Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Poll Questions

A commenter on this post left an interesting comment.
I would love to see a post in which you poll the average member during Sunday meetings and ask the following questions:
1) Have you ever been taught by the church that Joseph used his own seer stone (which he found buried in the ground) in the process of translating the Book of Mormon?
2) Have you ever been taught by the church that, according to witnesses, Joseph rarely used the plates to actually translate?
3) Have you heard the church emphatically denounce past racist teachings of Brigham Young and other church leaders?
This would indeed be an interesting poll to take. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'd be the appropriate one to do it, since I've discussed all three of these issues in the Sunday School class that I regularly teach. As such, I may have already biased the sample.

Nevertheless, I like the idea of this poll, though I would suggest just a few tweaks in the questions to be asked to Church members participating in the poll.

1) Have you read the Ensign articles by Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder Neal A. Maxwell that both discuss Joseph Smith's use of a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon? Have you familiarized yourself with the Joseph Smith Papers, including the essay discussing Joseph Smith as a revelator and translator?

2) Have you read the Ensign article by Richard L. Anderson exploring the translation method of the Book of Mormon, including what various witnesses said about the use or non-use of the plates? Furthermore, have you taken time to access the Gospel Topics essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon?

3) Have you read the Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood that affirms the Church "disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else," and that it also "unequivocally condemn[s] all racism, past and present, in any form"? Are you aware that the Church also released an official statement that it "unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church"? Have you read President Hinckley's April 2006 General Conference address that condemned racism in the Church? Have you heard Elder Bruce R. McConkie's 1978 speech (which is linked to on LDS.org) where he said, "Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation [concerning blacks and the priesthood]. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world"?

I guess what I'm getting after with these questions is this:

4) Are you utilizing the resources that have been made readily available to you by the Church? This includes material aimed at both adults as well as youth, but not necessarily including material produced or sponsored by Church-owned institutions such as the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, BYU Studies Quarterly, the publications of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and the publications of the Religious Studies Center.

This, I think, would be a much more interesting poll to take.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I've a Mother There

Heavenly Mother by John Hafen. "Come to me, here's the myst'ry that man hath not seen; / Here's our Father in heaven, and Mother, the Queen."
– William W. Phelps, "A Voice from the Prophet: Come to Me" (1844).
One aspect of Latter-day Saint doctrine that distinguishes Mormonism from other contemporary Christian sects is the Mormon affirmation of the existence of a Mother in Heaven. The closest Christian analog that I can think of to this LDS concept is the Catholic veneration of Mary, but even that isn't exactly analogous.
Eliza R. Snow, a Church leader and poet, rejoiced over the doctrine that we are, in a full and absolute sense, children of God. “I had learned to call thee Father, / Thru thy Spirit from on high,” she wrote, “But, until the key of knowledge / Was restored, I knew not why.” Latter-day Saints have also been moved by the knowledge that their divine parentage includes a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. Expressing that truth, Eliza R. Snow asked, “In the heav’ns are parents single?” and answered with a resounding no: “Truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a mother there.” That knowledge plays an important role in Latter-day Saint belief. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.” (Source)
One acquaintance of mine, a fellow of another Christian persuasion, has condemned this doctrine as modern Canaanite worship. In what I confess was a rather clever remark, he once disparagingly asked me what's stopping us Mormons from erecting an Asherah pole in the Salt Lake Temple. Little does this fellow know that I take it as a supreme compliment to be accused of Canaanite worship (I mean, if the ancient Israelites could import epithets and characteristics of Baal in their depiction of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, then why not us, right?), and have (half-seriously, half-jokingly) asked myself just that. My friends with me in my major also know that I may or may not have at times invoked the name of Baal in my petitions for good weather or a good parking spot.

The protestations of sectarian critics notwithstanding, here are a few resources I would recommend anyone who wants to know more about this topic.
  • "'A Mother There': A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven" by David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido. This is an excellent article looking at what General Authorities have said about Heavenly Mother. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this article is that it dispels the Mormon myth that the reticence to speak about Heavenly Mother in the Church is because General Authorities have said she's too sacred to discuss. As this article demonstrates, this simply isn't the case.
It should come as no surprise that Asherah was originally a fertility goddess. Fertility, childbirth, and lactation were among the very gravest concerns of ancient women—literally matters of life, death, and familial survival. These issues remain crucial even in our own day, when infertile couples routinely spend thousands of dollars attempting to successfully have children of their own. This is the one area where, to my own eye at least, private prayer to our Mother in Heaven might be countenanced. I personally have never prayed to Her under any circumstances and do not feel the need to do so. And certainly there is nothing wrong with praying in our normal fashion to God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ for help with these issues. But Yahweh absorbed what were originally Asherah’s fertility functions and the scriptures preserve Leah’s prayer to Her in successfully giving birth to one of the sons of Israel. If a couple or a prospective mother were to feel the need to address our Mother directly in prayer in this particular type of circumstance, I personally would not find it offensive. These are, of course, very private matters, and I am assuming that any such prayers would not become a matter of public knowledge. Consequently, such prayers should not adversely affect others who might not approve of such a prayer being offered in their presence. Of course, President Hinckley’s counsel on this subject did not expressly distinguish private from public prayers, and many people would not be comfortable circumventing that direction. And I have no authority in the Church to suggest anything otherwise. So those who may wish to engage in such prayers will need to consider the matter carefully and take responsibility for their own actions. I am simply reporting that my own sensibilities would not be offended if a woman or couple, desperate to conceive, were to address their Mother in Heaven in their prayers. ("How To Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated)," 137–138.)
  • Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel by William Dever. Dever's book on this topic is a classic and a must-read. Using recent archaeological evidence combined with textual details from the Hebrew Bible, Dever makes a very strong case for his thesis that the ancient Israelites worshipped Asherah as Yahweh's consort, and that the eventual suppression of her worship was both late in the development of Judaism and an unpopular decision made by the elitist, exclusionist (and arguably chauvinistic) Judahite bureaucrats (or, as Joseph Smith called them, designing and corrupt priests) who eventually called the final shots on the composition and canonization of the Hebrew Bible. Dever's thesis has shocked or upset many mainstream Christians and Jews, but as a Latter-day Saint and an ancient Near Eastern studies major I have very little disagreement with this argument.
Incidentally, last year I watched Dever lecture on this very topic. He was an absolute delight to watch, and I was happy to meet him afterwards and speak with him for a few minutes. Thanks to three years at religion classes at BYU, I accidentally called him "Brother Dever" instead of "Professor Dever" at one point in our conversation. (For those who don't know, Dever is a secular Jew.)

