Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

Policy, Doctrine, and Revelation

Three angels hosted by Abraham, Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619), Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale. (Wikimedia Commons)

These three concepts exist, for most Mormons, in a tangled web. This has become especially evident in recent months as members have reacted to the Church’s new policies regarding same-sex married couples and their children that were announced in November. This discussion was stoked again following Elder Nelson’s recent remarks, leading to Dave’s post last week pondering: Policy or Revelation? The subtext to this question seems pretty clear: doctrine (often used synonymously with revelation in this discussions) doesn’t change. (For example, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that doctrine is “fixed and unchanging.”) And that’s the subtext that dominates all of these discussions: many members are deeply uncomfortable with the Church’s stance in relation to homosexuality in general and long for a change that would, in their view, follow the precedent of the Church’s 1978 Declaration (which followed after President Kimball “had received… revelation.”) by ending discriminatory policies that were never based in unchanging doctrine. Now, obviously the policy changes that…

Reading Nephi – 11:13-18

As commanded, Nephi looks, and what does he see? Interesting that the first thing he sees is cities, including Jerusalem and then Nazareth. What are the other cities? Why does he see cities? This is all in the context of Nephi being guided to come to understand the meaning of the tree. Ultimately Nephi determines it to represent the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of all God’s children. I wonder, then, if the purpose of seeing the cities was merely to orient Nephi toward the greater context of the meaning of what he sees—this isn’t a vision whose significance is merely for Lehi’s family, nor even for the Jews only (though apparently the only two cities Nephi recognizes are Jewish). Instead, Nephi’s shown the population centers of the earth—this is a vision encompassing humankind. There’s no indication that Nephi notices this or any other meaning to the cities he sees. When the (new) angel asks…

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Mormons and Modernism

Mormons and Modernism: Modernism, Secularism — and the Mormon Response? Thinkers as diverse as Charles Taylor, Marcel Gauchet, John Milbank, Mark Lilla, and Louis Dupré have written about the origins of the modern period—the radical change in thought and society from the medieval period to the modern that occurred gradually and culminated in the sixteenth century. Modernism brought us the renaissance, modern science, the birth of the modern state and democracy, as well as, ultimately, what Nietzsche called “the death of God.” In the twentieth century, questions arose about modernism, such as “How should we understand its grand narratives?” and “What have been its costs to human being?” Recognizing both modernism’s difficulties and achievements, if we cannot think against or beyond modernism, can with think within it? This seminar for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and not-yet tenured faculty will explore the emergence of modernism and its eventuation in what is often called “postmodern” thought. We will ask if Mormon thought should be understood as part of or in contrast to modernism. Do we have any unique responses to the…

Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

The first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly on the vision of the tree. And this too is different. Lehi’s dream was experiential; Nephi’s vision is observational and propositional. This is huge. Nephi requested to see the things that his father had seen. In response, the angel shows him the tree. It doesn’t start with the field, and the other elements of the vision all come later. There’s no gradual unfolding as Nephi chooses what to scan and perceptually seek after. Nor is it presented as a mystery—Nephi begins with an understanding of what he’s going to see and at least a rough outline of what it means (though his purpose is to see and know more fully). Beginning at the tree, it’s as though the angel is…

Reading Nephi – 11:1-7

I’ll confess, I feel a mixture of serious disappointment and jealousy as I’m struck by the utterly exotic nature of this event. Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for specific reasons of instruction or witness—not like the shepherds abiding in their fields or Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness. Here the angel comes to simply ask: “What do you desire?” Now admittedly, this appears to be a sort of test—all right Nephi, let’s see what you ask for, and then we’ll see what you get. And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision. But God knows I’ll settle even for the test! Perhaps I choose wrongly and all I get is admonishment to repent and search the scriptures (the typical angelic injunction—maybe most folks choose poorly and Nephi really is prodigious). How could I not be infinitely content to be graced even with a mere test such as…

