Category: Book of Mormon

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…

What Has Isaiah To Do With Nephi?

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a yard that had landscaping that baffled me.  It was a grassy plain with a few small trees, and then about a half-dozen boulders scattered among the grass.  The boulders were what baffled me—they didn’t seem to fit in with the landscaping around them and they certainly made mowing the lawn more complicated than it otherwise would have been.  I’m sure they made sense to the person who put them there, but as far as I could see, it seemed like the homeowners had survived a meteor shower and then decided to live around the scattered meteorites rather than remove them from their yard. Up until recently, I felt much the same way about the Isaiah chapters in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.  They seemed like meteorites dropped into the middle of the text, or perhaps strange filler episodes that didn’t help move the plot forward.  When I came across them, I generally acknowledged that they were Isaiah, skimmed over them and moved on without trying to understand how they fit into the rest of what Nephi was saying.  Watching me read Isaiah in the Book of Mormon would have resembled watching my neighbors mow around the boulders in their yard.  That may be a show of my own failings in approaching the scriptures, but I suspect that I’m not alone in taking that approach. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to…

Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 3: Christ and the Tree

The tree of life and its fruit mean many things to many different people.  Immortality, eternal life, the presence of God, and Jesus the Christ are all important meanings of the tree in our tradition, but many more could be stated.  Among Christians, one prominent meaning of the tree of life is as a symbol of the Christ.  One way in which this is the case was hinted at when the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’s death and crucifixion as being “killed by hanging him on a tree.”[1]  The cross is referred to as a tree elsewhere in the New Testament as well, and, as C. Wilfred Griggs wrote, “Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life.”[2]  The tree and its fruit can be seen as a symbol of Jesus the Christ. The New Testament references to the cross as a tree took root and caused some commentary among Christians about the cross being the tree of life.  For example, St. John of Damascus wrote that: “The tree of life which was planted by God in Paradise pre-figured this precious Cross.  For since death was by a tree, it was fitting that life and resurrection should be…

Reconsidering the Lamanites

One of the major points of discussion in recent weeks is over an error in the printed “Come, Follow Me” manual.  A Joseph Fielding Smith quote with racist content was included in the discussion of 2 Nephi 5 and it was only noted that it does not accurately reflect Church doctrine after the manuals were printed.  The decision was made to change the digital version of the material but to send out the manuals as printed, with the belief that most members would be using the digital version.  Church statements to the press have focused on re-affirming that Church rejects racism in any form and disavows racist teachings.  At a meeting of the NAACP in Utah, Elder Gary E. Stevenson expressed that the quote was a mistake and that he wants members to disregard the printed version.  He also stated that: “I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others.”[1]  It’s been an issue that has fed into the ongoing discussion of the Church’s efforts to deal with racism. Now, there are many unresolved questions with this error.  For example, what exactly is the review process for the “Come, Follow Me” manuals and how did the quote pass inspection?  Will the official institute manual for the Book of Mormon also be updated to remove the quote?[2]  Will the Church tell members to disregard the printed version via…

The Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God

One of the more controversial aspects of Nephi’s vision of the tree of life is the great and abominable church or church of the devil.  In his record, Nephi states that “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10).  At times, Church leaders and members have associated “the church of the devil” with specific organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, while at others, they have tried to use it as a metaphor for any organization that promotes evil.  In recent history, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stressed the latter.  Yet, there is also a Church of the Lamb of God that is spoken of by Nephi that is also worth discussing as an opposite counterpart of the church of the devil. In his vision, Nephi reports seeing “the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches” that was founded by the devil and that “they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:5, 26).  What this church of the devil was and how it participated in the Great Apostasy has been a matter of discussion over the years. Most famously, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught…

What are the best books to accompany your study of the Book of Mormon?

Next year, we’ll be studying The Book of Mormon in the Come, Follow Me program for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During this year’s study of the New Testament, I’ve benefited from reading complementary material, such as — as I was reading Romans — Adam Miller’s excellent Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. What are your favorite books that you’ve read or that you are anticipating reading to accompany your study of the Book of Mormon? I’ll put some of mine in the comments below to get us started, but I’d love to hear yours.

