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REVIEW: “Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision”

REVIEW: “Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision”

Howe_Bushman__ParallelsTitle: “Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision”

Editors: A. Scott Howe, Richard L. Bushman

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2012

Paperback: 226 pages

Price: $24.95 Kindle edition:  $9.95

Mormonism,” said Brigham Young, “embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to Mormonism. The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. …There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fulness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods.

Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision brings together a series of essays that were first presented at Claremont University in 2009.

Edited by Richard Bushman and A. Scott Howe, this volume seeks to explore, practically, what Brigham Young envisioned.

Some of the earliest classic texts of Mormonism, such as those by the Pratt Brothers, sought to place the religious visionary principles of Mormonism as they understood them within the scientific world as was then understood. True Religion was not separate from science, but was perhaps even the overarching science.

Parley Pratt wrote in A Key to the Science of Theology, that “The present is an age of progress, of change, of rapid advance, and of wonderful revolutions…A new era has dawned upon our planet, and is advancing with accelerated force – with giant strides. [Advances in’ technology], with their progressive improvements in speed, safety and convenience, are extending and multiplying the means of travel, of trade, of association, and intercommunication between countries whose inhabitants have been comparatively unknown to, or estranged from, each other.”

Pratt then, in the context of his book, sought to express how these understandings apply to his vision of the Gospel in that day. He would have been saddened to see a day where the Church stopped seeking to learn from and apply the advances of the world’s knowledge. The authors of Parallels and Convergences are seeking – and in my opinion, succeeding – to carry on Parley Pratt’s vision, letting it be enhanced by our “age of progress”, rather than feel hindered or threatened by it.

It’s a book of marvelous speculations that open up the vision of how beautifully and practically Mormonism can (and probably even should) be wed with our increase in scientific knowledge.

You will find essays that excitedly explain how quantum physics, nanotechnology, transhumanism, space exploration, and even virtual programmed worlds open to our eyes potential models of the eternities, and even the very nature of resurrection, the millennium, and ‘spiritual creation’. The essays come from a wide degree of differing personal interpretations of the Eternal Story of Mormonism (some are more inspired by Brigham Young, some B.H Roberts some even Tad Callister and Cleon Skousen), but in the end, prior to my initial assumptions, it doesn’t diminish their vision, but rather serves to effectively illustrate how expansive and powerful ideas inspired by the Wide World of Mormonism can be.

While I didn’t always agree with the ultimate conclusions of the essayists, all of them made me consider some aspects I hadn’t before. In one early essay, due to the essayist’s stated belief in one particular theological model, I initially read through it not expecting to learn, or to be enlightened in any way by it, having made up my mind that the assumptions the essay were based on would not to speak to me. But I was surprised when an idea and interpretational paradigm was presented that indeed had not occurred to me before. In spite of not expecting or particularly desiring to learn from this essay, I was taught, and inspired. That is the sign of a remarkable teacher.

A key message of the entire collection is that our faith and vision doesn’t need to be held back by ancient shepherds’ or pioneers’ technology and understanding of the workings of the world. We can ‘map’ our technological understanding and development onto their expansive vision – and in many ways, that may indeed be the only way to bring their visions into reality and fulfillment. It is a call to not just hope that some day we may live again, or that we will live in a magically made paradise earth – but rather to very literally, through our acquired knowledge and technology, and guided by inspired vision, to work and apply engineering skills to “bring to pass the immortality and Eternal Life of man”.

This book was a blast. I highly recommend it.

Tithing, Malachi, Jesus, and the Book of Mormon

Tithing, Malachi, Jesus, and the Book of Mormon

colbert-christianity-atheism-novel-apologetics

I presented a form of the following as a Sacrament Meeting talk in our Stake this past Sunday, February 19, 2012. My assigned topic by our Stake President was Malachi 3:8–10.

Our Stake President has taught that it is regularly the case that the stories found in the scriptures can contain greater lessons when viewed as an illustrative whole, than when viewed as simply the sum of its individual quotes and verses.

