Saturday, April 30, 2016

An Open Letter to Tyler Glenn

The Provo City Center Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dear Tyler,

I've been a fan of yours for a few years now. I discovered Neon Trees not long after I returned from my mission and have enjoyed your music ever since. I recall about two years ago or so (if I'm remembering correctly) when you had an open air concert in Provo. My apartment was close enough that I could listen from my balcony. It was wonderful!

I was inspired by your courage to come out back in 2014. I remember thinking how great it was that you were, it seemed, able to juggle your sexuality with your faith (certainly not an easy task for members of the Church with same-sex attraction) in a wholesome and healthy manner.

But then something changed. I read yesterday in the Salt Lake Tribune how the Church's recently enacted policy towards same-sex couples and their children deeply affected you. "[Your] exit from the LDS faith," I read, "was triggered after the November announcement that married gay couples would be considered apostates of the church and children of gay couples would not be allowed to participate in church rites."

At the same time a friend of mine sent me a link to your new music video. "Trash"–––a provocative title. I watched it with interest, which quickly turned to shock. The opening lyrics gripped me. "I think I lost myself in your new religion / You say a prayer for me like a superstition." And then, "Maybe I’ll see you in hell / Okay, whatever / One man’s trash is another man’s treasure."

Surrounding you were distorted images of Joseph Smith, upon one of which you spat.

Then you entered the elevator.

That's when my shock turned to sadness.

I'm not outraged, or indignant, or offended, Tyler. I'm sad. Sad for a number of reasons.

First, and foremost, I'm sad that you're obviously in such a deep and dark place of pain and frustration. I understand why. And I don't want to diminish the reality of that. In fact, I share some of that pain and frustration.

I'm also sad, however, because you've taken that pain and frustration and instead of finding reconciliation and atonement, you've turned it into vitriol and anger. And what's worse, you turned it into profanity (in the literal sense of the word).

You see, Tyler, I write this after working a double shift at the Provo City Center Temple. I arrived for my shift before dawn and finished in the afternoon. While in the temple I felt peace, safety, comfort, and enlightenment. I was spiritually vivified as I administered sacred ordinances to others seeking refuge from the blood and sins of this fallen world.

I officiated over a company of Latter-day Saints as they received an endowment from on high. Watching over the company, I saw soft tears in some eyes, and heard gentle sniffles in the room. My own eyes moistened more than once. I noticed many smiles as each member of the company, one by one, conversed with the Lord through the veil.

This was the peak of holiness for me and several others. We were away from the world, learning about God's plan of salvation for his children, and making sacred covenants. We were making eternal bonds with dear ones away. We were in the house and presence of the Lord.

That's why I'm deeply sad that in your anger you felt you were justified to degrade the sacredness of the tokens of the priesthood. The rites of the temple are dear to the hearts of millions of Latter-day Saints, including my own. To see them profaned before the world was wounding.

But I'm not just sad because of that. I'm also sad that now I cannot show your music video to other Latter-day Saints who may have been sympathetic to your plight, or who may have wanted to better understand you. I'm sad that now to many Latter-day Saints you'll be just another angry ex-Mormon who "can't leave the Church alone," and who is out for revenge. And so they'll tune you off, block you out, and turn you away.

That's the last thing we need at a time like this.

I hope you'll understand that I'm not saying this to guilt you. Nor am I saying this as some kind of call to repentance. Rather, I'm saying this because I feel very strongly that respect, civility, and sympathy is a two-way street. I'm saying this because actions have consequences, and I'm afraid your actions have only placed greater enmity between the LGBTQ community and members of the Church.

You feel hurt and betrayed by the Church. I understand that, and I don't doubt your feelings are real (and, heck, even justified). I'm not asking you to pretend like everything is just okay; like your feelings don't exist. Nor am I asking you to keep your mouth shut and suffer in silence. Rather, I hope that you'll understand why I and many other Latter-day Saints now feel like it is much, much harder to fully support you.

Let me end by saying this, Tyler. You sing, "One man’s trash is another man’s treasure." I confess that I'm not exactly sure how to understand this line. I suppose you could mean several things, and I suspect that one of those meanings is that you feel like trash.

