Thursday, December 31, 2009

All Things -- Rom. 8: 28

"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Rom 8: 28)

A certain woman had two teachers: one who served his students and another whose students served him.

The first loved to listen, loved to give advice that helped others do work they could find joy in. He gave strong reproofs to students he knew well and who trusted him, reproofs grounded in his understanding of their goals and weaknesses.

When their time together drew to an end, she went to him, tried to express the debt she felt she owed him, to explain how grateful she'd been to count herself as his pupil.

But he said, "Don't thank me; thank the God who allowed us to cross paths."

The second teacher loved to be listened to, gave sharp reproofs at a glance without considering their implications, wanted others to do work that pleased him. She struggled under him, asked if there wasn't a better way.

When their time together drew to an end, he called her into his office and told her that he had been good for her--if not through his counsel than through his resistance. Either, after all, would contribute to her growth, and someday she would thank him.

"No" she said. "But I will thank the God who allowed us to cross paths."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Is the Devil a Christian?--Matt 7: 21

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."

Parley P. Pratt wrote a great story about this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Anachronistic Religion -- D&C 84: 100

"The Lord hath redeemed his people;
And Satan is bound and time is no longer.
The Lord hath gathered all things in one.
The Lord hath brought down Zion from above.
The Lord hath brought up Zion from beneath."

A common criticism of Mormonism is that our sense of the past is anachronistic. People take issue with the overt Christianity of Book of Mormon prophets. They are suspicious of the way certain phrasings seem to come before their time. These same critics probably wonder what Peter, James, and John are doing in the woods of the nineteenth-century American frontier, and why temples with fonts held up by statues of twelve oxen reappear in the past today. They are intensely frustrated that we can't seem to keep our time periods straight and take it as evidence that our religion cannot be true.

I wonder if we realize, though, how deeply our religion is anti-chronistic, how much it undermines common assumptions about the absolute reality of time as a line divided cleary into past, present, and future. In Mormon thought, time is not so tight. What appear to outside critics to be oversights, sloppy fiction writing on the part of Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets, are actually profound expressions of a deep truth about the way redeemed human experience will work.

Friday, December 4, 2009

J.S. Quote

Ran across this quote from Joseph Smith, quoted in George M. Hinkle's testimony against him in Missouri in 1839:

"I have heard Joseph Smith, jr. say that he believed Mahomet was a good man; that the Koran was not a true thing, but the world belied Mahomet, as they had belied him, and that Mahomet was a true prophet."

I wouldn't ordinarily put a lot of confidence in someone's politically motivated testimony against Joseph Smith, but this one is part of a larger pattern. Numerous individuals in 1838 and 1839 testified that Joseph had said something positive about Muhammad, or in which he identified himself with Muhammad. According to Thomas Marsh and Orson Hyde, who left the church just before the 1838 violence, Joseph Smith said that if his persecutors wouldn't leave him alone, he would become a second Muhammad and leave a trail of blood to the Pacific.

In nineteenth-century America, of course, comparing a religious leader to Muhammad was a worse slur, even, than comparing a religious leader to the Pope, which was the more politically correct way of accusing someone of unspeakable conspiracies.

From the 21st century, though, I find myself wondering what Joseph Smith actually said and whether there was a surprising degree of openness and fair-mindedness to it. Was he trying to say that early Islamic military history was not simply aggressive and coercive, but more deeply a response to bitter persecution? Did his perspective allow for important religious values to have been transmitted by God to a non-Christian faith? (Times have changed a great deal--when later LDS prophets issued a proclamation espousing such views in the 1970s, no one testified against them in court over it.) Did he simply feel a certain affinity for anyone as hated as Muhammad?

We may never know. But it seems probable that he did, in fact, say something and that several of his followers, bound too tightly in the mentality of their era's culture, grew disaffected over it. Perhaps the lesson of this incident as that we ought to be cautious not to let values from our own 21st-century culture tear us away from the values God's spirit has spoken to our souls.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Collapsing Time -- Mark 9: 1

"And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." (Mark 9: 1)

Few understand that this prophecy was fulfilled six days after it was given.

This is because the Kingdom of God exists outside of time as we experience it: in the Kingdom, past and future can be at once present. Sometimes, in the course of history, individuals have been allowed to step outside of time to see the way the Kingdom appears when all times are allowed to co-exist. When the kingdom of God comes to earth in its power, human time will melt away as the hoar frost before the sun. In isolated instances, however, individuals have already passed through the constraints of human time, even in their mortality, to experience the time of the Kingdom. This, too, is a coming of the Kingdom of God in power.

One of these instances was at the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman: when Adam gathered his posterity to bless them, the godliness with him was so great that the future also became present and he was able to bless the whole of his posterity though all the generations and dispensations that would come to exist on earth. We have yet to live the same moment he lived then, but before the Savior returns, the godliness with us will be so great that we will see our presence before Adam and the dispensations of the gospel will melt together. What happened near to the beginning of earth's time and what will happen toward the end of earth's time are in fact as one moment in the Kingdom, simply viewed through two different angles.

Enoch and the people of Zion, likewise, stepped out of time, but so fully that they only become present in human time when others match their righteousness and are able to experience the omnipresent time of the Kingdom with them. This is the way in which Enoch's Zion will join our Zion in the last days: as soon as we can see time as God does, we will see that we are standing in their presence.

Six days after prophesying that some would see the Kingdom before tasting death, Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. That they saw Christ glorified there could happen because they had been allowed to step out of time and into the Kingdom, where the future, glorified Christ was already present. They also saw Elias and Moses from the past--on the mountain, Moses had once seen them as he received the commandments including the Melchizedek Priesthood!

It is said that in the temples, the human time grows particularly porous. It is through our presence in the temples that we are prepared to step out of human time.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg

"This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success." (Joshua 1: 8)

When God gave this commandment, he knew he was commissioning a hundred billion works of art, because the shape of every human mouth is different in some way--and so it is that, while all righteous people can speak with the same spirit, no two can give the exact same shape to the words.

I wrote a story a year ago that, in many passages, reveals how the words of God take shape coming out of my mind and mouth. If my thoughts here have resonated with you, I'd encourage you to take some time with, and invest some of your energy in, "Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg."

Hidden Treasures -- D&C 89: 11

"Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving."

When Joseph Smith received the Word of Wisdom, the phrasing in this verse probably meant very little. When could you eat an herb or fruit except in its season? Nothing else would have been possible, to my knowledge, on the nineteenth-century American frontier.

In today's globalized food economy, though, the phrasing may have a special prophetic resonance. Relatively few people are concerned with what's in season or local in days when everything can be shipped from the other side of the world to a nearby grocery store.

And yet--how much fuel might be saved and environmental damage avoided if we would base more of our diet, once again, off more locally-grown, in-season grains, fruits, and vegetables? How much more prepared would our communities be for coming days of calamity if we were already growing a higher percentage of our food within a more accessible range of distance?

Perhaps hidden in the text of the Word of Wisdom are warnings with extra potential in our day to help us keep balance in an overconfident and often short-sighted world.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

American Liturgical Calendar? -- Eccl 3: 1

" To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven"

Thanks to the Byrds, these may be some of the best-known words of scripture in American culture. I started thinking about them yesterday in conjunction with Thanksgiving.

It's interesting, I think, that we write our values across the face of the year. The Jewish calendar, both ancient and modern, does this: there are holidays for triumph, for mourning, for relief, for judgment, for repentance, for miracles. A season, so to speak, set aside for various doctrinal remembrance purposes.

