Author: James Olsen

James is the husband of Erin Fairlight Olsen. Together they have conspired to doom their four children to a lifetime of mispronounced names: Gaebriel Joseph, Magdeleine Ysabelle, Myriam Reevkahleh, and Ewa Nuhr. Raised where the buffalo still roam in northeastern Wyoming, James learned how to Anglicize French while serving in the Missouri, St. Louis Mission. Afterward he thought so long and indecisively and with such passionately committed existential anguish about what to do with his life that finally BYU simply granted him a degree in philosophy. He then received a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. Unable to subsequently handle the pressures of looming heteronormativity, however, he once again took up philosophy, this time at Georgetown. Currently he is in Doha, Qatar, hiding out from Georgetown, which, much like his wife, would really appreciate it if he just graduated.

Reading Nephi – 13:10-19

I wonder what we’re getting here in this passage. How much of this is straightforwardly the details of the vision? In particular, is Nephi’s understanding of the vision a part of the vision, in the same way that one comes into a dream already comprehending the background and meaning of the events that one dreams? Or is the interpretation all Nephi? Was he even capable of making the distinction? How much of this is the evolved interpretation of a man who has pondered for decades on the vision’s meaning? Then again, how much of this is from the mind of Joseph Smith for whom no historical events would’ve loomed larger than the American Revolution? One of course need not deny historicity to think that the details of at least the meaning of the vision were something different on the gold plates than as they came out on Oliver’s parchment stack. The wrath of God stands out to me. What is the wrath of God? Given the context here, and the way that the wrath of God is poured out first on the “seed of [Nephi’s] brethren” and next gets poured out on the “mother Gentiles” who war against the colonists, I’m inclined to interpret the wrath of God as disease—that thing which played an absolutely decisive role in both the war of Native American subjugation and the later war of colonial liberation. It makes sense to think of Nephi understanding…

Reading Nephi – 13:1-9

A consistent feature that distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Bible is its pan-human focus. Nephi does not strike me as very cosmopolitan—rather the opposite. He cares about his family and posterity, and his overriding focus even there is not love and loyalty but theology; he cares that they’re tied into God’s covenant with the House of Israel, that their history is sacred and thus legitimate. It’s easy to see Nephi as exactly the sort of overzealous man who devotes his time and attention to his calling at the expense of his personal family (which he never mentions outside of confessing that he took a wife; maybe this is, as Hardy speculates, a form of coping with his failures as a husband and father; or maybe this was Nephi’s form of coping with the pain of having lost his family, the way that church service functioned originally for Brigham Young). Nephi is single-mindedly focused on his tribe and their health within the House of Israel. But the Lord doesn’t let him get away with that, because the Lord isn’t inspiring Nephi to write simply for his family and posterity. Rather, Nephi’s writing for a global audience in a thoroughly cosmopolitan era. And so once again the angel tells Nephi to “Look!” It’s interesting that in deciding how to structure his narrative for a some-decades-old vision, Nephi breaks it up into discreet “Look!” segments. As I’ve noted, there are rich…

Reading Nephi – 12:13-23

The pattern goes from “normal” chaotic, difficult, mortal life, to intense trial and darkness, to the burst of light when God comes and establishes an order that results in Zion, to apostasy from Zion leading to apocalyptical violence. Interestingly, however, the apocalypse isn’t the end here; rather it’s followed by more everyday, mortal struggle before the next chapter—which expands the scope of this drama from tribal to global. But this is the same pattern that Joseph Smith prophesies for our own dispensation: a prophet sets up a people who go through chaotic, difficult, mortal struggles, often assailed by our enemies (for which we are always or often at fault), leading toward an intense trial and darkness (the pre-millennial wickedness that we’re always so convinced is right now, where even our very elect are deceived), which is to be followed by the parousia par excellence when Christ reigns personally upon the earth together with everything else we prophesy in our 10th Article of Faith. But of course, the end is not the light. After this light our own wickedness will once again lead us to apocalyptical violence. Is that the end, however? That’s the way our narrative often goes. And maybe Nephi’s vision gives us something like the ongoing pattern of each micro-history, but when the macro-global-historical apocalypse takes place, that’s indeed supposed to be the end, right? Or maybe we’re to learn that this prophesied historical pattern is actually the…

Reading Nephi – 12:6-12

And here it is, the climax of the whole story. God himself comes down from the heavens to visit his people. Note that this is how we always experience that singular (even if repeated) event: it’s in the future. We’re always waiting for the parousia and never ourselves experiencing it.

