Monday, February 26, 2007

Big news for UrbanMo-keteers!

Now it's time to say goodbye, to all our company,
F-P-R, See you real soon!
Won-der-why, Why? Because we like you!
M - E - R - G' - R

Come join us at our new home!


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

African-American, Feminist, and Mormon Biblical Studies

Recent discussions here and elsewhere have focused on the role of contemporary critical biblical studies and their relationship to Mormon biblical studies. Many have questioned not only the methods of a "scholarly" Mormon biblical studies, but also its possibility. In some circles, the dominant model for appropriation of contemporary scholarship is denominational, and the Catholic experience is taken as emblematic. I have been critical of such a model here. As a result, I hope to suggest an alternative model for what Mormon biblical studies might look like.

Modern academic biblical scholarship focuses on exegesis. Such an approach has transcended denomination boundaries by attempting an "objective" accounting of the text's own theological position. Such a view is grounded in the idea that the text says something on its own that the careful reader can discern. This view often implicitly assumes that there is a single correct reading of the text that corresponds to the "author's intent."

African American and feminist biblical scholarship has critiqued this view, primarily on the grounds of hermeneutics. The idea of there being a single meaning to a text, not only at the time that it was written, but through its history of interpretation, has been abandoned long ago in the philosophy of interpretation, yet the guild of biblical studies often continues to cling to such a view. There is no objective lens and the supposedly objective methods of biblical scholarship have their own history. Further, the quest for the "original" meaning is rooted in a kind of impluse for truth that makes the fundamentalist Christians and professional biblical exegetes look a lot alike. The hermeneutical framework is largely the same; the only difference are the details.

As an alternative, African American and feminist biblical studies have made "ethics" into a central interpretive lens. Questions of liberation, justice, and power have become the framework for interpretation. Such an approach looks at how different communities have interpreted the text and considers these legitimate, even though, for examlple, African American slave hermeneutics were largely developed by illiterate people who only heard the text, but never read it. This approach further recognizes that all interpretations are selective, choosing to highlight some aspects of the text while ignoring others. As such, these hermeneutical approaches are not concerned with the mythical "author's intent", but with the possibilities that are produced by the text.

I propose that Mormon biblical studies follow a similar model. As far as I am aware, such an approach does not yet exist within Mormonism. For Mormon biblical studies, the task is to read Mormons who have written on the Bible and the derive a set of hermeneutical principles that are at work in their interpretations. This is somewhat of a task suited for anthropology. However, for scholarly Mormon biblical studies, the goal would then be to situate these principle as they speak to the "Mormon experience." This is not a universal reading, but a historically situated reading of Mormons. The goal is not to point out that the text doesn't "really" say what they think it says, but to demonstrate the principles on which it is based and to cull from it larger reflections about ethics and Mormon experiences.

As I have argued previously, the only important divisions in the feild of biblical studies are hermeneutical, not doctrinal or denominational. While these approaches I think are dying or irrelevant, feminist and African American hermeneutics have become centrally important, often taught even in introductory level courses. We have to give up on the idea that the text is going to resolve doctrinal or denominational disputes. Instead, the hermeneutical divisions rest on whether there is a single meaningful meaning to the text. The opposition I think rightly questions the possibility of such an "objective" understanding of the text, its utility, or both.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Barlow going to USU

It's official: Philip Barlow will fill the new Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University (see Salt Lake Tribune story here). This will likely disappoint some prospective students of Claremont Graduate University. However, it's great news for USU students. Barlow is an excellent scholar by all standards. So what are your initial thoughts on the appointment?


Monday, February 12, 2007

Sacrament Meeting Suggestions

Sacrament Meeting can be one of the most spiritually fulfilling meetings in church. The talks can be fresh, exciting, and deeply moving. They can set the tone for your spiritual outlook for the rest of the week at least. Sometimes a talk is so good that you actually remember it for years later.

It can also be one of the most painful meetings at church. Talks can be rote, predictable, and profoundly boring. My least favorite are the talks that simply quote general authorities. One of my very first posts on this blog was what I thought was a crisis of rhetoric in the church.

