Friday, February 28, 2014

J, E, D, P, and Me: Some Thoughts on the Documentary Hypothesis

You can see where this is going . . . 
David Bokovoy will soon be releasing the first volume of his three-volume series Authoring the Old Testament. In this series, Bokovoy will, among other things, present and argue for the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) to an LDS audience. He will not only discuss what the DH says about the authorship of the Pentateuch, but will also apply the methods and findings of the DH to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Abraham. His books should prove to be provocative (and perhaps challenging) for the average LDS reader, though members of the Church who have training in or exposure to modern scholarly theories about the Hebrew Bible probably won't be too surprised with what Bokovoy has to say about the authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Does it really say THAT in the Bible?

 Saul of Tarsus–––apostle, martyr, prophet, doctrinal expounder, defender of the faith, witness of Christ to the Gentiles, and not afraid to use some good old vulgarity now and then. 
Anyone who's read Paul knows that he was not afraid to, at times, be not only rather snippy, but also rather blunt. One of my favorite examples is Paul's impassioned words in Philippians 3. After indicating that Christians "worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh," Paul, with his trademark sarcasm, goes on to say:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil. 3:3–9 NRSV)
One thing that non-Greek readers might miss, however, is the word used by Paul that is translated above as "rubbish." The word (in its nominative form) is σκύβαλον (skubalon). In Attic Greek it means "dung," specifically dog crap (Liddell & Scott's Greek–English Lexicon, 641). In Koine it means the same thing: animal excrement, but also refuse, garbage, etc. (or so according to the dictionary on my Accordance software).

According to my New Testament professor, by Paul's time the word had become the vulgar form of the word for excrement–––in other words, the "S" word.

So, put another way, Paul is literally saying is that his prestigious Jewish heritage and pedigree meant dogs**t to him after his conversion to Christianity.

Not the kind of language one typically associates with an apostle. But, then again, Brigham Young was known to not infrequently use salty language, so I suppose we can cut Paul a little slack.

Also, for some really funny scatological humor in the Hebrew Bible, one need look no further than the delightfully ironic story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3, which involves some pretty awesome bathroom humor (it's especially clear in the Hebrew), and Elijah's mockery of the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27 (again, it's clear in the Hebrew).

Church History Summer Study

Yours truly at the historic E. B. Grandin print shop in Palmyra, New York. It was here in 1830 that the Book of Mormon was printed. It is also just one of the many places visited on the BYU Church History study program.
My friend Christina Hurlbut asked me to post this on my blog, or to otherwise share it with others, so as to attract attention.

Link

I'm not sure how many BYU students (besides a couple of my friends) read my blog, but if you're out there lurking, I'd say definitely check it out!

I can attest, having participated in the inaugural program, that my experience with the BYU Church History study program was phenomenal. I would strongly recommend it for anyone interested.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Becoming Like God

Der Götterrat (1622) by Peter Paul Rubens
In his poem "Grenzen der Menschheit," Goethe rhetorically asks, "Was underscheidet Götter von Menschen?" ("What distinguishes gods from men?")

The Church has released it's latest essay on controversial topics. This time it's on the subject of deification. (Link)

The article is excellent, and is exactly what I, as a Latter-day Saint, believe vis-à-vis humankind's relationship to deity and the divine potential of all men and women.

I am also very pleased that this article cites and discusses not only President Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet ("As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be"), but also the Prophet Joseph Smith's awe-inspiring 1844 King Follett Sermon. (See the section titled "How were ideas about deification introduced to Latter-day Saints?") Not only that, but it cites the original minutes of the sermon as recorded by Joseph's secretaries and recently published with the Joseph Smith Papers. That's rad. It's time we start using the wonderful fruits of the Joseph Smith Papers, and this article has set a good example.

Finally, although it's not cited in the article, I think it's important to call attention to this essay by Daniel C. Peterson comparing the Mormon teaching of deification with biblical, early Christian, and Jewish understandings of the same.

I will also give a plug for my own article, "Psalm 82: A Latter-day Saint Reading," which I presented a week ago at the Religious Studies Center Student Symposium at BYU and which will be published in the RSC's forthcoming symposium proceedings journal.

Here now is the concluding paragraph of the new article on LDS.org.
All human beings are children of loving heavenly parents and possess seeds of divinity within them. In His infinite love, God invites His children to cultivate their eternal potential by the grace of God, through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of humans’ eternal potential to become like their Heavenly Father is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ and inspires love, hope, and gratitude in the hearts of faithful Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Was Joseph Smith a Moral Relativist?

Today in sacrament meeting one of the speakers gave a talk on the subject of "truth and tolerance." After quoting parts of Elder Dallin H. Oaks' sermon on the same subject, the speaker, following Elder Oaks' cue, condemned moral relativism and stressed the importance of obeying God's commandments.

During the speaker's talk I was reminded of the purported[1] 1842 letter from Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon. In this letter, Joseph laid out his apologia for the morality of plural marriage (which he had evidently proposed to Nancy to enter into as one of his wives).
Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. 
God said, "Thou shalt not kill;" at another time He said, "Thou shalt utterly destroy." This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation. 
A parent may whip a child, and justly, too, because he stole an apple; whereas if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite; there would have been no stripes; all the pleasure of the apple would have been secured, all the misery of stealing lost. 
This principle will justly apply to all of God's dealings with His children. Everything that God gives us is lawful and right; and it is proper that we should enjoy His gifts and blessings whenever and wherever He is disposed to bestow; but if we should seize upon those same blessings and enjoyments without law, without revelation, without commandment, those blessings and enjoyments would prove cursings and vexations in the end, and we should have to lie down in sorrow and wailings of everlasting regret. But in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as God has designed our happiness—and the happiness of all His creatures, he never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed, and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinances. Blessings offered, but rejected, are no longer blessings, but become like the talent hid in the earth by the wicked and slothful servant; the proffered good returns to the giver; the blessing is bestowed on those who will receive and occupy; for unto him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundantly, but unto him that hath not or will not receive, shall be taken away that which he hath, or might have had. 
Be wise today; 'tis madness to defer:
Next day the fatal precedent may plead.
Thus on till wisdom is pushed out of time
Into eternity. 
Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and, at the same time, is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be. He will be inquired of by His children. He says: "Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find;" but, if you will take that which is not your own, or which I have not given you, you shall be rewarded according to your deeds; but no good thing will I withhold from them who walk uprightly before me, and do my will in all things—who will listen to my voice and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent; for I delight in those who seek diligently to know my precepts, and abide by the law of my kingdom; for all things shall be made known unto them in mine own due time, and in the end they shall have joy.
(History of the Church 5:134–136.)

