Friday, June 26, 2015

Steven C. Harper – "Seekers Wanted"

This is an excellent presentation by Steven C. Harper, a Latter-day Saint historian whom I greatly respect and admire.

Unfortunately, those who need to hear this message the most will likely either ignore or mock it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Guest Post: The Significance of the New Seminary and Institute Manuals

[This guest post from Joshua Sears is a follow-up to my last post on the new Institute manual. Joshua is a graduate student in Hebrew Bible and serves as the mission leader in his Texas ward. This post is adapted from an email to fellow members of his ward council.]

The problem

To understand the importance of the new Church manuals Doctrine and Covenants and Church History (updated Seminary manual) and Foundations of the Restoration (new Institute manual), here's a scenario of a problem that's been going on for a number of years. I'll use the Book of Abraham, but other topics could be substituted.

Someone grows up in the Church, attends Sunday 
School and Seminary, and maybe even serves a mission. Through those experiences he has picked up all basic Church teachings and a basic historical framework, but he does not pursue much gospel study outside the scriptures and classes at Church (due to: lack of curiosity? pressed for time? not a "reader"? assumption that basics are enough?). One day he's on the Internet, when he encounters some sources that tell him:

1) The Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had were rediscovered in the 1960s, and when Egyptologists translated the papyri the meaning had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham.
2) This means Joseph Smith was a fraud and false prophet.
3) And the whole Church isn't true.
4) And you're a gullible idiot for being a Mormon.

For our hypothetical fellow, two problems arise.

Problem #1: Lack of knowledge. Because this person never learned about the background of the Book of Abraham in a classroom setting and never bothered to study up on his own, he is in no position to critically evaluate the claims he suddenly encounters online. Turning to Google for help, he scans some websites and confirms that there are indeed recovered papyri and they do not match the document Joseph produced. With that bit of information, the panic begins. If the papyri weren't translated accurately, could the other points be true as well? Was Joseph making things up? Is the Church not really true?

(While we're on the subject of "new" information about Church history causing faith crises, I wish to emphasize that Church history itself is not the main problem. Church history is not some land mine waiting to explode—99% of the time, Church history itself is positive and faith-promoting. The problem is not in knowing too much Church history; the problem is knowing too little Church history. With too little Church history, some negative or complicated item can seem disproportionately huge because it's not balanced with the many positive things out there. With too little Church history, things can also appear more negative than they really are because we are unfamiliar with the historical context.)

Problem #2: Breach of trust. As new information brings up troubling questions, some people, as Elder Christofferson put it, then "accuse the Church of hiding something because they only recently found or heard about it." Unfortunately, anti-Mormon material online feeds this problem by incessantly pushing the idea that "if you hadn't heard about this before, it's because the Church has been lying to you. They are desperately trying to hide the truth from you." Many people report that the feeling of having been lied to and the institutional distrust this creates actually becomes much worse than whatever particular issue sparked it. As observed by Terryl Givens, "
The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with."

The reality is that there is no Church conspiracy to keep information from its members. It is true that in past decades the complexities of certain historical issues and the nuances of certain doctrinal topics were not explored in great length in Church magazines and manuals, but this was a matter of emphasis, not a cover up. Most items of any kind of importance were indeed published here and there in Church venues of various sorts, but the mission of the Church is to bring souls to Christ and that means that people generally get more out of Sunday School by learning how to live covenants in the modern world, not by learning how polygamy was practiced 170 years ago. Most Church manuals were also kept relatively simple so that foreign-language speakers and new converts could easily learn from them (and, especially in places where the Church is new, so that new converts could easily teach from them). And besides, why spend the resources explaining an old-time historical issue when few members will ever hear of it to begin with? Given all those realities, the Church left publishing detailed historical analyses to Deseret Book, BYU, and other third-party venues. Members who wanted to learn more could go to those sources for more rigorous material.

And then the Internet happened.

Nothing occurred overnight, of course, but over the years the Internet has fundamentally changed how Church members interact with Church history. While back in the 1980s anti-Mormon literature was its own clearly identifiable genre (printed in something called "books" you bought in a "bookstore"), now critical claims appear frequently in a variety of subtle ways, from Facebook feeds to the comments following news articles to Wikipedia. Stuff that was once in the domain of historians now makes the rounds at the click of a button. For many once-obscure issues, it's no longer a matter of if a Church member will ever hear of them, but when. Given these realities, the old approach—having the Church's official materials focus on basic doctrinal and practical teachings while leaving the detailed scholarship to BYU and other independent publishers—became untenable.

The Church's efforts to address these problems

The current Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow, explained that "much of what's written now [to challenge the Church on the Internet]—these arguments and these issues have been around for decades, 150 years, and it's the same material repackaged. And we [the Church] understandably have not spent a lot of time in the past worrying about these issues because our mission is to promote faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. 
But, as the information age is now upon us, we feel with all of this information out there we owe it, particularly to the rising generation, to provide good, reliable information about these matters."

