Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

Reading Nephi – 7:6-22

Here again we get a narrative, and in the perceptible foil of a competitor narrative. Once again, Nephi works hard to discredit Laman & Lemuel, and here we can see clearly what their major point is: returning to Jerusalem. It’s easy to imagine a New World experience decades into the future, in the wake of hardships that rival or surpass the hardship of the 8 years in the wilderness—infant mortality, disease, lack of food, the general hardship of coping with an entirely unfamiliar ecosystem, together with whatever struggles they might have had with their native neighbors. It’s easy to imagine competitor narratives to Nephi’s rule that focus on the illegitimacy of leaving Jerusalem—that comparative Utopia still very present in Lehite memory. It’s easy to imagine a public unconvinced either by the claims of Jerusalem’s destruction or unconvinced that becoming a vassal state would’ve been overall worse than what they suffered in the exodus and settlement of the Americas. Such a…

Linguistics and belief

I don’t want to write about gay marriage. So let’s talk about linguistics first. We acquire language in childhood through a long process of listening to and eventually reading the language output of competent speakers of English (or whatever languages prevail in the communities where we grow up). As we are exposed to countless examples of language, we start to build up an internal model of English. We hypothesize about the rules of English and use our hypotheses to generate English statements unlike any we have heard before in response to new situations. Over time, as our hypotheses are confirmed or falsified, we modify the internal set of rules by which we determine what is and is not a well-formed English utterance. We can’t directly observe the mental structures of language. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that each of us has a somewhat different internal model of English. Even if we had the same set of grammar rules, we might…

My petition for a bill of…

The law that God gave to ancient Israel was pretty clear and unambiguous: divorce isn’t part of the program. Then the people sued Moses for a bill of divorcement. I have no idea what that conversation between Moses and God was like. Maybe it had parallels to the one where Moses talked God out of destroying the Israelites and starting over. Whatever the conversation, God granted the petition and gave Moses that bill of divorcement. Then came Jesus of Nazareth. Divorce was a normal part of society in his day (even if not anything like divorce in our day). And Jesus spoke out in straightforward and unambiguous terms. Divorce was granted because of the people’s unrighteousness. Because they weren’t willing to keep the higher law. But together Moses and God had realized it was better for our people overall to grant the bill. I personally believe in that original law, reiterated by Christ. I believe that divorce is not part of…

Reading Nephi – 7:1-5

Sometimes I feel like I deeply understand the tight integration of extended family, covenant, and connection to God—a trinity that is indeed one in substance. And sometimes, as here, it feels so exotic. I feel like I stand in between worlds. One cannot live today without having these three analyzed as fully distinct. The rhetoric at church tends to place them in complimentary relationship—Zion is when we can get these three together. But reading Nephi it seems like something different. None of the three make any sense without all three. The point of enlisting Ishmael’s family is to raise up seed to God, as is the point of life and religion. God’s commands are issued and heeded not as a matter of sovereign authority exercising its whims, but as a covenantal relationship. The terms of the covenant are kept as God prepares a way for deliverance and as God’s children take advantage of that deliverance to raise up seed within…

Reading Nephi – 6

This was a chapter break in the original edition (end of Chapter Two), but I’m not terribly impressed with whoever’s editorial decision that was. This is clearly not a break. Nephi’s switched from discussing his father’s reading of the Plates of Brass to discussing his own writing—but it’s not meant to be a substantive shift; rather, it’s mean to draw a continuity. I don’t know that Nephi’s being audacious in the same way that you or I (or a General Authority for that matter) might be being audacious if we declared our writings scripture. But he is being audacious in the sense that he sees himself as continuing the record. There are the Plates of Brass, there is the Book of Lehi, and here are Nephi’s writings, and they all fall into the same category. Being the new caretakers of this record, the obligation is clearly to continue it. And this sense of things continues, even amongst later record keepers…

The Handbook Changes from the Institutional Perspective

My default setting when digesting controversial news about the Church is defensive. I’m just emotionally-mentally-psychologically-whatever wired to identify with the institution, its leadership, its interests, and the status quo,  at least at first. So I’ve been trying to think this thing through from the point of view of Church leadership. Obviously I’m not privy to any official insight whatsoever, and these are just my own ideas thought through the institutional perspective. Consider every possible caveat covered here. I see at least two possible rationales, from Church leadership’s point of view, for the changes in policy with regard to gay couples and their children. The first is that, now that the legal battles are settled, leaders felt the need to standardize the Church’s handling of gay marriages. Not a lot of scriptural guidance there, so they settle on plural marriage as the model and precedent. Gay marriage is analogous to polygamy inasmuch as it represents a positive departure from (rather than simply a malfunction…