So, I wonder if we could classify Joseph Smith as a moral relativist. "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another." That sounds pretty relativistic to me.

Of course, even if we could classify Joseph Smith as a moral relativist (assuming, again, that the letter is authentic), I don't think he'd fall under the same category as current moral relativists who preach the popular laissez faire morality of today. "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated," Joseph taught in 1843. "And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20–21). That doesn't strike me as something that would go over well with modern moral relativists.

In any event, I'm just thinking out loud here, and am only asking some questions. I don't know if Joseph Smith really was a moral relativist, but it's something to think about. What I will do is urge caution before we Latter-day Saint unilaterally condemn any kind of moral relativism, as the question of morality is a complex issue that deserves nuanced approaches.

Notes

[1]: I say "purported" because the original letter, if it at all existed and was written by Joseph Smith, has not survived, and only a copy of the letter as published by John C. Bennett in the Sangamo Journal is extant. Without access to the original, it is impossible to fully determine how much of the letter is authentic, and how much of it was concocted by Bennett. For historical background on the letter, See Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, Volume 1: History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 477–483.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thoughts on a World With No Religion

The Creation of Adam (1512) by Michelangelo.
In an episode of Family Guy ("Road to the Multiverse"), Stewie and Brian go into a parallel universe where Christianity never existed. Because Christianity and its attending superstitions never existed in this alternate universe, the gag runs, civilization was able to progress more rapidly, so when Stewie and Brian arrive they're surrounded by the wonders of futuristic technology far beyond the technology of their own time.

We'll ignore for now the fact that the Catholic Church was the leading institution of medieval Europe in preserving and perpetuating art, science, literature, history, philosophy, technology, etc. The point of the joke in Family Guy is to image what the world would be like without religion. Now, being a silly animated TV show, I give Family Guy the respect it deserves in provoking deep contemplative thought or recapturing historical reality.  But it is interesting to notice that, like John Lennon before him, Seth MacFarlane has, albeit comically, whipped up an imaginary scenario in which religion, or at least Christianity, never existed. Being an atheist, it shouldn't come as a surprise the direction MacFarlane took this scenario in the episode.

Seth Adam Smith has a blog post on what he thinks would be the negative consequences that would attended a hypothetical world without religion. "If we are to do away with religion," Seth observes, "we must—out of fairness—erase all of the good which it has inspired."
Many of the great, classic works of art, inspired the writings of religion, would vanish. Think about it: the religious artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and countless other Masters—gone. Powerful hymns, carols, and moving oratorios would be forever silenced. The writings of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Melville, Blake, Milton, Hardy, and Lewis would be gutted—stripped of passages influenced by religion.
This is just one part of Seth's post, but it's a point that has been raised before. Here is Dan Peterson writing in 2007.
“The loss of faith,” [Christopher] Hitchens says, “can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-­miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Mil­ton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also ‘manmade’ ”. . . . But what is Homer without religion? What do you make of his story of the Trojan War, or of the wanderings of Odysseus, without the gods? You lose about half of the narrative right there. And Tolstoy without religion? He would have been shocked by that. But the one that re­ally gets me is Milton without religion. . . . But imagine Dante without religion! I have tried to imagine Chau­cer’s Canterbury Tales without religion. It is a story about pilgrims; but, absent religion, pilgrimage to what? Where are they going? Imagine a world without Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, without Handel’s Messiah, without Mozart’s Requiem, without Igor Stravinsky, without John Tavener, without John Coltrane—heck, even without Brian Wilson. Without cathedrals. Without the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I mean, it’s all gone. You cannot imagine that you can just get rid of all the bad parts of religion and you are still going to have all the good things. All of it has to go. What are you left with? Instead of the cathedral of Chartres maybe a Quonset hut, something purely functional.
(Daniel C. Peterson, "Editor’s Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens," FARMS Review 19/2 [2007]: xxvi–xxvii. Link here.)

Ironically, this same point is acknowledged in the episode of Family Guy referenced above. When at one point in the episode Stewie and Brian enter the Sistine Chapel, they look up to see Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam replaced with pictures of Jodie Foster.

For this post I'd like to add a few more examples to Dan and Seth's respective lists.

The writings of Germany's Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whom I have blogged about before), are saturated with religious themes and imagery. Now, Goethe was not an orthodox believer by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a believer. Even so, one cannot miss the religious (especially Christian) imagery in his works.

Consider his two masterpieces (and two of my favorite books ever) that bookended his career: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) and Faust (1808, then revised and completed in 1832). Both works are explicitly religious. Here, for example, are some of Werther's last words to his beloved Lotte before he takes his life.
Du bist von diesem Augenblicke mein! Mein, o Lotte! Ich gehe voran! Gehe zu meinem Vater, zu deinem Vater. Dem will ich's klagen, und er wird mich trösten, bis du kommst, und ich fliege dir entgegen und fasse dich und bleibe bei dir vor dem Angesichte des Unendlichen in ewigen Umarmungen. Ich träume nicht, ich wähne nicht! Nahe am Grabe wird mir es heller. Wir werden sein! Wir werden uns wieder sehen!
[You are, from this moment, mine! O Lotte! I'll go ahead; to my father, and to your father. To him will I petition, and he will comfort me, until you come, and I fly to you and hold you and stay with you before the presence of the Infinite in eternal embrace. I am not dreaming, and I am not crazy! Near the grave is everything clear to me. We will be together! We will see each other again!]
This is just one such example of the explicate (and beautiful) religious themes in Werther. (Don't miss the allusion to John 20:17.) I could produce more, but this one's my favorite, and should suffice for my present purposes.

What about Faust? Well, it'd be rather gratuitous of me to reproduce examples of religious imagery from that work, don't you think? I mean, the prologue, in a explicate nod to the book of Job, takes place in the divine council as God, surrounded by his angels, and Mephistopheles wager over Faust's fate, and the entire second half of the drama is Faust's apotheosis and redemption.