To that end, in recent years improvements in both the quality and the accessibility of historical information have been made available through a variety of free, Church-sponsored outlets, including:

    1) "Gospel Topics" articles at Drafts of these articles were prepared by scholars who are experts in their fields, and final versions were made through feedback from members of the Church History department and then the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. These articles provide authoritative and well-written analyses of topics ranging from polygamy to DNA and the Book of Mormon to deification.
    2) "Revelations in Context" articles at These insightful articles provide historical background about various sections and subjects in the Doctrine and Covenants and incorporate the latest findings from the Joseph Smith Papers Project and other ongoing historical research initiatives.
    3) "Perspectives on Church History" essays at This growing collection currently includes a talk on Joseph Smith's strengths and weaknesses and an important four-part essay series exploring race and the former priesthood/temple restriction. 

These and other sources provide accurate and detailed information. Much of this information is not "new" (books and articles have explored these issues for decades) but it is groundbreaking that it is now available on—from the Church itself—and not just through Deseret Book, BYU's Religious Studies Center, the Maxwell Institute, the Mormon History Association, etc.

The new Seminary and Institute manuals

But a major challenge still remains: it does not matter how many historical articles are stuffed into the digital libraries at if everyday Church members aren't learning what they say. Therefore, in addition to providing the raw historical research, the Church has been working on how to disseminate it. Elder Snow explained that "Seminaries and Institutes and Curriculum have really stepped up and said in essence, 'You know we really want to take this on, we would like to talk about these sensitive issues in our seminaries and institutes.' It's one thing to tell a fourteen-year-old some of these sensitive things and they say, 'OK, that's great.' But sometimes when you are twenty-something, it comes across a little differently.... We can build faith and better prepare people if we will weave some of the unusual threads in history into the curriculum."

This new approach to Church history in the official curriculum is evident in two new manuals: the new edition of the seminary manual for the Doctrine and Covenants (
Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, online herePDF here), and the Institute manual for a brand-new course called Foundations of the Restoration (Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual, online herePDF here)

In addition to free online access, both of these manuals are also available on anyone's smart phone or tablet through the Gospel Library app. 

How do these two manuals provide solutions to the problems I outlined above? They do so in at least two important—and groundbreaking—ways:

New manual benefit #1: The new manuals provide information on almost all the historical and doctrinal subjects that sometimes trouble people. These manuals are frank and detailed about potentially troublesome topics to an extent I don't think we've had in any classroom manual before. The Seminary manual, for example, includes discussions about

    - differences in accounts of the First Vision;
    - the Mountain Meadows Massacre;
    - the dating of the Book of Abraham papyri;
    - everything to do with polygamy; and
    - race and the priesthood.

The Institute manual provides information on an even wider range of topics. All but one of the Gospel Topics articles are assigned as the background reading for various lessons (the one exception is "Are Mormons Christian?" which is geared toward non-LDS anyway) and several articles from the Revelations in Context series and the Perspectives on Church History series are assigned as well, as can be seen in the list below:

Lesson 1: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder
Lesson 2: The First Vision
    >>> Gospel Topics: “First Vision Accounts”Lesson 3: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Book of Mormon Translation”Lesson 4: The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”Lesson 5: The Restoration of the Priesthood
Lesson 6: The Organization of the Church
    >>> Revelations in Context: “Build Up My Church”Lesson 7: Proclaim the Everlasting Gospel
Lesson 8: The Gathering of Latter-day Israel
Lesson 9: Follow the Living Prophet
Lesson 10: Seek Truth
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Gospel Learning”Lesson 11: The Lord’s Voice in the Doctrine and Covenants
Lesson 12: Additional Scriptures in Our Day
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”    >>> Revelations in Context: “Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation”Lesson 13: “The Vision”
    >>> Revelations in Context: “The Vision”Lesson 14: The Kirtland Temple and Priesthood Keys
Lesson 15: Strength amid Opposition
Lesson 16: Redemption of the Dead
    >>> Revelations in Context: “Letters on Baptism for the Dead”Lesson 17: Gospel Teachings in Nauvoo
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Becoming Like God”Lesson 18: The Relief Society and the Church
Lesson 19: The Doctrine of Eternal Marriage and Family
Lesson 20: Plural Marriage
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”    >>> Gospel Topics: “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah”    >>> Gospel Topics: “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage”Lesson 21: The Prophetic Mission of Joseph Smith
Lesson 22: The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Lesson 23: Succession in the Presidency
Lesson 24: Leaving Nauvoo and the Trek West
Lesson 25: The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints”Lesson 26: The Revelation on the Priesthood
    >>> Gospel Topics: “Race and the Priesthood”    >>> Perspectives on Church History: “A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood [parts 1–4]”Lesson 27: Preparing the World for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Lesson 28: Hastening the Work of Salvation