Reading Nephi – 10:17-22

Nephi does it again right at the start of this passage, though this time it’s in reverse: he talks about faith in the Son of God, and then realizing that his reader would need clarification on that, he inserts the parenthetical about the Son of God being the Messiah of whom Lehi had been prophesying earlier in the chapter. The whole passage here is interesting in terms of its being a small bit of autobiography leveraged to preach a sermon at us. Nephi relays his experience to us in order to explicitly teach us and convince us that we can follow in the same path. Lehi was faithful, followed the commands of God, followed the inspiration of the spirit, obtained revelation (his own and others’), diligently studied that revelation, and came to know the mysteries of God. Nephi heard and hearkened and followed the same seeking pattern. His autobiographical description is both an invitation and a warning—we will be judged…

Reading Nephi – 10:11-16

At the end of this section Nephi notes that there were many other prophecies of Lehi, and many of those prophecies Nephi wrote in his other plates. Here he’s only written what he thought appropriate. Well then, what has he written? Out of many prophecies, what does Nephi consider worth including? Two main things. First, he’s copied over Lehi’s messianism and re-interpreted that messianism for his reader. Second he’s laid a foundation for one of the major themes of the entire Book of Mormon: this notion of scattering and gathering, which he’ll take back up when relaying his own vision in a few chapters, and which gets repeated throughout the rest of the record. With this latter, there’s something else that’s interesting. Lehi isn’t just prophesying for his posterity, he’s given them a way of understanding and affirming the wrenching experience that they’ve undergone by situating their personal experience within a much grander, holy narrative. It’s necessary that branches be…

Reading Nephi – 10:1-10

The first lines go right along with the confusion and different worldview conspicuous in 9. Having just stated the Lord’s intention for Nephi to focus on the spiritual as opposed to the secular and his own confusion over this point, Nephi launches in to tell us about his journey, his reign, and his ministry. It’s all the same to him. It’s all the workings of God. And I Nephi through the first part of II Nephi is in fact about showing that God was behind Nephi’s reign. I wonder what’s behind this notion of a “land of inheritance.” It’s a large theme in scripture. Here, Nephi’s keen on establishing a new land of promise, which becomes a land of inheritance for his people. This plays large later in the Book of Mormon as overzealous nationalists insist on retaking the land of Nephi, which results in disaster. I wonder if it is a part of Nephi’s and later prophets’ focus on…

Guest Post: All Flesh

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John Gustav-Wrathall is the newly-elected president of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends, an international organization founded in 1977 to support LGBTQ/SSA Mormons and their families, friends and Church leaders. Following his election, I invited Gustav-Wrathall, a personal friend, to draft a post on his thoughts about the new policy, his interactions with Church leaders, and what he thought important that members know. The post below is the product of that invitation. For those who don’t know him, Gustav-Wrathall is an adjunct professor of American Religious History at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where he teaches future Protestant ministers about Mormonism (and other religions). He is the author of Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA (University of Chicago Press, 1998), has published articles in Sunstone and Dialogue on being gay and Mormon, and is the author of the Young Stranger blog, which he has maintained since 2007. Though excommunicated from the Church, John has a testimony, and has been active in his south…

Reading Nephi – 9

This is an extraordinarily odd chapter—and odd in ways that really do support the either prophet or genius narrative of Joseph Smith. Why, if one were simply trying to cover up their mistake in losing 116 pages and the first several hundred years of history, would you stick this chapter in here? You go ahead and finish translating from Mosiah through Moroni. Then, since your narrative is screwed up, you plan out this clever narrative of there being “other” plates—the Small Plates of Nephi—tacked on at the end of the gold plates—you use this ad hoc addition of these other plates to backfill and fix your narrative. But if what you’re really worried about is the scandal of the loss of the 116 pages, why wouldn’t you stick this chapter with it’s explanatory narrative—all about God knowing the reasons for these small plates when Nephi himself doesn’t, but surely there’s some purpose—at the very beginning? Modified slightly, Chapter Nine would…

Reading Nephi – 8:29-38

The folks who make it to the tree via the path-rod fall down. Its exhausting. This seems so significant, and seems to confirm my earlier reading of the path-rod as not the optimal means of getting to the tree; we ought not kid ourselves about the cost of this route. Likewise, there seems to be a significant contrast between the difficulties of the path-rod and the difficulties making the tree via revelation. It’s a difficult journey no matter how one gets there—but Nephi’s gloss here highlights the danger of exalting the path-rod, or mistaking mere means as ends. Overall we’re being keyed in to two prominent mistakes—the one made by those who leave the path to wander in darkness, and another made by those who stay but mistake the path for the destination. There’s another great contrast here, concerning our initial steps and desires: those who begin to make their way toward the tree vs. those who begin to make…

The First Vision of Lienhard Jost

Just before Christmas in 1522, an illiterate laborer from Strasbourg named Lienhard Jost lay in his bed at night and prayed. He had literally felt the ground shifting under his feet when an earthquake had struck while he was cutting wood in the forest that day, but he was even more unsettled by the ongoing religious controversies and by rumors that the world would be destroyed by a second Deluge in little more than a year.

