Sunday, December 24, 2006

Immanuel = Christ?

This time of year Isaiah gets more airtime than at any other point in the calendar, thanks in no small part to GF Handel. One passage used by Handel is taken ultimately from Isa 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us." Careful readers of scripture will note that this is not exactly as Isaiah has it: "God with us" is a gloss explaining the name Immanuel, which gloss appears fully in Matthew 1:23. In fact, as is well known, the "virgin" is also slightly inaccurate, since in Hebrew "'almah" ('young woman') is used instead of "betulah" ('virgin'), the concept of 'virgin' entering via the Greek use of 'parthenos' ('virgin') in this verse.

The question I have is whether this verse need be read as Messianic at all. Without Matthew, would this ever have been read as referring to a Messiah? Is there any indication besides our later lenses that Isaiah meant anything Messianic? The verses from Isaiah that immediately surround this section are decidedly non-messianic, and refer clearly to the geopolitical conflict of 734 BC and not to events seven hundred years later.

To this question a response containing the term "dual fulfillment of prophecy" is usually applied: Isaiah was at once referring to Christ and to some child that was to be born in the immediate future. But was he?

I'm having a hard time seeing this as anything but Matthew's being a good first-century interpreter of scripture, and every Christian reading Isa 7:14 accordingly ever since. I find no evidence in Isaiah 7 that Isaiah meant anything besides his and King Ahaz's immediate context, and it strains the sense of the chapter to read with Matthew.

The reason I raise this issue is not to spread a little Christmas doubt, but to get at how we understand prophecy and scriptural authority to work. Furthermore, I have the sneaking suspicion that the concept of 'dual fulfillment' of prophecy is one we have invented to justify our appropriation of scripture, and it crosses an important line between texts being applicable to more than one situation and prophets speaking directly, intentionally to more than one situation. I rather think it's a concept that tends to impede our understanding of scripture, because it usually prevents scripture being read as anything other than it's "ultimate" fulfillment. This is why I've heard BYU profs say things like "Yeah, sure, Isaiah spoke to his time, too, but what he really meant was Christ." The problem becomes then, of course, that in Isaiah 7 we have one verse that makes sense and the rest is gibberish. Who are the two kings? Who is king Ahaz? What is "the land that thou abhorrest?" This chapter is quite specifically grounded in its historical context, and when read in any other way one encounters insurmountable difficulties. No wonder Isaiah has come to be described as a 'hurdle'.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What's wrong with idol worship?

The lesson in priesthood this past Sunday was on signs of the second coming (based on the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book on W.W.). It was a fairly uneventful lesson until we started talking about how to interpret the signs and one good elder shared the experience of his brother who lived in Sri Lanka shortly before the Tsunami. He commented, "My brother told me about how ripe the place was for destruction. With all the idol worship going on and all, it was no wonder what happened when it did."

I usually try to tone down my thoughts a notch or two before letting them escape my mouth, and fortunately in this situation someone else had their hand up befor me, so by the time it came for me to speak, I had translated the thought "I'm swimming in a Tsunami of ignorance" into something much more cordial.

Now, I think most of us would agree that such a comment is utterly ridiculous, but it did get me thinking about a few other issues that are relevant to raise here. The first is about idol worship. How do we make sense of idol worship given the injunctions against it in the Bible on the one hand, and our inclusivness of other religions on the other (most people believe in a supreme being, yet call him by different names)? Should we dismiss the Bible as culturally insensitive? Reinterpret "idol" to mean something else that qualifies the Biblical warning and yet disqualifies other sincere religious belief as "idolotrous"? Or maintain a position that much of the world are worshiping "false gods"? Or another alternative?


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pilgrimage Sites: Palmyra, NY

By now, pretty much everyone recognizes that church has begun to build up its sacred historical sites by dedicating temples, new visitor centers, and redesigning the experience visitors have. This has produced and encouraged increased pilgrimage by faithful members of the church who travel to these sites for special religious experiences. An industry has built up around these pilgrimage sites including hotels, bookstores, and replica relics. For an "aniconic" culture, we certainly have gone 180 degrees. Is the movement to materiality simply an inevitable development in the history of any particular religious movement? Is this particular development religiously neutral, an act of true piety, or a substitute for true spirituality?

While it is often assumed that Mormonism was aniconic (represented in its rejection of the cross), eschewing material spirituality because of its American Protestant background, the use of the Temple produces a certain tension in this theory. In the temple, a more sacred space is created. I think that it is the temple that has provided the impulse to sacralize Mormon historical sites. The birthplace of Joseph Smith, the Hill Cumorah, Kirtland, Independence, Nauvoo, Carthage, etc. all represent something of the sacred to Mormons. They are sacred history and sacred spaces. One can receive more firm answers to prayers in the temple, but also in these locations. Like invisible magnetic fields, they are places where the veil is thin, where this world and that world meet. As such, they will function in the same way as medieval pilgrimage sites.
Will the pilgrimage sites begin to be specialized in particular ways? Will those seeking healing travel to the banks of the Mississippi near Nauvoo? Will those seeking advice about marriage travel to where Joseph and Emma were married? Will the Susquehanna river become a sacred place to be baptized?

The kitsch-industry that has developed around these sites and experiences focalizes the theological question in important ways. This is still in its infant stages, but can we imagine street vendors selling statues of Joseph Smith and the Christus, vials of dirt from the Hill Cumorah or Sacred Grove, bullet necklaces in Carthage, mosquito medallions from Nauvoo, etc? How will these objects contribute to Mormon spirituality? How will they shape the Mormon home or the Mormon body?

The questions of describing the effect of these present and future practices of course leads to reflection on their religious value. Currently, my experience with many LDS that see Catholic, Orthodox, and some Jewish and Islamic material religiosity is that they see it as strange, even a symptom of false religion. I wonder if as these practices develop in Mormonism, what the response will be as the leaders and people are more self-reflective on our own material religion.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Fruits of the Spirit: Confusion, Honesty and Depression

Someone I know very well is prone to a religious form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, called “scrupulosity.” He worries obsessively over proper religious practice, especially the internal aspects such as prayer and thinking pure thoughts. He feels an unusual amount of anxiety over his thoughts and therefore engages in certain mental rituals to clear them of “sin.” Ironically, these rituals often compound the problem since they add to his anxiety, making it more difficult to control his thoughts instead of easier. Prayer is a very powerful healing technique, but as a compulsion it looses much of its transcendence. He is accustomed to spending hours praying and worrying.

Like many suffering from scrupulosity, he would never act on the odious thoughts that pop into his head. OCD is likely a biological disorder – it is certainly not a spiritual malfunction, even though it may seem that way to patients. This has me thinking: is there an unintentional bias against church members with mental illness?
We associate the Spirit with peaceful, happy, familiar feelings. As a result, we often focus our attention inwards to gauge our spiritual wellbeing, concluding that if our emotions do not match the “fruits of the Spirit,” something must be amiss in our behavior. This may be a normal and healthy part of religion, but for someone who is clinically depressed emotions are often poor indicators of God’s loving approval. Therefore, I think we should place less emphasis on “feeling” as part of our religious experience.

It seems to me that church members with all different forms of mental illness are seldom accommodated. For example, when speakers get up to give lessons on purity, happiness and other feel-good topics, they rarely consider the implications that their comments could have for members who are mentally ill. My friend is a convert to the church; and while he enjoyed the conversion process, it was extremely difficult for him to cope with all of the church teachings on thought control.

I have suggested that we focus less on feelings and thoughts in our discourse. What else could be done to help those who are struggling with mental illness feel at ease in church?


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Believing Blood: Mormonism as a New Race

Mormons adopted the language of race and ethnicity to describe themselves from the very early days of the church. This post examines the rhetoric of race in Mormonism and compares it with that of early Christianity. It is inspired by Denise Buell's amazing book, Why This New Race?, which looks at "ethnic reasoning" in early Christianity. In Mormonism, I see a similar dynamic, though different in some key respects, in the process of describing and creating a new people.

Up to this day, many people still see Christianity as a universalistic religion and Judaism as a particularistic religion. Christianity's success is credited with its ability to apply to all peoples. Judaism "failed" because it was ethnically exclusivistic. What Buell did was to look at the rhetoric of race and ethnicity in early Christianity. The early Christians saw themselves as a new "race," in the same category as Romans, Greeks, and Jews, only their citizenship was in heaven. As a claim to a "universal" race, it engaged in the same sorts of "particularistic" exclusionary practices as any other ethnicity. Her critique is that this new universal is simply another particular and that the claims to universalism always involve exclusion.