The benefits of providing information on these topics to youth and young adults are enormous, as they help prevent the problems I described earlier. First, people become armed with accurate facts and a faithful framework for interpreting those facts. When they encounter potentially troubling information on the Internet they won't be caught off guard because they will already have answers to the questions. For example, returning to the Book of Abraham scenario I gave above, someone might read online that "the Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had were rediscovered in the 1960s, and when Egyptologists translated the papyri the meaning had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham." But, thanks to the Gospel Topics article and a previous class discussion, he might know to say something like this: "That's true, but there are at least two ways to understand this. Since Joseph Smith had multiple rolls of papyri and only a few small scraps have survived, it's very likely Egyptologists still don't have access to the text Joseph used for the Book of Abraham. Alternatively, it's also possible that the Lord didn't have the actual papyri translated at all, but instead the papyri served as a trigger for Joseph to receive a revelation about Abraham's time in Egypt, much like how the book of Genesis served as a trigger for Joseph to receive the revelations on Moses and Enoch found in the Pearl of Great Price."

Even if a student doesn't necessarily remember such a detailed answer years after leaving a class, there is still a second major benefit to covering the topic in that class: simply having taught it prevents the breach of institutional trust that can occur when people ask, "Why didn't I learn about X before? Was the Church trying to hide this from me?" Instead, someone can say, "I don't know exactly what the answer is for this Book of Abraham thing, but I do remember that we discussed this and that there are answers out there."

New manual benefit #2: The new manuals teach students HOW to discern truth from error and HOW to appropriately seek answers to gospel questions. In addition to historical and doctrinal information, the new Seminary and Institute manuals tackle the problem of faith crises head-on. They take a realist approach by directly acknowledging that we will all have troubling gospel questions at some time or another, and they teach how to navigate those questions. For example, the Seminary manual contains this statement, which is repeated almost word-for-word in the Institute manual: "There [are] individuals and groups today who spread false or misleading information about the Church with the intent to undermine faith.... Those who sincerely want the truth should diligently seek out credible sources of information about the Church and its history rather than simply accept any information they hear, including whatever comes up as a result of an Internet search."

The manuals contain many quotations from Church leaders who have addressed these issues, such as:

    -- Neil L. Andersen on false information on the Internet
    -- Dallin H. Oaks on being sophisticated in our evaluation of historical facts
    -- M. Russell Ballard on how news media reports are often focused on controversies
    -- Dieter F. Uchtdorf on correctly discerning true, partially true, and false information
    -- Steven E. Snow on looking for sources by recognized historians, not sensationalist bloggers
    -- Thomas S. Monson on obedience as the key to receiving answers to spiritual questions
    -- Dieter F. Uchtdorf on asking hard questions (it's okay!)
    -- Neal A. Maxwell on studying Church doctrine through the eyes of defectors.

Warnings and instructions of this nature are sprinkled throughout the manuals. Additionally, the Institute manual devotes two entire lessons to these topics (chapter 10, "Seek Truth" and chapter 15, "Strength amid Opposition"). The first focuses on "discerning truth from error" and "staying faithful when questions arise." The second uses cases of apostasy from Church history to teach how to respond when fellow Church members criticize the Lord's apostles, lose their testimonies, and attempt to spread their doubt to others.

The manuals also contain not just teachings but activities to help reinforce these concepts. For example, the Seminary manual asks students to imagine they will write a school report about the Church that needs at least three sources. The students must then discuss what sources might be used, why it matters what sources are used, and how they can determine if a source accurately describes the Church's teachings. The manual also contains a scripted role-play for students to act out how to respond to someone's criticisms about the Book of Abraham. The Institute manual invites students to study a handout with several quotations and then identify in groups "principles that would help someone . . . who has a question or doubt about the Church's doctrine, history, or position on social issues." 

Those are just a few snippets, but you can see how helpful these lessons can be for young Latter-day Saints beginning a lifetime of encounters with questions and questioners. 

Helping all Saints benefit

Teaching Seminary and Institute students is obviously a great place to start, but there are many members of the Church, both young and old, who need to learn these principles of discernment and gospel learning and who are not in Seminary or Institute. What about them? I believe that all of us as parents, gospel teachers, and Church leaders have a role to play.

First, each of us can recommit ourselves to gospel learning, including studying Church history. Unless our knowledge expands and our testimonies are strong, we may be unable to help others who struggle with questions. However, we do not need to approach Church history solely with the goal of fortifying ourselves against problems. I can witness that Church history is amazing and wonderful, a treasure trove of insights and wisdom and revelation! It is like adding the strength of thousands of testimonies to your own. Most of our LDS history may not be canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, but the accounts of our forebears' dedicated discipleship can become sacred scripture to you as you draw inspiration from "the foundation of the past."