Here is the video of the lecture I attended.


  • The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai. Another classic that tracks the presence of the divine feminine or mother goddess in Judaism from Asherah to the Shekhinah to Medieval Jewish mysticism. 
Personally, I would love to see General Authorities more fully flesh out this beautiful aspect of our theology. I don't really get the reticence we have in the Church of speaking about Heavenly Mother, and I have to roll my eyes at the "hedges around the law," as it were, that we've erected the try and justify this reticence. This isn't to say we should start praying to Heavenly Mother (though we basically do just that in the 4th verse of "O My Father") or making Her a focus of our worship at the expense of Heavenly Father and Jesus, but rather that we should be bold and proud of this beautiful and profound aspect of our doctrine.

When I leave this frail existence--
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I've completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Review of and Apologia for the New Noah Film

Russell Crowe as the prophet Noah in Darren Aronofsky's 2014 adaption of the biblical tale.
"That was one of the worst movies I've ever seen."

"Yeah, it was absolutely horrendous."

That's what I heard from a sweet elderly couple as I left the movie theater in Idaho Falls, Idaho after watching Darren Aronofsky's new film Noah. Given how much the film ventures from the biblical text, which is actually pretty concise and sparse on details (for example, go re-read the Genesis account and count how many lines of speech Noah gets in the entire story), it's understandable that more conservative audiences would react negatively to Aronofsky's retelling of the classic Noah tale.


Notwithstanding, I absolutely loved the film. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. The film had many nods to Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal accounts of Noah and the Primeval history. "Aronofsky and Handel relied heavily on not just the text of the Bible (where the story of Noah encompasses roughly four chapters of the book of Genesis), but also Jewish Midrash, ancient explications of religious texts" (Source). For instance, in the film Noah takes glowing stones with him into the ark to provide light, a detail absent in the Genesis account but found in some Jewish apocryphal interpolations on this pericope (cf. Ether 3).

2. The creation sequence in the middle of the film was awesome. "The film also contains a depiction of the Big Bang (something doubted by 51 percent of Americans, according to a recent survey), fins-to-limbs evolution, and the very clear implication that the biblical 'days' of the creation were only metaphorical days, not literal, 24-hour ones." (Source) Besides the stunning visuals of this sequence, given that I accept all three of these (Big Bang, evolution, and the "days" in Genesis being metaphorical), I had no problem with this aspect of the film. In fact, I found the cosmology in Noah remarkably similar to Mormon cosmology. Except for the seeming portrayal of creation ex nihilo, the cosmology of the film, such as the idea of Adam and Eve being plopped down into an already existing ecosystem having undergone stages of development and evolution, has been touched on by guys like (who else?) Hugh Nibley. Even Bruce R. McConkie, a staunch anti-evolutionist himself, once remarked, "But first, what is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes." (Source)

I also liked the fact that Noah's character tells the creation to his family as a story or myth, not as some kind of scientific excursus. I liked this since this is how I've understood the creation accounts in the scriptures. They're myths, being told to provide meaning and orientation to God's children in mortality. This doesn't, I hasten to add, mean I think these accounts are "false" or "untrue." (I reject the dichotomy between "myth" and "truth," and am convinced that myth is actually a powerful way of conveying truth. As the critic Bruce W. Young has commented, "Far from being false stories, myths . . . are the most true stories, stories about the most crucial and fundamental of realities. . . . They thus give meaning to the world, to human life, and to things in the world."[1]) Rather, it means that they're attempting to achieve something different than what a scientific cosmology attempts to achieve: imparting metaphysical truths about the Plan of Salvation and our role in it. The authors of the scriptural creation accounts used the mythical language and imagery of their culture and time to convey these truths, and our role as modern readers of these ancient scriptural accounts is, by study and by the spirit, to get at the core of truth being convey by these myths. Perhaps Elder James E. Talmage said it best.
Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we can not explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science. . . . We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation. (Quoted here)
3. The environmentalist message of the film is very Nibleyesque.
Aronofsky has called Noah the "first environmentalist." The film goes further: It actively interprets the Bible in favor of those who argue that the book of Genesis requires us all to be good "stewards" of the creation—and in strong opposition to those who read its language about mankind having "dominion…over all the earth, and over every creeping thing" as mainly implying that all this exists for us. . . . Noah tells us, bluntly, that that's what the bad guys think. Those bad guys in the film are led by a figure named Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), who very early on declares, "Damned if I don't take what I want." Tubal-Cain represents the line of Cain (Adam's son, who killed his brother Abel) and thus embodies the biblical "wickedness" of mankind just before the Flood; in the film, that wickedness is embodied, in Tolkienlike fashion, as industrialization, environmental despoilment, and pollution. And most of all, the killing and eating of animals: We see Tubal-Cain and his followers do this repeatedly throughout the film. (Source)
Compare this to what Nibley has said about the Book of Moses and environmentalism in such essays as "Man's Dominion, or Subduing the Earth," and "Brigham Young on the Environment."
Ever since the days of the Prophet Joseph, presidents of the Church have appealed to the Saints to be magnanimous and forbearing toward all of God's creatures. But in the great West where everything was up for grabs it was more than human nature could endure to be left out of the great grabbing game, especially when one happened to get there first, as the Mormons often did. . . . Man’s dominion is a call to service, not a license to exterminate. It is precisely because men now prey upon each other and shed the blood and waste the flesh of other creatures without need that “the world lieth in sin.” (D&C 49:19–21.) Such, at least, is the teaching of the ancient Jews and of modern revelation. (Source)
Brigham Young is one of the few men in history who could claim the privilege of personally occupying, settling, and placing the stamp of his own personality on a large part of the earth's surface. He founded a hundred communities over hundreds of thousands of square miles of the continent; and after over a century they are still in existence, some of them, in those places where the bulldozer and chain saw have not yet completed their devastation, still bearing visibly the marks of his genius. For Brigham was keenly aware of his unique opportunity to lay the foundations of a new civilization and of the awful responsibility that weighed upon anyone who presumed to alter the face of nature and create an environment in which generations yet unborn would be obliged to live. . . . It is not too late to heed this wisest of counselors: "Let me love the world as He loves it, to make it beautiful, and glorify the name of my Father in heaven. It does not matter whether I or anybody else owns it, if we only work to beautify it and make it glorious, it is all right." (Source)
4. The film is very spiritual, but also thoughtful. It explored such fundamental religious themes as agency vs. determinism, faith vs. doubt, sin vs. righteousness, knowledge vs. ignorance, obedience vs. dissent, fundamentalism vs. pluralism, etc. I was spiritually edified, as well as intellectually challenged, by the nuanced way in which Aronofsky presented and explored these issues.