Reading Nephi – 12:1-5

Now Nephi looks and beholds the future of his posterity and people. And one can understand why he comes out of this vision depressed and feeling sorry for himself—and why he immediately lays into his brothers with a condemning despair.

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 and teach the world. That is, there is continual, varied forms of God reaching out to mortals. To me this is the lesson of the Book of Abraham as interpreted by Joseph Smith (e.g., in the King Follett Discourse). God has a singular reaction to the tragedy and suffering inherent in the universe: to condescend toward those lesser intelligences that exist; that is, to love and heal and unite with them, to spend existence in an effort to exalt them;…

Reading Nephi – 11:24-25

The most powerful connection for me in all of this . . . is the striking fact that the point of the word of God is to lead to the love of God. This is surely the chief constraint on any scriptural hermeneutics.

Reading Nephi – 11:13-18

As commanded, Nephi looks, and what does he see? Interesting that the first thing he sees is cities, including Jerusalem and then Nazareth. What are the other cities? Why does he see cities? This is all in the context of Nephi being guided to come to understand the meaning of the tree. Ultimately Nephi determines it to represent the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of all God’s children. I wonder, then, if the purpose of seeing the cities was merely to orient Nephi toward the greater context of the meaning of what he sees—this isn’t a vision whose significance is merely for Lehi’s family, nor even for the Jews only (though apparently the only two cities Nephi recognizes are Jewish). Instead, Nephi’s shown the population centers of the earth—this is a vision encompassing humankind. There’s no indication that Nephi notices this or any other meaning to the cities he sees. When the (new) angel asks him what he sees, he responds only that he sees a virgin, one whose appearance in the vision mirrors the fruit of the tree. And yet it is her fruit that is the focus, rather than herself. But still, she is the one who is white and beautiful—the two traits Nephi earlier noticed concerning the fruit. Trees bear fruit and fruits bear trees. Verse 17 is one of the great verses in all of scripture, one that my heart has…

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Mormons and Modernism

Mormons and Modernism: Modernism, Secularism — and the Mormon Response? Thinkers as diverse as Charles Taylor, Marcel Gauchet, John Milbank, Mark Lilla, and Louis Dupré have written about the origins of the modern period—the radical change in thought and society from the medieval period to the modern that occurred gradually and culminated in the sixteenth century. Modernism brought us the renaissance, modern science, the birth of the modern state and democracy, as well as, ultimately, what Nietzsche called “the death of God.” In the twentieth century, questions arose about modernism, such as “How should we understand its grand narratives?” and “What have been its costs to human being?” Recognizing both modernism’s difficulties and achievements, if we cannot think against or beyond modernism, can with think within it? This seminar for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and not-yet tenured faculty will explore the emergence of modernism and its eventuation in what is often called “postmodern” thought. We will ask if Mormon thought should be understood as part of or in contrast to modernism. Do we have any unique responses to the issues that arise? James E. Faulconer (Professor of Philosophy, BYU) will direct. The seminar will run weekdays from 11 through 29 July (except for 25 July, a state holiday). It is sponsored by the Wheatley Institution, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, where it will be held. Participants will receive a weekly stipend of $500 and may receive help with housing and travel, depending on circumstances. To apply, please send a short vita and a one-page letter explaining your interest in the seminar topic to [email protected] Please include the…

Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

The first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly on the vision of the tree. And this too is different. Lehi’s dream was experiential; Nephi’s vision is observational and propositional. This is huge. Nephi requested to see the things that his father had seen. In response, the angel shows him the tree. It doesn’t start with the field, and the other elements of the vision all come later. There’s no gradual unfolding as Nephi chooses what to scan and perceptually seek after. Nor is it presented as a mystery—Nephi begins with an understanding of what he’s going to see and at least a rough outline of what it means (though his purpose is to see and know more fully). Beginning at the tree, it’s as though the angel is declaring that the whole purpose of Lehi’s vision is to help the viewer understand what the existential point is—what it is that all of our pain and our slogging through mortality is really about. There it is. The tree of life. Having been shown this fact, the angel once again tests Nephi. Now that you’ve seen the tree, Nephi, what do you desire? But unlike Lehi, Nephi’s goal here is mere understanding. He doesn’t ask to taste the fruit because…