Second, "when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:32
). In one capacity or another, we are all gospel teachers with an obligation to "preach, teach, expound, exhort" (D&C 20:42). The Church's new online resources are available at the click of a button, but people need to be taught why they are important and how to find them. The two manuals I have described may have been written for Seminary and Institute, but there is no reason their information and principles cannot be appropriately adapted for other settings, including Sunday School, Relief Society, priesthood meetings, home and visiting teaching, or family home evening. Both youth and adults need to learn what Church leaders are trying to help us learn, because for Heavenly Father, there are far too many "lost ones, off from my shelter astray."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What You'll Read About in the New Institute Manual on Early Church History

Some time ago I blogged about a new seminary manual on the Doctrine and Covenants released by the Church. The manual is significant because it includes discussions of sensitive topics related to Church history, such as the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Utah War, the history of plural marriage, and the history of the priesthood ban. It appears that by including these topics the Church is taking steps towards more transparency when it comes to its history and "inoculating" its young members who are likely to encounter antagonistic websites that can easily blindside them with these issues if they aren't prepared.

My friend Neal Rappleye has called my attention to a new manual released this year for seminary and institute students. The manual, Foundations of the Restoration, covers early Church history and corresponding sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. "This course," the introduction reads, "gives students the opportunity to study the foundational revelations, doctrine, historical events, and people relevant to the unfolding of the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as found in the standard works, the teachings of latter-day prophets, and Church history" (v). Each lesson is divided into an introduction, background reading, suggestions for teaching, and student readings. In order to receive credit for the class (Religion 225), students "are required to read the scripture passages, general conference talks, and other materials listed in the Student Readings section of each lesson. Students must also meet attendance requirements and demonstrate competency with course material" (vi).

There are many remarkable things about the new manual, including three things that I believe are significant in light of the Church's efforts to be transparent and proactive in discussing sensitive issues in Church history. First, the manual copiously draws from the much-discussed Gospel Topics essays. Second, the manual employs the work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and directs students to the project's website. Third, the manual includes statements from Church leaders on confronting doubts and questions about Church history.

I. Gospel Topics

The manual directly recommends students read all but one of the Gospel Topics essays posted on the Church's website. "Suggested Readings" for students include one of the essays dealing with the topic of the lesson (ix–xii, 138–139). As such, students are recommended to read the following essays in conjunction with the following lessons:

The two essays that are not included as "suggested readings" are "Are Mormons Christian?" and "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies." However, "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" is recommended as "background reading" for lesson 4 ("The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion," 14–18), and the manual specifically instructs the teacher, "You may want to explain that one way modern enemies of the Church attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon is by using DNA evidence to try to discredit any link between Book of Mormon peoples and Native Americans. If students have questions about this issue, encourage them to read the Gospel Topics article 'Book of
Mormon and DNA Studies,' which can be found at" (17).

What's more, in addition to the manual explicitly recommending all but one of the essays to students as readings, passages from some of the essays are reprinted in the manual verbatim. This includes excerpts from "Book of Mormon Translation" (10), "First Vision Accounts" (6), "Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (92–94), and "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" (53). Interestingly, of all of the Gospel Topics essays cited, the series of essays on the history of plural marriage, including Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage, receive the most extensive citations (92–94).

At the back of the manual are included unpaginated handouts for students. One of the handouts, "Understanding Plural Marriage," is essentially a reprinting of excerpts from the Gospel Topics essays on plural marriage. The manual reprints the part of the essay "The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church" that mentions Joseph Smith's sealings to Helen Mar Kimball "several months before her 15th birthday" and "to a number of women who were already married." Post-Manifesto plural marriages and the "Second Manifesto" are likewise noted.

In addition to the subjects discussed in the Gospel Topics essays, students will read about the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society (67), the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation, which is deemed "more of an inspired revision than a traditional translation" (51–53), Danites and the Mormon War (67–68), the events leading up to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, including the details of the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor and Joseph's use of a firearm to defend himself in Carthage Jail (100–103), the succession crisis (104–109), and the role of women in the Church historically and today, including the relationship between women and the priesthood (79–83).

As can be seen, the new manual liberally employs the Gospel Topics essays as it discusses these and other sensitive issues that students are likely to encounter as they study Church history.

II. The Joseph Smith Papers

The new manual cites both the print and online versions of the Joseph Smith Papers 4 different times (12, 28, 39, 80). In the lesson on the history and importance of the Relief Society, students are encouraged to "read the minutes of early Relief Society meetings at"

III. Counsel from Church Leaders on Doubt

Finally, the new manual includes several citations from General Authorities on how to confront doubts and questions that may arise in studying Church history or when confronted by antagonistic depictions of Church history. Recent counsel from Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Neil L. Andersen, Steven E. Snow, and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf on the subject of confronting doubt and seeking truth makes an appearance in the manual ("Lesson 10: Seek the Truth," 42–46). Handouts are likewise prepared for students with the quotes from these Church leaders that appear in lesson 10 ("Balancing Church History" and "Discerning Truth from Error").