Most cultures today probably operate in similar ways, though they don't know it. In the United States, for example, national holidays accompany religious holidays to create a sort of ad-hoc liturgical calendar in which holiday and value correspond something like this:
New Year's: Accountability/Progress
Easter: Peace[?]
4th of July: Community
Halloween: Curiosity about the Unseen
September 11th: Awareness of Vulnerability
Thanksgiving: self-explanatory
Christmas: Hope

In each case, of course, the values can be undermined by commercialized vice. New Year's can be devoted to drunkenness, the 4th of July to jingoism, Halloween to immodesty, September 11th to vengeance, Thansgiving to gluttony, and Christmas to the twin sins of envy and greed.

As an optimist, however, I prefer to see our calendar of holidays as having important moral and spiritual potential. May we allow each season to turn us toward that which is right and good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Primary Program--Isa. 3: 1-4

"For, behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem and from Judah the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water,
The mighty man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient,
The captain of fifty, and the honourable man, and the counsellor, and the cunning artificer, and the eloquent orator.
And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them."

Sunday morning, my five-year-old daughter Kira climbed into our bed about an hour earlier than I had any intention of getting out of it. So we stayed in bed, and Nicole got to half-sleep while Kira sang softly to herself, asked for story after story about when I was a kid, and played morning games like she always does.

After a while, though, something (maybe in a primary song we sang?) made her decide she wanted to read scriptures, so she hopped out of bed and want to fetch them while I offered moral support in the form of a constant stream of reminders to be gentle and careful and not let her mother's bookmarks fall out (as you can tell, I'm a very helpful morning Dad).

She insisted on picking where we would read and happened to open the book to the passage in Isaiah quoted above. Thanks to her attention span, that's as far as we got at the time--a beautiful image of the proud and talented someday submitting to rule by children.

A few hours later, in sacrament meeting, the educated and experienced vacated the stand to make way for the primary program. How often, I wonder, do we fulfill prophecy without ever noticing it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Self-definition--D&C 121: 43-44

"Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death."

When I was in high school, my best friend dated a girl who was very proud of her family's Greek roots. Since I am deeply invested in the lives of my own ancestors, I admired that--which is probably why I was so disappointed the day she told us derisively about a Turkish guy our age who had come to a Greek festival trying to fit in, and how she and all her friends had laughed at him for thinking a Turk had any business hanging out with Greek people. I realize that there's a long and bloody history of conflicting interests between Turkey and Greece, but the idea that she defined her own ethnicity so much in terms of an inherited enmity was alarming to me.

I still find it alarming, but I've realized it's hardly unique. Teenagers often position themselves culturally by telling the world what one genre of music they dislike (typically rap or country, sometimes Top 40). What they are against matters more to their peers, apparently, than who they are. Party politics work in a similar way: to be a Republican, it's important to dislike and distrust Democrats; to be a Democrat, it's best if you stereotype and suspect Republicans.

Some Mormons may be tempted to think that because of recent political disagreements, you define yourself as more Mormon by being opposed to gay rights activists or even "gays" in general. This is simply not the case.

That's why I'm so pleased that the Church is not acting this way in its relationship with local gay rights activists. Yes, the two groups have serious disagreements over same-sex marriage. The Church came out strongly against Proposition 8 both politically and rhetorically for reasons that have not gone away. And yet--in the wake of Proposition 8, Church leaders quietly began meeting with gay rights activists, trying to understand their concerns and positions on other issues. Although the Church rarely takes overt political positions, they recently issued a statement of support for a nondiscrimination ordinance in Salt Lake City.

Having disagreed with a certain firmness and sharpness, they are now looking for issues on which they can agree and take shared action. This is not simply a public relations move--it's action to ensure that we not fall into the evil habit of seeing ourselves as being, by definition, someone else's opponent or enemy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not Taking the Sacrament--1 Cor 11: 29

"For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. " (1 Cor 11: 29)

To take the sacrament when conscious of a significant sin is to be as Cain when he denied the murder of Abel. (Gen 4: 9-10) And yet--to attend the service and not take the sacrament is to accept accountability before the Lord as David did before Nathan. (2 Sam 12)

In plain English:

It's hard to come sit in sacrament meeting and not take the sacrament, possibly with family members, neighbors, or friends watching. And that's why I really believe that the brave act of passing on the sacrament tray can bring as much healing to the repentant person as taking the sacrament gives to the person with nothing so serious to repent of.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Walking to Church D&C 61: 3-4, 15

"But verily I say unto you, that it is not needful for this whole company of mine elders to be moving swiftly upon the waters, whilst the inhabitants on either side are perishing in unbelief.
Nevertheless, I suffered it that ye might bear record; behold, there are many dangers upon the waters, and more especially hereafter . . .
Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters."

My family and I live in Utah Valley, which means that we're almost always within walking distance of a church. Theoretically speaking, so is almost everyone else--but that doesn't keep the buildings from needing very large parking lots. Why do so many people drive to churches that are only a few blocks away?

This Sunday we were running late, and it was awfully tempting to just drive. Cars' convenience is addictive that way: the possibility of speed tends to seduce us when we're in a hurry. We decided not to risk getting any more addicted to the car than we already are though and walked instead, even though we'd be late.

I'm glad we did. Kira, our five-year-old, got to hear the leaves crunch under her feet. We stepped in and out of each other's shadows. We could feel air on our faces and the ground under our feet. This is a worthwhile part, I thought, of raising our child as a daughter of God: spending time on Sabbath mornings with her in the world God made.

We need to learn to not always rush when there is so much to be learned and done walking.

Maybe this is part of the Lord's warning to his servants in early Restoration days against travel on the water. He couldn't warn them about cars and have them understand, so he tried to teach them that acceleration often includes isolation instead. That always speeding to somewhere else means forgetting where you are.

Does Satan ride today less on the river than on the interstates--or even right here on the internet?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Sins of the Fathers Against Latin America--Ex. 34: 6-7

"And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." (Ex. 34: 6-7)

As God reveals himself to Moses, the scripture juxtaposes God's mercy with the truth that an individual's or society's sins can consequences that carry themselves on in the next four generations.

Carlfred Broderick used to say that one reason some people may be born into broken homes is to purify the lineage by stopping the cycle of damage and abuse. For as the child of a sinning parent turns to God, he or she can often spare the children the legacy of damage that comes from the past sins.

When Elder Clayton spoke of an indigenous man in the Andes whose back bent under the weight of firewood he had to carry in order to earn a livelihood, I thought of the sins of the United States against Latin American nations.

And I wondered if the Perpetual Education Fund will serve as a means for us to begin to atone for the sins of our nation.

Can the empowerment of education begin to counterbalance the ruptures in history we forced?

Will the sins of our national predecessors visit us into the next three or four generations, or can we free our lineage from the heritage of their sins?

Monday, October 26, 2009

An Infinite Canon--D&C 68: 4

And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation."(D&C 68: 4)

Elder Scott said this means we should write personal revelations down, so that our souls grow in tandem with our own personal sacred texts.

Elder Uchtdorf said words infused with divine love become as scripture, wherever or by whomever they may be spoken.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowledge as a Club --2 Ne 28: 4

"And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance." (2 Ne 28: 4)

Our faith, though strongly advocating education, is inherently suspicious of institutionalized intellectualism. Why?

Because knowledge is light--but all too often we treat it as power.

