“A nurturing environment for new ideas”

At the fountain by the Free Speech Monument at UoC Berkeley, June 2016

At the fountain by the Free Speech Monument at UoC Berkeley, June 2016

I have a guest post at the Maxwell Institute blog on my participation in the Mormon Theology Seminar earlier this year, here.

The MI blog is not open for comments, so feel free to comment here.

Why I don’t consider myself a “faith-transitioned” Mormon

Minolta DSCWe all use labels whether for self-identification or to identify others. All too often, labeling others is used as a method of marginalization. However, this is not always the case. Labels can also be used to empower. For example, we label others as heroes, not with the intent of denigrating but rather, perhaps, in recognition of rare acts of bravery and selflessness. For the majority of her life, my mother felt different from her sibling and peers. By a few, she was simply called dumb or annoying. This negatively affected her self-esteem and sense of worth. It wasn’t until her adult years that she was finally diagnosed as having a learning disability. This label gave her a tool by which she could understand and ultimately accept her differences. Labels can be helpful. But labels also carry with them a certain expectation of shared experiences. Among many Mormons (particularly those engaged in social media) the term “faith transitioning” has become a common label for those whose faith and comfort with the Church has been somehow disrupted.

I don’t consider myself a “faith-transitioned” Mormon. Continue reading “Why I don’t consider myself a “faith-transitioned” Mormon” »

Co-Creators With God: A Review of “Writing Ourselves”

Review of Jack Harrell, Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things…come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. – Norman Maclean [1]

Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It (and the Robert Redford film inspired by it) is a fine example of uncovering the sacred in the mundane and the profundity of a craft or task. Though there is much more to the memoir than this, the idea that one’s craft can become pregnant with such meaning is an important takeaway. Early on, Maclean explains the tedious labor of learning the purely functional elements of fly fishing: “So my brother and I learned to cast Presbyterian-style, on a metronome.”[2] It was a craft that must be done with great care. “If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.”[3] It was part of the Maclean boys’ “religious training” to never be late for “church, work, and fishing.”[4] These three all operated under the same metaphysical assumptions, the same religious framework. It was through fly fishing that Maclean’s alcoholic and gambler brother Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the film) became his best self. While witnessing “the last fish we would ever see Paul catch,” the Maclean brothers’ father simply states, “He is beautiful.”[5] The struggle with the enormous trout transformed Paul. He was the very messiness of humanity endowed with divinity; “a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter.” He was, in the words of his father, “a fine fisherman.”[6] Through his art, grace was made manifest. Continue reading “Co-Creators With God: A Review of “Writing Ourselves”” »

We are all enlisted: breaking our silence on behalf of our LGBT brothers and sisters

rainbow_ribbon__high_res_I woke up this morning to heartbreaking news of two more young members of the Church who ended their lives this week, presumably because their sexual identities were at odds with the teachings of their religion. Their spark of life is gone. I shed tears as I watched videos posted by parents of their once vivacious and joy-filled children. For those of us who believe in an afterlife, I can only hope and pray that these lovely souls are now cradled in the bosom of the Savior who comforts and weeps with them. I don’t know what this brings the total suicide count to over the past year. I’ve heard numbers could be as high as sixty. Regardless, trying to figure out the numbers can distract us from the real conversation we need to have. This is more than tragic; it is an epidemic. These are our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors. They don’t feel loved, they don’t feel wanted, they don’t feel valued, and they don’t feel human. Continue reading “We are all enlisted: breaking our silence on behalf of our LGBT brothers and sisters” »

Saints and Bodhisattvas: Mortal Human Messianicity in Mormonism and Mahayana Buddhism

In a previous post I reviewed Jad Hatem’s Postponing Heaven, recently published in English by BYU’s Maxwell Institute. Hatem sets out to draw parallels between Mormonism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Islam by examining how each tradition expresses what Hatem terms “human messianicity.” In this post I would like to further explore and expand on some of Hatem’s ideas by focussing on the two primary ways human messianicity is expressed in both Mayahana Buddhism and Mormonism.1

Supernatural Human Messianicity in LDS Theology

In Postponing Heaven Hatem focuses on the eschatological and soteriological roles of both the Three Nephites in Mormon theology and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. Hatem discusses the supernatural aspects of the Three Nephites who have had their lives preserved and extended in order to bring Christian salvation to others. Similarly, Bodhisattvas have willfully delayed passing into Nirvana, becoming Buddhas, in order to assist other sentient beings obtain enlightenment or awakening and as such, have become god-like with abilities to both observe and intervene in human affairs. This form of human messianicity has two primary characteristics. First, human beings knowingly and willfully extend their connection to and involvement with this world despite their qualification for transcendence. Second, these human messiahs are either gifted or granted supernatural power or obtain it by virtue of their own merit. They do so in order to act as emissaries of something greater than themselves.

