Category: Book of Mormon

A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil

I remember talking to an atheist on the riverfront walk in Dubuque, Iowa one day while serving my mission.  He told my companion and me that he couldn’t believe in God after some of the things he had seen, and went on to describe (in a fair amount of gruesome detail) visiting a Catholic church in South America in the aftermath of an attack by a militant group of some sort and seeing the mutilated bodies of the Christians laying scattered about.  If God existed, he reasoned, God would have not allowed such horrific act to take place.  I was taken aback and was uncertain how to respond to his expression of disbelief rooted in such deep trauma.  We talked with the man for a little while longer and moved on in with the day.  His comments got at one of the most difficult and complex philosophical issues of Christian religion—the theodicy, the question of why evil exists if God exists, is good, and is all-powerful.  That evening, I remember talking about the incident with my companion and thinking (somewhat naïvely): “I should have just opened up the Book of Mormon to Alma 14, where Alma and Amulek watch their converts burn and discuss why they can’t do anything about it.  That would have shown him how we have all the answers.”  Looking back, however, I’m grateful we didn’t turn to that section of the Book of Mormon during our…

Review: 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction

I think one of the most repeated refrains I see in comment threads in the bloggernacle is that our Church meetings generally lack the vibrancy and ability to deeply engage with the scriptures and ideas in ways that can stimulate interest and growth.  As Terryl L. Givens put it in a recent interview, “one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death.”[1]  The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is one organization that is working to provide resources that provide thought-provoking discussions, deep thought, and spiritual growth to members of the Church.  One of their most ambitious projects this year has been the production of a series of short books discussing the Book of Mormon—the Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series.  I recently finished Terryl Givens’s 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, and really enjoyed the experience of reading it. I suspect that the purpose of the series is partly two-fold—to excite people about the richness of our scriptural cannon and to introduce the work of some of the great minds at the Institute’s disposal to a broader audience. (Though certainly not all of those great minds—I was disappointed to realize that Philip Barlow would not, in fact, be giving us a 467 page discussion of Amaleki’s 18 verses, for example.)[2]  Terryl Givens is certainly a heavy-weight hitter in that category, having published significant volumes about both the Book of…

Saving Alvin

How we approach the scriptures affects what we see in them. In other words, our assumptions, our traditions, our cultural baggage that we carry with us as we enter the world of scriptural texts are lenses that give meaning and shape to what we find inside those scriptures.  Two approaches that I would like to examine today are looking at the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets as a unified, static monolith of doctrine vs looking at them as a dynamic collection of texts written by individuals who each had their own limited view.  I intend to look at those views using the doctrine of salvation for the dead as the focal point. In 1823, Alvin Smith (Joseph Smith’s oldest brother) suddenly became ill. He died a short time later in great pain. Alvin seems to have been considered the brightest and best of the Smith brothers, even within his own family.[1] Yet, according to William Smith, at Alvin’s funeral, a local Presbyterian minister “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it.”[2] Apparently, this did not sit well with Joseph Smith, Jr. either. Throughout his life, he grappled with the question of what became of people like Alvin—uncatechized and unbaptized individuals who were good people. Grappling with the question resulted in an evolution of theology concerning redemption of…

Reflections on Meetings in the Church of Christ

One of my favorite quotes of all time about Mormonism focuses on the concept of Zion.  “Zion-building is not preparation for heaven.  It is heaven, in embryo.  The process of sanctifying disciples of Christ, constituting them into a community of love and harmony, does not qualify individuals for heaven; sanctification and celestial relationality are the essence of heaven.  Zion, in this conception, is both an ideal and a transitional stage into the salvation toward which all Christians strive.”[1]  Fiona and Terryl Givens have captured here what I find to be one of the most essential parts of my religion—the development of a community based on love and discipleship to Christ.  That, to me, is one of the core reasons for the Church—to provide a place where we can begin to learn and practice the things that are necessary for us to live in a heavenly community, even though the lived experience often falls short of that goal. Now, there was something profoundly ironic about studying the founding of the Nephite Christian church during a time that we are unable to attend worship services in the modern Church in last week’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.  I was grateful for the chance to do so, however, since there will come a time, sooner or later, that the current situation stabilizes enough to return to regular Church meetings and each of us will need to make the decision about returning to those meetings. …

Monotheism and Mormonism

One of the most central and difficult issues of Christian theology is how to fit together a commitment to monotheism with a belief that Jesus is a divine being.  While we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have resolved some aspects of this in our own ways, we still have areas that are unclear when it comes to working out this theological knot.  While I’m aware that we are looking at scriptures and doctrines that represent ideas that have evolved over time, my hope today is to muse on what we currently believe as a community based on the scriptures and the teachings of Church leaders and try to work towards a better understanding of the issue (as much for myself as for any readers). We have several competing commitments in our doctrine that complicate the issue of the Godhead and Jesus’s status in our theology, including a commitment to monotheism.  We are part of the Judeo-Christian religious family and Israelite theology committed itself to belief that there only existed one God—their God—known at various times as Yahweh/Jehovah/the Lord, Elohim, El Shaddai, and a few other names as well.  Think, for example, of the proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”[1] This commitment to believing that there was one God passed on to Christianity, as indicated when Paul wrote that: “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in…

