Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jesus and Joseph Smith

(From notes of a talk given in Sacrament Meeting)

This year we celebrate Christmas, but there is another birth that is important to Mormons. That is the Prophet Joseph Smith who founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He would be happy that the birth of Jesus Christ was recognized over his own, adding his testimony of the Savior.

Born Dec. 23, 1805 to Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Jr. in Sharon Vermont, he came from a religious family. They didn't always go to the same church, but they were taught the Bible and about faith. Joseph Smith's father taught school in the winter and farmed during the summer, sometimes taking odd jobs to support his large family.

When I was young, I had access to a family library that included Mormon related books. Among the books I read was "Teachings of he Prophet Joseph Smith" edited by Joseph Fielding Smith and "Joseph Smith: American Prophet" by John Henry Evans. I became fascinated by his life and ideas, but didn't at first have a conviction of him as a prophet.

It wasn't until I read the Book of Mormon that my testimony of Joseph Smith as a Prophet came in full harmony with him as a great man and religious teacher. This was because of the nature of that Scripture as a testimony of Jesus Christ through the witness of the spirit. The Title Page sums this up:
Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation—Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God. . .

. . . Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations

Also I found it true that the Book of Mormon does well in accomplishing its mission, "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins." Having gained a testimony of the book, I gained a testimony of Joseph Smith as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.

Besides sharing a month in commemoration of their births, There are similarities that Joseph and Jesus share:

Both were born of working class families. Joseph of Jesus was a carpenter who probably did many odd jobs. Joseph Smith Sr. was a farmer, and as mentioned also a laborer.

Jesus had a religious upbringing, getting blessed as a baby and taken to the Temple as a young boy. Joseph Smith was taught religion from the time he was young along with the rest of his family.

They were both to have no official standing among the religious leaders, but claimed authority from Heaven. The towns they grew up in rejected them. A book was written against Joseph Smith using negative memories of some towns people. He often left to other places for safety. Jesus came back and taught in a synagogue only be questioned about his ancestory. Surely it is true, ". . . A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house."

Both never stayed in one place for very long. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and Joseph was pushed out of states along with his people while preaching along the way.

They were called liars and possessed of the devil. At the same time they had loyal followers in difficulties who believed their testimonies.

In death, both were betrayed by former believers and brought before the law for treason. One was crucified by the government and another by a mob. The Gov. of Illinois at the time, Thomas Ford, stated he feared becoming associated with Pilot as he recognized and tried to reject that role.

They died young: Joseph Smith at 38 and Jesus at 33. To this day both are controversial men of faith. Believers honor them and doubters persist in questioning every detail about them.

The true relationship between the two began while Joseph Smith sought to answer his religious questions. Besides the official version of the First Vision, an earlier diary entry by Joseph Smith states:

Therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy. The Lord herd me cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord . . . a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me. I was filled with the Spirit of Go and the Lord opened the Heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.
He spake unto me saying, "Joseph my Son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of Glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life.

He continued with the familiar message about the world's sinful condition. After describing the vision, he wrote:
My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.

Of course, after that Joseph Smith would become the Lord's Prophet. He would testify of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He said, "Salvation could not come to the world without the mediation of Jesus Christ."

We hold the third of 13 Articles of Faith, as written by Joseph Smith, "We believe that through the aAtonement of Christ, all bmankind may be csaved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel." Every revelation and doctrine taught by Joseph Smith points to faith in the Lord and his salvation:
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.

Like in the grove of trees where he first prayed and received an answer, Joseph continued to give supplication. He trusted the Lord Jesus Christ would forgive him of his human weaknesses and sin. In a letter to his wife Emma Smith, he wrote:
I have visited a grove which is just back of the town almost every day, where I can be secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meditation and prayer. I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to mourn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly in suffering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past. But God is merciful and has forgiven my sins, and I rejoice that he sendeth forth the Comforter unto as many as believe and humble themselves before him.

I will try to be contented with my lot, knowing that God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me [except] to do his will

In a revelation at the organization of the LDS Church, the Lord tetified of Joseph Smith, "Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ, Being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith." The Lord continued, "For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good, and his diligence I know, and his prayers I have heard."

President Gordon B. Hinkley said of Joseph Smith and his testimony of Jesus Christ:
To a world plagued with doubt over the actuality of the Resurrection, Joseph Smith testified unequivocally of the risen, living Christ. That testimony was spoken in many ways and under many circumstances.

Pres. Hinkley went on to say:
Joseph Smith testified of the risen Lord when by the power of his prophetic office he spoke these remarkable words:

“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!

“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—

“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).

Finally, he sealed that testimony with his life’s blood, dying a martyr to the truths of which he had spoken concerning the Redeemer of the world, in whose name he had carried on his ministry.

The Prophet Joseph Smith was a preeminent witness of the living Christ.

This Christmas, let us celebrate the birth of our Savior in humility. Remember the gift of the Restoration of the Gospel as given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Amen.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Word of Wisdom Vindicated . . . Again

Part of the Word of Wisdom dealing with alcohol consumption was supposed to have been put into question by studies. Every few months, it seemed, a new study would come out stating that moderate drinking of wine or dark beer helped with this or that health concern. Not so fast, says another study, because there can be more harm than good:

Experts with the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association say that though these studies do show some benefits to moderate drinking, the health risks from alcohol consumption far outweigh the potential rewards.

The reason for the warning is that it may prevent some kinds of cancers and heart problems, but it can cause other cancers:

Drinking any alcohol at all is known to increase your risk for contracting a number of types of cancer, said Susan Gapstur, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society. These include cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon/rectum and breast.

