My Atheist Conversion, Part 1

This post got a little long so I decided to break it in two. The title is a little bit click bait as I am not an atheist, but I do want to tell a story of what I call (in my head) “my atheist conversion.” Real atheists may find this disingenuous as my atheism lasted a very short period of time (half a day), but nonetheless it had a significant impact on me and I don’t know what else to call it. The impact was in a “pro-church direction,” and allow me to explain as such an experience frames a lot of my thinking on things I’d like to share on the blog. All of us can have challenges to our beliefs and perhaps mine are a bit unusual. Back around 2010, I shared at “Mormon Scholars Testify” about dealing with getting into scholarship and getting comfortable with the unknown. As I shared in a recent post at the JI, I’ve also worked to make adjustments to faith assumptions along the way.

Joseph White Musser

Mormon Fundamentalism is a well known collective term for groups of Latter-day Saints who attempt to replicate the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840 – 1890 era, most notably plural marriage. Less well-known, perhaps, are the figures who initially organized and developed the Fundamentalist Mormon movement, such as Joseph White Musser. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Cristina Rosetti discussed some of who Joseph Musser was and what his lasting legacies have been. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

We’ve Become Boring

I was playing around with Google Ngram viewer, a tool that allows you to see the relative frequency of words across time in books, and came across the fact that we’re actually much less interesting in the year 2024 than we used to be. While it seems like the gentiles have this prurient preoccupation with our housewives, swingers, soaking (not a thing, for the umpteenth time), and baptisms for the dead, this probably doesn’t hold a candle to the old days when we were committing murders that Sherlock Holmes had to solve, or kidnapping the fair maidens of Britannia for our Intermountain West seraglios. We’re probably not as click-baitey as we used to be, and It’s good to keep things in perspective.

The Heart of the Matter: A Review

The Heart of the Matter, by President Russell M. Nelson, is a book to live by. It serves as a collection and presentation of his core messages as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and provides guidance for both belief and living as a member of that church.

The House of the Lord in Kirtland

The House of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio has been a major topic in the news as of late, thanks to the recent transfer of ownership between Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the very same day that the transfer was announced, the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk shared a post discussing the history of the Kirtland Temple. What follows here is a co-post to that discussion.

AI and Gospel Music, and a Public Service Announcement

Note: None of this is an April Fool’s Joke, it just happens to be the day we had a spot available in the queue. So far the three main AI use cases that have achieved liftoff are Large Language Models, text-to-image, and translation (Supposedly OpenAI has achieved text-to-video that is so good that multimillion dollar movie production investments are being cancelled. Still, for some reason Open AI has not actually released “Sora” to the public, so until we can play around with it it’s hard to know what to make of the hype).  However, text-to-music has just had its breakout moment. Previous AI-generated music was short and consisted of a series of extremely formulaic pastiches, but this latest model by Suno has achieved breakout, and AI junkies have spent the better part of this week making Viking saga songs about their cats.  Being a non-music junkie, I feel like 90% of the music content put out by stars basically sounds the same, with 10% of them being the mind worm hits that we all know. My take is that Suno is pretty good at generating the 90% in the style you want. In principle it’s not supposed to let you replicate styles based on particular musicians, but evidently it’s pretty easy to get past the safeguards.  So what does this mean vis-a-vis the Church? The people I’ve seen trying it out in Latter-day Saint land haven’t had the greatest luck…

Atonement in the Book of Mormon

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is central to our faith and also central to the message of the Book of Mormon. What exactly, however, does the Book of Mormon say about the Atonement of Jesus Christ? In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Nick Frederick discussed Atonement in the Book of Mormon. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

A “Secular” Case for the Church

A little bit more about my own story relating to developing some alternative views of the church and coming to gain a as I said testimony of what I see as an “imperfect” church. The series I’m working on at the JI gives come context for ways in which historical research has influenced me, and over time I’ve seen myself becoming increasingly different. Spiritual experiences, however, have  helped me to be okay with that, though the journey has been a struggle at times. I’ve felt a sense of calling to find ways to make my research helpful to others, but, again, that’s often seemed a little confusing how to do so. I felt this confusion much more acutely in my first months as bishop. I felt like I had a lot to sort out, but during the process I did feel like I gained a number of insights helpful to me.