Family and individual: the chicken or the egg?

Julie Smith wrote a stimulating post last week, “A Rhetoric of Indirection,” in which she argues that the Church is undergoing a counterproductive cultural shift in homiletic emphasis from personal discipleship to strong nuclear families. When she joined the church in the 90s, she writes, “there was a focus on individual righteousness–personal scripture study, prayer, personal worthiness, temple attendance, etc. Now when I hear those things, they are usually couched in or around The Family.” While official discourse did address  families 25 years ago, she concedes, it was a secondary concern rather than a direct focus. She concludes by lamenting that the present emphasis on families is distorting our culture and teachings, “leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.” Julie’s post was hugely appreciated by our readership, and I understand why. I’m very sympathetic to — more than sympathetic, deeply invested in — the difficult position of singles, gays, childless couples…

Reading Nephi – 8:23-28

Why didn’t Lehi and his family ever see or need the rod of iron or the path when they journeyed to the tree? And by contrast, why did so many of those who sought after and obtained the path & rod, then fall away? Reading closely, it is only those who relied on the rod to get through the mists of darkness that are specifically noted to have fallen away (of course, at least some of those who failed to use the rod were lost—a bit of a catch 22). And how could folks fall away simply because of the glitterazzi who were mocking them? They’d partaken of the blasted fruit already! Of course I don’t know. But here’s a few thoughts. Lehi & family’s conversion seems much more secure. They had to make use of the Spirit, or of their own pure striving, and they were motivated by family and by the tree & its fruit. I’m not sure…

In Their Own Language

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“For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fullness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language.” D&C 90:11 Introduction This post begins with a simple question: does the Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) publish scholarship that treats the Book of Mormon as an ancient text? Or, in the words of Bill Hamblin, has the new leadership at MI “undermin[ed] ancient Book of Mormon studies” in favor of “modern Mormon Studies in its broadest sense” to the point where the Maxwell Institute today is “Sunstone South”? It’s a sensitive question, so let me get some caveats out of the way. I’m not an expert in ancient studies of any kind (Book of Mormon, Mesoamerican, Biblical, or other). Additionally, I’m not trying to wade into the larger controversy surrounding the change in leadership, a controversy that involves people I know and respect on both sides. I’m not passing judgment on MI…

Reading Nephi – 8:13-22

There are patterns here in the partaking of the fruit: self, then family, then others; self, then the righteous, then the wicked; self, then one’s people, then others. Enos later repeats this pattern in his great prayer. I don’t think this pattern lends credence to an egoistic (or even a growing enlightened self-interest) interpretation, however; quite the opposite. The first fruits of enlightenment seem to be to recognize that I am not a mere individual, that my own salvation is never enough. When pursuing righteousness, we seem to be made ever more aware of the centrality of others who at first glance appear to be different or separate from me. Rather than a growing awareness that others matter to my self-interest, it seems to be a growing awareness that others matter to my self, together with an awareness that we’re all of the same divine family. If we bracket the surreality of dreams, then we get an interesting insight into…

A Rhetoric of Indirection

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I remember watching the Olympics when I was in high school and concluding that the swimmers had the best-looking bodies of all of the athletes. Not scarily gaunt like the runners, not comically and grotesquely bulging like the weight lifters, not the stunted look of the gymnasts.

