28 December 2007

I can't keep up....

While I have been in my exams and over the past couple weeks of vacation, it seems like every day brings a new news item on the Romney campaign front. First there was the Huckabee "Jesus-Satan are brothers" insult, and the subsequent apology, and all the commentary that followed. Now there is a story out that seems to suggest that Romney does not believe that God has spoken to man since Moses, with the exception of a few others.

I don't want this blog to become a wholly political one, and so I will not even try to keep up with all the daily happenings on that front. Although I hope that Romney makes a good showing in order not to embarrass the Church (though I do not want him to win), part of me wishes he would just get creamed in the primaries and drop out so we can all do the requisite post-mortems on what went wrong. I have to admit that I am a little surprised that he got this far, but I am still confident in my earlier position that there is no way he can get the GOP nomination, much less win the presidency. However, I am aware that some bloggers on other sites are more positive about his ultimately receiving the nomination. Anyone want to take the odds on the month that Romney drops out? My bet is for February, after Super Tuesday.

If Romney does in fact drop out after not receiving the GOP nomination, it would be a shocking indictment of how much the Republican movement has been taken over by the Christian Right. Romney is getting many of the important endorsements, even from those candidates who are dropping out of the race, like Tom Tancredo, from important conservative publications like the National Review, and from other conservative luminaries such as failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. If he can't win with those, it will be all about the Christian Right.

25 December 2007

Mission nostalgia

Preface: Mark Twain once said "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." Some of my own readers may have started such rumors about this blog. Let me assure you that the blog is still active and I will still post here regularly. A little over a week and a half ago, I finished my next-to-last set of law school exams, and then almost immediately left for Utah where the wife and I are spending the holidays with my in-laws. It has been a hectic couple of weeks and I have not been keeping up with the blogging (mine or that of others) as I ought.

One of the sweetest experiences of this Christmas season has been seeing a convert from my mission in Mexico. Since I returned home in 2003, I have seen a couple of my old companions (both American and Mexican) and a couple of other housemates and missionaries, but have managed to keep in touch with converts only by e-mail. So I was delighted when one of my first converts from my mission contacted me in late November with the news that she was going to be in Salt Lake City over the holidays and wanted to see me.

Z was a 16 year old girl whose investigation and baptism seemed to be the most random circumstance. My trainer and I had taught the first discussion to her older sister F, and had returned on several occasions for a follow-up second discussion, but never found her at home. (for those of you who served missions in Latin America, you will realize that this is nothing out of the ordinary. No one has a phone so you cannot really call ahead.) On about the third or fourth try, we cynically decided to teach a discussion to whoever we ran into at the house who was willing to listen (in order to have something to show for our time). And thus we found Z, who was more than happy to listen to a first discussion and invite us back for more. Being an American on a Mexican mission, and having heard many of the missionary horror stories, I approached the teaching of a Mexican teenage girl with a sizable dose of skepticism about how this would end up; but in the end, you don't choose your investigators, they choose you.

Z was extraordinarily bright, far and above most of the other people we had tracted into on my mission, and for me, it was a breath of fresh air. She was smart and very ambitious. She kept appointments, fulfilled commitments, and seemed prepared at every turn for whatever we taught or asked her to do next. I guess that I saw a great deal of myself in her, only having recently joined the church myself, under somewhat similar circumstances.

Z participated in a YW New Beginnings program even prior to her own baptism, and went about it as if she had been a member her whole life. She was baptized on a freezing cold day in January 2002, in an unheated font (unpleasant for the both of us). I guess I was still somewhat skeptical about the ultimate prospects of her conversion based on her age and the lack of support in her family. Nevertheless, her behavior gave me no other reason to doubt her sincerity or conviction.

I stayed in the area for another 3-4 months and subsequently moved to another city in the opposite side of the mission. We stayed in infrequent contact by letter, and everything seemed to go well. Soon after I left, two of her other sisters were also baptized (and they remain active to this day). Z too moved away to attend a university in another city outside of the mission, and is only infrequently in the city where we initially met.

This December, Z came to SLC to meet an American boyfriend she met over the Internet. We made plans to meet on Temple Square and later went out with both her boyfriend and my wife for dinner. There was plenty of catching up to do, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude both for the experience of having taught and baptized her, but for the chance to see her once again. My first area and my first companion (where and with whom I had encountered Z) were the best of my mission, and many of my fondest memories of Mexico are in that place with Elder C. Generally, the rest of my mission was difficult, draining, and discouraging. I never attained that level of success (measured in terms of baptism and teaching) at any other point in my mission, and I left Mexico wondering how much good I had really done for anyone (even myself). Those doubts have stayed with me in the 4+ years since I returned home. But for the past few days it has been a true blessing in my life to recall those powerful moments that my companion and I shared with Z and to witness how the Gospel has blossomed in her own life in my absence. Life has become ever so much more complicated since returning home from my mission, and I am grateful for experiences such as these which hearken back to a simpler time.

09 December 2007

Movie quasi-review - "The Golden Compass"

I first want to say that I was interested in seeing and reading "The Golden Compass" long before I heard anything about its anti-religious sentiments, as I had heard that it compared favorably with C.S. Lewis' Narnia books and the works of Tolkien, of which I am a fan. So this is not something I did just out of rebellion. Also, I have not yet read any of the books yet, so my comments will be restricted simply to what I saw last night in the movie.

There was nothing objectionable about it, well, other than the fact that it just was not an great movie. It will excite little kids and teenagers but once you have seen The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia on screen, this will be no revelation. So if you don't like it, then don't like it for the same reason you should not like The Da Vinci Code (book or movie), not because of its ideas or content, but because its poorly written and executed on screen.

As for the movie's ideas, it has some interesting ones. You could miss the anti-religious rhetoric or some of the invocation of the authoritarian nature of Catholicism, if you are the single person on the planet who has not received an e-mail about how evil these books and movies are. I went in there looking for it and so I found it, but it was far from unmistakable. Furthermore, the Catholicism that it invokes is hardly Pope John Paul II's version, but more the Spanish Inquisition and the persecutors of Galileo. Other than that, no mention of deity (of any kind, unless you count the allusions towards the "Authority," which could be God or the Magisterium- it is never made clear who is being referred to). I am aware that the books are supposed to be more virulently anti-religious, and I will see for myself.

The movie's cosmology is also interesting, if a little muddled. Every human has a companion creature which holds their soul, called a "daemon" (but pronounced predictably as "dee-mon," which I am sure is getting the evangelical hackles up, even though a "daemon" is a Greek/Latin word referring to supernatural beings (which can be good or evil) that are intermediate in level and power between gods and humans, whereas "demon" is a Judeo-Christian usage that is reserved solely for malevolent spirits. Do your homework! Sorry for that etymological aside, but I feel that making that particular word into a controversy is petty, since it is so easily explained. Anyway, back to the cosmology. "Dust" is a substance of unknown provenance which allegedly infects children as they grow up and enables them to choose to do evil. Dust comes in contact with humans through their daemons as they grow up. The Magisterium seeks to sever the human-daemon connection in order to prevent a new generation from being "infected" with Dust, and thus being able to choose to reject its teachings. The Dust issue is a little confused, mainly because at times it seems to fit the Catholic idea of original sin, except that kids don't get it until they grow up, and at other times it seems to fit the Mormon idea of agency, except that kids don't get it until they grow up. So as I said before it is all a little confusing since Dust does not fit neatly into a little allegorical box. I find it ironic that Mormons are so up in arms against the movie mainly because it seems to be a defense of agency (one of the characters refers to the coming war with the Magisterium as a "war for free will itself"- sound familiar?). The plan of the Magisterium seems to be to deprive humans of that capacity to choose evil, which was Satan's plan from the beginning, right? Of course, the books might clear this up, but that will have to wait.

Last week, a substitute Sunday School teacher in my ward (with whom I am friends and whom I generally think to be someone with a reasonably open mind) got up before class and went on a tirade about how nobody should see this movie or read the books. I was shocked to hear about this (especially from her) even though I had received the standard e-mail warnings from friends and family. I remarked to my wife last night that there would be many people who would not go see the movie or read the books because they genuinely feared losing their beliefs or harming their kids. However, there would be another segment of the population who would not go see the movie, even though they really wanted to, because they did not want other people at their church to judge them for having done so (I can think of a couple of my friends who might fit into this group). I imagine that happens both with Mormons and non-Mormons alike, but nevertheless I think that Pullman would find that both somewhat ironic and self-affirming.

My take on "the Speech"

I'm not dead, just in the middle of my next-to-last semester of exams. I did make time, however, on Thursday to watch "the Speech." More complete reviews and commentaries on Romney's speech are up at the other major venues in the Bloggernacle and I left comments on several of those. I will add only some brief thoughts here and point you to my able colleagues at other blogs.