It also causes, as has been known, liver damage. However, all the benefits that do exist can be had by fresh fruits and vegetables:

For example, people can get resveratrol -- the antioxidant found in red wine that's believed to provide most of the drink's health benefits -- from drinking grape juice just as well as from drinking wine, Mieres said.

Those who have produced the study seem to be trying to have it both ways, extolling drinking in moderation even when they claim that is harmful. As for the moderation, having one drink or two drinks a day is the recommended. Known patterns of drinking don't follow that very well. Other studies have shown that binge drinking, especially for the young, or having more than the above recommended glasses a day is far more likely.

Caution is still recommended with this study. Reports on doctors' and scientists' findings have a habit of discovering competing studies. For the moment, the health prescription from the Lord seems safe enough to continue following.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

About Mormon Tears

Many times, usually during testimony meeting, a member of the LDS Church will cry while talking about life and the gospel. The message is clear; they are experiencing a spiritual moment. What is not as clear is if the tears are genuine. Most of the time they are, but sometimes its hard to tell. Sincerity isn't the issue, but there can be a question of necessity.

One of the most famous "crying Mormon" is Glenn Beck, the controversial Conservative pundit. He is known to shed a tear either about his testimony or topics about the U.S. Constitution. Next to him in recognition of tear soaked words is Elder Richard G. Scott Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He is often like Pa in Little House on the Prairie; each time you hear him there is going to be tears by the end.

There is much that could be said about the article on Glenn Beck, but there is one paragraph that seems wrong:

Beck’s oft-ridiculed penchant for punctuating his tirades with tears is the hallmark of a distinctly Mormon mode of masculinity. As sociologist David Knowlton has written, “Mormonism praises the man who is able to shed tears as a manifestation of spirituality.” Crying and choking up are understood by Mormons as manifestations of the Holy Spirit. For men at every rank of Mormon culture and visibility, appropriately-timed displays of tender emotion are displays of power.

This sounds more like feminist self-indulgence not based on everyday facts. Besides Elder Scott as mentioned above, very few leaders of the Church cry often. The Mormons who are most likely to cry and choke up are the Women, particularly younger ones. Worst offenders are those who get up on the podium and shed tears the moment they start talking. Once you get to know a congregation it isn't hard to predict who will tear up every time they reach the podium. Personally, instead of sharing in their spiritual experience it can be annoying. My own encounters with the Spirit can make me smile.

It isn't to say that crying when you feel spiritual, or what is known as "the gift of tears" in other traditions, is to be avoided. The most famous shedding of tears was when Jesus wept (John 11:35) at the grave of Lazarus because of the sadness of his friends. More tears were shed by him as the Christ looking over the Nephites and Lamanites. However, there should be judicious use and careful examination of the sincerity involved. Powerful moments of spiritual expression can be made less by overdone presentations. Don't cry if you don't feel it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Dan Brown and Mormonism

Author Dan Brown has confused and scandalized Christians with some of his work. His most ferocious attacks have been against the Roman Catholic Church, with special emphasis on the exploits of the little known Opus Dia order. Critics describe his writings as clumsy, filled with poor grammar and overused cliches, and lacking historical accuracy. Despite all this, his books are best sellers and two were made into Hollywood movies. Another side of the success is that what scandalizes Christians resonates with Mormon fans.

Brigham Young University is going to release a seven-part documentary about the life of Jesus Christ. "Messiah: Behold the Lamb of God" was produced in response to a PBS documentary that explored the "historical" Jesus. It may not have any ties to Dan Brown, but BYU professor of church history and doctrine Richard Holzapfel said in the 15 minute preview that interest in Mormon views about Christ increased after the author's publications became popular. Before that, he said, revealing you were a Mormon would shut down any discussions.

The reason for this change in attitudes and Mormon interest in Dan Brown's writings is the ideas he presents. When his first book "The Da Vinci Code" came out, it talked about how Jesus was married and had children. For a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this wasn't unheard of. One of the most outspoken early leaders of the LDS Church, Apostle Orson Hyde, insisted, "Now there was actually a marriage; and if Jesus was not the bridegroom on that occasion, please tell who was. If any man can show this, and prove that it was not the Savior of the world, then I will acknowledge I am in error." Elder Hyde said at another time, "Before the Savior died, he looked upon his own natural children, as we look upon ours; he saw his seed, and immediately afterwards he was cut off from the earth; but who shall declare his generation? They had no father to hold them in honorable remembrance; they passed into the shades of obscurity, never to be exposed to mortal eye as the seed of the blessed one." Other early LDS leaders known to have expressed these beliefs include Pres. Joseph F. Smith, Apostle Heber C. Kimball, Apostle Jedediah M. Grant, and Apostle Orson Pratt.

The highly regarded book "Jesus the Christ" by Apostle James E. Talmage and other LDS Apostles since have not made these conclusions. Following generations have almost forgotten the teachings of a few in earlier days. The marriage and family of Jesus has become Mormon folklore doctrines.

At first Mormons were worried that Dan Brown's latest book would feature the LDS Church in a bad light, much like he did the Roman Catholic Church. Mostly this was because he visited Salt Lake City and was going to write about Free Masonry. LDS history and temple ritual have ties to Free Masonry that some critics find worthy of contempt. There was relief when "The Lost Symbol" turned out to hardly mention Mormonism other than in a few minor paragraphs.

