Sunday, March 12, 2017

(Latter-day) Israel in the Wilderness

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot (c. 1896-1902)
One thing I have become attuned to looking for in scriptural narratives is irony. Due to the fact that I wrote a capstone paper on the use of irony in the work of fin-de-siècle Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, my reading of the scriptures often looks to uncover instances where ironic outcomes or situations highlight a larger moral or theme in the text.

The very basic meaning of irony that I have in mind here is the unexpected outcome or unfolding of a narrative or happenstance, or the ironic use of language to communicate something either unexpected or with a hidden double entendre. Robert A. Rees has already read the Book of Mormon looking for instances of irony to great effect. My personal favourite example of irony in the Book of Mormon, as also noticed by Rees, is the divine silencing of the blaspheming Korihor (Alma 30:49–50).

The Hebrew Bible is also rife with irony and other forms of paronomasia on both narrative and linguistic levels. One example I hadn't noticed before that struck me recently is in the wilderness narratives in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Numbers 13–14 records how Moses dispatched a squad of Israelite spies to covertly enter Canaan and survey the area in preparation for Israel's entry into the land of promise. "See what the land is like," the spies were instructed, "and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not" (Numbers 13:18–20). The text narrates that the spies returned with a "cluster of grapes" and other produce as a token of the abundance in Canaan (Numbers 13:23). The reader thus expects a promising report from the spies. Ironically, however, the spies report just the opposite.
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:25–29)
Undeterred, some faithful Israelites, such as Caleb, tried to reassure the spies, who nevertheless insisted: "We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we. . . . The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them" (Numbers 13:31–33).

This "evil report" (dibbah) of the spies, as the Bible calls it, instilled great fear in the hearts of the Israelites.
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1–4)
As a result of this infidelity, God swore that the current generation of Israelites would not inherit the land of promise. "None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it," the Lord promises (Numbers 14:22–23). Even Moses would only be able to look upon the land of Canaan from Mt. Nebo shortly before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1–8). He was, in effect, just a step away from entering the land of promise, but not even he would escape this ironic fate.

Here's where the irony comes into play. The text continues:
“As I live,” says the Lord, “I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die. (Numbers 14:28–35)
Not only will the current generation of Israel not possess the land of promise, as was expected, but it will wander in the wilderness for forty years and suffer all of the horrific outcomes the people expected to happen to them if they went up against Canaan. They will get what they asked for, but, ironically, not at all in the manner they expected.

(So be careful what you wish for.)

Not only that, but this fear and doubt on the part of the Israelites comes right after they witnessed firsthand their miraculous deliverance from Egypt. They had just seen the Lord deliver them from their enemies with great signs and wonders, proving that he was indeed God and the agent of Israel's salvation. One would expect Israel to have greater faith in the Lord given what they had just experienced, but instead they succumb to fear and become incredulous at God's power and unfaithful to his covenant.

But the irony doesn't stop there. When the time finally comes for Israel to conquer Canaan, the biblical narrative explains that the Canaanites were practically shaking in their boots at the sight of the Israelite army (Joshua 5:1). As Rahab informed the Israelite vanguard, "As soon as we heard [of the divine power guiding the Israelite army], our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below" (Joshua 2:11).

In other words, the fears of the Israelites were unfounded, which they only discover when they hear it, ironically, from a Canaanite prostitute after the previous generation was dead. In other words, the Israelites had a hard time believing the words of God Almighty who had delivered them from Egypt, but on the word of a lowly prostitute they're encouraged enough to invade the land.

But how might this all apply to latter-day Israel?

For now we are here wandering in the lone and dreary world (or wilderness). We have yet to inherit Zion and reap the blessings promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are, in effect, wandering forty years in the wilderness. Yes, we have prophetic leaders and temples (or tabernacles, if you will) and enjoy God's daily providence, all as ancient Israel did. But the fact is we're still in the wilderness.

And like ancient Israel in the wilderness we sometimes see our enemies in their walled cities and with giants in their ranks and become fearful, ultimately succumbing to our doubts.

This can be seen in two ways. The first is on a personal and individual level in how we each react to the sins and temptations that beset us. We forget our divine heritage as children of heavenly parents and succumb to the fears and doubts that because our enemies (our sins) are stronger than us, so we think, we're lost to perdition.