So, what if you (the reader) were in charge of programing for your sacrament meetings? What practical advice do you have? Would you instruct the speakers on how to speak? How would you do that? What kinds of topics would you like? Are there some topics that are necessarily interesting, no matter how bad the speaker might screw it up? I want to compile a guide here for great sacrament meeting tips and topics.

One more thing: Would the topics you would suggest change if this were a singles ward with college students and nannies? The guide that I am trying to put together here doesn't require that this be the framework, but I am especially interested in thoughts about this situation.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Trends in Gospel of Judas Studies

I know that it seems weird to identify "trends" on a document that has been out less than a year, so this post may seem a bit premature. At the same time, the fact is that two major schools have already developed regarding the Gospel of Judas. The first, following the initial release of the text, argued that Judas was the chosen disciple over all the others. The obvious shock-value of this revelation has propelled the popularity and interest in the text. The second, newer interpretation offered by Painchaud, DeConick, Emmel and Turner aims to out-shock the first in a set of new claims about what the "Gospel of Judas REALLY says."

This new interpretation argues that Judas does not "surpass" the other apostles in greatness, but in wickedness! Basing itself on a different translation of this key Coptic phrase, these scholars argue that the initial readings of Gospel of Judas played too much into the hype. Judas is not a saint in this text, but the worst sinner of all of the disciples.

The problem is that this second reading makes no sense at all. For the record, the Coptic phrase in question can technically be translated both ways. However, if we follow the second interpretation, then the text becomes an extended vision of special cosmological knowledge given to Judas, only to find out that he understands even less than the other wicked apostles. In this reading, there are no heroes. No one is saved. One reads the text only to find out that no one can be trusted. No one. This reading strikes me as absurd for two reasons. First, this is afterall the Gospel of Judas, the title given to the text by the text. There is not a single parallel example of a "gospel" being attributed to the person who turns out to be the worst sinner in its story. For post-canonical Gospels, the disciple to whom the text is attributed is often the hero of the text. Second, it makes no sense that there are no heroes at all in the text. Why would anyone read this text? It has no solution for anyone to be saved since the rest of the disciples besides Judas are unambiguously ignorant.

This debate will continue to be played out, and will hopefully be dealt with in the upcoming
Elaine Pagels and Karen King commentary (though how much time that had to respond to this new trend before their publication deadlines remains to be seen since it was really in October in Paris and November at the SBL that people started advocating this position). The easy path will be taken by those who choose to see Judas subversively for their own theological goals, and those who prefer to see Judas as the most wicked disciple for their own theological goals. No doubt the debate will continue to give scholars something to argue about, but to this reader, the second argument doesn't have much interpretive weight.


Monday, February 05, 2007

On Watchin' the Game

The health risks of American football have been getting a lot of attention in the press lately, no doubt in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran articles on the frequency of head injuries in professional football. The articles highlighted former Patriots linebacker, Ted Johnson, who received several concussions during his career. Johnson’s head injuries resulted in severe depression and drug addiction.

Like many other professional and amateur football players, Johnson felt trapped by expectations that he should play through the pain. American football inspires a culture of toughness. Encouraged by fans, coaches and other players, many continue playing even after sustaining major injuries. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that N.F.L. players faced a 37% higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Yet the kind of press that portrays the dangers of football is not commensurate with the overwhelmingly positive depiction of star athletes. The Super Bowl regularly draws audiences of between 75 and 95 million television viewers. Professional athletes are idolized.

Even successful coaches receive vast amounts of attention (and wealth). It is telling that at least 23 college football coaches are paid salaries in excess of $1 million. In several cases these coaches’ salaries far outweigh the university presidents’ annual income, let alone the professors’ and administrators’ pay. Clearly the United States has a fascination with what can at times be a very violent sport.