Reading Nephi – 8:9-12

How did Lehi know that the fruit was desirable to make one happy? Usually in dreams we just know things; we know the context or the background that makes the dream sensible. Is that what it was? What about in life? Why do some of us simply know how to be happy and others don’t? Why are some of us intuitively drawn to the “things of God” while others aren’t? Why do some react to the great theophanic events in the way that Nephi did and others react like Laman and Lemuel? Nephi makes it out to be a choice, a choice to pray and seek after personal revelation. Perhaps that was true in his case. But it seems so commonly a kind of instinct with no agency behind it. And yet: there it is before us all, a fruit desirable to make us happy. What does it mean that it is desirable to make one happy? Does it mean…

Reading Nephi – 8:1-8

Verse 1: it seems clear that they lived in the Valley for quite some time. Lehi’s dream. This labyrinth makes the whole book worthwhile. I too have had dreams that make me deeply question the future and my relationships, that do not simply manifest but engender worry and joy. But here we see a dream that not only spawns reflection in the dreamer, but gives future credence to Nephi’s narrative and theocratic reign, shapes a people, is buried for fourteen hundred years, comes to light, and once again shapes another people. This dream is as iconic as anything in Mormonism. I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to the very first part. Lehi walks in darkness. For hours. Taking the account straightforwardly, this walk in darkness is the overwhelming bulk of the whole dream. Doing as Lehi and Nephi do and extrapolating this vision as a metaphor of our mortal lives, those lives are almost entirely—or perhaps I should…

Three Footnotes on Moroni and the Swastika

My review of David Conley Nelson’s Moroni and the Swastika, a book about Mormons and the church in Nazi Germany, was just published in Dialogue. To summarize my review briefly: the book’s primary arguments are wrong, it distorts the facts and documents that it takes as evidence for those arguments, and the writing is imprecise and sensationalist in ways that are more typical of religious polemic than mainstream scholarship.

A sad Sunday

It was a sad Sunday, this 15 November 2015. For two reasons; the major disaster of course was the murder spree in Paris, which has shocked Europe to the core. The Sabbath prayers in our Utrecht ward were for the many victims, and for the grieving host of their loved ones. Europe is united in grief, but also in anger. We consider ourselves at war, a word we do not use easily, not with Islam, but with IS. Even the problem of housing hundreds of thousands of refugees who voted with their feet not to stay in a completely radicalized country, pales in the face of this tragedy. But we will not be budged, we will not let our lives be dictated by thugs. On that, everybody agreed, and the grief binds us together. The other issue was totally unrelated, and very small in comparison with this, minute indeed, but the question kept our minds and tongues busy. We simply…

On Ben Carson’s Adventism, Creationism, and the Bible

I wrote a piece at ReligionandPolitics today about how Ben Carson’s SDA beliefs put him close to the source of creationism. Please give it a read. Ronald Numbers, eminent historian of science, creationism, and Seventh-day Adventism offered useful critique of an earlier draft, my thanks to him. There were a few questions I wanted to address beyond what I wrote, that get more into the history of interpretation. What was the genesis (sorry) of the seven-day structure of Genesis 1?  Wasn’t young-earth creationism the only understanding of Genesis until Darwin and evolution force a reevaluation of it? Below, some quick and dirty historical responses to these questions. I find this stuff fascinating, and it will be partially covered in my book.

Consequences, Intended or Otherwise, in Light of the Update

 A few days ago, after the new policies were leaked but before the First Presidency clarified them, I posted a list of possible consequences of the policies here. This post reproduces my list, crossing out those scenarios no longer possible in light of the First Presidency letter. I also made some updates (in bold print). Then I add some general thoughts at the end.

Consequences, Intended or Otherwise

Bagley

UPDATE: this post was written before the First Presidency clarified the new policies. Please see this post, which repeats everything in this post but updates it and provides some concluding thoughts. — I’m thinking about the implications–doctrinal and practical and cultural–of the recent policy changes.

A Member of the Church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flared into life as an audacious venture, a scandal, an insult and an invitation to the Christian age. To the believing mind, the Mormon church is charged with keeping the flame of God’s authority alight for the world through the winds of secular modernity. But even without that lens of faith, Mormonism is something distinctly risky, brazen, and peculiar. It casually straddles the chasm between ancient and modern, old world and new, without concern and without a net. It yokes together competing claims to authority, forcing them to pull together despite the constant danger of one devouring the other. It makes people, it makes kin, and it makes communities, and it sends this trinity spinning out into space to collide and throw sparks far enough to light the universe. It reads literally, it flatly refuses, it tosses out whatever ain’t nobody got time for; it hordes, it collects sentimentally, it strings together…