You are not trash, Tyler. Not to your Heavenly Father, not to your Savior Jesus Christ, and not to me. You are a treasure. You are a beloved son of Heavenly Parents, who weep with you in your pain (Moses 7:28). You have infinite worth in Their eyes. As it says in the revelation given to the man whose image you spat on, "Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God" (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).

I hope you'll never forget your eternal worth, Tyler, and that you'll find peace, wherever it may be.

Your friend,
Stephen

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: "A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History"

When I was in junior high school I attended a performance of Annie Get Your Gun that was put on by a nearby high school. I vividly remember the number "Anything You Can Do" because the actress playing Annie Oakley broke or sprained her ankle in the middle of the performance (she badly misstepped during the dancing). Of course, the opening lyrics to the song, famously, are, "Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!"

As I was making my way through A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History, a new volume co-published by the Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book and edited by Laura Harris Hales, this song came to my mind a number of times. You see, it occurred to me that this volume covers practically everything that is (ineptly) handled by Jeremy Runnells in the CES Letter. But in almost every way conceivable A Reason for Faith handles the given topic better. It's not just that A Reason for Faith is written by scholars with academic credentials, whereas the CES Letter is written by an amateur; it's not just that A Reason for Faith actually underwent an academic peer review process, whereas the CES Letter did not; it's not just that A Reason for Faith eschews sensationalism, dogmatism, ideological snobbery, and other vices, whereas the CES Letter is absolutely riddled with such fallacies (and many others); it's all of those things and the fact that A Reason for Faith actually addresses the issues in a responsible manner.

Basically, everything Runnells has done, Hales and her all-star team have done better.

It's impressive the amount of talent Hales has brought into A Reason for Faith. Her roster includes:


Bushman. Harper. Gardner. Muhlestein. Reeve. Perego. These are some of the leading scholars in the respective subjects that they cover. Each contributor has excellent academic training and important publications to their names. They have engaged thoughtfully and respectably with the primary sources and the secondary literature, offering nuanced and well-reasoned discussions that correct misunderstandings or falsehoods frequently perpetuated in the literature of the disaffected.

Let's start with Kerry Muhlestein's article on the Book of Abraham as an example ("The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham," pp. 79–91). Muhlestein begins by cautioning that "there are many things about the Book of Abraham that do not fit tidily into the little boxes we have created regarding scripture and how it is revealed and recorded" (p. 80). This is crucial for anyone wanting to approach the Book of Abraham meaningfully, as Hugh Nibley warned.
Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham's authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the "Joseph Smith Papyri" identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious "Sen-sen" fragment, (3) the so-called "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar" attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith's explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.
(Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 14 [Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000], 154–155)

Muhlestein largely meets Nibley's recommendations by making his way carefully through the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri (pp. 80–81), the translation of the papyri (pp. 81–84), the Egyptian grammar documents (pp. 84–85), the evidence for the Book of Abraham as an ancient text (pp. 85–87), and finally the facsimiles (pp. 87–88). But even after all of this, Muhlestein emphasizes that further study is needed on many of these topics. "It would be unfortunate to make assumptions regarding the things we don’t know and then condemn Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham based upon those assumptions," Muhlestein concludes. "On the other hand, how interesting it is to explore the mystery of the translation of the Book of Abraham, which continues to reveal answers as it simultaneously elicits further questions" (p. 88).

Contrast the scholarly humility of Muhlestein (a professional Egyptologist who has studied the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham for some time now) with Runnells, who kamikazes through the intricacies of the Book of Abraham with little more than a squad of simplistic memes at his command. Where Muhlestein sees a plaque-obstructed carotid artery in need of a skillfully executed endarterectomy in order to save the patient, Runnells instead declares the very much alive patient dead on arrival and proceeds to hack away at the body with a meat cleaver.