While this critique is certainly important for the study of early Christianity, in many ways it applies to Latter-day Saints( though we are more comfortable with being labeled "exclusionary"). However, Buell's argument also tells us a lot more about Mormonism. Mormons claim lineage (literal, adoptive, symbolic, blah, blah, blah) with Israel which establishes them as a distinctive people. In some versions of this, the blood of the baptized member is said to change. In other cases, the blood of the investigator is activated and the ancient kinship bonds are rekindled when the spirit is felt, so that only those literal descendants are gathered again to the family. This diffuse blood was always seen as multi-racial biologically, but all members of the church belonged to the true family of Israel.

The rhetoric of racial unity in Mormonism has died down in recent decades, perhaps as the result of the power scientific discourses of race which may problematize Mormon theories of kinship (there is a lively critique of the biological view of race as well). The result, however, is that biological views of race become the discourse of race in the church, which means that the exclusionary language of that discourse can divide the membership. Yet, our own past exclusionary practice of denying those of African descent membership in the people of Israel reminds us that our rhetoric of universalism rings hollow. Nevertheless, as we have moved away from being a race, to being simply a religion like most others should cause us to reflect on this event. Is one model more effective than another? Should we continue to be a race of Mormons, or should we be just a religion?


New Look!

We were finally upgraded to Blogger Beta! We are still testing out many of the new features. Let us know if you have any suggestions for hacks and where to get them!


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Women's Religious Authority

I am currently reading a fascinating book on medieval mysticism that argues that the rise of female mysticism is not the result of some innate feminine spirituality, but the result of cultural constraints on women's authority that required extraordinary spiritual experience as legitimating a female voice. I am curious if a similar dynamic exists within Mormon culture. Is women's authority limited in LDS culture in such a way that particular forms of spirituality are required to authorize their speech? If so, what sorts of spiritual practices are authorizing? Or, is enough authority given that there is no need for extraordinary measures?

It is not uncommon for many LDS men to speak highly of the "innate" spirituality of women, especially their wives. Indeed, this innate spirituality is often seen as a substitute for, or even a parallel to, the male-only priesthood. Women are seen as more caring, more patient, more "in tune." For the record, I am not convinced that these are natural gender differences. But, are they more than just stereotypes and cultural constructs? Could women actually perform these stereotypes in order to have a voice? Do these prescribed female characteristics actually produce women's authority and agency in the church?

Finally, why are some female spiritual practices accepted and not others? Why hasn't the church produced a need for women mystics? What is the difference for women in medieval Christianity and women in modern Mormonism that enables different means for authorizing women's voices?


Monday, December 04, 2006

BoM Literal Translation: Hebraisms?

For several decades, the alleged presence of "Hebraisms," or, linguistic elements of Hebrew, in the translation of the Book of Mormon have been taken as a significant proof of the Book of Mormon's authenticity. Phrases like "rivers of water" (1 Ne 8:13, 26) demonstrate the Hebraic urtext. Some have suggested to me in private conversations that this element alone of the Book of Mormon is enough to demonstrate its truthfulness. I am interested in this topic as it relates to Handle's post on Ostler's expansion theory of the Book of Mormon as well as those who claim that the Book of Mormon is a literal, word for word reproduction of the original text, like Skousen. Which one solves the most problems?

Does Ostler's theory deny the possibility of Hebraisms? Perhaps he can answer this himself, but it seems to me that a loose translation of the text that he is arguing for would eliminate Hebraisms as a possibility. Then, how do we explain these awkward English constructions? Well, perhaps they are just "biblicisms", or imitative of biblical, or biblical sounding idiom. In other cases, they just might be English phrases. A Google search of "rivers of water" reveals that this phrase is used in English, and that it is associated with biblical idiom.

In contrast, Skousen argues that the Book of Mormon is a word for word reproduction of the original text and somehow demonstrates this from the study of the translated manuscripts. This entails that the Hebraisms the result of a wooden translation. The problem with this is that the Book of Mormon frequently quotes New Testament phrases. How does a literal translation explain this? It seems that it has to posit that the phrases are shared urtexts from a pre-exilic context that show up independently hundreds of years later on two different contexts. This strikes me as less likely than that Joseph idiomatically translates the original text to reflect familiar sacred language.

To be honest, I am unsure about how to resolve these problems. Both a literal translation and a free translation present different solutions and different problems. Can one theory solve them all?


Sunday, December 03, 2006

The BoM's "J" Source: Joseph Smith

I’m intrigued by Blake Ostler’s 1987 paper “the book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” Ostler explores a medley of methodological approaches to the Book of Mormon, including source-, motif-, and form-criticism. He argues that the Book of Mormon can neither be explained as a nineteenth-century invention, nor as an exact equivalent to some ancient document from the plates. He suggests instead that Joseph Smith did have an ancient manuscript which he was inspired to translate, be he freely added his own material to the text as part of a “creative co-participation” (109).

As Ostler put it: “if the expansion theory of the Book of Mormon is correct, then the vast majority of theories, both pro and con, have assumed far too much by simply pointing to parallels” (79). His paper does offer an alternative to the polarizing “parallelomania.” In effect, both sides win. However, each party has to suffer some capitulations in order to accommodate Ostler’s theory.

For example, I don’t know of many (any) critical scholars outside of the church who would accept the common LDS belief shared by Ostler that real plates actually existed containing an ancient Christian document. Yet I suspect that Ostler did not intend his theory to be primarily for non-LDS critical scholars. Rather, it seems to be an apologia for fundamental Mormon beliefs - one which also incorperates principles of modern critical scholarship.

Perhaps the more important questions, then, involve the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory: what can be said of a text that is not uniformly translated from an ancient source? Is it really possible to differentiate between Joseph Smith and the ancient authors? Finally, why would God make the revelatory process of translation so vague as to allow Joseph Smith to add his own glosses to the “most correct book on earth?” Kevin Barney has elaborated a bit on Ostler’s theory (p. 142 f), as I'm sure others have. Nevertheless, I find myself questioning the theological implications of a document that was ostensibly preserved by prophets, recovered through the help of divine agents, accompanied by ancient instruments, only to be loosely translated.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Mormon Symbols

Last month I posted on symbols here. Since then there have been a number of excellent posts on this topic (feel free to add links to your old posts in the comments). One of the questions that I was dealing with is how symbols become symbols and how they acquire meaning. There were some really great comments that you should check out. In this post, I want to deal with the translation of Mormon symbols through time and across space. This image is of the 19th century Endowment House in Spring City, Ut. The building is now an artist studio, but it was the place where endowments and plural marriages were performed. For many Latter-day Saints, these symbols are clearly recognizable, but somehow different. They are displayed above the front door of this building.

What does this image tell us about public display, translation, and multiple meanings? We have a few options:
1) Do these symbols have a different meaning today than they had then? Have we spiritualized away real concrete values that our 19th century rituals upheld? Are our experiences and interpretations of symbols always historically situated and here we get a glimpse of how they were interpreted differently?
2) Or, do these symbols have an exoteric meaning for outsiders and an esoteric meaning for the initiated? Is this public display of these symbols meant as disinformation?
3) Or, are these symbols truly multivalent? Are we free to interpret them in a variety of internally consistent ways?

The larger question, and the one which follows up on my previous post, is how did the interpretation that we have today, of both the private display and oath-bound sacral secretiveness about these symbols come to be? How does any one interpretation of a symbol become the dominant one? Or, is this images' interpretation of these symbols still valid today? If not, why not?


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Proper Practice Makes a Good Mormon

I’m going to have to admit here that I keep up with little of the debates concerning Mormon “theology”, so please forgive me if some of these ideas are half-baked and/or already worked over in other blogs.
It seems to be the case that proper practice (orthopraxy) rather than proper belief (orthodoxy) defines a good Mormon. By ‘good Mormon’ I mean someone who is “temple worthy”—i.e. they can pass a temple recommend interview by answering each question honestly. This is not to say that belief is insignificant, but the defining characteristic of being a good Mormon is one who adheres to a strict notion of performance and not one who has a coherent theology (i.e. a theology which coheres to a larger body of “orthodox” church teaching). For instance, one can remain agnostic to the issue of progression between kingdoms in heaven and still be a good Mormon. I would extend this even further to say that you don’t have to believe in the Bible as literal history in order to qualify. In other words, any member holding a series of non-mainstream beliefs actually could honestly pass a temple recommend interview. While this certainly isn’t an either/or situation where we ONLY judge practice to the neglect of belief, how we work out the relation between the two is unclear.