So there are just some of the reasons I enjoyed the film. As an ancient Near Eastern studies major who has studied the Bible and enjoys exploring how other people interpret the biblical text, as a Mormon who found many convergences with my personal faith, and as a cinephile who enjoys a good film, I thought the movie was excellent. I'd highly recommend it!

One last thing. For any Mormon who might be put off by Aronofsky's adaptation or re-visioning of the Genesis account (including his insertion of new dialogue, new themes, new characters, and new details that augment and expand on the biblical text), may I remind you that Joseph Smith did the exact same thing in the 1830s. If we indeed, as Latter-day Saints, seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" (Article of Faith 13), then what's wrong with seeking truth, beauty, and meaning in a semi-secular Jew's meditation on the story of Noah?
If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. (Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 11)
[P. S., here is a review of the film written by the LDS author Jeffrey M. Bradshaw that readers might find interesting.]

Notes

[1]: Bruce W. Young, "Mythic and Archetypal Criticism," in The Critical Experience: Literary Reading, Writing, and Criticism, ed. David L. Cowles (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2009), 60.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Happy Easter!
Or, as is said in Orthodox Christianity on this day, Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! With the response, Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη

"Christ is risen." 

"Truly he is risen." 

Please enjoy these two Easter hymns from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"Christ the Lord is Risen Today"


"He is Risen"

Friday, April 18, 2014

BYU Professors Meet with Atheists for Panel Discussion

Below is the link to my latest article with the Student Review.

Link.

I had to be objective and impartial in my reporting for the Student Review.

Now that I'm on my blog, however, I get to be opinionated.

1. I thought the panel discussion was largely a disaster. The original intent of the panel was to discuss and dispel stereotypes and myths about Mormons and atheists. It quickly turned into a debate, however.

2. The largely atheist audience members in attendance acted like children. I'm okay with applauding your "team" in a debate, but the audience had embarrassingly poor manners. Boos, braying, jeers, vulgarities, etc., came flying from the atheist crowd at the Mormon panelists on more than one occasion.

3. I felt like Joanne Hanks contributed next to nothing in the discussion. Most of her comments about her experience in a polygamous cult had next to no relevancy for what Mormons experience and how Mormons live their lives and how Mormons practice their faith. Not to diminish her awful-sounding experience, but rather to say there was no real reason for her to keep bringing it up as a club to use against Mormons other than to score rhetorical points.

4. I thought both Holzapfel and Haws did a good job. I'm of course biased since I know both of them, including Holzapfel very well, and am a Mormon, but I actually think they held their own, given the hostility of their audience and the attacks by Silverman.

5. I've got to hand it to David Silverman. He's passionate, and he's not afraid to speak his mind. There's something to be admired about his candor. It also seemed like he actually wanted to learn more about the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. He was also fair, at times, in making sure Holzapfel and Haws got a chance to speak in the midst of the atheist crowd booing their responses. But then again, he's clearly a dogmatist and a fundamentalist. He's a religiously zealous atheist. He's also breathtakingly insulting. According to Silverman, religious people are brainwashed dupes who are victims of childhood indoctrination. Poor theist wretches like me need to be saved by enlightened, noble, graciously condescending atheists like him and his group. It's not merely a matter of honest, sincere, intelligent people having disagreements of opinion. Nope. We theists are sick, infected with the faith virus, and we need big brother atheist to save us.

Awesome.

I really had my hopes up for this event. I thought it would be a good opportunity for dialogue and discussion. It really wasn't.

Too bad. Maybe next time.

Kaboom! The King Follett Discourse's Explosive Impact

Nauvoo's East Grove. I visited this site in July 2013 as part of a church history study program. It wasn't very windy when I visited, but it was very hot!

I am currently reading Alex Beam's new book American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. Although I have some issues with the book in some other respects, I did enjoy Beam's characterization of the King Follett discourse.

If one sentence could describe the last few months of Joseph's life it would be: Wait, there is more. In April 1844, he preached the most famous sermon of his life, what some regard as one of the most famous sermons ever preached in America. As if on a whim, Joseph turned nearly 2,000 years of Christian belief on its head at a funeral service for his loyal colleague King Follett. Joseph had laid the groundwork for a new world order, and for the foundational ritual for his entire church, but that was in secret. Now, speaking in Nauvoo's East Grove, under a massive canopy of elm and chestnut trees, he unpacked some of the most radical Christian doctrine ever preached on the American continent. He spoke for two hours, shouting against a heavy wind. The following day, he lost his voice.

Joseph started out with his boldest statement: "We suppose that God was God from eternity," he shouted. "I will refute that idea. God that sits enthroned is a man like one of yourselves."
It is the first principle to know. We may converse with him and that he once was a man like us. God was once as one of us was on a planet as Jesus was in the flesh. I defy all hell and earth to refute it.
Joseph referred to gods in the plural, because he explained that gods evolved from men and were not created ex nihilo, out of nothing. The raw material of godhead was a form of free intelligence that preexisted our creation. From intelligence, God became a man, then perfected himself to become a god. So did Jesus Christ. And so, Joseph said, can you. "You have got to learn how to be a god yourself in order to save yourself," he proclaimed,
–to be priests and kings as all Gods have gone–by going from a small degree to another–from exaltation to exaltation–till they are able to sit in glory as with those who sit enthroned.
This became the "doctrine of eternal progression," the Mormons' supremely optimistic belief in the perfectibility of men and women living on earth. Joseph freed his followers from the strictures of predestination and the inevitability of sin. This was Joseph's final, grandiose gift of hope to his people–and yet another nail in his coffin. In one long, loud sermon, he had dynamited the entire Christian cosmology, the underpinnings of every credal prayer to have emerged in the previous 2,000 years.

(Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church [New York, N. Y.: PublicAffairs, 2014], 28–29.)