Mostly, my concerns echo those expressed elsewhere. I found the bit about the oath of office being potentially Romney's highest covenant with God a little troubling. I guess I don't seem to be as troubled by it as some because I don't think he really believes it, but that is troubling in its own right. I think that he knew that he had to say that, or something like it, in order to mitigate evangelical hostility towards his candidacy. For someone who claims that he will not distance himself from his religion in order to win the election, I think the early signs should be worrying. Romney may be never renounce his Mormonism, but he is presenting himself as a a believer in a watered-down, Protestantized Mormonism with no controversial theologies and no historical issues.

As far as the speech's purpose, I cannot say with surety what Romney hoped to achieve. I do not think he achieved any great victory with the speech other than to present himself as a fine orator with an important knowledge about the history of religion in America. As far as I can tell, what troubles many Americans about Romney is not his views on religion as part of American public life, but his views, particularly a personal belief, on a particular religion, namely Mormonism. It would seem to me that the best antidote for that kind of feeling is disclosure and more information, since I think most people merely hate out of ignorance and fear. However, the tack he seems to be taking is to ask people to simply not look at it. I also think that he wants people to focus on it so little that he only mentioned being Mormon once and the rest of the time talked about "my faith" or "my beliefs."

The other part of the speech that seems to rile people up a lot is his emphasis on the necessity of religion for freedom and an apparent vision of an America with no use for atheists or the impious. I guess I don't find this particularly controversial because I could envision it coming out of the mouths of any of the other major Republican nominees, with the exception maybe of Giuliani.

Generally, I thought the speech was pretty vanilla. I was disappointed he did not talk more about what it meant to him to be Mormon, but I realize that others (most prominently Richard Bushman) believe that he should have steered clear of too much mention of his Mormonism. I am certainly no more likely to vote for him after seeing the speech, but then again there is very little he could have said to change my vote in the first place. I think that I acquired even further distaste for Romney after reading the profile of his mission years in France a couple of weeks ago in the NYT. He just seems like someone with a great deal of charisma, flash, style, and a great sloganeer and cheerleader, or in other words, the perfect businessman, but who lacks substance or conviction behind his words.

29 November 2007

Course of study

Next year we are studying the Book of Mormon in our Sunday School classes, and the teachings of Joseph Smith in Priesthood/Relief Society. I try to make a habit of reading some supplementary material alongside the correlated manuals and assignments. So I'm looking for some advice as to what I ought to read alongside our course of study for 2008.

My plans so far:

Book of Mormon- Since Cumorah, Hugh Nibley
By the Hand of Mormon (reread), Terryl Givens

Joseph Smith- Rough Stone Rolling, Richard L. Bushman

Also next semester, I am taking a class on the OT in the Department of Religion (needed a little time away from the law school). Any suggestions on some additional reading or particular versions of the OT that I might want to consider?

26 November 2007

Another one bites the dust....

Note: this is an initially off-topic post, which will shade into a somewhat on-topic post, which eventually leads into a post to be published later this week which is completely on-topic.

Today, Duke University fired its football coach. Not without good reason, of course, since the man was hired in 2003 and has an overall record of 6-45 (and 3-33 in conference), which is an average of less than 2 wins per season. It is hard not to feel bad for the guy, as it was a losing proposition to take this job from the beginning.

Duke Football is kind of a joke, even among those of us who love Duke intensely. However, many people forget a very illustrious early history for Blue Devil football back in the early part of the 20th century. Then back in the late 80s, Steve Spurrier was the coach at Duke and actually took them to a conference championship in 1989 (granted, this is before Florida St., Miami, Va. Tech, and Boston Coll. joined the ACC), before moving on to the University of Florida and a national championship in 1996. In other words, we were not always this bad, but we have been this way pretty much since he left. And now this. Mission statements are all fine and dandy, I guess, but the way this has been taken around campus is that this is essentially a mandate to improve the football team.

Say what? Improve the football team? If you wanted an easy job, why not just kill it off completely as a D-I scholarship program? It would be a mercy killing long in the making and richly deserved. The truth is that a football program at a major university is far too high-profile and revenue-rich to just drop, even if the team is gosh-awful.

Universities fundamentally must decide who and what they want to be, with respect to academics and athletics. Harvard, Yale, and the other Ivies decided that a while back, eschewing scholarship athletics and just putting the best white boys they had on the court/field. They ultimately concluded that nothing of their academic stature, reputation, or mission would be sacrificed in order to have good athletics. Stanford has maybe had the best luck merging the two, but it has the benefit of a great location that probably attracts people more than anything. Duke aspires to be at the level of these schools on an academic level, but to excel above them in athletics. It is not yet clear if that is even possible. Duke cannot recruit the highest levels of talent in many sports (particularly football) because of its academic requirements (which are higher than any other school in the conference and in most of the nation). And it would require a high infusion of resources into the program that are currently allocated to other responsibilities. And while Duke sits with a foot in both worlds, it will never properly be accepted in either.

The same is true for BYU. BYU will never be able to compete with the top football programs in the country (1984 was an abberation then, and college sports are a whole new game now anyway) because it requires its students live the Honor Code. It will consistently get the Mormon kids who dreamed of playing for BYU, your yearly quota of JuCo transfers who just want to live the dream of playing at a D-I school, and a bunch of people for whom BYU was the only place they could play football (and I guess they'll have to keep the Honor Code too). But tons of top recruits will be turned off by the unavailability of booze and sex to accompany their campus celebrity status. I'm not advocating dropping the Honor Code (at least not in this post) in order to promote football; I am just pointing out that a choice has to be made. Whatever that choice is is fine by me, but at least acknowledge that choices and sacrifices have to be made. The same is true of academics. You can be the Church's school, or you can be among the top academic programs in the country, with all the messiness of academic freedom, etc. which that entails. Like I said above, you can have one or the other. The ultimate choice is not mine to make, but no one should imagine that any university can truly have it all.

21 November 2007

My experience at AAR/SBL 2007

My wife and I spent this last weekend in sunny San Diego for the Annual American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference. She was there to present a paper in her field, but I took advantage of the opportunity to see as much Mormon-related stuff as possible.

1. On Saturday afternoon, there was a session by the Mormon Studies Consultation on how to teach Mormon Studies at the university level, featuring several professors who teach or have taught classes involving Mormonism . I missed the first part of the session (because my wife's presentation was scheduled for the same time), but I made it for the Q&A. I was honestly shocked at how many attendees there were for the session. I figured there would be 10-15 interested people in the room. Instead there were about 40 or 50, including several of the leading lights in Mormon Studies, such as Kathleen Flake (Vanderbilt), Laurie Mafley-Kipp (UNC), and Grant Underwood (BYU). The Church had sent a number of its own representatives as well and I thought that the participants and the attendees discussed some very important issues relating to Mormon Studies classes, including how to use the unique Mormon scriptures as primary sources and how to deal with one's own belief and involvement in Mormonism. Afterward, there was a business meeting of the Mormon Studies Consultation, at which the leaders suggested that they had plans to expand their involvement at the conference in the near future. Based on what I saw and heard at this session, in addition to the new Claremont and USU chairs, and this statement from the Church, I think Mormon Studies may be entering a sort of Golden Age. Obviously, how this all turns out remains to be seen, but the pieces are falling together. I have personally heard some of the prominent participants in the field (no names) express skepticism about the maturity of the field and the ability of Mormons to be objective and forthright about subjects relating to their own faith, in the way that Judaic studies has achieved a certain stature in the academy.

2. Saturday night, there was a reception for "friends" of BYU, basically I guess meaning Mormons. There was good representation from BYU's Department of Religious Studies as well as from Mormon graduate students, many of which graduated from BYU and have moved on to some of the leading graduate programs in the country. There is great camaraderie among these students, and I believe they represent a great wealth of talent on which the Church could draw in so many ways (I am not a totally disinterested observer in these matters, as my wife is one of these graduate students).

3. Sunday night, there were two events of interest. First, there was a sort of "release party" for a new book published by Mercer University Press (Mercer is a Christian college in Georgia), entitled Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies. The folks over at Juvenile Instructor previewed it over here. The book has a very interesting history and came about between collaboration between the BYU Philosophy Department and others (primarily David Paulsen) and some prominent Christian theologians. The premise of the book is extremely interesting, as the collaboration seems to have been largely friendly and Mormons are generally unsophisticated in their understanding of Christian theology (especially as thought of by academic theologians) and how that may differ and compare with LDS thought. I have only read through a couple of chapters but I hope to have a review up in the next month or so.
Second, Terryl Givens gave a presentation to a meeting of the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology on his research for his next book, When the Soul Had Wings, which traces a history of theories and ideas of the pre-existence in Western thought. From his remarks at the conference and from a similar talk he gave at a visit to the Durham-Chapel Hill Institute in March, I have high hopes for his book. The traditions that Givens is analyzing are wide and disparate. Given's insights are profound and this should be a book of interest to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

4. My wife and I left early Monday morning, but several BYU professors and other Mormon Studies folks (incl. John-Charles Duffy- UNC grad student) gave presentations later that day. I really wish I could have been there to see them, so I could give you a report.