The Purifying Power of Gethsemane

As we are in Easter season, it is appropriate to ponder on the life, teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ. One of the best talks given by Latter-day Saint leaders on the subject is “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane”, Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s final testimony. The talk was discussed in a recent post at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to the full discussion.

Does Humanity Deserve Hell?

Scene from Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” I’m not much of a theologian. Some of this is part Joseph Smith saying that if you stared into heaven for five minutes you would know more than has ever been said on the subject, and some of it is Aquinas’ cryptic comment near the end of his life after some sort of numinous experience that all of his work was straw. It also just seems very convenient for intellectual types that God’s system lends itself to the kind of puzzles and mind games that they find interesting. But I can speak from my gut, and sometimes what makes sense intuitively is at variance with what theologians say, with a prime case of this being Julian of Eclanum’s response to Augustine (that I discuss in another post) that his conclusion that unbaptized babies are burning in hell “is beneath argument.” He doesn’t try to systematically challenge Augustine’s arguments based on shared premises or scriptures, but simply points out that the idea of ridiculous on the face of it regardless of his reasons. Similarly, another notion that never sat well with me is the idea that our default as humanity without the divinity of the atonement and God’s grace is hell, that we’re inherently so depraved that we all “deserve” to be tortured for eternity, consigned to outer darkness, or what have you. It reminds me of a famous/infamous…

Latter-day Saint AI Art Group

I’m going to take advantage of blogger privilege to announce a Facebook group I’m starting for Latter-day Saint AI artists creating gospel-themed content to coordinate, showcase their work, and collaborate. I follow a number of AI art groups on Facebook that serious artists and graphic designers frequent, and people with an artist’s training and eye, combined with AI, have the potential to produce genuinely good art at scale that makes my amateur hour pieces I sometimes drop here pale in comparison. Of course, as these are secular groups, a lot of the subject-matter revolves around superheroes and other silliness (no offense), and some of them are outright softcore porn, but the same skills and technology have the potential to revolutionize the creation of moving, gospel-oriented pieces. Because it democratizes and expedites the art production process, AI has the potential to drastically expand the variety and volume of quality gospel art. Whereas before we had the same several dozen or so scenes, themes, and styles; now, in the right hands we can produce exponentially more variation across virtually any Church history, gospel, doctrinal, or scriptural theme. In my experience as a lurker in this world, the people that have the artistic know-how to know the difference between, say, a 1970s camera style and a 1980s camera style, or what an alcoholic paint looks like, for example, are typically the ones who, combined with some promptology, can produce masterpieces. Of course, beginners…

How I taught the Proclamation on the Family

As the Sunday School president at the time (December 2021), I told the teachers in advance that I wanted them to do two things. First, I wanted them to teach the doctrine. Second, I wanted them to teach it so that whoever their students were and whatever their situation, they would feel welcome and accepted. Then as the teacher of a youth Sunday School class, this is what I said.

The White Horse Prophecy

There are a few high-profile apocalyptic prophecies in Latter-day Saint history that have pretty shaky provenances. Perhaps foremost among them is the White Horse Prophecy. This complicated document was recently discussed at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to the full discussion.

“A Little Hippyish”

I got M and J’s permission to share this on the blog and M read it before I published it though she made me take out the best line. :( “So are they pretty straight arrows, all good with them?” SP2 asked me when he called a little less than a year before my released to get some info on the J&M who he was thinking of asking to perform a musical number at the adult session of stake conference. He’d called to ask about their musical aptitude, but included the above question as well. To me J&M, a late 20s couple, were all good, but I felt that they didn’t really fit SP2’s definition of “straight arrow”/orthodox member and thus saying yes to that question felt a touch misleading. M (wife) had ruffled feathers from the get go, calling out people in casual settings for uncharitable speech in woke ways, her husband J has shoulder length hair and a beard, and both had given the WILDEST talks I’d ever heard in church when we had them speak after moving to the ward. M talked about how the church had been a good place for her, but had struggled since the pandemic, had lots of LGBT+ friends and those sympatric who had struggled with and left the church. M said something like, “while the church has been a good place for me, I also acknowledge those whom I love that…