LDS folklore is replete with examples of supernatural intervention by Three Nephites. In these stories the Nephites provide aid and comfort to those in need. For example, a description of one popular story can be found here:

This story usually has sister missionaries knocking on the door of a serial killer not realizing the danger they are in. They speak to the man for a few minutes, trying to convince him to let them in to speak more about the Book of Mormon. He is very short with them and turns them away.

A few days later the authorities capture the serial killer (it is often a well-known killer like Jeffery Dahmer). Somehow the police know that he had the chance to kill the sister missionaries and asks why the serial killer did not allow them into his house. The serial killer says, “I was scared of the three huge Indian warriors that were standing behind them.”

According to the Book of Mormon the Three Nephites will play a role in the events leading up to the millennial reign of Jesus Christ and yet, as we have seen expressed in folklore, they are also involved in meeting earthly human needs. It is this directly earthly involvement in human affairs that sets the Three Nephites apart from Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist — among others — who have had key roles in the Restoration but whose activities appear to be exclusive to specific theologically significant events involving the Prophet Joseph Smith. Continue reading “Saints and Bodhisattvas: Mortal Human Messianicity in Mormonism and Mahayana Buddhism” »

On doing Mormon theology as a non-Mormon

OutsiderI have been a participant at the Third Annual Mormon Theology Seminar at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley for the past week, and it has been a refreshing experience so far. After spending the past several years straightening things out in my personal life, I feel blessed to have finally made my return to Mormon studies, finishing my master’s thesis on Mormon women’s exaltation in the past few months (and, subsequently, my MA in American religious history) and then capping it off with my participation here in Berkeley. I was surprised (and, admittedly, a little flattered) to learn that, though I am not the first never-Mormon to apply for the seminar, I am the first to be admitted to it.

Yet my participation here has led me to a bit of navel-gazing. Getting Latter-day Saints to experiment with new ways of looking at the Book of Mormon texts and test new theological ideas is one of the key aims of the Seminar. What room is there, then, for someone who believes in neither the authority of the Book of Mormon text nor the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith to “do” Mormon theology in any meaningful sense? It is no secret to me from my history of participation around the Bloggernacle that some Mormons are clannish and innately suspicious of outsiders because of who we are, not what we say. I stopped participating around the ‘nacle for many reasons, one of them being that I was tired of Mormon bloggers and Mormon commentators suggesting that I had no business being a part of the conversation, even though I am a graduate of Brigham Young University and was (at the time) married to a Mormon with progeny attending the Mormon church. I personally cannot imagine disinviting the non-Christian spouse of an Evangelical Covenant Church member from any conversation about denominational polity or culture—it is obvious to me why such a person would have a vested interest, especially if s/he was also a graduate of North Park University—yet such was the reality I was dealing with on all too regular a basis in regards to Mormon blogs. Having to repeatedly justify one’s right to even have a place at the table gets old fast, so I drifted away.

Such has thankfully not been my experience with the Mormon Theology Seminar. Adam Miller and Joe Spencer have been beyond welcoming, as have the other participants; I love everyone here and want to keep them. Continue reading “On doing Mormon theology as a non-Mormon” »

Early Mormons and Mass Poisoning

George M. Hinkle letter rashly accusing Joseph Smith of plotting to poison the Missourians' water supply.

In this 1842 letter, Mormon dissenter George M. Hinkle rashly accused Joseph Smith of plotting to poison the Missourians’ water supply.

In August–November 1838, Mormons and their “Gentile” Missourian neighbors clashed in the Mormon War of 1838. At issue were not only religious differences, but also basic civil liberties. Missourians had expelled the theocratic, bloc-voting Mormons from county after county, and the Mormons in turn had expelled dissenters and Gentiles from their own communities. Both sides had suffered violence and lost land and property. Brewing anger erupted in an election-day brawl in early August that escalated to full-scale war by mid-October.

On October 20 in the Mormon capital of Far West, First Counselor to the First Presidency Sidney Rigdon called a mass meeting at the schoolhouse. Joseph Smith was away at the time, coordinating raids to loot and burn Gentile stores and houses in neighboring Daviess County. Most of the attendees at the October 20 meeting were members of an infamous Mormon paramilitary organization known as “Danites,” after the biblical warrior tribe of Dan. Brigadier General Sampson Avard, second-in-command and First Presidency “spokesman” to the Danite band, assisted Rigdon in presiding over the meeting.

