Introducing the Church

I am currently in Giessen, Germany, teaching a class on venture capital to a small number of German law students. Earlier today, I met with the Dean of the law school and the professor here who supervises the exchange program between our schools. They were fascinated by the fact that I speak German, albeit within a very limited range of topics. This ability, such as it is, is a byproduct of my mission in Austria. When I mentioned this fact to my hosts, one of them replied, “I know virtually nothing about Mormons.” What an invitation! I obliged by providing a brief history of the founding of the Church, from First Vision through the pioneer exodus. After the meeting, I thought to provide my hosts with some reading material about the Church. My reflex in such circumstances is to send a Book of Mormon, and over the years, I have distributed a fair number via this sort of contact. But…

The Hipness of Divine Society

The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical…

Interesting note

I just noticed this post over at the Mirror of Justice, discussing an article by Monte Stewart and Dennis Tolley which suggests that scholars undervalue the scholarly production of conservative religious law schools, and (it appears from the post) the faculty of these schools. The findings are certainly interesting. The authors also note that their research indicates that BYU is the second most conservative of the religiously affiliated law schools.

Paying the Lord’s nth

We were treated this past week to a priesthood lesson on the law of tithing, which we were told is a simple rule that can be lived perfectly. We owe this particular trope, I believe, to President Spencer W. Kimball, who suggested that on the road to perfection, we master the commandments one at a time. He recommended beginning with tithing, because it’s easy to count to ten. At ten percent we are “perfect” in obeying the law of tithing, and we can then move on to perfect ourselves in incremental obedience to the next commandment. This formulation of tithing treats it as a clear and bright-line command. In legal scholarship, such bright-line commands are called “rules” — for example, “Drive at 55 miles per hour.” In contrast to rules, legal scholars have also recognized in law a different kind of imperative called a “standard” – for example, “Drive at a reasonable speed.” Unlike clear, hard-edged rules, standards are fuzzy…

Welcome to Dan Burk, Guest Blogger

After months of effort, we have finally convinced Dan Burk to join us for a stint as a guest blogger. Dan is the Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. His primary area of expertise is intellectual property law, and he has special expertise in cyberlaw and biotechnology. He has long been a professor in demand and has taught and visited at numerous law schools, most recently at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. (And if my information is still current, Dan will be teaching at Cornell Law School this fall.) You can find Dan’s official bio here, but one important fact of his life is omitted from that bio: we served in the same mission (the now-defunct Austria Vienna Mission) in the early 1980s. Strangely, we didn’t meet and become friends until we were both law professors. I never talk to Dan without learning something new, and…

Utah-Idaho-Arizona missionaries

Clark says “we treat missions as a way of converting Utah and Idaho Mormons who’ve been in the church their whole life but never had to gain a testimony.” I was converted in the mission field and lived most of my life prior to getting my job at BYU in the mission field. Since then, I’ve several times lived in the mission field for extended periods. In other words, I think I have a reasonably good understanding of both life in the mission field and life in Utah/Idaho, and I would add northern Arizona. I also spent three years as a branch president at the MTC and worked with hundreds of missionaries, and in graduate school I served as ward mission leader for some time as well as in the stake mission presidency. Though there are lots of stereotypes about “Utah Mormons,” based on my experience I don’t think they have much basis in fact. In particular, I don’t think…

Lessons on Sex and Morality, from the Book of Esther

The Old Testament gives us all sorts of strange stories. One that I’ve been thinking about lately is the delightfully wacky book of Esther. In particular, I’ve been wondering about the lessons on sex and morality that we can learn from this book. And I find the answers a little surprising, to say the least. We’ll start with lesson one from Esther: Use sex to get power.

A Dynamite Testimony

I’m so grateful that one of our ex-guest-bloggers,, gratefully took the opportunity to bear his testimony about Napoleon Dynamite, a Rushmore-esque indie film by Mormon writer and director Jared Hess. Check out’s remarks here.

The Industrial Organization of the Gospel

Over at another blog, I recently commented on the evolution of the American military. Spouting off uninformed thoughts about institutional evolution having proved fun, I wanted to offer some thoughts about the evolution of the Church, particularly the missionary program. Of late, there have been two big shifts that are, I think, a symptom of a sea change in how the Church thinks about itself as an organization. The first is the call to “raise the bar” for missionaries, and the second is abolishing scripted missionary discussions. Here is how I see these changes.

