Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Notice: "From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon"

The Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book have co-published a new book titled From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon. I have picked up a copy just today, and have been able to quickly skim through the contents of the book. Co-authored by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat of the Joseph Smith Papers (and both assistant professors of Church history and doctrine at BYU) and with original artwork by Anthony Sweat, the book looks closely at the history of the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon in the years 1827–1830. MacKay and Dirkmaat draw from the cutting-edge research of the Joseph Smith Papers Project in their reconstruction of the Book of Mormon's translation and publication, including some heretofore unknown or underutilized historical sources. Topics touched on in the book include:

  • The retrieval of the plates.
  • Martin Harris' visit with Charles Anthon and other savants.
  • Early reactions to and accounts of Joseph Smith's finding of a "Gold Bible."
  • The method and instruments of the translation.
  • Attempts to secure a copyright for the publication of the Book of Mormon, including the attempt to secure a copyright in Canada.
  • The 3 and 8 Witnesses.
But perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the new book is the artwork of Anthony Sweat, an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU. The book includes a number of original pieces by Sweat depicting Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon by peering into a seer stone at the bottom of a hat. Below are three of the new pieces, taken from Sweat's public Instagram page.

Sweat also includes an appendix ("By the Gift and Power of Art") explaining his artwork and artistic representations of the past in general.

Students of early Mormon history and the Book of Mormon should absolutely pick up a copy of this book! I've only skimmed it so far, but what I've seen is fantastic, and just what the doctor ordered when it comes to good, solid, reliable, and faith-promoting scholarship on the early days of the Restoration and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. I am excited to sink my teeth into this new volume, and hope you'll do the same.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Good Week for Star Wars Nerds

Well, now I know what I'm going to be doing this December.

My inner eight-year-old is squealing with delight right now!

To hell with the cynics and the skeptics, I am totally, utterly, and senselessly excited for the The Force Awakens and Star Wars Battlefront. And you should be too!

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Faith in the Past: Church History in an Information Age"

J. Spencer Fluhman, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.

Professor J. Spencer Fluhman delivered an excellent devotional talk at the LDS Business College some time ago (I recall encountering this article for the first time back in 2014, when I believe it was delivered) that is worth reposting here. (Hat tip to Dan Peterson for posting it on his blog, which reminded me to post it here.) The title of his talk is "Faith in the Past: Church History in an Information Age." It's an important topic that deserves our close attention. Professor Fluhman has made some important contributions to Mormon history, as his biography at the end of the article attests, and knows his way around the historian's craft. His advice is worth heeding.

Here are a few lines from Professor Fluhman's article that are worth highlighting:
Today, I want to share some things I’ve learned from these sometimes-difficult conversations. 
First, it is clear to me that Latter-day Saints in the past, the very Saints who once occupied these same comfortable pews, often battled misrepresentation and misunderstanding. And I acknowledge that these problems certainly persist to the present—they’ll probably never end. But I’m convinced that future historians will regard our generation’s challenge differently. I believe ours is not primarily a problem of lies or the misrepresentation of our history. Rather, it falls to us, my friends, to come to grips with the complex realities of our past, of “things as . . . they [really] were,” to paraphrase D&C 93 
Second, those who struggle with aspects of LDS history typically deal with more than questions about troubling content. Rather, it often becomes a matter of trust. They wonder why they were never told of this or that story, or of this or that detail. Many report finding it difficult to get straight answers, which only compounds their anxieties. Some have even been told by well-meaning leaders or friends to simply put their questions away, as if honest questions were themselves dangerous. They are sometimes left feeling isolated and alienated from their fellow Saints. 
Third, many who struggle find themselves in what philosophers would call an “epistemological” crisis. (“Epistemology” is the study of the nature and meaning of knowledge—how do we know what we know?) For many in the midst of a faith crisis, the old ways of knowing become suspect. Can they trust past spiritual experiences? When the edifice of faith seems to be trembling, what authorities or sources or voices or experiences can settle such pressing questions? For many, this can be a very distressing experience. 
Fourth, those who struggle have often been devastated to hear—again, from well-meaning fellow Saints—that questions or doubts essentially reduce to sin. This has usually been communicated to them in one of two ways. Some have been told that doubt is itself sinful. Others have had it suggested to them that behind their doubts or concerns, really is some secret transgression. Either way, it feels to them like “evasive action,” a dismissal or non-acknowledgment of the very things causing them concern. As a result, some wonder if they’ve even been heard. I’ll add here, too, that these are not strangers. These are people very close to me. Maybe you’ve known them as well.
Professor Fluhman is correct that rarely is it a matter of simply "discovering the truth" and then making a strictly rational decision to leave or stay in the Church. Rather, emotional, psychological, cultural, familial, cognitive, and other factors can and do play a real role in individual choices related to Church activity. 
How tragic that some struggling Saints find what shreds of community they can in anonymous online comment sections rather than in their flesh-and-blood wards or biological families. Surely, we can listen better, we can walk more compassionately with those who are earnestly seeking, and we can make our Church and family spaces safer for those who “have not faith.”
In other words, avoid Reddit (and a few particular subreddits) during a faith crisis.
The Lord’s answer for a famine of faith is disarmingly simple: study. Help each other with wise words, it suggests, and then study. Study with faith, ever and always, but study we must. In other words, God trusts us to seek and learn and ask and to dive deeply into the best books. The scriptures certainly rank as the best of books. I am regularly amazed at their usefulness for our seeming uniquely modern problems. To be clear: I can’t think of a single modern spiritual conundrum that isn’t helped and healed by scripture. But even as I acknowledge their undisputed position as the best of books, they clearly do not exhaust the category “best books,” especially when one considers LDS history.
Laura Hales, co-author of the new book Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, has made this same point to me before in our conversations about Church history, apologetics, and faith crises. She's said that the antidote to a faith crisis is more study. I too have often said that you can always know too little about Mormon history, but you can never know too much. Some critics have scoffed at and otherwise mocked this attitude, but it's true. Dan Peterson made this same point in his 2014 response to Jeremy Runnells (who, based on his reply to Peterson, evidently can't be bothered to do some actual rigorous study of Mormon history), and it is a good point. 