Putting the Book of Mormon Front and Center

Elder B.H. Roberts of the Seventy once wrote that: So long as the truth respecting it is unbelieved {the Book of Mormon} will remain to the world an enigma, a veritable literary sphinx, challenging the inquiry and speculation of the learned. But to those who in simple faith will accept it for what it is, a revelation from God, it will minister spiritual consolation, and by its plainness and truth draw men into closer communion with God.[1] It can be difficult to pin down the Book of Mormon due to the many different things that can be used as evidence for or evidence against a divine origin for the book. In a recent 10 Questions interview with Kurt Manwaring, Tad Callister talked about his newest publication, A Case for the Book of Mormon, which discusses some of these evidences. What follows here is a short summary with commentary, but for those who are interested, the original discussion can be found by clicking here. Tad R. Callister is relatively well known at this point. He served as a general authority in the Seventies and might be remembered for giving short but pointed talks in general conference like “The Book of Mormon—a Book from God” and “Joseph Smith—Prophet of the Restoration”. He later served in the General President of Sunday School in the Church, where he was involved with bringing the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum to all age groups. He has also…

On Not Understanding the Atonement

There are some pretty major aspects of our Latter-day Saint faith–and of Christianity in general–that I don’t really understand. Specifically: the necessity and efficacy of the Atonement. Repentance and forgiveness make sense to me. The Atonement is a mystery, and none of the explanations or theories resonate with me on a deep, personal level. I am convinced that the scriptural accounts–especially in the Book of Mormon and New Testament–are true. I believe what they tell me. I just don’t understand them. What I do feel, and feel viscerally, is the fundamental brokenness of the human condition generally and my own shortcomings in particular. The world is broken, and I am broken in it. I am just as utterly convinced of the splendid beauty which we may all glimpse from time to time within this broken world and among its broken inhabitants. We are broken, but we we dream of wholeness. That dream came from somewhere. Wholeness–perfection–is also real. What I don’t understand is how Christ and the Atonement comes into play in helping us get from the Point A of Brokenness to the Point B of Wholeness. There’s only one thing I’ve ever read that helped me start to build a scaffold across the chasm of my ignorance. That’s Sister Neill F. Marriott’s talk from the General Women’s Session of the October 2017 General Conference: Abiding in God and Repairing the Breach. I read the talk about a year ago,…

A Reaction to the Church’s Recent Essay on Book of Mormon Geography

Brant Gardner has kindly agreed to offer some comments on the recent Church essay on Book of Mormon geography. He’s a research assistant with Book of Mormon Central and arguably one of the top experts in the question of Book of Mormon geography. I’ve enjoyed discussing the Book of Mormon with Brant going way back to the 90’s when I ran the old Morm-Ant mailing list to discuss ancient history as it related to Mormon scripture. Since then Brant’s published some groundbreaking work. I think his The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon is the main sustained overview of the underlying translation process of the Book of Mormon. That is not just the actions of Joseph Smith but what we should say about the nature of the text itself as a translation. There are few books I’d characterize as “must reads” in Mormon theology but I think this is one of them. He also has the excellent The Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History engaging in issues related to a mesoamerican historical setting for the text. He’s also has an well received commentary on the Book of Mormon text itself that tries to bring in insights from a purported mesoamerican setting.

Some Thoughts on WordPrint

Just a quick post on the current kerfuffle over wordprint studies. Wordprint studies are a type of stylometry that look at certain connective words that aren’t main words in a sentence. The claim is that they can determine the authorship of a text. Now I’ve always been skeptical of this, even back in its heyday in the 90’s. The main problem is of course that depending upon how you slice up the text you get very different answers. More significantly with the text from Mosiah through Mormon the author is primarily Mormon. It’s basically impossible to tell, even if a figure is speaking first hand, what is Mormon summarizing in his own words versus what the original speaker said. I’ve also always have in the back of my mind the worry you see in econometrics. There sometimes the data is sliced and resliced until a desired result appears with an appropriate p value. Of course this isn’t quite the same, but in the back of my mind that’s long been my worry. There’s a lot of subjectivity to most of these studies of the Book of Mormon.

Helaman 12:15 and Astronomy

Helaman 12:15 reads, “according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” If you’re like me you’ve always just read that as Mormon (or possibly Nephi) just having a knowledge of heliocentric astronomy (everything orbits the sun rather than the earth). The author appears to be alluding to Joshua 10:12-13 where the moon and the sun stand still.[1] The last week I’ve been discussing the verse with some other people which have made me rethink the verse.