Or consider how Richard Bushman tackles the question of Joseph Smith's participation in "folk magic" ("Joseph Smith and Money Digging," pp. 1–6). When it comes to the early life of Joseph Smith, there are few people who are better equipped to handle the topic than Bushman, who has written two excellent biographies of the Prophet. After an overview of the issue, including a helpful look at the historiography on Joseph Smith's treasure seeking, Bushman concludes, "Magic and Christianity did not seem at odds with one another [in Joseph Smith's environment]. The combination was altogether too common in the nineteenth century for it to invalidate Joseph Smith’s more conventional religious claims. In Mormonism and for many Christians, folk traditions and religion blend. To call the two incongruous seems more like a matter of religious taste than a necessary conclusion" (p. 4). This, of course, is followed by the necessary caveats.
At present, a question remains about how involved Joseph Smith was in folk magic. Was he enthusiastically pursuing treasure seeking as a business in the 1820s, or was he a somewhat reluctant participant, egged on by his father? Was his worldview fundamentally shaped by folk traditions? I think there is substantial evidence of his reluctance, and, in my opinion, the evidence for extensive involvement is tenuous. But this is a matter of degree. No one denies that magic was there, especially in the mid-1820s. Smith never repudiated folk traditions; he continued to use the seer stone until late in life and used it in the translation process. It certainly had an influence on his outlook, but it was peripheral—not central. Biblical Christianity was the overwhelming influence in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Folk magic was in the mix but was not the basic ingredient. (p. 4)
Contrast this carefully formulated and argued conclusion with Runnells, who liberally peppers his hopelessly reductionistic descriptions of Joseph Smith's and other early Mormons' participation in "folk magic" with pejoratives like "superstitious" and "magical." Runnells may condescendingly sneer at these 19th century people if he wants to, but such reveals more about Runnells than it does about early Mormonism. If Runnells wants to be condescending, he's free to be so. But if he chooses to be such, he must then abandon any pretense to offering worthwhile historical commentary, and it must be acknowledged that the CES Letter is universes apart from the kind of responsible historiography practiced by Bushman and other critical scholars.

One more example. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee offer a meticulously argued and scrupulously sourced treatise on the Kinderhook plates ("Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates," pp. 93–115). Besides looking at what the historical record reveals about Joseph Smith's involvement with the Kinderhook plates, Bradley and Ashurst-McGee include a crucial discussion on "translation" in Joseph Smith's ministry. They write:
Since 1981, when Stanley Kimball published his article on the Kinderhook plates, his evidence that the plates were forgeries has been uniformly accepted. Nearly all devout Latter-day Saints who have written about the plates have also accepted Kimball’s argument that Joseph Smith did not translate from them. Latter-day Saints have been inclined to accept Kimball’s argument that Joseph Smith did not translate the plates. They likely want to defend Joseph Smith as a true prophet, and they believe this means that he could not have translated anything from the fraudulent Kinderhook plates. Critics claim that since the plates were fake, Joseph Smith was a false prophet, and they have used this as evidence that he deceived others about having the gift of translation. What both these positions share in common is the assumption that Joseph Smith would have been acting as a prophet while translating from the Kinderhook plates. (p. 100)
This assumption is deconstructed by Bradley and Ashurst-McGee. They ask, "When Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates, was he acting as a prophet or was he acting as an amateur linguist?" (p. 104). Careful analysis leads them to conclude that "the relevant historical sources reveals Joseph Smith acting neither as an inspired prophet nor as a fraudulent imposter. Instead, it reveals an enthusiastic, yet amateur, linguist" (p. 110).

What exactly does Runnels have to say about this? Well, by now you should know where this is going. A search through the CES Letter reveals the Kinderhook plates mentioned exactly seven times, not counting the table of contents. Four of those instances sees Runnells simply glossing that the plates are "disturbing" (p. 35), Joseph was "duped" by them (p. 63) , he "failed the test" with them (p. 44), and that they "destroy" his "credibility" (p. 81). The one time where Runnells does offer some meager form of analysis, if it can be called that, it's in the form of, you guessed it, a meme and an out-of-context quote by Bushman (p. 43). It's as if Runnells is afflicted with a terrible Millennial version of the Midas touch, but instead of things turning into gold, whatever historical subject Runnells touches turns into wholly misleading and sometimes outright dishonest memes.

As I thought about how to frame my review of A Reason for Faith I was initially reluctant to mention Runnells or the CES Letter at all. After all, Runnells has received more than enough attention than he deserves. But as I kept reading A Reason for Faith I could not escape the obvious fact that in almost every respect the CES Letter acts as a handy foil when set next to it. To appropriate a metaphor used in Preach my GospelA Reason for Faith is a brilliant diamond when displayed on the black velvet that is the CES Letter. Or, if you prefer, when read side-by-side to an excellent work like A Reason for Faith, it is quickly apparent that the CES Letter is like the attempted Cecilia Giménez restoration of Ecce Homo: a botched attempt at art that would be hilarious were it not for the irreparable damage done to the source material.

So, with all of that in mind, I can heartily recommend A Reason for Faith as an excellent resource for students interested in Mormon history and scripture. I can especially recommend it alongside such works as Patrick Mason's Planted as a great resource for those whose testimonies have been shaken or for those who are trying to help family and friends in a faith crisis. A Reason for Faith offers both familiar and new content that will prove useful to many readers.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ancient Book of Mormon Studies–––A Futile Undertaking?



The title page of the 1830 edition
of the Book of Mormon.
Last summer there was a bit of an online tussle between Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, and a number of Mormon commenters (including William Hamblin, a retired professor of history at Brigham Young University) on the topic of what Jenkins called "ancient Book of Mormon studies" (ABMS), or the scholarly study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient historical text. (This discussion was spread across a number of blogs and web forums over the span of a month or so, and so I'll leave it to the reader to follow the Google rabbit hole if he or she wishes.) According to Jenkins, ABMS is a pseudo-science that is not taken seriously by academics outside the parochial halls of BYU. And even then, Jenkins insisted, BYU itself was coming to see ABMS as a futile undertaking not worthy of serious consideration. Why else, he wondered, is there no degree being offered at BYU in ABMS? Well, obviously it was because nobody, not even BYU, really takes ABMS seriously. This, as well as the Maxwell Institute's "new direction" away from ABMS, was prima facie proof for Jenkins that ABMS is a fool's errand.

A few weeks ago I was alerted to the recent publication of volume 321 of the series Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Not being familiar with this series, I did some online sleuthing. As explained on the website of its publisher, Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism,
assembles critical responses to the works of 19th-century authors of all sorts—novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, philosophers, political leaders, scientists, mathematicians and writers from other genres—from every region of the world. 
Each of the more than 300 volumes in this long-standing series profiles approximately 3-6 novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, philosophers or other creative and nonfiction writers by providing full-text or excerpted criticism reproduced from books, magazines, literary reviews, newspapers and scholarly journals. Clear, accessible introductory essays followed by carefully selected critical responses allow end-users to engage with a variety of scholarly views and conversations about authors, works and literary topics. Introductory essays are written and entries compiled by professional literature researchers and other subject matter experts; many include an author portrait. A full citation and annotation precede each of the approximately 50 essays per volume. The series currently covers nearly 600 authors and also includes numerous entries focusing on literary topics and individual works. Students writing papers or class presentations, instructors preparing their syllabi, or anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the 19th century will find this a highly useful resource.
So far, so good. But what does this have to do with ABMS?

Well, volume 321 covers none other than the Book of Mormon in nearly 130 pages of critical notes and reproduced scholarly articles. What is especially pertinent to ABMS, however, is what was reproduced.

You see, following a reproduction of Alexander Campbell's (in)famous critique Delusions, the volume reprints the following:
What do these three pieces have in common? All of them make arguments for the Book of Mormon's antiquity and historicity. All of them are early works in ABMS that read the Book of Mormon as an ancient, not a modern, text.

And all of them have been reproduced in a mainstream, non-Mormon academic publication as works deemed important for understanding the Book of Mormon.

To be sure, the compendium also reproduces works that read the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text. But this does not take away from the fact that the editor of this volume, Lawrence J. Trudeau, decided that these three works arguing for the Book of Mormon's historicity were of high enough academic calibre that they deserved to be included in the scholarly discussion.

It would appear, then, that Professor Jenkins was a bit hasty in his damning verdict against ABMS.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review: "Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: 2 Nephi 26–27"

"And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children" (2 Nephi 11:2). Nephi's effusive love for Isaiah is well-known to readers of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, that love is often not found on the part of Nephi's modern audience, which frequently skips over the seemingly cryptic passages of the 8th century Judean prophet as reproduced in 2 Nephi.

Thankfully, through the diligence of a handful of commenters, Isaiah's words, and how Nephi read Isaiah's words, have been illuminated for the benefit of those who otherwise might have difficulty working through "the Isaiah chapters." In the late 1990s FARMS produced a volume dedicated to studying Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon Central not too long ago released a slew of KnoWhys that addressed this topic. And earlier this year the Maxwell Institute republished Joseph Spencer's excellent book An Other Testament: On Typology.

The latest on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon comes once again from the Maxwell Institute. Edited by Joseph Spencer and Jenny Webb, Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26–27 is a welcomed addition to the growing library of works on how the Book of Mormon interacts with the words of Isaiah. The volume collects a number of essays that touch on "what it means to read Mormon scripture in a Mormon context" (p. 2). To explore this, the contributors focused on how Nephi reads Isaiah in 2 Nephi 26–27. What they reveal is that "in these chapters, Nephi carefully reads the writings of Isaiah (specifically Isaiah 29) in a multifaceted process that involves copying, interpreting, contextualizing, repurposing, recontextualizing, and prophesying–––all at once" (p. 2). As such, "Nephi's own rereading of Isaiah's original text powerfully illuminates what it means to actively but faithfully engage in the difficult and unavoidable creative work of reading scripture" (p. 2).

The offerings in include: "Nephi, Isaiah, and Europe" (pp. 17–32), "How Nephi Shapes His Readers’ Perceptions of Isaiah" (pp. 33–58), "Slumbering Voices: Death and Textuality in 2 Nephi" (pp. 59–74), "Seals, Symbols, and Sacred Texts: Sealing and the Book of Mormon" (pp. 75–88), "On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture" (89–104), and "Works of Darkness: Secret Combinations and Covenant Displacement in the Book of Mormon" (pp. 105–122). While I didn't dislike any of the offerings, some were more engaging and others. I was, for example, deeply interested in Jenny Webb's novel thesis that Nephi, in his reappropriating and "likening," symbolically "kills" Isaiah as an author. Taking her cue from Roland Barthes' famous concept of "the death of the author," Webb writes, "Death is the act through which the voices of the righteous are transfigured so that they may be brought forth as the words of the book, as scripture. . . . Isaiah 'lives' in Second Nephi, a formidable textual force that has stopped many of the intrepid reader, only to ultimately 'pass away' into Nephi's own prophecy. Nephi assumes his prophetic mantle and authorship through the symbolic killing of Isaiah as his (Isaiah's) words are buried beneath Nephi's decontextualization in order to meet Nephi's own prophetic necessities" (pp. 70–71).

This compliments the observations of Heather and Grant Hardy (the latter of whom also has an excellent treatment of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon). They argue that Nephi's likening of Isaiah directly "shapes his readers' perceptions" of the biblical prophet (p. 57). In other words, when we read 2 Nephi we are not so much looking at what Isaiah meant in his prophecies as we're looking at what Nephi wants us to think about Isaiah.
Nephi's signature strategy is to use his own vision of God's providential plan for the Lehites (from 1 Nephi 11–14) as a template for understanding the destiny of the entire house of Israel. Into this framework, Nephi fits particular passages from Isaiah and other brass plates prophets, and, in the subsequent extrapolation from the part to the whole, he articulates a comprehensive sequence of anticipated events. (p. 56)
So, when readers encounter Nephi's selections of and commentary on Isaiah, they should be aware that he is guiding them through a specific interpretive framework that he wants them to utilize in understanding these passages.

This critical method might trouble readers with more fundamentalist assumptions about the nature of scripture, but hopefully instead of perceiving such as some kind of an attack (the authors are highly reverential towards both Isaiah and Nephi), said readers will recognize the strength and meaning found in this form of scriptural exegesis. Hopefully they will pay close attention to George Handley's provocative essay "On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture," which emphasizes that, while scripture study is crucial, "what we are reading in scripture is always partial, incomplete, and stained by human weakness" (p. 104). Accordingly, we need to be patient with "our broken readings" of scripture until further light and knowledge incrementally guides us to stronger, more robust, more faith-fulfilling understanding (p. 104).

In short, Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah is excellent. Each essay is thought-provoking and offers fascinating insights into 2 Nephi specifically and scripture reading generally. Readers of the Book of Mormon who seriously want to understand the Isaiah chapters therein should pick up a copy of this book.