To which I can only say, Amen!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Terryl Givens on the Pre-Mortal Council in the Book of Abraham

"O Marduk, you are the most important among the great gods!"
In my recent paper on the cosmology of the Book of Abraham I draw attention to the similarities between the Book of Abraham and the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish.
Also significant for Latter-day Saints is the Enuma Elish's depiction of the primeval theomachy in the council of the gods, wherein Tiamat and her evil host of warrior gods battle against Marduk for reign over the divine council and, ultimately, the cosmos (3–4.129). The motif of a primeval theomachy in the divine council likewise appears in the Book of Abraham, in this instance between the premortal Jehovah and Satan over the agency of mankind (Abraham 3:22–28; compare Moses 4:1–4). Again, this is not to say that the Book of Abraham and the Enuma Elish are drawing directly on each other but rather to note the common presence of this motif in ancient Near Eastern creation mythology.
Yesterday I was re-reading Terryl Givens' book When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought when, to my surprise, I came across his discussion of the pre-mortal council depicted in the Book of Abraham.
In 1835 [Joseph] Smith claimed another burst of inspired revelation and produced writings attributed to the biblical patriarch Abraham. . . . In this account, Abraham, posses of a Urim and Thummim, an ancient oracle associated with seership and mentioned in the Bible, receives a panoramic vision of occult cosmology. His visionary journey takes him through space, near the very abode of God, and through time, back into heavenly assemblies that antedate the world's creation. 
Givens then goes on to quote Abraham 3 about the pre-mortal council. He then notes about the Book of Abraham:
Several striking affinities with Semitic traditions are immediately apparent. The council scene in particular is consistent with a standard motif in Mesopotamian and Ugaritic literature, wherein a divine assembly convenes to consider a problem and a series of proposals is offered, often with one making the proposal demanding all power and glory (as Marduk demands in the Babylonian creation narrative Enuma Elish). In the present text, God stands surrounded by a number of exalted figures, who are referred to as "rulers." . . . (It is significant that Smith recasts the first verse of Genesis as "the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.") As was the case with the Mesopotamian texts, the council discusses the creation of a human world. . . . Further similarities with antecedents only heighten the family resemblance. The challenge of a Marduk or the schism among the gods described in Nag Hammadi texts are paralleled in Smith's account by a pre-mortal Lucifer attempting to supplant God. . . . Finally, when the creation of the world ensues in the next scene, the text produced by this New York farmer unabashedly refers to "the gods," who proceed to organize the earth out of preexistent materials.
(Terryl Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought [New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010], 215–216.)

For those who are interested, here's the pertinent excerpt from the Enuma Elish that talks about Marduk's demands of the divine council.
When he [Marduk] spoke, he said to me, / "If indeed I am to champion you, / Subdue Tiamat and save your lives, / Convene the assembly, nominate me for supreme destiny! / In the Assembly Place of the Gods take your places, / all of you, in joyful mood. / When I speak, let me ordain destinies instead of you. / Let nothing I shall bring about be altered, / Nor what I say be revoked nor changed." . . . To Marduk their champion they ordained destiny. (Context of Scripture 1.111, Tablet 3, lines 115–122, 138.)
Givens and I approach the similarities between the Book of Abraham and the Enuma Elish from two different angles. I have focused on the theomachy between Tiamat and Marduk, whereas Givens focuses on Marduk's claims to ascendency in the divine council. However, these two approaches or emphases actually nicely compliment each other, as the progression of the story in Enuma Elish is that Marduk will be victorious in the theomachy with Tiamat so that he can claim his position at the head of the council.

Notice the similar sequence in the Book of Abraham. In this text, Lucifer, like Marduk, claims his glory in the council before he actually carries out his plans. However, unlike in Enuma Elish, Lucifer is stopped prematurely by the head of the council. This is something of an ironic twist, as one would normally expect the champion of the council to be given the green light and then prove himself victorious, as with Marduk in the Enuma Elish. In the Book of Abraham, however, Lucifer is stopped dead in his tracks, and instead Jehovah is selected to be the champion of the council, with Lucifer being cast down for rebellion.

It's intriguing to consider why the Book of Abraham presents the account in this way. Given that in Abraham 3:15 God informs Abraham that he's going to teach the Egyptians this cosmology in his evangelistic endeavors, perhaps the narrative of Lucifer preemptively taking glory for himself, only to be halted, functioned as a warning for the Egyptians not to preemptively ascribe divine glory or honors to their foreign gods. In other words, since Jehovah was selected by the Head to be the rightful champion of the council, for the Egyptians to ascribe glory to other gods besides Him would be to partake in the same rebellion as the Son of Perdition.

In any event, my own connection between the Book of Abraham and the Enuma Elish was drawn independent of Givens, as I'd forgotten that he'd noted this in his 2010 publication. I wish now, however, that I had re-read Givens' remarks on this before I published my article, as I would've liked to have drawn attention to this source in my discussion of the divine council in the Book of Abraham.

Still, I am happy to see that Givens noticed the same pattern I have in the Book of Abraham and other ancient Near Eastern texts like Enuma Elish. The parallels are unmistakable in these texts. Although, as I say in my article, I do not think the Book of Abraham and these texts were drawing directly off of each other, I am confident that the Book of Abraham reflects the same ancient cosmology of the cultures of Mesopotamia and the Levant. It stems, in other words, from the same ancient milieu.

Not too shabby for a New York farmer who couldn't read a word of Akkadian.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Another Note on Joseph Smith's Accounts of His First Vision

The First Vision by Joni Susanto.
I must confess that I've never really been bothered by the fact that Joseph Smith left different accounts of his First Vision. Even as a teenager, when I first heard about the different accounts, I realized pretty quickly that most of the "contradictions" between the accounts were largely inconsequential, and didn't majorly compromise the central aspect of Joseph's claim. When I entered college and began studying history academically, including the methodology behind critically analyzing historical sources and accounts, I became even more convinced that most of the criticisms against the First Vision are little more than an exercise in making mountains out of molehills. Besides the fact that some criticisms of the First Vision are based on faulty information concerning the sources themselves, other criticisms are based largely on faulty assumptions about how to handle conflicting historical sources.

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of many books on world religion. Interestingly, here's what Prothero has to say about criticisms of Joseph Smith's accounts of his First Vision.
Critics of Mormonism have delighted in the discrepancies between the canonical [1838 Pearl of Great Price] account and earlier renditions, especially one written in Smith's own hand in 1832. For example, in the 1832 version, Jesus appears to Smith alone, and does all the talking himself. Such complaints, however, are much ado about relatively nothing. Any good lawyer (or historian) would expect to find contradictions or competing narratives written down years apart and decades after the event. And despite the contradictions, key elements abide. In each case, Jesus appears to Smith in a vision. In each case, Smith is blessed with a revelation. In each case, God tells him to remain aloof from all Christian denominations, as something better is in store.[1] 
This is exactly the point that has been made by historians such as Steven C. Harper, who has published extensively on the First Vision.[2] Historians recognize that conflicting historical accounts, in and of themselves, do not automatically demonstrate that the event being described by the accounts never happened, or that the originator(s) of the source(s) is (are) lying. Given the fallibility of human memory and language, it would be totally unreasonable to expect anyone, prophet or otherwise, to be able to perfectly retell or describe past events, especially when doing so on a number of different occasions over the course of many years.