It is our faith's sad experience that people who see themselves as having power often tend toward unrighteous dominion and abuse.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moroni's Teachings--JSH 1: 54

"Accordingly, as I had been commanded, I went at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days." (JS-H 1: 54)

Although Moroni related all things relative to the establishment of the church in that generation, Joseph understood none of them, as the apostles of old had understood nothing Jesus had said of his own death and resurrection. Experience unlocks doctrine: through the remainder of his life, Joseph's trials unlocked Moroni's teachings piece by piece, and so it was that the Restoration unfolded.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Jaredite Voyage and the Manti Temple: Ether 6: 2-3

"For it came to pass after the Lord had prepared the stones which the brother of Jared had carried up into the mount, the brother of Jared came down out of the mount, and he did put forth the stones into the vessels which were prepared, one in each end thereof; and behold, they did give light unto the vessels.
And thus the Lord caused stones to shine in darkness, to give light unto men, women, and children, that they might not cross the great waters in darkness." (Ether 6: 2-3)

When Jaredites left the terrestrial land of Bountiful to be driven by the winds toward the fullness of the promise, they had to travel in special ships which were designed to serve also as temples. It was for this reason that the Lord made the brother of Jared ask for his hand to touch the stones and fill them with light instead of simply doing so on his own initiative: a temple cannot be sanctified by God without a dedicatory request by an authorized human servant of God. It is also in memory of this ancient temple that the Lord later called shipbuilders to construct a roof for the temple in Manti: the first created after the Saints had been driven from initial destinations to an unexpected promised land.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sealing--Hel. 10: 7

"Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and thus shall ye have power among this people."

What the gospel asks us is to live on earth in ways that we want sealed in heaven, and through the Atonement to loose ourselves on earth from what should not be sealed to us in heaven. Exaltation is not an entirely separate state of being: it is a sanctification, purification, and endless continuation of what the deepest and most basic gospel principles allow us to build on earth.

Have prophets with sealing power been waiting for thousands of years to seal up the whole earth? No, I think they've understood that their role is to prepare and perhaps to seal pieces. The Messiah, when he returns, will be responsible for sealing everything, and people in the millennium will help him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All You Need is Love--Matt 6: 24

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."(Matt 6: 24)

Elder Uchtdorf used to say: Misery is the love of wrong things, happiness is the love of right things.

Thus, the pursuit of happiness (which can result in happiness only when we are already happy!) is less worthwhile than the pursuit of ethics, morality, and righteousness--which anchor us such that happiness will know where to find us.

All you need is the right kind of love.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Angels with Skin On--Heb 13: 2

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Heb 13: 2)

In Mormon thought, there is no distinction between humans and angels. Angels are humans who have lived and are now glorified messengers of God, or else humans who have yet to live and fulfill specific missions on earth as part of their premortal existence.

Whenever we offer hospitality for another, then, we are always entertaining angels. Because of their mortal covering, though, how often do we do so unaware?

Thanks to Paul Bindel for making me think of this today.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Conference History Notes

Simon Peter and Joseph Smith

Imagine my surprise when Elder Callister used a list of Peter's apparent weaknesses to introduce a talk on Joseph Smith--the same parallel that started this blog's church history series! I think Elder Callister powerfully articulated the counter-productivity of allowing Joseph's imperfections to keep us from enjoying the rich doctrines of the Restoration. I do think, though, that we'd be well-served not simply by overlooking Joseph's faults/failures, but by treating them as a more important part of a dynamic experience of spiritual growth that we can learn from. The stories of Peter's mistakes, after all, are valuable parts of the scripture--they're not something to overlook, but to treasure!
We don't need Joseph Smith to be an example of what's right. We can let him be an example of how to learn and grow--sometimes by being wrong and making significant mistakes--without compromising our belief in him as a prophet.

The Buttercream Gang

President Monson also invoked the church's past by relating a story about Thomas B. Marsh. This story has endured for the last century and a half, I think, because it speaks an important truth about the dangers of anger. That utility has kept alive the story even though it is probably not historically accurate.

Where did the story come from? The first historical reference I've found to it is from George A. Smith in the late 1850s, roughly twenty years after the fact and in a completely different environment from which some of the complexities of the past could be forgotten. Maybe the events George A. Smith describes did take place in some form--although I'd be surprised if a case that caused so much trouble between the leading apostle and the church really got all the way to the First Presidency without anyone writing about it. I think it's just as likely that the Marshes were never involved in a dispute over butter at all--maybe someone else had a butter dispute that George A. Smith later misremembered as involving the Marshes (just as members today sometimes quote lines from inspirational poems thinking that they are in the scriptures, or attribute pieces of wisdom to some anonymous General Authority).

Thomas B. Marsh did leave the church in 1838 and did swear an affidavit--preserved today in Missouri state archives--against Joseph Smith. But considering the context of the times, it seems much more likely that he was concerned about the aggressive military strategy and rhetoric the Mormon community took in the early and middle stages of the "Mormon War." Several thoughtful Mormons correctly predicted that an aggressive defense would prove "disastrous"--rather than protecting the community as intended, it resulted in Governor Boggs' infamous extermination order. Marsh and others who saw this miscalculation tried to escape from a Mormon community they saw as both desperate and doomed. In Marsh's case, swearing an affidavit against Joseph Smith publicly distanced him from the church enough that he could live in peace in the state and enjoy its protection of his constitutional rights. He saw a serious fault in Mormonism, bailed out, and avoided the harsh consequence of being driven from the state...

...but Mormonism didn't die. The Saints lost most of their property to their Missouri persecutors once again and walked across the frozen ground into Iowa and Illinois to think about their future. The Prophet was sent to prison in Liberty, reflected on what had gone wrong, and composed what is probably the most profound letter in Mormon history. Spring came, things changed, the Saints started over again and in a few years the movement was strong enough to face another set of crises.

Cort likes to say that the church is like a great stone rolling down a mountain and from time to time, it hits up against something hard and some pride or errors are knocked off--but the stone keeps rolling, keeps growing smoother, until one day it will be what God wants it to ultimately be.

Sometimes we, like the historical Thomas Marsh, see real problems with the course the church takes or the tenor of church culture and want to break ourselves off from the stone before it collides painfully with the consequences of its own awkwardness. And yet, says Cort, if we do we lose the momentum that comes from being part of a collective gathered by God. We miss the growth that comes through sharing the very pain we have foreseen and wished to avoid.

In 1857, Thomas Marsh sought out and was rebaptized into the church. He realized what he had missed by believing too much in his fears about what could result from a church course that was legimitately dangerous.

Did the pain he suffered from 1838-1857 in some way stand in for the pain he could have learned from had he remained with the Saints? I do not see Marsh as a pathetic figure: I see him as someone whose courage and humility ultimately made up for his mistakes.

And somewhere on the other side of the veil, where he is probably sharing the gospel with the spirits of his ancestors, I imagine Thomas Marsh happy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Holy Ghost in an Era of Change--Joel 2: 28-29

"And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit." (Joel 2: 28-29)

Elder Scott used to say that in our days, the uncertainty is such that the young will have to prophesy just to be able to prepare themselves adequately for the future.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ashamnu -- Isa 53: 6

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isa 53: 6)

Protestant Christianity today emphasizes the role of individual sin, and the need for a personal Savior, and perhaps because we are surrounded by Protestants, sometimes we think that way with them. I hope, though, that we Latter-day Saints never entirely lose sight of the "we" of the Old Testament.

We have sinned, says the prophet. Not you that one time and I in another, unrelated incident: in some important sense, our sins are connected--as it is written in another place "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness" (D&C 84: 49). When the Lord punished Egypt for enslaving the Israelites, he did not confine his punishment to Pharaoh but he punished the whole society that upheld Pharaoh, a society that had become complicit. Ashamnu, an ancient Hebrew prayer of confession says, meaning "we have become guilty." We, like the Egyptians, have accepted a culture of exploitation, of incompassion, of immorality and dishonesty, of judging on the outward appearance though the Lord looks at the heart.

