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…

Beatus Vir

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 10434, fol. 17r.

Throughout the middle ages, the popularity of the Book of Psalms caused it to be reproduced in Latin as a separate volume of devotional literature called the Psalter. In medieval manuscripts, the opening phrase of Psalm 1, “Beatus vir,” was often richly decorated, as in this example from the thirteenth-century. The Latin Beatus is related to the modern English words beatific and beatitude and translates as happy or blessed. Vir is the Latin word for man with variations persisting in modern language: virile, virtue, and virtuoso. The King James Version of the Psalms (which did not exist yet in the middle ages) opens with the close English equivalent “Blessed is the man.” The university library in Utrecht preserves an early ninth-century manuscript of the Psalter, likely originating from the family of Charlemagne. This rare volume, known today as the Utrecht Psalter, is unique in that it presents pen-drawing illustrations for each of the 150 psalms. It recently became available online,…

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…

“That They Might Have Joy”: Conquering Shame Through At-one-Ment

*Film spoilers* Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame is one of the most devastating movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I’m wading into potentially touchy Mormon territory given its NC-17 rating and subject matter, but I think it’s worth the risk. In short, the film follows Brandon (an incredible Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his all-consuming sex addiction; one that includes frequent pornography viewing and masturbation at both work and home, casual sexual encounters (including one in a gay bar despite being quite straight), and multiple hired sex workers. In the midst of his nihilistic despair, we witness his withdrawal from those around him, including his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who is temporarily staying with him. Yet, the underlying theme of all this is–as the title makes clear–shame. The word shame may bring to mind a mixed set of meanings. For example, the word is obviously central to “ashamed” or even the phrase “have you no shame?” This understanding of the concept is very ancient…

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…

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…

Changing of the Guard at Dialogue

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought gets a new editor every five or six years, and that time is now upon us. As a subscriber and supporter, I wanted to get a sense of where the incoming editor, Boyd Jay Petersen, is going to take the journal, so I bought a copy of his Dead Wood and Rushing Water: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family (Greg Kofford Books, 2013) to get the lowdown. After all, Kristine is a hard act to follow. After reading the book, I am optimistic. To offer a few comments, I will highlight one essay from each of the three sections in the book.

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…