Author: Ben S.

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.

SMPT Teaser: A Close Reading of Alma 32

I’m presenting this Saturday at the conference in Provo. I’ve kicked some of these ideas around for a while, but only started work on them in earnest recently. I’m addressing conceptions of faith and knowledge in Alma 32 through close reading. For me, that process entails creating a bibliography to see what’s been done, and working through the chapter closely and slowly, looking for patters and connections, textual issues, and logical flow.

The KJV and the Thereofs Thereof

The KJV is archaic and foreign today, but did you know it was already archaic and outdated when it was published in 1611? The translation team was instructed to follow earlier translations like The Bishop’s Bible (1568) and only change where they thought necessary. But the Bishop’s Bible was itself a revision of yet earlier translations, all the way back to Tyndale (1525)! This means the translators were not starting from scratch, but essentially critiquing and updating earlier work. The English used was not the current vernacular language of the people when it was published. The abundance of “barbed wire” for readers today is not all a result of linguistic change since 1611; KJV readers in 1611 found plenty of “barbed wire” too.

Quotes of Note- Elders Ballard and Packer on Meetings

(I was trying to find President Packer’s statement about meetings for second post on 1 Corinthians, and realized it had disappeared from I’ve relocated it on the Wayback Machine, and the link below is correct. The source is no longer a “recent address” so it had disappeared from Elder Ballard- “Are you using the ward and stake councils effectively as they were intended? Don’t let them become meaningless exercises in organizational bureaucracy. The way some leaders conduct council meetings, you would think they really believe in a fourteenth article of faith: ‘We believe in meetings—all that have been held, all that are now scheduled—and we believe there will yet be held many great and important meetings. We have endured many meetings and hope to be able to endure all meetings. If there is a meeting, we seek after it.’ We hope you do not have a fourteenth article of faith operating in your wards.”– Source at President Packer (quoted by Elder Kerr in a Family History Conference devotional in 2004)- “It takes a pretty good meeting to be better than no meeting at all.”-, via the Wayback Machine. Amen and amen. Now go forth and do thou likewise…

Teaching Old Testament for Seminary

You recently got called as a Early Morning Seminary teacher, and feel surprisingly sanguine about it. Then you found out that you’re starting with Old Testament this September, and all of a sudden, your confidence in the face of world-weary, eye-rolling teenagers plummeted. Why is this so tough? The audience is hostile and sleepy. You teach every day, without the luxury of a whole week to think through your 45 minute lesson. You’ve got to get in there every morning to teach about the longest book we know the least, with the hardest material that is also the most foreign, culturally speaking. Not to stack the deck, but you’ve got my respect, Sister Volunteer Seminary Teacher.

Another View of the Seer Stone

Yesterday by invitation, I attended  the first known joint press conference between the LDS Church and its cousin, the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or RLDS.) The occasion was the release of the 2-part 3rd volume in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers, the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of the Mormon. As with the others, these books are hefty, high-quality, and thought-provoking. While available at Amazon (part 1, part 2), they will also be available in their entirety online soon. 

Revisiting President Packer on “Scientific Neglect” and Meetings

Given that my studies have involved the interpretation of Genesis, science, and evolution, Elder Packer and I have not always seen eye to eye. I remember well on my mission when Time Magazine ran the cover article about Mormon finances. This made it all the way to France, where we had a copy, and my companion Elder West really focused in on their description of Elder Packer as “the LDS Church’s hard-line number 3 man.” And indeed, he had and has that reputation. But around 2007, while I was teaching volunteer Institute in Urbana IL, we attended a CES fireside for CES teachers, where he spoke. I think he felt that he was talking to insiders, whose commitment and knowledge ran deep, and we saw a different side of him. He was casual, funny, self-deprecating… surprising. We really only see the public persona of the Apostles, which is a very limited and selective part of them. I reprint below some comments from a post a few years ago revealing another side of him, called “Scientific Neglect.”  No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I believe this story is from when he served as mission president in  New England, 1965-68, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of this story, other than that President Packer is not always the “hard-liner” he is made out to be. “Scientific neglect can be a respectable procedure in discipline. One missionary came into the mission field with…

C.S. Lewis on Inspired Adaptation and Myth

I wrote recently that there’s no reason why God, who spoke to ancient Israelites “in their weakness, after the manner of their language” could not adapt familiar myths so “that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24.) Here, I cite that prophet-with-a-small-p “Elder” C.S. Lewis, who argues that inspiration can include adaptation of uninspired sources. 