More intriguing was once again Dan Brown had touched on subject matters closer to Mormonism than traditional Christianity. Bryce Haymond of the blog "Temple Study" wrote about the different subjects in the book that Mormons could relate to as part of their own beliefs. These include spirits as "intelligence," spirit matter, ancient mystery initiations, and the plurality of God. The central theme of the book is theosis, or the potential of men to become god-like. The painting The Apotheosis of Washington is used as a point of reference. Haymond states, "Theosis, or deification, has always been a sticking point with critics of the LDS Church. To these seemingly erudite scholars, a belief in theosis is likely the most heretical and blasphemous doctrine Mormonism could have possibly come up with – the idea that fallen and sinful man could rise to the stature of our God in heaven."

A few Mormons have questioned if he got some of his ideas while in Salt Lake City. How closely "The Lost Symbol" touches on Mormon theology could make for an intellectual conspiracy theory. Blog respondent Clark, in a post at Mormon Mentality said, "It does make one wonder what he was researching in the Church archives if Mormonism is so minor." Maybe it is time for Mormonism to once again focus on its unique characteristics; all courtesy of a second rate writer with a popular following.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book of Mormon Reading Breakdown Pt. 2

The Book of Helaman
1-2 (Murder of the Chief Judge and rise of Gadianton)
3-6(Righteousness of the Nephites and the rapid decline into wickedness)
5-9(Preaching and Prophecy of a later Nephi)
10-11 (Miracles of Nephi, repentance of people, and disturbance of Gadianton)
12 (Mormon's commentary about the "Pride Cycle")
13-16 (Samuel the Lamanite prophecies about the First Coming of Christ)

Third Nephi: The Book of Nephi, The Son of Nephi, Who was the Son of Helaman
1-4 (Signs of the mortal coming of Christ, war with the Gadianton Robbers)
5-7 (Righteousness and wicked decent into Tribalism)
8-10 (Destruction, three days of darkness, and the Voice of the Lord)
11-16 (Glorified Jesus comes down, organizes the Church, preaches His message)
17-20 (Institution of Communion, calling of Disciples, prophecy)
21-25 (Jesus prophecies of the Last Days)
26-28 (Unity of the Church and instructions to the Disciples)
29-30 (Mormon's warning to the Gentiles of their unbelief)

Fourth Nephi: The Book of Nephi, Who is the Son of Nephi- One of the Disciples of Jesus Christ
1 (Two Centuries of righteousness dissolving into absolute wickedness)

The Book of Mormon
1-7 (Mormon given the records, leads Nephite armies, and laments about their wickedness and destruction)
8-9 (Moroni, son of Mormon, finishes the record. He warns the Gentiles to learn from the Nephites and repent)

The Book of Ether
1-3 (Tower of Babel; brother of Jared sees pre-mortal Christ)
4-5 (Sealing the records until the Last Days)
6-11 (Jaredites arrive at the Promised Land, but wickedness spreads and prophets warn of destruction)
12 (Moroni comments about faith and miracles)
13-15 (Prophet Ether teaches of the New Jerusalem and the Jaredite destruction. The Jaredites lose faith and destroy themselves)

The Book of Moroni
1-6 (organization and practices of the Church)
7 (Sermon on Faith, Hope, and Charity)
8 (Epistle of Mormon on the wickedness of infant baptism)
9 (Second epistle of Mormon on the wickedness of the Nephites and Lamanites)
10 (Mormon testifies of his record and how to gain a testimony of its words and Christ)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Book of Mormon Reading Breakdown

John G. Turner at Religion in American History blog said he was having problems reading The Book of Mormon. He expressed the same frustrations that even believers often have with its dry narrative. He found it easier to digest short chunks given to him as suggested readings. With his invitation to help finish the book, I replied it would probably be best to break it down into major stories and sermons.

When I first came up with the idea it was going to be a loose collection of readings. However, I soon found it hard for me to find what might be skipped without serious lack of literary context. My final decision was to take the entire book and break it down into parts for complete consumption. Because I didn't want to overburden the post with my complete work I decided to publish the work on my blog. As I continue from 1 Nephi to Moroni there will be additions.

All books and chapters broken down from the LDS 1981 publication copies.

First Book of Nephi
1-7 (The calling of Lehi’s family to the wilderness)
8-9 (dream of Lehi and Nephi’s plates)
10-15 (encapsulated Lehi prophecy and Nephi’s Christian gospel history vision)
16-18 (continued travel and building of ship. Emphasis on Exodus)
19 (Purpose of writings to chronicle destiny of Israel. Note: the Book of Mormon doesn’t see a marked difference between Israel and Christianity. They are one and the same.)
20-22 (Nephi reads Isaiah to explain Israel’s destiny)

The Second Book of Nephi
1-4 (Lehi blesses his sons and grandsons, and the servant Zoram. Promises and warnings about the Promised Land)
5 (The split between Nephi and his brothers. Formation of Nephites and Lamanites)
6-10 (The sermon of Jacob concerning the scattering and gathering of Israel. Christ is center of salvation)
11-24 (Nephi quotes chapters of Isaiah as illustration of Jacob’s teachings)
25-26 (The salvation of Christ in history)
27-31 (The Book of Mormon as a final warning to repent before Christ comes in Power)
31-32 (How to become a Christian by Christ’s example)
33 (Nephi’s testimony of his writings)

The Book of Jacob: The Brother of Nephi
1 (Passing of the plates, death of Nephi and continued legacy)
2-3 (Jacob's sermon on pride and whoredoms)
4 (Foundation of the Lord)
5 (Allegory of the Olive Tree as a likeness to scattering and gathering)
7-8 (warning to not deny Christ. Sherem challenges Jacob)