Having been to the AAR/SBL conference last year, it seems that fewer presentations were given by BYU faculty and other related individuals, however, the representation of Mormons and Mormon Studies seemed to be larger as a whole. It was a promising year for the progress of Mormons and Mormon Studies, and I believe that it will continue in the future. I hope I will be there to see it.

19 November 2007

What would you do?

My wife and I just returned from AAR/SBL and I have some interesting reports to make on things I saw related to Mormon Studies. My plan is to post on them tomorrow, once I have unpacked, etc.

Tonight's post concerns the following: If you ask most Mormons about the "bloggernacle", it is generally regarded by them as the haven of malcontents and a den of gripers and almost-apostates. I have seen instances where I think that criticism is justified, however for the most part I believe strongly that we are engaged in a valuable and worthwhile enterprise. In the interest, however, of having folks put their money where their mouth is, I ask the following:

Assume you made the President of the Church tomorrow. What would you change or do differently?

Now this requires a couple of stipulations in order to play the game:
- Females must assume that they are males and have acquired this position through ordinary priesthood succession. I want people to consider whether they would give women the priesthood or not, so assuming that you have been given it (and are therefore eligible to be President of the Church) is not helpful to this exercise.
- You were chosen for this position according to ordinary procedures. There was no catastrophe that wiped out the GAs, making you the next best choice.
- You must assume that the President of the Church can unilaterally make changes in Church policy. If you want, you can discuss the meaning of the policy/doctrine distinction and how your list of actions might change if you had to forge a consensus with other members of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Seventy, etc.

I have to play the game like everyone else, so here is my list:

- I would NOT immediately give women the priesthood. I am amenable to them having the priesthood at some point in this life, however I feel like President Kimball as to the matter of black and the priesthood. This is such a big change, I would need a strong confirmation of its rightness before proceeding.
- Likewise, I would NOT immediately allow same-sex marriage either in the temple or to be performed outside it by any priesthood holder.
- I would NOT stomp out Correlation (though the temptation would be mighty), as I think it has an important role to play and function to perform; however, I would retain a personal check on its power.
- I would order Deseret Book to be spun off as a private company unrelated to the Church and let it sink or swim on its own, thus encouraging the development of independent LDS publishers and book retailers (I know, I know, start with the important stuff...)
- I would immediately order the entire Church curriculum redone, to be completed within a year. Furthermore, I would publicly announce that initiative and encourage members to flood Correlation's inbox with suggestions.
- The link between CES and the BYU religion department (and their faculty) would be severed, and BYU would operate a dual-track religion program, one with CES classes and another for religion classes as taught at other universities. CES classes could be taken for credit, but none would be required for graduation.
- CES employees could retain their employment, even after divorce or could be hired even if single/childless.
- In general, I would make decision-making and operations of the Church more public and transparent. See the curriculum item above.
- I would reopen the cases of the September Six (contingent on their desire to have them reopened) and would reinstate them to the degree possible based on their desires and willingness to live Church principles. Other cases of intellectuals excommunicated for their ideas would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
- I would repudiate blacks and the priesthood folklore; I would NOT publicly address or adopt a particular rationale for polygamy or apologize for it the Church's having practiced it in any way.
- One general conference every four years would be held outside Utah (and perhaps outside the United States)
- I would attempt to be as inviting and inclusive as possible to those who deal with same-sex attraction, singleness, childlessness, etc. They would be told explicitly that they are encouraged to attend church.

Now, a couple of caveats (you are welcome to add your own): I am not saying that President Hinckley or the other leaders of the Church are not doing some of the things I listed above. This is not a criticism of their leadership. I am simply providing a vision for what I would do if it were my responsibility to lead. I don't have all the answers. I am sure I could list other things and will surely think of them as soon as I hit "Publish Post." Many of the things, especially the last item, are things so much more effectively handled and observable on the local level and largely outside of the reach of a Church president. However, what compassion and mercy I had to publicly offer, would be offered gladly.

13 November 2007

Why anti-Mormon lit doesn't persuade me

For those who are not already aware, a brief personal narrative: I am a convert of a little over eight years. I joined the Church when I was a freshman in college. My parents are devout Protestants and are deeply involved in their own church and spiritual lives (my mom teaches Sunday School, dad serves on various committees, and both sing in the choir). To put it mildly, they were shocked and hurt when I told them that I had decided to join the Church. Granted, my technique could have used some refining but the short story is that our relationship was damaged for a couple of years and is only recently recovering.

During the early days of my conversion, my parents acquired an impressive library of anti-Mormon literature (if "impressive" is ever an adjective that such a collection deserves), some of which they shared with me. I am not talking about anti-Mormon in the sense of Fawn Brodie or Dan Vogel, but the really nasty stuff, like the God Makers (book not video). So needless to say, I have seen quite a lot of it in my time. I feel like I am pretty familiar with the standard arguments (polygamy, horses and steel in the BOM, etc.). Yet, I have retained my testimony and remain an active member of the Church. I would not dare to attribute this to any special gift of my own. Since people periodically ask me how I kept my testimony throughout this period in my life, I would say the following:

It just never felt good. I know that if any anti-Mormon were to read this right now, they would say, "Oh, there goes the Mormon again, relying on his wishy-washy feelings." But seriously. I think Richard Bushman has made this kind of defense a little more legitimate in his public affirmations of a continuing faith in the Restoration. For me, the truths I was acquiring those early months as a member of the Church felt and tasted good. It was not just the social life; I have never had much of one, either before or after. I recognized that the authors of this literature had all of the objectivity and good intentions of those who wrote Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Their tactics seemed to be: 1) exaggerate, 2) take things out of context, and failing the success of 1 or 2, 3) lie and invent things out of whole cloth. I knew Mormons and I knew that the things they were accused of believing, they simply did not. The fact that people would make money off of wrecking the faith of others also seemed a little dirty in my mind, only a small step up from the pornographers. Also, over the past years, learning more about early Christian history and scripture (not solely from an LDS viewpoint), I realized how reluctant the critics were to recognize their own weaknesses. Given the vitriol that they poured out and the fact that "that which proceedeth from the mouth of a man defileth him", I never could see God in anything they were saying. I never made a reasoned defense against each of their claims (like your average evangelical Christian anti-Mormon has any claim on an appeal to pure rationality- "Hey Kettle, you're black"- thanks to Bushman again for this argument); but their arguments and accusations never hit me with the kind of force where my mind and spirit demanded that a full defense be made.

From time to time, I still run across some anti-Mormon lit, while searching the Internet or browsing through the stacks in the library. The predominant emotion that it inspires in me now is amusement, albeit the kind of amusement (with a bit of sick fascination, pity, exasperation, and a smidge of anger rolled in) that I feel when I watch Fox News or watch evangelical Christians stomp all over each other in a rush to condemn Harry Potter, the Golden Compass, or the Da Vinci Code.

* Let it be known that I don't intend this to be an ad hominem attack on anti-Mormons (either individually or collectively). I think that Latter-day Saints do themselves a disservice when they dismiss the accusations of anti-Mormons (especially ex-Mormons) because "they just wanted to be wicked" or "they got offended at Church because somebody called them to repentance." Though I am sure that in some instances, this may indeed be the case, I am convinced that on the whole it does not do anything to address their claims. Some of them may have a genuine grievance with the Church and have chosen to express it and act out in an inappropriate way. Others may be completely ignorant of the Church and are just repeating what they have been told in the past.
** I also want it to be clear that I don't reject anti-Mormon literature simply because the Church and its people are perfect and therefore immune to criticism. I think that my own posts here and comments elsewhere prove that I do not believe that. However, I do not think that the typical anti-Mormon arguments address any valid substantive criticism that could be made against the Church, in any way that would make the lives of the members of the Church or non-members any better because of it.

08 November 2007

There were (not only) Lamanites

See the linked story in the SL Tribune here.

If you have not heard about it yet, the Church changed a couple of words in a sentence in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. Where the Lamanites were once the "principal ancestors" of the American Indians, they are now only "among" those ancestors. Interestingly, this change has initially been buried in the Doubleday version of the BOM (the commercial one) instead of the Church's official one, though the change will be incorporated there soon, according to the article. Further, I just checked the on-line scriptures at LDS.org and no change has been made there. And the change has not been mentioned or explained on the Church's website (which seems to carry just about everything else going on in or around the Church these days)

I admit that I have a very cursory understanding of the DNA issues regarding the BOM and an even smaller understanding of alleged textual changes in the BOM over the years. But it seems to me like a change of this kind is significant. What kind of approval process does this have to go through, I wonder? Of course, this is only the Introduction, which was written by BRM for the latest edition of the LDS scriptures, published in 1981, so it isn't like they are changing the translated text of the BOM.
Does this mean that the Church is accepting the "limited geography" hypothesis about BOM geography as well? As I said before, I am not well-versed in the DNA issues, but was the "principal ancestors" model no longer defensible based on the evidence against it? For those who may have a little more knowledge on the subject, I would love to learn more.

