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.