An Addendum

After I wrote my earlier post, I realized I should have been more precise about something. I know that all orthodox faiths place limits on philosophical reflection. For example, an orthodox Catholic is not free to speculate about whether God is Trinity or whether abortion is actually a virtue. But I was trying to point to a substantive difference between all other Christian sects and Mormons in this regard: the Mormon limitation seem to be more primary (or radical) in that it demands that believers resist fundamental tendencies of Western thought that go all the way back to the Greeks — and that are considered to be indistinguishable from common sense for Catholics and most Protestants today and quite possibly have been since the second or third century. Hence their postmodernism — or rather their attempt to fashion a genuine, stark alternative to the fundamentally Athenian character of Western thought, whether secular or religious. That’s it for now. More tomorrow.

Taking the Slums Out of the People?

In 1990 Revered John Heinemeier gathered with other local ministers to solve the housing crisis in East Brooklyn. Together they developed an innovative housing program to construct 5,000 single-family housing units designed for lower-income buyers. East Brooklyn Churches (or EBC) had a long-term vision of what they needed done but there was much to overcome. These neighborhoods were crumbling, impoverished and drug-ridden. The majority of middle class families had long since fled the area. The EBC found inspiration for their ambitious endeavor in the story of Nehemiah who had been sent by the King of Babylon in 420 back to Jerusalem to facilitate the rebuiling of the city. “You see the trouble we are in, How Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer in disgrace.” So, the Nehemiah Housing Project was begun

Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

First off, let me thank Russell, both for inviting me to contribute to Times & Seasons and for his flattering comments about me. After that introduction, I fear I may disappoint. As Russell notes, I spent two years teaching at BYU, and have enjoyed dozens of email exchanges about LDS-related matters with the handful of good friends I made during my time on campus. Since I don’t have An Agenda for the following two weeks, I think I’ll start by sharing a few thoughts that have grown out of those exchanges.

Excommunicating the President of the Church (and some possible complications)

Suppose that Gordon B. Hinckley really started misbehaving, sinning left and right, and generally leading the church astray. Some might find this unlikely on theological grounds, after all President Woodruff said: The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. The implication seems to be that the Lord will “call home” any prophet who strays too far from the divine “programme.” Looking at the scriptures, however, suggests another possibility: Excommunicating the President of the Church.

Times & Seasons Welcomes…A Gentile*

In our continuing effort to bring something new to the Bloggernacle, Times & Seasons is delighted to welcome on board our latest guestblogger–Damon Linker, current editor of First Things magazine, one of the premier religious journals of opinion and commentary in the United States. Damon is probably the most intelligent outside observer of Mormonism I have ever had the pleasure to know. He studied and received a Ph.D. in political philosophy at Michigan State University**, after which he taught for two years at Brigham Young University, where he did such a smashing job that at least a few of those who worked with him tried, in vain, to find some way around BYU’s current (and unfortunate, if you ask me) mandate for hiring only Mormons into tenure-track positions. (I can remember telling Damon at a conference that if he’d only convert, they’d roll out the red carpet for him. He declined.) Currently, he spends his time arguing with–and editing the…

Sunday School Lesson 21

My apologies for posting this so late. I’ve had family visiting, so blogging has had to take a back seat, along with Sunday School preparation. I think I’ll have the next lesson up by Sunday or Monday evening. Lesson 21: Mosiah 29, Alma 1-4 Mosiah 29 Verses 7-9: Aaron has just been converted in a miraculous manner, and he is obviously serious about his conversion. His mission is evidence of that. Nevertheless, here we see Mosiah worried that being king might destroy him. Does he lack confidence in his son? If so, why? If not, how do you explain Mosiah’s remarks?

Bungling the Basics?

Several weeks ago during lunch at a professional conference a colleague told me that the LDS missionaries had knocked on his door recently. I took a deep breath and immediately commenced mental preparations for whatever he was going to ask me. This particular colleague is a philosopher of religion so I was fairly sure he was going to ask me about some bit of LDS history or theology. But, I was wrong.