05 November 2007

In what way is the JST inspired?

What do we mean when we say that the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is inspired? (Incidentally, the RLDS, now COC, have primarily referred to it as the "Inspired Version".) I think that for most members of the Church, the purpose of the JST is to re-translate things that were erroneously translated or to restore to the text that which was removed by the "evil scribes."

The following is from the KJV of Romans 16:16:
Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.

If you check the JST footnote to the word "kiss," Joseph Smith rendered it as "salutation." (Also, it is worth noting that both the NRSV and NIV render this word as "kiss.")

So what is JS getting at here? According to the typical understanding I described above, it seems that he was restoring the original, less sexualized form of greeting among fellow believers (perhaps in reference to the temple?) instead of some kind of kissing ritual that was added by some licentious scribe.

Except for this and this.

So what should we make of this discrepancy? My own hypothesis is that many of the JST corrections/additions/etc., where meant to do exactly what most of us seem to think they do, restoring some original sense of the text or understanding that was lost. In other instances, such as the example from Romans cited above, I think that JS had a particular agenda he was pursuing (and I mean agenda in the least manipulative, smoke-filled-room sense possible), namely a didactic or exegetical agenda as to how the Latter-day Saints ought to live. Therefore, changing "kiss" to "salutation" may not be an assertion by JS that early Christians did not, in fact, kiss to greet one another, but rather that Latter-day Saints should prefer a salutation as a method of greeting one another.

I don't want to go into too many more examples of this, but I found another one yesterday while studying the scriptures with my wife. Look at footnote a to Hebrews 5:7. JS indicates that this is a verse about Melchizedek and not Christ. Admittedly, the textual evidence (in both Greek, Latin, and English) does not suggest this interpretation, and from my own personal experience, neither does a reading of the verse itself in context. In my own opinion, I think most people, LDS and non-LDS alike, see an allusion to Christ here. Furthermore, BRM pointed out in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary that this was actually about Melchizedek AND Christ. So why does JS insist that it is not Christ, but Melchizedek? Again, I think it is an exegetical agenda. JS wanted to give the Latter-day Saints more information about Melchizedek the prophet, to add background to the narratives he was revealing regarding Abraham, Moses, and the Priesthood. As BRM points out, since Melchizedek is a type of Christ, there is nothing to suggest that this scripture necessarily must be about Christ, or Melchizedek, but not both of them.

04 November 2007

That guy on House and Gladys Knight aren't the only famous black Mormons (and Mitt Romney apparently isn't the only Mormon running for President)

Follow this link to NYTimes.com.

I got a kick out of this and couldn't resist.

1) Are you trying to make a political point? NO
2) Do you really believe he is Mormon? Of course not.

Recent blogging troubles...

My blogging has been suffering lately, as many of you may be able to tell. I have not been very interesting or involved and readership and comments have suffered accordingly. I started this blog thinking that no one would read it anyway and it would just be my own outlet for thoughts. But it is remarkable how attached one gets to your comments and readers in such a short time. Its one of man's baser instincts I think.

I promise some good posts soon.

27 October 2007

My letter to the Duke Presidential Review Committee

Duke University is conducting a regular periodic review of University President Richard H. Brodhead. As most of you will be aware, President Brodhead has had some pretty tough crises to deal with already in his first 3-4 years in office. The following is the text of a letter that I sent to the Presidential Review Committee:

Dear Mr. Blue and Members of the Presidential Review Committee:

As both an alumnus (Trinity '05) and current student (Law '08) of Duke University, I take very seriously this opportunity to submit my thoughts on the leadership of President Richard Brodhead over the last three years.

I remember the great excitement that permeated this campus when President Brodhead's appointment to the presidency was announced in late 2003. I remember very little, if any, doubt or skepticism about his potential efficacy as President of this University. I believe that the members of the Duke community, including myself, believed that the future of this institution was in capable and talented hands. From what President Brodhead has been able to achieve during his three-year tenure at Duke, it appears that our hopes were confirmed. President Brodhead has provided crucial leadership in such projects as increasing financial aid and opportunities for Duke students, elevating the status and presence of the arts on campus, and emphasizing service and global health as part of Duke's core mission. As an alumnus and one who dearly loves Duke, it has been my honor to be associated with an effective leader with the vision of President Brodhead. From a personal encounter with him in his office, I know that President Brodhead takes the obligations and duties of his office very seriously, as well as its limitations and his position as a figurehead and spokesman for the university.

Of course, the issue which I imagine will most concern this Committee is President Brodhead's acts or omissions during the recent lacrosse incident and its aftermath. Having been a close observer of these events since the time when the alleged rape was only a rumor, I stand behind the decisions that President Brodhead took at that time. Having known members of the lacrosse team during my years on campus, my own opinion at the time was that the events could have easily occurred as the accuser described them, especially considering the presence of alcohol. I believe that I was not alone in my assessment of the case. The decisions that President Brodhead made were not out of any desire to harm the players or because he and the faculty of the University harbor some secret agenda to destroy athletics. One of a University President's most important duties, aside from protecting individual students, is to protect the reputation and integrity of Duke as a place of learning and honor. I believe that the decisions he took were calculated to do exactly that. Whatever ridicule and criticism Duke may have faced in those months, I believe it would have been far worse for Duke to be known as a safe haven for hooligans, or worse, criminals and rapists, and a place where privileged whites and athletes acted with complete impunity. That being said, I believe that Duke has emerged from the recent crisis in as good a condition as could be expected. No lasting damage has been done to the prestige of the University or the education that it offers. If I am not mistaken in my facts, there has been no perceived drop in alumni giving or applications for admission.

Furthermore, President Brodhead has recently issued an apology where he acknowledged that he made certain mistakes in his handling of the crisis and showed public remorse for how those events might have harmed the accused players, their teammates, friends, and family. I believe that President Brodhead's apology was sincere and I hope that it will ultimately lay to rest the animosity that has surrounded these events on all sides.

After all that has occurred, I retain my confidence in President Brodhead. I firmly believe that he is the right person to guide Duke in the coming years. I feel fortunate and proud to be an alumnus of this University and I will continue to support President Brodhead and Duke as we move forward.

Thank you,

Trinity '05, Law '08

25 October 2007

The Vatican vs. Temple Square

(no "great and abominable" or "great and spacious" jokes, I promise)

As I mentioned a couple of posts down, my wife and I have just returned from a week-long trip to Rome. Obviously, one of the essential stops for any tourist in Rome must be the Vatican. We were no different.

Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot.

Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.

Temple Square is clearly meant to impress. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor's centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, a guest's visit to Temple Square is a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so). Temple Square is beautiful, magically, at almost any time of year. For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Hinckley and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.

The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter's and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men's attempts to put God's (and the Church's) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin's Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don't think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because nothing this rich and powerful could not be.

Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to serve as a great example. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter's is, by statute, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor's centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican's Rafael and Michelangelo.

For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy. While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.

Shameless plug

A good friend of mine (and wife of one of my best friends) just had an article published in Sunstone. The TOC is here. Her article is the 12th one from the top, starting at page 24. As usual, the Sunstone folks are stingy with their online access, so you'll have to pick up a paper copy or borrow one from a friend. I have not read it yet (no subscription), but I am sure it is worth a look.

20 October 2007

Change of heart

Mitt just won a major Christian conservative straw poll. See the story here.

Out of all this, I think the most interesting thing is the following couple of sentences:

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that Americans' attitudes toward Mormonism appear to be changing.

Half of those surveyed last weekend considered Mormons Christian, up from 34 percent last year.

Now, I am someone who is typically skeptical of poll results. After all, I don't believe that CNN and their polling partner went out and found the exact same people who were polled last year and an additional 17% of them had warmed up to Mormons. But the Church is obviously making a serious public relations push coinciding with the Romney candidacy. The new press section of the LDS.org home page is one example. Another I noticed is that one session of this last conference (Saturday afternoon?) had 3-4 talks that were at least impliedly public relations-driven (Ballard, Holland, Nelson, Wirthlin). So this makes me wonder- is all the effort bearing fruit? After 150 years of being treated as a bunch of heretics, did acceptance of Mormonism as a Christian denomination suddenly jump 17% in one year? Like I said, on matters of polling, I remain a skeptic. But any poll that registers 50% of non-Mormon Americans accepting Mormons as Christians is significant in my mind.

18 October 2007

My take on Sis. Beck's GC talk

I just got a chance to see Sister Beck's now infamous talk at General Conference a week and a half ago.
Let's get a couple of preliminary things out of the way first.

1. I really appreciate that she did not use the "Relief Society voice." (TM- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

2. As my wife pointed out to me, if women felt like Sis. Beck was being hard on them, there was some justice in this. The men get at least two meetings a year where we get told what a bunch of lazy, porn-addicted louts we are. The women can get a stern talking to now and again as well. You'll be fine.