Now, while I’m certainly willing to debate the issue of whether it is correct to speak of an “orthropraxy” for Mormonism, I’m personally interested in the implications of assuming the above to be correct. In other words, what does it mean to define Mormonism in terms of practice (keeping in mind I am not saying that it is defined SOLEY in terms of practice)? And how does this shape the way we perceive ourselves? Must we be more lenient to those with differing beliefs, in as much as they fit within the wide bounds of Mormon “doctrine”? Is this why many of the internal debates on policy, as well as messages given in conference are about “what to do”?
One strong point of an orthopraxy is that the leadership does not have to have a vigorous intellectual training in order to lead (and perhaps members don’t have to know a rigorous systematic theology in order to join). The downside of course is that actions are often (mis)interpreted as dissent. For instance, facial hair, white shirts, and other “nitpicky” actions become points of contention. An orthopraxy may lead us to be over concerned with “appearance” rather than what goes on beneath the appearance. This of course raises questions about whether homogenization of form leads to homogenization of content; and I could certainly go on, but I’m wondering what other’s thoughts are.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Mormon Democrat for President in 3010 (we’re realistic)

A new poll found that 43% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times, also found that 53% of Evangelicals were against voting for a Mormon. This has not deterred Mit Romney. By all accounts, he is still planning on announcing his candidacy early next year.

Not all Evangelicals oppose Romney out of hand. Jerry Falwell, who recently met with Romney, had this to say: "We're not trying to find a Sunday school teacher in chief; we're trying to find a commander in chief. Where he goes to church will not be a factor; how he lives his life will be."

Many Evangelicals are concerned because they perceive Mormonism as anything but Christian. This will be damaging to Romney’s campaign since Evangelicals and other conservative Christian voters are very effective at “get out the vote” campaigns.

Frankly, I would like to see Romney take the presidency. I think it would clear up a lot of misperceptions people have about Mormons. However, I’m afraid that if a Republican candidate, like Romney, cannot rally a base among Evangelical voters, his presidency does not stand much of a chance.

There is a great irony in all of this: if Utah is any indication, Mormons have inexorably supported President Bush, including the radically conservative political ideas of his Evangelical constituency. (There is a second irony that I have to point out: Evangelicals oppose Mormon candidates because we are members of a perceived cult, yet no one seems to mind the Bush family's participation in Skull and Bones. This is doubly ironic for Mormons who are so concerned over “secret combinations.”)

Shouldn’t Mormons feel a little offended that after all of their loyalty to the GOP, more than half of Evangelicals are unwilling to return the favor? Let’s end this one sided relationship right now while we can still save face.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Slavery, Homosexuality, and the Authority of the Bible

I've been thinking about the status of the Bible in Mormon culture. Really, my thoughts apply to all scripture, but the Bible focalizes the issue in key ways. What is the value of the Bible for Latter-day Saints? What are we supposed to take from this strange document? I take it that we are not biblicists (fortunately!), deriving our beliefs from the Bible, but then where do we turn? The biblicist/inerrantist/Protestant position roots its interpretations in the Bible, arguing that the correct interpretation of the Bible is the source of authority. The hermeneutics of this position are highly problematic. The Bible never tells us anything without first passing through our own interpretive frameworks. Its world is wildly different from our own. For instance, the Bible condones slavery but rejects homosexuality. If we accept the biblicist position, how can we reject the Bible's position on slavery as a moral evil and yet accept the Bible's view on homosexuality? On what basis do we interpret one as morally binding, and the other as relative?

Inasmuch as we appeal to scripture in our justifications for any anti-homosexual arguments, we must deal with this hermeneutical problem. However, it doesn't seem to have quite the same force for us as it does for those who base their arguments solely on the authority of the Bible. For Latter-day Saints, this issue is actually resolved quite easily. We simply point to our modern revelatory tradition to mediate the interpretation of ancient scripture. The ancient revelation is always secondary to the modern revelation in authority (despite the rhetorically assertion that they are in harmony). But this forces the issue of precisely why have a secondary authority at all? If the Bible (and Book of Mormon, and D&C) are always of secondary authority, do they really have any authority at all? Is the reason that the Bible is practically irrelevant in Mormon culture simply because it is irrelevant? What authority if any does the Bible have. I submit that it has none.


Proper Metaphors for Porn (and Sex)

I attended a meeting recently where a general authority (from the first quorum of the seventy) likened pornography to AIDS. He said something to the effect of, ‘The addiction to pornography is everywhere, infiltrating our society. In my mind it’s worse than the epidemic of AIDS.’ While this certainly isn’t a direct quote, and he probably meant something like, “Porn is a serious problem that corrodes our spirituality”, the metaphor still made me uncomfortable. I realize that he is obviously not equating pornography with AIDS, but it got me thinking about how such language can impact the way we perceive pornography addictions, the way we perceive those addicted to porn, and the way those that are addicted to pornography perceive themselves.

We are a highly metaphorical society. By “metaphor” I roughly mean, to experience one thing in the terms of another. Most general conference talks are structured along the lines of metaphors. A preliminary story is given (say someone’s car breaking down in the middle of a long voyage), and then the terms of this experience become the means of understanding something else (trials experienced on the “journey” of life). The use of metaphors are also emphasized in “likening the scriptures unto ourselves” (to mis-quote Nephi) and in retelling and reenacting the pioneer travels.

Much more could be said about metaphors, but as far as this post is concerned, I’m interested in rethinking the metaphors we use in dealing with pornography addictions. We have come along way from resorting to divorce when an addiction occurs. And now it seems that the predominate metaphor (at least from what I’ve heard) is drug addiction. I have a problem with this metaphor. The problem stems not because there are not important parallels between the two, but I think likening pornography addictions to heroin addictions (for instance) imports a lot of harmful baggage. To be more specific, drugs and sex (I’m assuming here that porn addictions are rooted in sex drives—and addictions) differ in some important respects: We would claim that drugs are always morally inappropriate. Certain sexual acts, however, are appropriate in certain circumstances. We would never speak of a “drug life” with the positive connotations we could employ with a “sex life”. Smoking (and other drugs) is always physiologically bad for the body (except perhaps for certain psychosomatic benefits). But a healthy sex life is a part of a broader notion of “health”. We would rarely say that “heroin is a beautiful thing”, but would certainly claim that “sex can be a beautiful thing.”

So the question arises, what is a better metaphor for pornography addiction? The first thought that comes to mind is a food addiction. I should probably say here that I know little about the specifics of “addiction” let alone food addiction (perhaps someone could correct me where I’m wrong), but I think the metaphor better for several reasons: Certain kinds of food in certain amounts are “healthy” for our body, similar to the way that sex in certain amounts are healthy. Food can be both a wonderful and uplifting experience; and sex can be as well. Too much food, or the wrong kinds of food, can harm us; similarly, too much sex, or sexual perversions can harm us. Of course this doesn’t capture the moral differences between a food addiction and a porn addiction (nor the differences in the way other parties, such as the spouse, are impacted by the addiction), but I think the reason we’ve chosen the current drug metaphors are not because they are more accurate, but because of the moral repulsion we have to pornography—porn is “dirty and evil” like drugs are “dirty and evil”.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bring all of the Good, just not Mary, Buddha, the Rebbe, the Koran…

President Hinckley’s message that potential converts from different religions should “bring all of the good” they have learned to Mormonism so that “we may add to it” is an interesting paradox in religious pluralism. It assumes that there is good to be found in other religions (an idea which may have been absurd to some General Authorities in the past), but it also implies that Mormonism contains a fuller collection of truth. Moreover, the challenge to “bring” makes it sound as though the potential converts will continue their religious practices; but is that be possible in a Mormon framework?

Perhaps President Hinckley did not intend for anyone to continue their old religious traditions. In that case, “good” is just a euphemism for “morals” or “ethics” – behavior that we can all agree on. But let’s assume the Prophet actually meant religious practice alongside ethics.

Could we ever envision a Mormon Buddhist? Since there are all kinds of Mormons, I should rephrase the question: could there ever be a Mormon Buddhist Bishop? If converts were to follow President Hinckley’s statement to its logical conclusion, what would motivate them to come to church after adding to their truth? Finally, what would church be like if converts kept all of their good traditions? Unitarian Universalism on crack? A religion salad bar?


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Interesting Conflicts

In this month's Friend, my wife and I were intrigued by a section toward the end recommending reading for youngsters. It included a nice range of books for children, classified by age groups, such as Eight Cousins and The Royal Bee. We also found two that made us raise our eyebrows (and not because of the footnote stating that "Occasionally, characters who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will drink coffee or tea."). One, Hip, Hip, Hooray for Annie MacRae!, is authored by BYU faculty member Brad Wilcox, though it's published by a non-church publisher, as far as I can tell. The other was more troubling: Sister Eternal, by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, published by Deseret Book.