Seer Stones and Grammar

Book of Mormon translation is one of those interesting subjects that is central to the ongoing Book of Mormon wars.  As well, to me, one interesting aspect about the Book of Mormon is how self-aware of its own creation it is.  For example, in Mosiah 8 (part of this week’s “Come, Follow Me” discussion), there is a discussion about seership and the use of “interpreters” that allow the owner to “look, and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13).  In the case discussed in the scriptures, the seer is King Mosiah II and the record is the Jaradite plates that Zeniff’s colony discovered.  While it doesn’t explicitly link this to the future translation of the Book of Mormon, it is interesting to be given a glimpse into the same method that Joseph Smith said he used to produce the Book of Mormon being used within the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, we don’t know much about the process by which the Book of Mormon was brought to us or the role of seer stones (interpreters) in that process.  There is a mountain of conflicting evidence to sift through in trying to pin down a viable theory of translation.  As Grant Hardy wrote: “There is still no consensus among LDS scholars as to how the translation process worked.  Some think that Joseph received spiritual impressions through the seer stone that he then put into his own words, while…

Review: Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Michael Austin’s book, Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is a quick, insightful and though-provoking read about the Book of Mormon.  The book began its life as a series of blog posts at By Common Consent, documenting some of Austin’s thoughts as he read the Book of Mormon in-depth for the first time in decades (after spending a significant amount of time during those decades focused on literary criticism and Biblical studies).  The book, published by the By Common Consent Press earlier this year, takes the form of a collection of short essays that, as put by the author, are “not scholarly articles, or even well-thought-out personal essays; rather, they are the record of a deeply personal experiment upon the word.”[1] A bit of background on the author: Michael Austin is a former English professor who currently serves as an academic administrator in Evansville, Indiana.  He has published several books and articles, with the subjects of political discourse in the United States of America and literary criticism of the Bible and Mormon Literature being some of the notable topics.  A few of his published books include Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, Inc., 2014), That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Prometheus, 2012), and Reading the World: Ideas that Matter (W. W. Norton & Company).  He also has written for the By Common…

Race and Lineage among early Latter-day Saints

Race is an incredibly sensitive topic, but it is also an incredibly important topic to discuss and understand.  A number of important books have been published about the racial narratives that were adopted by early members of the Church in recent years, including Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Max Mueller to discuss the book in a 10 questions interview.  What follows here is a summary of the interview, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here. Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies.  He describes himself as “a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history, with particular interest in indigenous and African-American religious experiences, epistemologies, and cosmologies.”  He turned his interest to the Latter-day Saint experience because of the “insider/outsider paradox” that is a part of our culture and the fact that while “Latter-day Saints have been stand-ins for ‘American,’ … in their exceptional-ness, they remain set apart.”  As he went on to say: Race, of course, factures heavily into these historical and cultural understandings of Latter-day Saints. Non-Mormon Americans have projected their own anxieties about race, religion, and gender onto Latter-day Saints since the Church’s founding. And at the same time, Latter-day Saints have responded by projecting…

Revisiting Sherem

Many of my choices in books this year have been influenced by a decision to try and catch up on literature about the Book of Mormon.  I feel a bit overwhelmed, to be honest, since there’s a lot out there and I have been more focused on the New Testament in recent years.  I recently finished reading Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, a collection of essays on Jacob 7 that resulted from a two-week gathering of the Mormon Theology Seminar.  There are both a published book version and a free PDF version offered through the Maxwell Institute.  It’s a good read, and I felt like there some interesting takeaways that have changed how I see Sherem (the titular antichrist). Sherem is an interesting character.  We don’t know where he comes from, but Jacob portrays him as a no-good, trouble-causing vagabond that shows up on the scene and disrupts Jacob’s congregation and people.  Jacob even goes as far as telling Sherem to his face that: “thou art of the devil,” and still refers to him as a “wicked man” after his repentance and death.[1]  Jacob also structures his telling of the story to present Sherem as a sort of anti-prophet, inverting a trope from the Hebrew Bible where “there came a man of God” who delivers a message to someone in authority, often followed by showing a sign that God’s power is behind him.[2]  Instead, Sherem’s coming is noted…

Laban… as a Christ Figure?