Enos (His prayer struggle in the wilderness)
Jarom (Growth of the Nephites and Lamanites)
Omni (Discovery of Zarahemla)
Words of Mormon (Introduction of the editor and continued history)

The Book of Mosiah
1-6 (King Benjamin's address calling for a Christian covenant people)
7-8 (Rediscovery of Lehi-Nephi, the 24 plates)
9-11 (The founding of Lehi-Nephi and rising wickedness)
12-17 (Trial of Abinadi, his defense of faith in Christ the reason for Law of Moses)
18 (Alma and the Waters of Mormon)
19-21 (Bondage of Lehi-Nephi by Lamanites up to its rediscovery)
22 (Escape to Zarahemla)
23-24 (Alma, founding of Helam, bondage and escape to Zarahemla)
25-26 (The rise of the Church in Zarahemla and persecutions)
27 (Conversion of Alma and the Sons of Mosiah because of Angelic message)
28-29 (Mission of sons of Mosiah, change from Kingship to Judges after divine interpretation of 24 plates)

The Book of Alma: The Son of Alma
1-4 (The Nehor Priestcraft, war against Amlicites and Lamanites)
5-6 (Alma preaches and organizes the church in Zarahemla)
7 (Alma preaches in Gideon)
8-9 (Alma preaches, gets rejected, returns to Ammonihah)
10-11 (Amulek preaches to people of Ammonihah)
12-13 (Alma preaches righteousness and the priesthood to Zeezrom)
14-16 (Alma and Amulek see believers martyred, escape imprisonment, convert Zeezrom, and return to Zarahemla. Ammonihah destroyed by Lamanites)
17-20 (Ammon preaches to Lamanite King Lamoni)
21-25 (Mission to Lamanites, faith of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies)
26 (Ammon glories in Lamanite conversions)
27-28 (Anti-Nephi-Lehies called people of Ammon, Lamanite attack)
29 (Alma's desire to preach like an Angel)
30 (Korihor the Anti-Christ)
31-35 (Missionary work to the self-righteous Zoramites and poor outcasts)
36-42 (Commandments of Alma to his missionary sons)
43-44 (Captain Moroni leads the Nephites defenses against Lamanites)
45-49 (Amalickiah the Nephite joins the Lamanites. Moroni raises the Title of Liberty)
50-51 (Divisions among the Nephites; Freeman and Kingman factions)
52-55 (Moroni continues to lead the Nephites in defense against Lamanites and dissenters)
56-58 (War letter of Helaman to Moroni, including story of two thousand sons of Anti-Nephi-Lehies)
59-61 (Letters between Moroni and Pahoran)
62-63 (Major war ends, Moroni dies, Nephites expand)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Why "Twilight" is Poor Mormon Analogy

There has been some speculation recently, particularly among non-Mormons, of the Mormonism that can be found in the "Twilight" vampire series. The recent conjectures of John Mark Reynolds and a writer at the blog Forks High School Professor adds to the discussion. At best these comparisons of the series and Mormonism are problematic. Like the original Battlestar Galactica series, the background is far too often treated like the actual story. Understanding the relationship between story and theology cannot be done without vigorous oversimplifications and outright unwarranted conclusions. To put it another way; to see the Mormon analogies in the books ends up distorting both.

Probably the most troubling idea that these analysis make is that Stephanie Meyer has consciously preached Mormonism in the series. This has been a subject of criticism toward Orson Scott Card as well, although he states openly that it isn't preaching more than using his culture. There is no reason why either of them should apologize for doing this, because all authors write what they know. Even if S. Meyer did use Mormonism, I don't think she has demonstrated enough sophistication in her writings to make any lasting impressions. The books are mostly romances with vampires made for young adults. Arguments with any real merit made against the books can be related to any number of literature from the same traditions. The fact that another writer can issue a lawsuit for what has been described as "Mormon" elements should make critics reconsider their conclusions. Mormonism is either more universal or the books are less Mormon than has been supposed.

Even if there is Mormonism in the "Twilight" series, it is so hidden that there isn't much of a practical value. Like the "Harry Potter" criticism, what is said reveals more about the critics than the author or writings. Calling out the evils of witchcraft in its pages (much like the Mormon labels) end up sounding like unreasonable conspiracy theories put out as facts. No one is going to actually become sorcerers or even learn about real magic from the books. Similarly, the idea that readers will become a member of or really learn about Mormonism by reading "Twilight" is highly unlikely. Context of fantasy has supplanted any viable discussion of real beliefs outside of speculative literary interpretation. The average reader could care less without pre-conceived notions of what they want to find. That goes for Mormon and non-Mormon readers involved with subjecting the series to religious examination. Again, the worthwhile criticisms have been what can be used in examining any literary production.

An analogy can be so hidden or convoluted that it becomes very hard for casual readers, in isolation from other sources, to get anything out of them. The highly praised "Lord of the Rings" and "Narnia" series are examples of this that the "Twilight" series shares with them. It is hard for casual readers to understand how wizards, goblins, faeries, soldiers, and talking animals have anything to do with the theology of Anglicanism or Catholicism, much less vampires for Mormons without troubling biases. Books and papers might explicate the themes, but the original writer might as well have written straight forward papers to get the points across. Doubly so for audiences that are no longer steeped in the cultures that define the analogies meant by the authors.