Reading Nephi – 11:1-7

I’ll confess, I feel a mixture of serious disappointment and jealousy as I’m struck by the utterly exotic nature of this event. Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for specific reasons of instruction or witness—not like the shepherds abiding in their fields or Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness. Here the angel comes to simply ask: “What do you desire?” Now admittedly, this appears to be a sort of test—all right Nephi, let’s see what you ask for, and then we’ll see what you get. And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision. But God knows I’ll settle even for the test! Perhaps I choose wrongly and all I get is admonishment to repent and search the scriptures (the typical angelic injunction—maybe most folks choose poorly and Nephi really is prodigious). How could I not be infinitely content to be graced even with a mere test such as this? Is it that I fail all the preliminary tests, which block my path to the angelic one? As noted last time, Nephi’s whole point here is to help recreate for his reader what he takes to be the essential context of having a divine vision like his own. Brother Joseph was driven by similar motivations to try and teach his people how to experience what he had experienced. So far, here’s what we have: Desire to know Believe that…

Reading Nephi – 10:17-22

Nephi does it again right at the start of this passage, though this time it’s in reverse: he talks about faith in the Son of God, and then realizing that his reader would need clarification on that, he inserts the parenthetical about the Son of God being the Messiah of whom Lehi had been prophesying earlier in the chapter. The whole passage here is interesting in terms of its being a small bit of autobiography leveraged to preach a sermon at us. Nephi relays his experience to us in order to explicitly teach us and convince us that we can follow in the same path. Lehi was faithful, followed the commands of God, followed the inspiration of the spirit, obtained revelation (his own and others’), diligently studied that revelation, and came to know the mysteries of God. Nephi heard and hearkened and followed the same seeking pattern. His autobiographical description is both an invitation and a warning—we will be judged for how we react to our mortal framework and whether and how we seek. It’s really nice to read this passage in Hardy’s addition, which makes the poetry plain. This passage was my favorite when I was a small boy and first going through the Book of Mormon—I’m not sure why, not even sure that there was a reason why. I liked the sound of yesterday, today, and forever, and the one eternal round. And going through it slowly this…

Reading Nephi – 10:11-16

At the end of this section Nephi notes that there were many other prophecies of Lehi, and many of those prophecies Nephi wrote in his other plates. Here he’s only written what he thought appropriate. Well then, what has he written? Out of many prophecies, what does Nephi consider worth including? Two main things. First, he’s copied over Lehi’s messianism and re-interpreted that messianism for his reader. Second he’s laid a foundation for one of the major themes of the entire Book of Mormon: this notion of scattering and gathering, which he’ll take back up when relaying his own vision in a few chapters, and which gets repeated throughout the rest of the record. With this latter, there’s something else that’s interesting. Lehi isn’t just prophesying for his posterity, he’s given them a way of understanding and affirming the wrenching experience that they’ve undergone by situating their personal experience within a much grander, holy narrative. It’s necessary that branches be broken off and scattered—this is God’s plan. (Note that Jacob later picks up on this and attributes it to Zenos’s allegory of the olive grove—this scattering and gathering contributes to the health of the whole grove and significantly increases the harvest. Perhaps Jacob was also relaying the teachings of Lehi.) Consequently, Lehi’s family is blessed, honored, or at least undeniably part of an ultimately meaningful and divine narrative; and both Lehi and Nephi felt it imperative that their posterity understand…

Reading Nephi – 10:1-10

The first lines go right along with the confusion and different worldview conspicuous in 9. Having just stated the Lord’s intention for Nephi to focus on the spiritual as opposed to the secular and his own confusion over this point, Nephi launches in to tell us about his journey, his reign, and his ministry. It’s all the same to him. It’s all the workings of God. And I Nephi through the first part of II Nephi is in fact about showing that God was behind Nephi’s reign. I wonder what’s behind this notion of a “land of inheritance.” It’s a large theme in scripture. Here, Nephi’s keen on establishing a new land of promise, which becomes a land of inheritance for his people. This plays large later in the Book of Mormon as overzealous nationalists insist on retaking the land of Nephi, which results in disaster. I wonder if it is a part of Nephi’s and later prophets’ focus on being grafted back in to the House of Israel. The prophecies of Lehi concerning the exile and then return of the Jews must have played large in their minds as they themselves distinguished and made sense of their own journey. It wasn’t an exile, it was divine guidance to new promised lands; but the idea of multiple promised lands was brand new, and they were keenly aware of being “broken off” from their people. How would contemporary scholars or prophets…

