My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part II

A Celestial Library One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day.  I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is part two (of three parts) of my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message.  Columbia Sourcebook of Mormons in the United States, by Terryl Givens and Reid Neilson At the end of the day secondary analyses can only get you so far, which is why primary sources should form a core of any religious education, and this particular collection is as good as any for compiling the essential documents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one location.  The Road, by Cormac McCarthy Again, not explicitly religious, but one of the darkest books you’ll ever read (set in post-Apocalyptic hellscape with a father and his son doing what they need to to survive) acts paradoxically as a hymn to hope and light in the darkness that could almost be described as subtly spiritual.  How Wide the Divide?…

My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part I

Depiction of an LDS temple/library combination. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day.  I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message.  The Plague, by Albert Camus  The famous French absurdist’s landmark work is interlaced with religious and existential themes as a town struggles against a deadly plague. Unlike many secular or secular-adjacent authors, Camus is rather bold in confronting the implications of naturalistic, non-religious worldview, and my personal experience with this book was powerful enough that I actually published an article in the Journal of Camus Studies on religious symbolism in The Plague.  The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky This was the book that inspired my wife to go on her mission (in particular, Alyosha’s and the monks’ examples of dedicated holiness). It’s quite long (as Russian novels are), but (IMHO) you can get a lot of the spiritual benefit by reading certain sections. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter is of…

“I Am” Statements of Jesus in the Book of Mormon

When Moses was called by YHWH, he asked the Lord, “when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” In response, YHWH said, “I Am That I Am” (Exodus 14:13–14). This type of “I am” statement is significant and has echoes throughout the Bible. A recent interview with Joshua Matson at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk highlighted the types of “I am” statements that are also found in the Book of Mormon. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

The Doomsday Equation and the Second Coming

The Book of Zachariah has a prophecy about the Lord splitting the Mount of Olives in two in the last days to save Israel at the last battle. I don’t know if that is how it is going to go down, but I like the symbolism of Christ as the second Moses dividing the land to save Israel from its enemies like Moses divided the water to save Israel of old from its enemies.  The Second Coming and the nastiness preceding it is a somewhat passe topic for more intellectual types (although certainly not for the proverbial high priests in conservative small-town branches), I suspect largely because there has been a long history of crying wolf on the subject. Ever since the early Christians people believed that the Second Coming was nigh (although, if we really appreciate deep history of our species and planet and how incredibly long it is, “coming quickly” could be a relatively long time when measured against our lifespans). We certainly have not been immune to this in our own tradition, including with Joseph Smith, who I have the sense personally thought that the Second Coming was coming sooner rather than later (although others who know more can probably chapter and verse that belief in a primary source somewhere). Outside our tradition, it seems like every couple of years somebody figures out a clever, unique way to recalculate the numbers in Revelations that shows that the…

What do Members and Former Members Believe About God? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

A guest post from Josh Coates and Stephen Cranney This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here.  In the 2023 CFLDSS we asked the standard question about belief in God that is also asked in the General Social Survey, an omnibus survey of Americans asked just about every year that has asked a question about belief in God since the late 1980s. “Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God.” I don’t believe in God I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind  I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it The graph below has the result for our three current member samples, the two former member samples, the 2022 General Social Survey sample of respondents who are “Nones,” and indicated no religious affiliation, and the 2022 General Social Surveys sample of respondents who indicated a religious faith. (And yes, we know that there are agnostics that don’t fit into…

“Tened en Dios Confianza”

I have not been able to find out much about “Tened en dios confianza,” nor about its author, José V. Estrada G. On a more personal note, however, this was the first hymn that I worked with when I started contemplating the Mexican Mission Hymns Project around six years ago. The original music for the hymn that I wrote was even one of the five I submitted for consideration with the new hymnbook.

No Division Among You: A Review

No Division Among You: Creating Unity in a Diverse Church, ed. Richard Eyre (Deseret Book, 2023) is a beautiful book in its intentions and efforts. The book is a collection of 14 essays that discuss ways to view the need for unity while embracing diversity. Each essay is by a different author, bringing in diverse perspectives of members who identify across the spectrum—Black and White, homosexual and heterosexual, male and female. Each shared experiences and perspectives that help build frameworks for how to approach unity as a diverse church.

In Defense of Missionary Numbers

There’s a fun thing people do with Dalle where they have it create an image with a certain descriptor, then continually ask it to make it “even more X.” In this case I asked it to create a righteous-looking missionary, then asked it to be even more righteous, then even more righteous, etc. After six iterations “The image now portrays the ultimate embodiment of righteousness in a Mormon missionary, reaching a celestial level of virtue and spiritual enlightenment.” It has become fashionable to deride the use of missionary numbers, ministering metrics, or other quantitative indicators in Church work. An overemphasis on numeric indicators bothered me as much as the next missionary, and nobody can accuse me of being a “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” type member who thinks that Zion will be achieved with some second-coming-of-Mitt Romney MBA clone to whom is revealed God’s chosen seven step program for managerial success. Still, there are people who swing too far the other way, and think that if nothing but a burning testimony of the Savior was good enough for Paul it should be good enough for our missionaries.  Except it’s really not. Our missionaries are essentially late-teenagers, and as annoying as it is to admit it, it was clear in the mission that having some kind of quantitative standard that we were expected to hit did in fact lead to more proselytizing overall. Were the motives absolutely pure? No, but…