A real Christian or Mormon literature wouldn't need images and characters to hide behind for mass consumption. The last real Christian stories for the masses since Shakespeare might have been the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye that didn't use mere analogies for the stories. Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and even the writer of Beowulf were not playing Johnathan Swift like games in their literary achievements. The exception might be "Pilgrim's Progress" by Bunyan, but that is borderline. At any rate, they had specific theological and moral messages and images not stunted behind hidden stories and characters. Heaven, Hell, Satan, Creation, Angels, Devils, and much more were not disguised as something else that had to be guessed at in papers and explications. Even the nearly allegorical Beowulf didn't need much work determining what the Grendel and mother Monsters or the Dragon stood for in relation to the hero.

Playing the analogy game with the "Twilight" series doesn't work very well. There are too many assumptions that have to be made about Mormonism, Stephanie Meyer, and the purpose of the books. Sources that are obscure to every day Mormons often have to be trotted out to make a case that is speculative at best. What is brought into the discussion by the critics is at least as important as what the series brings up. In the end the proof is manufactured because the reality cannot be proven without a direct quote from the author accepting or denying the connections. It can be fun, but unprofitable. In the end, the books have to speak for themselves and the readers decide.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Rise of the Mormon Singers

When Mormons are asked to name famous Mormons in music, Gladys Knight and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir might be the first that come to mind. Recently another name might be the pop sensation David Archuleta, the American Idol second place winner. There is a growing diversity of Mormon musicians who are, if not proud, at least not shy about their Mormon faith. It isn't the lip service recognition of Mormon roots such as the Hollywood actors who mention upbringing as an afterthought. They express that they are still practitioners, even if imperfect.

More surprising is up and coming Mormon singers are coming from a traditionally hedonist genre; the Rock band. The most famous of them is Brandon Flowers of "The Killers" who has been mentioned before. At least two articles about almost famous bands have interviews were his name comes up almost as a comparison to them. Alan Sparhawk of The Low said, "There are a few of us [Mormons] here and there. It would be fascinating to meet him," when Independent.IE seemed to bring up the subject of any relationships. More directly, reported that Neon Trees has been touring with The Killers after the drummer spotted them and enjoyed what he heard.

The juxtaposition of Mormonism and the Rock Band lifestyle is a constant theme in the interviews. As Sparkhawk stated, "He [Flowers] is an odd one. He's not at all perfect. There are plenty of instances where he's shown his ... ah weaknesses." Yet, Brandon has acknowledged those weaknesses, but also expressed his Mormonism is part of his life. More surprising is that Mormons in both The Low and Neon Trees declare that they are reserved in their behavior. In a business where drinking, drugs, and sexual promiscuity are considered part of the life, for some reason they haven't fallen victim. It is true that Tyler of Neon Trees said, "we all kind of dabbled in our teenage years . . ," but they are apparently no longer involved with the more party element of the work.

What makes it easier for members of a Rock band to be practicing Mormons where Hollywood actors fail? Perhaps its because singers have more of a hand in creating their roles. They aren't stuck with the script handed them, but often are the ones writing the lyrics and making the music. If they don't want to do something, there isn't as much pressure from a director, writer, and producer telling them they must for the integrity of the production. There is also a niche called "straight edge" that rebelled against the hedonistic lifestyle if not the music. A similar movement is unheard of in the cloistered Hollywood movie hills. In fact, the Bishop in the Hollywood area said, ""The honest truth is when people call me, I attempt to persuade them to go elsewhere . . . This is an extremely tough, tough town." As he stated, they have to compromise and make the career their lives.

Maybe it is just a coincidence that the music business has more admittedly practicing Mormons in the spotlight. Whatever the reason, there is something to be learned. Art doesn't have to get in the way of Religion. They just have to be placed in proper perspective.

There are still some holes to fill. None of the work done by the mentioned artists (other than Gladys Knight and obviously the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) seems to have any Mormon influence. Secondly, on politics they also lean toward the Left; such as supporting Obama or attacking George W. Bush. It is still unbecoming to be Republican and Conservative, even if Mormonism isn't a problem.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are Mormons Depressed or Not?

Right when the idea of Mormon depression (using Utah statistics) was a given, another study has been done that challenge that impression. According to a Gallup poll on U.S. state "happiness", Utah ranks the highest with 62.9 points. There were 350,000 interviews taken about job satisfaction to health issues. The poll was conducted by Gallup in conjunction with Healthways and America's Health Insurance Plans.

Lets not get carried away. There are some cautions that those using the depression poll need to be careful of before making assumptions. Since Mormonism will most likely come up, it needs to be remembered that Utah residents are not all Mormons and not all Mormons are active members. There is also a curious fact about the numbers, as reported:

The survey, which takes about 15 minutes, involved 42 core questions. Those taking the survey could get a score of up to 100. The actual difference between states wasn't great: The average score for the highest-ranking state, Utah, was 69.2 points, while the average for the lowest-ranking state, West Virginia, was 61.2 points.

In other words, Utah is neither more depressed or more happy than anyone else in the United States. That means that, in all likelihood, Mormons aren't any mentally worse off than other people. It is hard to see how this relates to the other study that found, according to an ABC News article on the subject:

According to MHA, some 10.14 percent of adults in Utah "experienced a depressive episode in the past year and 14.15 percent experienced serious psychological distress. ... Individuals in Utah reported having on average 3.27 poor mental health days in the past 30 days."