That being said, as I think the sources in note 2 below abundantly demonstrate, the variations in the narrative and historical details of Joseph Smith's accounts of his First Vision aren't nearly as damning to the Prophet's credibility as his critics typically make them out to be.

–Notes–

[1]: Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 171.

[2]: Steven C. Harper, "A Seeker's Guide to the Historical Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," Religious Educator 12, no. 1 (2011): 165–176; Samuel Alonzo Dodge and Steven C. Harper, ed., Exploring the First Vision (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2012); Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith's First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012); "Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith's First Vision," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 2 (2012): 17–33. You can access these and other resources on the First Vision here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Another Round of Photos

Here are some more photos documenting my week so far.

My roommate Chris returning from the hipster Mecca known as Coachella. He is wearing the appropriate hipster garb. I'm told he brought me back a pair of hipster glasses. Pictures of those to follow.
The Students of the Ancient Near East (SANE) Council for the Winter 2014 semester. From left to right: Quinten, Stephen, Juan, our ruthless dictator lovely president Amanda (seated), Hannah, Jasmin, and Andy. Today was our last meeting of the semester!
Sent to me by my roommate Zach, who is happily dating a real, flesh and blood human female (!) and not afraid to show the rest of us in the apartment. This picture pretty much sums up my entire romantic life.
My friend Quinten taking off his shoes as he enters sacred space–the Hugh Nibley Ancient Studies Room on the 5th floor of the Harold B. Lee Library on BYU campus.
A meme I created this afternoon. I'm going to find some way to use it again in the future.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Because of Him

The Church of Jesus Christ has released an Easter initiative in the form of a new website. You can also read about the initiative here.
Jesus is the Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer. Because of Him, death is not the end, and life takes on new meaning. We can change, we can start over—and we can live again with God. This Easter, celebrate His life and discover all that’s possible because of Him.

One of the Prophet Joseph Smith's most endearing testimonies to me is this one.
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. (Source)
This is also, fundamentally, the message of the Book of Mormon.
 [B]elieve in Jesus Christ, that he is the Son of God, and that he was slain by the Jews, and by the power of the Father he hath risen again, whereby he hath gained the victory over the grave; and also in him is the sting of death swallowed up. (Mormon 7:5)
I have faith in the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ because of the testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet Joseph Smith. I have faith because I am convinced that a resurrected, corporeal Jesus actually appeared to an assembled group of historical Nephites. I have faith because I am convinced that a resurrected, corporeal Jesus actually appeared to the Prophet in a grove of trees in upstate New York and later in the sacred walls of the temple in Kirtland, Ohio.
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. . . . When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! . . . I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true. . . . I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it. (Joseph Smith–History 1:16–17, 25)
The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father. (D&C 110:1–4)
That is the testimony of one who knows.

Then there's this video to go along with the one above.


This video reminds me of a quote by President Lorenzo Snow that I read just this morning.
Do not expect to become perfect at once. If you do, you will be disappointed. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today. The temptations that perhaps partially overcome us today, let them not overcome us so far tomorrow. Thus continue to be a little better day by day; and do not let your life wear away without accomplishing good to others as well as to ourselves. (Source)
I would strongly urge everyone to visit the website above as they prepare to celebrate Easter this upcoming week.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Finding the First Verifiable Book of Mormon Site

The Bar’an temple in Yemen.
Warren Aston has a piece in Meridian Magazine on the NHM altar inscriptions that's worth reading. Aston, having presented his findings on the Nihm tribe of Yemen at such places as Cambridge University, is one of the leading experts in the study of this topic.

Besides discussing the history of this site, as well as providing a brief overview of the history of the LDS scholarly attention devoted to it, Aston also notes the unimpressive response of minimalist critics to this evidence.
Unsurprisingly, the response to this discovery by anti-Mormon and cultural-Mormon critics has been quite different. Although several years have now passed, most have not responded to the development at all, moving on to attack other aspects. But, of those who have responded, all have failed so far to engage with the facts; none have yet offered a coherent response.
He then cites this article as suggested further reading.

April 2014 General Conference Highlights

Temple Square during Conference weekend.

I thoroughly enjoyed General Conference last week. I always have enjoyed General Conference, but this time was especially meaningful. Not only did I get to once again visit my family in Salt Lake City, including my mother, father, and brother who just flew in from overseas in time for me to visit with them, but I also got to relax and chill out over the weekend. What's more, I thought each session of Conference was excellent, and I felt genuinely inspired by many of the addresses. The music was delightful, and it's always fun to see my fellow Saints crowding downtown.

So what I want to do here in this post is highlight a few of the talks that especially impressed me.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Deification in the Book of Breathings and the Revelation of St. John

Column 1 of P. Joseph Smith XI, containing the hieratic text of the Book of Breathings of Hor.
You never know what neat little connections you'll find between different texts from the ancient world. Just this evening, as I was doing research for a paper on the Book of the Dead, I was reading Michael Rhodes' translation of the Hor Book of Breathings when I came across these lines.
Come, Osiris Hor, justified, born of Taykhebyt, justified. May you enter the Hall of the Two Truths, having been purified from every sin and misdeed. Stone of Truth is your name.
Compare this with Revelation.
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)
Then there's this.
O Osiris Hor, justified, born of Taykhebyt, justified. May your soul breathe anyplace you want. You are on the throne of Osiris. Foremost of the Westerners is your name.
Compared that with this.
To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)
What's especially interesting about Revelation 3:21 is the preposition used to describe the deified's position relative to Christ's throne. The Greek reads: 
ὁ νικῶν δώσω αὐτῷ καθίσαι μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ μου, ὡς κἀγὼ ἐνίκησα καὶ ἐκάθισα μετὰ τοῦ πατρός μου ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ αὐτοῦ.
The deified individual is thus said to be literally "on" or "in" the throne of Christ (ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ μου), not "beside" (παρά) or "before" (πρό) the throne, but "on" (ἐν) it. This is precisely how Jesus is said to be positioned relative to God the Father's throne. The promise in Revelation, then, is that the deified Saints will be exalted in the same way Jesus was exalted.

The ultimate purpose of the Book of Breathings was to provide the individual the secret knowledge necessary to be resurrected and deified in the presence of the gods. This came with it a promise of sitting with Osiris on his throne.

