Thoughts on Planted: Apologetics in an Age of Doubt

Patrick Q. Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015) is the latest entry in the New Mormon Apologetics field. From the credits page: “This book is the result of a joint publishing effort by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book Company.” That is a promising partnership. The broad and inclusive message of the book is badly needed by the general membership of the Church and by local leadership. Having the book on the shelves at Deseret Book (or hopefully on a display table up front) is the best way to get there, short of an apostle mentioning the book by name in General Conference. I am going to give short comments on three topics of interest, then invite readers to post their own impressions of the book.

Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

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…

Going All Sorts of Gentile

It’s almost Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost went wild, which brings to fiery minds the thought of not only that particular world-turned-upside-down event but assorted others a whole lot like unto it, which other events alas never got their own red-letter day on the calendar, even though they probably deserved to, and so it occurred to me, why not just piggyback them all onto Pentecost, given their decidedly Pentecost-like qualities, and commemorate them all together, and not just as something dead and done and so last year, but as something with very possibly bone-shaking and world-rocking consequences right here and now? Especially my two very favorites: Peter’s dream, and Paul’s vision.

Modern Sources of Belonging– Secular Age, round 5

The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals.  How did we get there? Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order.  Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and…

The New Harmonized First Vision Account

Sunday night, Elder Richard J. Maynes, of the Presidency of the Seventy, delivered a CES Devotional on the First Vision. In particular, he made explicit reference to the four first-person accounts of the First Vision authored by Joseph Smith that we have. [See the text of the four accounts at this handy page at the JSPP site.] He also referenced the Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts.” It is encouraging to see senior LDS leaders incorporate the essays and the scholarship coming out of the Church History Department into their talks and recommend this material to the general membership. This post is about a very new resource that Elder Maynes referenced in his talk: A harmonized narrative of the First Vision posted at the Church History site (within LDS.org) incorporating details from all four primary sources. It was posted there only about a week ago. Wow. It’s not everyday that the Church restates the narrative of its founding event and…

Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers. My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent…

Wanting Authenticity and Getting It

Many of you may have seen the J. Golden Kimball stage show from a number of years ago. He was the infamous swearing general authority. I must admit I first heard it on my mission when a companion had some tapes of the show. We were in the southern states where J. Golden had served as a mission president during its more dangerous era. It was a very different portrait of general authorities than I was used to. One of the best known stories was his going off and telling wards they were going to hell. He was sometimes told he had to go back and apologize. According to the stage show he’d blame this on phone calls. “It’s that damn contraption the telephone that gets me in trouble. Before it was invented I could go out and say anything and come back and deny it. Now they call Heber and before I get back he’s waiting for me at…

Abraham, a dilemma solved?

The man who killed our former Secretary of Health, dr. Borst (see my last blog), will be institutionalized with mandatory psychiatric treatment, for a period as long as is deemed necessary by the experts, till they deem him no longer a threat to society. The judges opined that he was completely unaccountable, living in a totally parallel world. He had set out to kill his sister, and then ‘God told him’ on the spot to kill dr. Borst; he killed his sister later. The prosecution had demanded 8 years in prison first and then institutionalization, and considers to appeal the verdict. Anyway, in our day and age the ‘call of Abraham’ is judged as insanity, so let us return to the Genesis story, for a third angle on what I consider one of the most dangerous tales in the Script. In my first blog I treated the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac more or less in the way that…

Zion as Superorganism

Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH. The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18: And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27: I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom……

New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3)  In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the…

Huntsman Buys Salt Lake Tribune

As rumored for a while the Huntsman family has bought the Salt Lake Tribune. Both the Tribune as well as the Deseret News have been struggling for quite a while. The drying up of classified ads has hurt newspapers across the country the last 15 years. For a relatively small market like Utah to have two major papers really has been difficult economically. However unification has always been controversial due to the relationship of both papers to the whole Mormon question. Historically the Salt Lake Tribune arose to be a critical voice against Mormons. It was part of the Godbeite movement in the late 19th century. Godbe wanted religious and political reform in Utah. The fact that the other main paper, the Deseret News, was controlled by the LDS Church allowed for both perspectives to be voiced.

Converts per Missionary

A few years ago in October 2012 the Church dropped the age for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and 21 to 19 for women. There are various speculations of why the Church did this although I don’t think anyone knows for sure. (A popular explanation is that it cuts down on young men leaving the church when they go to college for their Freshman year) Regardless of why the Brethren did this, at the time I was concerned that it would lead to less effective missionaries. We now have a few years worth of data so we can examine the effect, In my view the most recent Church data in particular tells a story of a drop in missionary effectiveness.

Clark Goble on deck.

We’re delighted to welcome Clark Goble back to T&S! Clark grew up in Canada in that part that appears like a strange looking foot extending south and east of Maine. There in the city of Halifax he watched the church grow from a small branch into numerous wards eventually even getting a temple. His father taught physics there which must have been addictive since both Clark and his brother studied physics as well. Clark always dreamt of going on a foreign mission and prayed that this would be so. He soon realized that God both had a sense of humor and that it was tied to overly literal interpretations of prayers when he was sent from Canada to Louisiana. Upon returning to BYU Clark decided he had a masochistic streak and studied mathematics, physics and philosophy until being informed by numerous letters that he had far too many credits to be allowed to continue at BYU. During this era Clark…

Calling All Millennials

The most interesting talk at UVU’s just-completed Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance Conference was by Jana Riess: “Mormon Millennials: Assimilation or Retrenchment?” Jana gave a preliminary report of research she is doing for a new book on the subject. She defined the Millennial generation as those born in the 80s or 90s. Others define it as those born between 1982 and 2004. Are you a Millennial? Glad you’re here. Hope you stay.