Is there something to be said, then, for repenting not only individually, but also in a collective way? Can we stand together against the isolation of sin by acknowledging that another's sin is not entirely independent, that his or her sin is woven into our own?

Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu begins a Yom Kippur prayer: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen. The prayer continues with a category of sin for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the congregation stands and confesses the faults of the community together.

Can we, who believe that no individual can be made perfect alone (D&C 128: 18), likewise seek a communal healing? Can we who believe in a shared heaven learn do more to share certain burdens (Mos 18: 8) that they may be light?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Apology and Some Notes

Thanks to the pressures of grad school (including a time- and energy-consuming struggle to get my online work taken seriously as creative nonfiction), I haven't been able to draft the longer essays I'd like to do for Church History Thursdays. If I get authorization to use these blogs for a thesis project, I'll be able to write more consistently again--wish me luck!

For now, I'll leave some notes about things I'd like to discuss to at least give you some idea where we're headed:

1) I think Joseph Smith made mistakes that contributed to discontent over the Fall of the Kirtland Bank--and that we can learn something productive from recognizing both what mistakes he might have made and what positive long-term affects the Kirtland Bank experience had on the church in spite of its flawed execution.

2) You may have heard that Joseph Smith once got into a fist-fight with an Apostle--who also happened to be his brother. Could the human details of this story become part of our understanding of a dynamic restoration?

3) Missouri's "Mormon War," in which the Governor issued an order authorizing the extermination and/or forced removal of all Mormons from the state, figures prominently in LDS cultural memory. I'd like to speculate on what might have motivated Joseph Smith, Lyman Wight, and Thomas Marsh to take three separate courses before and during the war, each of them problematic. I'd also like to talk about how my rougher version of history can be spiritually instructive today.

Thank you for your patience thus far--hopefully it will be rewarded in the near future.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Beautiful Mormon Heresy -- 3 Ne 27: 27

"And know ye that ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am." (3 Ne 27: 27)

Mattathias used to say that the use of "I am" in this verse is the same as in John 8: 58 and by extension Exodus 3: 14.

To those who can see this layer of meaning, it becomes an expression of what is considered by mainstream Christianity to be one of our most radical and despicable heresies.

May we never cease to be such heretics!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Little Help from My Friends

I'll borrow my discussion on Church History this week from a few friends:

Cort once told me that the topical organization of the Joseph Smith priesthood/relief society manual gave him the sense that Joseph Smith more or less understood how the church and gospel were supposed to work all along. Only after getting hired as a Research Assistant for the Joseph Smith Papers Project did he begin to understand how principles unfolded more gradually, and that Joseph went through the changes along with everyone else. He thinks it's important to learn to see Joseph Smith as being affected by the Restoration instead of simply as affecting the Restoration.

Joe Darowski pointed out that sometimes we think of the Restoration as Joseph Smith's story, when in fact it is God's story, and Joseph Smith is one of many characters and movements that God wove into it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Epistemology (part one) -- Acts 3: 22-23

We are all, I think, well aware that the kind of knowing we talk about in testimony meetings is different in many ways than say, the kind of knowing scientists discuss. So what do we mean we say we know something? How does the way we deal with knowledge on a day to day basis complicate the term? This is the first of an occasional series on Mormon Epistemology: or the ways we think about knowledge.

Here, to start, is today's scripture:

"For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you.
And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" Acts 3: 22-23

I once heard an elderly and faithful stake missionary in the former East Germany teach in his farewell address that, after much fasting and praying, he had come to know that the prophet mentioned in this was passage was Joseph Smith. He said it with solemnity and conviction--did it reach the hearts of his hearers?

My first reaction was to think that he should have fasted less and read more: JS-H 1: 40 specifically identifies the prophet in question as Christ.

This missionary's midrash, then, that Joseph Smith was that prophet, was almost certainly incorrect in terms of its identification of the prophet in question. So why had he felt like the the answer to his question was yes?

One possibility, of course, was that the missionary had not actually fasted and prayed about that passage, but rather about Joseph Smith, and subsequently assigned his testimony to the wrong passage. In that case, I should be careful not to condemn him, that I be not condemned (Luke 6: 37). Maybe God gives us knowledge in a connect-the-dots way: here's a little, there's a little (2 Ne 28: 30), now draw the connecting conclusions that give it life-guiding meaning on your own. And maybe we, like kindergartners, draw our lines a little squiggly so that they go through places where they don't technically belong. Maybe the missionary didn't know that part of the line, he knew some dots and got the line wrong. And does that matter? To a great extent, yes: mistaking Joseph Smith for Christ in one place is probably going to cause you problems in others. But with sufficient humility and charity, you should be able to work through the problems you cause yourself by thinking you know things you actually don't, and it'll turn out OK in the eternal scheme of things. You'll be better off for having drawn your knowledge sloppily, as it were, than if you'd stuck to a few random dots of purer revelation and drawn no conclusions at all.

Another, more intriguing possibility was that the missionary had prayed about that passage, but God had discerned an intent behind the question to know whether Joseph Smith was a rasul (like the prophet Moses promised). Perhaps God, in order to assure the missionary that Joseph Smith was indeed the prophet of the Restoration, answered the question in ways we interpret as meaning yes. That scenario gives rise to another model for our spiritual knowledge in which God's revelations are often contextual and informed by personal intent, less manifestations of absolute truths than reassurances that He is with us and approves of the course we are about to take. That would explain how God could work in images of heaven and hell when they answered specific questions about the nature of divine justice, then show a more detailed and surprising vision of three degrees of glory to Joseph and Sidney, reserving a more complete truth beyond the scope of men's preparedness for future revelation.

This model may seem to suggest that actual our "knowing" is not knowing, that we cannot be certain of any truth spiritually after all. Maybe that's correct in the strict sense, but I think the more important lesson from a view of revelation is contextual is the need for continuing revelation to "triangulate" the truth. Maybe you asked something at one point in your life, and got an answer based on an intent you later forgot. If you rely on your mind's understanding of the soul's answer, you might run into trouble. If you keep the connection between God and your soul open, however, you can continue to ask your questions as context and intent change over the years, gradually refining your sense of truth until, in some future state, you come to a promised purity and fullness of knowledge.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

False Midrashim and the Fall of the Kirtland Bank (part one)

I’ve heard an interesting false midrash on D&C 104: 17 several times now. It goes that the phrase “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” means that we don’t need to worry about things like future oil shortages because, after all, God said there would be enough.

I first heard this from a student in a Brigham Young University freshman composition class I was substitute-teaching—it was the heart of argument in an 8-page paper on energy policy. I asked him to read the next verse, and suggested that the promise is conditional (see D&C 130: 20-21) on our ability to live gospel laws: if people live modestly, if they impart of their substance to ease entrenched distributional inequalities, then there is enough for everyone. But, to butcher another scripture, if we all drive SUVs (even to church meetings two blocks away), we have no promise.

But who really wants to listen to me? Wouldn’t it be more righteous to have the faith to believe that a God who can split the water move mountains build planets can give us a little extra oil just for our faith?

It’s interesting: Mormonism’s commitment to balancing faith, works, and grace actually may be closer to productive paradox. We don’t believe in 33% faith, 33% works, 33% grace, we believe in at least 100% of each. Mormons should have:
-absolute faith in a living God’s miraculous power
-a standard of ethical and moral living that moves us toward our dream of Zion
-a total ability to let go sometimes and believe that God is great enough to save us

This is wonderful, but sometimes leaves us vulnerable to false ideas that appeal to, say, our sense of faith or righteousness. Relying on faith, we sometimes fail to be sufficiently faithful as stewards (an assignment that requires our vigilance and intelligence).

That’s what happens with the false midrash that teaches sufficient means limitless.