I'm no lawyer, but it seems that there's potential for conflicted interests here, when an official church publication recommends a book authored by a faculty member at its university, and another authored by an Apostle and published by its (for profit) publisher. I'm not saying that there's a legal issue here (I'm no lawyer, did I say that already?). I'm only questioning whether they should have steered clear of these recommendations to avoid the very appearance of advertising.

It's true, there is a disclaimer: "These reviews do not constitute official Church endorsement of these books, but the books have been carefully reviewed to ensure that Church standards are observed." This seems weak to me, coming from an official, vetted church publication (especially since there's the "but" clause). Where is the line?


Good and Evil

Today I had a thought about the problem of evil that I wanted to run by you all. In traditional Protestant theology, the Fall contaminates human nature. The Fall explains the problem of evil. Contrast this with some "Gnostic" theologies that explain evil by means of a wicked creator-god who produced a defective world. In these same theologies, human beings have their origin in the upper divine realm, and are fundamentally good. They sin out of ignorance, but by nature human beings are divine. In the first model, God is good, but human beings are bad. In the second, God is bad, but human beings are good. How does this play out in Mormon theology?

For Mormons, it seems that we are committed to both a good God and good human beings (sort of). We explicitly deny the negative view of human nature found in Protestant theology and we certainly beleive in the fundamentally goodness of the divine. Does this leave a gap in our ability to account for evil? All sorts of solutions to this problem have been put forth to explain the problem of evil in LDS theology. Some, like finitism, resemble in some sense the Gnostic view of a imperfect creator. The world is not perfect because the cosmos is not perfect. Others emphasize human agency as the source of evil, but this stands in tension with the fundamental goodness of humanity. If humans are fundamentally good, and fundamentally free, why would they choose evil?

Certainly, there is no easy solution, but these typologies of good God/bad humans and bad God/good humans seem durable and resilient in the history of the West. As Latter-day Saints, must we eventually embrace one of these models more fully, or can we continue to claim both the goodness of God and the goodness of humanity without philosophical tension?


Monday, November 13, 2006

The Documentary Hypothesis: Do you Believe?

Mormon scholars tend to be ambivalent towards the Documentary Hypothesis, the model of current biblical scholarship. The basic idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis – that the Bible is a composition of several sources which were developed over many years and then redacted into a single work – has definite implications for the way we view the Bible. Moreover, the Documentary Hypothesis poses a challenge to traditional claims about LDS scripture.

For example, the cosmogony (explanation of how the world was formed) from the Book of Abraham treats two literary sources as though they were originally paired together. That is the opposite of what we would expect if, A) the two sources were first distinct narrations and only later redacted into one work, as the Documentary Hypothesis claims, and B) Joseph Smith restored the ancient and original text of Genesis 1-3.

Anthony Hutchinson deals with these issues by recasting the Book of Abraham as “Mormon Midrash.” The Book of Abraham is Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Bible; it is not historically true, but is nonetheless valid in some sense. Kevin Barney wisely avoided taking a specific stance, although he admits that the Documentary Hypothesis rules out the possibility that Smith translated from a source dating to the time of Abraham. These are just two examples of the kinds of reactions LDS scholars give to the Documentary Hypothesis.

There are inconsistencies between the Documentary Hypothesis and a literal view of the Book of Abraham just as there are inconsistencies between the Genesis’ cosmogony and science. This post is just scratching the surface. I hope that other bloggers will continue to treat the problems that arise from our knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis. What I would like to see right now is your opinions of the theory’s overall conclusions. Is it a valid representation of the formation of the Bible? Do you accept the major conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis? And, if so, how have you had to reformulate your beliefs to keep in line with the DH? Or, put another way, how have you had to reformulate your views of the DH in order to keep them in line with your faith?

(Note: the answer “I see no problem at all” may help you sleep better at night, but it will make for a boring post).


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Oh Snap! Society of Biblical Literature is lame all around

Anyone interested in the state of Biblical Studies in North America should read this article:
The Chronicle: 11/10/2006: What's Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature?
It raises a lot of important questions about the kind of pedantic scholarship that biblical studies has cultivated. Clearly lay people are bored to tears by most of what biblical studies produces. It has carefully avoided anything interesting or truly controversal since the mid-ninetes. But what interests me is the critique that it has for religious education like that at BYU. Should the SBL intervene in BYU's biblical studies classes to make sure that they are taught by professionals? Should they lean on BYU to insist that more "secularly" trained scholars be hired by the faculty? If the SBL had to produce a scorecard for BYU, how would it do? Finally, is this article right to emphasize the need for "secular" biblical studies at universities across the country?

UPDATE: One of the main NT blogs has some interesting reactions here.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Petitionary Prayer

It is a common introductory problem in theology to think about the purpose of petitionary prayer. If God is all-knowing, what need is there to tell him what you want (Matt 6:8)? Furthermore, if God is perfectly good, then he is already going to do what is in your best interest without your asking. So, the problem of petitionary prayer is that if God is all-knowing and perfectly good, there is no need to ask him. Mormons have taken a different view.

Many traditional Christians have abandoned petitionary prayer as a theologically legitimate practice. Instead, the purpose of prayer is to align one's will with God's will (see the LDS Bible Dictionary which uses this sort of language). In such a case, the purpose of prayer is not to ask for what you want, but to discern what God wants. Prayer is a way of transforming the self, not God. Prayer is also about legitimately worshiping God, not just "thanking" him and "asking" him as the LDS prayer formula stipulates, but pondering God's majesty. Fixed prayers in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are theogically based in this view of God's relationship to humanity.

Some Latter-day Saint theologians have taken to defending the legitimacy of petitionary prayer. I think that they have done this for two reasons. First, the beginnings of Mormonism are rooted in a petitionary prayer of Joseph Smith. Second, and more theologically, petitionary prayer is seen as a way of causing God to actually intervene in human affairs. Drawing on the LDS depiction of a "finite" God, prayer is seen as a legitimate conversation between God and humans wherein God can be persuaded to act. This kind of prayer is more theurgical than theolatric. The result of this view is a complete abandonment of divine providence. In this view, God can neither have a plan for the world nor is he even actively involved. For some Mormon theologians, God is neither all-knowing, nor (gasp!) perfectly good.

Ultimately, the problem of petitionary prayer is a window onto larger theological debates about the nature of God and the nature of God's relationship to the world. On one hand, I find something attractive about both models of prayer. On the other hand, both are potentially dangerous. In the traditional model, God's will is inscrutible and God's providence must be held accountable for all that happens. In the LDS model, the risk is that there is simply too much freedom for both God and humans. The world seems extremely unstable. Furthermore, God seems to capriciously intervene on what basis? Why does he answer some prayers but not others? Once providence is abandoned, but divine intervention into history is still allowed, God still remains responsible for the prayers that go unanswered. In either model God seems to come off badly.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Mormon Studies, Big Money and U.

At the risk of sending our blog off on a tangent, I think we should consider one other aspect of the Mormonism/religious studies/BYU issue: what about the redder, better, and more secular school slightly north of Provo? Why doesn't the University of Utah have a religious studies department? Harris Lenowitz, professor of Hebrew and Judaism at the U of U, once answered this question. But what do you think?

Regardless of whether or not the Utah legislature is to blame, we can all be fairly sure that it's not for lack of interest. Most people I know from the U of U would have loved to take more classes in religion (and not just at the institute). The interest is there, the resources could easily be brought in, so what is stopping the U of U from developing a program in religion? It seems to me that Lenowitz may be right. If that's the case, perhaps we should be concerned about how the new Mormon studies chairs will be funded. I've heard arguments on both sides. Some professors I've spoken with say that funding is really a non-issue, while others are worried that academic freedomwill be limited on account of the donors.


Friday, November 03, 2006

NKOTB: Handle

We wish to extend the warmest welcome to our newest blogger, Handle. Handle is an experienced blogger and participant in interesting conversations relating to Mormonism. We are pleased that he has agreed to share his expertise and we look forward to his posts. Hooray!


Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU

On the advice of more experienced bloggers, I'm posting a (very slightly modified) comment I made on diahman's post:

I've got to respond to (and disagree with) ben's statement:

I would actually put up BYU's new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.

I agree in nuce with ben's other posts and the fruitful discussion regarding the creation of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. From all I can tell, it's giving BYU religion professors whose ancient Near Eastern expertise has long lain dormant the chance to dust off the cobwebs and get back to their training. It's great to see guys such as Kent Jackson, Dana Pike, and David Seely teaching things they were trained to do at world-class universities (UMich, UPenn, UMich, respectively) under the biggest names in the field (D.N. Freedman, Jeff Tigay).

