The Author In my childhood, I watched my evangelical classmates devour the Left Behind series, curious what a Mormon analogue would look like. Lo and behold, in 2003 Deseret Book published a novel titled The Brothers. Befitting his history as a military pilot, the author had previously focused on military techno-thrillers, and the book series to which The Brothers was a prologue — The Great and Terrible — was mostly of that genre. While it turned out that The Great and Terrible was not exactly comparable to Left Behind — it wasn’t about the end of days — The Brothers did not disappoint. I unironically love the book as a ingenuous crystallization of a certain moment in Mormon political theology, projected back into a narrative set in the premortal, pre-Earth life. The author prefaces the book with an Author’s Note, in which he admits that he “was forced to take author’s license in many of the details presented in this book. The simple fact is that we know very little of what life was like for us in the premortal world, and the war in heaven is a mystery we know even less about. Yet any literary work, especially fiction, requires some sense of time, location, conflict, and description in order for readers to allow themselves to be pulled into the story.” Without these, he says, “the story turns out to be little more than a series of conversations.” He…
Category: Social Sciences and Economics
Pagans and Christians in the City (2/2)
Don’t bring immanent evidence to a transcendent argument.
Scientists and Religious Belief
Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of “greater” scientists believed in a personal god and about 48% of “lesser” scientists did. The numbers were remarkably close to what a 2006 Pew study found with 33% of scientists believing in God.
Why the Nones are Rising
One of the most interesting demographic shifts of the last era is the rise of the Nones. These are people who don’t self-identify with any particular religion at all. I’ve written about them several times in the past. My own view is that the rise of the Nones has primarily been a shift among people with loose commitment to religion. In the past they’d have named a religious tradition they were a part of. Now they say “none.” To my eyes the primary shift has been less a shift in their behavior than a shift in how they name themselves. But of course that’s not the whole story. While that’s probably what’s going on it doesn’t explain everything. Demographically the primary part of the population driving the rise of the Nones has been millennials. Fully 36% self-identify as part of the Nones. Older groups, like my Gen-X generation, have become slightly less religious but the primary driver of the social shift are these generational changes. It used to be that once people got married and became more integrated into the community in a traditional way that shifted. That’s no longer true. The reasons aren’t entirely clear. Partially people started marrying later and later, if at all. Further many of those who do marry don’t make the shift that they would have in prior decades. The other driver is almost certainly a different cultural climate towards religion that is leading to broader social shifts.…
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… I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine. Based on these two scriptures, I see the hallmark characteristics of Zion as altruism and unity. On the one hand, that gives us a very general conception of what a Zion society would look like. But on the other hand, that’s really nowhere near enough, from a practical standpoint, to go about building a Zion society. This leaves Mormons in a pickle. We’re under divine…
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 in need recently. As a result I started reading a book on the subject recommended to me, Bridges out of Poverty, a manual for those working with the needy, including community and religions leaders like bishops and stake presidents. This book suggests, among other things, a very simple idea: those in different economic classes live in different cultures. Simply put, the way that those in poverty think and act, even when they think and act logically, is different than the…
Utah Transcends Political Tribalism
This might be the last place you would expect to see it: a state where Republicans already prefer the inclusive message of Marco Rubio over the divisive messages of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz,* even before Rubio’s strong finish in South Carolina.** That is, if you didn’t know much about Utah. Utah is the reddest state in the Union, with a 36-point gap in party affiliation. Rubio is often called a moderate, so he should be the favorite in a place where the Republicans are tinted purple, like Massachusetts or Vermont, right? Nope! They prefer Trump, by 34 percentage points in Massachusetts and 15 in Vermont! Trump is leading nationally by around 14 points, and in nearly every state. Just look at the polls. Cruz won the Iowa caucus and leads in his home state of Texas and neighboring New Mexico. Otherwise, it is all about Trump right now—except in Utah. How is the reddest state in the Union coming out in favor of a so-called moderate rather than a hard-liner like Cruz or Trump? Utah has a different brand of Republicans, much less likely to see the world in tribal terms, especially not ethnic tribes. For most of us in this country today, national politics is driven more by what we hate and fear than by what we love. Most voters’ negative feelings toward the opposition party are stronger than their positive feelings for their own. This is called…
“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 in origin. Biblical scholars have labeled societies in antiquity (including the Greco-Roman world Jesus inhabited) as honor/shame societies (this has been discussed here at Times & Seasons before). While the modern Western world features a highly internalized, personalized morality, other cultures place stronger emphasis on the connection between personal behavior and community values. “In shame cultures,” writes one pair of biblical scholars, “people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It…
The Approaching Zion Project: How to Get Rich
So here we are, a day early (or, um, six days late, if that’s the way you want to look at it). Since we’re here, let’s take a look at Nibley’s next approach toward Zion:
The Approaching Zion Project: How Firm a Foundation! What Makes It So
Interestingly enough, this chapter seems to be less focused on Zion and more focused on the Church more broadly. Still, Zion sneaks in, even discussing the Church. As always, a couple things I found interesting:
The Approaching Zion Project: Deny Not the Gifts of God
This chapter (understandably) overlaps significantly with the previous chapter, Gifts. These are, after all, discourses he delivered at various times, to various audiences, with common themes. I’m reading them separately, though, and different things hit me at different readings. So, like always, I won’t discuss everything Nibley focuses on (and I’ll try to not spend too much time on things I’ve discussed previously). With that out of the way, on to the chapter.