But how does Friedrich Schiller, Goethe's partner-in-crime in the Sturm und Drang movement (and whom I've also blogged about), fair if religion wasn't around to in some way inspire his poetry? Here are the first and last stanzas of his most famous poem "Ode an die Freude." (You know, the one Beethoven used as the text for the final movement of his 9th Symphony.)

Freude schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

[Joy! Beautiful spark of the Gods!
Daughter of Elysium,
We're intoxicated with fire,
Heavenly, thy Holiness!
Your magic binds again,
that which custom had terribly severed;
All men will be brothers,
over whom your soft wings flow.]

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such' ihn über'm Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.

[Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss for the entire world!
Brothers, over the starry canopy,
must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall to worship, ye millions?
Do you recognize your Creator, world?
Search for Him over the starry canopy!
Over the stars he surely dwells!]

Certainly there are those who, unfortunately, have used religion as an excuse to cause suffering and hinder progress. I would not hesitate to decry the bane of such blind (and sometimes dangerous) religious fundamentalism. But to say that the world would inherently be a better place without religion altogether? Well, I remain deeply skeptical of that claim.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My Two Minutes of Fame: Fan Correction: Admiral Ackbar Isn't Pronounced Like That!

You'll recall that some time ago I posted a video correcting Conan O'Brien's mispronunciation of Admiral Ackbar's name.

Well, Conan decided to respond to me on his show last night. Here's the clip below.


I should have realized that it would have been just like Lucas to make more changes!

For the record: I filmed my rant in my bedroom. That's my bookshelf right behind me. Yes, I use a storage rack as a bookshelf.

Well, that was a lot of fun. Thanks for selecting my video, Conan!

(P.S. the comments on the YouTube video are hilarious! Some seriously humor-impaired people seemed to have totally missed the point of this recurring segment of Conan's show. Really entertaining, though.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Histories R Us

Whom do men say that I am?
In an excellent discussion on the New Historicism, Rick Duerden says the following in a section he titles "Histories R Us."
This combination of language and history complicates our notions of history just as it complicates our notions of language. Thus, because language is not a simple and transparent medium, our statements about the past are not clear windows on history, nor are they perfect mirrors, direct reflections of a past world; histories we write are constructs, shaped by what we take from old texts and by what we decide to put into the new texts we ourselves write. Histories are the way we choose to represent the past to ourselves. Like our own memories, they are not storehouses of objective fact, but the images and fictions which we choose to believe. We all color our memories somewhat; I select and retell to make the past explain the present, to make my memory justify my current consciousness. In the same way, the biases and ideology of the historian become part of the story. New historicism requires a fervent self-consciousness about our own commitments and prejudices. The critic is not outside history and language, calmly and objectively commenting; the critic too is located in history, in a culture, with an ideology that makes some things invisible, some things important.
(Rick Duerden, "Cultural Poetics: The New Historicism," in The Critical Experience: Literary Reading, Writing, and Criticism, ed. David Cowles, 2nd ed. [Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1994], 247.)

This is exactly the point that has been made by Louis Midgley, Steven C. Harper, and others about Mormon history.

If you don't think this is so, I'd invite you to pick up a copy of the different biographies of Joseph Smith written by, respectively, George Q. Cannon, Preston Nibley, Fawn Brodie, Truman G. Madsen, Dan Vogel, Dona Hill, and Richard Bushman. Go ahead. After you're done reading, ask yourself how Joseph Smith comes across in these different retellings of his life.

Then you'll see that Duerden is spot on in his analysis.

LDS Church Essays Tackle Controversial Issues

Here is my latest article from the Student Review discussing the recent essays put out by the Church that address controversial issues. (Link. Cross-posted here.)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Brother Brigham on the Bible

A man who needs no introduction.
One thing I have always admired about Brigham Young is his pragmatic advice. Here is the first of two quotes by Brother Brigham on how to read the Bible that reflects his trademark pragmatism.
[If] there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate [the Bible] any better than King James's translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understood Greek and Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound by the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken anciently. Is that proper? Yes, I would be under obligation to do it. (Journal of Discourses 14:226-227)
Many Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with using additional translations of the Bible besides the KJV, to say nothing of incorporating critical biblical scholarship into their study. I, however, am not. On my bookshelf sits four different English translations and two German translations of the Bible (including a number of study Bibles with critical notes and apparatuses) that I read regularly. Even worse, I have the temerity to read from the Hebrew and Greek and provide my own translation from time to time. Scandalous, I know.

I have often wondered why we Mormons are always quick to cite the 8th article of faith ("We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly") but are hesitant to actually integrate it in our Bible study. We often seem uncomfortable with actually acknowledging difficulties in the transmission and translation of the Bible, and sometimes display the same fundamentalist assumptions about the Bible that Joseph, Brigham, and others (such as Elders John A. Widtsoe, James E. Talmage, and B. H. Roberts) decried.

I am confident that the work of critical biblical scholarship has largely vindicated the classic Mormon position on the Bible as articulated by Joseph and Brigham. We must acknowledge problems with how the Bible has been transmitted and translated over the span of its nearly three millennia-long history. That's not to say that the Bible is worthless, or to disparage its role as scripture. It's rather to be honest about the fact that, having passed through human hands and having been rendered in human language, the Bible is in many ways a human artifact. And humans, it won't come as a surprise, are fallible. So let us have none of this nonsense about the Bible, including the KJV, having been infallibly transmitted and translated. I'm sorry, but no matter how pretty the language of the KJV is, that doesn't solve some of its major issues vis-à-vis the inferior or problematic manuscripts used by the translators and their many instances of misunderstanding the Hebrew or Greek.

So don't be afraid to use alternative Bible translations to augment your study. I especially recommend the NRSV and the ESV. And, if you're feeling especially daring, pick up what Hebrew or Greek you can to rid yourself of your dependency on others to understand the Bible. After all, anyone who relies on a translation of any text is at the mercy of the translator to have accurately executed the translation. I understand that this is to a large extent unavoidable. When I read Crime and Punishment in High School, for example, I couldn't have practically learned Russian first. So I'm not trying to be some snooty elitist saying you have to know Hebrew or Greek before you can read the Bible or believe its teachings. What I am suggesting, however, is that one would do well to take a cue from Joseph and the early brethren in the School of the Prophets and do whatever can be done to learn the biblical languages. "Become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people" (D&C 90:15).