In the spirit of this counsel by our Stake President, my message comes from exploring Malachi 3:8–10.

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Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

Michael Heiser, Myth, and My Evolving Approaches to Study of Ancient Scripture

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Recently, Michael Heiser placed online (temporarily) a first draft of his book, “The Myth That Is True”. Among Biblical Studies circles, Heiser is well known for his scholarship concerning the Divine Council in the Bible. He was made more well known in Mormon academic communities by his somewhat lengthy exchanges/debates with LDS Scholar David Bokovoy.

Having a bit of interest in the development and interconnection of OT theology, myth, and history, I excitedly placed the digital draft of Heiser’s book on my Kindle, and began to read.

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No, God didn’t give my wife Cancer.

No, God didn’t give my wife Cancer.

spockIn this past Sunday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson on the Johanine Epistles, there was a discussion about God’s love, and how we all should all be able to not just know about it, but truly feel it. It was suggested that one thing that can cause one to be unable to feel the full effects of that love is sinful behavior. A further conclusion was stated that if someone is unable to feel God’s love, they should take a look at their life, and find out what they need to repent of in order to get right with God.

I quickly voiced an, umm,  clarified perspective.

While it is true that there is sinful behavior that can perhaps dull one’s spiritual and emotional sensitivity, that should never be the first assumption one makes if someone shares that they are having difficulty feeling God’s love.

I have known individuals who have suffered from clinical depression. One of the effects of this can be the deep inability to feel  any pleasant emotion. Our class teacher was quick to acknowledge this, relating an example of  a family member who suffered depression who confided that while they knew intellectually at that time that they loved their children, they just couldn’t feel it at that time. That alone was devastating.

To tell someone who is already depressed that they are depressed and unfeeling because they are a sinner is horrible, destructive, and completely insulting not only to the suffering individual, but to God as well.

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Jesus’ First Vision

Jesus’ First Vision

jesus-baptismI want to begin this post by plugging the fantastic series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John Meier. In unexpected ways, it  has been a wonderful companion to my study of early LDS Church history. The series, written by a believing Catholic scholar, sets out to present all that is knowable about the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth from purely a scholastic perspective, a set of data that could be agreed upon by a theoretical ‘unpapal conclave’ made up of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Atheists, and others. It deeply analyzes the culture of the time, and asks many provocative questions I had not even considered asking.

The second volume in the series ( Volume 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles) opens with an exploration of John the Baptist, and what we can understand concerning Jesus’ relationship to him. In the course of this, the question was raised as to why Jesus actually went to John to be baptized.

LDS generally have a quick answer to that question, an interpretation coming from the Book of Mormon’s  meditative take on the subject in 2 Nephi 31:6–8:

6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?

7 Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.

8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.

This is generally simplified and summed up to express, “Jesus was baptized because baptism was a commandment, and he did it to set an example.”

The assumption generally comes that when Christ was baptized, and the sign of the dove appeared with the concurrent voice declaring his Sonship, that this was nothing new to Jesus, but was rather meant for the benefit of others.

While I had earlier been turned to think of this experience as being a first apocalyptic-esque vision experience for Jesus ( inspired by a reading of Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ), Meir’s book substantially added to the power of this concept for me.

Meier asks about Jesus’ motivations for receiving John’s baptism, a baptism that was presented as a unique means of declaring one’s allegiance to God, and as a sign of protection and one’s freedom of sin, against the coming fiery Eschaton.

The question is first raised, “Was Jesus baptized by John because he was a sinner?” – it is immediately pointed out that, from a historical and scholastic perspective,  this is an impossible question. Since Sin is by definition that which is unpleasing to God and separates one from him, one cannot historically and scholastically determine if anyone has done anything that is ‘unpleasing to God and separates one from him’.

The relevant question, however, is, “”Was Jesus baptized because he thought he could have been a sinner?”

This question blew me away. I had never even considered it before.

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REVIEW: “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”, by Brant Gardner

REVIEW: “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”, by Brant Gardner

giftandpower

Title: "The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”

Author: Brant Gardner

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2011

Price: $34.95 (Available at Amazon.com for 23.07),  or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.