Both studies, like all studies of this nature, are probably flawed in their own ways. Reporters have an even worse tendency to conclude causation where nothing concrete exists. In the meantime, I am going to remain happy that it appears (if past "logic" holds) Mormons are at least as happy as everyone else.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Infestation of Mormon Leadership

When something unusual happens it can be considered a coincidence. When it happens more than once a trend might be starting. In this case, Mormons are getting elected to leadership positions by other religious groups. That isn't to say that they are called to ecclesiastical positions any more than Mormons would grant a non-baptized person the Bishopric. Just like in the business world, however, top spots for finance and organization have Mormons picked as the leaders.

In one fascinating case there is Mark Paredes hired by The Los Angeles office of the Zionist Organization of America as an executive director. The duties of the office include promoting the State of Israel and fighting anti-Semitism. In the Q & A, Paredes explained:

Jewish Journal: At least two people have held your position since late 2006. What will be your formula for turning ZOA around?

Mark Paredes: I plan to bring together Jews, both religious and secular, who are proud to be Zionists, who are willing to defend Israel and the Jewish people, who want Israel to negotiate peace only with partners who have already renounced terror and incitement and recognize Israel, and who believe that Jews have the right to live in the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. Belief in these principles transcends movements and the religious-secular divide, and it’s my job to organize events that will inspire our supporters and attract other defenders of Israel to the ZOA banner.

He doesn't leave any details as to how he is going to accomplish his goals, saying only he has "many weeks and months of hard work." It shouldn't take long to see if he is more successful than his predecessors. Recent leaders lasted only a few months. There is no available information in the article to determine why the others lasted such a short time. It is interesting that as a Mormon he was picked at all, although not extraordinary.

The second leadership position of interest is in Utah. Rev. Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, a friend of LDS Pres. Monson, has hired Mormon Brad Drake as executive director of Utah's Catholic Community Services. As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Our mission is not to proselytize or to make people Catholic, but to serve all those in need in any way we can," Fitzgerald said.

In addition to a good grasp of its mission, Drake brought something else to CCS: a lifetime of business experience capped by service in the nonprofit world.

He has "the ability and skills to manage a complex agency in difficult times," Fitzgerald said.

Why Mormons are getting picked in organizations controlled by other religions or if this is really a trend is hard to say. What this holds for future relationships is just as much a mystery. That this is happening during a time when Mormons are less liked than since the start of the 20th Century is heartening. At the least it represents discussions of "how wide the divide" should be scrapped for real working together.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Mormonism and Evolution Debate

According to a recent Pew research poll about Evolution and Religion, Mormons are among the least likely to believe in Evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth. Just like any poll, there are serious problems. How the question is asked doesn't leave much room for alternatives and the elusive nuances to the answers. The word "best" automatically contradicts core Mormon theology about human origins. It doesn't give the respondents a way to explain themselves. As a self-described "Theo-Evolutionist" I can think of other better explanations without denying the huge discoveries of the fossil record. Another problem pointed out was, "The dotted line puts the US population at 48%, yet only five groups, which make up perhaps a third of the US population, are shown below 48%. Some piece of the puzzle is missing." The "science" of poll taking has always been suspicious. Who is giving, who is responding, and how to interpret can be troubling no matter how careful the research. Mormons who are anti-Evolutionists do exist in large numbers, but that doesn't have to be and probably is shrinking.

Probably the biggest hurdle for Evolution is the position held by leadership of the LDS Church who are more likely to be negative. The LDS Church might have “no official” position on Evolution, but the more I study the issue the more ambiguous such a statement comes across. What does it mean to have “no official” position in the LDS Church? That isn’t to say I disagree with that fact, but it is a very slim non-position. It is true that there have been LDS leaders, like Pres. David O. McKay and Stephen L. Richards, who spoke positively in public. In General Conference where it does count theologically and officially, statements about Evolution have been overwhelmingly negative. That translates to members who believe what is spoken there is scripture into an official position; and rightly so for the significant value of General Conference talks. Only slight room for disagreement remains.

There is a reason anti-Evolution remains in Mormonism even if Creationism is seen as unattainable. Despite all the witnesses (evidence) to Evolution, many Mormons hold on to anti-Evolution positions because there isn’t anything to fill the void. The unsaid argument for Mormon Creationists is “if there is no position on Evolution, than what exactly are modern Prophets and Scriptures saying?” I have my own answers to that, but there has been little discussion on the theological implications. Keeping the questions of Evolution vs. The Creation on “a shelf to ask when I am dead” might be a good personal approach, but it will fail to convince other LDS members. And that means more than dismissing McConkie, Smith, Benson, et el. as wrong. It means the very difficult, but I believe possible, work of explaining how they are correct in their own message (such as explaining what they are really going against is the atheist use of the theory). Then, moving past that, explaining how Evolution fits into Mormon theology and Scriptures.

Religious Evolutionists must confront theological concerns to make any lasting headway. To simply say that science and religion ask and answer two different questions is the real “God in the gaps.” Exactly what questions do they ask and what kind of answers are to be found? Scientists should understand there has to be interpretive frameworks to make sense of desperate evidence. The “don’t take it literally” is still NOT an answer or even a discussion. There has to be interpretive discussion of even non-literal meanings. You don’t read a book if you can’t understand the words.

I have my own tentative theory of the relationship between Evolution and the Garden of Eden, the sticking point. Many questions remain such as the idea of pre-Adam-ites and no death before the fall. Still, it is better than leaving it alone or dismissing one or the other. Even Elder McConkie didn’t believe in the Young Earth theory. That is a starting point.