What is more, this is not, as far as I can tell, a rehashing of the old degree, but contains some perhaps unexpected items, the most noteworthy being the innocuously named "ANES 363: Hebrew Bible Studies." Its description promises to make some waves, however: "Current analytical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible." This will include, if there is truth in advertising, the various types of criticisms most pertinent to Biblical Studies: Source Crit, Rhetorical Crit, Text Crit, etc. I wait with baited breath to see how this goes over. I'm guessing Seely will do a great job, but I'm anxious to see what kind of oversight, if any, will arise.

My reasons for begging to differ from ben, however, are a result of the problem of the Religion Department itself. Were this major offered primarily by, say, a Near Eastern Studies Department, two or three profoundly weak points could be resolved:

1) The Hebrew instruction could be taught by other than grad students, and in a much more robust way than currently done. (This point does not carry over to the Classics department, which has a much more rigorous stance.)

2) The core text classes should be offered by other than religion faculty. A BYU OT or NT class, in my experience and judging from the range of professors allowed to teach these, tends not to teach the text of the OT or NT in the way normally done in "Biblical Studies" programs. (I know there are exceptions.) But the bottom line is that an ANES major can be instructed in OT or NT by those not trained in OT or NT and . This is a fundamental flaw in a degree that purports to be ANES and not "Religious Education".

3) This major would begin to rank with others nationwide if its faculty participated in the (national and international) field. I've heard rumors that one or two BYU rel profs have begun to start publishing in other (non-LDS) venues, but BYU is not known in the least for its OT/NT scholarship. Two factors seem to contribute to this isolation:

a) the Religion Department, which houses most of the core ANES faculty (judging by the web site's list of "interested" professors and by those that have actually taught ANES core courses) allows LDS publications to count for rank advancement, so Ensign articles count, Deseret Book publications count, etc. These are much easier to churn out, with the result that no one takes the time and effort to engage in the wider field. Plus, LDS pubs are much more lucrative than Biblical Studies monographs, making the choice even easier.

and b): There is no member of the (again, Religion) faculty that engages in the mainstream of Biblical Studies. Perhaps for obvious reasons, BYU is not producing scholarship on the fundamental aspects of Biblical research. The professors, as far as I can tell, are relegated to "safe" areas: Dead Sea Scrolls/II-temple texts, Moabite language, etc. Why is there no BYU prof, for example, writing on the Doc Hypothesis, from any perspective? Why do our only LDS treatments of this topic come from non-specialists and amateurs?

Until such fundamental issues were addressed, I think I'd send my kid elsewhere for Biblical Studies. But there's hope on the horizon.


What to do with BYU Religion

On analogy with a recent post by Clark Goble on M*, and in the spirit of Sweeps, I want to bring up an honest question, without being sarcastic, demeaning, or combative:

What is the purpose of Religious Education at BYU? I realize that they define it on their home page, but I specifically want to take a more functional look. Does having a faculty concerned with "preserving the doctrine" fill a role fundamentally different from that of the LDS Institutes? If so, what is that role? If not, why is Religious Ed housed at BYU and not in an adjacent institute? Is it only so that the University can require participation of its students in such a system? Although it seems that I can only seem to write about BYU and BYU religion, I'm really less interested in BYU RelEd and more interested in its role in the wider Church.

What say ye?


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

BYU's Dept. of Religious "Education"

I'm sure many of us have realized that BYU's Religion Department uses the title "Religious Education" rather than "Religious Studies". BYU-Hawaii even refers to their religion department as "The Department of Religious Education".

There seems to be a distinction that Church schools are trying to make by differentiating themselves as religious "educators" rather than religious "studiers". The home page of BYU's religious department states that their mission is "to build the Kingdom of God by teaching and preserving the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" "Education" in this respect seems to be about fostering good members of the Church that are well versed in their tradition. Personally I can see the role for such a program; but are we losing something by "educating" in this manner? I would have to say that personally I left BYU not even knowing how much I really didn't know. In other words, while I feel like I learned about Mormonism I was completely unaware that there was a world of "religious studies" going on outside of Mormonism; and that Mormonism in all actuality has so few voices taking place in the larger conversations.

The other issue I'd like to raise is, could (or should) BYU ever have a Religious Studies Department? If so how could such a thing ever come to pass? The background behind this question is that Utah State has started a BA in religious studies (; and in some regards I can't help but feel that demand is abundant, and if BYU doesn't develop a religious studies program they will continue to sit on the sidelines of the conversations about religion which ironically is also about themselves.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Alternative Lifestyles

One of the constraining aspects of Mormonism is that it seems to shut down alternative modes of living life. By "alternative lifestyles" I don't mean to refer to experimental sexual/social relationships like hippie compounds or anything. Rather, I am interested in the way that a true Mormon cannot choose to live a nomadic or solitary life. We must exist within communities. But our communities are not just any kind of community, they are local communities.

The reason that I have been thinking about this topic lately is because I have recently been interested in sailing. I had the chance to sail competitively on a modest yacht this summer and now dreams of owning a boat have taken over my life. Fortunately my spouse has caught the bug too and we have set a goal to some day sail around the world (or at least to Europe and back). But in the back of my mind I keep worrying about my callings at church as well as the lack of contact with LDS communities for potentially months at a time.

I imagine that cattle ranchers, corporate road warriors, and people who dream to live in a cabin deep in the wilderness face the similar problem of connecting their dreams or work obligations with the constraints of LDS community life. I suspect that sun-birds share a set of these problems since they can't hold a calling for more than 6 months. I know that I would be frustrated if I were staffing a ward full of sunbirds. Part of the problem is that one's membership in an LDS community is necessarily local. Even if I were to go to church every week in my travels around the world, I still wouldn't fully "belong" at any of the congregations I visited. Conceivably the internet may one day de-localize LDS community life, at least for a certain mobile portion of the membership, but I don't suspect this will happen anytime soon. Besides, half the reason for sailing around the world is to get away from any consistent set of surroundings, including ward members.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Pious Pumpkins

This time of year always gets me thinking about how I can express what I feel about the gospel on a pumpkin. I mean, what better way to show your testimony that through the medium of a pumpkin? I can't think of any. The pumpkin is a symbol of Christ because it grows from a tiny seed. Fortunately, someone else shares my desire to make a Christ pumpkin, and even a Gordon B. Hinkley pumpkin. Thank goodness!


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Comments Contest! Real Prizes!!

Dear Readers,
We have been having a good number of visitors to our site since our humble beginnings. We are grateful that people have continued to come and hopefully enjoy our musings. However, our comment/vistor ratio seems rather small. Our view is that we haven't yet had the critical mass of comments to really get the conversation going, even though we have plenty of people visiting! So we have devised a solution: a contest. From now until Nov 12, we will be keeping track of the most and the best comments (judged from our secret, strict formula). All are eligible, including Mark Butler, DKL, and the snarkers.

The prize will be:
1) One movie ticket gift certificate to a theater near you.
2) The highest public praise.
3) A guest blogger spot at Urban Mormonism!

As part of our drive to increase the conversations at our site, we, the Urban Bloggers also plan to have a new post every 36 hours over the next two weeks. Start your comments now!


On Being Disturbed

The Gospel of Thomas preserves a version of Jesus's familiar saying about searching and finding, but with a twist: "Jesus said, 'Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all." (Logion 3). The emphasis here is that the divine mysteries, the secrets of the Kingdom, are unexpected, troubling, even disturbing. As Latter-day Saints, is the divine fundamentally disturbing?

The injunction to search and find is foundational to Mormonism. The prophet Joseph's reading of James 1:5 is essentially a version of this common theme. Joseph's great visions were certainly "disturbing" both to him and to the world.
This is often set into contrast with the radical teachings and practices of the early LDS church. Mormons today seem to see the divine as essentially benign, benevolent, and which confirms our basic values. The radical is something which is unthinkable, but in both early Christianity and early Mormonism, the radical was precisely what defined God.

Is there still room for being disturbed? Where the spiritual tradition of being distrubed remains a powerful force is actually in the study of LDS history or the study of Christian history in general. LDS seekers often find what is distrubing, though it is not God, but the church which disturbs. Can we revive this practice of being disturbed as a central aspect of spiritual practice? Can the process of doubt and disturbance not be seen as antitheses to faithful existence, but its very foundation?