Now for the second quote by Brother Brigham.
Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation. (Discourses of Brigham Young, 128)
I appreciate the importance of reading the Bible to "liken" its messages to us and our present day. I think that kind of reading has great potential to create faith and improve the lives of men and women. What becomes problematic, however, is when one sacrifices sound exegesis for only subjective application. When we read the Bible, or any scripture, for that matter, we shouldn't forget that these texts were written in a specific time and place by real people. And these real people, it must be acknowledged, often had very different understandings of the world, society, and even God than we do today. A very helpful way to better understand the scriptures, then, is to try to put oneself in the place of the author. Try to image the world of the author, and try to recapture the thoughts and intentions of the author before you impose your own expectations or beliefs onto the text. I know this can be very difficult to do, but I also know it's a very fruitful way to approach the scriptures. I can attest to this, as I have benefited tremendously from this method of reading the scriptures. What's more, this is exactly what God commands in the Doctrine and Covenants. "Obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion" (D&C 93:53).

Try to not just learn from the scriptures, but to be challenged by the scriptures. Let these ancient and modern prophets challenge your expectations and assumptions. On the flip side, don't be afraid to challenge these prophets in return when what they say doesn't seem to fully jive with you. Wrestle with them like Jacob wrestled with a heavenly being before he received his blessings (Genesis 32:24–32). As Joseph said, "By proving contraries, truth is made manifest" (History of the Church 6:248). We do the scriptures a grave disservice when we daintily place them on some pedestal and insist we can't ask the tough questions. "Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled" (D&C 1:37). I like to think of this as the Lord's challenge as much as his invitation to find truth in the scriptures. How else, then, can we discover this truth unless we take this challenge seriously?

So give heed to Brother Brigham's words as you read the Bible. His counsel is wise and will enrich your study of this wonderful book!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fair as the Moon, Clear as the Sun: Mormons and the Song of Solomon

My new article with the Student Review was published today, just in time for Valentine's Day. It's on pages 12–13.

Enjoy!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Appreciation for the Temple

The Provo Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Notice the representation of the primeval waters, a very fitting temple motif.)
Tonight I was set apart as a veil worker at the Provo Temple.

I am both humbled and excited by this opportunity to serve in the temple, and can only hope that I am able to serve my Heavenly Father and my brothers and sisters in the Church to the best of my ability.

I am especially excited at the prospect of becoming intimately familiar with the ordinances of the temple, especially the Endowment. Having studied the liturgies and ordinances of both ancient and contemporary religions, I have found the Endowment, that rich, bold, invigorating, and inspiring cosmology and myth (in the classical sense of the term) revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, to be one of the grandest liturgies practiced by contemporary religionists. I say that as one who has worshiped with Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims; as one who was brought to tears during a beautiful Mass in the Augustinerkirche in Vienna while the music of Mozart's Krönungsmesse filled the room. That's pretty hard to beat. And, yet, while I find great beauty in these other liturgies, they largely pale in comparison to the Endowment, which glorifies God while simultaneously giving man and woman an ennobling glimpse of his and her divine potential in the glories to come.

I am likewise convinced that Joseph Smith's restoration of these ordinances for our deceased loved ones powerfully answers what is perhaps the greatest thorn in the side of theists–––the problem of evil, especially the soteriological problem of evil. I have said on a number of occasions that I would likely be an agnostic if it weren't for two things. First, the Book of Mormon, which is convincing evidence to me that Jesus is the Christ and the God of Israel, and, as such that Yahweh is not just another Iron Age deity conjured up in the imaginations of ancient Semites. Second, Joseph Smith's answer to the problem of evil, which, with one swift slice, cuts the Gordian knot that classical theists have struggled to untangle for centuries. That answer comes directly from what happens inside the temple. (For more on this, see here, here, here, and here.)

But besides all of that, I have had sacred experiences in the temple that confirm to me that the work done therein is ordained of God.

So, in that spirit, here is a nice video produced by the Church.


My absolutely favorite line from this clip comes from the legendary biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross. 
I am both interested and delighted to see so much of ancient religious tradition, particularly biblical tradition, taken up into the religious structures and rituals of the Mormons. Someone who does not know much about temples and Mormons building temples should be directed to the Bible.
Preach it, brother!

P.Vindob. Aeg. 10.994-10.997

While I was stomping around in Vienna last spring, I paid a visit to the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek located in the Hofburg palace. Inside the library (which, after getting lost in more than once, my friends and I agreed is the most Kafkaesque library in existence) is a fabulous papyrus museum that houses Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic papyri spanning almost two millennia.

One splendid papyrus on display is P.Vindob. Aeg. 10.994-10.997. This papyrus contains a copy of the Book of the Dead that was owned by a scribe named Sesostris, who lived during the 18th dynasty (circa 1500 BC). One thing in particular stood out to me about this papyrus.



Click the image to enhance.
You'll notice that while the hieroglyphic text comes from Utterance 43, the accompanying vignette has been misplaced, as it comes from Utterance 78.

So what gives? Why have the text and vignette been misplaced? Henk Milde explains that this sort of thing (misplacing text and vignette) could have arisen for any number of reasons, including:

1. "Spacial discrepancy of saying and vignette"
2. "False combination of saying and vignette in the original"
3. "False combinations of saying and vignette in Book of the Dead studies and editions"
4. "Unclear relationship between saying and vignette"
5. "Relocations or omissions of picture elements"
6. "Emendations of pictures"
7. "Combination and contamination of the picture elements of various vignettes"
8. "Conglomeration of texts under a vignette"

(Henk Milde, "Vignetten–Forschung," in Totenbuch–Forschungen: Gesammelte Beiträge des 2. Internationalen Totenbuch–Symposiums 2005, ed. Burkhard Backes, Irmtraut Munro, and Simone Stöhr [Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006], 221–232.)

I'll let those with ears to hear and eyes to see figure out why this might be significant for the placement of the vignette in P. Joseph Smith I.  

Incidentally, here's the explanatory placard accompanying the display.



Click the image to enhance.
It reads. 
The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of circa 200 sayings, which are to be found in differing selections of various text carriers [Textträgern]. Principally the texts - frequently seen with accompanying depictions (vignettes) - were given to the deceased in the grave on papyrus rolls; however, mummy-wrappings, corpse shrouds, grave and temple walls, and also coffins and other forms of grave goods were written with text of the Book of the Dead.
I am right now writing a paper with a friend of mine on the use of the Book of the Dead as a ritual text. Sufficient it to say for now that there is evidence that this so-called "funerary text" had more than just one "funerary" function. As Egyptologists like Alexandra von Lieven have noted, the Book of the Dead had a Sitz im Leben as much as it had a Sitz im Tod

That Sitz im Leben, it just so happens, was the temple.