The exact same promise is given in the Revelation of St. John to the Saints who conquer sin through Christ.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord

Emperor Palpatine I'm looking at you.
My roommate sent this list to me, and I thought it was absolutely hilarious.

It was written by Peter Anspach in 1994 and can be found on multiple sites online. (Link)

This list makes total sense. I don't know why more evil overlords don't implement these simple measures.

I think number 98 is my favorite one.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham

Facsimile 2 from the Book of Abraham.

I am pleased to announce that my article "Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham," published in the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, is now available online at the website of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

I presented this paper at the 2013 Religious Education Student Symposium on BYU campus. Paul Hoskisson, who has just retied as editor of the journal, was in attendance at my presentation, and some time after my remarks I asked him if he'd be interested in publishing my piece. He expressed his interest in glancing at my manuscript, which he did. And, well, here we are now!

To give you an idea of what my article is about, here are Hoskisson's editorial remarks about my piece.
Traditionally, though not uniformly, Christianity and Judaism have relegated all references to gods other than the One God to pagan idolatry. Stephen Smoot, using more recent scholarship on the scriptural anomalies that do seem to assume other divine beings, compares this vast body of material to the statements in the Book of Abraham accounts of the creation. Thereby, he places the Abrahamic creation story squarely within its ancient (read: theologically nontraditional) Near Eastern context.
I hope you enjoy reading the article as much as I enjoyed writing it!

–Update–

Here is a video clip from the FairMormon DVD A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham that directly touches on many of the points I raise in my article.

Changes in the Doctrine and Covenants: What the Mormon Church is Hiding from You!

There's a dark secret about this book that the Mormon Church doesn't want you to know!
This evening I bought a new set of scriptures. I have normally just been using the Gospel Library app on my phone, but I felt prompted during General Conference to start using a printed set of scriptures. I was shocked to notice some of the information being casually tossed out to the public in the new edition of the scriptures. For example, did you know that the introductory material for the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contains the following?
The revelations were originally recorded by Joseph Smith’s scribes, and Church members enthusiastically shared handwritten copies with each other. To create a more permanent record, scribes soon copied these revelations into manuscript record books, which Church leaders used in preparing the revelations to be printed. Joseph and the early Saints viewed the revelations as they did the Church: living, dynamic, and subject to refinement with additional revelation. They also recognized that unintentional errors had likely occurred through the process of copying the revelations and preparing them for publication. Thus, a Church conference asked Joseph Smith in 1831 to “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit.”. . . Each new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants has corrected past errors and added new information, particularly in the historical portions of the section headings. The present edition further refines dates and place-names and makes other corrections.
Wait, did I read that correctly? You mean to say that the Church printed in its very own scriptures the fact that the D&C contained errors that needed to be corrected and that other changes and refinements were made to the early revelations as well?

Okay, perhaps this is just some oversight by the Church's scripture committee. I'm sure the Church is doing a perfectly admirable job hiding the damning fact that the the D&C has been changed and corrected from edition to edition, and even that some of the early manuscripts of the revelations in the D&C were altered and refined through their transmission.
Many other people made copies of the revelations; but because care was not always taken in copying, many errors were made, repeated, and multiplied as the copies were copied. Realizing the importance of having correct copies, the leaders of the Church determined to publish them. Because the originals contained spelling and grammar errors, a Church conference moved that Joseph Smith should make the necessary corrections. (Far West Record, p. 16.) This was the beginning of controversies and charges made by persons who do not know or understand that the text of recorded revelation can be edited and “changed.” . . . There were some at the time the book was published who objected to the editing of the revelations, apparently misunderstanding the process of revelation and the principle of “precept upon precept” that the Lord applied as he continued to give new understanding to the Saints. The Church’s viewpoint, however, is adequately explained by Elder B. H. Roberts: “Some of the early revelations first published in the ‘Book of Commandments,’ in 1833, were revised by the Prophet himself in the way of correcting errors made by the scribes and publishers; and some additional clauses were inserted to throw increased light upon the subjects treated in the revelations, and paragraphs added, to make the principles or instructions apply to officers not in the Church at the time some of the earlier revelations were given.” (Link)
Joseph and his associates were appointed by the actions of Church conferences to prepare the revelations for publication by correcting the texts. Recent analysis of both manuscript revelation books reveals how and when many of the changes were made. For example, some changes were made before selected items were published in Missouri, while others were made in Ohio before the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants. . . . In a few cases, more substantive changes were made as revelations were updated for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. For example, section 20 was originally received in 1830, before much of the leadership structure of the Church as we know it today was revealed to Joseph Smith. By 1835 Joseph had organized many offices and quorums by revelation. To include this newly revealed ecclesiastical order, several text changes and additions were incorporated into section 20. Our current verses 65–67 on ordaining men to priesthood offices, for instance, had been revealed after the 1833 publication and were subsequently added to the 1835 publication. . . . The editing and updating of revelation texts in the early years of the Church demonstrate the process of continuing revelation to Joseph Smith. The revelation manuscripts reveal how men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error. In some instances, when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding. Thus, as his doctrinal knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter. The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation. (Link)
Many revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants do not now appear as when they were first recorded. However, a correct understanding of the nature of the revelations the Prophet Joseph Smith received and how he updated them in light of continued revelation explains why many changes occurred. Indeed, each of the sections has been edited to some degree, demonstrating that Joseph Smith did not receive all these revelations as word-for-word dictations from the Lord (although he may have received some this way). Rather, he received inspiration and wrote the revelations using his own words, often couched in Victorian English. . . . Many who discover a difference in an earlier text of the scripture assume that either the earlier text is the most correct since it is closer to the time of reception, or that the change was made by designing men who were trying to change the scriptures of the Lord to suit their own purpose. Neither of these opinions is valid in the light of recent research. The majority of changes that have some significance were made in the days of Joseph Smith, and were made under his direction. The most important thing that must be kept in mind is that we accept the revelations as they are now written. Knowing about earlier texts and changes which have occurred may aid the researcher in his studies of Church history, but the earlier versions have no claim upon our faith—it is the current edition upon which we rely. The fundamental concepts upon which our faith rests are not affected by the variant readings. (Link)
Over the course of the first five years of the Church, Joseph and others under his direction made changes and corrections to some of the early revelation texts in an attempt to more closely portray the intent of the revelation. Other times, especially as the revelations were being prepared for publication, Joseph was inspired to update the contents of the revelations to reflect a growing Church structure and new circumstances. At times this process resulted in substantial additions to the original text. . . . While many members today may look at the revelations as being static and unchanging, the Prophet Joseph Smith saw the revelations as living and subject to change as the Lord revealed more of His will. Members of the Church relied upon Joseph to receive continued revelations for the Church. As former Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy has explained: “Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the ‘crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language’ of men” (see also D&C 1:24). (Link)
Oh dear. I seriously hope someone was fired for letting these embarrassing truths get leaked in the Ensign. I mean, come on people! How can we expect the Church to maintain its grand conspiracy of covering up this stuff when we do things like straightforwardly and matter-of-factly talk about it in the Church's own publications?