Concerning those who have successfully emerged from a faith crisis, Professor Fluhman relates:
I have watched with joy over the years as many of my conversation partners have successfully navigated complicated questions of history and faith. Every story is different and we all have unique experiences and needs, but I’ve seen some commonalities in those who make peace with the difficult elements in our past. 
For one, they get comfortable with complexity and nuance. They went into their journey yearning for simple black-and-white answers but in the end many conclude that mortality sometimes provides only shades of grey on many subjects. 
Secondly, they get comfortable with the human side of Church experience. They come to see past Saints and leaders alike less as cardboard superhero cutouts—larger than life but two dimensional—and more like real people. For some, this humanizing view of past Saints actually makes them more compelling, not less. Instead of unreachable icons of piety or spirituality, they seem somehow more relatable in their humanity, somehow more usable as actual examples for struggling saints like you and me. 
Thirdly, those who have successfully navigated these sometimes choppy waters come to think differently about history itself. By that I mean they get comfortable with the idea of change. They come to expect it, in fact. They come to see one’s cultural and political and social contexts as mattering a great deal. They get comfortable with what history can and cannot prove. They come to realize that because the past is in many ways unavailable to us in the present, it is less like an exact science and more a matter of argument and interpretation. They conclude, in fact, that matters as fundamentally spiritual as the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith cannot be arbitrated by history alone. As Elder Neil L. Andersen wisely reminded us on Saturday afternoon (General Conference, October 2014), “the importance of Joseph [Smith’s] work requires more than intellectual consideration.
This has been my experience as well. 
I am suggesting that we can be simultaneously more confident, candid, and studious in our approach to Church history and more faithful, hopeful, and charitable, too. A study of Church history will help us avoid the myth of prophetic infallibility on the one hand and, on the other, help us view past leaders more charitably.
I am a witness to history’s powerful capacity to mold and shape us as disciples of Jesus Christ. In straining to see clearly into the past’s dark glass, we can come to see ourselves and the Lord more clearly. Even acknowledging the very human difficulties in our stories, I bear witness that there is more than enough inspiration and edification to compensate. Indeed, our history is a reservoir with spiritual resources sufficient to feed us spiritually for a lifetime and beyond. I am not a committed Latter-day Saint in spite of my careful study of LDS history, but because of it.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

I Sustain President Thomas S. Monson

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the morning of April 4, 2015, with President Thomas S. Monson sitting between President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

Yesterday afternoon, during the sustaining of Church leaders, a certain group* of some five persons decided to put on a petulant publicity stunt by shouting "no" (or, by some accounts, "opposed") when President Dieter F. Uchtdorf asked if any were opposed to sustaining President Thomas S. Monson as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In response to this, I wanted to once again reaffirm that I sustain President Monson as a prophet, seer, and revelator, and the custodian of all the restored priesthood keys on the earth.

Sectarian pretenders to President Monson's prophetic authority and divine commission will contend against him in vain. Secular scoundrels who try to haul President Monson to court on bogus fraud charges, or who attempt to undermine his office with ugly gossip about his health, will soon be forgotten, while he will live on in happy and blessed memory as the Lord's prophet for generations.

* I am not going to give this group the validity and attention it desperately seeks by mentioning its name or its aims, for the same reason that, during sporting events, cameras are turned away from streakers on the field who disrupt the game–––they don't deserve it, and everyone is better off simply forgetting the disruption.

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

Resurrection of Christ by Carl Bloch (1875)

A very heartfelt happy Easter to everyone!
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Cor. 15:54–58)

I think it is only fitting to quote the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the risen Lord.
  • And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God. (D&C 76:22–24)  
  • 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. 
  • Christ Himself has assuredly risen from the dead; and if He has risen from the dead, He will, by His power, bring all men to stand before Him: for if He has risen from the dead the bands of the temporal death are broken that the grave has no victory. If then, the grave has no victory, those who keep the sayings of Jesus and obey His teachings have not only a promise of a resurrection from the dead, but an assurance of being admitted into His glorious kingdom; for, He Himself says, ‘Where I am there also shall my servant be’ [John 12:26].  
  • God has revealed His Son from the heavens and the doctrine of the resurrection also; and we have a knowledge that those we bury here God will bring up again, clothed upon and quickened by the Spirit of the great God; and what mattereth it whether we lay them down, or we lay down with them, when we can keep them no longer? Let these truths sink down in our hearts, that we may even here begin to enjoy that which shall be in full hereafter.
Since it was originally an Easter oratorio, here's the famous and incomparable Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. The text comes from Revelation 11:15; 19: 6, 16.
And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. 
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.  
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.

And finally, here is the concluding chorus and Amen from Messiah. The text comes from Revelation 5:12–13.
Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. (Revelation 5:12–13)