(See Alexandra von Lieven, "Book of the Dead, Book of the Living: BD Spells as Temple Texts," The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 98 [2012]: 249–67.)


This same point, by the way, was raised by Nibley back in the 1970s. (Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed. [Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005], esp. 12-15.) 


Time, it seems, still vindicates Hugh Nibley.


I don't know about you, but I think all of this stuff is pretty neat.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Die schöne Müllerin (Part 8)

"Hebt euch frisch und frei empor, In Gottes hellen Morgen!"

Now things have settled down a bit. We immediately transition from the miller's hurried impatience to a tempered calmness. Thus begins the next poem–––Morgengruß.

Guten Morgen, schöne Müllerin!
Wo steckst du gleich das Köpfchen hin,
Als wär dir was geschehen?
Verdrießt dich denn mein Gruß so schwer?
Verstört dich denn mein Blick so sehr?
So muß ich wieder gehen.

Good morning, beautiful milleress!
Why so suddenly turning your head,
As if something had happened?
Does my greeting annoying you so badly?
Does my presence bother you so badly? 
Then I'll be on my way.

O laß mich nur von ferne stehn,
Nach deinem lieben Fenster sehn,
Von ferne, ganz von ferne!
Du blondes Köpfchen, komm hervor!
Hervor aus eurem runden Tor,
Ihr blauen Morgensterne!

O let me, at least from far away,
Just look into your lovely window.
From far, far away!
You blond little head, come outside!
Outside of your round gate,
You blue morning stars!

Ihr schlummertrunknen Äugelein,
Ihr taubetrübten Blümelein,
Was scheuet ihr die Sonne?
Hat es die Nacht so gut gemeint,
Daß ihr euch schließt und bückt und weint
Nach ihrer stillen Wonne?

You slumber-drunk little eyes,
You dew-soaked flowers,
Why do you shy away from the sun?
Do you really like the night so much,
That you close, stoop, and cry
For her silent bliss?

Nun schüttelt ab der Träume Flor
Und hebt euch frisch und frei empor
In Gottes hellen Morgen!
Die Lerche wirbelt in der Luft,
Und aus dem tiefen Herzen ruft
Die Liebe Leid und Sorgen.

Now, cast off the gauzy dreams,
And arise fresh and free,
In God's brilliant morning!
The larks warble in the sky,
And from of the deep heart cries
Love cries out sorrow and trouble. 

There's something about this poem that just gets me every time. I think it's the imagery of the lovely blonde-haired, blue-eyed milleress shyly peeking outside her window to catch just a glimpse of the miller coupled with the nature imagery that makes this poem so delightful. The line "Ihr blauen Morgensterne" is, I feel, especially tender. There's a certain familiarity and intimacy about it, as well as for the rest of poem.

I also an touched by the thoughtfulness of the miller. He's so concerned about possibly disturbing his love that he immediately volunteers to withdraw to preserve her bliss and comfort.

As usual, here's Schubert's rendition. It's one of my favorites in the entire cycle!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

2014 BYU Religious Education Student Symposium


BYU will be holding it's 2014 student symposium next week. You can check out the program here.

The presentations look very interesting. Two of my friends, Ryan Schnell and Jared Pfost, will be presenting. Having heard/read versions of their papers, I can recommend you check them out.

Of course, you can simply skip the nonsense on Psalm 82 being presented by that fraud and charlatan Smoot. He's just a fundamentalist crank.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Created in the “Image and Likeness of God”: Apprentices in the Master’s Workshop

One of my favorite professors, a man whom I greatly admire and respect, David Rolph Seely, delivered a wonderful devotional a year ago on the subject of being created in God's image and likeness. (Brother Seely is over in Jerusalem until August. I miss him so much!)


You can also read this devotional online here.

If you look carefully to the left of President Samuelson and then Brother Seely for the first couple of minutes before the lights dim, you'll notice a dorky looking kid with glasses and a blue tie squirming in his seat or otherwise making himself look like a total fool. No, that's not Hugh Jackman or some other sexy Hollywood stud. That's just plain old me, looking like a klutz. I had been asked by Brother Seely to give the opening prayer for the devotional, and so I got to sit right behind him during his address.

Actually, a funny thing happened while I was up on the stage. You see, my grandfather, who passed away nearly two years ago, was President Samuelson's bishop when President Samuelson was a student at the University of Utah. At my grandfather's viewing I had a chance to meet President Samuelson very briefly. (There's another funny story about that incident that I'll save for later.) Fast forward some eight months later and here I am walking up onto the stage to take my seat before the devotional began. Another professor of mine, William Hamblin, whom you can briefly see sitting behind Brother Seely, had been asked to give the closing prayer. So we went up and took out seats together. When President Samuelson came to greet us before the devotional, he shook my hand and with a smile said, "Oh, it's good to see you again Stephen. How is your family doing?" "Just fine, Brother Samuelson. Thank you," I replied. We chatted for just a moment or two before President Samuelson then shook Bill Hamblin's hand and the sat down. When the two of us sat down, Bill Hamblin turned to me and with a flummoxed voice asked, "How on earth does President Samuelson know you on a first name basis? Not even I'm on a first name basis with him! And here I thought this whole time that you were just some dopey student!" I explained to Bill the situation, and we chuckled over the incident.

But that's just a fun little aside. Really, you should watch or read the devotional. It's very nice.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why Can't Our Bible Dictionary Be This Cool?