Are there inherit problems with this country’s massive consumption of professional football? This is an important question for Mormons. We have several members on N.F.L. teams who sometimes function as unofficial spokesmen for the church, including Ty Detmer (and his little brother Koy), Chad Lewis, and, of course, Steve Young. The LDS church has tacitly endorsed football. For example, Elder Wirthlin, who never made it into the professional leagues, was nevertheless awarded for being a “lifelong supporter” of college football.

There may be arguments both for and against the idealization of football stars (be they LDS or not). On the one hand, football is a dangerous sport. By idealizing the athletes of aggressive sports like football, don’t we become party to the inevitable injuries players sustain? On the other hand, audiences of football tend to also play football; and participation in any sport - even dangerous ones - seems preferable to inactivity. Obesity, after all, will kill a lot more people than concussions from flag football.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

When to put a Child up for Adoption

I recently learned that a person I know put her baby up for adoption. As I don't know all the details of this story, I won't go into to specifics; but I am familiar with a couple of other people who, aftering getting pregnant while rather young (usually in their teens) gave up their children at the encouragment of the church.

I'm wondering about the reasoning behind this encouragement (both culturally and institutionally).

One couple I met, got pregnant while in highschool and gave their baby up for adoption. When this couple turned 18 they were married, and I met them in our ward when they were in their young 20's. Not a Sunday would go past without them talking about thier baby. Wondering what he was doing, if he had been treated well. I couldn't help but wonder if adoption was the right thing for them to do.

I know this is one case, and maybe even in this circumstance adoption was right, but what I would like to question is the rationale for encouraging adoption. What I usually hear is that adoption is right when it gives the child the best home possible. It seems that what is implied by "best home possible" is two loving parents, who are active members of the church and are financially stable.

Is there more than this that comes into play?


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Passivity and Practice

handle's recent and excellent post on architecture raises some connected issues that I've been struggling with lately: To what extent should the church reflect local culture, flavor, etc. and to what extent should it be Mormon? I know this is quite broad, and diahman and others have posted on related questions. The one I want to ask is more specific to architectural and temple traditions.

Are we more invested when we pay for and design our own meetinghouses? And do we understand the temple better and become more engaged with it when we are the ones doing the acting and not actors on a screen? Does a cookie-cutter temple or ceremony imply cookie-cutter practice? Is this what God wants? I am profoundly convinced that architecture (and active participation in ritual) alters the spirit.

In my hometown recently a world-famous architect designed a pedestrian bridge that cost far too much for a small town to afford, and many were justifiably angry about it (although the project was almost entirely funded by private donors). Once it was built, though, it became a focus for the community, a gathering place, and for the first time in my life I felt like there was a community.

I grew up going to a completely non-standard meetinghouse and temple. In other areas of the country I've attended regularly the cookie-cutter types (with one embarrassing story about going in the wrong bathroom because the position of male/female restrooms was one thing they decided to vary.) Now I'm back to a non-standard meetinghouse that sometimes drives me crazy, but it drives me crazy in all the ways the area I live in drives me crazy. In this building the local customs, flavor, attitudes, people are expressed, and in the end it enhances my worship experience. One would have to say the same thing about the "cookie cutter" buildings--not that the people are monotonous in their attitudes, but that their values (frugality, willingness to accept authority, perhaps even desire for unity) are expressed through this architecture. Maybe it says more about me--in both positive and negative ways--that I prefer atypical architecture.

I think similarly about the format of the temple ceremony. I realize that the video format makes it possible for scores more to attend and for more temples to be open, less staffing problems, etc., but likewise something is lost when the patrons aren't the ones participating in the ceremony--delivering the lines, playing out the drama. I worry that there is a trend toward the passive, and that some of the values the Church was built on (local sacrifice and dedication are two I'm thinking of) are fading. As the architecture becomes increasingly unremarkable (and Protestant?), are we?


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mormons and Biblical Scholarship II

Over at FPR, there is an excellent discussion of Mormon biblical exegesis. I am very interested in this topic, but what I wanted to say was more than a comment's worth, so I just decided to post on it. The discussion centers on a recent Church News article by Prof. Kent Jackson at BYU who lays a brief foundation for the principles of Mormon Biblical Studies. I am certainly interested in the examination of the possibility and dimensions of this idea, but I am more interested in what are taken to be the models.