“Placentero nos es trabajar”

“Placentero nos es trabajar” or “Despedida” is one of the more popular hymns that is included in Latter-day Saint hymn books, written by a Latter-day Saint, but not in the English hymnal at this time. Hence, I’ve been consistent in pointing it out as a likely candidate for inclusion in the forthcoming hymnal. While I’ve talked about this hymn in the past, this post will serve two purposes—first, it is going to be where I pick up the Mexican Mission Hymns series. Second, it’s also a co-post for a recent interview with John A Gonzalez—the grandson of Andrés Carlos González, the author of the hymn—at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

Hymnal Watch: February 2024

A YouTube channel called “For All the Saints” recently interviewed Ray Robinson—a member of the team that is creating the new hymnbook. There were several notable observations made by Robinson that I want to highlight:

Latter-day Saint Book Review: A Life of Jesus, by Shusaku Endo

A Life of Jesus is an introduction to the life of Christ by renowned Catholic Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, the author of Silence, a book set during the early persecutions of Christians in Japan. Much of Endo’s work revolves around the tensions of being a Catholic in a very non-Christian country, and this book was written as a guide to the life of Christ specifically for people with a Japanese religious disposition who are less receptive to harsh, jealous, father-figure Gods. 

If Everybody is a Leader No One is a Leader

“Followers of God” Anecdotally it seems that 21st century society is obsessed with “leadership.” Students are encouraged to be leaders, we are raising a generation of leaders, and leadership is considered a virtue up there with honesty and hard work. This sentiment has always struck me as being a little Ponzi-scheme-ish. Quite simply, by definition not everybody can be a leader, and emphasizing leadership not so implicitly degrades the followers, when in actuality the leaders are nothing without the followers. If anything, I think there are too many people trying to be leaders, and that aspiring to be a leader is not necessarily a virtue, with a surplus of people wanting to be leaders without a willingness to be a follower. The phrase “overproduction of elites” comes to mind (I got the term from Ross Douthat at the NY Times, but I’m not sure if it’s original to him). We have raised a generation  or two that they will all be presidents, A-list actors, public intellectuals, great civil rights leaders, and yes, General Authorities, and not with the idea that having a typical 9-5 job, family life, and secretarial calling is a fulfilling and worthy existence. As a result, we’re left with a bunch of disgruntled middle agers who didn’t “make it” because the number of slots available is drastically less than the number of people aspiring for them. (As an aside, a common critique of this point is that…

The Curious Role of the Book of Mormon Witnesses in Evangelical Debates about the Resurrection

While we Latter-day Saints have our apologists and reason-based arguments for faith and defenses against attacks on the faith, those are, by our own admission, to help create a place for faith or respond to criticisms that attack that faith, we are careful to formally base our religious epistemology in the numinous, personal spiritual experience.  In contrast, there is a line of thinking in some Christian circles that the resurrection’s eyewitness accounts are compelling enough to force any reasonable person to accept the reality of the resurrection based on sound historical evidence alone. I’ve heard these arguments a number of times from a number of sources, and while I (rather conventionally and boringly) ultimately don’t find them compelling from a historiographical point of view, they are interesting.  Where Mormonism comes into these debates is that a common skeptical rejoinder has become “well, if we are forced into believing in the resurrection because of these eyewitness accounts, what about the Book of Mormon witnesses?” And then the response often tends to devolve into distorting what the witnesses were or did, because ultimately the point is a good one. (One of the Protestants making this argument is renowned apologist William Lane Craig, and Stephen Smoot has already done a more thorough analysis of Craig’s views on the Church.) Protestants aren’t the only ones whose truth claims have eyewitnesses, and once you step outside of their theological world there are other examples of…

“In his own tongue, and in his own language”: Or, all Church leaders now speak 27 languages

“Hearing the gospel in their own tongue” A January 2024 report on advances in AI and what they mean for the Church New Unicorn-startup-on-the-block Elevens Labs has rolled out a more refined dubbing/translation service. Now one can simply upload any video under 45 minutes long and hear it in one of 27 different languages in the voice of the speaker. (Somebody should “back translate” Elder Uchtdorf speaking in German back into English to see how close it gets). Word on the street is that it is pretty accurate.  Implications for the Church:  A lot of the more esoteric debates about things in the Church like Egyptian papyrology, how Elder so-and-so’s remark might be interpreted by this or that group, and ancient Mesoamerican population growth rates were the purview of the sociocultural elite in the Church in English-speaking countries. Google Translate solved some of this, but increasingly even more popular content such as podcasts or YouTube channels from Church and Church-adjacent (or anti-Church) influencers is going to be widely available to the international Church. I suspect Church influencer culture going international will be a net bad thing, but I might be wrong. Obviously, this could make General Conference translations much, much more efficient, although if it’s still not 100% equivalent I suspect the Church will continue with traditional translation (and even if it is institutional inertia and internal incentives will probably keep the translation department there for the time being). Still,…

Latter-day Saints and Biblical Theology

Interpreting the scriptures is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Joseph Spencer discussed a particular approach to interpreting the Bible—Biblical Theology. In particular, he focused on recent developments in Latter-day Saint Biblical Theology. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.