main development during and after the Babylonian exile. When we read the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses, it appears as if they were written as a single text. However there are compelling reasons to believe they were composed out of multiple texts and traditions by groups with competing religious views. The Book of Mormon itself suggests problems with the editing and redacting of these texts. Speaking of the Bible held by the gentiles, Nephi is told it “containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many.” (1 Ne 13:23) So at a minimum the brass plates held many writings not in the Bible, such as Zenos quoted by Jacob. Obviously many texts like Ezekiel weren’t written until after Lehi had left Jerusalem.

Don’t free BYU

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Brigham Young University requires LDS students who leave the church to withdraw from the university. While some people have lobbied for change, this policy is in the best interest of the students – both those who stay and those who leave – and should stay in place.

SMPT Conference October 13-15th, 2016: “Christ, Our Forerunner”

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will hold its 2016 Annual Meeting on October 13-15th at BYU, with the theme, “Christ, Our Forerunner.” Below is the text of the call for papers (adjusted for blog format), or click here for a printable PDF version. The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology invites paper proposals on any aspect of Mormon belief, including its philosophical ramifications. We particularly encourage submissions on this year’s theme. Jesus Christ stands at the center of Mormon belief, understood through many roles, as co-creator of the earth, as the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the bringer of the new covenant, as redeemer from sin and forerunner into the presence of the Father (Hebrews 6:20, 9:24), among others. In some ways the Mormon understanding of Christ aligns closely with that of other Christians, while in other ways it differs dramatically. Who is this Jesus, and why is it vital for us to know him? Topics falling…

Wherefore Should Not the Heavens Weep?

Photo of the statue "Jesus Wept" at the Oklahoma City Memorial by Crimsonedge34.

Jacob Baker began a long, public Facebook post this way: I’m willing to bet that there are many people out there right now feeling conflicted about the mass murder that happened yesterday. I’m not talking about the outspoken blatant homophobes and bigots, but essentially good people who find themselves somewhat confused by this tragic event. He went on to allege that such people have less empathy for the victims of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando because of a “feeling of disapproval or discomfort” that is “cultivated within your religion.” Thus, such people feel “both compassion and disgust.” An early commenter replied that this “mirrors some of my own experience” and explained that his views on the LGBT community changed as a result of “realizing that they are very honest, genuine people who want many of the same things I want and who struggle in life just as I do.” In a similar vein, Lindsay Hansen Park publicly shared her…

“A Preparatory Redemption,” June 15, Berkeley CA

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“A Preparatory Redemption: Reading Alma 13” The Third Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology Conference is free and open to the public Wednesday, June 15, 9am-5pm The Chapel of the Great Commission The Graduate Theological Union 1798 Scenic Avenue Berkeley, CA 94709 Sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar  in partnership with  The Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and the Wheatley Institution Hosted by the Graduate Theological Union Speakers include: Kristeen Black Matthew Bowman Rosemary Demos David Gore Bridget Jeffries Adam Miller Bob Rees Joseph Spencer Sheila Taylor

The Gospels and Rape Culture

By Andrey Mironov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Despite the fact that the term rape culture–and the increasing attention devoted to it–are recent developments, that does not mean that the stories of the life of Jesus have nothing to say about the topic. In fact, there is quite a bit of material in the gospels which is relevant to the current discussion.

Reading Nephi – 14:8-17 part I

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The angel begins by reminding or interrogating or raising the covenants of the House of Israel. I’m not sure the angel’s intent. Is this pedagogical priming? Is it interrogation? Is it a test, with the angel serving as guardian or gate-keeper, not allowing Nephi to pass on to the next part of the vision until he’s proven his gnosis? Is it the divine teaching that incorporates Socrates’s great insight that knowledge begins with acknowledgment of ignorance?

DesNews Expanding Beyond Mormons

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It’s no secret that in the ever increasingly unstable newspaper market that the Deseret New has been trying to increase it’s market beyond both Utah and even the Mormon audience. It’s always been a bit odd being a metro paper in competition with the Salt Lake Tribune in a tiny market but also publishing the Church News. I remember as a kid my parents having a subscription to the Church News in way off Halifax, Nova Scotia. With the loss of classified dollars and the shift to the internet with low ad rates, all newspapers have been struggling. In a small market with two competing papers (plus the Provo Herald and Ogden Standard Examiner) it’s hard to stay in business.