The Approaching Zion Project: Gifts
For the third (and, I hope, final) time, I read this chapter on an airplane, taking notes as I read it. And there are just a couple quick things I want to highlight and discuss, and one sentence that really troubled me.
The Approaching Zion Project: Zeal Without Knowledge
For the second time, I read this chapter in an airport and on an airplane returning home. With that as my full preface, let’s jump into this chapter:
The Approaching Zion Project: What is Zion? A Distant View
Another confession: I had a really hard time with this chapter. And it’s not just because I read it sitting in an airport waiting for a plane that was delayed for an hour and a half. Rather, it’s because of the way Nibley speaks of the wealthy. Certain of his descriptions feel, to me, so laughably one-dimensional—so moustache-twirling, tying-the-heroine-to-the-tracks—that I find myself fighting both his prose and my instincts to not just dismiss his entire piece out of hand.
The Approaching Zion Project: Our Glory or Our Condemnation
Now that I’ve read my first chapter of Approaching Zion, a couple more caveats before we get started. First, I’m not going to bother summarizing what Nibley said. Instead, I’m going to try to engage it, responding to ideas that engaged me, whether I agree or disagree. Second, I’m not going to try to engage with the full text; in Chapter 1, there were two things that really spoke to me, and one more that I’m going to mention and defer until a later installment. Feel free, in the comments, to engage with what I’ve engaged with, what I’ve said, or something else in the chapter that you feel needs to be responded to. With that, let’s go!
The Approaching Zion Project: Prologue
I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. I’m serious. I mean, I bought it years ago, probably before my oldest daughter was born. I’ve lugged it through at least six or seven moves. And it’s sitting on my bookshelf, taking up valuable real estate. But, though I’ve nibbled here and there, I’ve never even read a complete chapter.
It seems an odd oversight, frankly: in Approaching Zion, Nibley describes what constitutes a Zion society, and what we need to do to establish such a Zion society; I’m deeply interested in how society and the law can promote social justice and a better world. So it seems like a natural fit, right?
An April 15th Post
Happy tax day! In honor of today, a Mormon/tax story:
Facebook Memes and the Property Tax
There is, I’ve been told, a Facebook meme going around, juxtaposing a decaying house and the San Diego temple to support the argument that churches should not be exempt from taxation.
And, like Facebook memes everywhere, this one is dumb. Dumb primarily because it is a tautology that doesn’t say anything. Because of course a tax-exempt organization does not pay taxes that a non-exempt individual pays. That’s pretty much the definition of tax exemption.
Of course, saying that a Facebook meme is dumb and tautological makes for a pretty short and boring post. Far more interesting, imho, is to take seriously the point that the people spreading the picture are trying to make, and complicating that rhetorical picture a little bit.
When I lived in New York, I could have told you what virtually all of my friends paid in rent. It was a fairly common topic of conversation, and the conversation was one of two types: the can-you-believe-I-pay-$2,000-for-this-dump, or can-you-believe-I-only-pay-$3,500-for-this-apartment.[fn1] I didn’t really think much of it; I didn’t put much stock in financial privacy. And it wasn’t just the amount I paid in rent—as an attorney at a big firm in New York, if you wanted to know how much I made, you basically just needed to know the year I graduated from law school, the firm I worked for, and the website for NALP.[fn2] My salary was there for the viewing. After my first stint in New York, while living in the DC metro area, an acquaintance bought a house. And he mentioned the price[fn3] at his housewarming party. His wife was mortified. She explained to him that that is a number you don’t mention in public. It came as a shock to me—I was so acclimated to the public discussion of rent payments as a cocktail party discussion that it never occurred to me that anybody would want to be cagey about how much they paid for housing. I remembered these differing social conventions about money when I read the Parade Magazine[fn4] interview with the Romneys. When asked about tithing, Mitt Romney says, Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given. This is done entirely privately.…
About six months ago, I got an email asking (a) if I knew anything about low-profit limited liability companies (“L3Cs”) and private foundations, and (b) if I’d be willing to be a guest lecturer in a class, explaining what they were and how they function. I did know something (though at the time not much) about them, so I said I’d do it, then spent several weeks immersing myself in the theory and practice behind L3Cs.[fn1] It turns out that Loyola’s business school offers an elective class in Social Entrepreneurship. The point of the class, from what I can gather, is to teach business students about how to create profit-making businesses that make the world a better place. *** I’ve sensed some skepticism recently, both within and without the bloggernacle, about the propriety of charitable institutions making a profit (or, sometimes, about whether profit-making transforms a charitable institution into a non-charitable one). And I find that skepticism odd. Because of course a charity can (and, I would argue, in most cases should) earn a profit, at least some of the time. Why? A couple reasons. First, money that’s just sitting around is actually losing value. And that’s the case for everybody (including you and me and for-profit businesses—some companies will use “sweep accounts,” which allow them to invest excesss cash overnight). I assume that charitable institutions don’t have steady revenue, revenue the timing and amount of which match exactly their administrative…