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REVIEW: Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy

REVIEW: Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy

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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.

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REVIEW: War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives

REVIEW: War and Peace In Our Time: Mormon Perspectives

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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.

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New Youth Curriculum, and the Digital Facilitation of New Revelation

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.

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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

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.

Book of Mormon, Joseph Spencer, and Collective Salvation

Book of Mormon, Joseph Spencer, and Collective Salvation

I think we’re finally being to see the fruits of what President Benson was really talking about, in regards to taking the Book of Mormon seriously.

On the heels of Brant Gardner’s Second Witness Book of Mormon Commentary Series, published by Kofford Books, and Grant Hardy’s groundbreaking Understanding the Book of Mormon, published by Oxford, the wonderful Salt Press just released an absolutely fantastic book, called “An Other Testament: On Typology”, by Joseph M. Spencer.

This book has already been reviewed magnificently by BHodges over at By Common Consent. I can only echo what he has said there.

The entire book is available for free as a PDF download here, but also as a hardbound purchase here. While I initially read this in its electronic edition, I’m going to want a hardbound edition for my library.

Before I express my thoughts, I want to reproduce most of the book’s Epilogue. If this doesn’t get you interested in reading the rest of the book to see how some of the assumed positions stated in this piece were argued, I’m not sure what will. Following this are some of my thoughts on one key aspect of its implications:

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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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Down The Rabbit Hole: A Review of Charles Harrell’s “’This Is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology”

Down The Rabbit Hole: A Review of Charles Harrell’s “’This Is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology”

Harrell - This Is My DoctrineTitle: “This Is My Doctrine” The Development of Mormon Theology

Author: Charles R. Harrell

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2011

Pages: 583

Price: $34.95 (Available for Pre Order at $23.07)

In the film The Matrix, Neo found out about something that gnawed at him so much, he began actively searching out more information about it in such a way that resulted in his becoming highly disoriented from life as he knew it, feeling a bit like Alice caught in Wonderland. He eventually comes across Morpheus, who is known to have a pretty significant key to understanding Neo’s questions.

But before going ahead and answering, he gives Neo an option – to take the Red Pill, or to take the Blue Pill.

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If you take the Blue Pill, Morpheus says, “The story ends. You wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to.”

It’s a somewhat attractive option. It embraces the ‘ignorance is bliss’ mentality.

However, the other option still stands: you take the Red Pill, and, Morpheus says, “I show you how deep the Rabbit Hole goes.”

Many members of the Church are used to a completely internally consistent prophetic historical narrative from Adam through Thomas S. Monson, where all prophets knew explicitly of what was to come, and all scriptures speak in the same doctrinal language as our Correlated Church Manuals of today – all the while meaning and knowing the exact same things we mean and know today.

This is the story one can easily come away with if their only substantial interaction with the scriptures are the bullet point interpretations given in Gospel Doctrine Sunday School classes, and the doctrinal references to scriptures given in correlated manuals like Gospel Principles.

There’s something beautiful and attractive about such a worldview – it makes it very easy to see one’s exact place in the Grand Prophetic Narrative. We can easily place ourselves in another scriptural character’s shoes if we know that they knew what we know, and if we feel that those who opposed the prophets in all ages have the same knowledge being preached to them that the Missionaries are going door to door teaching today. It makes it easier to judge both the righteous and unrighteous in black and white terms.

If something in the scriptures seems to contradict the current understanding, it’s easy to cite the 8th Article of Faith, and note that the conflicting concept must not have been “translated correctly” –  whatever that means.

In fact, that’s exactly what the Seminary Manual does when it comes to events attributed to King David. Instead of accounting for historical socio-religious context, the explanation given is, “The story in 2 Samuel 21 is either not translated correctly or shows that David truly fell deep into apostasy.”1 – present day values and doctrinal concepts are retrojected into the narrative. Either some scribes wrote the story wrong, or David was disobeying the Restored Gospel. There is no other option presented, or explanation offered.

But that’s the only possible way Inspired Scriptures written by Inspired Prophets can be understood, right?

If the Gospel is Eternal, everyone inspired by God must have known the same things, and no erroneous historical concepts or theological and cultural ideas would have been allowed to creep into the record. There would be no development of doctrinal concepts, no trial and error, and every time a prophet interprets a scripture, he must know and be explaining the Original Intent of the original prophet.

Right?

If that’s how you want to understand the historical scriptural narrative, then it may just be that the Blue Pill is for you.

For the rest, Charles Harrell has produced a Red Pill in his book “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, of which I was able to read an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

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  1. Old Testament Seminary Manual, http://seminary.lds.org/manuals/old-testament-seminary-student-study-guide/ot-ssg-5-2_sam-21.asp []
REVIEW: Joseph Smith Papers–Revelations & Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations

REVIEW: Joseph Smith Papers–Revelations & Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations

At last, all of the major editions of Joseph Smith’s revelations published – or in production – during his lifetime are now available in one beautiful book, the latest in the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) published by the Church Historian’s Press, Revelations and Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations.

A major question I knew that was on my mind with the publication of this edition was, “Well, what’s new?”

It’s a valid question, as reprints of the 1833 Book of Commandments, 1835 Doctrine & Covenants, and The Evening and the Morning Star are, and have been available for years for those who want them.

Apart from the convenience and beauty of binding them all together in one undeniably gorgeous book, there is indeed added value material which is new, and fantastic

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Parley P. Pratt’s ‘A Voice of Warning’: The Original ‘Gospel Principles’

Parley P. Pratt’s ‘A Voice of Warning’: The Original ‘Gospel Principles’

When introduced, Religions need a story, a framework, and a context.

Most Christian religions, when introducing Christianity, do not just hand someone a copy of the Bible, tell them to start reading at the Beginning of Genesis, and assume that at the end, they will, on their own, come to understand and agree as to why their organization and belief structure is important for them. Individuals are guided, and given a context for the scriptural records.

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