I believe Mormonism is a "literalist" religion. After all, there were angels, miracles, gold plates and visions that are at the center of its founding. Joseph Smith did more than talk about Biblical events, but proclaimed that he conversed with many of the participants - including Adam. There just isn’t room enough in Mormon doctrine (if you take its divine founding and founder seriously) to make the scriptural stories just metaphor or symbolic. Yet, there is plenty of room for a re-interpretation of the scriptural stories. Because Mormons believe in the Scriptures as spiritually inspired, but human produced, the written word isn’t set in perfection. Just as Mormon acted as editor and Joseph Smith made editorial changes to the Book of Mormon, other writers wrote from their prospective. That means that the Scriptures are malleable to both new revelations and new understandings. I think the idea that we have to believe all the stories as written or none of them is spiritually harmful. The Scriptures, like history, are multi-faceted and full of missing pieces or even hyperbole.

Joseph Smith said that by two contraries we come to the truth. When it comes to Evolution and the Creation that has been my guiding principle. Puzzles can be fun. Puzzles can be frustrating. Some can fall apart, but that doesn't mean we should not try to put them together and see if we can see a bigger picture.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Mormon Nature of Symbols

Recently over at "Mormon Matters" there has been some discussion about Mormon usage of symbols, particularly about Jesus Christ. Most recently it has been about images of Christ and the lack of realism. This seems to tie into an earlier discussion about the lack of cross use by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have discussed the cross topic before and would like to add some thoughts on symbols in general.

From my other entry I said:

I believe, from my research, that the absents of a Cross is an "accident" of history. Not that I don't think there were deliberate reasons - as the LDS Church has been using other symbols since almost the start. The Angel Moroni seemed to have replaced the Cross as a symbol because it represented many of the key teachings of the Church. It carries the Book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in another. This represents Restoration of the Gospel, calling of the Elect, Resurrection and Judgment, and etc. The Cross did not get added to the plethora of other symbols available for iconography.

To continue, what is missing is a discussion on the nature of “symbols” in Mormonism. When a symbol is used, what symbol and what kind? Mormons might not use the cross out of historical accidents and might make excuses to keep from starting, but why? I think it has to do with the sacred nature of symbol in Mormonism that is seen in few religions.

How has the Mormon use of symbols started? More often then not any significant symbol is associated with the Temple. There are only two “official” symbols used by the Church that are not tied to the Temple in a direct way and that is the Sacrament and the CTR ring. The Sacrament has a very specific purpose used at a very specific time. It is an extension of our baptismal oaths and covenants. One could argue that makes it partly Temple related. As for the CTR ring, it really started more as a primary gimmick that seems to have slipped from official usage and became consumerist. Paintings commissioned or displayed by the Church are actually rather generic and serving the purpose mostly of garnishing. There are still very few chapels that have any art (symbols) of any kind displayed - not even in the way of Islamic geometric patterns.

The reason Mormonism has not “taken up the cross” is because it already has a symbol that the cross fills in for; and that would be the Temple. Pictures of the Temple in homes are often placed where other religions would put their own symbols. When a prophet says that the symbol of Christ should be our own lives rather than a cross, that means something more than a cute expression of examples to others. That is precisely what the Temple is commanding us to do as members. Not saying that is what the prophets mean by that, but who knows? I have come to the conclusion that crosses are not bad (I prefer and keep, but don’t actually wear, an Ankh), but they are superfluous for Mormon tradition. I might even go so far as to say that Mormons who have gone to the Temple should put it aside. There might be several reasons a Mormon wants to wear a cross, but the only ones I feel that have a legitimate reason are converts and out of friendly gestures.

What I am about to say will have to suffice so that I don't step over sacred boundaries. When a person goes to the Temple they take on themselves more than the name of Christ, but make promises that they will become symbolically Christ in their lives. The life, death, and resurrection narratives are now part of our own narratives. Ultimately, Mormon usage of symbols is more than for memorial, but for transformation. Nothing in Mormonism is more important in that transformation than Temples where salvation is solidified by symbolic actions. The one piece of physical symbol taken out is not even to be shown. It is for this reason that I feel the cross and any other "Christ symbol" will remain outside of Mormon religious culture. There is no official need. If it was ever to be included it would be for political purposes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reasons Mormons Stand Alone

There has been talk that 2008 was a bad year for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its image. To many it was a self-inflicted image because of the political stands it took and history. True as that may be, Mormonism has almost never had good press coverage or widespread respect. Perhaps the closet to a good reputation was during the era between 1950 and the first years of the 1960s when the forced Americanization of Mormonism coincided with wide spread U.S. patriotism and conservative spirit. That window of time was short lived and perhaps illusory. Radical social and political liberalization quickly took over. What remained was the LDS Church standing in the crosshairs of a culture war. It was left again where it started in the 18th Century. The conservative religious considered Mormonism a blasphemy and secularists an affront to human progress and logic.

The conservative antagonists to Mormonism are often religious theocrats who see anyone with different beliefs than themselves as doomed to eternal punishment. Christians are not alone in this view. To deviate from dogma is a worse sin than moral failings. Mormons are seen as the enemy because no matter how good a person is, the differences are too much for any respect. For many Christians, Mormonism's questioning of dogmatism and focus on works as an important aspect of spirituality is despicable. Faith in the correct beliefs are of the utmost importance. To believe anything more or less than exact dogma is to be evil.