How Big is Joseph Smith Polygamy Denialism in the Church? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

Stephen Cranney and Josh Coates This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here.  The people who do believe that Joseph Smith did not practice polygamy fall into two camps. The first is those who simply do not know. Presumably because the practice wasn’t public until Brigham Young’s day, and because the Nauvoo practice is much more sparsely documented, Brigham Young, and not Joseph Smith, became the icon of polygamy. Although people more familiar with official Church history (or even a careful reading of D&C 132) would have also known about Joseph Smith’s plural wives, anecdotally there are cases of people simply not being aware because the emphasis was always on the better documented Utah-era polygamy. (And although the 20th century Church did not emphasize Joseph’s plural marriages, the Church did not hide it; and in the late 19th century it went out of its way to gather invaluable primary source, first-hand evidence of his plural marriages and publicize them in order to stick it to the RLDS during the Temple Lot trial.) And so while the Church is publishing more content on Joseph Smith’s plural marriages (and there’s just more content available now overall, with perhaps the summum of this being Brian Hales’ and Don Bradley’s excellent multi-volume work and website on…

Transportation of Car-Less Members, Giving Rides, and Jesus Vans

Yes, I know, the “Jesus” in the bottom-right hand corner has a t, at the end, but still, it’s almost there.  I typically like to avoid making too many posts that take the form of  “what I think the Church should do,” in part because the gospel of the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, is so much bigger than this or that policy from North Temple Street; also, a lot of my thoughts on that topic have typically already been said by others in some place or another, sometimes more elegantly than I could have, so I don’t have a lot to add.   Still, occasionally something comes up where I haven’t seen much discussion and I might have something unique to add, so here I’m discussing–Jesus Vans.  If you live in a more urban area with a lot of churches you’ll see these zipping around on Sunday to pick up parishioners (I get the sense that Korean Christian churches have a lot of these, but that’s just anecdotal). Also if you have been a member in a high-needs, urban area you know that transportation is the bane of the Church’s existence in those places. Many of the members are immigrants that do not have their own vehicles. If you’re lucky your urban area has good transportation (e.g. my ward in Philadelphia), and if not they don’t (e.g. my current ward outside of DC).  I’m convinced that for high…

“Who Do We Want at Church?”

As I was brainstorming about starting the safe-space group that I mentioned in a previous post, it was December 2021, and I started seeing people commenting online about the upcoming final (or nearly final) lesson in gospel doctrine that would cover the two official declarations. Since those cover what are generally considered controversial topics—polygamy and Blacks and priesthood—lots of people were interested in whether their wards would cover those topics, and if so how they would approach it. So since I was thinking about how to talk about hard issues, the morning of that lesson, I pitched the idea to my wife— who was then the gospel doctrine teacher—that I teach a lesson on “how do we talk about difficult issues related to church history?” for the GD lesson. She was a bit apprehensive, but said okay, and I started brainstorming ideas. But as I did so, I felt the strong impression, “Run the idea by the ward council first.”

Sins of Christendom: A Review

Anti-Mormon literature is always a touchy subject, but Sins of Christendom: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Evangelicalism by Nathaniel Wiewora handles it deftly, putting it in a broader context of change and debate within Evangelical Christianity. 

My Testimony of an Imperfect Church (But the Best One in My Opinion)

So in previous posts, I made it clear I’m unconventional and disagree with some policies. A process I would describe as coming to a testimony of an imperfect church. I’ve expressed a few disagreements, but also wanted to share some of the reasons why I believe very strongly that the church is where I should be, where I should try to help others to stay, and a good place to expend my efforts. The biggest reason is simply “because God told me so,” or spiritual experiences. As a middle-aged dude, this had been a journey and a process, and “study and faith” (my series on the other blog) has been both enlightening and challenging.