The second way, however, is in how we as a community, as a people, and even as a church, succumb to the ungodly cultural and political forces that fight against our Zion ideals.

I'll be blunt when I say I think the historical priesthood ban is one major example of this. Latter-day Saint theology fundamentally rejects racism. "He denieth none that come unto him," Nephi taught concerning access to making covenants with the Lord. "Black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God" (2 Nephi 26:33). With the racial and class egalitarianism taught in the Book of Mormon and early revelations, the earliest generation of Latter-day Saints were poised to break free of the racial attitudes of their culture and embrace the Zion ideal portrayed in the scriptures.

Instead what happened was Latter-day Saints essentially capitulated to and participated in the highly antipathetic racial attitudes of their contemporary cultural towards persons of African descent. And so we got the unscriptural and uninspired priesthood ban that denied a portion of God's children access to covenants because of their race.

In short, we saw the walled city of American racism and surrendered to our enemies. We were within arm's length of possessing the land of promise, and even had clusters of grapes that indicated the bounties of the land (think of the ordination of Elijah Able and Walker Lewis to the priesthood and the faith and courage of Jane Manning James) but couldn't grasp it. As with Moses, even our latter-day prophets fell short of possessing the land of promise, which should always serve as a sobering reminder of how even the greatest of us sometimes fail to live up to our divinely mandated expectations.

And so we wandered in the wilderness for another generation until a new era of prophetic leadership guided us to victory over this foe. But remember, as with Israel and the Canaanites when the former came into possession of land of promise, our own (racial) troubles did not end after 1978.

I can imagine of other examples where we as a people fell short of our great potential, but this is one example that should sufficiently illustrate my main point. And while this likening or application of the scriptures may not be entirely perfect in all the details, I think the broad picture is compelling enough. Our goal as latter-day Israel while we travel in the wilderness is to face the walled cities of the modern Canaanites (both within and outside of the church) and to face the giants in the ranks of our (spiritual, temporal, and cultural) enemies with courage and determination.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"Whose Fruit was Desirable to Make One Happy": The True Story of José Almerich

José Almerich (left) with my uncle Matthew Stevens (right) circa 1973–1976.

This account was written by my mother Jill Stevens Smoot. The following transcription has standardized and corrected some grammar, spelling, and punctuation. 

This is the true story of José Almerich.

From 1973–1976 my father, Robert V. Stevens, along with his wife Sue Stevens and their five children, presided over the Spain Mission. My parents would, as often as possible, take us children with them as they traveled all over Spain to various missionary zone conferences. These were wonderful opportunities for us as children. Often we were overwhelmed by the Spirit and would be strengthened by the talks and powerful testimonies shared in these meetings. It was no different for my younger brother Matthew. At eight years of age, Matthew found himself sitting in on the morning session of a Valencia zone conference. Anxious to be like the missionaries, Matthew arrived for the morning session wearing a white shirt and tie.

Excited at the lunch break, Matthew begged our mother to let him go outside with some of the missionaries so that he could pass out a Book of Mormon. Reassured by the missionaries that they were happy to watch over my little brother, my mother gave her permission.

Handing Matthew a Book of Mormon in Spanish, my mother asked him, "What do you want to say to someone in Spanish when you give them this book?" Matthew answered, "Would you like to learn how to be happy?" And so my mother taught him how to say ¿Quieres aprender a ser feliz? Matthew replied, "If the gospel makes me happy, then it cane make someone else happy too."

Matthew waited on the street corner that day for over an hour for just the right person to come along to give his copy of the Book of Mormon. Waiting as patiently as an eight year old child possibly could, Matthew soon spotted a young twenty year old man by the name of José Almerich crossing the street with a letter in his hand. José was headed for a mail box located on the same street corner where Matthew was standing. Before José could drop his letter into the mail box, Matthew approached him, handed him the Book of Mormon, and asked him if he wanted to learn how to be happy.

Surprised, José said thank you and took the book home with him. Enclosed was the address of the local meetinghouse along with the schedules for Sunday services. It was not long afterwards when José showed up to church having already read the Book of Mormon. He began taking the discussions and in time found that he was ready to be baptized.

José told my father on the day of the baptism the rest of his story. José had had a painful childhood. He was sent off to an all-boys boarding school at a very young age, rarely seeing his family for many years to come. Consequently, he received no help, support, or counselling for the physical and emotional abuse he suffered while attending school.