3. It is somewhat insensitive to speak just to the mothers. This is one of the broadest and biggest dilemmas in the Church today- how to teach the eternal principles of the Gospel when facing a room full of people for whom some portions of the counsel may not be presently applicable. If Sis. Beck failed to speak to single women, married women without children, etc., this fault is definitely not unique to her. The same unfortunate mistake is carried out by plenty of teachers and speakers in Church settings each week.

Now to the meat:

It all comes down to a matter of identity. As for myself, I am a husband (though not a father). However, I am also: a RM, law student, avid reader, blogger, video gamer, sports fan, etc. While I am all of these things, none of them (nor the sum total of them) is ME. Sometimes, husband is the role that best defines me and is dominant. However, at other times, the role of husband is subsumed beneath other roles, though it never completely disappears. As my wife knows all too well, I jealously guard a piece of me and a time for my own independence. I reserve my own right to, and respect the desire of other married people to do so as well.

Even if it was unspoken, I believe that what offended so many sisters in the Church (and some brothers on sisters' behalf) was that Sister Beck seemed to be reducing their entire identity into a single role: mother. Many of our sisters may be like me- jealously guarding a part of themselves that is neither mother nor wife (or at least not wholly so). Though she did not say it, it could have been perceived from Sister Beck's comments that we (your family/children/the Church) don't have time for your to be anything but a mother right now. For women who are maintaining a piece of themselves apart or for whom the role of mother or wife is not the one of which they are most fond, among the other roles that they embrace, such a remark could be deeply troubling or hurtful.

Another point of her talk that has been addressed is the admonition of LDS women to be the "best" homemakers. It is nice to aspire to be the best anything, but the rhetoric in such a setting is misplaced. The emphasis ought rather to be on being "better" than our past selves, to being a better homemaker, mother, father, etc. than I was when I first have kids, got married, etc. We can be our "best" selves but trying to be "better" than non-LDS people in the homemaking category (and in a number of different fields) seems stupid and petty.

15 October 2007

Harry Reid's speech at BYU

See here for a summary.

I know that Harry Reid is vilified in certain Church circles as something of a "traitor" or a "bad example" for members of the Church. Let me come right out and say that I think such a criticism is wholly unjustified. Most of these people don't know Harry Reid or what is in his heart or how he lives the Gospel in his daily life. All reports I have heard give me no reason to doubt his sincerity or his worthiness. Perhaps acknowledging my own ideological and political biases, I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. I imagine that most members of the Church who attack him simply take issue with his politics, and would do so regardless of whether he was a member of the Church or not, and don't have any objection to his personal life or Church service.

One part of his speech (there were a couple) that made my ears prick up was when he said that certain "right-wing" members of the Church, like Ezra Taft Benson, had lead Church members down the wrong path. WHOA! Thems is fightin' words. It appears that Sen. Reid is calling out a (dead) Prophet and President of the Church, which action typically receives little patience and forgiving from Church members. Moreover, he did this standing on BYU campus, at the University's own invitation, which takes..well...balls.

[NOTE: at least one version of the speech included a reference to Ernest Wilkinson in this same statement, as one of the right-wingers that had lead Church members astray. I find this completely uncontroversial and I would hope that anyone who took an objective look at Wilkinson's actions when he was President of BYU (see the Prince book on David O. McKay for details) could agree that, on occasion, he could act a little unhinged and with an excess of zeal for conservative/Republican politics.]

So the big question is: can I still support Harry Reid after this? I think so. One doesn't have to be on one's way out of the Church to believe that not everything that a prophet does or says while he is the prophet (or in ETB's case, before he was President, but during his Apostleship) is prophetic or sanctioned by the Lord. Joseph Smith himself said that a prophet was not always a prophet, but only when acting as such. ETB, or any other Church leader, could have used their platform and position to influence members regarding political issues that are not properly part of the Gospel or in a way that would contradict Gospel principles. This could be unconscious (ex. "Look! President Benson is a Republican, and that means we all should be too.") or it could be conscious and deliberate. I don't think that this suggests anything manipulative, mendacious, or nefarious about President Benson. He could have sincerely believed that what he was, what he said, and what he did politically were in the best interests of the Church and its members. And he could have been wrong in that assessment. On that note, Harry Reid could be equally wrong in his assessment.

Like Harry Reid, and as I shared with the ex-BYU Democrats President who took so much flak for protesting President Cheney's Commencement speech this past spring, I am liberal because I am Mormon, and not in spite of it. I think that scriptural principles of love, generosity, tolerance, and mercy support traditional Democratic social and economic policies.

[SECOND NOTE: Some people are prone to read Sen. Reid's visit as somehow restoring the political balance at BYU after VP Cheney's visit back in the spring. I think that is completely bogus. Sen. Reid is a member of the Church, and the highest-ranking Mormon in American political history. Inasmuch as he is active and has not spoken out against the Church and would not embarrass the Church in a speech, I believe he is almost entitled to an invitation to speak at BYU. Or in any case, they would be stupid to not invite him at some point. VP Cheney is not entitled to such a presumption.]

I'm Back!

The wife and I greatly enjoyed our vacation to Rome. I won't bore anyone with a travelogue (aren't we specifically counseled NOT to give travelogues for missionary homecoming meetings?), but I think that some of my experiences in Rome might come out in future posts. Being in Europe and the center of the universe for the Roman Catholic Church made me reflect a little and I have a couple of things to say about that, hopefully later this week. Because we were traveling the past two weekends, I have only watched one full session of Conference, so I won't be able to weigh in on that for a little while. All in all, its good to be back, even if I had to jump right back into school.

04 October 2007

Week-long hiatus

I know I have not been back that long, but this one cannot be avoided. On Saturday, my wife and I are taking off to Rome for Fall Break. I won't be back until the 13th so unfortunately, I will miss all the cool blogging about Conference and the new choice of Apostle and Counselor in the First Presidency. I would like to think that we will get the chance to use the computer there in Rome and if so, I'll try to give some travel updates. If not, see you around the 14th or 15th.

That Mormon guy on House

(OK, so yesterday I said I was taken a break from blogging about Mormon stuff, but this just came up and I can't resist)

For those who aren't "savvy", House is a Fox TV show about a really cranky, sarcastic, drug-addicted, but brilliant doctor. One of Dr. House's chief characteristics is that he is an (militant?) atheist and seeks at any opportunity to discredit any of his patients' or colleagues' notions about God, the afterlife, or the supernatural.

So it was very interesting when it was announced that one of his new assistants on the show would be Mormon. The show introducing this character aired on Tuesday. Interestingly enough, the Mormon guy is black, so there go the stereotypes. But it lead into the following initial joke:
House: So you a Mormon? I saw that Brigham Young ring on your hand. Or did your parents just clean the grounds?
OUCH! Right out of the gate, a subtle dig at Mormon history with African-Americans. The doctor responds with "The Church has a very progressive stance on racial equality." That's a questionable assertion; maybe presently true but not historically so. Also, when I think of the Church, the first things that spring to mind are not "progressive" and "racial equality."

There is another joke about the "magic underwear" that does not go much of anywhere, but the crux of this Mormon guy's involvement in the episode is also my most important point of this post. At one point, the doctor decides to do a liver function test by making a patient drink tequila and see how fast she gets drunk. For such an experiment, he needs a control group (someone with no tolerance for alcohol), so he picks the Mormon. I won't get into the back-and-forth, but the essence of the matter is that if this test is going to be conclusive and helpful in identifying the patient's ailment, the Mormon will have to drink. When the Mormon initially refuses, Dr. House asks, "Would you, or would you not, pull an ass out of a pit on the Sabbath?" A well-beloved scripture for every Mormon who ever went to college.

My real question is: if you had to break the Word of Wisdom in order to save another person's life, would you? I am not particularly thinking about a gun-to-the-head kind of scenario, but if in some alternate universe, partaking of alcohol or tobacco once would save the life of another human being, could you bring yourself to do it? If it was a loved one (wife, husband, mother, father, etc.), would that change your answer? My wife and I both agreed that we would partake. In my case, I like to think that it would make no difference if the person were a relative or someone particularly dear to me. In my own mind, the Word of Wisdom is NOT an eternal law. In the hierarchy of commandments, its actually pretty far down the list.

My only real complaint about the episode is that the guy is not convincingly Mormon. He says at one point "LDS does not try to control every aspect of our lives." LDS what? "LDS" doesn't do anything. The Church maybe, but LDS as a subject in this kind of statement. It just does not sound right and makes the whole thing sound less believable.

03 October 2007

Best. Quote. Ever.

I'm going to take a couple-post break from all of the heavy Mormon-related blogging. I know that my disappoint the core readership at this blog, but it will be short-lived I promise. But I am going to have a couple of posts devoted to my alma mater, Duke. It's my blog and I'll do what I want.