Reading Nephi – 13:42-14:7

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We return now to the grand parallel Nephi makes in the articulation of his vision—Lehite afflictedness and Gentile blindness. While this passage focuses on the binary possibilities for the fate of the Gentiles, in the context of the parallel there’s a critical message for the Lehites as well—if the Gentiles can assuredly repent, then the remnant of Lehi can assuredly be restored. Overall, it’s a passage concerning the universal possibility of reconciliation and union under the covenant.

Mount Nebo: a fable

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As is well known, the prophet Nephi was so beloved of the Lord that he was given power to command all things. If he called for famine, there would be famine. If he commanded Mount Nebo to be moved, it would be moved from its place. And in fact, one morning Nephi walked out of his house, looked at Mount Nebo, and commanded it to be moved thirty miles to the north. The mountain rose into the air, drifted north, and set itself down again in the place it stands today.

Reading Nephi – 13:38-41

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Theses passages are tremendously challenging. On the one hand they insist on the historical nature of their prophecies—an understanding of history and of God’s movement in history is their whole raison d’etre. But even retrospectively it’s difficult to get much traction, to pin down events or movements or historical happenings, or to see these passages as illuminating particular events.

Reading Nephi – 13:30-37

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Verses 30-33 give the logic of this vision. There’s a grand parallel going on between the dramatically afflicted and nearly destroyed remnant of the Lehites and the “awful blindness” of the Gentiles. God’s ultimate covenant with Israel is rich enough to offer provisions to both in their different but analogously wretched lots. While I find this passage tremendously uplifting and profound, I also can’t simply run away from the stone of stumbling that is this language of God smiting whole peoples and generations. My Mormonism keeps me from being fully modern in many ways, and as communitarian as I believe myself to be, I simply can’t grasp the idea that historical, trans-generational, trans-millennial conglomerates of humans can be both accountable and justifiably acted upon in the same way that an individual can. I want to say that these claims of God smiting people is merely the way Nephi understands and elaborates historical tragedies. And maybe that’s right. But it’s also…

Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

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After successfully subverting the lands and economies of the natives and then violently refusing to remain party to their political contracts with their countries of origin, Nephi now sees the new immigrant population prospering. What does it mean that they prospered? I immediately think of things like infant mortality and economic growth. What would Nephi have meant by this? Is it a foil to their being in captivity? Does it refer to the fact that they geographically spread? Is it their continued subjugations of and thefts from among the native populations? What were Nephi’s family’s own experiences in the New World? Did they prosper? Did the biblical accounts of displacement together with their own displacement of natives make Nephi desensitized to the latter-day slaughter? Or was that facet simply absent from or downplayed in the dream itself? Or did Joseph’s own view of a righteous American Revolution cover over its dark sides? These questions spring up at me throughout this…

Reading Nephi – 13:10-19

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I wonder what we’re getting here in this passage. How much of this is straightforwardly the details of the vision? In particular, is Nephi’s understanding of the vision a part of the vision, in the same way that one comes into a dream already comprehending the background and meaning of the events that one dreams? Or is the interpretation all Nephi? Was he even capable of making the distinction? How much of this is the evolved interpretation of a man who has pondered for decades on the vision’s meaning? Then again, how much of this is from the mind of Joseph Smith for whom no historical events would’ve loomed larger than the American Revolution? One of course need not deny historicity to think that the details of at least the meaning of the vision were something different on the gold plates than as they came out on Oliver’s parchment stack. The wrath of God stands out to me. What is…

Reading Nephi – 13:1-9

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A consistent feature that distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Bible is its pan-human focus. Nephi does not strike me as very cosmopolitan—rather the opposite. He cares about his family and posterity, and his overriding focus even there is not love and loyalty but theology; he cares that they’re tied into God’s covenant with the House of Israel, that their history is sacred and thus legitimate. It’s easy to see Nephi as exactly the sort of overzealous man who devotes his time and attention to his calling at the expense of his personal family (which he never mentions outside of confessing that he took a wife; maybe this is, as Hardy speculates, a form of coping with his failures as a husband and father; or maybe this was Nephi’s form of coping with the pain of having lost his family, the way that church service functioned originally for Brigham Young). Nephi is single-mindedly focused on his tribe and their…