Call for Applications: Summer Seminar in Mormon Theology

The Third Annual Summer Seminar on Mormon Theology “A Preparatory Redemption: Reading Alma 12–13” Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California June 1–June 15, 2016 Sponsored by the Mormon Theology Seminar in partnership with The Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies and The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship In the summer of 2016, the Mormon Theology Seminar, in partnership with the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University, will sponsor a seminar for graduate students and faculty devoted to reading Alma 12–13. The seminar will be hosted by Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, from June 1 through June 15, 2016. Travel arrangements, housing, and a $1000 stipend will be provided for admitted participants. The seminar will be led by Adam Miller and Joseph Spencer, directors of the Mormon Theology Seminar, with assistance from Brian Hauglid, director of the Laura F. Willes Center for Book…

Reading Nephi – 5:10-22

I’m first struck by what a joy this must’ve been for Lehi. At this point, he’s as committed as he could be, completely immersed in living the life of a prophet that he feels he’s been called to. Of course, it’s a serious question whether or to what extent he’d been exposed to scripture prior to this point. We see here that he was obviously familiar with the fact that there were five books of Moses, and the story of Joseph of Egypt was known to him (as was, of course, the story of Moses that Nephi used earlier). But clearly he had no copy of the scriptures himself—no one did back then. There were only communal copies, and it’s not clear that Laban would’ve been any more liberal with the plates back when Lehi was a normal merchant of Jerusalem than he was when Laman went to speak to him (for that matter, it’s not at all clear that…

Truth and Access

TabouretAFDB

This month, I’ll be presenting a paper on the JST at a conference. I’m going to outline the use of the JST in Mark and then suggest that the moves that the JST makes could and should be adopted by LDS biblical scholars. One section of the paper argues that the JST–indeed, all revelation–is not inerrant. Joseph’s use (and nonuse) of the JST later in his ministry suggest that he did not take the JST as a perfected form of scripture.

The Assurance of Love

776 - Hendrick ter Brugghen - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

About a week ago, I came across an interesting quote from a talk President Hinckley gave during the October 1981 General Conference (Faith: The Essence of True Religion). He quoted a journalist who had recently given a speech during which the journalist had said that “Certitude is the enemy of religion.” (I’d be fascinated to see the full text of this journalist’s remarks, or even just learn his name.) President Hinckley’s response is challenging for someone like me. After all, I started out blogging at Times and Seasons with a series of posts about epistemic humility. (1, 2, 3, 4) I do not believe uncertainty is a worthy end in itself, but I do believe that accepting the limits of our ability to know is an essential aspect of healthy faith because it enables us to grow and change. A belief that is certain is cemented. This is a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re…

Reading Nephi – 5:1-9

Here is a poignant scene. Reunions are an important trope in all stories, because they’re an important element in all of our lives. As Mormonism’s grand cosmological narrative makes clear, our very life is about separation from our parents and working toward an eventual reunion—after we’ve made our (usually very messy) journey and acted in faith to do the things that we’ve been commanded to do. Verse one gives us a nice twist, however. It’s not that the brothers have completed their quest and come home like every other Odysseus. Rather, they’ve completed their quest and having done so returned to the wilderness. The Book of Mormon is indeed, as Jacob who was born in the wilderness will later state, a story of strangers wandering in the wilderness. Grant Hardy offers a compelling argument that this scene is a matter of artful obfuscation. Nephi distracts his readers from his murder and what was surely an awkward reunion—one can almost hear…

Reading Nephi – 4:20-38

Zoram is another critical element of this narrative. Once again, we learn later in the Book of Mormon that there was controversy concerning Zoram’s departure from Jerusalem and joining Lehi’s expedition—enough controversy to eventually fuel a serious political movement and secession (Alma 31-35). It’s another instance of Nephi portraying himself as heroic, faithful and possessed of a liberal spirit. One certainly hopes that Lehi’s later blessing of Zoram corroborates Nephi’s account—but Zoram’s joining the Lehite project is another oddity. Why does Zoram join them so readily? He was from the lower classes, perhaps made naturally compliant on account of his life circumstances. He might well have felt compelled or lacking better alternatives. I suspect that this is where Nephi’s murder is revealed. I imagine a terrified Zoram asking what Nephi (who is “large in stature,” and this time the description is obviously physical—he’s just physically restrained Zoram from fleeing) what he did with his master Laban and how he had…

Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part II)

So is this my contemporary sensibilities, my modern moral compass set in a fantastically different, less physically grueling and brutal world that recoils from Nephi’s terrifying justification? Undoubtedly—although that in itself certainly makes it no less right. But the text itself and Nephi’s manner of disclosing and addressing this event offers evidence that something was rotten in Nephi’s Denmark.

Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part I)

Once again, reading these difficult passages, I see something prodigious in Nephi, something my soul longs after. At the same time, however, my soul recoils, and chapter four is the realization of the danger inherent in Nephi’s faithful outlook. I want to think that Nephi’s mistake was youthful inexperience—faith and zeal untempered by the wisdom and moral constraint of realizing that every human one confronts is a child of Heavenly Parents and a brother or sister [see comment 1]. Contextualizing our lives within the scriptures seems so right. This is how I want to read them—this is how I want to live. This is what I hope I’m doing as I read and write my thoughts, weaving myself into a temporally extended web, binding myself within the covenants that I have made, which are the covenants of God with his people in former and latter times, which binds me to the mothers and fathers who’ve gone before. With Nephi, I…

Reading Nephi – 3:31-4:3

They misplaced the chapter break. We’ve reached a hard spot in the Book of Mormon for me—perhaps the hardest spot in Nephi’s record. The text in chapter four challenges me on multiple fronts every time I read it. I hope that my wrestling with it is fruitful and faithful, but often it’s merely implacable. One thing that I can see clearly is that we here get Nephi’s commentary on the nature of miracles and the way they interact with human reason and trust. All of us have Laman and Lemuel within us. Analyzing the variables of our life, we simply cannot see a solution to a given problem—there is no plausible way out of whatever bind we find ourselves in. Laban has twice now sent his henchman to threaten Laman. The reality of Laban’s ability to kill him is obviously quite firmly in the forefront of Laman’s mind—encounters with those who are perfectly comfortable using violence to coerce others is…

Reading Nephi – 3:15-30

There really is something terribly compelling about Nephi. It’s hard not to be won over by his absolute commitment and tenacity. I want to bracket all my inevitable reading of an older political authority justifying the legitimacy of his reign, countering his opposition’s narratives concerning crucial events at the genesis. Instead, I want here to simply let myself be taken in by a youth who displays this unyielding faith and optimism. It strikes me that this is precisely the attitude and commitment that brings about change. How—in the context of ancient Holy Land Jerusalem—can God transplant a faithful family, a family whose faith is rooted in the framework of their people’s having obtained a promised land and established a House of God? It would seem that either God would need a family whose faith was secondary, thin, perhaps non-existent (i.e., they weren’t all that faithfully Jewish and so weren’t committed to the Holy Land); or else God would have to…

Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart

788 - Thrice

Perhaps we literally need to feel our own pain in order to feel the pain of others. From a scientific perspective: The ability to feel the pain of others is based on neurobiological processes which underlie pain experience in oneself. Using innovative methods, an international research team headed by psychologist Claus Lamm from the University of Vienna could show that a reduction of self-experienced pain leads to a reduction in empathy for pain in others as well. From an aesthetic perspective (I realize screamo is not everyone’s idea of a pleasant Monday morning. Lyrics are below the video clip):   I know one day, all our scars will disappear, like the stars at dawn All of our pain will fade away when morning comes And on that day when we look backwards we will see that everything is changed And all of our trials will be as milestones on the way But as long as we live, every scar is a…

Reading Nephi – 3:1-14

There’s a reason why this—the return for the plates—is the first event Nephi mentions following their departure from Jerusalem. I wonder if there’s not also an inspired reason for it to come upfront. Lehi’s theophany and departure is the rupture that opens a new dispensation. The story of the retrieval of the record of Laban is the founding of Nephite history, the origin of Nephite political legitimacy, and perhaps even the founding of Nephite religion. Once again, there is a great deal going on in this story, with absences that are as revealing as what gets stated. Nephi subtly lets us know that he speaks with Lehi in confidence, that Lehi already spoke with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam, and that this meeting(s) didn’t go well. Lehi attempts to pre-empt what he assumes will be Nephi’s similar balking at the idea of returning for the record. Why do the others balk? Especially at the idea of a return trip—even temporary—to Jerusalem?…

Reading Nephi – 2:16-24

I’ve no desire to rob those who are physically large with a means of relating themselves to Nephi. But I can’t for the life of me see how we connect “large in stature” with physically large. [Note: later in the text we do get a direct connection between Nephi’s stature and physical size, so perhaps that later connection colors things here; but for all we know, these were different words all together that both came out as ‘stature’ on Joseph’s stone.] The contrast in this clause is with young—which I suppose might be intuitively connected to physical size—my children do this all the time (they can’t quite understand that mommy is older since daddy is bigger). Just yesterday they nearly came to blows over whose foot was larger, which is apparently a genetic marker of natural aristocracy and right to rule. But it’s the right to rule that matters—and as soon as I convinced my children that there was no…