The following appeared in the October 2007 Towerview, the campus student-run magazine:

"Everyone's got a hard-on about Harvard, Yale and Princeton that stems from a time when the country was smaller and you only needed three schools to educate the bastards...[Duke] hasn't been around long enough to turn out finely tuned assholes. Young egoists, but not ego-maniacs."

- Dana Vachon, Duke '02, author in New York City

Vachon, who earlier calls the education at Duke "flagrantly mediocre" has, for better or worse, hit the nail on the head. While I love my university, I have never been bowled over by the level of education offered at the school or the intellectual passion of my classmates. I never attended one of the HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford) schools, so I don't have much ground for comparison. However, I have consistently been surprised at how highly Duke is ranked. I understand that not all of the ranking is tied up in the quality of the undergraduate education, and it should not be. Universities are responsible for so much more than turning out 22-year olds with a better-than-high-school education.

Duke does not attract the hard-core intellectual and academic types. Based on my own perception, and not statistics, Duke undergrads do not generally go on to Ph.Ds in humanities and go on to lead other universities; they tend to go the pre-professional route and lead companies, law firms, and hospitals. Coming from my small-town background, I have wondered in the past if mine could have been that great "American Dream" story of going to HYPS. But you can't change history, and I remain very grateful that a school like Duke took a chance on a kid from a hick town in rural eastern NC.

24 September 2007

My take on the "Inoculation" debate

To know what the debate is about, you'll want to read/listen to the following:
Sorting Out Inoculation at Mormon Mentality
and the podcasts #12 and #13-15 over at Mormon Matters.

For those not willing to invest a couple of hours to get into the whole debate, I'll try to give you the gist of the argument in a few short sentences.

- There are some weird, bad, potentially-faith-damaging things in Mormon history/doctrine, especially when they are introduced or explained by someone who is not a believer and/or is not sympathetic to the Church's history and/or truth claims.
- The Church currently and historically has done a poor job of explaining its own doctrine and history to members (and in some cases, may actively conceal it) in a way that prepares them for eventually finding it and being shaken by it.
- It would therefore be better for the Church to "inoculate" the Saints by giving warts-and-all history and explaining all the weird and difficult doctrines clearly, in order to reduce the shock and disillusionment that comes when one learns of this through an independent and unfriendly source.
(Incidentally, if you want a more general view of Social Inoculation Theory, see this page.

First of all, let me say that while I totally understand the idea of the term inoculation to describe what the result should be, I agree with the poster over at Mormon Mentality that the inoculation metaphor is incorrectly applied. Inoculation in the biological/medical sense means deliberate "infection" (hard to avoid such polemical terms) with a weaker version of a disease, in order to prevent infection with a truly virulent form of a pathogen. What some folks are advocating is hitting members will the full dose of the Truth, which should prevent them from being infected with other, more virulent mutations, of the "Truth". I'm a lawyer, not a doctor, so I don't know what this is called. But hitting members with a weaker/tidier/incomplete version of the Truth is what the Church is already doing. And it is not having the effect to prevent members from becoming disillusioned when difficult matters of faith and history arise. It may abate curiosity for a time, but many come to possess the uncomfortable information not due to curiosity, but because of contact with other people.

One school of thought among the GAs regarding the "inoculation" of Church members is that of Boyd K. Packer that "all truths are not necessarily useful." As a matter of theory, I agree. Knowing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre or about Joseph Smith's plural wives does not inspire faith in or allegiance to the Church.

But as a premise for how instruction in doctrinal and historical matters should be done, I cannot. for me, it boils down to a single question: Does the Spirit testify of Truth or of Utility? If the Spirit does indeed testify of Truth, "things as they really are", (which I believe that it does) then it will not testify of a convenient untruth. If we insist and focus upon members obtaining a witness of the Spirit, the only reasonable and viable choice ought to be to teach the Truth and not the Convenient, warts and all.

23 September 2007

Does BYU create doctrine?

This post comes from an idea I have had floating around for some time now. In fact, I wish I had posted on it sooner, when the ideas were fresher. In part, it comes out of the experience of my wife teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at BYU.

The argument that I intend to lay out is that, contrary to the prerogatives of latter-day scripture, the true doctrine-making institution of the Church is not the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, it is the faculty of the BYU religion department, and more broadly of the Church Educational System. Disclaimer #1- I am not stating that this as being my ideal situation (it is emphatically NOT), simply that it is empirically true.
Disclaimer #2- I realize that I am overstating my case a little here, and it is intended to be somewhat hyperbolic. However, I would not waste my time on such a long post if I did not think there was some truth to it.

Key assumption (which underlies this entire argument)- the doctrine that really counts is the doctrine "on the ground" (what gets talked about in Church on Sunday and lived out daily in the lives of members) and not some Platonic ideal of doctrine that appears in official Church manuals.

First premise: The great doctrinal era of the Church is OVER.
Perhaps I should state that it a more tentative fashion...based on recent experience, the great doctrinal era of the Church appears to be over (I leave open the possibility that a new revelatory period could break open at any moment). Now I say this as someone who fully believes that the General Authorities of the Church are divinely inspired to guide the LDS Church. Nevertheless, the dramatic world-shaking revelations of Joseph Smith, etc. are not part of our contemporary spiritual experience as members of the Church. Whatever doctrine is being made in the Church today are merely tweaks of existing principles or assertions of principles that are generally uncontroversial among LDS or in the world. Joseph Smith built the house, we are merely moving the furniture around.

Second premise: No one has a greater amount, degree, and depth of access to the repositories of doctrinal knowledge within Latter-day Saints at a time when doctrinal ideas are being formulated and stored than professors at BYU or the faculty of CES.
For the most part, the average Church member's engagement with General Authorities consists of the following: 16 hours a year (General Conference) and a couple of articles from the Ensign. But looking back at the first premise, many of these articles and GC talks are not doctrinal in nature, or at least only weakly so. Also, at a time when members are truly paying attention in GC or reading the Ensign regularly, many notions of doctrine have already been solidified.
BYU professors and CES faculty have far greater access to LDS youth in the high school and college age. Doctrine and interpretations of scripture are, in fact, taught in Seminary, Institute, and throughout the BYU Religion Department (classes in which are required for one to graduate from BYU). Students emerging from these classes will take from them knowledge about the scriptures and the doctrine of the Church that they will reproduce in official settings throughout the rest of their lives (this is really the evidence of the premise, rather than a part of it). In addition, these individuals write a great deal of the doctrinal material on-sale at stores like Deseret Book. While one might claim that most LDS get their doctrinal ideas in Sunday School or Priesthood, chances are that your teacher went to BYU, has attended CES, or got some of the ideas that you are being taught from materials produced by one of those sources.

Example- How many people do you know who claim to have gained a fuller understanding of the Atonement because of Stephen Robinson's "Believing Christ"?

I lump CES and the BYU Religion Department together for a reason. As a purely org chart matter, I do not believe that they are the same thing. Presumably, the head of BYU Religion Dept. reports to the President of BYU, or something like that, who reports to someone on the Church Education Committee, another member of which is the head of CES. This would indicate parallel lines of communication and authority. However, Terry Ball, the current Dean of Religious Education, is a CES trainee. His elevation to the Deanship was orchestrated by another CES alum, Boyd K. Packer. I don't actually believe that CES is some Gadianton-robber-like conspiracy, a secret combination bent on controlling the whole Church through false doctrine. Rather, I merely point out that CES represents and perpetuates a certain conservative brand of Mormon doctrine, one with which not all LDS resonate or feel comfortable.

So my argument basically boils down to the following: there is currently a doctrine-making void in the Church (due to a lack of official doctrinal exposition), and CES and BYU have been both willing and able to step in to fill it. They have the resources and access to perpetuate their particular view of the doctrine of the Church, and have and continue to do so.

Related to this matter, but too large a topic for me to address, is the age-old question of "What is Mormon doctrine? Where do I find it?" The fact that the answers to these questions are uncertain gives CES and BYU even greater latitude to step to the fore and proclaim that they have the answers we seek.

21 September 2007

More delays

Sorry I haven't posted anything around these parts in a little while. It has been a hectic week. For one, I taught Seminary this week (I was substituting for a friend of mine who has the calling). Since I never went to Seminary in high school (I was not yet a member), I wanted to go the day before to check it out and see how it was done. All in all, it was a good experience. The kids seemed to like my lesson, but I think that might have something to do with the fact that they were scarfing down Krispy Kreme donuts and OJ at the same time. Anyway, that was two straight days of getting up at 5 am, and nobody should blog on such little rest.

So hopefully I will have something to post on Sunday afternoon. I already have at least two posts in mind: a review of Terryl Givens' new book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture and an analysis of whether BYU profs are the real doctrine-makers in the Church.