Keeping Our Boys Safe

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As you are probably well aware, BYU is reviewing its policies related to sexual assault victims and Honor Code violations. One proposal which seems to have a good bit of currency–especially since it appears to be the norm at other schools, including SVU, which have similar Honor Codes–is an “amnesty” for offenses which might have been committed in the context of the sexual assault. The motive here is to remove the disincentive for victims not to report assaults–or for assailants to assault Honor Code scofflaws because they are well aware that their victim is less likely to report the assault in that case.

Reading Nephi – 12:13-23

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The pattern goes from “normal” chaotic, difficult, mortal life, to intense trial and darkness, to the burst of light when God comes and establishes an order that results in Zion, to apostasy from Zion leading to apocalyptical violence. Interestingly, however, the apocalypse isn’t the end here; rather it’s followed by more everyday, mortal struggle before the next chapter—which expands the scope of this drama from tribal to global. But this is the same pattern that Joseph Smith prophesies for our own dispensation: a prophet sets up a people who go through chaotic, difficult, mortal struggles, often assailed by our enemies (for which we are always or often at fault), leading toward an intense trial and darkness (the pre-millennial wickedness that we’re always so convinced is right now, where even our very elect are deceived), which is to be followed by the parousia par excellence when Christ reigns personally upon the earth together with everything else we prophesy in our 10th…

Reading Nephi – 12:6-12

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And here it is, the climax of the whole story. God himself comes down from the heavens to visit his people. Note that this is how we always experience that singular (even if repeated) event: it’s in the future. We’re always waiting for the parousia and never ourselves experiencing it.

God’s Condescension

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I’ve been enjoying James’ recent close readings of the Book of Mormon. His last post on 1 Nephi 11 got me really thinking about what the condescension of God is. Around the same time I read Ralph Hancock’s recent essay at First Things about common ground between Mormons and traditional Christians. The big divide between Mormons is usually taken to be our theology of the relationship between God and humans. “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be,” to quote Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet. Within that couplet we find some huge divides with traditional Christianity. First we absolutely reject Augustine’s notion of creation ex nihilo. That absolute gap between God and humans disappears. That isn’t to say we necessarily have no gap. Most Mormon theology tends towards a flat ontology so there’s no ontologic difference between God and humans. Yet many such as Blake Ostler do put God in a special place we can never reach.…

Reading Nephi – 12:1-5

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Now Nephi looks and beholds the future of his posterity and people. And one can understand why he comes out of this vision depressed and feeling sorry for himself—and why he immediately lays into his brothers with a condemning despair.

Nothing New Under the Sun: An Excerpt

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An excerpt from the first chapter of my recently released book, Nothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes: Chapter One Privileged, loved, educated, wealthy, this is what I saw: emptiness, futility, vanity. Everything is ephemeral. Everything crumbles to dust in your hands. Everything passes away. There is no escape. What good does it do to work hard and get ahead? Whole generations are born, suffer, work themselves to exhaustion, and die with nothing to show for it—all while the world spins in place, unmoved by their coming or going. The sun rises, the sun sets, and then it rises again. The winds, indifferent, rush past. Rivers empty endlessly into a sea that will never be full. All of this, relentless, repeats again and again. It uses me up. No matter how many stories I’m told or how much beauty I see, it’s never enough. I’m still left wanting more.

Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

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Behold the condescension of God. Earlier, the angel asked Nephi if he understands it, and Nephi admits that he does not. Now the angel tries to show him. But what is it that Nephi sees? First is the mere fact of the Redeemer going forth. I’ve often heard it interpreted that the condescension is actually that of Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, willing to come down incarnate among mortals and subject himself to their rejection and cruelty. I’ve nothing against this interpretation, though it strikes me as merely a remnant of traditional Christian theology. But here there is the following series of “Looks!” with no other direction, taking us to the end of the chapter. It seems that this whole series of events is the condescension of God. There is a Redeemer sent, a prophet sent to prepare the way, rituals and ordinances given to humans, angels that descend to minister, an atonement performed, twelve apostles to testify…