The Ancient of Days (1794) by William Blake.
The Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft has an excellent edition of the Lutherbibel that includes an informative Sach– Und Worterklärungen section–––basically the equivalent of the "Bible Dictionary" in the LDS edition of the Bible. Besides the fact that Baal is correctly identified as a rain and fertility deity, and not a "Sun-god," in the Sach– Und Worterklärungen (any BYU ANES majors out there know what I'm talking about), here are some other really cool entries.
Leviatan–––Bildliche Verkörperung der Mächte, die sich Gottes Schöpfermacht entgegenstellen und von ihm gesiegt werden. Der Leviatan wird vorgestellt als Seeungerheuer ("Drache") mit mehreren Köpfen, das sich zusammen mit der Urflut (Meer) gegen Gott auflehnt (Ps 74, 13-14). Die Schilderung Hiob 40, 25-41, 26 zeichnet deutlich das Krokodil, doch auch mit den Farben eines Urdrachen.
[Leviathan–––Artistic embodiment of the powers that stand opposed to God's creative power and will be conquered by him. The Leviathan is represented as a sea monster ("Dragon") with many heads, that with the primeval flood (sea) rebelled against God (Ps 74, 13-14). The depiction in Job 40, 25-41, 26 clearly shows the crocodile, but with the colors of a primeval dragon.]
Meer–––Das Meer ist für das Alte Testament Sinnbild der gottfeindlichen, die Schöpfung und ihre Ordnung bedrohenden Macht. Der Schöpfungsvorgang selbst kann darum als Kampf gegen das "Urmeer" beschrieben werden, das im Meerdrachen (Leviatan) persönlich Gestalt annimmit (Hiob 26, 12-13; 38, 8-11).
[Sea–––The sea is a symbol of ungodly power in the Old Testament that threatens creation and its order. The creation process can therefore be described as a fight against the primeval sea that is associated with the personalized shape (Leviathan) of a sea dragon (Job 26, 12-13; 38, 8-11).]
Rahab–––(Hiob 9, 13; 26, 12; Ps 89, 11) Name für das mythische Seeungeheuer als Inbegriff der widergöttlichen Macht (Leviatan). Er wird auch auf Ägypten als den Feind des Gottesvolkes übertragen (Jes 30, 7).
[Rahab–––(Job 9, 13; 26, 12; Ps 89, 11) The name for the mythological sea monster that is the epitome of anti-godly power (Leviathan). It is also transformed in Egypt as an enemy of God's people (Isaiah 30, 7).]

With this in mind, consider what Joseph Smith had to say about this in 1844.
You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau [bār'ā], which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end.
(Source: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon)

Although he didn't use the same mythological language used by the people of the ancient Near East, including the ancient Israelites, Joseph taught the same concept. God creates by overcoming chaos and setting the cosmos in order. That's what creation is. There's nothing ex nihilo about it.

Just for good measure, here's "Papa" Franz Josef Haydn's overture to his oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation), titled, appropriately, "Die Vorstellung des Chaos" ("The Representation of Chaos").


Instruct me, for thou know'st: thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark,
Illumine; what is low, raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, 19–26.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Present Participle Post

Inspired by my friend Amanda's post here.

Making: Myself look like a fool All.The.Time.
Cooking: Do microwavable pizzas count?
Drinking: Mostly water and milk, with a splash of cranberry juice to keep me sane.
Reading: Nathan der Weise by G. E. Lessing, Gedichte by J. W. Goethe, Was Bleibt by C. Wolf, and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by J. H. Walton.
Wanting: Money for an Xbox One. It will take some time. I can only donate so much blood plasma at once.
Looking: Like something that fell out of the back of a hearse.
Playing: Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.
Wasting: Any chance of a successful career by investing in two worthless (but awesome) majors.
Sewing: What is this, 1820?
Wishing: You were somehow here again. What a great song!
Enjoying: A modicum of sanity.
Waiting: For my article on the cosmology of the Book of Abraham to finally be published.
Liking: Not anything on Facebook, if that's what you mean.
Hearing: The hip hop ballades of Karmin. Also, The Killers. Anything by The Killers. Anything.
Wondering: If I'm ever going to escape this banal existence (i.e. Provo).
Loving: [File not found]
Hoping: That my time spent writing on this blog won't be wasted.
Marveling: At how awesome those mountains right outside my window are.
Needing: See my answer for "sewing" above.
Smelling: Teen spirit.
Wearing: The PJs of champions: basketball shorts and a long sleeve shirt.
Following: The Bing Bang Theory. Will Sheldon ever end up with Amy?
Noticing: That this semester is going by really fast.
Knowing: That deconstructionalism/poststructuralism is kinda goofy, but also kinda profound.
Thinking: With my professor about what the heck deutero-Isaiah is doing in the Book of Mormon.
Feeling: Really antsy about getting into grad school.
Bookmarking: Too many to list here.
Opening: Up to the very real likelihood of me working for my sister right after graduating.
Giggling: No.

Friday, February 7, 2014

We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet

Thomas S. Monson–––prophet, seer, revelator, and President of the High Priesthood of the Church (D&C 107:65).
Well, this week has proven to be very dramatic. I feel somewhat exhausted after a long week of wading through all of the bilge being perpetuated by Tom Phillips and his followers, and am looking forward to recharging this weekend by partaking the sacrament.

If in case it already wasn't, I want it to be perfectly clear where I stand on this issue. To that end, here is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition of "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet." I specifically chose this rendition (from the April 2009 General Conference) for the montage at the end.



We thank thee, O God, for a prophet
To guide us in these latter days.
We thank thee for sending the gospel
To lighten our minds with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee
And love to obey thy command.

When dark clouds of trouble hang o'er us
And threaten our peace to destroy,
There is hope smiling brightly before us,
And we know that deliv'rance is nigh.
We doubt not the Lord nor his goodness.
We've proved him in days that are past.
The wicked who fight against Zion
Will surely be smitten at last.

We'll sing of his goodness and mercy.
We'll praise him by day and by night,
Rejoice in his glorious gospel,
And bask in its life-giving light.
Thus on to eternal perfection
The honest and faithful will go,
While they who reject this glad message
Shall never such happiness know.

The ending lines of the second and third verses are especially meaningful to me at this time.

When I reflect on this matter, I am reminded of the words of the Lord to Joseph Smith as he languished in a dank jail in Liberty, Missouri in the winter of 1838–39.
Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them. But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves. And those who swear falsely against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death—Wo unto them . . . . Behold, mine eyes see and know all their works, and I have in reserve a swift judgment in the season thereof, for them all. . . . Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever. (D&C 121:16–24; 122:9.)
Don't give up the fight. Truth will prevail.
Persecution has not stopped the progress of truth, but has only added fuel to the flame, it has spread with increasing rapidity. . . . [T]he Standard of Truth has been erected: no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing, persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the great Jehovah shall say the work is done. (Joseph Smith to John Wentworth, 1842. Online here.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mind and Cosmos

Thomas Nagel (b. 1937).
I have not yet had a chance to read Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012). However, given the negative reaction of some outspoken atheistic materialists to the book, as chronicled by Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard, I think it might be worth picking up. (I welcome anything that dislodges the insufferable New Atheists even a little from their ivory towers.)