BYU is # 1 in the Nation for Number of Foreign Languages Offered–By Far

Fellow blogger Jonathan and I were talking on the back-end about Modern Language Association statistics (as one does in the bloggernacle), and he drew my attention to a dataset kept by the MLA that records the different foreign language classes taught in the US, so I ran some simple summary statistics to see where BYU ranked in terms of how many languages they offered in 2021 (see charts at the end). While I always knew that BYU was a foreign language powerhouse because of the missionary angle, I was still surprised by what I saw. BYU is not only one of the top universities for diversity of language offerings, it is the top university. And not only is it the top university, but #2 (Harvard) is a quite distant #2. Heck, BYU offers classes in Kiribati a Pacific Island language with 120,000 speakers. As long as BYU is run by a more traditional religious organization it is probably never going to be the top place for the more ideologically loaded metrics and fields, but there are more objective, less ideologically loaded metrics that BYU can dominate in, and foreign language offerings is one of those. Number of Unique Languages Offered by University University # Distinct Languages Offered BRIGHAM YOUNG U (UT) 96 HARVARD U 78 U OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY 59 CORNELL U (NY) 58 U OF WASHINGTON 58 INDIANA U, BLOOMINGTON 57 U OF PENNSYLVANIA 53 U OF GEORGIA 52 STANFORD U 51 U OF CHICAGO 51 COLUMBIA U (NY) 50 U OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES 49 U OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR 48 YALE U 45 U OF WISCONSIN, MADISON 44 NEW YORK U 41 U OF MINNESOTA, TWIN CITIES 41…

American Zion: A Review

If I were to ever write a single-volume history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hope that it would turn out like Benjamin E. Park’s American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (Liveright, 2024). It is a very nuanced, insightful, and well-written take on Latter-day Saint history in the United States. It takes into account viewpoints from many different groups that have been a part of the Latter-day Saint movement over the years or who have split from the Church into their own faith communities. American Zion also builds upon a lot of important research that has happened since Matthew Bowman published The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith in 2012 (the previous reigning academic history of the Church). Five stars out of five, as far as I’m concerned.

The Church as the Knights Templar and #MakeItATrillion

I tried to get it to show a missionary swimming in a pool of coins like Scrooge McDuck, but it wouldn’t let me produce images that it deemed to be satirical of religious beliefs. Once upon a time there was a devout, hard-working, highly efficient religious organization that started stockpiling and investing money for the glory of God. Because of their business acumen and scrupulosity, the pile grew fabulously large until… King Phillip (the French King in Braveheart) and the Pope collaborated to steal their money and had the leaders arrested, tortured, and executed.  Given the title of this post, you can see where I’m going with this. Now, I don’t think the Church leaders will get burned at the stake or arrested, but it’s a truism that the larger the amount of money you have the bigger the target you have on your back for people to just take your money. Because you really can buy (almost) everything in this world with money and money can make people weird and unscrupulous, with the unscrupulousity increasing with the amount of money at stake.  It’s why super rich people have bodyguards and have to deal with a constant stream of lawsuits and bad-faith friends and relatives (and why I’m okay with Church security being more than a guy with a radio outside President Nelson’s apartment). For the Church I don’t know what the actual mechanism might be, maybe some out of…

Church Concerns and the Command to Mourn with Those That Mourn

Responses to my last post reminding me of something I’ve been thinking recently: the fact that individuals can have quite different experiences with the church. The most extreme form of differences would be the extreme faith crises and a couple of examples serve to illustrate the pain these can cause. Alma 7 says Christ “will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people,” which I see as linked to the command to mourn with those that mourn. Those in faith crises are clearly mourning. The examples in the links are of the more extreme type, but I think we also know that struggling with concerns at a less extreme level is also common, and can also be quite painful as well. For instance, just a few months ago, the new bishop’s wife gave her first talk in the ward as bishop’s wife, saying she’d been assigned testimony. She took the opportunity to give a talk I’ve rarely ever heard and NEVER from a bishop’s wife: how she has been struggling with the church, how she would appreciate people being kind to her during her struggles, and how we all ought to be kind generally to those who struggle. The only other time I’d heard anything like that was about a year earlier from another young couple recently moved into the ward, who addresses…