There are three key things that, if a book or paper can accomplish at least one, will instantly endear a book  to my heart forever – completely aside from whether or not I agree with the author’s main or final conclusions:

  1. Cause me to reassess and legitimately question (or even change) a current firmly held position or belief.
  2. Cohesively articulate a concept I had already been independently working on, but in a manner far better and more comprehensive than I could possibly have done.
  3. Help me to re-evaluate my own life, and clarify my own understanding of my own personal lived experience.

As much as #1 and #2 seem to be of necessity mutually exclusive, Brant Gardner’s new book “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon” , which I was grateful to receive as an Advanced Reading Copy from the publisher, happened to do both. And, perhaps more meaningful to me, also accomplished #3.

As a convert to the LDS Church in my early twenties, I have an interesting relationship with the Book of Mormon. Since my first encounter with the Book, as a skeptical and cynical critic, my opinions and theories pertaining to its origin have changed in dramatic ways.

I have run the gamut from viewing it as being a completely uninspired hoax, to being a literal word-for-word divine dictation, from expanded modernized interpretation of an ancient record to an inspired 19th century pseudepigraphon.

Following my first recognition of Something Good inherent in the Book, I have never since regarded the motivations and source of the text as anything but benevolent, and inspired in one way or another.

But everything around its production – especially the more I studied the historical background of Biblical texts, as well as the modern details of Joseph’s youth and the circumstances surrounding the production of the English text of the Book – kept me thinking, and puzzled, wondering how it all ‘worked’. What about the anachronisms? What about the language? What about the revisions?

While not answering every single possible question one might think of, Gardner, in this physically slim tome, still covers an unprecedented amount of material ranging all over the scope of Mormon Studies, even creeping into realms of cognitive science(!).

Gardner writes like a gifted diplomat. He finds value in nearly all that has been published on the subjects under discussion, believing apologist and unbelieving critic alike. You will find favorable use of the works of Dan Vogel and D. Michael Quinn right next to the findings of Richard Bushman, Royal Skousen and Blake Ostler. This book does not invalidate or denigrate any of their valuable work, but rather builds upon it, validating much of their efforts, and yet weaving it together in innovative and clarifying ways I didn’t think could be possible.

Many other prominent scholars who are not specifically writing on the texts of Mormonism are also utilized, and not simply as proof-texts to confirm an already decided point of view.

In fact, Gardner states several times throughout the book itself that what he found through the process of his writing of this book was not completely in tune to what he expected to find.

Make no mistake, the book is certainly written from a faithful perspective. That is, it begins with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is in fact a legitimate translation of an ancient record. The Book does not attempt to explain why he holds this conclusion – as much of that discussion can be found throughout Gardner’s master multi-volume Second Witness: An Analytical Commentary on the Book of Mormon.

This book focuses on not the “if” of it being a translation, but rather the “how”, or process of transmission.

The process by which Gardner presents his theory is a masterful layering of material, that at times may initially appear unrelated to the issue at hand. However, in the final chapter, every skillful layer is brought together in a way more impactful than I could have imagined it. The book is a journey – and it’s a fun one to travel though.

A key theme that gets hammered home pretty well in the early chapters is the importance of removing from our mindset a “religion vs. magic” dichotomy.

The history – and importance – of the exploring the so-called“Magic World View” of Mormon origins is given an important contextualizing survey, from Mark Hoffman to Quinn to the review of Quinn by Stephen Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson, to Dan Vogel.  This is not just some attempt to “normalize” or “inoculate” against the strange view of Joseph Smith the scryer sitting with his head in a hat staring into a seer stone.

While at times presenting repetitive themes that are then seemingly tossed aside, the concept Gardner hammers home – about those actions which we might classify as “magic” being in many cases simply  primitive attempts to scientifically explain otherwise unexplainable actual lived and observed results and experiences -  is in fact an essential part of understanding Gardner’s closing argument.

Now… what exactly is Gardner’s ultimate theory or argument?