Marvin Hill argues it may be what happened with the Kirtland Bank, but works to distance Joseph Smith from such confusion. Next week, I’ll talk about why it’s OK to think that Joseph might have made the same error, and had to learn this lesson along with everyone else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

False Midrashim -- A of F 8

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God"

We tend to focus on the historical translation process of the Biblical text when considering this scripture, and forget perhaps that each of us "translates" the scriptures, in a significant sense, every time we read or remember them! All of us, in fact, are constantly creating our own little midrashim, or interpretative stories, to move from words in scriptural language not entirely native to us to some sort of application or way of seeing the world. (Language, after all, as I learned from Punjabi, is as much as system of associations that changes from individual to individual and over time as a collection of vocabulary and grammar. We don't necessarily share the language created to connect God with the prophets, even if it's written some form of English.) We have to interpret the scriptures in order to live, and thanks to the spiritual Urim-and-Thummim of the gift of the Holy Ghost often do quite well, but still need to remember there is always a degree of separation between the text and our interpretations.

And so it is that I believe the scriptures to be the word of God, but understand fully that they are frequently translated incorrectly by myself and my fellow Latter-day Saints!

What makes a translation good or bad?

-To me, the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of scripture don't necessarily need to be historically accurate to be acceptable. In Tyler Perry's play Madea Goes to Jail, for example, Madea tells her foster child that Peter stopped being able to walk on the water because he looked down, saw Jonah and the whale, and got distracted, which teaches us to mind our own business and not let other people's drama get in the way of doing what we need to do. The ahistorical nature of this thoroughly amusing midrash does more to add to than take away from its moral and spiritual productivity.

-I don't care for the idea, common among fundamentalists of every sect and religion, that a given interpretation must be wrong simply because another one is right. The ancient rabbi Rava used to teach that only the simplest solution for any question only required the use of a single passage (as opposed to a collection of several scriptural sources), and further that the same passage could be properly used to answer a near infinite number of questions! I don't know that I subsribe to the first half of Rava's system, but I enjoy the confidence in the power of revealed words inherent in the second half. Is God so poor that he could only fit a single meaning into each phrase or verse? The experience of most Latter-day Saints is that the answer is no. The same verses speak to us at different times in life with different answers. We are well acquainted with the mystical powers of revealed words, and ought to dismiss fundamentalist stubborness on single interpretations as shallow at best.

-I think an interpretation is only truly wrong when it is counter-productive. Some interpretations are always and inherently counter-productive (if you were to interpret the scriptures, for example, as encouraging you to follow Satan, you will always be wrong), most wrong interpretations, however, are more contextually counter-productive: perhaps useful in a narrow context, but problematic when overgeneralized (for example, overextending a scripture that teaches the productive truth that God can heal to counter-productively rule out scientific medicine).

An important closing question:

Is this current midrash on the nature of interpretation good or bad? What do we get out of it?

The Opposite of Pride -- Alma 4: 12

"Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted." (Alma 4: 12)

I posted recently on the question: "what is the opposite of faith?" In that case, doubt, fear, and rebellion are only a few of the possible responses. The opposite of pride is more commonly accepted as humility, and yet what does humility mean?

In this verse, the opposites of pride must be verbs. To oppose pride is to respect instead of despise, to face the needy instead of turning our backs and closing our eyes, to to act against others' hunger and thirst, to minister to the sick, and have empathy with the afflicted.

Why do I choose to say respect instead of love? Because what passes today for Christian love is too often condescending--love without respect is also prideful.

What does it mean to face the needy? Emmanuel used to say that to relate to another face-to-face is to sense the vulnerability of the Other and that, as Rambam used to say, the loss of any one person is the loss of a whole world.

Why hunger and thirst? Perhaps the hunger is physical and the thirst spiritual, a thirsting for knowledge and peace.

Why sick and afflicted? "Sickness" is for those ailments that can be healed in this life, "affliction" is for those conditions God has given individuals to endure for the entirety of their mortal sojourn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Money (Last Thursday's Overdue Post)

Joseph Smith tells us in his 1838 history (the one we keep in the Pearl of Great Price) that Moroni warned him specifically that Satan would use the "indigent circumstances" of his father's family to tempt him to use the plates to get rich. (JS-H 1: 46) Moroni neglected to mention that publishing the translation of the plate's text would cost more than Joseph had ever owned in his life. He also didn't say anything about how that significant publication cost would only be the beginning of a long succession of financial demands that revealed projects would place on Joseph and those who believed the Book's words.

While we're intellectually aware that the early church was pretty poor, I don't know that we modern saints often consider how that constant back-of-the-mind gnawing of money worries may have influenced Joseph Smith. He does not appear to have tried to scale back plans from what he thought the Lord wanted because of a shortage of resources. He may have made some unwise choices, though, in trying to make the means sufficient for the visions he cherished.

A few thoughts:

-Was Joseph worrying about who would fund the printing of the Book of Mormon when he asked God again and again whether he could lend the 160 pages to Martin Harris? It's one matter to take "no" for an answer. It's quite another to wonder if you're going to alienate the only person with any significant financial means who believes in what you're doing. Did Joseph stay up late worrying about how his relatively wealthy friend Martin Harris would feel if he kept saying no? Did he pray a little too insistently before falling back asleep?

-The Saints sacrificed a great deal to contribute toward the building of the House of the Lord in Kirtland. Was Joseph trying too hard to generate money in other ways to fund church projects after the temple's dedication? Certainly, he appreciated sacrifices, but were there ever points when he wished he could stop asking people for money? Or when he figured they'd sacrificed enough and should be able to live in greater prospertity already?

-The Saints, under Joseph's direction, had refused to sell land after they were driven from Jackson County in 1833--they felt that to do so would be denying their faith in God's revelation of Jackson County as a sacred place. By 1838, they were settled outside Jackson County and facing pressure to move again. Joseph was still trying to pay debts left from his failed business ventures in Kirtland. Did he want too desperately to stay in a place where he hoped to establish prosperity and let some saints go too far in trying to protect it?

I don't know to what extent these are accurate and productive readings of each situation, but I do think that Joseph's complicated relationship with money deserves some attention in the way faithful Latter-day Saints think about him and the kinds of challenges he faced.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Missouri Conflict

Ran across a few old news items that reminded me of church history:

26 Sept 2008: Socio-Economic-Religious Background to Conflict

12 April 2009: "Dignity", Refugees, Problematic Peace Committees

These are more or less current events in rural Orissa, one of India's less developed and modernized areas. I'm reminded of several of the social and economic factors that may have informed the Missouri conflict. The way Laxmananda Saraswati's assassination was immediately blamed on Christians reminds me of how the 1842 assassination attempt on Boggs was immediately blamed on Mormons.

I'm not saying the two conflicts are the same, of course, but maybe looking at one now can help us think about what things might have been like then.

How resonant are Orissa conflicts with Mormon/Missourian ones in the 1830s?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Myth of Joseph Smith

1. Ritz Crackers and Richard Bushman

Talked to Cort yesterday over a lunch of a few Ritz crackers about early LDS church history.

Cort and I exist in two interrelated, but distinct worlds--one in which we're busy chasing documents, trying to carve out a window to the past through what Joseph referred to in a letter as "the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked bro=ken scattered and imperfect language," another in which we need that same past to operate as a repository for values and meaning, a life-enhancing myth.

I use myth in the most respectful sense of the word, to mean "a sacred story." Myths aren't necessarily untrue, the term is to differentiate between the what happened and the more significant what does it mean to us. You see, the events of a person's life alone, the traces left in artifacts and papers, aren't worth most people's time. The meaning comes through the myth that tells us what the person stands for.