Continue reading “Early Mormons and Mass Poisoning” »

The House Adam Built: Review of ‘Future Mormon’

Review of Adam S. Miller, Future Mormons: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016).

A couple weeks ago, I dropped in on another ward’s Gospel Doctrine class as I was making my ward visits for my calling. The lesson was #20, which covered the angelic visitation and conversion of Alma the Younger. At one point, the class discussion turned to why Alma and the sons of Mosiah were unbelievers. One suggested reason was the generation gap and the difference in experiences (see Mosiah 26:1-3). It was noted that this generation was post-bondage, meaning that the rising generation had not experienced the Lord’s deliverance in Mosiah 24. While the discussion focused on a “lack of understanding” on the part of unbelievers, I pointed out that these generational differences may be extremely important in making sense of the disconnection. There had been significant social, cultural, and political changes taking place. Not only were these unbelievers living in a time of freedom (compared to the previous generation who had experienced bondage), but they were also living in a time when the separation of church and state had been established (Mosiah 26:8, 11-12). Furthermore, there was a population explosion with considerable urban expansion and increased prosperity (Mosiah 27:6-7). These social developments mean that the new generation would experience the world differently from their parents and grandparents, just as Millennials experience the world differently from those who witnessed World War II, Jim Crow, the Cold War, or life before the Internet. This means that the way they experienced the message of the gospel would likely be different as well. For example, if the older generation only knew how to teach the gospel’s message of deliverance in light of their previous bondage, how would this resonate with a generation that was experiencing relative peace and freedom? In short, cultural baggage could have been hindering the transmission of the gospel from one generation to the next.

Continue reading “The House Adam Built: Review of ‘Future Mormon’” »

The Night I Spoke in Tongues

Most modern Mormons understand the “gift of tongues” as the ability to quickly learn a foreign language in the Missionary Training Center. But early Latter-day Saints had a very different concept of tongues. John Gunnison, an astute student of Mormon culture, nicely summarized the Mormon practice in 1852:

This is not the ancient gift, whereby one addressing a people of speaking a different language from himself, was enabled to talk in their own words. It is, that persons among themselves; in their enthusiastic meetings, shall be “moved by the spirit” to utter any set of sounds in imitation of words, and, it may be, words belonging to some Indian or other language. The speaker is to know nothing of the ideas expressed, but another, with the “gift of interpretation of tongues,” can explain to the astonished audience all that has been said. Any sounds, of course then are a language known to the Lord. If one feels a desire to speak, and has difficulty to bring forth the thoughts of his heart, or what the spirit is about to reveal through him, he must “rise on his feet, lean in faith on Christ, and open his lips, utter a song in such cadence as he chooses, and the spirit of the Lord will give an interpreter, and make it a language.”[1]

Gunnison’s description of early Mormon tongues bears a strong resemblance to the practice of modern Pentecostals. Since I grew up in that tradition, I thought our readers might be interested in hearing about my own experience of tongues as an adolescent. It perhaps gives a taste of early Mormon spirituality, though in important ways modern Pentecostals are very different. As a side note, the early Mormon practice of tongues was part of what originally got me investigating Mormon history. My church claimed to have restored the gift of tongues to the world in 1906 at the Azusa Street Revival. So to learn that Mormons had beaten us to the practice by more than 70 years both intrigued me and disturbed me.

Continue reading “The Night I Spoke in Tongues” »

Review of Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume Four: April 1834–September 1835

Matthew C. Godfrey, Brenden W. Rensink, Alex D. Smith, Max H Parkin, and Alexander L. Baugh, eds. Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835. Vol. 4 of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016. xliv, 668pp. Illustrations, maps, charts, appendices, bibliography, index. Cloth: $54.95.

Joseph Smith Papers

I had the opportunity to review the first three volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers, Documents series for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Mormon History, so it was a delight to have the chance to review an advanced copy of volume four. For those unfamiliar with the series (and there can’t be many left in Mormon studies), I recommend the excellent www.josephsmithpapers.org site for additional background. For those who are familiar, the format and layout of the books is fast becoming a welcome friend. There is little, if anything, changed here. This series offers unique challenges to the project editors because such a wide variety of documents are featured, including minutes, revelations, letters, property deeds, blessings, licenses and certificates, etc. But the choices they have made serve the project well. Documents are introduced with a title, a source note, a historical introduction, and then the document itself, complete with careful annotation. Continue reading “Review of Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume Four: April 1834–September 1835” »