12 Questions for Sarah Barringer Gordon, part two

Here’s the second half of our dialogue with the esteemed Professor Gordon. [Click here for part one.] I’m sure everyone joins me in thanking her for such intelligent and provocative responses to our questions. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out her landmark book, The Mormon Question. Again, our questions are in bold and her responses follow in plain text. Enjoy! 7. There has been some discussion here at Times and Seasons about the apparent analogies and disanalogies between the nineteenth-century antipolygamy movement and the current battles over same sex marriage. To what extent do you think that cultural and legal strategies employed by antipolygamists are (or are not) available to those who now seek to define marriage as between a man and a woman? I was waiting for this one!

A Horror, Ended

For many years, a story haunted me. It was a story told in graphic detail to a bunch of priests and teachers, one of whom was me, by a doctor in our stake; a story about a baby boy who lost his penis during a botched circumcision, and who was then surgically altered to become female by his ignorant parents and by malicious doctors in order to cover up the “mistake.” The larger point of the story, of course, was to impress upon us the level of wickedness and sexual disregard in the world today by way of an anecdote which presumed the principle of gender essentialness. I’m not sure it worked; trying to scare or horrify someone into righteousness and/or orthodoxy usually doesn’t. But I never forgot the story, and I always wondered what kind of hell that child had been thrust into. An awful one, as it turns out. Over the years I would occasionally hear different versions…

Ambivalence v. Delight

In her fascinating post on ambivalence, Melissa suggests that ambivalence may be an endangered theological virtue among Mormons. “Endangered” because we tend to valorize those without religious ambivalence and lack examples of healthy and productive ambivalence. “A virtue” because Melissa suggests that it is theologically productive. By this, I take it that she means that ambivalence leads to questioning, analysis, synthesis, and revelation. I am doubtful.

Bloggernacking: New Bloggernackers Edition

There are some recent entrants to the bloggernacle. Here are a few: A Motley Vision is a blog on “Mormon literature, criticism, publishing and marketing — plus film, theater, music, and pop and folk culture” by William Morris (who is also a frequent commenter here at T & S). Jeff Lindsay has a new blog dealing with Mormon apologetics, called Mormanity. Provo Pulse is a blog about life in (you guessed it) Provo, Utah. Also, Gary Cooper has started his guest stint at and if his first post is any indication, his contributions will be well worth reading (as most of us know anyway, having read his frequent comments here). The bloggernacle is growing quite fast. (I’ve probably missed more than a few new entrants; if so, let me know by comment or e-mail). The most comprehensive list that I’ve seen is in (you guessed it) another new blog, called DeserNet, which is actually a sub-blog, maintained by David…

12 Questions for Sarah Barringer Gordon, part one

Without further ado, we are pleased to present Professor Gordon’s responses to questions submitted by the T&S community. Questions are in bold; her preface and responses are in plain text. Look for the second half Friday. (For background on Professor Gordon and her work, click here.) * * * First and most important, I would like to thank Nate Oman, Greg Call and other member of Times and Seasons for your interest in my work and for the opportunity to participate in the forum. I will try to keep my answers short, but the questions you all have posed are challenging (in the best sense of the word) and thought-provoking. I apologize in advance for any long-windedness. Most of all, I look forward to engaging in a dialogue about the meaning and worth of scholarship with a new group of people, and especially to learning from the process. Last, a warning: I am typing my responses on a laptop while…

Ambivalence as a Theological Virtue?

In her book, The Religious Imagination of American Women, Mary Farrell Bednarowski suggests that to understand the lived religious experience of American women one must appreciate the ambivalence they experience in their religious traditions. According to Bednarowski this ambivalence is not to be identified as a state of confusion, indecisiveness or vacillating equivocation. Rather, ambivalence is the reflective position of religious women who experience both a deep sense of belonging and an equally strong sense of alienation and distrust. Thoughtful American women, she argues, are committed and connected to their religious communities, but also critical of the religious traditions which define those communities. She explains that the virtue of ambivalence “stirs up love and hate, attraction and repulsion, devotion and impatience . . .” Bednarowski argues that such ambivalence is a virtue that ought to be cultivated since living in the unsettled tension of ambivalence has great potential for theological creativity. Interestingly, Bednarowski points to Mormon women as among those…

A few news items

The New York Daily News has a fun little story about LDS missionaries in New York City. CNN has an interesting story about legal issues arising from churches using public parks for baptisms. Is the ACLU involved? (And on whose side?). Check the story to find out. The New York Times has a short article on the debate over abstinence-only sex education.

