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.