Following graduation he went straight into the armed services. After completing the required two years of military duty, José found himself all alone and extremely lost. Soon he began looking for some kind of meaning or direction to his life. He studied various religions but found no real satisfying answers.

José told my father that having finally come to the lowest point in his life and having given up all hope for finding family or answers that might help him work through his painful past, he found himself writing a farewell letter to his only friend in the world. He showed the letter to my father and said, "President Stevens, I had no more desire to live. The pain I was suffering was too great, and so I had made the decision to end my life. I wrote my kind friend this letter asking for his forgiveness and said my good-byes. On the day I met your Matthew, I was on my way to mail this letter with the plans of returning home quickly to do just that. As I was crossing the street to approach the mail box, I remember physically wiping the tears away from my eyes with the thought that I had never been so unhappy."

"And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy." (1 Nephi 8:10)

Postscript: the Book of Mormon speaks of "the great plan of happiness" (Alma 42:8), and describes a time when Nephi's people "lived after the manner of happiness" (2 Nephi 5:27). Lehi taught, "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). Reading and living the doctrinal and moral precepts narrated in the Book of Mormon will not only lead to an increase of worldly joy, but will ultimately draw men and women to God, who thereby shall have a "fulness of joy" in His kingdom (3 Nephi 28:10). 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Christian Hypocrisy in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's "Die Judenbuche"

A portrait of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1837).

I wrote the following in the Fall of 2014 for a course at Brigham Young University 
on Deutsche Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts.
The specter of anti-Semitism in German history looms large in today's post-Holocaust world. The great past works of German literature, ranging from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan der Weise to Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Die Judenbuche to Heinrich Heine's Hebräische Melodien, that have touched on themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and religious pluralism in Germany have since the end of the Second World War enjoyed renewed critical attention. Recent critics have emphasized the significance of anti-Semitism in German culture and the role these works played in shaping or (re)defining Jewish "Otherness" in German consciousness.
Much of the criticism of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's 1842 novella Die Judenbuche has focused on the depiction of anti-Semitism in the text. As we will see, this literature has largely ignored what I believe is an example of the depiction of an arguably hypocritical Christian character. I believe the opening scene of Frederick Mergel and his seemingly pious mother taking shelter from a winter storm is ambiguous enough in the narrative to suggest religious hypocrisy on the part of Frau Mergel without explicitly depicting such. This ambiguity in turn brings more nuance to the portrayal of at least one non-Jewish character in the text.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Make America Great Again! (By Protecting it from the Mormons)

It's important that we protect America from lawless criminals and religious fanatics. (Source Wikimedia)

That there could be any Mormons who espouse Islamophobia truly baffles me. Like, seriously. I cannot wrap my mind around it. If anyone should by sympathetic to the plight of a denigrated and (often maliciously) misunderstood and misrepresented religious minority in the United States, it should be us.

And here’s why. What follows is a basic reconstruction of the popular 19th century American view towards Mormons and Mormonism. This captures the essence of what you find 19th century Americans were saying about Mormonism in newspapers, popular media, academic literature, sermons, and even government reports. 

See if it sounds at all familiar to what you hear today about Muslims and Islam in some circles.

* * *

You are living in America's Gilded Age. Just a few years ago America tore itself apart with civil war. But since then the nation is starting to heal itself and is binding up old wounds. A new national identity is being forged that will unite Americans once again. Your nation has made unbelievable advances in industry, technology, culture, and commerce. Through American ingenuity and by Divine Providence you can truly be proud of your place at the pinnacle of modern civilization. Your culture is the epitome of white Protestant capability. 

But there remain threats to this Pax Americana. Threats to white Protestant American identity and stability.

Not just Chinese and Irish immigrants and Roman Catholics, mind you. Out in the desert wasteland of Utah are the Mormons. Sure, they talk about being a Christian religion that values freedom and peace, but make no mistake about it. This is not a benign religion. The Mormons are a very real and immediate threat to America.