Goodbye, Hello

Ahem. We’d like to release grasshopper with a vote of thanks for his excellent contributions as guest-blogger. All in favor, please go back and reread his posts, which were hefty enough to merit a second reading! And, of course, visit him at Let Us Reason for continuing lessons in careful and articulate thinking about all things Mormon. Also, at this time, we are pleased to welcome Melissa Proctor as our newest guest blogger. Melissa holds an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Yale Divinity School and is currently a doctoral student in Religion at Brown University. She teaches Gospel Doctrine in her ward. And, besides being staggeringly brilliant and well-read, and speaking several languages you may or may not have heard of, she makes exceedingly yummy bread and strawberry jam. (I’m stopping now, because she made me promise not to go on too long about her many accomplishments and talents, *not* because I couldn’t go on at great length!!)

My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

This past weekend wasn’t just Memorial Day; according to the traditional liturgical calendar, it also included Whitsunday, a celebration of the Day of Pentecost and the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on that day. Acts 2:2-4: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni. I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I…

Easterbrook, Dark Matter, and the Olive Leaf

A year ago, Gregg Easterbrook articulated the interesting idea that “dark matter” (a substance most scientists now believe exists, and is a major component of the universe) may be a manifestation of the spiritual world. He wrote: Suppose it turns out to be correct that the preponderance of matter and energy in the universe occurs in a form that’s around us everywhere, and yet we cannot sense or see it; that there is a pervasive physical reality that passes through ours with hardly any direct interaction. This is practically a definition of the spiritual plane. Easterbrook’s position has been criticized by others, but has always sounded like a nice theory to me. In particular, I was just thinking how we can understand this as church members, because of certain verses in the section of the Doctrine and Covenants we call the Olive Leaf.

Mormon Orientalism

Some time ago, Richard Bushman wrote an essay entitled “The Colonization of the Mormon Mind.” In it he argued that Mormons who have looked at the Mormon past have largely adopted the attitudes of those who colonized and ultimately dominated 19th century Mormondom. Hence, we tend to view things like “theo-democracy” and plural marriage as embarrassments and see nuclear, vaguely Victorian looking families as good, mirroring the attitudes of the federal officials who crushed Mormon peculiarity in the 19th century. The hip and lit crit amongst us will recognize the influence of Edward Said in Bushman’s argument. In his book Orientalism, Said argued that Western “experts” on the Middle East constructed a vision of Arabs and Muslims as deceitful, lustful, childish, backward, etc., which Middle Eastern intellectuals then adopted as their own. As Bushman frankly acknowledges, he is applying Said’s ideas to Mormonism. Bushman the Historian focused his analysis on Mormon understandings of their own past, but I think that…

Moroni over Modernism

This may be old news to Manhattanites, but I see that the Church has recently announced that the temple there will be getting a steeple and Moroni. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. Certainly the changes will help with “branding” (for lack of a better word). But I always liked the building’s fairly pure modernist bent, which blends in well with the surrounding neighborhood (especially Lincoln Center), and has become somewhat rare in Mormondom. Moroni comes, I think, with no small aesthetic cost, but perhaps one worth paying. For more on Mormon architecture and aesthetics, see this thread.

China Reflections

Last week Nate pointed to some of the entries on my other blog about my visit to China. Far from being an expert on China, most of what I know was learned during that week, often from tour guides or Chinese law students and professors. On the other hand, merely being in a place results in a type of learning not available in books. How many words would it take to describe the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that accompany a trip to the Silk Market? Or the experience of standing atop the Great Wall? I can show you pictures of the food in Beijing’s Night Market, but unless you have had a similar experience, it is very difficult to imagine being offered centipede or silkworm. An essential aspect of the experience simply cannot be articulated. Perhaps this is the reason that I find guidebooks so much more interesting after the visit.

Collective Action: Is it a Problem?