Take the example of Jesus Christ. Events in his life include getting born, getting lost on a family trip, getting baptized, telling stories, writing on the sand, getting arrested, and getting killed in a particularly painful way. It's a confusing life, one not considered worth noting in any secular record from during or near his lifetime. Myths, though, taught the prepared how to understand him. There were myths of the Messiah, a God-filled individual who would transform and sanctify the world. There were myths of sacrifice and reconciliation that revealed meaning in his staggering suffering and terrifying death. And there were myths about Incarnation, and how through the example of a divine man we could come to know God. These and other myths, drawn from a variety of sources, were essential to accessing productive spiritual meaning from the events of Christ's life. I believe in Christ--and I owe that belief partly to guiding interpretative myths.

Yesterday, over Ritz crackers in the BYU library's hidden sixth floor, Cort and I talked about myths for finding meaning in the life of Joseph Smith.

Cort was particularly concerned because the myths of Joseph Smith he grew up with don't always fit as well as we might like with what we think we're learning from the written and material fragments Joseph Smith left behind. I don't think this is because our fundamental myth of Joseph Smith as a rasul, the Prophet of the Restoration, breaks down under pressure. I think the problem is with extra layers of myth we want to add for educational purposes. We want Joseph Smith not just to be a prophet, but an embodiment of all good values and pure wisdom, someone we can use anecdotally as an example of every principle, something like what Mason Weems tried to do with George Washington. Richard Bushman once reputedly described the LDS use of this approach as telling church history on credit cards--when morals are emphasized without any investment in correlation to fact, someday a reckoning will come due as those taught overdrawn myths struggle to reconcile them with our best guesses at historical reality.

We need to do more to promote myths of Joseph Smith, I told Cort, that do more to ease than to complicate our relationship with his history. That's too big a task for one day, but it's one I feel a need to start more openly working on. Encountering a new myth for a familiar figure, after all, can be exhilarating.

2. Walking on Water

I remember a Jeffrey R. Holland talk (looking it up I noticed it was halfway through my mission, which may explain why it's so vividly imprinted on my mind) called "The Grandeur of God." In that talk, Elder Holland reminded us of an important and "often uncelebrated" myth for understanding Christ, the myth of Christ's life as a revelation of the nature of the Father. It's a productive way, I think, to approach Christ and a productive way to approach God.

Perhaps a year before I heard that Elder Holland talk (if memory serves correctly, which it often doesn't), my companion and I were listening to his Truman G. Madsen tapes about the life of Joseph Smith. In one passage, I recall Madsen sharing what was probably his myth for approaching Joseph Smith, though I didn't recognize it as such at the time. Madsen said in that passage that the reason he studied Joseph Smith was to be inspired by Smith's Christlike attributes. In Smith, perhaps, Madsen hoped to see Jesus the way Elder Holland asked us to look to Jesus and to see in him God. Do we want Joseph to be a window to Jesus? To we want him to be an Incarnation of the whole gospel?

Now, I don't consider it blasphemous to look for God and Christ in any human being--I think part of exaltation is learning to see God in everyone around you, and was greatly inspired by Pres. Uchtdorf's first talk as an apostle, in which he proved himself to me to be a special witness of Christ (D&C 107: 23) by saying "I have seen the face of Christ in your faces, in your deeds, and in your exemplary lives." But I think we're going to be disappointed if we use the myth of Joseph Smith as a Christlike figure to access him the way we use Jesus as a Father-like figure when looking at his life, the same way we would be disappointed if we expected from Peter, the leader of the early Christian church, what we expect from Jesus Christ.

What are our myths of Peter? How do the scriptures make meaning out of him?

Peter is the one who walks on water, but gets frightened and sinks (Matt 14: 28-31), the one who tries to defend the Prince of Peace by cutting off a servant's ear (John 18: 10), the one who denies Christ and bitterly weeps (Matt 26: 75), the one who has and embraces a movement-changing vision (Acts 10: 9-28), but later gets rebuked by Paul for being afraid of revealing how far that vision has taken his faith from his people's customs (Gal 2: 11-14).

Our myth of Peter is a one of our greatest myths of discipleship and church leadership. It is about miraculous faith accompanied by devastating failures in faith, about startling visions and doctrines coupled with burdensome day-to-day business and persistent inequalities. We don't expect Peter to do everything right, or to embody every positive principle. Part of his myth is the ways that he falls short and fails. (Can we see Christ's grace in Peter's stumbling?)

What if we approached Joseph Smith the way we do Peter? What if, instead of expecting him to have all the answers, we were interested in the moments throughout his prophetic career that left him looking for guidance, as a gospel gradually emerged? What if it was OK for him to have prejudiced based on his place and time of origin, as Peter clearly did, and mostly importantly--what if we could replace some stories about how Joseph Smith lived the principles of the gospel with some stories about how he struggled with them? We don't want to speak evil of the Lord's anointed, certainly, but can we learn to speak of his failures productively and well? Can they play a greater role in our meaning-making myths of Joseph Smith?

I think that will start with the faithful learning to tell new Joseph Smith stories that fit the Peter sort of myth instead of the George Washington one.

3. Church History Thursdays

I don't think I'm the only one working on this, of course. Developing more reconcilable myths is a widespread endeavor, especially since the advent of the internet.

My personal contribution to this broad and scattered project will be to start a subset of posts on this blog dedicated to new ways of telling stories from the history of the Restored Church. We'll try to make these thoughts a regular Thursday event--some thoughts may be significantly shorter than others.

I hope you find them productive ethically and spiritually, as well as more historically resonant.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What is the opposite of faith? -- Deut. 31: 27

"For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death?" (Deut. 31: 27)

The word faith is surprisingly difficult to define: it can mean acceptance of a set of beliefs, it can be used to express an attitude of confidence and trust. To be "faithful" implies consistency and fidelity, talking about a "faith" denotes a set of beliefs and an accompanying community of relationships. Why did God choose such a slippery word to instruct us?

We try to anchor ourselves to the word, at times, by speaking of its opposite.

If the opposite of faith is doubt, faith is primarily an intellectual principle, practically synonymous with belief (not an unslippery word itself, as Mark 9: 24 shows).

If the opposite of faith is fear, then faith is primarily an emotional principle, trust made courage--but what, then, of the scripturally desirable fear of the Lord?

Perhaps it is better to see rebellion as faith's opposite. Faith, then, is a more a matter of how we choose to align ourselves than about the more passive elements of belief. Faith is less a matter of head or heart than of feet, and where they stand.

Or maybe it's best to see faith as a principle of many opposites, a word God made slippery precisely so that it can face us in every aspect of self.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Who Needs to Know? -- Mark 1: 11

"And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Mark 1: 11)

Three verses report on what God said after Jesus' baptism: Matt. 3: 17, Luke 3: 22, and this verse in Mark. Only Matthew has God saying "this is" my beloved son. Mark and Luke both have "thou art."

What does the one word difference imply?

To me, the change seems to indicate a different intended audience. In Matthew, God is speaking to the people who are present, bearing testimony, as it were, of Jesus.

In Mark and Luke, however, the words are clearly intended for Jesus himself--as a reassurance, perhaps, that his course thus far has been pleasing in his Father's sight? As a revelation that his intimations that God is his father in perhaps more than the way in which God is the father of all human beings are correct?

Or did Jesus simply need to hear the voice of God in order to start his ministry? Did he need to hear directly in that moment: "you are ready"?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Point -- 2 Nephi 2: 25

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." (2 Ne 2: 25)

"Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." (Luke 18: 17)

The midrash?

'Nuff said.

