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.