Coming Soon to a Screen Near You: The Book of Mormon

Not the big screen, just lots of small screens. From the LDS Newsroom: Filming Begins on New Book of Mormon Videos. It will not be a beginning-to-end depiction; the project will select certain episodes and events, producing “up to 180 video segments three to five minutes in length, as well as up to 60 more running 10–20 minutes each.” These will no doubt become a go-to resource for Primary teachers, Sunday School teachers, and seminary teachers.

The Book of the Weeping God

One of the most striking features of the Bible is its division into Old and New Testaments, which present not only substantially different sets of religious beliefs and practices, but very different portrayals of God. The God of the Old Testament is a judgmental, jealous, and vengeful God, who destroys sinners without remorse, whether of his own people, the Hebrews, or even entire nations such as those of Canaan. God’s love and compassion are also visible in the Old Testament, but the harsher side is displayed quite dramatically. This judgmental conception of God is reflected not only in descriptions of God himself and his behavior, but also in the attitudes and behavior of his prophets and of his chosen people. There is quite a contrast with Christ in the New Testament, who is gentle with sinners and teaches that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and turn the other cheek when others treat us badly. Christians explain the major differences between the Old and New Testaments as partly a reflection of the fact that the Law of Moses was offered to prepare the Hebrews for the new law, which was delivered by Christ. This account explains the differences in worship practices and in behavioral commandments, but it does not explain the different portrayals of God. I suggest that part of the difference we are seeing is precisely the difference in perspective between a people who are…

Can Mercy Rob Justice?

We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.

Korihor the Witch

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18) I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.

Hell Part 1: Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers. My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent BCC post on Nehor and Universalism. It was that best kind of post: one that made me think for several days about the mentioned passages.

Day of the Lamanite, Deferred

Lamanite: An increasingly dated term that now rubs many people the wrong way when heard in public Mormon discourse. But the category lingers on despite LDS attempts to move toward a post-racial approach to priesthood and salvation. Lamanites, Nephites, children of Lehi, Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians — whichever term you choose, it’s clear the doctrinal category is still with us. There is still a racial component to the Mormon view of past, present, and future history. Let’s explore this a bit.

The Book of Mormon as Literature

One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?

Partaking of the Fruit of the Tree

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is sitting in the darkened living room, gazing at the lighted tree. There is something magical and transfixing about the warm, gentle light, the fragrance of pine, and the palpable presence of nature that fills my home with its incongruous beauty. I have many memories of reading Scripture by the light of the Christmas tree. Usually we read from Luke, with Matthew’s bit about the Wise Men added in; sometimes we expand into Isaiah, either spoken or set to Handel. This year, though, when I stole a moment of stillness out of the hectic holiday rush to sit beside the tree, the words that came to my mind were Nephi’s: “I looked and beheld a tree . . . and the bbeauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the cwhiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” It had never struck me before how much meaning the Book of Mormon adds to our celebration of the Christmas tree. Scripture is rife with references to the Tree of Life, and the notion of everlasting life certainly accords well with what I was taught as a child: that the evergreen Christmas tree was a symbol of the eternal life brought to us by Christ. But Nephi’s education about the interpretation of the tree in 1 Nephi 11 is more specific. In answer to his query about the meaning of…

The Death of Ishmael[fn1]

Early in the Small Plates of Nephi, Ishmael and his family join Lehi and his family in the wilderness. In spite of their likely close proximity, though, we don’t know much about Ishmael.[fn2] Nephi and his brothers found favor in Ishmael’s sight. Although at various times Ishmael’s sons and daughters act for or against Nephi, we don’t have any sense about where Ishmael falls in the Laman & Lemuel/Lehi & Nephi continuum.

King Noah’s Blues

I could see them before I crossed Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. There were probably five of them, holding big yellow signs with blocky letters, Bible verses. It seemed out of place, fifty feet in front of the entrance to the Chicago Blues Festival, but maybe I just didn’t understand the logic behind it. I don’t remember the verses the signs promoted, and the picketers seemed nice enough, holding signs but not harassing the passersby, passersby who, like me, basically ignored them. Maybe they’d picked out verses of scripture with special applicability to fans of the blues; then again, maybe these were just generic holy protest signs.