Having a belief in Priesthood that governs and leads, rather than simply informs is another thorn in many Christian's sides. Similar to secularists, Protestants question authority and reject it except as a loose influence. Interesting enough, for years Catholics were kept out of the political process by Protestant gatekeepers for many of the same reasons. An overwhelming number of Catholics have forced a grudging respect on the Republican conservative Protestant base. It remains an uneasy reliance. Regardless of what chances Romney might have lost because of a dislike for Mormons, it is just as unlikely a Catholic could become a Republican U.S. Presidential contender. Nevertheless, the numbers and a respectable balance of traditional Christian dogma that Protestants inherited gives them an equal amount of room to ostracize Mormons.

Liberals are no less problematic for Mormons because they hold different metaphysical views about G-d and religion. Strict secularists hold even less similarities. Morals are seen as universals based on human relations rather than any set of doctrinal justifications. There is no right and wrong other than treating others with respect and social justices as they define the terms. Since there is no authority (other than a tolerant G-d by the liberal religious) then science and logic become the ultimate determiners of Truth. For the secularist liberal what cannot be proven in physical life must be rejected. Mormonism posits that truth and moral ism is more than what can be proved, but is centered on faith and Church authority. Often the only difference between the conservative religious criticisms of Mormonism and the secularists is tradition and a Holy book.

Strangely, since both conservative religious and Western liberalism both believe morals and authority are of secondary considerations, both view Mormonism as "cultic." It is an anti-papist sentiment shared by Christian and Secularist alike aimed at anyone who proclaims they have divine authority. This is exacerbated by the Mormon history of continual revelation, visions, miracles, new Scripture and Prophets. All of these have been rationally rejected as a sign of delusion. The religious say G-d no longer speaks words openly and the secularist that there never was a divine voice. To paraphrase one secularist, Mormonism doesn't allow for easy metaphorical re-interpretation. The foundational doctrinal history and Scriptures are too grounded in literalism. A culture built around the idea "G-d is dead" or at least silent is scandalized by one that continues to insist prophets exist that can declare "That He lives."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Books on Mormonism to Start the Year

A while ago I had written a review at about a book on Mormonism that I still find relevant. The book is by a non-Mormon who seems to get it right where others go wrong, even Jan Shipps who is more of an historian. Its price is the most problematic at $30 new and hard to find in any stores or libraries. The other book I am including is a great companion to the first and by a wonderful Mormon scholar. Neither of these are new, but are great reads for those who are interested in learning more about the religion.

An Introduction to Mormonism by Douglas J. Davies.

This is a wonderful book if you are into understanding the more difficult basics of LDS doctrine. Because of its complicated interpretive structure, I have a hard time calling it an introduction. He writes as a University Professor and it shows. Certainly it is the best book on the subject written by a non-Mormon, without clinging to esoterica and other people's misconceptions that usually hurt even the best books on the subject. Even the most celebrated non-Mormon authority Jan Shipps can be too skeptical and careless rather than understanding. This author, however, stays mostly with the authoritative works first, and the others second when needing clarification.

The touch tone of any treatment of Mormonism is how they approach the LDS Temple. I was very surprised and excited that the author rejected sensationalism and expose. He actually talked about the meaning behind the Temple and other related subjects. It is a far cry better than any other similar studies outside the LDS Church. I would recommend reading By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl L. Givens with this book. Both are a compliment to each other.

I would like to mention what I see as a weaknesses in his study. One of the reasons I recommended Givens is that Davies misunderstands the Book of Mormon. Perhaps that is going too far as he does have a pretty good sense of its general message. Rather, Davies doesn't understand the deeper teachings within the Book of Mormon, much less the anticipatory sections that touch on things that will show up later in the Doctrine and Covenants. He reads the Book of Mormon, sadly much like LDS members themselves, from a purely surface reading. That causes him to miss the many subtle and complicated issues it brings up, and dilutes the connections between it and later LDS Scripture. For instance, Davies doesn't sense the deeply ritualistic and priesthood oriented teachings of the Book of Mormon that continually shows up. Examples would be talking about the importance of mysteries, discussions on Melchezidek, mentioning of Priests and Teachers and Twelve Disciples, setting up Churches. Most importantly he misses the discussion of "turning the hearts of the children to the parents" in Third Nephi that Davies makes a big connection with ritual in other chapters of his study. There are other minor quibbles, but they are far less worrisome than what other authors even of the same caliber usually have.

The other book is by an author just mentioned. He doesn't delve into the deep waters of theological exegesis or complicated matters, but what he covers is a worthwhile overview. Again, the main concern is that the purchase prices is too high and a library copy should be sufficient.

The Latter-day Saint Experience in America by Terryl L. Givens.

There isn't as much to say about this book because it doesn't seek to explore any particular arguments. It starts out as a clear narrative of LDS history that covers some controversial events from the Mormon point of view. Yet, it doesn't act as a apologetic so much as clearly trying to present the Mormon understanding of themselves. The history sections alone would be informative to both Mormons and non-Mormons in ways that general writings of one or the other seem to come short.

The second section is more theological and covers the main beliefs. Again, there isn't any deep discussions and yet the information is full of enlightening insights. He sometimes explains misunderstandings that boarder on apologetic, but only when he feels outsiders have misinterpreted key doctrines. His harshest criticism is for those who perpetuate the idea that Mormons hold Christ's Salvation and Grace as of secondary importance. It is clear he holds orthodox beliefs about the LDS Church and its doctrines. That might turn off those who insist on holding their own ideas about Mormons in a negative light. For those honestly wanting to understand the religion, this book is a good start. It is succinct, leaning unbiased for most audiences, and covers a wide range of topics and controversies.