Within living memory they have introduced anti-Christian superstitions and humbugs with their blasphemous talk of modern revelations and new scripture. Led by their fanatical false prophet Joe Smith, an American Mahomet, the Mormons have not just blasphemed God, but have usurped the law, have attempted to forcibly seize power, have robbed and pillaged American settlements, have murdered innocents, and continue to deceived gullible dupes day by day. They were so violent and unlawful, in fact, that that they had to be forcibly exterminated from states such as Missouri and Illinois to maintain the peace and keep American citizens safe. 

Now they have set up a theocracy in the desert where their prophet controls every aspect of their lives. Economic and political power rest in the hands of a few men who claim direct inspiration from God. And the Mormons blindly follow these sinister prophets. They are authoritarian and vote en bloc according to the commands of their leaders. Brigham Young and others preach blood atonement, which allows for the murder of dissenters and apostates. They oppress women by practicing polygamy, a vile, immoral corruption that was introduced by the lecherous Joe Smith. This monstrous affront to any sense of civilized Christian morality has no place in America, and must be put down by law. (Which is why, thankfully, the Supreme Court upheld anti-polygamy laws in 1878, thus protecting traditional marriage and society at large.)

Their missionaries travel far and wide to trick people, especially gullible women, into joining their cult. Then they steal any of their property or money by their “law of consecration” (which is really just a scheme for Mormon leaders to become rich). Yes, that’s right. Mormons have a religious law that they one day hope to impose on all Americans. Just read their scriptures, which speak of this law (as well as other religious laws) being imposed when Jesus returns and the Mormons claim our lands for themselves. (They tried that in Missouri in the 1830s, but were thankfully stopped.)

When non-Mormon “Gentiles” came through their territory, the Mormons massacred them. That’s how intolerant and bloodthirsty the Mormons are. The Mormons are so restless that the army had to send an expeditionto Utah to pacify them. Civilly disobedient to the extreme, the Mormons openly defied the army and federal laws that were enacted to stop their theocratic madness from claiming more victims. They are a pack of lawless thugs terrorizing our country.

America won’t be safe from the Mormons if they were to gain any power. American democracy will perish if Mormon fanaticism is allowed to flourish. Mormonism is an assault on the very moral fabric of society. That’s why “President Rutherford B. Hayes' secretary of state William Evarts wrote to US diplomats asking them to seek help from European governments to keep Mormon converts from traveling to the US. And in 1883 President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to 'prevent the importation of Mormons into the country,' according to 'Immigration and the 'Mormon Question' by William Mulder.”

And why not? After all, scientists and medical authorities have proven that “Mormons [are] racial outsiders,” and more racially comparable to inferior races such as blacks and orientals than to us whites. Mormons are “not merely a theological departure from the mainstream, they [are] racially and physically different.” We need to stop our white Protestant culture from being overrun by the racially inferior Mormons. We need to stop the white genocide happening in this country.

That’s why we are going to strip Mormons of their rights (right to vote, hold office, hold property, worship as they please, etc.) for our own safety and protection. We need strong leaders who know how to be tough negotiators and who can restore law and order in our country. We need secure boarders from Mormon immigrants until we can figure out what’s going on here.

It's time to make America great again!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

On Hugh Nibley and His Footnotes

After receiving a PhD from UC–Berkeley in 1938, Hugh Nibley fought in World War 2 as a member of military intelligence for the 101st Airborne Division. (Photo from
On his blog John Gee has some comments on the legacy of Hugh Nibley, the godfather of modern Latter-day Saint scholarship of the ancient world. Among other things, Gee commented briefly on his personal history with Nibley:
I knew Nibley pretty well, for someone who was my grandfather's age. I took six classes from him. I spent years not only reading just about everything he wrote, but actually looking up thousands of his footnotes. I edited two volumes in his collected works, and source checked on all but three of those volumes. I also had many personal encounters with him over a twenty year time period. I learned many of the same languages he did. I have seen first hand his strengths and weakness both as a person and as a scholar.
The mentioning of Nibley's footnotes, of course, brought to my mind the claim made by some that Nibley simply fabricated his footnotes. This claim can be easily refuted (and indeed has been).

It was not long after reading Gee's blog last night that I encountered the following in the English translation of Heinrich Schäfer's monumental achievement Von ägyptischer Kunst. Schäfer, next to Adolf Erman and Kurt Sethe, was a preeminent fin-de-siècle German Egyptologist. His work on Egyptian art is yet standard reading for students a century after its appearance.