Reading Nephi – 9

This is an extraordinarily odd chapter—and odd in ways that really do support the either prophet or genius narrative of Joseph Smith. Why, if one were simply trying to cover up their mistake in losing 116 pages and the first several hundred years of history, would you stick this chapter in here? You go ahead and finish translating from Mosiah through Moroni. Then, since your narrative is screwed up, you plan out this clever narrative of there being “other” plates—the Small Plates of Nephi—tacked on at the end of the gold plates—you use this ad hoc addition of these other plates to backfill and fix your narrative. But if what you’re really worried about is the scandal of the loss of the 116 pages, why wouldn’t you stick this chapter with it’s explanatory narrative—all about God knowing the reasons for these small plates when Nephi himself doesn’t, but surely there’s some purpose—at the very beginning? Modified slightly, Chapter Nine would work extremely well as a preface. As is, Nephi totally interrupts himself in the middle of his exodus narrative in order to talk about a tangent concerning different plates. He tells us that he is emphasizing “the more part of the ministry” as opposed to political and military events. Again, this is something that would make a nice preface to the whole book. Instead, Nephi’s preface to the whole book (the headnote just prior to chapter one) is a claim…

Reading Nephi – 8:29-38

The folks who make it to the tree via the path-rod fall down. Its exhausting. This seems so significant, and seems to confirm my earlier reading of the path-rod as not the optimal means of getting to the tree; we ought not kid ourselves about the cost of this route. Likewise, there seems to be a significant contrast between the difficulties of the path-rod and the difficulties making the tree via revelation. It’s a difficult journey no matter how one gets there—but Nephi’s gloss here highlights the danger of exalting the path-rod, or mistaking mere means as ends. Overall we’re being keyed in to two prominent mistakes—the one made by those who leave the path to wander in darkness, and another made by those who stay but mistake the path for the destination. There’s another great contrast here, concerning our initial steps and desires: those who begin to make their way toward the tree vs. those who begin to make their way toward the great and spacious building. I can’t help but think of Terryl Givens’ frequent comments that intellectually (and I would add, culturally) there is always good reason to elect Zion and there is always good reason to elect the world. This is mortality. What we intentionally elect, upon consideration, is a shining manifestation of our personal values. We also see here that merely making a choice and beginning down a path does not bring us to a…

Reading Nephi – 8:23-28

Why didn’t Lehi and his family ever see or need the rod of iron or the path when they journeyed to the tree? And by contrast, why did so many of those who sought after and obtained the path & rod, then fall away? Reading closely, it is only those who relied on the rod to get through the mists of darkness that are specifically noted to have fallen away (of course, at least some of those who failed to use the rod were lost—a bit of a catch 22). And how could folks fall away simply because of the glitterazzi who were mocking them? They’d partaken of the blasted fruit already! Of course I don’t know. But here’s a few thoughts. Lehi & family’s conversion seems much more secure. They had to make use of the Spirit, or of their own pure striving, and they were motivated by family and by the tree & its fruit. I’m not sure what the motivations or social support systems of the others were—Lehi and Nephi don’t point that out—but the existence of a straight path and a rod of iron in the midst of a dark and dreary (empty space!) world seems to be a big part of their falling away. That resonates with me. We’re in the midst of a big, dark, fathomless, meaningless world. Lots of folks are desperate for and latch onto a path or a rod or some…

Reading Nephi – 8:13-22

There are patterns here in the partaking of the fruit: self, then family, then others; self, then the righteous, then the wicked; self, then one’s people, then others. Enos later repeats this pattern in his great prayer. I don’t think this pattern lends credence to an egoistic (or even a growing enlightened self-interest) interpretation, however; quite the opposite. The first fruits of enlightenment seem to be to recognize that I am not a mere individual, that my own salvation is never enough. When pursuing righteousness, we seem to be made ever more aware of the centrality of others who at first glance appear to be different or separate from me. Rather than a growing awareness that others matter to my self-interest, it seems to be a growing awareness that others matter to my self, together with an awareness that we’re all of the same divine family. If we bracket the surreality of dreams, then we get an interesting insight into knowledge here as well. Each time Lehi searches for or actively takes note of something, something else is disclosed to his view. Looking for his family and how he might bring them to the tree makes him aware of the river. Searching for Laman and Lemuel, he notices the rod of iron, which brings into view the path, which brings into view the spacious field, which brings into view the grand fact that the world is not merely Lehi and…

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 that it’s a good fruit to eat if you want to be happy? Or, reading ahead and seeing that among other things the fruit represents the love of God, is it that the fruit desires for us to be happy? I like the epistemic progression inherent in verses 9-12. Lehi doesn’t know everything, and it’s only through experiencing the fruit that he comes to know. He begins with knowledge of the link to happiness, but only upon tasting does he…