Friday, October 27, 2006

Mormonism is a Humanism

Readers may recognize that this title riffs off of Jean-Paul Sartre's influential essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." Though the German existentialists might have rejected this association, Sartre's desire to locate Existentialism within the humanist tradition shows the powerful impact that humanism has in the imagination of the West. It's influence is so profound that for Sartre, humanism is the genus and existentialism is a species. Can the same be said about Mormonism? Is Mormonism simply an expression of the backbone of the Modern West's philosophical framework?

What got me thinking about this topic was a recent performance I attended by Julia Sweeney called "Letting Go of God." Julia was the SNL comedian that is famous for playing the lovable androgynous "Pat." In it she recounts her failed search for religion and belief in God. (As a side note, there was a long discussion of her encounter with the Mormon missionaries and her reactions to the first discussion. But I'll save this for another post). Now she considers herself a secular humanist and has even been given awards by humanist societies.

Humanism really traces its roots to modernity and the turn to ethics of and concerning the individual subject. The concept of rights, democracy, the intrinsic worth of humans, and universal rationality are all the products of humanism. Humanism is the philosophical framework behind feminism, civil rights, the end of torture, invasion into Iraq, public schools, and universal health care. There is no one humanist ideology since humanists claim all sorts of competing positions within the same issue. For example, pro-choice and pro-life movements might be suprised to learn that they are both rooted in humanism, though they are configuring its constitutive elements differently.

Mormonism seems to sit squarely in the humanist tradition with its emphasis on the sacred character of each individual, its positive view of the nature of human beings (the rejection of Original Sin was a halmark of modern humanism), and its focus on human progress. Indeed, the Mormon doctrine of God can in some ways be seen as the theological zenith of humanism.

Secular humanists (and religious one's as well) locate the basis of ethical behavior outside of revealed religion. "Thou shalt not kill" doesn't really take a revelation to figure out. In fact, one of the most important developments in modernity (esp. Hume and Kant) was to separate ethics from theology. Even most Mormons accept that being a good person can be determined without reference to theological criteria.

All of this is a round about way of asking what Mormonism's value add is to humanism, even in its secular form. Do we learn anything more about ethics that cannot already be argued from within the humanist tradition? Or, is Mormonism just another expression of the ways in which humanism has already framed our view of the individual subject? If not, then why be a Mormon and not just a humanist?


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Is Every Nation the Gathering Place for its Own People?

The concept of gathering is a central feature of Mormonism. We often talk of the physical gathering of the early saints—a literal move together to establish a Zion-like society. And we talk of the shift, in later Mormon history, where "[e]very nation is the gathering place for its own people" (spoken by Bruce R. McConkie in 1972 and reiterated by Russell M. Nelson in Oct. Conference). But how literally are we to take this? Given recent global trends making “trans-nationalism” more possible, the Chinese Saint (for instance) could very well be born, raised, and die in America without even returning “home” to China. In this light is it still an injunction for the Mexican saint to gather to Mexico? The Nigerian saint to Nigeria? Etc.?

Should we still hold to the notion of "Every nation [as] the gathering place for its own people"? The larger question is how does globalization impact our conception of “gathering”?.]


Monday, October 23, 2006

Mormonism's Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn't influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to "fortune cookies," as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn't participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um...Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo's constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul's discussion of "shadow boxing" and "crowns" in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?


Friday, October 20, 2006

Do We Really Have a Fullness of Truth? : Dealing with Difference Part III

If you know any Latter-day Saint that has an understanding of religions other than Mormonism (or more often ‘Christianity’ broadly conceived), one of the first questions they are usually asked by other members of the Church, are what “parallels” there are between the other religion and Mormonism.

I have to admit, I’m somewhat bothered by this question. Personally I know I need to accept that for the most part this question is conceived with little ill intent on the part of the questioner; but I can’t help but interpret the question in this respect, “I’m only interested in other religions in as much as they can support what I already believe to be true, could you please tell me how [insert religion here] does that?”

On the bright side, at least the questioner implies that this “other” religion has something resembling the “truth” within it. However, even this admission seems to be tied to the other religion having “fallen away” in some pre-Modern past, yet fortunately holding on to some small vestige of truth while acquiring other “false doctrines”.

I am wrong to feel this way?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Demonic Holy Ghost

When did the Holy Ghost become a demon (aka, daimon, daemon)? By "demon" I don't mean to refer to the malignant spirits that tempt or haunt human beings in Christian mythology. Rather, I mean to refer to the Greek and Roman meaning of the term, a mythical creature that could be either good or evil, but who whispered to the mind of its patron what they should or shouldn't do. Our term 'demon' dervies from this Greek word, though Christians argued that these pagan creatures were by nature wicked since they did not come from God. The most famous daimon belonged to Socrates and told him what he should do. He claimed in his Apology that he only followed what this divine creature had told him to do.

It strikes me that for Mormons at least, the Holy Ghost functions as a sort of daimon. Testimony meetings are replete with accounts of the Holy Ghost telling someone not to go somewhere or to give someone a call. The basis of these testimonies is that they don't know why they are doing these things other than that they heeded the call of the still small voice. Sometimes they find out why, sometimes they don't.

But this is not the only way that the Holy Ghost has been depicted in the history of Christianity, nor is it the uniform picture of the Holy Ghost in Mormonism. Most famously, the Lectures on Faith say that the Holy Ghost is the communal mind of God and Jesus Christ. Moroni 10:5 says that the Holy Ghost bears truth to all things, but this seems a bit weightier than whether I should go to a sleepover or where my keys are. Many New Testament books don't even mention the Holy Ghost and others speak of the Spirit as a more abstract principle. So, where does this idea that the Holy Ghost is a daimon who whispers into our ears what we should do come from?


The Power of Symbols

A few recent posts in various blogs has got my thinking about symbols. Wade at The Straight and Narrow Blog and Mark Bulter at M* have both identified symbols in their posts. The issue here is how we are supposed to know a symbol when we see it, how we are supposed to know the correct interpretation of that symbol, and how we are supposed to act both mentally and materially in response to it. These issues have been debated at lenght among anthropologists.

From the 1960's to the end of the 1980's, symbolic anthropology ruled the academic roost. Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner and others argued that culture and religion were a system of symbols, "webs of signification" and members of a culture (or religion) interpreted these symbols in order to act and navigate the world. Geertz, who looked quite a bit at religion, described it primarily as a symbolic system that induced beliefs, dispositions, and behaviors in its interpretors. The attractiveness of symbolic anthropology in the academy at large is that it brought a wide variety of disciplines such as history, literature, anthroplogy, and linguistics under one common methodological umbrella, namely, the art of interpretation. However, it saw symobls (and rituals) as a stimulus and human behaviors as a response, without much to mediate that relationship.

Beginning in the 1990's scholars of religion began to be increasingly skeptical of symbolic anthropology, precisely because it couldn't explain the relationship between symbols and practices. How exactly does a symbol inculcate certain values, dispositions, beleifs, etc? Instead, scholars began to turn to "practice theory", a particular anthroplogical approach developed mostly in France. Foucault, Bourdieu, Certeau and others focused on the relationship between cultural symbols (discourses) and practices. Anthropologists of religion such as Talal Asad picked up on these insights and showed how a wide variety of practices are involved in inculcating religious beleif from symbols. He argued that symbols themselves were inneffective at bringing about religious dispositions and behaviors without power that ensured the proper interpretation of symbols. He looks at how St. Augustine authorized the use of violent force against heretics who misunderstood the scriptures as a way of showing that the texts themselves could not be properly interpreted without the sword.

The cumulative effect of both anthropological approaches was to show that symbols are not natural. They are the products of traditions and that a variety of interpretations exist within and between religious cultures about the meanings of symbols. What practice theory also showed is that these symbols required power to ensure their proper interpretation and to give them to ability to have meaning.

As Mormons, we really don't have a very deep reflective tradition on the power and nature of symbols. We seem to be stuck in a particular moment that sees symbols as naturally occuring or as self evident to astute observers, rather than the product of our own interpretation. As such, we are unwilling to see how our interpretations of symbols are produced within a superimposed ideology. Further, we tend to see symbols in a stimulus-response model and don't consider how interpretations are authorized by our culture.

I guess the question that I have is what sorts of practices, disciplines, sanctions, etc are at work in the production of Mormon identity and the relationship between Mormon symbols (temple, scriptures, hierarchy, etc) and behavior? Note, these words sometimes have a negative valence, but for anthropologists, they are simply descriptive terms for how societies work. I want to know how Mormon society works, how its symbols are produced and how they produce Mormons.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Newest Urban Blogger!

Jupiter's Child has just joined the team! He is a relative newcomer to the blogging world, but I expect great things from him. Basically, he knows a lot of stuff, a lot of interesting people, and has thought and lived through lots of great intellectual experiences.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Resurrection of Flesh and Bone?