Photos courtesy of V. Elisabeth Westwood

Friday, July 31, 2009

Ruling the World -- Matthew 18: 1

"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

We typically read this as evidence of the Apostles' petty egotism, but a conversation with Cort today put it in a whole new light. Why did the Apostles raise this question?

My midrash today is that they were trying to figure out how to rule the world.

You see, in the earliest moments of Christianity, spiritual and political messianic hopes were probably not disentangled in any way, shape, or form. The apostles probably believed that the day would come when Jesus literally ruled the Earth (or at least the land of Israel, the only truly important part of the earth from their frame of reference). Things Jesus said would have actively encouraged this expectation: in the preceding few verses (Matt 17: 24-27), for example, Jesus makes the claim that as heirs of the king, the disciples are by right exempt from the temple tax (though he advises Peter to pay it any way to avoid trouble). Would Peter have been so off the mark to relate this story to other disciples as evidence that Jesus had a right to political power? The apostles probably lived in expectation of the day when miraculous, apocalyptic events (a legion of angels a la Matt 26: 53? a spontaneous submission of Gentile kings to the anointed one as in Isa. 49: 22-23?) would bring political power into Jesus' hands and make them into a sort of cabinet for the world's new order, to reign under him as kings and judges over the tribes of Israel (Luke 22: 29-30). Yes, for now what was Caesar's would be rendered unto Caesar (Matt 22: 21), but anytime now God would strip Caesar of what was rightfully Christ's.

The question, then, as to who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven may have more to do with jurisdiction than with ego. Who will serve in what position in the coming literal kingdom, the heaven to be established in a messianic age on earth? Should we start finding small ways to organize and prepare now for when that transfer of power comes?

Jesus' famous response (Matt 18: 4) actually does nothing to dismiss these notions, and was probably not intended to. Rather than limiting their expectations about receiving political power, Jesus teaches them something about the ethical exercise of political power. How should you act if placed in charge of the world? is perhaps the real context for his short sermon.

Ah...and how do we act, when moment and circumstance temporarily lend us power over another person's world? Because all across the world, every day, can it truly be maintained that such states do not naturally and accidentally occur?

Monday, July 27, 2009

One month in, what does this blog do for you?

My aunt Juli once told me there's an old Jewish tradition that says no one should study the scriptures all alone--whenever possible, you should have someone to discuss the text with. There are numerous possible reasons for this advice: it halves the chances that people will interpret the scriptures as asking them to do something terrifying and psychopathic, for example. On a brighter note, the tradition suggests that there's some extra effect of human interaction as part of study, that discussing scripture is somehow far better than simply reading it.

Does this count? I haven't done a great job of actively inviting participation in this blog's first month, so it's not the dialogic study the sages would have suggested for me yet.

What are you getting out of this so far? Please comment.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anime Ammon -- D&C 1: 24

"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding."

What is the manner of our language and how does it change over time? Is there an inherent value to connecting with God, at times, in the manner of our own language, whatever it may be?

I talked to an agent for Deseret Book several months ago about the possibility of publishing an additional illustrated version of the Book of Mormon, in which the characters were anthropomorphized people-animals (a la, for example, Brian Jacques novels) rather than people. I suggested this partly just because my brother used to draw Book of Mormon characters that way, and partly because I thought obviously imaginary renderings like that would free up children to visualize characters on their own and solve the problem of children taking problematic existing depictions literally.

The group I was with was excited about the proposal, but the agent was not. He said that customers are pretty sensitive about what they get in terms of religious depictions and was pessimisstic about the ability of such a work to sell.

If I were to re-pitch a similar concept today, though--and I probably should--I would frame it as a "kids illustrate Book of Mormon stories" project and incorporate a variety of styles coming from actual young artists around the world. D&C 1: 24, I think, provides an appropriate justification: giving children a chance to receive these stories in the manner of their own language might help them come more quickly and organically to meaningful understanding.

To give you a flavor of such a work, I present the following three drawings by Braden and Franklin, two of my own primary students.

Braden loves Ammon, and it shows.

One Sunday the boys had a heated discussion on the topic: "Who would you have joined: Coriantumr or Shiz?" Franklin has been fascinated with that story every since. (Tangential note: Gabe insisted he would've hidden in a rock to avoid the war. The other boys told him that Coriantumr and Shiz were sweeping the land to force everyone to fight, and that Gabe, lacking a prophet's protection, would have been found and forced to fight. Gabe responded that he would have hidden in Ether's rock, taking quite literally the sentiment that we should follow the prophet.)

This last one is Braden's. It's Jesus, I think during his visit to the Nephites (I also think Braden meant to draw feet, but ran out of time). I prefer this Jesus's wrinkled face and intense gaze to the glowing Jesus of of the Simon Dewey and Greg Olson paintings that seem to dominate the LDS market at the moment. The manner of Braden's language has more power for me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled midrash...

...for this very interesting link. These bloggers report on a visit by LDS missionaries and I think it's a great window into what missionaries look like to many people. Having served a mission myself, it's kind of fun to step out of what was my frame of reference at the time and think about how many of the people I interacted with may have seen me.

Among the most positive things: the missionaries prayed for the blog of those whom they visited. Let's help answer the missionaries' prayer by visiting. (Probably should leave the follow up to the missionaries, though. These people don't need every Mormon on the internet asking what they thought about their reading.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lehi the Heretic -- 1 Ne 1: 19-20

"And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.
And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away." (from 1 Ne 1: 19-20)

When Lehi told the people about their own sins, they "mocked" him. Mocking, to me, suggests they aren't taking it too hard: these are callous and self-assured sinners who don't feel a need to respond directly to charges of misconduct.

Then Lehi tells them about a vision he had and a book he read in that vision which gave him a specific brand of Messianic hope--and that's when they get angry and try to kill him.

So, let me get this straight: a man comes claiming to be a prophet and tells you that you are about to be destroyed in consequence of purported sins, and you think he's deluded but amusing. Then he tells you that a Messiah will come and redeem the world--and you want him dead? How does that make any sense?

I remember an investigator complaining once about the overt anticipation of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon: Biblical prophecies of Christ's coming, he explained, were invariably verschluesselt (encoded, hidden, locked, in need of a key) whereas the Book of Mormon ones seemed too direct, too overt. My explanations at the time were that the translation process may have removed some of the culture-bound crypticness of Book of Mormon prophecy in favor of overt and accessible modern language, or that the total geographic separation from the land where Christ would be born made God more willing to be overt in his revelations to Nephite prophets.

My more recent theory, though, is that Lehi, and Nephi after him, were simply heretics whose version of Messianic hopes placed them outside the acceptable constraints of mainstram Judaism. They were more overtly Christian in their thinking and "bold" in their preaching, and that's a big part of why they had to leave, lest they suffer the same fate as Zenos (see Hel. 8: 19).

Nephite religion, then, should be viewed less as a direct extension of Judaism than as a breakaway new religious movement differentiated above all by the divergent Messianic teachings of its founders. At approximately the same time that Buddha was departing from classical Hindu thought by his teachings on the nature of spiritual discipline and his divergent doctrine of the soul, Lehi and especially Nephi were stepping out of conventional Judaism with their ideas of how the Messiah should be defined and what redemption would constitute.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nobel Prize Caliber Revelation -- D&C 104: 17-18

"For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment." (D&C 104: 17-18)

The implicit argument here is that there are enough resources for the appropriate use of all men, and that it's our collective failure to allocate them adequately that leads to poverty and starvation. Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel Prize for saying just that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rasul and Nabi

I was talking once with an elderly Baha'i from Iran, who asked numerous questions about my faith and church. When I told him we'd had fifteen prophets lead our church since 1830, he was stunned. A prophet's arrival, he said, is not an everyday event. A prophet comes perhaps only once every thousand years--how could we claim to have had fifteen in so short a time? And why would we need to revolutionize religion so often?