11 September 2007

The vicious cycle of polygamy and anti-Mormonism

This semester, I am enrolled in a course in Family Law. Two weeks ago, we had an extensive discussion about polygamy (particularly in the FLDS context) and I became quite involved in it. A classmate of mine pointed out that too frequently, polygamy is immediately associated with Mormonism, while it is also practiced widely by neopagans (Wicca, etc.) and Muslims (though not in the US). I was thankful to him for that point, not only in recognizing that polygamy is not exclusively a Mormon "problem" but also for the fact that I was no longer the person in the room with the weirdest religion (he had previously confessed that he himself was a neo-pagan).

The reason I mention all this is that it got me thinking about how anger and ridicule over polygamy gets rolled into general anti-Mormonism. Anti-Mormonism did not begin with Joseph's practice of polygamy. The JS-H attests to this; but also there is some argument that Joseph's polygamous wives were not publicly known before his martyrdom, which was a direct result of anti-Mormonism. However, it is likewise indisputable that a large portion of anti-Mormonism in the late 19th and 20th centuries, even up until know, is based in the Church's previous practice of polygamy and the mistaken impression that it is still practiced among us. My impression is that the two (the larger anti-Mormon sentiment and the horror of polygamy) feed off of one another. If polygamy were no longer an issue, anti-Mormons would focus on something else. But many people who might be willing to let Mormons alone on many theological differences get very riled up about the Church's practice of polygamy.

I say this as someone who supports the 1st Amendment rights of polygamists to practice their religious beliefs. I understand that polygamy (particularly as practiced by FLDS) has many attendant evils, e.g. the "Lost Boys", sexual abuse, incest, etc. However, a blanket prohibition on polygamy is too blunt an instrument to deal with these issues. Nor would I be against polygamists who entered into plural marriage for purely secular reasons or simply as a matter of preference. I do not say this as a Mormon, and therefore predisposed to sympathize with polygamists, or as a liberal, and similarly predisposed to allow plurality of belief (and some would say sexual freedom). Rather I think the liberty-related imperatives of our Constitution show that previous laws or decisions that would prohibit polygamy were profoundly mistaken and un-American.

Apology for Mountain Meadows

For those who had not heard, the Church, through Elder Henry B. Eyring, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued an "apology" for the Mountain Meadows Massacre (hereinafter MMM). Some might gripe that the actual word apology or apologize is never used, and they would be right. However, the right sentiments and contrition are there. I hope that this will satisfy all the people who have hoped and waited for such an apology over many years. In my opinion, such an apology is long overdue. That there was complicity or responsibility for the MMM attributable to some Church members has not been in doubt (except among the most stubborn and closed-minded LDS) for many years now. It would have been better to come forward earlier when such an apology and acknowledgment of responsibility was not a foregone conclusion. Hopefully the healing can begin, both for the members of the Church who in their hearts have not recognized the capacity for evil in all men, even otherwise upstanding citizens and Mormons, and for the families and descendants of the victims, who may have held a grudge against the Church for too long now.

Also, I can't wait to get the new OUP book on MMM by Richard Turley, et al.

09 September 2007

Judges don't know Jesus (or Muhammed, or Buddha, or...)

In my other life, I'm a law student and therefore an aspiring lawyer. I am always interested in court cases that involve churches or religion, and even more so when it involves the LDS Church (see my posts from about a month or so ago). What I have noticed is an unfortunate fact that courts do an incredibly poor job of taking cognizance of religious doctrine and organization. Some people may say that a court has no business delving into a religion's doctrine and in many instances they would be correct. However, I can think of a couple of situations (including the OR Supreme Court case I discussed earlier) where it would be appropriate and necessary for a court to do so.

That being said, we, the Latter-day Saints, don't exactly make this easy on them. I have seen some pretty awkward citations of the standard works as proof of our doctrine, but we know that we don't believe everything in the scriptures and the scriptures don't contain everything we believe. What is a judge to do? Does the Prophet have to be put up on the stand or deposed out of court? Even then, we don't (or should not) make doctrine out of everything the Prophet says. A judge who is Mormon should clearly recuse himself/herself from any case involving the Church, so he/she would be little to no help. Supposedly unbiased and objective scholarship of the Church typically misapprehends the true form or substance of our beliefs as well, so it is an equally unreliable source. I guess my tentative conclusion is that we cannot expect to see any improvement in the treatment of religious doctrine in judicial opinions, because the sources are notoriously conflicted (even in our own hierarchical Church).

02 September 2007

A question of propriety

My uncle (mother's brother) died suddenly and unexpectedly over the weekend. I have not been asked to give a eulogy and do not expect to be. I am the only Mormon in my family (besides my wife) and my parents and assorted other relatives have been vocally anti-Mormon in the not-so-distant past.

If you were in my place, would you dare to use scriptures from the standard works other than the KJV Bible? I can think of many scriptures that would be both enlightening and uplifting at the time of a loved one's death that come out of the D&C and the BoM. Would you mention them in a hypothetical eulogy in a non-Mormon chapel?

My wife has also been asked to play the piano during the service. Could she use some LDS hymns that were appropriate to the occasion, but not found in the hymnal of my family's denomination?

In general, how much leeway do I have to use this as an opportunity to share the Gospel and when have I crossed the line and become tacky and even offensive?

28 August 2007

NO Larry Craig is NOT a Mormon

Larry Craig, the "distinguished gentleman" from Idaho, recently arrested for "lewd behavior in an airport bathroom (George Michael-style) is NOT a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Don't let the fact that he is from Idaho fool you. He is closet homosexual #2 for the Republicans in the past year though (see also Mark Foley).

Democrats have to be careful in the way they handle these scandals. They cannot come out too hard on Larry Craig for his alleged homosexual activity. They risk alienating one of their own constituencies. So yes, I am LDS and support a party populated and supported by homosexuals, but in my defense, if I were Republican, it appears that the same would be true.

24 August 2007

My thoughts on the torture thread over at BCC

See first this post at one of my favorite Mormon blogs. After 234 comments, some of which had wandered far afield of the original topic, one of the blog moderators closed the thread. For those who don't follow the link, the gist is the following: not only did a Mormon write the memo that arguably justified the use of torture on alleged terrorists for interrogation purposes, but it was two Mormons (and moreover two guys who were well-known among their peers for being Mormon) who actually came up with the tactics that American interrogators have used to torture suspects.

Most of what I wanted to say has been said by others and better than I could. Nevertheless, not having had the opportunity to respond directly to that post, I feel like I needed to add my two cents' worth here.

I am appalled at what these three men did, especially if they had knowledge of what it would be used for. It is shocking the degree to which many of us (Mormons and non-Mormons alike) are capable of compartmentalizing what we do during the day and the beliefs and warm feelings we share with our families and our fellow Church members at our meetings and in our home. I am further shocked at how we can get all of these warm fuzzies talking about how God is our Father in Heaven and that all of us here are his children, created in His image, and yet miss the radical implications of that doctrine for how we treat our fellow man (and most particularly those who are not like us or who have done us some wrong).

17 August 2007

Next Apostle?

Any hardy souls willing to speculate on who might be the new Apostle called to replace the recently deceased Elder James E. Faust?

Who becomes the next Counselor in the First Presidency is not really interesting to me. It will almost certainly be one of the existing Apostles (though I am aware that it technically does not have to be), and I don't think there will be much shaking up.

However, my short list for next apostle would be:

1. Merrill J. Bateman (because being president of BYU seems to put you on some kind of short list)
2. Richard Bushman (my dream pick, but slim-to-none actual chance; he may actually be able to do better not being an "official" voice of the Church)
3. A non-white male (anyone will do- this would be my other preference, though I will sustain whoever is called)

Any other ideas?

16 August 2007

Missing the point

I guess that it is about time that I write what I originally thought would be the inaugural post of this endeavor-namely, what does my chosen title mean? I included a quote from the NT in the caption as a clue, but the gist goes towards what I hope our common aspiration as Church members is-both to keep the Lord's commandments and be good people while doing it. No really, they aren't the same thing. I am including links to several of the other posts around the Bloggernacle that got me thinking about this topic and finally convinced me to get off my butt and start blogging (or is that to get ON my butt and start blogging?). Anyway here are a couple (though not a complete list by any means):

"Dear Loyd You Are Not Welcome
My Dreams of a Future Mormonism
Temperate in All Things.

I could go on, but that should whet some appetites. I should also say that I don't agree 100% with what the above authors said in their posts. I would not have gone as far on some points, and maybe farther on others. I am interested them inasmuch as they indicate that at least a couple of other people are thinking about the same kinds of things as I am.