In 1 Cor 15, Paul declares that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God." This text appears in the larger context of a defense of the resurrection, which seems to create a problem. How can Paul defend the resurrection, but in the very same passage declare that flesh and blood cannot go to heaven?

The difficulty of this passage was debated strenuously in antiquity. Those who defended the "resurrection of the flesh" wrestled mightily with this problem, while those who argued for a more spiritual resurrection relied heavily on this text to prove their point.

Mormons have been bothered by this passage as well
not only because we are defenders of a resurrection of the flesh, but also because we have a notion of an embodied God. To my knowledge, our exegetical solution to this problem is unique. We argue that is true that flesh and blood together cannot inherit the KoG, but that the combination of "flesh and bone" can. We simply drop blood out of the equation. In antiquity they wondered about the blood of resurrected beings. Origen argued that Jesus' blood was not Ichor, the sacred blood of the gods. He never said what it was instead.

So what then do resurrected beings have in thier veins? Is blood the only thing that is missing from the resurrected body? Can a body really be a body without it, or is it something else?


Friday, October 13, 2006

No Mormon Love for Paul?

There is an aversion to Paul in Mormon thought and culture. A recent comment by Julie Smith at T&S gives some of the reasons for this phenomenon. I must insist, however, that we are completely missing out. For starters, Paul is hot right now. Yeah, he had some bad times at the hands of feminists in previous decades, but he is back with a vengeance now. Jewish scholars like Daniel Boyarin have embraced Paul. Not to mention some of the most cutting edge contemporary atheist philosophers like Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, and Taubes have all published books on Paul's contributions to and resources for contemporary philosophical problems. If Jews and atheists can embrace and praise Paul, why can't we Mormons get it together?

I suspect that one of the reasons that we have ignored Paul is because we are so caught up in a provincial debate with Evangelicals about whether we are saved by grace or saved by works. Neither we nor Evangelicals seem to be aware of recent developments in Pauline scholarship that more or less resolve this quesiton. Well, to be more accurate, recent scholars have shown that this question is not what Paul is answering. He is not dealing with the Grace vs. Works as two polar opposites. Rather, he is dealing with a specific set of "works of the Law", namely, circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance. In my view, this "New Perspective," as it is called, opens up a great deal of space for Mormon thinking with Paul.

Unfortunately, the results of our discomfort with Paul is that we literally ignored him. Even though his writings (or those attributed to him) make up 1/2 of the books of the New Testament, we devote hardly any time to him in the Sunday School curriculum. As a culture, we simply have not paid any attention to him, hoping in vain that the problems we thought he created for us will dissappear. We can no longer continue to do this.

I suspect that one of the other difficulties that we have with Paul is that we try to read him in the KJV, with the odd page layout of the Standard Works. I admit that I never really understood Paul until I read him in modern translation. The particular translation that we have in the KJV is rooted in a Protestant reading of him, which contributes to the misunderstanding and discomfort we have.

So, what can Paul do for us? We can start with the problems that he is dealing with himself. He is deeply concerned about the problems of universalism and particularism. How can God and Truth be universal, yet have a particular relationship with a particular people? We can also think about how he deals with immanent eschatology and time, which we share with him. We can also pinpoint areas where we might disagree, perhaps on questions of gender. Finally, we can look at how he is dealing with diversity and difference within the church, the kind of ethics between the "strong" and the "weak," as well as ethnic differences between Jew and Gentile. All of these are analogous problems that we are dealing with in LDS thought as well. Paul can help!


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can Mormons see Grey? Dealing with Difference Part II

Roughly speaking we can talk of two different ways of conceptualizing a world imbued with morality—as black-and-white or as shades of grey. In regards to our religion, I see faithful members of the Church in both camps. Those that see in black-and-white, view the Spirit as a power that is either present, or is not. Any given thing is either of God or of the devil. A church is either the church of the Lamb or the church of the devil (1Ne. 14:10). Those that see in grey emphasize parts of the gospel that talk about the good in all things—growth line upon line, and improvement grace by grace. And sometimes of course we fluctuate back and forth between these positions.

To give a more practical example:
The black-and-whites would say that one scene in a movie (be it sexually explicit, violent, or otherwise) warrants not seeing the movie altogether. The greys on the other hand, would say that the one scene, while not good, does not ruin the other enlightening parts of it.

The questions that I’m interested in are as follows:

Is it really the case that Mormonism allows for two different world views? If so, then how should the black-and-whites relate to the greys? Is there something else that holds us together as Mormons besides a common world view (or other parts of a world view larger than what I’ve described)?

Is there a progression involved? In other words, have those that see in grey “evolved” beyond seeing in black-and-white? Or have they simply made a choice to use a different lens with which to view the world—a different, yet equally valid lens?

I certainly have a lot to say, but I’d like to know that there are others out there who are interested in discussing the issue. So please provide some of your preliminary thoughts.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sex, Reproductive Technology, and Mormon Doctrine

This is not a post about whether birth control should be permitted, or about stem-cell research, test-tube babies or even about the ethics of in-vitro fertilization. Rather, this post is about what these technologies do to and for Mormon doctrines about sex and reproduction.

One of the results of modern reproductive technology is to completely separate sex and reproduction. They are no longer necessarily related. This must leave an impact on the way that we theologize about both. Sex without reproduction and reproduction without heterosexual intercourse have become realities. The thing that we must reconsider is the close connection between them that Mormon theological reflection has often taken for granted.

The first major institution that we must reconsider is nothing less than the heterosexual reproductive marriage. This institution is the foundation of LDS afterlife theology and is seen as the primal unit of creation. Often, the post-mortem continuation of reproductive sexual relations has been a celebrated tenent of Mormonism. However, reproductive technologies seriously challenge the assumptions of "natural" reproduction. Can we imagine a kind of reproduction in our future lives that is in fact not connected to sexual intercourse? If this kind of "technology" exists in this world, then why not the next? How do we rethink reproductive gender roles, eternal child birth, and heterosexual partnerships once technology (and possibly the nature of resurrected bodies) displaces a necessary father/mother binary?

The second case for reevaluation is the relationship between sex and marriage. In our larger cultural envirnoment, the connection between sex and marriage has virtually disappeared precisely because the sex/reproduction nexus has been dissolved. Does an LDS theology of sex adequately account for sex without reproduction? On what basis is sex prohibited if the production of children outside of wedlock is no longer an issue? Given that the history of heterosexual marriage is deeply intertwined with the regulation of reproductive sex, how does the institution of marriage change when its very logic has been rearranged?

The technologies also offer potential benefits for LDS theology. Through them, we can think about reproduction in our next life without having to biologize the production of spirit children. Additionally, sex without reproduction becomes a powerful symbol of union between husband and wife. However, for the most part I don't think that these new technologies have been adequately addressed theologically.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Mandatory Repentence Periods?

It appears that a new instruction manual to bishops requires certain "waiting periods" for prospective missionaries who commit certain sins, which are specifically enumerated. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The only reason that I can think that it is a good thing is that it standardizes the waiting period. This way, bishop A who is more strict than bishop B is required to follow the same guidelines.
However, this very process of standardization also strikes me as creating a whole new set of problems. First, it doesn't distinguish between various degrees and types of sin. If a pre-missionary "pets" once with his girlfriend of three years, there is no difference in the waiting period from the pre-missionary who had sex numerous times with several partners.

Second, these waiting periods don't deter sins. They aren't public, so no one knows. But even when they become public, they are seen as standards which can be worked around. On a pre-missionary's 18th birthday, he can have sex for the last time. These waiting periods seem to encourage teenagers to miss the message.

Third, this whole process of standarizing repentence periods strikes me as belonging to a Christian tradition of proscribed penitence, which I thought we Mormons didn't beleive in. Say your "Hail Mary's", wait a year, and viola, you're now forgiven. This seems to me to profoundly miss the point of the atonement. We don't do this for others who sin in similar ways, why do we single out these pre-missionaries? This practice seems completely non-scriptural.

Fourth, from all accounts, many pre-missionaries simply choose to lie about their past transgressions because they don't want to face the public shame. These policies turn private repentence into a public spectacle in such a way that can only encourage pre-missionaries to hide the truth and lose out on the benefits of a full repentence process.

Finally, these policies function to publically shame prospective missionaries in such a way as to actually discourage repentence and the desire to serve a mission. They make teenagers who have sinned feel unworthy and frustrated by a beaurocratic requirement that they feel is contrary to the principles of the gospel. Rather than have to admit that they have to "wait a year" and let family and friends express dissapointment, speculate about the nature of the sins, and constantly check-up on them, many prospective missionaries find that it is easier and more accepted if they simply say that they don't want to go.