But John Baines, the translator and co-editor of the English edition of Schäfer's work, noticed something as he worked with the text.
The German edition of the book is editorially unsuitable for an English-speaking public because of the condensed and complicated form of its citations, and because some of the works referred to are inaccessible and others have since appeared in translations or in new editions. The book also departs to a surprising extent from norms of citation in modifying or paraphrasing passages quoted, yet retaining quotation marks, and in failing to acknowledge other quotations. A fair number of references are simply wrong, especially in the list of illustrations–I only hope not too many errors have crept into this edition.
(John Baines, "Translator's Introduction," in Heinrich Schäfer, Principles of Egyptian Art, ed. Emma Brunner-Traut [Oxford: Griffith Institute, 2002], xvii–xviii.)

As far as I'm aware, nobody has attempted to wave away Schäfer's pioneering work because he wasn't as careful with his footnotes or citations as he should've been. I therefore find it rather perplexing that many have tried to do such with Nibley.

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of Nibley's scholarship. Many of his assumptions and methodological approaches can rightly be questioned, and a number of Nibley's arguments have been rendered obsolete due to subsequent scholarship and new information. (Nibley himself was well aware this would eventually be the case, and famously quipped, "I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago.") But that is not the same as dismissing Nibley out of hand because he was sometimes sloppy with his citations and sometimes employed questionable readings of his sources.

I can only suspect Nibley has been the target of these attempted dismissals for ideological and polemical rather than scholarly reasons.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Latter-day Khumrot and "Fences Around the Law"

Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over matters of the Law of Moses on a number of recorded occasions. (From
In Judaism exists the concept of the khumrot (חומרות), or proscriptions that are implemented to safeguard the halakhah (הלכה)–––the body of Jewish religious laws–––from being transgressed. The khumrot of Orthodox Judaism are not the laws themselves, but are instead measures taken to ensure the faithful do not even come close to breaking the laws.

Jewish khumrot have been articulated over time in response to a law given in Deuteronomy. "If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it" (NET Deuteronomy 22:8). The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1.1) puts it this way:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah. (ועשו סיג לתורה)
No less than the great Rabbi Akiva himself is quoted in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 3.13) as insisting, "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah" (מסורת סייג לתורה). 

That believers would want to make "safety fences around the law" is completely understandable, and even commendable. It is wise to set boundaries and parameters that help us keep God's commandments. Jesus himself did exactly this with the commandments prohibiting murder (Matthew 5:21–26) and adultery (Matthew 5:27–30), in how we make oaths and vows (Matthew 5:33–37), in how we pray (Matthew 6:5–15), and with a host of other issues. 

At the same time, however, Jesus was not afraid to break down "fences around the law" that he felt were troublesome, burdensome, unnecessarily proscriptive, or missed the point of the original law entirely. For instance, Jesus and his disciples healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10–13; Mark 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17) and worked for food on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–9; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–12) in direct contradiction to the "fences around the law" (of keeping the sabbath holy) that his religious rivals and antagonists had established.

(To be sure, the rabbinical articulations of the khumrot postdate Jesus by some time, but the basic idea is still essentially the same.) 

While the impulse to build "fences around the law" is understandable and has merit, the problem believers quickly encounter is when they mistake the fences for the laws they are protecting. This was the problem Jesus had with his interlocutors who accused him of wrongdoing or transgressing God's commandments. Jesus' normal response was to point out their hypocrisy, since they themselves were, in his mind, no longer keeping the commandments out of devotion to God as much as they were obsessing over the man-made minutiae they themselves had accrued over centuries of tradition. 
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! (NET Matthew 23:23–24)
This impulse to build fences around the law, as well as the attending dangers of doing such, exists today. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have over time built their own "fences around the law." Individually, culturally, and institutionally.

A few examples will suffice. 

First, there is the cultural proscription against watching R-rated movies. This may doubtless seem pedantic to mention, but nowhere in the scriptures is watching R-rated movies condemned as sinful. Rather, the scriptures teach us to "stay away from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" (Article of Faith 13). 

In order to protect these scriptural teachings, Mormons have built a fence around the law by enacting cultural prohibitions against R-rated movies. Some enterprising Mormons have even devoted no small amount of time and labor to provide filtering services for movies that do all the work for you. With the click of a button you can remove all of the R-rated content found in movies. 