Abraham, the legend

Right now in the Netherlands a man stands trial for the murder of former Health Secretary, Els Borst. The culprit has confessed, stating in his defence that God commanded him to kill dr. Borst as she was responsible for the new euthanasia laws. The immediate reaction of the Dutch public is that he is insane; also the court does not take his claim seriously. Now, such a claim in a murder case is rather new for the Netherlands, but in the USA this kind of delusion may sound familiar, like in attacks on abortion clinics. Claims on God’s command can be used for all purposes, also the most nefarious. The interpretation of a story’s message depends on who is telling it and what is the hidden agenda of the story teller. In my earlier blog we were wondering about Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, our basic conundrum, and now let us view Abraham not as a historical person but…

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had…

Conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, April 9, Provo City Library

I was a radical feminist for about 48 hours in 1995. Sitting in the Marriott Center as a 20-year-old BYU student, I listened to President Hinckley read the Proclamation on the Family for the first time to the assembled masses. And oh how I seethed! It felt intolerable to be defined from outside, to be told who I am and why and what that meant. I remember walking directly to the library afterward, sitting at a carrel and furiously scribbling my objections on the back cover of the packet of readings for my feminist literary theory seminar. Gender was a social construct! A performance! I get to choose what it means for me to be a woman! The packet told me so! Time passed, the anger ebbed. But the Proclamation has persisted, indeed grown in prominence over the years. Despite my initial recoil, the Proclamation is the future of gender for Mormonism. It makes a provocative, challenging, and internally tense set of claims about gender,…

Conference Theme: No Trouble Here, Move Along

After a turbulent six months, many were expecting some bold declarations at this weekend’s General Conference. That did not come to pass. Just a few weeks ago, Elder Ballard directed CES teachers to stop teaching folklore, stop evading tough questions from students, and start reading publications by faithful LDS scholars. In his Saturday afternoon Conference talk, Elder Ballard talked about … family councils. Late last year, President Nelson announced that what has become known as “the Exclusion Policy” was not a policy, it was a revelation and is here to stay. In his Priesthood session talk, President Nelson talked about … the role of men in the Church. Elder Steven E. Snow, the Church Historian, talked not about one of the Gospel Topics essays that addresses a key issue in LDS history but about the LDS hymnal and humility. The theme for this Conference seems to be: Don’t rock the boat. Nothing controversial here. Perhaps it is a good time…

Go the Distance

I was struck in yesterday’s morning conference session by the quotation Elder Renlund gave, “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” What gave me pause at this, since I agree with the statement, is a simple question: What do we do about the distance? This seems like a crucial question. Elder Renlund points out that this is the reason why the Church’s welfare system is designed for those in needs to seek help from family first, and then from their local leaders–i.e., from their ward and branch. But it doesn’t seem to me like this solves enough of the distance between givers and recievers; I see lots of distance within wards and branches, and sometimes even within families. Too often givers and receivers simply have completely different viewpoints and even different cultures. I have wrestled with understanding the issues and principles surrounding welfare and giving support to those…

Entitled

I very much enjoyed Elder Renlund’s comments on entitlement. First, because he made clear one of the reasons why we should be very conscientious about how we give help. It affects the receiver’s spiritual progression. Second, the King Benjamin-esque tie-in to all of us who, like any Church welfare recipient, are beggars before God. Lastly, because while he laid into bad attitudes, whining, and murmuring, his central story was about someone missing the sacrament. A story whose happy ending relied upon a saint telling the Branch President, one hopes charitably, that a priesthood holder, a deacon in this case, made a mistake in performing his calling. And a Branch President who took care to see that mistake corrected. Because people do make mistakes. I think there was an implicit lesson, secondary to the main one about the Sacrament and the Savior, that we can and should give leaders information to help them correct mistakes. We just need to do it…

Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

I enjoyed reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (OUP, 2016), a 300-page collection of articles and essays on Mormon feminism spanning the 1970s to the present. That I enjoyed it says a lot, as feminism isn’t really my thing. The editors (Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright) did a great job not only selecting the articles and essays to include in the volume but also paring down the size of the excerpts of longer articles so more pieces could be included in the volume. They also penned very helpful introductions to each piece. Consequently, a reader like myself who has not really lived the LDS feminist drama of the last two generation or two can still appreciate the context and contribution of each of the 60 or so articles. Joanna’s 20-page introduction heading the volume also helps bring every reader up to speed. This is truly a volume that everyone should read — this issue is going to be…

Guest Post: Returning Early with Honor

This guest post was written by Lauren Baldwin, based on the paper she presented at the recent Association for Mormon Letters conference. Lauren is a professional writing student at BYU-I. After the 2012 mission age change, she was part of the first group of nineteen-year-old sister missionaries to serve in the Kentucky Louisville Mission. She works in technical communication and sometimes writes creative non-fiction on rainy days.

Free conference, April 14, at Christ Church, Oxford: Temporality and the Sacred in Religious Practice

Former T&S blogger  (and permanent T&S friend) Jim Faulconer and philosopher Marc Wrathall, currently at UC Riverside, are co-sponsoring a free conference on the character of religious existence, with particular emphasis on the experience of the sacred and the temporality of religious practice. The one-day even will take place on April 14 at Christ Church, Oxford. The event is free of charge, but registration is required. To register, please write to Britni Exton: [email protected] It looks like an impressive slate of speakers. Plus, Oxford! Please spread the word to interested friends and acquaintances in the UK. Browse the program below: