Meditation on the Word

Consider the word Elephant.

If I break down the word Elephant, I find many parts. Three Es, an L, a P, an imageH, an A an N and a T. I can study each of these letters in isolation for ages. I can learn how they gained their present form, why they interact the way they do, and perhaps how they might have been pronounced or rhymed in a different day.

When I look around, I  will see friends, acquaintances, family members and strangers who misspell the word, and I decide whether or not to call out their ignorance. I can consider that even though I can clearly recognize what they were trying to communicate, they got the symbols wrong, either out of carelessness, or a lack of knowledge.

None of the letters by themselves is an elephant. In fact, there are many non-elephant words that use those letters. I’ve formed several in this meditation, and I will continue to do so. The letters in and of themselves remain useful, even if they aren’t, alone, helping anyone to actually visualize an elephant.

Looking closer, perhaps I may find it significant (or symbolic?) that the letter E is repeated three times, or perhaps I might feel the inclusion of the ‘ph’ is archaic and needlessly elongates the presentation of the word, moreso because it is confusing for non-native English readers (who generally understand our language by hearing it long before they understand how to spell it), and should have been replaced with an ‘f’ a long time ago. That is, if we really want the widest readership to know from this representation that we are indeed talking about an elephant.

This is a rather verbose way of saying that while ELEPHANT is the word that communicates an elephant, E, L, E, P, H, A, N, and T do not need to be affirmed as 8 individual elephants that make up one big elephant. It is absurd for me to declare that I know that the letter “P”, which is part of the Elephant, is truly by itself an elephant, simply because it is part of the makeup of the complete word Elephant.

In fact, when we translate the word ELEPHANT into another language, simply transliterating the individual letters into a different writing system doesn’t end up helping those in the receiving language understand the idea we were trying to communicate any better than if we had left it alone. The entire word/concept must be translated as a whole.

It is silly to say that because the word might be translated elefante, or slon, or 象, that none of those translation are really valid to represent an elephant, because none of them include or properly emphasize the letter ‘P’,

So what?

When I affirm that volumes of Scripture are the Word of God that communicate a messageimage from Him, that does not necessitate that I affirm that every word, story, affirmation, character, jot or tittle make up individually selected words of God.

While sometimes a letter can also happen to serve as a good shorthand summary of the word entire (“I”, for example, might a pretty good summary of “Individual”), at times we can find ourselves far more interested in spreading the letters used by God rather than the actual message – the Word of God. And sometimes the letter we chose changes how we view the Word itself. (What if I chose “U” instead?).

I affirm that the vessel, the word as a whole, indeed communicates something powerful that we are meant to listen to as a whole. I don’t necessarily affirm that the individual parts – in English, Hebrew, Greek, Reformed Egyptian, or otherwise – need to, or are meant to, be seen as equally valuable individual words of God that, in isolation, communicate timeless truth or fact.

I do, however, affirm that I see each collection of scripture that we accept as a Church as the Word of God, and as vessels that can, have, and do communicate and provoke profound inspired insight into the relationship between God and Man. Inasmuch as that singular WORD is translated correctly, and we don’t spend all our time trying to transliterate each and every jot and tittle that atomically compose that Word.

And when we take later Words in the divine sentence into consideration, and also anticipate that there will be yet more Words before the arrival of a Period, that, I think, is when the message begins to be able to be received, and understood.

Otherwise, sometimes, we just can’t see the Elephants for the Ps.

REVIEW: Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy

Bokovoy_Authoring1

Can a faithful Latter-day Saint accept the possibility that what are commonly called the Books of Moses were not actually written by Moses? Why would we want to? Would this necessarily undermine scriptural authority, and go against what is seen as clear modern revelation?

These are important and relevant questions for Mormons! And now, for the first time, they are properly addressed in a faithful, and easy to understand manner.

In this book, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis – Deuteronomy, the first of a Trilogy exploring the authorship of the Old Testament canon in general (and also the first in an exciting new series of ‘Contemporary Studies in Scripture’ by Kofford Books) David Bokovoy ( a PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East with an MA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University – and also currently serving as an LDS Youth Seminary Teacher) presents what I can unconditionally note is one of the most important books ever written for study and appreciation of the Old Testament from a faithful LDS Perspective.

Many LDS members, if they have been exposed to bits and pieces of secular biblical scholarship, including Higher Criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis, see such a departure from how they are used to experiencing the Old Testament that they either immediately discard the new knowledge, or allow it to create cracks in their faith.

David Bokovoy beautifully demonstrates how neither of these reactions are necessary, and that an accurate understanding of mainstream biblical scholarship, far from decreasing one’s faith, can add immeasurably to one’s appreciation of not only the formation and writings of the Old Testament, but also its relationship to scriptures of the Restoration, such as the Book of Moses and the rest of the Joseph Smith Translation, the Book of Abraham, and even the Book of Mormon itself.

Continue reading

Worlds Without Number

hebrew-cosmology-newOne of the most beautiful and profound passages in Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon (see my review here, and for heaven’s sake, buy the book here!) is in regards to Science, and the Creation – which also happens to be the topic for this week’s Gospel Doctrine Sunday School Class in many wards.

Miller discusses the Genesis creation account, and notes that it is framed using the cosmology, or ‘world picture’ in the mind of the pre-scientific ancients, and that God spoke their language, and used their imagery to inspire an illustration of His work in their world.

Following a beautiful summary of what this world looked like to the ancients, Miller commented:

“I believe in a literal reading of this text. I believe the Hebrews literally thought the world was like that, and I believe that God literally ran with it and revealed his grace at work in their lives through it.  More, I believe that God is just as literally showing himself to us in and through the continually rolling revelation that is science as we know it.  The world given to us is not the same world given to them.  We have two worlds here.  But though our worlds diverge, it is the same God peeping through.  Believing that the God of their world is just as surely the God of ours doesn’t commit us to believing in their version of the world.  Rather, it commits us to believing in a God whose grace is full enough to fill them both.” (p. 54)

It was with this profound thought in mind, that I read through Moses 1 in the Pearl of Great Price again.

The Lord instructs the prophet,

“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.

And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many.

But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33–35)

In this inspired modern introduction to an inspired revised Bible, we are given instruction that what is about to be presented should be interpreted only in the context of a certain single world[view], and that we are to understand that there are so many more world[view]s out there. Continue reading

REVIEW: Letters to a Young Mormon

LettersCover_FINALThe Neal A. Maxwell Institute has just released the first volume in their ‘Living Faith’ series. Letters to a Young Mormon, by Adam Miller, is a small, pocket-sized book with barely 70 full pages of text.

I’m finding it very hard to describe this book. Mainly because I’m trying to restrain my initial impressions to shout HALLELUJAH from the housetops at its very existence.

This book, if read and distributed, has the power to do extraordinary good. If you look at the table of contents, you might think these short chapters are simply a mirror of what you might see in For The Strength of Youth:

Agency, Work, Sin, Faith, Scripture, Prayer, History, Science, Hunger, Sex, Temples, Eternal Life.

I view this book, actually, as a perfect, beautiful and rich compliment, companion, and addendum to that institutional book of standards. The chapter on ‘History’, I think, contains within it a beautiful summary of what this book is – it is noted how the real life experiences of those who grappled with understanding and living Gospel principles can generally be realistically a bit more complicated than some of the simple illustrations and stories we tend to use to address them in Church meetings, and that the struggles and complexity of those in the past is actually a form of good news for us – because we are more like them than we often make clear. Miller writes:

Our church manuals and histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, so they pretend to only like the same vanilla things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well.”  (p 47-48).

From my own personal experience writing this, coupled with the other reviews I’ve seen around, such an acknowledgement is empowering, affirming, and incredibly faith-promoting. I know that there are many in the Church who feel this way, but without having contact with someone else saying it, they may sadly feel alone, or like their life experience is out of place what is thought to be the ideal Church experience.

What Miller does is not to criticize the Church, nor to criticize your experience. It is very strongly to affirm and illustrate the essential and vital compatibility of two. In his introduction, he notes,

I mean only to address the real beauty and costs of trying to live a Mormon life. And I hope to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon life or Mormonism.” (p. 7)

Sometimes, the inspired models that have been used earnestly and effectively in the past to illustrate and attempt to explain who God is and how he works to a particular audience are unintentionally turned into a conceptual constraining box, rather than a stepladder to being able to accept greater knowledge and understanding. God is bigger than the story boxes used to illuminate who he is – and Miller claims that looking around us, we can see a downpour of revealed knowledge about the world, and how God works. The problem comes when we try to shove new knowledge into old story constructs. That can lead us to feeling stuck, frustrated, and confused. New wine in old wineskins, so to say. His response is liberating:

The question isn’t: ‘can evolution be made to fit with the biblical idea of the world?’ The question is: ‘Can evolution be made to fit with the God who showed himself in that biblical world?’ I don’t have any revelatory answers about how they fit, but given that both God and evolution are real, I assume the answer is yes. They do fit.  Now it’s up to us to open our doors, zip up our slickers, and step out into the storm of revelations raining down upon us. It’s up to us to keep thinking and praying and testing from here.” (p. 55)

Amen, Amen, Amen!

I have far more I want to say about this book. But the more I write about it, the more it’s keeping you from reading this small wonder for itself.

Buy this book. Read this book. Share it with all of your Mormon friends, young and old. Read it with them. Discuss it with them.

At this moment, I can’t think of a more faith-affirming, testimony building, intellectually and emotionally stimulating LDS devotional publication that I have previously read. This book has the potential to help many see the love and works of God at work in their lives clearer than they may have been willing – or able – to acknowledge before. This book fills a need. I extend wholehearted gratitude to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for the publication of this important volume. I truly believe their namesake would be pleased.

If you really need to read more to be convinced, there is a selection from his chapter on Sin online here. Or just go ahead and buy it on amazon for $8.96. You will not be disappointed.

Divine Councils, Blood, Clay, and the Sacrament

This year, members of the LDS Church through its Gospel Doctrine curriculum are studying a combination of the Old Testament, and the texts from the Pearl of Great Price with an Old Testament setting (Abraham, Moses).

I’ve decided to do a two-fold reading of these works this year – one as participation in the communal devotional reading and studying of these texts, and one from an historical-critical perspective, approaching and experiencing the texts in the order they were composed, as best as can be determined by scholarship.

This week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson theme is “Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born”, with assigned readings from Abraham 3, Doctricouncil-in-heaven-mormon-doctrinene and Covenants 138, and Moses 4.  A key theme of the lesson, according to the manual, is “Abraham and Moses are shown in vision that Jesus Christ was chosen in the Council in Heaven to be our Savior and that we chose to follow him.” Other bloggers have done some great and thoughtful analyses of this lesson, such as Ben Spackman and Joe Spencer. I’ve even considered an alternate and expanded narrative of these passages a few years ago, in my blog post, “The Three Rejected Roles of Satan”.

It was with all of these thoughts rolling around in my mind, that I sat down for what I had intended to be an unrelated historical critical study, and read the 18th Century BCE Akkadian epic of Atrahasis. Continue reading

Mourning With Those That Mourn: A Homily on the Lord’s Supper

The following is adapted from a message I presented as a Sacrament Meeting talk in two wards of the Sugar Hill Georgia Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In one of the earliest of our New Testament Scriptures, the Apostle Paul writes to the Christian community in Corinth. It appears they had taken the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, and simply merged it as part of a regularly scheduled raucous feasting (see 1 Corinthians 11:18–34 ). In fact, part of the spirit of these large social feasts that took the place of thoughtful worship had contributed to feelings of social division and contempt among the believing community – it was the transformation of something holy into a meaningless parody of “eat, drink and be merry.” (see Luke 12:16–21, 2 Nephi 28-7).

After a brief yet sharp condemnation of their practices, Paul, with apostolic authority and experience, explains the simple and sacred nature of what was known as the ritual, ordinance, or Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

This is still a common theme with modern Church General Authorities to make such corrections when deemed necessary. In 2001, Elder Vaughn J Featherstone presented a modern day epistle to the Church inviting each of us to reassess how we might approach and contribute to the experience of our Sacrament Meetings in the Church today. (see “Sacrament Meeting and the Sacrament” Ensign, September 2001 – http://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/09/sacrament-meeting-and-the-sacrament?lang=eng )

“Throughout the Church each week”, he wrote, “members gather for the opportunity to partake of the sacrament. This is a deep and meaningful privilege, an expression of God’s love for His children. Among those who gather may be people who are suffering deeply, perhaps due to wayward children, financial stress, debilitating illness, death, depression, loneliness, despair, sin, or sorrow. It is important, therefore, that sacrament meetings accomplish their purpose. What we do in them may be more important to someone there than we would ever know. Sacrament meeting is often the primary means for rescuing the troubled soul.”

Sometimes, I like to recall and consider the circumstances of the attendants of that First Sacrament Meeting, in the event known to us traditionally as the Last Supper. As Paul explained in his letter, It was carried out by “[t]he Lord Jesus” himself, “the same night in which he was betrayed,” (1 Corinthians 11:23)

The last week of the mortal life of Jesus of Nazareth was filled with confusion and anticipation for his disciples. Jesus had entered Jerusalem amidst pomp and circumstance, with disciples and oppressed faithful alike hailing the entrance of their King.

Passover was coming, and the deeper meaning of the entrance of one who was whispered about as the Lord’s Anointed into the Holy City was not lost. Jesus had been compared with Moses and Elijah, two holy and revered prophets known for their bold ministry to the children of Israel during times of oppression.

Ttriumphal-entry-jesus-1078565-wallpaperhis particular Passover week, the Judeans would have looked around and seen their Roman governors as being a new variation of the Egyptian oppressors of old. And now this Prophet, like Moses, like Elijah, had come to town.

Would the events of old be relived? Would, as the writings of the Prophet Isaiah had been interpreted, the Roman Oppressors truly be cut down by the acts of this so-called Anointed King? Jesus of Nazareth was growing a larger and closer knit group of devoted followers. Would they be confronting the Lord’s enemies like Elijah did with the Priests of Baal?

Would the champions of Rome fall as did the Goliath facing their youthful Davidic King walking into Battle?

It was towards the end of the week, that the special and sacred evening meal was held. Some of the Gospel writers suggest we see it as a Passover meal. Another gives the impression that it was earlier and distinct. Paul doesn’t signify, but in any case, it was a sacred, yet somber Royal Meal, with the Messiah and his most devoted servants

Today, prior to the blessing of the elements of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a hymn was sung, recalling the death of the Lord. Prior to that ancient event, hymns also were sung, likely songs of deliverance and praise to the God of Israel, the deliverer.

At some point during or following the meal Proper, Jesus “took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new [covenant] in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” (1 Corinthians 11:24–26)

Imagine with me how the disciples, hoping for some sort of triumphant victory in the coming days, would have received this message. After all, we, as the congregation receiving the elements stand today in their place.

But… Remember The Lord’s death? Broken body? Spilled blood?

Perhaps they recalled a particularly divisive message Jesus had delivered recently where Jesus had compared himself to the Manna – the Miracle Bread – that God had provided the Israelites in the wilderness during Moses’ leadership (see John 6). His own life, Jesus proclaimed, was a gift even greater than that announced by Moses. He was the Bread of Life, in Flesh and Blood, he proclaimed, sent down from Heaven from the Father. And while those who feasted on the manna of old were sustained for a time and then died, only those willing to feast on the living Banquet He was bringing to the Table should know and experience true everlasting life.

A promise of Abundant Life through the Savior was given. As the bread representing the body of the Lord was dispersed and received by each disciple present, what could they have been thinking?

What do you think about?

The Apostle Paul was not present at the meeting, but in time, he had come to intimately know those who were. Perhaps his message to the Corinthians Saints pondered the meaning of dispersing a symbol of the Lord’s one body among all the Disciples of Christ, dividing the body as it were. (see 1 Corinithans 12)

For as the body is one, “wrote Paul, “and hath many [parts, or] members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.”

Have you thought about the fact that when you refer to yourself as a ‘member’ of the Church, the word ‘member’ is in reference is to being, in essence, a body part?

Paul begins with the Unity of the actual Body of the Christ, which he then uses symbolically as a powerful image of the individuals that make up the Church. He then goes on to express the blessings and responsibilities that come as accepting our role as part of the unified Whole through Baptism, and as renewed and re-affirmed when we partake of the emblems of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper:

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body… and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” For the body is not one member, but many.”

It ihands-making-a-circle-200ws a beautiful call to unity. I find this symbol added upon when you think of the symbol of the Resurrection – if the Resurrection is the corruptible body coming together and becoming perfected, think of how that might correspond to the imagery of each of us being considered one part of the symbolic Body of Christ.

Every time we meet together, work together, worship together, after being dispersed, it is a symbol of the parts coming together in Restoration and Resurrection.

I find in this a beautiful parallel to the pre-baptismal Covenant found administered by Alma in the Book of Mormon.

now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God… that ye may have eternal life— Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:8–10)

Think about that willingness to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. This is a powerful charge and calling extended to all of those who desire to be united in the Church of Christ.

It is inspiring. If you can have but the desire to show love and kindness to another who is suffering, you have a place. This doesn’t require you to know the depths of what the suffering individual is going through, nor does it require you to try to convince them that you understand them. It is an invitation to emulate the savior, and recognize suffering.

In the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, we have an account of the almighty God looking around and seeing suffering all aroujesusweepingnd – and what does he do? He weeps! It is shocking – and paradigm shattering – to the observant prophet Enoch that one as great and powerful as God can be affected by the sorrow and ills of mankind.

“Yet,” he says, with dawning understanding, “You are there.” (see Moses 7:28–33)

Sometimes, it is just being there that matters, and acknowledging to the suffering individual that things indeed are bad – but that you’re there if needed. We do not need to – and in most cases should not attempt to– try and craft a theological justification or explanation for the cause of someone’s pain [1].

To explain why something is not as bad as it may seem. Especially if it comes as a result of illness, natural disaster, or results of another’s poor or even wicked decisions. Making up a reason why you feel it’s okay that God allowed something terrible to happen is rarely comforting, and, while well intended, often can do more damage than healing. There also have been many cases where it has served more to comfort the person giving the explanation than the person actually suffering.

Just be available. Be there. Make your love known. Be willing to grieve even if no other type of service is desired or welcome. Although you may not feel you are actually doing anything, I promise you and give my witness that you are.

If you are willing – partakers of the emblems of the Lord’s Supper today have affirmed again today that they are – The Lord will find a use for you. He will find people and lives for you to bless, both within the Church, and without. Likewise, he is even now working with and preparing others to lift you, support you, to bless you, and to comfort you.

Nobody is useless in the Lord’s Church. Nobody is useless, period. No calling or responsibility enhances one’s standing in the Kingdom of God more than the expression of true charity to another. It is the most basic element of our baptismal covenant.

If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” and in fact, Paul goes on to say, “Nay, much more those members of the body, which [may] seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we [may tend to] think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; … that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

Another way of saying this was famously and clearly articulated by the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin, “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17)

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When we partake of the emblems or symbols of the Lord’s Body in the Sacrament, we are renewing a pledge of allegiance to the Lord, and by extension, His people.

The disciples on the day these symbols were first extended to them were given a foretaste or vision of the Heavenly Victory Banquet, when it was promised they would unitedly dine with the King in his Kingdom at the Last Day (see Mark 14:25, Revelation 19:7–9). A great and beautiful Eternal Family Meal where all were welcome as Heirs and Children of the King. (see Luke 15:20–24)

Dark days would come before that vision was realized. Within a day, one of the Lord’s own servants had betrayed him, and Jesus of Nazareth was killed. A more devastating blow could not have come to Jesus’ disciples. It was if on the eve of the Exodus, Pharaoh had executed Moses. It was if the Priests of Baal had called down fire, and killed Elijah. Their David had just been speared by the Roman Goliath. It was a dark night of unmet expectations.

With Joy and Rejoicing we rightfully celebrate and remember the following Sunday, the day the reports came that the Stone in front of the Savior’s Tomb had been rolled away, the day when the news of the Resurrection of the Savior came to and inspired the Apostles. We rejoice in the spreading of this message of the new understanding of the Good News following the blessing of New Life. We smile in the story of the Two sorrowing disciples on the road to Emmaus who dined with the risen Lord, unawares, and only recognized Him as the bread was broken and blessed by him. (see Luke 24:13–32)

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The participants of the First Sacrament Meeting were faithful individuals wracked by uneasiness, discomfort, doubt, and sorrow. And yet the Lord promised them a reunion, comfort, abundance, and peace as he gave them a charge.

Indeed, immediately following this event, Jesus let Peter know of the struggles that would yet be faced by him, even expressing that he knew that in the chaos to come, Peter would do the unthinkable, and even deny knowing the Lord. This is immediately followed up with – not condemnation – easter5but words of trust, hope, pre-emptive forgiveness, and peace.

“[Peter],” the Lord said, “[Even knowing that I know this, ] Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (see John 13:37–38, 14:1-30 – it is best if we ignore the chapter division between Chapter 13 and 14 when we read! See note [2])

Brothers and Sisters, I believe this message to Peter sums up a key message we should take home with us as we partake of and participate in the Sacrament.

Those partaking of the first Sacrament were worried, hurting, and confused. The Lord let them know that, yes, final victory was further out than they had hoped, and difficult times would indeed still come ahead – but still, to remember this day.

Remember that even before the worst of the challenges manifested themselves, the Lord himself told them they would happen – but that he also promised ultimate victory. He affirmed that He loved them. That even though he knew they would make mistakes and at times lose sight of their faith, that he still loved them, would love them, and trusted them, and was even then preparing the way for their ultimate happiness, joy, and comfort… and that yes, they would indeed be reunited. And it would be joyous.

As much as many of us might wish that the end of sorrow and final victory over Evil would occur tomorrow, in all likelihood it will not.

For many of us, difficult times are ahead, in many different aspects of our lives. But the key message is to remember that the Lord is already ahead of us. That he knows we’re not perfect. That even though we may misstep and be the cause of some of our own sorrows, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

When we partake of the Sacrament and remember that night, we can feel, along with Peter, the assurance that the Lord is merciful and forgiving.

As we review and renew our standing covenant to lovingly remember and serve our Master, we can again have and be reminded of that assurance we have already been given that the Lord has already forgiven us, and we can be at peace when the hard times come. This ability to have this assurance and this peace is the heart of Atonement.

[1] Doctrine and Covenants 89:21 is often used as justification that God causes all things, and that he is offended when we fail to realize all this. It is important to note that the scripture does not equate God’s hand with God’s causing of the event. I see this as a call to recognize that in all that are occurring, his hand is there offering all the comfort he has to offer, and in many cases, is then prompting someone else to come bring their experiences to the table to help comfort. I see this as suggested that God is saddened and offended when people suggest that God does not care, and that he is not “there”.

[2] Thanks to Ardis E. Parshall for this beautiful perspective on this passage: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2011/06/26/an-extraordinary-gospel-doctrine-moment/

REVIEW: War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives

warandpeace

Title: “War & Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives”

Editors: Patrick Q. Mason, J. Davis Pulspher, Richard L. Bushman

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2012

Price: $29.95 (Paperback),  or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.

If you’re looking for a sign that Mormon Studies is not only maturing, but has significant practical, political and theological relevance, I’ve found your book.

If you’re looking for evidence that smart, faithful, and creative Latter-day Saints can express diverging perspectives on sensitive hot-button issues while refraining from creating straw-man caricatures of the opposing position, I’ve found your book.

If you’re new to Mormon Studies, and are looking for a helpful overview or sampler of different fields-within-the-field, whether it be history, Book of Mormon/Scriptural narrative deconstruction, theology, or simply personal lived experience narratives, (and more, in addition to combinations of the above), I’ve found your book.

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From an LDS perspective, I see War & Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives as being an exemplar in constructing bridges between inhabitants of opposing schools of thought within the Wide World of Mormonism. Continue reading

New Youth Curriculum, and the Digital Facilitation of New Revelation

 

[Cross posted over at Worlds Without End: A Mormon Studies Roundtable, a wonderful group blog where I have recently become a contributor]

joseph_phoneI have often considered the massive practical difficulties in regards to promulgation that would be involved if the Church today were to present a radical, paradigm-, policy- or doctrinal-shifting revelation, the likes of 1978’s Official Declaration 2. This difficulty can be seen on a smaller scale, with relatively minor decisions to subtly update the presentation of the modern scriptural canon and normative manuals, such as “Gospel Principles”.

For example, in the recent past, there have been some well-documented updates to some of the introductory material and chapter headers in the Book of Mormon. While some of these changes appeared in some printings of the Doubleday Mass Market edition of the Book of Mormon in 2007, the official church print editions as of yet remain unaltered.

However, these changes are to be found in the current official electronic text, found on lds.org, and all of the mobile apps, such as LDS Gospel Library. Which, at least in the wards I’ve attended in the United States, is becoming more and more the standard edition referenced in Church meetings.

This can create confusion. For example, during a recent Gospel Principles class, I was asked to read from the introduction to the Book of Mormon. I read aloud from my official Gospel Library app on my smartphone that the Lamanites  are “among the ancestors of the American Indians.

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My wife nudged me, and pointed to her print edition, hinting that I left out the word “principal” as found in her newly purchased leather-bound mini quad.

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Both are current and authorized editions of Church documents. While this example can validly be seen as a minor detail , it still raises the question of which is to be institutionally preferred? As far as I am aware, the changes to the explanatory introductory material, footnotes, and section headers [1] have never been officially announced or presented to Church members. My experience is that, five years after they have been altered, most Church members do not even know that these changes exist.

Similarly, while the publication and existence of the new 2010 edition of Gospel Principles was well known, no official attention was called to the individual changes in wording and emphasis, and what their significance may have been. When the new edition was first released in July 2009, I personally went line by line and documented each and every change, no matter how minor, and documented my discoveries on an LDS Message board. The reason and significance for individual changes was at times heatedly debated. [2] Since the manual’s implementation as an official replacement in 2010, I have seen teachers still content to use the old print edition, thinking any changes were only in form of format and shifting of some chapter orders. They had no significant reason to believe otherwise.

***

The coming of a new and completely revamped curriculum for youth has been rumored and whispered  about (and clamored for) throughout the web in the past year. Well, it’s finally here, and will most likely be announced and explained in this weekend’s General Conference.

While I’m sure there will be much more to be said about the new curriculum in the coming months before its implementation in January 2013, both by Church Leaders and throughout the bloggernacle, there is one key element about its presentation – and very existence – that I find fascinating, and worth exploring.

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REVIEW and MUSINGS – Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

Brigham-Young-Pioneer-Prophet-1John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is an excellent book. An important book. And a deeply inconvenient book.

Brigham Young holds an interesting place in the lives of Latter-day Saints. At the same time we celebrate his leadership of the Twelve following Joseph’s death, his leading of the Exodus West, and the firm establishment of the building blocks undeniably leading to the longevity and survival of the Church, it is quite generally understood that, doctrinally, quotes by Brigham Young should often be taken ‘with a grain of salt’. That he was very opinionated, liked to speculate, and often was very confusing. Mixed with some wince-worthy quotes about race, and the role of Adam, this is generally all that most members know about Brigham Young. The larger than life epic high points make it easy to digest that he ‘said some weird things’, and then we move on.

John Turner’s biography does for Brigham Young what Richard Bushman did for Joseph Smith in his groundbreaking Rough Stone Rolling. Turner presents everything you’d heard about the Prophet, adds a lot more details you probably didn’t know, and nuances both with necessary context often removed from isolated antagonistic anecdotes or hagiographic prooftexts.

While I  completed the Joseph Smith volume with some new and surprising (to me) information, I also found stirred within myself a powerful and strong respect for Joseph as an individual. A new world  – a new paradigm – was opened up to me, and I began a roller-coaster journey of exploring the nature of scripture and revelation. The Joseph Smith papers has greatly helped flesh this out, as has additional volumes such as Staker’s Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, and Sam Brown’s In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. These have broached very difficult questions concerning the nature of prophets, revelation, and scripture, and have been helpful friends on a journey of discovery, introspection, and a renewed – and in some ways readjusted – commitment to my Faith.

I expected the same sort of reaction while reading Turner’s Brigham Young book, but, initially, something else happened.

One of the review blurbs on the cover is this quote by Richard Bushman, which I think is a precisely accurate expression as to how I would explain this book:

“The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.”

Turner, who unlike Bushman is not LDS, is nevertheless extremely and somewhat surprisingly generous to Joseph, and to Brigham. I noted several occasions where my experience has shown that many other authors would have taken easy potshots, and illustrated less than generous conclusions. Turner is very quick to refer to other works of scholarship on more nuanced figures and persons and events rather than to make strong value judgments on his own.  (In the afterward, he thanks, among others, accomplished LDS scholars Jonathan Stapley and Sam Brown as being cultural guides of sorts. I’m familiar with their work, and their influence is very apparent in the text.)

It is Turner’s very clear generosity that makes many of the more uncomfortable and explicit aspects of Brigham Young’s life (foul language, politics, death threats, racial views, apparent apathy to murder) when presented, even more discomfiting than they may have been otherwise.

Brigham Young, by necessity, went beyond Joseph. Elements that Joseph only envisioned and began, Brigham brought to pass – Namely the in-the-open living of the concepts of Dynastic Family Chains, and a completely independent Kingdom of God in the West. Not only was Brigham a designated and authoritative spiritual guide, but he was also a temporal King in very deed. He had an earthly Kingdom he felt a duty and obligation to protect as his stewardship at all costs. In the context of frontier America, especially on the cusp of the Civil War, this was not an easy, nor a ‘clean’ job.

Turner did a fantastic job contextualizing – and to the degree possible, normalizing – the rough and tumble, harsh and bloody nature of the Antebellum West, and its related politics. Such a milieu can be extremely difficult for us 21st Century Americans to really and truly grasp. I’m still working at grasping it. It truly was a different world – and Brigham Young was not only a firm resident in this world, he was viewed as particularly radical within it.

If you’re seeking to ‘like’ Brigham more, I don’t think this book will be the best tool to accomplish that. As Bushman said, you will see a more violent, course, and angry individual than most have come to expect.

What I do think I beneficially gleamed is understanding. Understanding – it is important to stress – is very different than justification. Without feeling the need to support or condone all that Brigham did, I feel that perhaps I understand more clearly this powerful leader’s perspective, why he felt he needed to do and say the things he did, and perhaps see more clearly the goals he felt were the ends by which nearly all means were justified.

Brigham was fiercely loyal to his people, and to what he understood as his stewardship and responsibility for the survival of a literal and divinely appointed Kingdom of God. While we may find his broad ideals admirable, we can – and most, I believe, will – still find many aspects of his approaches to life’s challenges deeply troubling. And certainly not as things they could see being said and done by, for example, Thomas S. Monson.

As I neared the end of the book, what I found most fascinating was not the details of the life of Brigham himself, but what our reactions to him and his life reveal about our deeply held views of God’s personality and character. Many of the attributes we may find naturally repugnant in Brigham Young’s doings are attributes and actions that have traditionally been ascribed to God for millennia, and are found in our scriptures.

God, as presented throughout the scriptural records, was understood and presented as being willing to deceive (1 Kings 22:23), condoning extrajudicial killing and massacres (Numbers 31:17–18) , being inconsistent in his sometimes subjugating (see nearly all laws in Leviticus treating women as property)/sometimes exalting positions on women (see praise of Deborah, Esther), being discriminatory by lineage, employing fiery and harsh rhetoric (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), etc. These were popular divine attributes part and parcel of admitting the Ultimate Sovereignty of God.

An encounter with an undiluted Brigham Young is a powerful reality check for our understanding and approach to the scriptural records of God.

Joseph Smith took the once-upon-a-time nature and views of Ancient Prophets and Living Scripture, and demanded that we confront them and wrestle with them as a present and practical reality. I see Brigham Young doing much of the same for traditional – and scriptural – expressions of the deeds and sayings of God. If confronted with the Old Testament’s Yahweh in our present reality, as he was literally presented in that record – in broad strokes, would we see him as a Loving Fatherly King, or a Deviant Tyrant? Would we respect him out of love, or out of the Fear of Retribution? Just as there were some who saw God through both lenses, it is fascinating that the same can be applied to Brother Brigham. The relationship between the Saints and Brigham was just as complicated as the relationship between ancient Israel and their God.

To me, Brigham fulfilled his role as revelator, not in telling us about God, but by revealing how we all truly do feel about the actual ancient, traditional, scriptural expression of God.

While Jesus was sent as a presentation and revelation of the God Who Is, I suggest that Brigham presented a contrasting revelation of the God who the religious world actually claimed to love and worship and adore. While providing extraordinary, necessary, and perhaps miraculous temporal and practical services to the Church and its members, I find the strength in the broad strokes of Brigham’s spiritual ministry to be that he created a sharp contrast which made the ministry of Jesus shine even brighter. His life, most likely unknown to him, was a living parable. In a fascinating way, Brigham’s life and theology paved the way in later years for a strong and lasting reformation of the LDS relationship with and view of the attributes of God.

We can read the Old Testament and declare, authentically and rightfully,  “God did great and wonderful things,” note some inspiring tender moments, and still be incredibly disturbed at the implications of God’s nature based on his actions, leading it to be hard to love and have Faith in God as he is presented there. While I do believe in God, I believe that a progression of light and knowledge that has come into the world has revealed the inaccuracies, misunderstandings , and misrepresentations of key aspects of His personality and attributes as understood and expressed by the ancients.

I believe that Scriptures and Prophets are inconvenient by design. I believe what we learn from our interaction and confrontation with their lives and teachings is generally far more beneficial and conducive to growth and coming to know God than the correlated sum of their words and teachings alone.

The existence and daily lives of the first pair of true Modern Prophets – Joseph and Brigham – messily and inconveniently demand that we – Mormons as well as those who are not – confront and revisit our perceptions and paradigms of the Divine.

180 Years (and 1 month) Ago In Church Periodicals: August 1832

ems_1-3I’ve been trying to make sure I get these up during the same month they were initially published, but this one ended up being a little delayed. Hopefully, I can get a September 1832 edition up here before the month ends, and then we’ll be back on track. I also soon hope to have a review up for the fascinating brand new Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John Turner soon. So watch this space!

This third issue of the Evening and Mormon Star was fascinating. Some brief notes/highlights before we jump into the detailed outline:

The Revelations had a strong emphasis on gifts of the Spirit, and the principle of discerning them, noting that the Bishop is authorized to call out and recognize spiritual manifestations that are not legitimate. This is a fascinating follow up to last month’s calls to order in emigration to Zion.

The Enoch passage presents the first full presentation in print – that I’m aware – of material from Joseph’s expansion and revision of the Bible. While it was not canonized until well after Joseph’s death, the material in the ‘New Translation’ was made known both in the periodicals, and, eventually, in some of the material presented in the Lectures on Faith. The Enoch material became an important framework and model for ‘likening’ the Church’s Zion Project – so much so that modern revelations on the development of the United Firm were ‘coded’ and re-written into an expansion of the Enoch story (see Christopher Smith’s excellent article on this in the April 2011 Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies -  “The Inspired Fictionalization of the 1835 United Firm Revelations“)

Among other details, the Enoch passage presents the prototypical formation of Zion, its taking up into heaven, and a promise of its joining with a Latter-day Zion at the last day. There is also an early mention of the idea of exclusion of Canaanites and the seed of Cain from the evangelized, both, while not equated in the text, are each noted as being ‘black’ in some form, and having no place among the people.

The conclusion of the “Excellence of Scripture” article (from another Christian periodical) presents an interesting affirmation of the purity and sufficiency of scripture – a strange contrast to a key message of the Church, the claims of the Book of Mormon, and even other articles within this very issue.

Two other unique editorials by W.W. Phelps include a note that one should not hope to convert Israelites (including the Jews, and the Josephites/Lamanites), as that will only occur at the Lord’s Coming, and a significant effort at charting the timeline of history, with the conclusion that the End of the Age is coming in only 9 years time!

Check out further details below. Continue reading