How the New Perspective on Paul Illustrates the Science-Religion Creation Debate

(As with many of my posts, this is kind of trying things out, thinking them through in public and on the fly. It’s messy, so I welcome thoughts and substantive corrections.) In order to keep track of my research, I’ve been making a timeline of three kinds of events relevant to our understanding of Genesis: First, events in LDS history that impinge on the interpretation of Genesis, e.g. the 1911 BYU controversy or BH Roberts- Joseph Fielding Smith Debate (1930s). Second, events that lead to the recovery of ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 1, such as the discovery/decipherment of Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) and the Enuma Elish (first published in 1876 in English) Third, discoveries in the scientific world, such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), and the discovery of the function (1952) and structure (1953) of DNA. Although scientific influences are the best known, they are, conversely, the least influential on our understanding of Genesis 1.

Harnessing Fresh RM Enthusiasm to Train Future Leadership

It’s a truism that lots of people read few books. And certainly as we get married, have jobs, kids, responsibilities, many of us find our leisure time is spent simply recovering from the day and picking cheerios out of the carpet.  Moreover, lots of people who DO read just don’t have  interest in history, doctrine, or scripture and choose to read other things. But then, you have recently returned missionaries.

Guest Post- Taking Six Years to Teach the Book of Mormon

This post comes from Mom S. Over the last six years, we’ve had many conversations about the relevant books she was reading, questions that arose, and teaching ideas. I asked her to share some thoughts on this class and its effects.  Some time ago, I was asked to teach an adult scripture class in our ward. It was originally an extra activity for the Relief Society sisters but was expanded by the bishop to include any brothers who wanted to attend. I picked the Book of Mormon for the curriculum having learned from personal experience (16 years early morning seminary teacher, 4 years Institute teacher, 3 years stake adult scripture class, etc.), that a serious study of that book changes people.

On Conflation; or, Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater in 1911

Oftentimes, we’re presented with what appears to be a package deal: If you accept A, you accept B-G as well. If you reject A, you reject B-G as well. Just as often, however, what appears as a package can and should be unpacked,  critically and carefully examined to see if it really is so. In 1911 Provo, a controversy erupted over some teachers at BYU. Horace Cummings, the education commissioner, was sent down to investigate and make a report. Telling the entire story is beyond the length and attention span of the average blog, so I’ll just link to it here though it has been written about elsewhere. Cummings’ report is of interest to me because of the packaging of tradition, Old Testament interpretation and issues of miracles, science, and rationality.

NT Wright on Genre and Reading

  One of the themes I’ve explored repeatedly in talking about Genesis and Bible interpretation in general is that of genre, and the necessity of recognizing the genre of the material we’re reading. Today I came across a easy-to-understand analogy for this.

Initial Short Speculation on Three Book of Mormon Passages and Ancient Cosmology

Part of writing a book about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1 is… reading lots about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1. In doing so, I’ve had some thoughts about three Book of Mormon passages. I’ve generally set these on the shelf, so these are initial thoughts which upon further investigation may turn out to be highly significant or completely baseless. But I float them here for public interest and as a reminder to myself later.

Genesis- Various thoughts and notes on a Saturday night.

The new Seminary manual on the Old Testament approaches the authorship of Genesis in a reductive and simplistic way. (HT: David Tayman, who also did the Israelite cosmology art below.) Ask students if they know who wrote the first book in the Bible. After they respond, invite them to turn to Genesis 1 and look in the title to see who wrote the book of Genesis. (You may want to explain that in addition to writing Genesis, Moses wrote Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price also contains Moses’s writings.) Now, this is certainly traditional. But I think the manual’s reinforcement of the simplicity of the tradition creates problems, as per Julie’s excellent post on The Next Generation’s Faith Crisis. Moreover, it’s a tradition that we have not examined closely or often, with rare exceptions. It’s a tradition we have often shared with conservative Protestants and Jews, although with a difference. I’ve been through a number of conservative scholars on Genesis recently in the process of working on my book, and those who assert Mosaic authorship greatly nuance that claim to the point that it’s mostly a conservative dog whistle. For example, Tremper Longman (How to Read Genesis) asserts Mosaic authorship, but explains that Moses adapted preexisting oral and written sources; that there is “[e]vidence of significant post-Mosaic redactional activity;” that “[i]t is not possible or useful to definitively and completely divide the pre-Mosaic, Mosaic,…

Taking Control of Your Gospel Doctrine Class… Because You’re the Teacher

I’ve wondered how much blame for  “uninformative” (Pres. Kimball’s description) or “uninspiring” (Elder Holland’s paraphrase) teaching in Gospel Doctrine comes from collective failure. Yes, a good teacher can do wonders, but if many classes don’t really talk about the scriptures in question, it’s because virtually no one but the teacher has read them.

Recommended NT Resources, part 3: History and Commentary

(Cross-posted at Benjamin the Scribe.) First, Amazon is offering 30% off any physical book you buy for the next two days, by entering HOLIDAY30 at the checkout. Great time to pick up that hardcover Jewish Study Bible,  Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, or similar “expensive” hardcover you can’t get otherwise. Amazon link to the details. Short list. This was really hard to put together, much more than my OT list. 

Short Musings on the Wu-Tang Clan, Ezekiel, and Church Curriculum

Yesterday at a restaurant with my parents, I heard a nice bluesy instrumental over the audio system. I’m a blues fan, and liked it so much I flagged down the waitress to ask what it was. She went to check, and reported to our mutual surprise, that that particular song was “Slow Blues” by the Wu-Tang Clan! I don’t know much about Wu-Tang or the ODB, but I’m familiar enough to know that this is not their usual genre. Most of their music, from what I can tell, is fairly explicit rap. I imagine their CDs (if they still exist) would likely have the parental warning on them. If one of your kids came home with a Wu-Tang CD with the “explicit lyrics” warning, you might be concerned. (First question- “They still make CDs?! Why are you buying CDs?!”) Indeed, even if they explained they’re only listening to the blues song, it still might be of concern. Selective listening gives a misleading impression of the whole of their œuvre. And yet, this is exactly what we do with our scriptures by reading selectively, particularly here in Ezekiel. We avoid the challenging stuff, and focus on those bits that seem relevant. We’re reading the “instrumental blues” of Ezekiel, and ignoring the less savory or challenging parts. This is an example of how extreme selectivity can distort, as with Ezekiel, and other parts of Church curriculum. For example, I’ve had a wry grin…

Reading and Writing (Genesis): Books, books, and more books

I have a few things in my way before being able to work full-time on Genesis 1– a recalcitrant article draft, some travel, volunteer work, etc. In the meantime, I’m making slow but good progress. I’m beginning to suspect the most important parts of the book will be the first two sections dealing with groundwork/assumptions and LDS entanglements with Genesis, not the last two sections on the ancient Near Eastern context or the text/translation itself. I’m interested in a lot of things that are secondary or tertiary to the main thrust of the book, such as the history of biblical interpretation, the history of interaction between science and religion, history of science, and how other religious traditions have handled the challenges to tradition, authority, doctrine, etc. It’s terribly difficult to avoid spending too much time filling out these secondary areas, but I really can’t afford the time to read everything relevant; there is a TON of relevant scholarship. Below are a few things that are on my virtual nightstand that may be of interest, not all related to Genesis.

Constructive Thoughts on the Curriculum Shift

As I’ve stopped hyperventilating over the leak of this forthcoming change, I’ve had some thoughts. I have a general rule when I’m in Gospel Doctrine that I try not to say anything unless it’s constructive (or the teacher says something really flagrantly crazy/wrong, which is rare in my experience.) Let me open with this positiveness, then. BYU’s RelEd has some fantastic people, some new hires, and good things happening. I’ll single out the Advanced Book of Mormon class. The two Fall 2014 sections are not the first time this class has been taught. The two “regular” Book of Mormon classes are prerequisites, the syllabi I’ve seen look very good, and the profs are top-notch.  BYU still includes this aspirational statement (which I’ve cited before) about the nature of teaching in RelEd. Teaching in Religious Education is to be substantive and inspirational. Students should become familiar with the text studied in each course taken and learn the implications of the text for daily living. They should feel free to raise honest questions, with confidence that they will be treated with respect and dignity and that their questions will be discussed intelligently in the context of faith. Where answers have not been clearly revealed, forthright acknowledgment of that fact should attend, and teachers should not present their own interpretations of such matters as the positions of the Church. Students should see exemplified in their instructors an open, appropriately tentative, tolerant approach to “gray” areas of the gospel. At the same…