As such, in addition to directly addressing the issues raised in the Gospel Topics essays, the manual also prepares students to think about how to confront questions and doubt by providing counsel from Church leaders on faith and doubt and on seeking truth.


The publication of Foundations of the Restoration marks further progress towards a more transparent "warts and all" type of history produced by official Church channels. It likewise signals the Church's institutional efforts to make young Latter-day Saints aware of the issues in Mormon history that are being discussed and debated online and elsewhere. Contrary to what cynical voices on hostile parts of the web might claim, the Church is not "burying" these issues. It is not making mere token gestures of transparency to save face. It is actively striving for genuine openness and disclosure about the sensitive issues in Mormon history. The subjects discussed in the Gospel Topics essays (and, indeed, the essays themselves) are being filtered into the Church's curriculum intended for broad consumption. The effort is thus undeniably being made by the Church to strive towards a more honest, nuanced, and, ultimately, robust history. (As if the Joseph Smith Papers didn't already prove that!) Whether this effort (and the long-term impact this effort seems to intend) is adequate can of course be debated. What cannot be debated, however, is that claims made about some sort of institutional dread, paralysis, or conspiracy on the part of the Church when it comes to confronting and examining its history are wholly dubious and strongly contradicted by such empirical signs as the existence of this new manual.

Addendum (June 25, 2015): Some have wondered what exactly I meant by saying the Church is moving towards producing a more "transparent" history. One Latter-day Saint commenter at the Interpreter blog (where this post was cross-posted the other day) objected to my use of this language, saying that "it carries a negative and PC connotation which . . . is unnecessary." This commenter insisted that using the language I did feeds into the critics' (false) narrative that "the Church intentionally deceives people or has some terrible secret which will expose the whole thing as a fraud they want to hide." I responded thusly:
This is actually a fair critique. I was hasty in my write-up of this blog post, mainly because I wanted to get it posted and on the web ASAP. I should’ve been more careful with my choice of language. Words like “transparency” and such are rhetorically-laden with all sorts of connotations that I didn’t intend. Basically, what I meant to say is this (from a follow-up guest post on my personal blog): “The reality is that there is no Church conspiracy to keep information from its members. It is true that in past decades the complexities of certain historical issues and the nuances of certain doctrinal topics were not explored in great length in Church magazines and manuals, but this was a matter of emphasis, not a cover up.” 
I tried to communicate basically this in my concluding paragraph, but it looks like I failed.
I hope this clarifies things. It was not my intention to communicate the negative connotation that is attached to the word "transparency" in this context. My apologies for any confusion or for giving a wrong impression. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Thought on Joseph Smith

Carlfred Broderick (1932–1999)
The Latter-day Saint psychologist and family therapist Carlfred Broderick shared the following thought on Joseph Smith in his 1996 volume My Parents Married on a Dare: And Other Favorite Essays on Life.
I am impressed with the enormous amount of scholarship that has, in recent years, provided us with a far more textured picture of our history. I am not always equally impressed with the intellectual honesty of those writing some of that history. I have always believed that whatever is true should not be flinched from. But I am often appalled at the criterion for truth that some embrace. It is fashionable these days to portray Joseph Smith as a charismatic leader who, however, did have a certain tendency for creative thinking and sexual adventurism. When I read such historical accounts I always check the footnotes. It is not too surprising to find that the evidence for these "historical" conclusions is the testimony of those who hated him and did all in their power to destroy him. It does not seem to me to be good historical practice to present such material as though it were true rather than merely alleged. Indeed, many of these allegations were made in Joseph's lifetime. Concerning those who made them, the Lord made a number of uncomplimentary and cautionary declarations (see D&C 121:11-20). Out of my own experience with the Spirit of the Lord I know that Joseph could not have done the salacious and selfserving things they said he did with the motivations they ascribed to him because if he had, he would have been deserted by the Spirit and replaced by one who would keep a pure heart.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How the Internet is a Double-Edged Sword

The Internet is pretty cool. With the right Internet connection, I can speak to somebody in China or Brazil in real time. I can watch my favorite TV shows and movies whenever I want. I can play video games with people all across the world. I can order food, download music, look at pictures of cats, and even ship my enemies glitter that explodes in their face when they open the envelop.

But for me, probably the coolest thing about the Internet is the unprecedented access it grants to information about the past. Want to learn about ancient Rome? Or how about read the works of Lao-Tzu? Maybe Medieval Islam is your thing. Or maybe, if you're like me, you want to have access to high resolution scans of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whatever it is, you're just a Google search away from a veritable mountain of information on whatever topic you'd like.

The best part about all of this is that if something's on the Internet, it has to be true. Right? I mean, it's not like anybody would lie on the Internet.