The rationale, of course, is that "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" won't include vulgarity, violence, sexuality, or other challenging or offensive content not deemed "wholesome" enough for viewing. Thus, R-rated movies are intrinsically off limits.

I need not spend too much time pointing out the many questions, problems, or ambiguities with this particular Mormon khumra. Others have done that already. (See the discussions, from different angles, here, here, here, here, and here.) What's important to point out for now is that many who raise the khumra against watching R-rated movies are confusing it with the scriptural teachings themselves.

Second, the Church has produced a pamphlet for teenagers that perfectly encapsulates both the wisdom and pitfalls of building fences around the law.

For the Strength of Youth could almost be read as a rabbinical tractate. It is filled with rules, regulations, and proscriptions for the Church's youth that, in theory, are meant to help them keep or otherwise interpret the commandments and live godly lives. These latter-day khumrot range from how and when to date, how to prevent situations where one might break the law of chastity, what media to watch (but notice it says nothing about R-rated movies!), what dress and speech is preferable and when, and how to observe the sabbath (sound familiar?).  

I want to emphasize that much in For the Strength of Youth is wise and helpful. I am by no means advocating that Church members just chuck the entire thing out the window. However, I personally know many members of the Church who have, it seems, mistaken the guidelines and counsel given in this publication for the commandments themselves. Additionally, I have read many accounts (including many that are horribly awkward or outright disturbing) of those who have had negative experiences in the Church because of members or leaders who demanded exacting or pharisaical interpretations of publications such as For the Strength of Youth (or the Church's Handbook).

If we are not diligent, we, like Jesus' antagonists, are at risk of confusing the weightier matters of the law with institutional and cultural accumulations that, while well-intended, can alienate and distress more than help.

To put a fine but quick point on it, I'll simply direct readers' attention to this blog post by a gay BYU alumnus. It's difficult for me to see how this particular fence around this particular law (the Law of Chastity) is helpful more than hurtful when it comes to LGBT members of the Church. 

Ultimately, I think the message of Jesus is to move beyond making fences around the law and become the kind of disciple where the fences aren't even necessary. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:48). Of course, as fallible human beings living in a fallen world this will not be possible to do all at once, and not without the Saviour's help. 

But we can at least strive for it. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Deification in Ancient Egyptian and Mormon Theology

Detail of an image inside the tomb of Sennedjem, discovered at the necropolis of Deir el-Medina and dating to the 19th dynasty. Here Sennedjem is accompanied by his wife Lyneferti and wields the "sekhem-scepter, a symbol of power." (Image and description via Tour Egypt.)

The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann has some interesting observations about the ancient Egyptian conception(s) of death and the afterlife in his volume Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (trans. 2005). In one section of his book Assmann discusses how death for the ancient Egyptians was in part conceived as social isolation both here and in the hereafter. Relationships, including relationships between family members and familial generations, were meant to endure beyond the grave. Separation or isolation from the family as well as the gods was a form of death that the Egyptians combated with an phalanx of myths and rites.

"As the ancient Egyptians understood it," writes Assmann, "a person lived in two spheres." These spheres were the "physical sphere" and the "social sphere," respectively. "In both spheres, the principle of connectivity worked to confer and maintain life, and correspondingly, the principle of disconnectivity threatened and wrought death" (p. 39).

Accordingly, the ancient Egyptians were obliged to maintain mortuary cults for their dead. This included not only performing careful and proper burials that equipped the dead with the appropriate funerary paraphernalia (funerary texts, amulets, shrouds, mortuary chapels, canopic jars, etc.), but also retaining the memory, dignity, honour, and especially name of the deceased through the maintenance of the funerary cult.

This, of course, is where modern people have (understandably, yet also erroneously) received the impression that the ancient Egyptians were "obsessed with death." Actually, the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life and resurrection, and ensuring that life (including all the perks and benefits of having a physical body) would continue eternally beyond death.

As Assmann explains, this relationship between the living and the dead not only had precedent in the mythological realm with the relationship between Osiris and Horus (the latter being obliged to maintain the funerary cult and memory of the former), but was reciprocal in nature (pp. 41–52). That is to say, "Father and son are dependent on one another. They stand by one another, the one in the afterlife, and the other in this life. Such was the form of the contract between the generations" (p. 47). As the son maintained the funerary cult of his deceased father, and thereby ensuring the memory, honour, and name of the father would endure through endless generations, the father in return would intercede for his son on behalf of the gods.