I referred to the Biblical tradition we would each have some familiarity with. There had been a Moses, but also a Joshua, an Isaiah, a Daniel. Moses had brought the Law, I explained, but even with further prophets to guide them, people barely remembered it! Joseph Smith had restored our kind of religion to earth, but every generation needs a prophet to lead and guide it.

He nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer, and explained, "I've been told Arabic is the most perfect language in the world; maybe it's true. In Arabic, there are two words for "prophet": rasul and nabi. A rasul brings a new kind of religion; a nabi helps guide it. Every rasul is also a nabi, but not every nabi is a rasul." He went on to say that Baha'is see Muhammed not as the last rasul, but rather the last nabi of his age, leaving room for Baha'is to accept the claim of Muhammed to be the "last prophet" (nabi) and yet to believe in the nineteenth-century revelations Baha'u'llah as a new prophet (rasul).

Which makes me wonder if it's easier in the handful of LDS branches where Arabic is spoken to talk about our doctrine of dispensations. We believe, after all, in a distinction between prophets who ushered in new dispensations and prophets who operated within existing dispensations, and why not use the words rasul and nabi to talk about that difference? (We wouldn't be using the words in exactly the same way as Muslims do, or in the somewhat different way Baha'is do, but we don't use most Biblical terms quite the way most Protestants do, either. It is the right of every faith to give new meaning to old language.)

So here's to the rasuls Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith, with apologies to those who I have missed--and here's to the many nabis we honor alongside them, to the tireless Joshuas and Brigham Youngs, sent by God to guide his people in the wake of recently-arrived dispensations.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Smith -- Gen 3: 15

"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

Jonathan Edwards used to say: in reference to the seed of the woman, it is not written "they" shall bruise, but "it" shall bruise --"her seed," then, is in reference to a promised One. In this passage, then, is the first implicit Messianic promise of the scriptures.

Joseph Smith said: not "bruise" but "crush" the serpent's head, and that Adam and Eve received direct as well as implicit promises, that from the days of our first ancestors these things have been taught openly to those who converse with God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Book of Mormon as Midrash? -- Deut. 30: 19

"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live"

Could you read the whole Book of Mormon productively as if it were a midrash on this single verse?

Peter Spangenberg introduced me to the German word"nachhaltig" while I was living in Eberswalde. I realized years later that there's an English equivalent, "sustainable" but something about having to learn the word made me think more deeply about the underlying concept: "nachhaltig" as I came to understand it, described a way of doing things that didn't break down in and of itself (like most ways of existing do). The point of commandments, I came to believe, was to prepare us to live in a way that was ultimately and eternally nachhaltig, ethically and spiritually sustainable. Thus, perhaps, the saying of Moses that our choice is one of life or death, for us and our posterity. And yes, why not?, a Book as explanatory story, not only proclaiming,"For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence." (2 Ne. 4: 4) but also following cycles of pride, rebellion, excess, and decay across generations, in and out of centuries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Only Serious Philosophical Question -- D&C 130: 20-21

"There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated."

How many blessings are predicated simply on obedience to the commandment not to commit suicide! For the Lord will let his sun shine on the good and evil, and send rain down to nourish the just and the unjust (Matt. 5: 45) so long as we choose life, taking an interest in our mortal existence and bearing the burden of our free will.

A Glimpse Through the Veil? -- Matt 16: 23

"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."

Nicole used to say: it was when Peter rebuked him that Christ remembered the war in heaven for the first time in his mortality. For this reason he called Peter Satan: Peter brought back to him all at once the memory of Satan's ancient insistence that mankind could be redeemed without any choice or suffering. (see Moses 4: 1-4)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Family Commandments -- Jer. 35: 18-19

"And Jeremiah said unto the house of the Rechabites, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Because ye have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he hath commanded you:
Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever."

I love Jeremiah 35. In this chapter, Jeremiah is sent by the Lord to offer wine to some specific men, who refuse it on the grounds that their ancestor Jonadab commanded members of his family not to drink wine, and that this special family commandment has been honored through the generations. The Lord praises their obedience and gives them promises as a result of their faithfulness.

As in the days of the Rechabites, it is our duty to make the precepts of the gospel our own, each in his and her own family. While commandments are given through the prophets for the whole people to keep, this does not preclude sacred family traditions and customs being instituted that protect and guide us beyond what the whole of the church determines to do.

These customs and family ties can help strengthen us when other ties exert less force. The Israelites, at the time of Jeremiah, were not terribly good at keeping the commandments of God their Father but the Rechabites were able to keep their ancestor Jonadab's more specific commandments (and hopefully, through the virtues developed in their adherence to them, more of God's precepts also).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crumbs -- Matt. 15: 27

"And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table."

You have to read the full story to remember how difficult this passage is to read today, when we know that being born a Canaanite (or any other -ite) should not be a big deal, and certainly doesn't make one person any less worthy than another. And yet that seems to be exactly what's going on in this story. And as faith-filled and clever as the woman's response is, it can still be hard for us today to feel good about a woman referring to herself as a dog.

A few possible explanations:

-In Mark's telling of what is presumably the same story, Jesus is trying to keep a low profile so that he can get where he's going without a multitude following him when this woman comes loudly begging for help (see Mark 7: 24-25). In that reading, Jesus' reluctance probably has more to do with procedure than ethnicity: here's someone being rebuked for asking in the wrong way at the wrong time, which we modern readers much prefer to someone being rebuked for being of the wrong race.

-I've heard, though never confirmed, that the word Jesus uses for "dog" is one that referred to a domesticated house pet, as opposed to the highly unpopular wild dogs who roamed the streets. If that's the case, Jesus' rebuke is at least gentler, and possibly even intended to help elicit her response, showing the shocked disciples why she is worthy of the Lord's time and attention.

-D&C 93: 12 reports that Jesus, though sinless, did evolve, learn, and grow. We could read this passage as one in which Jesus is righteously focused on his mission as he understands it, but then is taught by this encounter something profound about the breadth of his own mortal mission.

-John 9: 3 says that sometimes hard-to-understand things happen simply so that God will have a place to show us something good and important. Maybe the whole exchange happens so that we can have, written in our scriptures, an image that says that even the most marginalized people (she is after all, a Canaanite, less respected than Gentile or Samaritan) are inexorably connected with us. That we are as totally connected to and responsible for the "dog" as for "the children." (Imagine an Israel today in which the access of the average Palestinian worker to the "crumbs" of the Israeli economy played as great a role in policy formation as security concerns. I'm not naive enough as to believe any change in policy could solve that region's problems, but that shift in thinking could probably do a lot to ease the pain of certain innocent bystanders.) Maybe Christ is working within the power relationships of his time not because he believes in them, but because talking within them will show something valuable to us.

In any case, there are some thoughts on this passage, although all this talk of connection has me thinking again of the banyan tree...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hungry for Bodies -- D&C 138: 50

"For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage."

It is interesting to me that numerous philosophers (Plato comes to mind) have thought of the spirit as imprisoned in the body, when in fact the opposite is true. Our physical selves are so valuable, so integral to our beings as to be eternally indispensible.

A story I now tell myself: when God created our spirits, he did so in a way that left them open to intertwine with bodies, made tendrils of spiritual nerves waiting for the home they would ultimately be anchored in. As such our spirits, from the beginning, have hungered for bodies to feel whole and complete: for this reason do the devils seek to possess and dwell in mortal bodies, even for a short time.

Perhaps raw Intelligence likewise craves spirit, and for this reason were we so eager to be spiritually born.


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