Given our dependence on a lay ministry and an (almost) all volunteer workforce, the fact that the Church operates at all is something of a miracle. Most of us credit (perhaps self-servingly) the “20” in the “80-20 Rule,” that is, those few individuals in every ward who seem to be shouldering the greatest burdens. As my time in the Church has lengthened, my affinity for the 80-20 Rule has waned. The Rule makes sense only when you count all of those nominal members who have no emotional attachment to the Church, but these people are largely excluded from the benefits generated by the “active” members. This isn’t like national defense, where everyone benefits even if only a few pay. With few exceptions, those who obtain the benefits generated by members of the Church are those who are actively engaged as members. To be sure, at any given time, some members are creating more benefits than they consume. Some people live…

The Curtain Draws on Seminary

My year as a Seminary teacher ended today. This job is one reason among many that I have been absent from T&S for the past month or so. The time demands on an early morning Seminary teacher, when added to having a full-time job and trying to raise five children … well, let’s just say that this was not an easy year for me. Next week is Seminary Graduation, but I will be out of the country, so we had our own little graduation party today. One feature of today’s class was reading some of the funny comments that had been made during the year (dutifully recorded by my daughter). Below is a sampling …

Feminist Agitation, Mormon style

Julie’s post on the daughters of Zelophehad and the ensuing comments reminded me of a story I read in a locally-published book called An Ensign to the Nations: History of the Oakland Stake. It seems that in the late 70s, the Church’s opposition to the ERA caused a bit of an uproar in the Oakland Stake, particularly in the Berkeley ward. During an especially tense period, Paul H. Dunn of the the First Council of the Seventy came to town to speak at a missionary program in the Interstake Center auditorium. Because of previous protests involving the ERA, there was some concern that the gathering (about 4,000 people) would invite further incident. Toward the end of the meeting, two women walked up the side of the aisle, stopped, and waited there until Dunn had finished speaking and the closing hymn was being sung. As the closing hymn continued, the two women approached the stage. It became clear that one was…


There’s a fun article in yesterday’s New York Times about bloggers. It has some nice observations. Such as: Blogging is a pastime for many, even a livelihood for a few. For some, it becomes an obsession. Such bloggers often feel compelled to write several times daily and feel anxious if they don’t keep up. As they spend more time hunkered over their computers, they neglect family, friends and jobs. They blog at home, at work and on the road. Yikes! I hope I don’t meet that description, at least not too well. (He says as he takes a moment’s break from working to blog). And perhaps the best lines of the article: Sometimes, too, the realization that no one is reading sets in. A few blogs have thousands of readers, but never have so many people written so much to be read by so few. By Jupiter Research’s estimate, only 4 percent of online users read blogs. Indeed, if a…

A Mormon Image: Joseph in the New York Review of Books

For those ever-so-hip, black-turtleneck wearing New Yorkers in our midst, I felt that I would do what I could to relieve any anxiety that you might have about the potential un-hippness of Mormonism. Hence this image of Joseph Smith, which appeared in no less an oracle of Manhattan sophistication than The New York Review of Books. I have to confess that I am a bit mystified as to the significance of the shovel. A reference to money digging perhaps? Digging up the Gold Plates? Who knows. Interestingly, Joseph did visit New York City once in his life. It has been a while since I read the journal entry, but as I recall he thought it was a facinating place, but full of sin and ready for a good smiting by the Almighty. Not a bad description all in all.

Church PR and the CIA

As many people are aware, the Church currently employees a New York based PR firm. The topic has come up from time to time in press accounts about the Church, and journalists have labored mightily to make this into an interesting fact. I am doubtful. However, there are some interesting Church PR stories, including the one about how CIA agents distributed Church materials in Europe during the Cold War.


We Latter-day Saints often talk about the blessings that come from being a member of the Church. Occasionally that talk bothers me because I think it too often overlooks the importance of worship: as God’s children, we have a covenant obligation not only to obey (so that we can live the happy life), but also to worship, to adore, to commune. Though his purposes are to bring about our eternal life, a fact that it is important for us to know, it is not our only purpose. In spite of those qualms, however, I want to think about what happiness means for us and how we talk with or think about happy people outside the Church.