Internationalizing Mormon Leadership: The Normal Pace

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

In the Salt Lake Tribune of October 5, Jana Riess regrets that the top leadership of the Mormon church is all-white and overwhelmingly American, and that the recent apostolic callings missed the chance to reflect the church’s international diversity. Others have expressed the same disappointment. I can appreciate their concern, but I wonder how many non-American Mormons would agree. Are we certain that an apostle from Brazil or Kenya would be preferred by most Mormons in 130 other countries above a seasoned leader from Utah? Or did some of those disappointed Americans perhaps react from a “white guilt / white savior complex” by coming to the rescue of the allegedly discriminated-against international membership? Besides, do we know how many non-Americans may have been considered to fill the vacant apostle positions, but none was found adequate yet at this time? Perhaps the one closest to being called was finally considered too rigid? Then many would probably be grateful that Elder Rasband…

Reading Nephi – 2:8-15

This passage doesn’t seem to reflect well on Nephi. I don’t blame Nephi. To the degree that any of us have good reason to think poorly of family members who have wronged us, I think that the older man Nephi has cause to think poorly of his brothers. But how can we not also see the older, embittered Nephi projecting back on his brothers here? Our memories are inevitably colonized by our present experiences—sometimes glamorized and sometimes darkened. If I read past Nephi’s retrospectively projected interpretation, however, I am deeply moved by Lehi’s wisdom and love. There is no way to see what this family is going through as anything other than wrenching and difficult. I keenly remember feeling like my whole life was torn out from under me when as a melodramatic young teenager my family moved towns. I certainly murmured. I continue to feel my feet kicked out from under me as I move through life (and alas,…

Reading Nephi – 2:1-7

Here is the great rupture. Nephi acknowledges that it came in a dream—a dream that made a coherent narrative of the details of Lehi’s life. Did he feel like a failed prophet? Did his heart break? Or did he feel vindicated or at least consoled in joining that host of ancient prophets who were rejected by their people—or was that a later, literary reconciliation? Regardless, the dream tells him to leave the Land of Promise. Again, forsaking the idea that this was a dramatic overnight event, and recognizing instead that it likely took place over the course of some time—what were the conversations with Sariah (goodness, I hope he had them) and his children? Neighbors or friends? Or if not with others, what were the conversations with himself? Jeremiah (whom Nephi later extolls) had not been commanded to leave, but to stay and preach and get himself locked up in prison. Other prophets had been killed. Why was Lehi spared?…

SMPT Teaser: A Close Reading of Alma 32

soil-type

I’m presenting this Saturday at the conference in Provo. I’ve kicked some of these ideas around for a while, but only started work on them in earnest recently. I’m addressing conceptions of faith and knowledge in Alma 32 through close reading. For me, that process entails creating a bibliography to see what’s been done, and working through the chapter closely and slowly, looking for patters and connections, textual issues, and logical flow.

Reading Nephi – 1:18-20

Two contrasts strike me in verse 18: a contrast between the way that Nephi uses the word ‘marvelous’ and a contrast between the visions and prophesying he attributes to Lehi here, and what we just got in verse 14. To begin with a word on the latter, I’m heartened that Lehi’s prophesying included beautiful, affirming, psalms; I trust his public messages did too, even if Nephi didn’t note this fact. I never hear the word ‘marvelous’ used to neutrally reference a marvel. It’s always used as a synonym to ‘wonderful.’ Marvels and wonders only receive a positive valence today; but Nephi’s clearly not using it that way. Which hints at something else buried here that is easy for us to miss today: it was indeed a marvel, something that defied common reason and common sense of the day, that Jerusalem, the holy city, the Lord’s city, the house of the artifacts of Moses and Aaron and the seat of God’s…

Doers of the Word: SMPT Conference Next Weekend

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology holds its 2015 conference next Thursday-Saturday (Oct. 8-10), at BYU, on the theme, “Doers of the Word: Belief and Practice.” Speakers include Noel Reynolds, Sam Brown, David Paulsen, Jennifer Lane, and about 30 others from Minnesota to Hawaii, including T&S’s own Jim Faulconer, Rosalynde Welch, Nate Oman, Ben Spackman, Adam Miller, and Ben Huff. Session themes include analysis of Book of Mormon rhetoric, the role of choice in faith, divine foreknowledge and human freedom, renaissance thought on a Christian restoration, the role of narrative in repentance, and the social nature of the Godhead. All sessions are free and open to the public. For more information, see the conference schedule on the SMPT website.

Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again

The giant, angry pterodactyl makes sense at the end. Wait for it.

I read the Book of Mormon all the way through several times as a teenager. Between multiple readings and a knack for remembering anything that comes in the form of a story, by the time I was 19 I knew the Book of Mormon as well as any other 19 year old I met. Now I’m 34, and I routinely meet people whose familiarity with the text far, far outstrips my own. Sure, some of that comes from the fact that I know more Mormon studies folks now than I did as a teenager, but I’m not talking about the pro’s and the semi-pro’s out there who are doing great devotional and scholarly work. I mean just in terms of your average member: my command of the text is just nothing to get excited about. This isn’t surprising, because in the past 13 years since I came home from my mission, I don’t think I’ve completed a single cover-to-cover reading of…