There’s a reason Gardner presented it all in a full-length book. I find it extremely difficult to do it justice here.

But to put it very briefly, Gardner argues that the meaning of the content of the historic Book of Mormon was, for all intents and purposes, ‘deposited’ or revealed as pre-language ‘mentalese’, or the brain’s native Language of Thought, which Joseph’s brain was then able to ‘translate’ or work out into his own written and spoken language.

He argues that some of the way this was manifest to Joseph’s consciousness was through his eidetic memory, the scientific term for the documented means of visually recalling information and memories. It was not a matter of Joseph seeing with his eyes, but seeing with his brain – like we all do when we dream. And, technically, how we see in general. The eyes provide information, the brain interprets that information – and sometimes plays tricks on us, and adds its own ideas – and creatively removes other actual data. The interpretation of the light images by the brain is really what we see with. In this case, Joseph’s brain was getting images from the Divine Deposit – not his eyes, and not a random dream.

The seer stone was simply a dark object used as a focusing device, which Joseph had been comfortable using during his youthful time as a scryer, or seer – it was his own way of understanding and describing and projecting his eidetic experiences. Gardner explains in modern scientific terms what Joseph understood with a “folk” explanation, that we today generally write off as “magic”.

So yes, Gardner explains, Joseph did translate, but he wasn’t translating directly from Reformed Egyptian, or even use the plates at all. He was translating from the divinely deposited raw meaning of the text, and working it out into his own language.

Concepts were expressed as concepts, while maintaining structure. Names and proper nouns were transmitted the same way our brains record them – as specific literal data, and not simply as a ‘meaning’. While this sacrifices some of the popular attempts and needs of some to classify certain terms and phases as Hebraisms, it still does quite strongly allow for ancient structural and poetic patterns to come through, although not always perfectly.

This is admittedly just a very crude summation of the ideas expressed in the book, and I almost feel I need to apologize for it. It doesn’t do this work justice by far.

Yet these observations not only potentially explain in a very cohesive and coherent way the process of revelation for the Book of Mormon that accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the text, but also has implications for all Revelations – especially when taking into consideration Joseph’s tendency to revise them, and understand them better as time went on.

In fact, at risk of sounding hyperbolic, I like to refer to it as Gardner’s Grand Unifying Theory of Revelation.

If the initial Revelation was in and of itself a physical experiential deposit in Joseph’s brain/memory, as he gained more understanding, returning to that Deposit would allow greater understanding and meaning and significance to that event. He would have had a wider vocabulary and context with which to express that embedded Experience.

It has particularly interesting implications for Joseph’s adapting understanding and expressions of the First Vision experience, as well as other Divine Manifestations, including, as I see it, the experiences of commissioning to what was later understood as the reception of Priesthood Authority.

On a far more personal note, it also has some fascinating explanatory implication – and resonates quite eerily – with my early experience I wrote about previously , where, as a young teenager, before having learned anything about Mormonism,  I somehow worked out the story of the Restoration (along with VERY similar significant pronouns) in the context of exploring thoughts and concepts that came to my mind as a result of pondering relevant concepts and questions.

When all is said and done, I see this as one of the most important and groundbreaking books to come out in the field of Mormon Studies, at a time where there are many important and groundbreaking books coming out in this very rich and expanding field.

Do not miss this one.

Available at Amazon.com in hardcopy for $23.07, or in a two-part Kindle edition, priced at $9.95 each: Part 1, Part 2.

Groundhog Day (or, I Know When Judgment Day Is)

Groundhog Day (or, I Know When Judgment Day Is)

groundhog-dayFor those who haven’t seen it,1, in the movie Groundhog Day , no-good Phil finds himself living one particular day over-and-over-and-over in an infinite loop. First, he was disoriented. Then he started having a little too much fun with it. Then he got depressed, and kept trying to kill himself to get out. He was tired of the pointless rat-race where he couldn’t progress, where everything was meaningless. It wasn’t until he stopped focusing on living his repetitious day for himself, and dedicated his recurring days in preparation for complete selfless service and betterment of himself (through bringing joy to others for their own sake) that he was ready – and able – to progress.