Here's an observation by Ferguson that I especially enjoyed.
You can sympathize with [atheistic materialists] for fudging on materialism. As a philosophy of everything it is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath. Say what you will about [atheistic materialists]. . . . From what I can tell, none of them is a psychopath. Not even close.
Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell’s famous insult: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what’s really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat.
Speaking of materialism, there is a remarkable new book (Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints [Oxford University Press, 2013]) by the Roman Catholic author Stephen H. Webb on the idea of "theistic materialism." This may sound like an oxymoron to some, but Webb actually argues that Mormonism may in some ways be able to bridge theistic and atheistic views of the cosmos. How so? Well, with Joseph Smith's teaching that, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes" (D&C 131:7). This startling, and, as far as I can tell, uniquely Mormon, view opens up a whole new can of theological and philosophical worms about God's nature and role in the cosmos.

"What if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today?" Webb asks in Mormon Christianity.

What indeed.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A New Church History Seminary Manual

The cover page of the new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History seminary manual.
The Church has released a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History manual for seminary students. One of the remarkable aspects of the new manual is that it includes a discussion of several sensitive topics in church history. These topics include the following.

1. The various accounts of the First Vision are highlighted in the new manual. "There are nine known accounts of the First Vision—four written or dictated by Joseph Smith and five written by others retelling his experience," the manual states (p. 20).
The multiple accounts of the First Vision were prepared at different times and for different audiences. In these accounts, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his experience of the First Vision, but the accounts all agree in the essential truth that Joseph Smith did indeed have the heavens opened to him and see divine messengers, including God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the 1838 account was part of Joseph Smith’s official history and testimony to the world, it was included in the Pearl of Great Price as scripture. (p. 20)
The manual then recommends students to read articles by Milton Backman and Richard Lloyd Anderson published in the Ensign discussing the various accounts of the First Vision (pp. 20, 22).

2. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Utah War (Lesson 151). The manual gives a brief historical overview of the events leading up to the massacre and acknowledges the participation of "Latter-day Saint leaders and settlers" in the crime (p. 523). Besides citing an article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre published in the Ensign, the manual also reproduces this quote given by President Henry B. Eyring at the 150 year anniversary of the massacre.
The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [at the Mountain Meadows] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.
3. In a chapter on the history of the Pearl of Great Price there is a brief overview of the history of the Book of Abraham, including the loss and recovery of several papyrus fragments once in the possession of Joseph Smith (pp. 524–526). Included in the discussion about the Book of Abraham is this (which is actually reprinted from the Church's Pearl of Great Price Student Manual).
In 1966 eleven fragments of papyri once possessed by the Prophet Joseph Smith were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They were given to the Church and have been analyzed by scholars who date them between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. A common objection to the authenticity of the book of Abraham is that the manuscripts are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, who lived almost two thousand years before Christ. Joseph Smith never claimed that the papyri were autographic (written by Abraham himself), nor that they dated from the time of Abraham. It is common to refer to an author’s works as ‘his’ writings, whether he penned them himself, dictated them to others, or others copied his writings later. (p. 525)
(Incidentally, yours truly has written a thing or two on this subject over at the Interpreter blog, which you can access here.) The manual also states, "Although we do not know the exact method Joseph Smith used to translate the writings, we do know that he translated the book of Abraham by the gift and power of God" (p. 525).

4. The new manual has material covering the practice of plural marriage, including an entire chapter on Joseph Smith's plural marriage (Lesson 140) and a mentioning of Post-Manifesto plural marriage. Below are a few pertinent excerpts from the manual.
In this dispensation the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and many other Church leaders found this commandment difficult, but they obeyed it. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). (p. 204)
While Joseph Smith was working on the inspired translation of the Old Testament in 1831, he read about some of the ancient prophets practicing plural marriage (also called polygamy). Under this practice, one man is married to more than one living wife. The Prophet studied the scriptures, pondered what he learned, and eventually took his questions about plural marriage to Heavenly Father in prayer. . . . the Prophet Joseph Smith was reluctant to begin the practice of plural marriage. He stated that he did not begin the practice until he was warned that he would be destroyed if he did not obey. . . . Because of a lack of historical documentation, we do not know about Joseph Smith’s early attempts to comply with the commandment. However, by 1841 the Prophet had begun to obey the commandment and to teach it to some members of the Church, and over the next three years he married additional wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s obedience to the Lord’s commandment to practice plural marriage was a trial of faith for him and his wife Emma, whom he loved dearly. (pp. 477–478) 
Practicing plural marriage brought additional challenges. Because the practice was initially kept very quiet, rumors began to spread about Church leaders marrying additional wives. These rumors greatly distorted the truth, slandered the names of the Prophet and other Church leaders, and contributed to increased persecution against the Saints. (p. 479)
A small number of Latter-day Saints continued to enter into new plural marriages after the Manifesto was given. In 1904, President Joseph F. Smith announced "that all [plural] marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage he will be . . . excommunicated". . . . This policy continues today. (p. 530)
Towards the end of the chapter on Joseph Smith's plural marriage, the manual warns, "Much unreliable information pertaining to plural marriage exists on the Internet and in many print sources. Be cautious and wise with such information. Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context or include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith" (p. 479). I myself have raised a similar point in this post. The manual then concludes by recommending, "Reliable historical research concerning the practice of plural marriage can be found at josephsmithpapers.org and byustudies.byu.edu" (p. 480).

5. On describing the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation, the manual says the following.
Around the fall of 1830, Joseph Smith was commanded by the Lord to translate the Bible. He did not translate the Bible from one language to another; nor did he have an original biblical manuscript to work from. Instead, Joseph would read and study passages from the King James Version of the Bible and then make corrections and additions as inspired by the Holy Ghost. Thus, the translation was more of an inspired revision than a traditional translation.
The Joseph Smith Translation is estimated to have affected at least 3,400 verses in the King James Version of the Bible. These differences include additions (to clarify meaning or context), deletions, rearranged verses, and complete restructurings of certain chapters. The Joseph Smith Translation clarified doctrinal content, especially the mission of Jesus Christ, the nature of God, the nature of man, the Abrahamic covenant, the priesthood, and the Restoration of the gospel. (pp. 180–181)
6. The historical circumstances surrounding the priesthood ban and President Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation are discussed in a chapter on Official Declaration 2 (Lesson 157). As part of this discussion, the manual reprints the introductory material to OD 2 printed in the 2013 edition of the scriptures.
The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.
There is also the recommendation at the end of the chapter for students to "go to Gospel Topics on LDS.org and search for 'race and the priesthood'" to learn more about the priesthood ban (p. 545).