This Holy Week I’ve been monitoring my employer’s livestreamed Roman Catholic masses and services, meaning that I (for the first time) attended a Holy Thursday mass and a Good Friday service. So it happened that, during the reading of the Gospel of John in the Good Friday service, I noticed something peculiar. In response to Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:47-50, NRSV) In the KJV, for reference, that last line is rendered thus: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” I was roughly familiar with Caiaphas’s role in the Passion narrative, but I had never clued into this particular pseudo-utilitarian line of reasoning — reasoning that was, in John’s telling, effective enough to convince the Council to pursue Jesus’s execution. This time, my mind immediately jumped to the…

Resurrection and the Timing of Healing

The Christus

Bear with me as I go out into the theological weeds to explore an obscure doctrinal debate about the resurrection.  As my wife and I studied the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum section on Easter, we discussed Amulek statements about the resurrection in Alma 11.  Our question was: What exactly does it mean to “restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body” (Alma 11:44)?  Does it mean that the body is perfectly brought back to the condition it was when it died (“as we now are at this time”) and may undergo further healing and development or that it is brought back in a perfected, ideal state (“its perfect frame”)? Decades ago, the same question was asked by a priesthood quorum.  According to a Church periodical: It was the opinion of some members of the class that when the body comes forth it will be just as it was when it was laid down.  That is to say, if an arm or a leg were missing or the person otherwise maimed, the body would come forth as it was laid down and the restoration of any missing part would be added later.  Others thought that it would come forth in physical and mental perfection. When they turned to the then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith for clarification, he wrote that: “There would be no purpose whatsoever in having the body of any individual come forth from the dead…

The Way and the Ancient Gospel

The good shepherd

Along with “baby Yoda” memes, Disney’s Mandalorian made two phrases trendy: “This is the way,” and “I have spoken.”  Being a Star Wars fan, the phrases quickly made their way into the lexicon of my household.  So, it was humorous to me to find an entire lesson in “Come, Follow Me” this year entitled “This is the Way,” even though it makes sense in context.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi lays out the Doctrine of Christ in detail and concludes that: “This is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21), which was the focus of the lesson. All Star Wars humor aside, I find it interesting that Nephi concludes his discussion of the Doctrine of Christ with the statement “this is the way.”  The reason why I find that interesting is that early disciples of the Lord in the eastern hemisphere didn’t think of their religion as “Christianity” or call themselves “Christians” at first.  If we believe the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians,’” and the term may have initially been a term of reproach (something like calling a Latter-day Saint a “Mormon” or “Mormonite”).[1]  Before then, their religion seems to have simply been called “the Way,” which is how it is referred to throughout Acts.[2] …

The Olive Tree Restoration

There have been some common underlying themes to several Times and Seasons posts these past few months.  The three themes or questions that I have in mind at the moment are: “What is the nature of the Great Apostasy?”, “What is the nature of the Restoration?”, and “What is the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the broader tradition of Abrahamic faiths?”  I’ve posted about the Church’s Interfaith efforts, about B.H. Robert’s understanding of the Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God, and an attempt on my part to understand the First Vision based on what is presented in the textual accounts of the event.  Steven Smith discussed the comparisons of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to yeast in the post The humbling of the kingdom?, asked what it means to be the True Church in the form of a conversation, discussed an alternative approach to understanding restoring the church, and also brought up the ideas of the Christian story and the Mormon story as ways to approach our own self-understanding. While the continuing focus on these topics hasn’t been premeditated or coordinated between us, they are apparently weighing on our minds.  And they apparently continue to do so, since I have a few thoughts to share on the subject based on my study of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 this week.…

Embracing Jacob’s Sermon

One of the more awkward moments of my time in graduate school came when I was reading a book about Mormon polygamy while taking a break in the lab.  A visiting scientist from Pakistan who was doing research in the same lab saw me reading the book and asked me: “That looks like an interesting book.  Are you preparing to take a second wife?”, then joked about taking a second wife himself.  A bit flustered, I explained that my wife and I weren’t interested in expanding our family that way, that my church had stopped practicing plural marriage over a century ago, and that I was reading the book to better understand my ancestor’s decisions.  It was an interesting conversation, needless to say. The previous week’s reading in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum includes Jacob 2, the epicenter for discussing polygamy in the Book of Mormon.  Recently, a good friend who has chosen to leave the Church asked me: “Do you think the church will eventually disavow the polygamous teachings in the Book of Mormon?”  I was somewhat surprised at the question, since the section in the Book of Mormon in question already disavows polygamy, calling the practice “an abomination” that causes “sorrow … [and] mourning” for the women involved.  It also forcefully states that the word of the Lord is that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have…

Sacrament Prayers and the Doctrine of Christ

I am always interested in seeing how ideas grow, develop, and take shape of the years.  I suppose that is part of why I find the study of theology so interesting.  As I was studying the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum this last week, it struck me how the sacrament prayers seem to have developed and formulated alongside the Doctrine of Christ in the Book of Mormon. Early in the Book of Mormon, the prophetic triumvirate of Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob propose a controversial change to the traditional Hebrew religion, a change based on their revelations and their understanding of Isaiah that they called the Doctrine of Christ.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi summarizes this doctrine as follows: Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father? … Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.[1] There is the nucleus of the future sacrament…