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, dear Internet user, but Charles W. Cooke has a sobering reminder about the information we encounter on the world wide web.
It is said that the chief virtue of the Internet age is that anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers. But it is also fair to say that the chief vice of the Internet age is that . . . anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers.
You see, the problem is that, like any other tool, the Internet is, to use Lehi's words, something to be acted upon (2 Ne. 2:14). It is not a sentient being. It does not have a will. It is inherently amoral; a tool wielded by both component and incompetent, moral and immoral masters. Cooke summarizes the Internet thusly:
Contrived and mistranscribed quotes abound, along with historical and legal and scientific offerings that simply do not pass muster. For the laymen in any field, it can be difficult to detect which is which. And understandably so. The Web is where we are supposed to go to find the truth — a virtual Library of Alexandria for the modern era — and yet there are no red flags to indicate the impostors. Imagine, if you will, what might happen if your local athenaeum replaced a good portion of its books with parodic or mendacious equivalents, and then interspersed the perfidious volumes with the genuine articles. That’s the Internet.
Cooke wisely observes that the proliferation of falsehoods and deceptions on the web is due to its very nature. Anyone with a keyboard and basic literacy can say whatever they want without fetter. You don't need a PhD or peer review to use the Internet, after all.
There is an elementary reason that the Web’s many miscreants spend so much time photoshopping photographs, fabricating quotations, and manufacturing downright falsehoods, the better to fool the masses: It works. Because such a small premium is placed on verisimilitude, the likes of Mark Twain, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar Wilde have all had attributed to them a series of sentiments that they never even contemplated but that are now broadly regarded as their own. Contemporary figures are no safer from the game. 
Herein lies the danger of the Internet, according to Cooke. Sure, it's a fantastic tool to access untold amounts of the information. Nobody doubts that. But what many don't seem to realize (or what many consciously choose to ignore) is that the mere availability of information does not guarantee the quality thereof.
If the Internet is to be our guide, both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill observed that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Whichever one of them actually said it, however, it seems clear that the maxim is twice as true in the age of Twitter and Snapchat as it was a century ago. Today, the ready availability of interconnected publishing tools has enabled almost anybody to plot a grand hoax and to get away with it. Just as Stalin “knew” deep down that the Kulaks were undermining his glorious social experiment and thus felt comfortable improvising the necessary proof, so do our modern show-trialers consider it tolerable to provide false evidence in order to secure their readers’ affections.
A sad reality, to be sure, but there's no denying it.

This all of course has direct relevance for the Church of Jesus Christ, and Church leaders have not failed to be aware of the potential the Internet has for spreading both positive and negative information about the Church. Elders M. Russell Ballard and David A. Bednar are notable examples of Church leaders who have urged the importance of using the Internet to both stem the tide of misinformation and deception about the Church found online as well as preach the gospel. But they are not alone. Elder Quinten L. Cook lamented in the October 2012 General Conference, "Some have immersed themselves in Internet materials that magnify, exaggerate, and, in some cases, invent shortcomings of early Church leaders. Then they draw incorrect conclusions that can affect testimony." President Dieter F. Uchtdorf likewise reminded us of the following in 2013:
For those who already embrace the truth, [Satan's] primary strategy is to spread the seeds of doubt. For example, he has caused many members of the Church to stumble when they discover information about the Church that seems to contradict what they had learned previously. 
If you experience such a moment, remember that in this age of information there are many who create doubt about anything and everything, at any time and every place. 
You will find even those who still claim that they have evidence that the earth is flat, that the moon is a hologram, and that certain movie stars are really aliens from another planet. And it is always good to keep in mind, just because something is printed on paper, appears on the Internet, is frequently repeated, or has a powerful group of followers doesn’t make it true.
Elder Steven E. Snow, Church Historian and Recorder, gave this counsel in the June 2013 issue of the New Era (which was subsequently reposted on the Church's website for youth).
Certainly, the world has changed in the last generation or two. The Internet has put all kinds of information at our fingertips—good, bad, truthful, untruthful—including information on Church history. You can read a great deal about our history, but it’s important to read about it and understand it in context. The difficulty with some information online is that it’s out of context and you don’t really see the whole picture. 
Information that tries to embarrass the Church is generally very subjective and unfair. We should seek sources that more objectively describe our beliefs and our history. Some websites are very mean-spirited and can be sensational in how they present the information. Look for sources by recognized and respected historians, whether they’re members of the Church or not.
The tantrums of Jeremy Runnells notwithstanding, what these brethren have taught is absolutely true. It's college-level critical thinking 101. Don't default to Wikipedia or reddit for your information. Don't default to meme-think. Don't default to snarky YouTube videos. Steven C. Harper said it best, "Googling is not a synonym for seeking." Take the time and make the honest effort to acquaint yourself with "the best books" (D&C 88:118) you can find on Mormon history, scripture, and doctrine. (For our purposes here, "the best books" include academic journal articles, academic and popular press publications, Internet websites, multimedia, etc.) It will ultimately be much better for you intellectually and spiritually.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An Amusing Thought from Geza Vermes

"Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea" (Source)
The legendary Geza Vermes (of blessed memory) has an amusing thought in his introduction to the 1992 volume Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development.
An anecdote recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 29b) portrays Moses as seeking permission from God to attend in spirit a lecture given by Rabbi Akiva. He is allowed to slip into the classroom and sit inconspicuously in the back row. There he listens attentively to the exposition and the lively questions and answers, but Moses has absolutely no idea what the teachers and pupils are talking about until Akiva discloses that he is expounding a halakhah (legal teaching) brought down by Moses from Mr. Sinai.  
One may well wonder whether Jesus of Nazareth would have been equally dumbfounded had he been given a similar chance to eavesdrop incognito on the sessions of the Council of Nicaea where his nature was the subject of much heated debate.
(Geza Vermes, "Introduction: Parallel History Preview," in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development, ed. Hershel Shanks [Biblical Archaeology Society: Washington D.C., 1992], xxii.)

For what it's worth, I have read more than one patristics scholar answer in the affirmative.

Friday, June 5, 2015

10 Commandments for Balancing the Life of the Mind and Spirt on Campus

Sound advice.
The Latter-day Saint historian and theologian Philip Barlow has what he calls his "Ten Commandments for LDS students attempting to balance faith and learning while at college." They are:

1. "Seek truth, seek good, and bind them together"
2. "Do not disparage the intellect"
3. "Understand that reason is not the only avenue to truth"
4. "Realize that the Church has always consisted of human beings–flawed and wondrous–who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have been touched"
5. "Know that character affects I.Q."
6. "Claim a wise mentor and good conversation partners"
7. "Do not forsake the wisdom of the thirteen Article of Faith"
8. "Serve, pray, and remain active in the Church while you study and search"
9. "Think of boredom as a sin: cultivate an attitude of faithful inquiry"
10. "Remember the point"

There is much that I could say about each of these commandments. For starters, I think that these commandments work equally well for those going through a faith crisis. But for now, I will mention just one (of the many) thoughts from Barlow that stood out to me.
Of course, alleged facts can be dangerous for inexperienced minds lacking sufficient context and means of testing and explaining them. It is essential to realize that what we take to be facts are properly contested in the academy. One purpose of an education, indeed, is to deepen the ability for informed and critical thought that is increasingly able to discern the credibility of arguments, alleged facts, and their proper contexts. Moreover, to accept something as "fact" is not the same as assigning that fact a meaning. "So what?" is an excellent question. We should be wary of our own and others' (including our teachers') perceptions, weaknesses, tendencies to leap to conclusions, or sneering or condescending attitudes that may cast a false pale over even legitimate facts. But the proper response to all of this is further study, conversation, testing, experience, thought, discipline, and prayer–not avoidance. The ongoing pursuit of truth–––rather than an expressed or unstated boast that we already possess and comprehend it in its fullness–––can and should be at one with hungering and thirsting after righteousness. God and truth are perfectly aligned. 
In the university we may find ourselves uncomfortable with some or another new truth we encounter–––as do many children when they discover how humans come into the world, when they confront the nature of Santa Claus, or when they glimpse the reality of suffering and death. But such truths do not embarrass the Lord of Truth. We are threatened by them only in relation to our own understandings, which are subject to change, correction, and growth. Dedication to reality (and the perpetual, faithful, and critical exploration and amendment of our internal maps of reality) is basic to mental and spiritual health and growth. To avoid the work, pain, challenge, and adjustment demanded by this process tends to result in damnation (the blocking of spiritual and mental progress) or emotional, spiritual, and mental illness (which, as imperfect people, we have all tasted at least in mild forms). Our perception and capacities should evolve in a great upward spiral. There is no truth one will encounter at the university that is unknown to God. What, then, shall we fear? Adult naiveté is not generally a virtue. The scriptural mandate (Matthew 10:16) is that we "be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves"–––not harmless as doves and just as dumb.
(Philip Barlow, "10 Commandments for Balancing the Life of the Mind and Spirt on Campus," in A Twenty-Something's Guide to Spirituality: Questions you Hesitate to Ask, Answers you Rarely Hear, ed. Jacob Werrett and David Read [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007], 139–140.)

These are remarkably cogent and apposite comments not only for Latter-day Saints seeking an education, but also for Latter-day Saints experiencing a faith crisis. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: the proper antidote to a faith crisis is deep study coupled with personal prayer. You can never know too much about Church history, but you can always know too little. I am bold enough to wager that the problem for many people who are going through a faith crisis isn't that they've studied too much, but rather that they've studied too little.

Of course, there's another aspect to this. It's not just a matter of studying, but a matter of studying well. As I've heard it said, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." The same goes with studying Church history and doctrine. I promise that consulting Hugh Nibley, Terryl Givens, Richard Bushman, Truman Madsen, John Welch, Leonard Arrington, Brian and Laura Hales, John Gee, John Sorenson, Royal Skousen, B. H. Roberts, Richard Turley, BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations in Context, and Gospel Topics is immensely more helpful, informative, edifying, and reliable than turning to the pseudo-scholarly and spiritually suffocating dreck of MormonThink, the CES Letter, and Mormon Stories.