I think what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees and scribes here was something like this, "Look, you are focusing so hard on making sure that you believe in the right things, and do the right things relative to God, but you aren't even nice people." That's watering it down somewhat, but I think that the basic accusation is "You're missing the point." The reason we keep the commandments is that they should naturally lead us to become people who are more merciful, more just, and more faithful. If our obedience leads us away from those virtues, it has accomplished very little. I bring this up because I see a lot of people missing the point these days, both in and out of the Church. I have probably been guilty of the same thing myself on a couple of occasions. But I believe we all generally worry too much about whether so-and-so is active/inactive, orthodox/NOM, Democrat-liberal/Republican and whether we have the right thoughts and believe in the right doctrines. Church members sometimes exclude or are rude to those that they don't feel "fit in" with Church doctrine (or culture)-whatever that means. I would rather see a return to the "big tent" ideal that David O. McKay and Joseph Smith had. My wife recently attended the Yale Mormon Scholars conference and one of the participants there remarked that as their faith and knowledge of the Gospel mature and increased, their testimony tended to shrink and coalesce around a few core principles, leaving the rest as details that are up for discussion. This is an ideal I would like to see put into place. I also think it is a "true" principle; and if not, at least a helpful and productive one for a community as large and diverse as the Church is and aspires to be.

One of the things that got me thinking about this was the death of Jerry Falwell, someone for whom I am not inclined to shed a tear. I don't know whether his abrasive and somewhat unhinged public persona was reflective of his private behavior or not. (Just because somebody goes on Larry King and says that you were a really nice person after you die does not mean that it was so.) But I was struck by the idea that here was a person who was deeply and passionately concerned about whether TinkyWinky (one of the Teletubbies) was gay or not since being gay is wrong (ex. of correct doctrine or belief) but seemed unable to muster compassion or mercy for those who might be toiling under the temptations that he condemned. I just kept thinking, "he missed the point." Perhaps it was uncharitable of me to make such judgments of him, but there it is.

Anyway, I hope that this has given my few readers an insight into what I've been thinking about recently and why I started this blog in the first place.

14 August 2007

Sorry for the delay...

I have been absent from my computer for the past two weeks it seems so I have not had much opportunity to post anything. My wife and I drove back to NC from TX a little over a week ago and then took a long relaxing weekend trip to the Outer Banks. Between that and trying to move in and gear up for the beginning of the semester, time has been in short supply. I do have a couple of ideas for good posts and should be putting at least one up later tonight. Keep your eyes peeled.

29 July 2007

What is the Church's settlement value?

I promise that this will be my last post on the OR sex abuse case, at least until some real steps forward have been taken and I can report on them here. But I was wondering that if the Church is willing to settle this lawsuit, how much should it be willing to offer to make this lawsuit (and the judicial order to reveal its financial information) disappear?

I'll be using a little tool called a decision tree, and if I was more proficient with MS Office, I could probably post a decision tree here. Needless to say, to come up with any definitive answer on what the maximum settlement the Church is willing to offer, I would need a lot more information. But these should provide some tools to analyze with.

So first, we assume that there are two options for the Church- 1) settle out of court OR 2) take it to trial. I think that the case against the Church is pretty weak here and that it will probably win its defense. However, there is always some chance that the judge or jury will rule against the Church even if the Church has the facts on its side. So let's assume that the Church has a 90% chance of success. If the expected value of losing is $45 million (the damages being asked for, probably should add attorney's fees, etc.) and the expected value of winning is $3 million (attorney's fees; note: THIS IS AN ASSUMPTION), that means the weighted average value of the option to take the case to trial is 3.6 million. So the Church should only be willing to give this as a maximum settlement value.

HOWEVER...there are some other key facts to point out. The chances of the Church's success may be overstated above. As the chances for success decrease, the settlement value will rise rapidly. Also, the Church obviously places some value on keeping its financial information secret, so this would increase the expected value of losing the lawsuit (maybe dramatically). I could be completely wrong about my estimate of the attorney's fees and other costs; I don't have any real empirical evidence to back that up. Chances are that the Church will be offering something much more than 3.6 million as a settlement. If so, it probably indicates that the Church thinks its chances are poor or really values its secrecy very highly.

Interpreting the scriptures vs. likening them to ourselves

Over here, I asserted a difference between interpreting the scriptures and likening them to ourselves. I wanted to explore it a little more deeply in this post.

When we liken the scriptures, we are searching for a practical application of scriptural principles to our daily lives. (how many times have we heard this is SS?) Therefore, likening the scriptures ought to be a matter of purely personal interpretation. The Spirit guides an individual in their reading of the scriptures. Because we are looking for a present and modern application, there is no need to introduce details of language/culture/context et cetera into the study of the scriptures. All such readings are on equal footing. Because of this, one should not attempt to elevate his/her understanding to "doctrine"/"testimony"/"the one true and living meaning of X scripture". Any sharing of that understanding should be done with humility and a spirit of charity rather than of authority.

Interpreting the scriptures is another matter entirely. When we interpret, we want to know what the scripture says, if indeed a scripture can say or mean anything. Though some may discount its usefulness, I personally believe that their is a scriptural injunction to perform such analysis when Christ says to "Search the scriptures; for in them ye believe ye have eternal life" (paraphrased). Jesus was not asking them to find a practical application of the scriptures; rather he wanted them to know more about the doctrinal foundation of his role as the Messiah and Son of God. The authority to interpret the scriptures is much more narrow. The question of this authority is a vexed one, as I will explore in a future post about BYU. What is clear is that the prophets and apostles have it. What is not clear is who else might have it. Also, knowing what scriptures mean for those who are not prophets and apostles ought to be a matter of consulting context, culture, language, archaelogy, etc. If we want to teach an interpretation to others, it needs to have a solid rational footing in evidence, or either be the inspired pronouncement of one of the members of the highest quorums of the Church. I know that this sounds undemocratic and elitist (because few have the resources or education to pursue this kind of study) but I think that what most people call interpreting the scriptures is really likening them to ourselves, which is open to all. Most members are satisfied with this (whether or not they should be is another question).

Any opinions out there?

26 July 2007

Update on Church lawsuit in Oregon

See story here. Looks like the Church is going to go the settlement route, which was really predictable. But it appears that the plaintiff really wants to see the records. With the amount of money the Church will probably offer the guy, it will take someone really stubborn to stick out just to get those Church financials.

Approaching but never reaching...

Those who frequent the Bloggernacle are sure to have noticed various references to two recent press releases posted on the Church's official website (here and here), "Approaching Mormon History" and "Approaching Mormon Doctrine." I would like to post on the content of those statements at another time, but for now I am struck first by the manner in which they were released and second, by their titles.

I have heard pleased responses to the release of these statements both in personal conversations with other Latter-day Saints and in discussions on the Bloggernacle. I count myself among that group. I do appreciate it when the Church makes clear difficult issues. In some instances, we might prefer that things are left somewhat vague in order to provide us with "wiggle room." But in both instances, I think that these statements were needed for the membership's own benefit.

I was intrigued to see that the Church chose to release them through the official Church website. To my knowledge, they were not read in sacrament meeting like other official Church correspondence and they have not (yet) been published in the Ensign, which carries most other official Church news. I am unaware whether they have been published in the weekly Church News. What a remarkable development if they have only been released through the website. Is the audience really the press? Or does the Church know that the official website gets so much use and scrutiny by members that it feels that such a location is ideal and/or sufficient? I checked briefly and discovered that it is not available in other languages or on the web pages for other countries that may be accessed through the LDS.org portal. I am concerned that it may only be intended for the Church "literati" and those who typically follow such things, and completely inapplicable to the average member of the Church (who may not speak English or visit the Church website with any frequency). It could be some kind of test run and will be published more broadly in the future. Are we being subtly encouraged to submit comments and reactions? I appreciate the Church throwing the Internet generation and the Bloggernacle a bone here. But it raises as many questions as it answers.

Moving on to the titles, I am struck immediately by two features. First, the use of "Mormon" rather than "Latter-day Saint." This use of a colloquialism (which the Church has previously (but mildly) disclaimed its use here. This seems to me another point in favor of reading this as being a release simply for the media and not for general Church membership. However, I think that most Church members have never stopped calling themselves Mormons anyway; at least I never have. The second thing is the use of the word "Approaching" in the title. To those of a post-modern bent, this seems to indicate that we can approach Mormon doctrine and Mormon history but never actually reach a true understanding of it. My impression has always been that the Church was hostile to post-modernism (perhaps unjustifiably). Mormons have always been proud of their free agency and past Church leaders (Joseph Smith and David O. McKay in particular) have rejoiced in their freedom to believe as they wished. Among the general membership, there seems to be a much greater emphasis on orthodoxy and setting down the "correct version" of Mormon doctrine (probably an outgrowth of Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith's tenure in the Quorum of the Twelve). Should I perceive some shift? I am not sure how I feel about the GAs ending vague signals through Internet press releases, but I may be reading too much into it in the first place.

Then again, perhaps very little thought went into choosing the titles and they were simply looking for something that sounded nice and catchy. I will admit that it is an equal if not greater possibility.

Humane General Authorities ???

I wish I had the references on hand, but over the past couple of weeks I have seen this adjective appear in several discussions of various Apostles and other leaders of the Church--humane.
What does this mean? Clearly, humane means the following (according to the American Heritage Dictionary-1. Characterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion; 2. Marked by an emphasis on humanistic values and concerns: a humane education.). But does it imply that there are other GAs who are inhumane? Who are they?