Inasmuch as Mormon Biblical Studies tries to model itself after Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish biblical studies, I think that it is doomed to fail. There are two reasons why. First, denominational biblical studies are routinely ignored by everyone outside of that denomination. Denominational biblical studies are not properly in the field of biblical studies. They are simply parasitic works that reproduce biblical scholarship in a repackaged, often apologetic, way for their audience. There is nothing new or interesting that comes out of these hermeneutical approaches. If Catholics want to translate biblical studies for lay Catholics, and Mormons for Mormons, that is fine, but this is not biblical studies. The result will be a continued marginalization of Mormons from the larger field and simply reinforce and reproduce stereotypes of Mormons who fail to truly engage the broader world.

The second reason that this approach will fail is because is doesn't really represent the nature of the field of biblical studies. Denominational lines are essentially meaningless when it comes to evaluating the quality of other scholars' work. Instead, the fault lines in biblical studies are drawn around ideology and theology, secular and faith-based approaches. You will find all denominations on all sides of these debates. That is to say, there are no real denominational lines in contemporary biblical studies, so why are we trying to enter the field in a partisan way that doesn't map on? We would be better off dealing with the actual ideological tensions in the field rather than creating a new party that has no allies.

That said, the comments at FPR are correct in saying that Mormon Biblical Studies cannot survive outside of BYU. But I think that the reason is not simply the intellectual problems, but because the very model of denominational biblical studies is outdated and seriously flawed. Mormons who do biblical studies are better off engaging the broader field. I do believe that at some point in their careers they have the obligation of translating the wider world of biblical studies for their Mormon kin, but this is not the same as modeling oneself after another set of irrelevant biblical scholars.


Mormons and Biblical Scholarship

Check out a couple of great posts at Faith Promoting Rumor: here, here and here.

Update: See the my follow-up response here.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

What does architecture say about doctrine?

It was recently announced that Frank Gehry, an icon of postmodern architecture, will be designing a mixed-use development in Lehi, Utah. Gehry is famous for his radically shaped buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His plans for Lehi will surely break the mold of conventional Utah urbanism. Postmodern architecture is rare in the Beehive State. However, this announcement is not altogether surprising given the success of other recent developments such as the Gateway in Salt Lake City and the New Urbanist community in South Jordan (Daybreak). It seems that the predominantly LDS population of Utah is finally generating a demand for alternatives to the ‘cookie cutter’ homes which have, unfortunately, prevailed in Utah’s sprawling neighborhoods.

It is ironic that just as Utahans are embracing the aesthetic appeal of New Urbanism and postmodern architecture, the LDS church is in the middle of an ambitious building program with ‘cookie cutter’ temples as its focus.

The church has good reasons for building recent temples from a single model. By using identical architectural plans for each new temple, the church keeps building costs low and maintains a sort of equality among its members. However, there are also drawbacks to these matching temples, not the least of which is their drab uniformity.

There is a general fascination with the church’s earlier temples that would be difficult to generate for its new ones. People recognize the Salt Lake Temple, even if they don’t always understand its significance. For example, one vendor in London sells the oddest belts - they are blue with small images of European architectural icons, including the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, and … yup… the Salt Lake Temple. Earlier temples have a “spooky charisma,” in the words of Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic with the Los Angeles Times.

While it is not practical for the church to use the famous castellated gothic style in its new temples (and neither is it economically sage to build ornate buildings in remote places) there is a sort of vibrancy that the new temples lack. A temple does not have to be large or even follow a particular design theory to generate excitement; and, of course, God can be worshiped anywhere. But why not allow for more variety in the temples’ design?

Does the church’s architectural development over the years represent an increased drive for standardization? Perhaps there is something significant in the fact that leaders of the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose a postmodern design for their temple, whereas the LDS church has consistently used classic modern designs for recent temples.