I'm reminded of an interview with Steven C. Harper that I once heard. Harper was commenting on the pioneering work of Dean C. Jessee, who, among other things, published groundbreaking work on Joseph Smith's accounts of his First Vision back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Harper related an occasion when Jessee was asked by someone why so many people became upset or disturbed when they learned about these accounts. Jessee, according to Harper, smiled and calmly replied, "Oh, I think they'd be okay if they were more inclined to read."

So keep studying, and study well. Don't be afraid to ask sincere, meaningful questions and search for answers by study and prayer as you continue your upward spiral towards God.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Another Note from Reza Aslan

The historical Jesus?
I am currently making my way through Reza Aslan's recent volume Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than offering a review his book (I instead direct the reader's attention to the reviews offered by Stephen ProtheroStuart KellyCraig A. Evans, Greg Carey, and Allan Nadler), I wanted to call attention to this line offered by Aslan at the beginning of the book.
There are a few things to keep in mind before we begin our examination. For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it.
(Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013], xx.)

Indeed, one could swap the words "the historical Jesus" out with "the historical Joseph Smith," "the Book of Mormon," "the Book of Abraham," "Mormon history," etc.

Such has been the fairly typical experience in my study of these topics.

Which is why it is wise to be highly skeptical of those treatments of Mormon history or scripture that purport to be the final, sole, and incontrovertibly authoritative work on the topic.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Jackets and Assumptions

Pictured: yours truly wearing his beloved jacket, in the presence of one D. Vader and one S. Trooper.
Last week I visited my family in Idaho. The evening I arrived, my parents and I went out to dinner to celebrate our reunion and to catch up on things. Everything went great. The next morning I had to run some errands for my mom. Because it was windy and therefore somewhat chilly, I decided it was best to take my jacket. Mind you, this wasn't any ordinary jacket. It was my favorite jacket of all time (that also happened to be somewhat expensive). Well, I looked and looked but could not find it anywhere. I double- and triple-checked everywhere in the house. Nothing. Even my mom and brother helping me turned up nothing.

Then I suddenly remembered that I had taken my jacket off at dinner the night before and had put it on my chair. Of course! No worries, then. I'd simply call the restaurant and confirm they had it, and would then pick it up while running errands. So I spoke with the manager, who, much to my surprise, told me that they had no jacket in their possession that matched the description I gave them.

It was then that I came to the terrible conclusion: somebody had stolen it! I must've left it on my chair, and some jerkface swiped it after I left.

You can imagine how angry I was once I came to this conclusion. I swore under my breath and shook my head in frustration. For a while I was really annoyed and even for one brief moment genuinely angry. When the time came for me to return home to Salt Lake City, I sighed with resignation that I'd never see my favorite jacket ever again.

When I arrived home and went into my room to unpack, what do you think was the first thing I saw lying there on my bed? Yep. There it was. My jacket. Turns out that I had meant to pack it, but either forgot to do so or decided to leave it behind, and so tossed it on my bed as I ran out the door.

You can imagine my relief that my jacket had not been stolen, but also my embarrassment for having become so upset over what turned out to be nothing.

But then a thought came into my mind. My annoyance, frustration, and anger at my jacket having supposedly been stolen was the result of a mistaken assumption on my part. I had assumed that my jacket had been stolen, even though I had no direct confirmation that my assumption was valid. Could you blame me? I could've sworn that I wore my jacket into the restaurant and had placed it on my chair. When the jacket failed to turn up anywhere in my parents' house after an intense search, the seemingly only logical conclusion was that I had left it at the restaurant, and someone had stolen it.

It was a safe assumption on my part given what I knew at the time. But it was a false assumption nonetheless, the product of my faulty memory and hasty reasoning.

This little episode has reaffirmed to me something really important. It is absolutely crucial that we be aware of what assumptions we harbor, and how they affect us in our opinion-forming and decision-making. This is often difficult, since many times our assumptions are simply taken for granted, or sometimes not even fully recognized. Likewise, when we make an assumption without any direct verification for that assumption, even when we really really think we're making a safe assumption, we need to be careful in how much weight we place on that assumption. The reason I became so upset after I assumed my jacket had been stolen was because I placed an inordinate amount of weight on that assumption. Had I placed less weight on my assumption, I probably wouldn't have been so upset. But because I uncritically allowed this assumption to overtake and completely govern my thinking (it never occurred to my to even think that my jacket had been left home in Salt Lake City), I had a much more negative reaction.

So the moral of the story is: be careful about what assumptions you make, why you make them, and how much weight you put on them.

(For an example of how this all might relate to studying the scriptures or Church history, I'd recommend you take a look at professor Kerry Muhlestein's presentation from last year's FairMormon conference on the topic of "The Book of Abraham and Unnoticed Assumptions.")