Good thing nobody reads the Ensign anyway.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The 2014 "Mormon Exodus": An Update


As reported by Allen Wyatt, the ex-Mormon "mass resignation" event this morning seems to have been a flop.

It appears that a whopping . . . 34 people resigned their membership.

By contrast, 2013 saw 282,945 convert baptisms. (Link)

This is not to make light of these individuals' unfortunate decision to leave the Church. I hope they will reconsider their decision and rejoin the Church soon. Remember, though, that this was being hyped as a "mass resignation" or "Mormon Exodus."

Also, I had to chuckle at this, since it signifies the intellectual capacity of the website being advertised at the bottom.

Boxers: at the forefront of sexual liberation from oppressive theocracy since 1925.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Lying for the Lord" in the Hebrew Bible

Abimelech Rebuking Abraham by Wenceslaus Hollar.
Dan Peterson, over at his blog, has a post on the falsehood that Mormons are encouraged to engage in what critics derisively call "lying for the Lord."

Dan's post reminded me of an article published by Yael Shemesh of Bar-Ilan University titled "Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible." The article appeared in the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society back in 2002.

Here's what Shemesh had to say about the Hebrew prophets "lying" in the Old Testament.
In light of the Bible’s complex attitude to falsehood—outright condemnation, on the one hand, versus recognition of its legitimacy and its occasional necessity, on the other—my aim in this article is to examine how the Bible pictures falsehoods uttered by those figures whom one would least expect to lie, namely, the prophets. I will attempt to show that in all instances of prophets telling lies the biblical narrator is at pains to put a better face on the action. Formally speaking, the prophet cannot be accused of lying, although he has consciously and deliberately misled his interlocutor. The technique of deception involves half-truths and concealment of relevant information, or ambiguity. It will also be shown that this technique, though most characteristic of prophets, is also used on occasion by other positive human figures, and even more so by God.
Shemesh argues that the Hebrew Bible allows lying (or at least deception) for certain purposes. "Contrary to Augustine and Kant, the Hebrew Bible recognizes that under certain circumstances lying is unavoidable, particularly when it serves the weak as their only weapon against some force seeking to harm them or other persons. Included in this category are various instances of lies intended to save the liar’s life or altruistic lies (mainly on the part of women)." The extreme example I've seen given for the morality of lying in some situations is the "Jew in the basement" scenario. In this hypothetical situation (which, unfortunately, actually had plenty of real-world occurrences in the past), one is confronted by the Nazi secret police, who demand to know if you're harboring any Jews. You do have a Jewish family (your next door neighbors, perhaps) hiding in your basement. So, what do you do? Do you lie and insist you have no Jews in the basement in order to protect them, or do you tell the truth and send them to their deaths? This is an extreme example, but it serves to illustrate Shemesh's point about the kind of deception the Hebrew Bible seems to allow.

The examples of Israelite prophets and others being less than forthright (or in some cases being deliberately misleading) provided by Shemesh include the following.

1. "Jacob’s deception of his father in order to receive his blessing (Genesis 27)."

2. "Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute in order to become pregnant by him after his failure to marry her to his son Shelah, is described in a favorable light, and indeed justified by Judah himself in the narrative (Gen. 38:26). Tamar is rewarded for her subterfuge by the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah, through whom the tribe of Judah is established (Gen. 38:27–30)."

3. "The biblical narrator also takes a favorable view of fraud when the object is some religious goal in keeping with the general outlook of the Bible. An example is Jehu’s lying to the worshippers of Baal, which is aimed at killing all the prophets of Baal and eradicating his worship from the country (2 Kgs. 10:18–28)."

4. "In one case we even find God twisting the truth in order to preserve amicable relations between Abraham and Sarah and to prevent Abraham’s feelings from being hurt. Upon overhearing the prediction that she was about to become pregnant, Sarah laughs, 'Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?' (Gen. 18:12); God, however, quotes her in Abraham’s hearing as having said, 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?' (Gen. 18:13), making no reference to Abraham’s inadequacy. This episode was used by the Sages of the Talmud as a proof-text showing that it is permitted to deviate from the strict line of truth in order to establish peace (BT Yeb. 65b; BT B.M. 87a)."

5. "God sometimes adopts deceptive measures (Gen. 2:17; 18:13; Exod. 3:22; 1 Kgs. 22:19–23), and also instructs a genuine prophet to lie (Exod. 3:18; 1 Sam. 16:2)."

Shemesh then gives the stories in Genesis 20:2 (cf. Abraham 2:21–15), Exodus 3:18, 1 Samuel 16:2, 2 Kings 6:19; 8:10, and Jeremiah 38:26 as examples of prophets being less than honest. "Common to all these cases is that the prophet has not uttered an outright lie, but employed a technique of telling a half-truth (Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Jeremiah) or using ambiguity (Elisha). Formally speaking, therefore, one might say that he has not told a lie, although his intention was undoubtedly to mislead another person." Said another way, "[The] prophets’ lies in the Bible are not considered, formally speaking, as outright lies, because the prophet did not actually say something untrue. In essence, however, it is quite clear that the prophet intended to mislead his interlocutor, and in that sense he was undoubtedly speaking deceptively."