Sunday School Lesson 23

Lesson 23: Alma 8-12 This is the manual’s synopsis of the story in the chapters assigned: a. Alma 8-9. After preaching in Melek, Alma calls the people of Ammonihah to repentance, but they reject him. He leaves but is commanded by an angel to return. Alma is received by Amulek, and both are commanded to preach in Ammonihah. b. Alma 10. Amulek preaches to the people of Ammonihah and describes his conversion. The people are astonished that there is another witness to Alma’s teachings. Amulek contends with unrighteous lawyers and judges. c. Alma 11. Amulek contends with Zeezrom and testifies of the coming of Christ, the judgment of the wicked, and the plan of redemption. d. Alma 12. Alma further explains Amulek’s words, warning against hardheartedness and wickedness and testifying of the Fall and the plan of redemption. To keep the study materials to a usable length, I will concentrate on chapters 11 and 12, with brief questions for chapters…

What Is Religion?

Ironically, one of the most debated questions in religious studies is the definition of religion. In most disciplines there is at least a general consensus about how to define the subject of inquiry. Biochemistry is the study of the chemical substances and vital processes occurring in living organisms. Astronomy is the scientific study of matter in outer space with particular attention paid to the positions, dimensions, distribution, motion, composition, energy, and evolution of celestial bodies and phenomena. Clear disciplinary boundaries are not limited to the hard sciences, however. If you study English Literature it is plain to everyone what the subject of your inquiry is, even though one’s individual study within that discipline may be focused on Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Victorian or Modern texts. Such transparency about the topic at hand simply does not exist in religious studies.

Apologies from Damon

Unfortunately, Damon Linker won’t be able to complete the second week of his two week guest-blogging stint with T&S; some unexpected work and personal responsibilities have overwhelmed him for the moment, and he doesn’t think he’ll have the time or energy to contribute as he would like, much less be able to do justice to the many excellent comments which his last post elicited. Some of those comments were rather severe, as he knew they would be–you can’t be a non-Mormon professor at BYU and not know that saying Mormons aren’t Christians will strike a huge nerve–but that didn’t bother him at all; he was anxious to engage those who disagreed with him. Tragically, real life has intervened. We wish Damon well, and hope to have him blogging back here at T&S as soon as the fates allow.

Book of Mormon FHE: Lesson One

In our family, we tie our FHEs to our daily scripture study. We go through the standard works sequentially, study one story per week, and base our FHE on that story. We’ve made it through the OT and NT this way and it has been great. We’re starting the Book of Mormon, and I have decided to post my lessons here in case anyone is interested.

As Expected…

…the Supreme Court has taken a pass, reversed the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision, and dismissed Michael Newdow’s suit against the Pledge of Allegiance on the technical grounds that he is not his daughter’s custodian, and therefore he has no standing to bring a complaint on her behalf. The case was 8-0 in favor of dismissal (Scalia had recused himself). Full story here. I suppose watching the Supreme Court actually try to ban the words “under God” from the Pledge would have been entertaining, as would have been an attempt on their part to constitutionally affirm this particular bit of civic religion. (For the record: broadly speaking, I’m probably quite a bit more open to the idea of an “established” civic religion than your average American–but given the tenor of arguments which surrounded this particular case, specifically those which claimed the phrase “under God” was constitutional because it was merely “ceremonial,” I never thought it was a particularly important battle to…

An Apology

My thoughts this morning echo the words of a poem by Lula Greene Richards (1849-1944). Lula was the editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a staunch defender of women’s right to vote, to obtain an equal education, and to choose their own occupations. This poem comes from Branches That Run Over the Wall.

Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

Few Mormon doctrines cause traditional Christians more consternation than the belief in mankind’s potential to become like God. This is of course the reason the authors of the most famous anti-Mormon work chose for their title The God Makers. But hacks who deliberately produce fraudulent anti-Mormon screeds aren’t the only ones to be offended by our unique doctrine. Without exception, every thoughtful Christian with whom I’ve discussed the issue similarly believes our doctrine to be blasphemous (though they are circumspect in telling me so). But the Benevolent Theodicy, as I have called it, shows that they are wrong.

A small milestone

We passed a small milestone (so small I didn’t notice exactly when it happened) in the past few days. We now have our first mega-commenter; Clark Goble has passed the 1000 comment mark. Next in line (barring a surge of comments from Brent, Steve, or Bob) is likely to be Lyle Stamps (proud operator of a newish blog, I should note), who about 300 comments shy of a thousand.