This is most clearly seen in an Abydos temple inscription commissioned by Rameses II for his father Seti I. The text includes a dialogue between the father and son that includes the following (p. 51).

First, Ramesses says:
See, I keep your name alive, I have acted on your behalf!
... May you now say to Re:
"Grant a lifetime filled with jubilee festivals to King Ramesses."
It is good for you when I am king.
A good son is he who commemorates his father.
Seti replies:
Rejoice, my son, whom I love, King Ramesses!
...I shall say to Re with a loving heart:
"Grant him eternity on earth like Khepri!"
I repeat to Osiris, as often as I appear before him:
"Grant him double the lifetime of your son Horus!"
As such, Assmann stresses that death, at least on a metaphysical level, for ancient Egyptians included some idea of social and familial isolation. (Well-known are the wonderful Egyptian tales of the Shipwrecked Sailor and Sinhue, who both fear that their deaths in foreign, strange lands will separate them from their families and kinsfolk and will thus affect them negatively in the afterlife.) He explains:
It is easy to see that this concept of the person corresponded perfectly with the structure of a polytheistic religion. Deities, too, existed as persons in reciprocal relationships in which they acted on and spoke with one another. They were what they were as persons only with respect to one another. Constellative theology and anthropology mirror and model themselves on one another, stressing the ties, roles, and functions that bind the constituent members of the group. What they view as the worst evil are the concepts of isolation, loneliness, self-sufficiency, and independence. From their point of view, these are symptoms of death, dissolution, and destruction. Even for godhood, loneliness is an unbearable condition. (p. 57). 
Little wonder, then, that, as another Egyptologist has explained, "for the Egyptians, their relationship
with spouse, siblings, parents, children, ancestors, and descendants was of greatest consequence," and as such the Egyptians carried the "conviction that the family structure would continue after death." In short, Assmann contends, the ancient Egyptian mortuary cult had "the aim of reintegrating the deceased into a community that will take in the one who has been torn from the land of the living (p. 63).

All of this of course should resonate to Latter-day Saints. Drawing from the biblical tradition (Malachi 4:5–6; Hebrews 11:40), the Prophet Joseph Smith taught of "principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation" (Doctrine and Covenants 128:15). The entire purpose (the ultimate good or summum bonum as Joseph called it [v. 11]) of temple ordinances that seal and bind generations through work for the living and the dead (by proxy) was to effect a communal exaltation for God's children.
For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. (v. 18).
Hence the Prophet's insistence that exaltation could only be achieved through celestial marriage, or through the creation of eternal families that would see "a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever" (D&C 132:19; cf. 131:1–4).

And why not? After all, if "that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the post-mortal world], only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy" (D&C 130:2), then the only anthropology and cosmology, it would appear, that could reasonably accommodate such would be ones that saw the perpetuation of families and kinships sealed together in eternal bonds.

This is of course a very hasty description of ancient Egyptian mortuary religion as well as Joseph Smith's Nauvoo-era theology concerning the role and purpose of sealings. Much more could be said about how practices such as plural marriage and the law of adoption factored into Joseph's sealing theology and praxis, for instance, to say nothing of the seemingly endless stream of research Egyptologists have written on almost every aspect of Egyptian funerary religion. Hopefully my description of both has been good enough to sufficiently illustrate the discernible parallels. To be sure, considerable differences in both theology and praxis exist between the two. And many of these ideas can be found elsewhere throughout the world. Ancestor worship, cults for the dead, reciprocal relationships between the living and the dead, intercession for the living by the dead, and so forth are present in many theological systems. These elements are not unique to the ancient Egyptians and modern Mormons. Nevertheless, enough parallels do exist to warrant mention and to invite consideration into how these two systems compare and contrast.

Inasmuch as Joseph Smith professed to be a restorer of primeval ordinances and lost truths, it is always exhilarating to hear faint echoes of the Prophet's teachings in the tombs and temples of Egypt. (Just ask Hugh Nibley!) Yet another reason, I suppose, to "become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people" (D&C 90:15), and "to obtain a knowledge of history" (D&C 93:53).