Perhaps I am missing something?


Sunday, October 08, 2006

New Blog Team Member: diahman

We've just added the newest member to team Urban Mormonism. Diahman is an anonymous bloggernacle veteran and an amazing conversation partner. I look forward to working more closely with this amazing contributor!


Dealing with Difference: A Taxonomy

How do we as Latter-day Saints reconcile differences? At this point I would like to keep the definition of “differences” purposefully broad. It could refer to opposing opinions of faithful members within the church, historical and scriptural discrepancies, inter-faith relations (hostile or non-hostile), or a host of other scenarios where we are faced with the challenge of dealing intellectually, socially, or culturally with something that stretches our current system of beliefs. In short this is a post about confronting the “other”.

I would like to put forth a few possibilities, and then to discuss the possibility of more possibilities; but more importantly, I would like to hear your thoughts on the ramifications of each option:

Eclecticism: The selective adoption or rejection of specific concepts to the de-emphasis and overemphasis of others. E.g., We have become the “Book of Mormon generation” where the BoM is employed much more frequently than the Bible. In the Bible we emphasis certain portions and downplay others. The Gospels compared with the epistles, for instance.

Ecumenicism: An exercise of faith where God’s omniscience is trusted to somehow tie the differences together into “one great whole”. E.g., Different Mormons can have differing opinions as to God’s relationship with the world he has created. How much does he intervene? How do we explain evil? The scripture mastery verse in Isaiah is usually implied with Ecumenicism: “His ways are greater than our ways.” (pardon my paraphrasing)

Compartmentalism: Different circumstances call for different responses. E.g., In Polynesia, many males wear the traditional lavalava to church rather than slacks. Comparmentalism is also used to explain how early members of the church (or even individuals in the scriptures) did things differently because they were of a different time (drinking of wine for instance). We often employ Compartmentalism with the phrase, “It’s the Spirit that matters.”

Inclusivism: The reworking of the concepts of the “other” in a shared terminology (or often purely in our own terminology). E.g., Most people believe in a supreme being, but we call him by different names.

This list of course may not be comprehensive. It is also somewhat oversimplified, because in reality many of these theories overlap, and may even be used by the same person for the same explanation. Allowing for this leeway, here are some questions on my mind:

What are the inherent strengths and weakness of each approach? For instance, the ecumenical approach opens our religion to all individuals—you do not need any philosophical/theological training to be a Mormon. A garbage man could be a bishop. On the other hand does this lead us to be too dismissive of intellectual endeavors? Does this contribute to the anti-intellectual undercurrent some people feel?

Are there other approaches you can think of? Or some that should be eliminated?

Is the attempt to create a taxonomy built on a false assumption of “systemization” which is antithetical to Mormonism from the get go? In other words is our religion not susceptible to these types of attempts to systematize? Am I missing something by trying this?


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jesus in History

The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" has emerged in various stages. With the emergence of critical historical tools in the Enlightenment, it wasn't long before these were turned to the sacred history of the Bible. Very briefly, the First Quest argued about what kind of a figure Jesus was, culminating with Albert Schweitzer's convincing argument that Jesus was an apocalyptic teacher who preached the end of the world and the end of the present order. Not long after this, Bultmann argued that in fact there was hardly any access to what Jesus might have said because it was all filtered through the memories of the church which altered Jesus's sayings for its own purposes. Besides, he argued, the positivist history was the wrong kind of question to be asking of the Bible. Instead, we should be seeking to experience the message of the gospel. This remained virtually the dominant opinion for thirty years when finally someone broke the silence on Jesus in 1953. Bultmann's student Ernst Kasemann argued that actually we can know a little about who Jesus really was, and that it is important to match history with our theological beleifs. Where they don't match up, we should be willing to change our theology.

Is Kasemann's theological demand a reasonable one? What effect should history have on our beleifs? If we know that Jesus didn't actually teach something that is attributed to him, must we discard it, or does it have some other kind of validity? What kind of authority does history have over our construction of faith?


A Crisis in the Church

No, this post is not about low baptism numbers, low retention numbers, or low commandment observance. Rather, I see a major crisis of a different kind, a crisis of rhetoric.

Once upon a time, Mormons used to preach. The talks that were delivered had content and spunk. Sadly, I don't think that I have been alive to ever have seen this past tradition, but it is long dead. Now, talks consist mostly of quotes from general authroities and banal observations about whatever the topic happens to be. I think that some of the responsibility for this comes from the models of the general authorities, very few of whom know how to really preach. I am sure that these well-rehearsed talks that are given in front of millions of people somehow get transformed into dull, monotone speeches upon delivery, so I don't fault them. You have to work hard to listen to them. They rarely captivate. Like the GA's, no one who speaks in church wants to stand out, so we just get a whole lot of mediocrity. It's not that we don't know how to give talks, it is just that we don't know how to give sermons, something which really inspires, motivates, teaches, and exhorts.

Contrast this to a former generation of real orators in the church. Apostles like Matthew Cowley, and even Bruce R. McConkie knew how to give a talk. You couldn't help to listen to them. Even casually leafing through the Journal of Discourses reveals a whole range of Mormon speech that is now lost.

Now, I don't think that we should follow some stereotype of preaching, like pounding on the pulpit or mimiking televangelists, but we should definitely do more than bore each other. Sacrament meeting should be interesting.


Monday, October 02, 2006

What is the Priesthood?

Having not been to Relief Society in a long time, I don't know if this is how every lesson about the priesthood starts there. I can assure you that every lesson I have ever been to in EQ about the priesthood starts with this question. A few answers get tossed around until the teacher settles on the one that they like the most. Having been to dozens of these lessons in my life, I still am not really sure of the answer. I don't mean to imply that the priesthood is nothing, only that it seems to be so many things which overlap each other, I have a hard time giving any definition that is comprehensive enough. As I see it, there are several options:

1. The priesthood is an organized body of individuals whose job is to perform the administrative duties of the church, like passing the sacrament, starting meetings on-time, etc.

2. The priesthood is the procedural authorization to perform ordinances and administer spiritual blessings.

3. The priesthood is a covenant between the individual and God.

4. The priesthood is a body of esoteric knowledge and teachings.

5. The priesthood is another name for the mysterious power that God holds to perform such tasks as creation and the resurrection, or, the power over the elements.

6. The priesthood is a temporal tool for socializing men to obtain more Christ-like attributes.

7. The priesthood is the ordering principle of the universe and the church and our families that we should model in our own lives (I have never quite understood what this meant).

Are there others that you can think of? I am trying to figure out what relationship all of these definitions have to one another. Then, I would like to know the history of these ideas, how they developed in Joseph Smith's life and experience, and how they have continued to develop in the history of the church. Is it something which we have, or that we acquire throughout our lives? What is the relationship between the priesthood as a power to effectuate and the priesthood as an authority to perform (does that make sense)? Seriously, how do we make sense of these overlapping definitions? What work is the priesthood doing?


Sunday, October 01, 2006


I firmly believe that Latter-day Saints not only have nothing to fear from the academic world, but have a divine obligation to learn from and take seriously "secular scholarship." I believe the Lord when he instructs his people to learn from the best books. However, there seems to be a profound mistrust of scholarship by many members of the church. Two recent episodes:

1. Recently in my elders quorum, a newly married convert of the church asked what resources for studying the scriptures members of the quorum had found useful, including other translations. My EQ president hastily insisted that members only read those publications which have been produced by the church because of the risk of learning "false doctrine" from other books. He seemed utterly alergic to the idea that members of the church might be interested to know something more than what the manuals supply.

2. In a recent post by eccentric blogger Mark Bulter, he matter-of-factly stated: " The ivory tower is a better approximation to the great and abominable church than any other organization ever was." Here, the dismissal of research that might cause him to modify his reading of scripture was justified as a righteous, pious act. Meanwhile, those who belong to the "ivory tower", his slur towards academics in the "humanities and social 'sciences'", you know, the ones in the "cult of the natural man", are depicted as being in league with Satan himself. I am sure that he would like to see BYU get rid of all of its professors in these fields. Basically, the only things he things we need to learn can be taught in a training camp somewhere in the mountains, which will prevent us from being infected by these so-called scholars.

Basically, I want to know where this impulse comes from in the church. Does this have to do with our isolated and isolatinist history in the 19th c.? Does this have to do with a demonstrable number of people going innactive who have actually learned something outside of Mormonism? Personally, I remain optimistic about Mormons and Mormonism in relationship to "secular scholarship", but why do so many of my brothers and sisters disagree?