Why Mormons Aren’t Christians

What a fascinating series of comment on my “Are Mormons Christians?” provocation. I have several things to say in response. First I want to explain my admittedly (and deliberately) extreme formulation from yesterday, i.e., “not even close.” Though I think my boss could have done a much better job in making the case, I think he was right: Mormons simply believe too many things that are too radically discontinuous with the orthodox Christian tradition to be considered Christian. Compared to these differences, those separating Catholics and Baptists and Lutherans and Eastern Orthodoxy are quite tiny. As someone noted in the comments (sorry, I forgot the name), all of the above accept the validity of the Nicene Creed (except for the Orthodox, who object only over a single formulation about the Trinity). That’s a tremendous amount of overlap. Now, let’s remind ourselves of a few of the Mormons differences.

Painting the Town Red

Are police really bringing felony charges against Utah players who (gasp!) painted the BYU “Y” red prior to a game? Apparently they are. This sounds like a terrible overreaction to me. If the news story is correct, someone (a BYU alum?) believes it proper to bring charges against these college kids, that could subject the nefarious Y-painters to up to 15 years in prison. Of course, some punishment for the painters may be appropriate. Perhaps they should have to repaint (under supervision) a few Y buildings that are in need of a new paint job — these kids certainly know how to paint! It also may be proper to make them pay for the repainting costs of the letter. I’m sure that there are other potential punishments that would fit the infraction. But it seems clear that felony charges do not fit the infraction here.

Once Again: Are Mormons Christians?

It’s been a bear of a day at work (editing 70 text pages of correspondence for the magazine), so I’m going to have to be somewhat short today. I’m pleased to have been able to inspire so many interesting comments in response to my provocation about the “fairy-tale” character of Mormonism, especially those that go beyond the too-easy “inside it makes perfect sense but outside it looks silly” response, which I’d think is hardly the right outlook for a missionary faith: the point is to bring those on the outside IN, is it not? I would only add on the subject that . . .

Hives and Honeybees

I remember being confused as a little girl by the words of the song “In Our Lovely Deseret.” I supposed that the word must be “desert” because I had no concept of deseret. Much like the many children who sing “little purple panties” instead of “little purple pansies” because they have no concept of what a pansy is, I belted out “in our lovely deseerrrt” trying to make the word I understood fit the music I’d been taught. The word deseret doesn’t stay foreign for long if you grow up in Utah, however, since one quickly encounters the Deseret News, Deseret Book and Deseret Industries. But, what does the word deseret actually mean?

A Bloggernacking Mix-and-Match Game

Let’s try a slightly different spin on the “Around the Bloggernacle” post. Below are four five questions and four five links to discussion and/or answers in the bloggernacle. Can you match them up? Have fun! Question 1: How many is too many in a baby blessing circle? Question 2: What should church members think of civil weddings? Question 3: How should we distinguish between rights and blessings? Question 4: How can we reconcile God’s perfection with his freedom? Question 5: Is it possible that eternal progression takes place through memetics? Answers (in mixed-up order): a: Link here b: Link here c: Link here d: Link here e: Link here (Answer key below).

PoMo Mormon Enchantment

I am delighted that Gary Cooper came to my defense with such honesty, passion, and insight on the question of “enchantment.” Yes, this is exactly what I had in mind. But before I say more on that, I’d like to settle things up with Jim F. . . .

Another Bloggernacking Opportunity of Sorts

Steve wants some fresh ideas for BCC, and he’s willing to let the best idea(s) be posted there. What does this mean? Simply that the time has never been better to polish up that ten-page masterpiece on the hidden connection between the King Follett Discourse, the Adam-God Theory, and Zelph, and then notify Steve. Perhaps your name will be on the next BCC post! (Details over at BCC).

Heidegger, Pomo, enchantment, . . .

Russell and Damon have asked some challenging questions, and answering them will take me more space than is appropriate for a comment, so, since three and one-half single-spaced pages goes too far for any response, I’m going to respond to their questions (and say something about enchantment) as my own post. I’m not sure what that does to the other discussions going on under Damon’s posts. I hope I’m not making it completely impossible for someone to follow the various discussions. Rather than try to integrate my responses into one coherent essay, I’ll just respond to points more or less serially. I’ll try to provide links to the places where Russell and Damon raise their questions so that readers can see the questions in context.

Sunday School Lesson 22

Lesson 22: Alma 5-7 In these chapters we have two magnificent sermons by Alma the Younger, more than enough material for several Sunday School lessons. These materials will focus on chapter 5, with a few things also from chapter 7. To whom is the address of chapter 5 given? How is it particularly relevant to their situation? To whom is the sermon in chapter 7 given? How is it particularly relevant to their situation?