What is Shemesh's conclusion after all of this?
In contrast to those theologians and philosophers who reject any kind of lying, under any circumstances, the Bible recognizes that certain situations justify and even require deceptive measures. This is true even regarding God and God’s prophets. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the Bible avoids ascribing outright, undisguised falsehood to the deity or to the prophets (and on occasion is equally reticent in regard to other positive figures). . . . The common point in all instances is that the prophet, formally speaking, has not actually lied, i.e., uttered an outright falsehood, although he has misled someone in a sophisticated manner, consciously and deliberately.
I have often heard critics, including sectarian critics, condemn Joseph Smith for his carefully (and, admittedly, awkwardly) worded public denials of practicing polygamy. On this criticism, I'd direct the reader's attention to this article by Gregory Smith. (See especially the section titled "Polygamy and Lying".) Michael Ash has explained that "[t]he dissembling by some early Latter-day Saints is understandable when we view the situation in context. The Saints found themselves in a war in which they were the underdogs . . . and therefore they did not feel obligated to jeopardize their existence by dealing forthrightly with their persecutors." As such, "some Saints felt it necessary to lie . . . to save their spiritual lives and to protect their fellow members from physical attacks."[1] Gary James Bergera, writing in 2011, made a similar point. "Smith's decision to dress his teaching [of plural marriage] in secrecy demonstrates an appreciation of its affront to conventional morality and its civil illegality," according to Bergera. "Smith not only feared a backlash from followers but, more importantly, criminal prosecution and imprisonment. He understood that, except in the eyes of his most faithful followers, his celestial marriage doctrine was immoral and illegal."
Given the criminal element of Smith's practice, it should come as no surprise that when confronted publicly with charges that he endorsed the taking of plural wives, Smith repeatedly denied it. His denials most often took the form of deliberate obfuscation, if not outright lying. While he no doubt shared the nineteenth-century definition of lying as "a falsehood uttered for the purpose of deception," he felt fully justified in lying if he believed the circumstances required it.[2]
While I disagree with Bergera's characterization somewhat, I agree with the general thrust of his point. In addition, it must be remembered that some of Joseph Smith's denials of practicing polygamy were actually denials of the specific charge of adultery. These denials of adultery, as M. Scott Bradshaw has recently argued, weren't deceitful, since, technically speaking, Joseph's behavior wasn't breaking any Illinois anti-adultery laws.[3]

So my question is this: was Joseph Smith any less moral in "lying" than the Hebrew prophets were? Doesn't what Joseph Smith did basically amount to the same thing that the Hebrew prophets discussed by Shemesh did? I would argue that Joseph Smith's "lying" about polygamy falls in the same category as the examples provided by Shemesh. In fact, this is precisely what Brian C. Hales has recently argued. "Scriptural examples demonstrate that occasionally deception was permitted or required in order to serve God’s purposes," notes Hales.[4] As an example Hales points to the wife-sister pericope in Genesis 12 (cf. Genesis 20) and other scriptural passages.
It is also plain that God’s commandments might contradict the laws and requirements of authoritarians and governmental leaders. When Apostles Peter and John were commanded by Jewish leaders to stop preaching about Christ, they answered: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. . . We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19, 5:29). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused on pain of death to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Dan. 3:15–18). General Moroni boldly declared: “I do not fear your [governmental] power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear” (Alma 60:28).[5]
Addressing the common sectarian criticism, Hales remarks,
Some have concluded that essentially nothing Joseph Smith taught needs to be taken seriously because he was obviously not obeying his own counsel. Such views seem insufficient to explain the forces then converging upon the Prophet regarding plural marriage. Assuming Joseph was an arch hypocrite by whom the Latter-day Saints were duped transforms them into caricatures who are of little use to researchers seeking to produce accurate historical reconstructions. LDS polygamists who used subterfuge to hide compliance with divine mandates undoubtedly felt inner conflict that was not completely assuaged by the belief that their deceptions were designed to allow them to obey God’s laws, which they accepted as a higher law—not only on the basis of their faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet but also on their personal spiritual experiences.[6]
But why the necessity for secrecy? Like Ash and Bergera, Hales indicates that "[o]pen admission [of plural marriage] would have brought an onslaught of prosecutions."[7] Taken all together, then, I think Hales' position is reasonable.
Faced with contradictory commandments, participating pluralists and other Church leaders generally sought a middle ground of constructing a perception that polygamy was not taught or practiced but made attempts to avoid outright prevarication in doing so. The Prophet’s public instructions were consistently designed to refute extreme allegations against him and to expose licentious conduct in Nauvoo. However, when specifically addressing plural marriage, he carefully chose the words used in his disclaimers. Apostle George A. Smith defended the practice in an 1869 letter: “Anyone who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so.”[8]
I appreciate that the morality of lying is complex and debatable. Moral philosophers from Kant to Sam Harris have debated this issue intensely. I thus do not intend to lay down a final answer to this nuanced question in one brief blog post. What I do want to do, however, is highlight the hypocrisy of certain sectarian critics who blast Joseph Smith and other Mormons for "lying for the Lord" but ignore the biblical examples of the exact same thing being done by the Hebrew prophets for the exact same reasons.

–Notes–

[1]: Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, 2nd ed. (Redding, Cali.: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 2013), 258–259.

[2]: Gary James Bergera, "Vox Joseph Vox Dei: Regarding Some of the Moral and Ethical Aspects of Joseph Smith's Practice of Plural Marriage," The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 38–39.

[3]: M. Scott Bradshaw, "Defining Adultery under Illinois and Nauvoo Law," in Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith's Legal Encounters, ed. Gordan A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2014), 401–426.

[4]: Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History and Theology (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 2:189.

[5]: Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, 2:191.

[6]: Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, 2:190.

[7]: Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, 2:192.

[8]: Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, 2:191.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Atheist Leaders Host Mormon Exodus


At least according to this press release they will.

I generally don't like promoting stuff from brazen atheist activists like David Silverman, but I really just wanted an excuse to post the image above. (For those who don't know the reference, it's from Futurama, one of my favorite animated shows.)

I also wanted to draw attention to how this article unintentionally highlights the craven hypocrisy of atheists like Silverman.
The pressure from the Mormon church to stay silent about doubt is fundamentally immoral—it is bad for the members and for society at large, benefiting only the church and its hierarchy.
Yes, I remember Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's passionate plea during the April 2013 General Conference for Church members to shut up and keep silent about their doubts.


And who can forget President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's disgusting disregard for members of the Church who have honest doubts and questions during his October 2013 General Conference address?


You know what's really "fundamentally immoral" Mr. Silverman? Lying about what other people actually believe.

Then there's this gem.
On Sunday, April 6th, Atheists of Utah and the national nonprofit American Atheists will co-host a Salt Lake City event during which Mormons intending to leave the Latter-Day Saints Church are invited to hand-deliver their resignation letters en masse. The event coincides with the semi-annual Mormon 2014 General Conference.
Two things:

1. Way to definitely not turn this into a shameless publicity stunt.

2. Who exactly do they plan on "hand-delivering" their resignation letters to?

Great, so this General Conference we're going to have: (1) street preachers, (2) atheists, (3) Ordain Women.

Anyone else want to jump in there while we're at it? Now's your chance!