Book of Mormon Word Cloud [updated]

I’ve been curious what a word cloud of the Book of Mormon would look like, so , just for fun on a Friday, I finally made one. I don’t have a lot to say about it, other than that “unto” seems to be a very popular word (which doesn’t really surprise me, but I didn’t expect, either). “Lamanite” shows up more than “Nephite,” though the usage of both is dwarfed by “people.” I took the text from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, and I copied it from here, and I made the cloud using WordItOut. (Note that I actually prefer the look of the Wordle cloud, but I couldn’t get it in the post at a decent size. That said, I’ve included it below.) Update: Ardis pointed out that, in many ways, the word cloud would be more useful if some of the dull words came out (really, other than an interesting look at word choice, having “unto” as the biggest word doesn’t tell us anything interesting about the themes of the Book of Mormon). So, in the interest of a more telling word cloud, I’ve run it again, taking 11 words out. And, thematically, I think it is a better representation of the Book of Mormon. So below is the Book of Mormon word cloud without unto, ye, came, pass, yea, even, thou, thy, saith, said, or thee:

In Memoriam

I spend the morning with my children at the cemetery. The high school band played, the mayor placed a wreath at the war memorial, and servicemen, including a veteran of Pearl Harbor, spoke to us. We bought red paper poppies to pin to our shirts. We didn’t talk about Memorial Day in sacrament meeting yesterday. The only mention was that the scouts would be placing flags on lawns. It seems that we should want to remember and honor those who have fought and fallen in our worship services. How many times in the Book of Mormon are the people exhorted to remember and always retain a remembrance of the the faith of their forefathers and the mercies God has shown to them? I am not a huge fan of the war chapters of the Book of Mormon; I’m not terribly interested in battles and strategy in general. But I do love the passion of Captain Moroni and his bold and heartfelt reminder to the people that there are things worth fighting for: our God, our freedom, our religion, our peace and our families. I love the sincere repentance of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, their abandonment of war, even to the point of death. Their story of non-violent acceptance is powerful and heartbreaking. I love that the Nephites took them in and protected them, sacrificing their lives for the new converts to their faith. I remember these stories, and my heart breaks. I…

The Real World of the Book of Mormon

This is the fourth in a series of posts taking a broad look at the Book of Mormon. This post continues the discussion of the prior post, The Book of Mormon as Narrative, by considering verisimilitude. This term refers to how faithfully a text represents the real world or, to various degrees, depicts events that do not conform to the readers’ view of the real world. First, a tighter definition of verisimilitude [Note 1]: The semblance of truth or reality in literary works; or the literary principle that requires a consistent illusion of truth to life. The term covers both the exclusion of improbabilities (as in realism and naturalism) and the careful distinguishing of improbabilities in non-realistic works. As a critical principle, it originates in Aristotle’s concept of mimesis or imitation of nature. The verisimilitude issue presents two questions, one for the author of a text and one for its readers. The Problem for Authors and Historians To what extent does an author intend for the text to offer “truth to life” or an “imitation of nature”? At first glance, this question seems more pressing for fictional works: some genres by convention allow departures from the real world known by the author (science fiction, magic realism) while mainstream fiction typically presents events and characters that are true to life in the sense that they are not out of place in the reader’s world or, for historical fiction, in the period…

The Book of Mormon as Narrative

This is the third post in a series taking a broad view of the Book of Mormon (first, second). In this post I will discuss aspects of narrative encountered in the text. Not all scripture is narrative: consider the lengthy legal codes in the Torah and the moral exhortation found in James. Not all historical accounts are in the form of a narrative, although most history books written for the popular market are narrative histories. Most novels are in the form of a narrative, including historical fiction, which adds authorial speculation to large chunks of authentic history, often mixing fictional characters with actual historical figures and events.

The Book of Mormon: What has it done for you lately?

Julie is posting detailed commentary and Kent is providing literary reflection; I’m afraid all I have to offer on the Book of Mormon is general observations. This week let’s talk about situating the book as a whole, not so much in terms of content and form (which I’ll address in later posts) but in terms of function and use. How does the Church use the Book of Mormon? How do you use the Book of Mormon?