He stopped living hedonistically, he stopped trying to Get Out, he stopped even focusing on getting to Tomorrow. He focused on developing what he needed to do to make that Day the most meaningful and beneficial Day ever.

In the back of his mind, he probably assumed that this selfless day would just be one more of an infinite loop. That Day was all that mattered. He knew the lives he helped and served would probably be reset at the end of the night, that no eternal good would come from it.

But then Tomorrow really did come. The day showed who he had become. And that’s what made the difference.

To Phil, Judgment Day was always Today. The End of the World was at the end of every night. And tomorrow never came, until, finally, it did.

And in many ways, that’s how I view the doctrine of the Second Coming, and the Judgment.

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Rocks In A Hat, Dumbo’s Magic Flying Feather, and the Changing Significance of Symbols

Rocks In A Hat, Dumbo’s Magic Flying Feather, and the Changing Significance of Symbols

Matt W. has a great post over at New Cool Thang about Finland’s theory of Revelation Driven Human Evolution. I highly recommend checking it out. Some of the concepts there are directly relevant to my thoughts here.

Last night, I joined the local Elders in a Missionary lesson with a great guy, with some great questions. He had been doing his due diligence, and had been studying both pro-Mormon, and Mormon critical material online. Through the course of the conversation, it was very clear he was willing to acknowledge the legitimate claims of both, although he was very clearly siding on the Pro-Mormon side.

But he still had some questions. And they were legitimate searching questions, and not posed as “Gotchas.” – in other words, questions worth addressing.

For example, at one point, when talking about the Book of Mormon, he said, “Okay, I have a question. Why did Joseph stick his head in a hat when working on translating the Book of Mormon?”

joseph_smith_hatThe senior missionary companion blanked. “Umm…hat? I don’t understand.” – It was clear he had either never heard of this aspect of Joseph’s translation process, or had no idea what to say about it.

But I had something to offer. That’s why I was there, right?

“Because that’s what worked for him,” I said.

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Offensensitivity and the Book of Mormon Musical–Who Offends Who?

Offensensitivity and the Book of Mormon Musical–Who Offends Who?

offensensitivity

While in my last post I felt it important to emphasize what I saw as a key message of the Book of Mormon musical that would be important, applicable, and beneficial  to all believing Latter-day Saints, I fully recognize that the Musical is not at all intended to be an endorsement of the truth claims of Mormonism, or religions in general.

But does that mean it’s, as is proclaimed over at Millennial Star, actually vitriolic  “Anti-Mormon Dreck?” – or even mean spirited at all? And if not, discussions about profanity completely aside for the time being, is there still something in there for Mormons to be genuinely offended about?

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“Man Up”–Applying The Book of Mormon Musical’s Message (Without the Profanity)

“Man Up”–Applying The Book of Mormon Musical’s Message (Without the Profanity)

 

The-Book-Of-Mormon-Boradway-Cast-Recording-MP3-Stream-on-NPR

Introduction and Explanation

EDIT: The following was based on a listening of the cast recording. After writing this, I learned there were some details from the stage production which clarified the story, and took it some different directions than I deduced from the cast recording alone. While I recognize I made some story errors, I still stand behind the general sentiment and thoughts behind this post.

Without condoning, recommending, or defending the presentation of the more offensive language and material in the Book of Mormon Broadway musical, I felt it would be useful to offer a presentation of the actual underlying story behind the production, which I listened to through NPR’s free streaming presentation of the complete cast recording online.

There are a great many who, quite justifiably, would not be able – or willing – to submit themselves to the expressions of profanity and blasphemy presented, even with a full knowledge of the context. I don’t blame them. I even would agree with them, and would not, under any circumstances, try to convince someone to listen to or watch this who I know would feel deeply uncomfortable with it.

As such, I cannot in good conscience offer an open endorsement to listen to or watch this production.

However – I cannot also in good conscience offer an open and sweeping condemnation of the creators, and the message underlying the (intentionally) provocative and profane lyrics.

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