20 March 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Endowment

My wife and I went to the temple last night. Another change to the endowment ceremony was announced. Due to explicit instructions by the First Presidency in the announcement, I won't discuss details (though I have registered my frustration with this non-essential secrecy in another post). Safe to say that it is nothing serious, and I am not sure anyone can argue with me on that.

However, it got me thinking about temple ceremony changes in the future. Looking across the ordinances, baptism takes about 30 seconds, confirmation about the same, initiatory takes about 5 minutes, and the sealing takes about 2 minutes (at least when doing vicarious ordinances). But the endowment takes a whopping hour and a half, maybe longer. I have always felt like as temple work accelerated in the Millennium, the ordinance itself would get much shorter. What do you think?

Since we can't talk about it, I won't ask what you think the "irreducible core" of the endowment ordinance is, but it is worth thinking about.

05 March 2008

How Gary Gygax made me a Mormon

The creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), Gary Gygax, died yesterday. I was a HUGE D&D nerd in high school, no matter how much my friends and I tried to hide it from girls that we liked. I spent countless hours (not one of which I consider misspent) serving as Dungeon Master for a close couple of buddies, not to mention hundreds of dollars in materials and supplements (some of which, I will now admit, may have been misspent). Once, the week before I graduated from the 8th grade, my friends and I convinced our teachers to let us out of class so we could go play D&D in the teachers' lounge. Since I left for college and was subsequently separated from those friends, I have never picked up the dice again, which I regret from time to time.

But you are probably interested in how Gary Gygax made me a Mormon. I will confess that I have never met Mr. Gygax in person, and knew almost nothing about him until he died yesterday. However, his most significant invention, D&D (or rather AD&D, 2nd edition), has profoundly influenced the course of my life.

It was through D&D that I came to know my best friend ADW (full name withheld). ADW and I had very little in common aside from D&D. Come to think of it, we had absolutely NOTHING in common other than D&D. He was a ladies' man; I had only one girlfriend in high school (and that for only two weeks). He was strong and athletic; I was anything but. But for D&D, I am confident in saying that we would never have associated in any meaningful way.

We had one other important difference- ADW was Mormon; I was not. We grew very close over the 4+ years that we played D&D, even as the rest of our group shifted and changed. We spent the night at one another's house almost every weekend during the school year and every day during the summer. If it was 1am in the morning on a Saturday, you could find us in the living room with a d12 and d20 in our hands. When we were sophomores, ADW gave me a Book of Mormon and explained to me about patriarchal blessings. I admit that, at the time, I did not think much about such things. I put the Book of Mormon in a drawer, only pulling it out occasionally to marvel at the unfamiliar names assigned to each book.

When we were seniors and anticipating our imminent separation (he to a mission, I to the university), he got more serious. Now he spoke in earnest of the missionaries, the plan of salvation, and the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. For whatever reason, now I was interested. Even as we each moved away from our D&D games, we grew closer together in more significant and eternal ways. As soon as I was out from under my parents' roof and safely in the confines of the university, I looked up the local LDSSA president and got in touch with the missionaries. I was baptized in early October, just two weeks before ADW left to serve a mission. He performed the ordinance.

So in a funny way, I have Gary Gygax to thank for my membership in the Church. So I take this time to bid the Dungeon Master of all Dungeon Masters farewell.

And for the record, I have never participated in any blood sacrifice (other than the Atonement), nor any Satanic ritual. I saw a Oujia board once (in another context), but never played with one. And while I can probably name all of the deities within the Forgotten Realms pantheon for you, I have never worshiped any strange or foreign gods.

02 March 2008

Holy scripture, holy myth (part II- the Book of Mormon)

My wife tells me that the previous post was too long and that the lack of comments doesn't mean it wasn't interesting, only that people were too exhausted by reading to the end in order to comment. So I have chosen to break up the promised Part II into several sub-parts which should appear in the next few days/weeks. For those of you who missed it, in Part I, I discussed how there is a school of OT scholarship that holds that several narratives in the OT are not in fact historical, but rather mythical. I am primarily interested in how this affects LDS and our particular beliefs about these narratives and their value. Now I intend to address how the Book of Mormon might address these issues.

The first thing to point out is that the Nephites obviously believed many of the challenged narratives that I discussed in part I, namely the story of the Exodus and Joseph in Egypt. I guess that it all goes back to exactly what was on the plates that Nephi got from Laban. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble but chances are it was not the OT as we now have it, or even our present OT + a couple of new books like Zenos and Zenock. First of all, many of the later prophets did not even live until during and after the Babylonian Captivity (think Ezra, Ezequiel). Second, even the extant OT "books" would have appeared in some other form at that time. Some of Isaiah might not have existed (Deutero-Isaiah, and the possible Third Isaiah). In the Pentateuch, the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources would be present, but the Deuteronomist (D) source would be quite recent, and the Priestly (P) source is not composed for another two hundred years after Lehi and his family leave (though the P source contains lots of genealogy and the brass plates evidently had some of that). As a side note, I think that the later "pride cycle" organization of Mormon's recompilation of the Nephite sources shows familiarity with the Deuteronomistic History, so I think that a good deal of the D source is on the plates. The Joseph novella was its own distinct source and probably was composed early enough to make it onto the plates. So I do not believe that there are any problems believing that the OT stories referred to in the Book of Mormon could have been on the plates at the time that Nephi got them from Laban.

Nephi and Lehi obviously believed these stories, since they are cited extensively as evidence of God's existence, his power, and his concern for the people of Israel. The Exodus, and particularly God's mighty acts in delivering captive Israel from Egypt and bringing them into Canaan, are frequently used in this way. Joseph's prophecies (later received by Joseph Smith alongside the materials that would become the Book of Abraham) are said by Lehi to be among the greatest ever. However, just because Lehi and Nephi believed that these events occurred is not irrefutable evidence of their historicity. Neither would have lived until at least 600-1000 years after either event, and the narratives and their place in Jewish lore would be well established and settled by the time Lehi and Nephi came about. To paraphrase another blogger, just because Pres. Monson tells a story about Jean Valjean in conference does not mean that Jean Valjean really existed. As I alluded to in my previous post, I don't think that this fact either destroys the OT or the BoM as a useful source to gain knowledge about the Gospel or our Heavenly Father. These possibly mythical narratives arise as a method to teach deeply-held spiritual values, and they do that just as well as myth as if they were historical. Incidentally, if Lehi and Nephi believed that the narratives were true and taught them as such, it goes without saying that succeeding generations (i.e. Alma) would feel free to quote them as such.