Recommended NT Resources part 2: General and Reference (updated)

Many of these can be purchased in paper, kindle, or from Logos or Accordance. (I’m a big Logos user.) As with all my recommendations, take them with a grain of salt. I neither fully endorse nor vouch for everything said in these, but you will certainly learn and grow by reading them. Samples are often available from Amazon or Google books, and in some cases I’ve linked to others here or in the past. If you missed it, part 1 is here.

Recommended NT Resources, Part 1: Translations, Text, and the Bible in General

(Cross-posted at Benjamin the Scribe) We’re 80% of the way through our Old Testament, and the time has come to start looking forward. As I did for the Old, so I will do for the New. This time, I’ll break it up into a few posts, probably a few weeks apart. (Part 2, Part 3 are here.) As before, the absolute best and easiest thing you can do to increase the quality and frequency of your Bible study is to supplement your KJV with a different translation. You can do it with a free app or website, or go old school and buy hardcover. I do both. Below are some recommendations on Bibles. (If the idea of reading a non-KJV application bothers you, see my Religious Educator article at the bottom, which includes Apostolic examples of non-KJV Bible use in The Ensign and General Conference.)

The Hypothetical “Missionary Library”

As a companion piece to Dave’s post on missionaries, let’s talk about the approved missionary library. I have concerns about what missionaries study, know, and teach. The typical missionary develops far more motivation to read and study “the literature of the Church” than before the mission, but is far more restricted, although mission presidents have leeway to relax this. Certainly the primary content of missionary study should be scripture and the doctrine, but I think by narrowing the library too much, we miss real opportunities both for the missionaries themselves and the people they teach.

Faith, Revelation, and Jewish Parallels

Some Jewish reading recently has triggered some LDS thoughts and parallels. I jotted these down between lengthy organic chemistry homework sessions, so they’re less refined than I’d like, but still important to get out there. (I’m trying to shed my perfectionist writing tendencies.) James Kugel is an insightful and approachable Hebrew Bible scholar. He’s also an Orthodox Jew who retired from Harvard to go live in Israel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible details how and why ancient and modern audiences understood the Bible differently, exposition which many people find disturbing or even undermining of faith.

What are the best Ensign articles?

We have four missionaries in our ward, with ipads. They have complete access to the library, but (per their mission president’s wishes) little else in terms of reading/enrichment material. I keep mentioning different books, as is my wont (see here, here, and here), and telling them “all you need to do is read,” so they’ve been frustrated at the apparent lack of access to “the good stuff.” 

An Offhand Apologia of Sorts, and some Reflections

I exchange emails with a good number of LDS people. Some of them are simply looking for information, a pointer to the right article or scripture or background. Some of them are finding their spiritual footing to not be as firm as it used to be, which is highly disconcerting. No one enjoys just trying to stay afloat while the waves keep breaking over you. One such exchange recently ended with a personal question, given X, Y, and Z, why do *you* stay? It was a busy day, and I only had five minutes (dangerous to write something serious so spontaneously), but I wanted to give my interlocutor something. Since several people have found it helpful, here’s my quick response, edited slightly for clarity and detail. 

Mormon Appropriation of Fundamentalism and Its Outcomes (u)

The last post I whipped off quickly and in frustration was surprisingly well-received. This post was similarly written, and may require editing. Update: I have good reason to believe that the Ensign article in question did not and definitely does not fully reflect its author’s position. This post is not about the author, nor even the Flood itself. (For that, please go read my Flood post first.) After 16 years, however, the article’s content is still easily and prominently accessible to members, with the authority of The Ensign and his BYU position behind it, and that remains highly problematic. Let’s focus on the ideas as written, and not the author. Mention was made today at Church of the 1998 Ensign article “The Flood and the Tower of Babel.” That article is conspicuously absent from the manual and the CES page of resources for teaching these chapters.