7. Finally, in discussing section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the manual straightforwardly says, "The 7,000 years [in vv. 6–7]  refers to the time since the Fall of Adam and Eve. It is not referring to the actual age of the earth including the periods of creation" (p. 280).

I am sure there is more that could be said about the new manual, but suffice it to say from the above examples that the Church is implementing productive measures towards introducing these sort of issues in a faith-promoting, safe, and positive environment (seminary). This will hopefully serve to "inoculate," to use the popular metaphor, seminary students against the often highly debatable claims and negative information one can currently find on the Internet. While one might perhaps quibble over how certain issues are addressed in the new manual, that there is even a discussion at all in Church curriculum is, in my estimation, a step in the right direction.

MormonThink: Fair and Balanced?

Are these really the best adjectives to describe MormonThink?
One of the complaints I hear from the proprietors and/or supports of MormonThink is that it is unfair to characterize MormonThink as being "anti-Mormon" or as being unfair and overly critical of the Church. If you read the purpose statement on MormonThink you'll see gratuitous (and highly dubious) claims of objectivity, fairness, and open-mindedness on the part of the website's writers/editors.

I'll let the reader decide for him or herself what they think of these claims of objectivity and fairness. I personally think they're totally bogus, and little more than rhetorical tricks used to lure unsuspecting visitors into thinking that what they read on MormonThink is "objective." There isn't a single negative argument against the Church that I haven't at some time seen MormonThink or its fans dredge up and use, no matter how many times that argument has been put to rest. What's more, when you read the comments of folks like Tom Phillips or David Twede (at places like the dreadful Recovery From Mormonism or the Ex-Mormon Reddit sites) when they're not putting on their little show, it becomes transparently obvious what their real intentions are with MormonThink. (See here for a sampling of such quotes.)

But that's neither here nor there. What I want to focus on for this post is how other non-Mormons have been characterizing MormonThink in the recent media blitz over Phillips' silly little "October Surprise."

Dennis Wagner (USA Today): "[Phillips] now serves as managing editor of MormonThink, an online publication that critiques the Church's history and doctrine."

John Bingham (The Telegraph): "[The Church's dismissal of the summons] was issued in response to a private prosecution attempt by Tom Phillips, a disaffected former Mormon who now runs MormonThink a website highly critical of the church.

John Johnson (Newser): "Phillips expounds on his views at anti-Mormon website called MormonThink."

Mary-Ann Russon (International Business Times): "[Phillips] is now the managing editor of MormonThink, an online publication that criticises [sic] LDS history and doctrine."

ICTMN Staff (Indian Country): "The complaint has been lodged by Tom Phillips, a former member of the Mormon church, who now runs MormonThink, a website that is critical of the church."

Associated Press (StarTribune): "Phillips is a former regional church leader in England who now runs a website that challenges church history and doctrine." (I especially like how this article begins right off the bat by identifying Phillips as "a disgruntled ex-Mormon.")

Leonardo Blair (Christian Post): "The summons stems from legal action initiated by Tom Phillips, an ex-Mormon who now runs MormonThink, a website which is very critical of the church."

 Jessica Elgot (Huffington Post UK): "[Phillips] now runs a website called MormonThink, critiquing the church."

New - 02/06/14

Damon Linker (The Week): Linker doesn't comment on MormonThink per se, but he does describe Phillips as "a disgruntled ex-Mormon."

Richard Marsden (Daily Mail): "[The summonses] were issued after a private prosecution bid by London-based Tom Phillips, author of Mormonthink, a website highly critical of the church and its teachings.

James Watkins (Law on the Web): "Mr Phillips, who now edits a site called MormonThink, a site highly critical of the church . . ."

Notice how these sources do not characterize MormonThink. Not one of them ever says, "Phillips runs the website MormonThink, which objectively and fairly raises questions about Mormonism for people to decide for themselves whether the Church's teachings are true or not after presenting both sides of the controversy in a fair, honest, and respectful manner."

My question for you then, Mr. Phillips, is how you think these non-Mormons got the impression that MormonThink is anti-Mormon. Do you suppose that these non-Mormon reporters are being paid off by the Church or FairMormon to report on you in such an unfailingly negative light? Or maybe could it be that you're glaringly anti-Mormon agenda is so obvious that anybody with half a brain and the ability to read can see right through your claims of objectivity and fairness?

For more on this, I would refer the reader to my last post (here).

P.S. I will be collecting more samples of how the media characterizes MormonThink and reposting them here.

A Meme is Worth a Thousand Words

From a friend who pulled this off of Facebook.
Need I say more?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The "October Surprise" Becomes a "February Flop"

(An image I found on Reddit. This pretty much sums up the "October Surprise" very nicely.)
Some of you may remember that the ever incorrigible Tom Phillips has long been promising an "October Surprise" that would, allegedly, shatter the foundations of the Church and send Mormons into panic. It was only a matter of time, Phillips assured us, that the Church's lies and deception would be finally uncovered once and for all! Well, October came and went with no surprise forthcoming. But Phillips kept assuring us that what he was cooking up was a big deal, and to just be patient.

Now it seems like the "October Surprise" has finally arrived! (I mean, what's four months or so late, right?) We've all been waiting with bated breath, and now here it is!

Violà!

Mormon president ordered to appear in British court

That's it. Phillips is taking President Monson to court on charges of fraud.

There are so many things comically absurd with this "October Surprise." But instead of ruining it for you, dear reader, I'll simply direct your attention to the linked article.

Right now two phrases come to my mind when I look at Phillips and his antics.

The first is "jumping the shark," which one will remember comes from the sit-com Happy Days.


The second is from Schiller's play Die Jungfrau von Orleans (Act 3, scene 6, line 2319):

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

"In vain the gods themselves contend with idiocy."

Truer words were never spoken, especially at a time like this.