Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mormon's Codex: Rich Support for Book of Mormon Plausibility

I just finished John L. Sorenson's monumental work, Mormon's Codex (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013). Took longer than I expected. I will have more to say about it in the near future, but here's an initial review.

Sorenson's work will be viewed by many as an attempt to prove and defend the Book of Mormon using numerous random parallels and weak threads. This view both fails to grasp the value of exploring many dimensions of a physical and cultural setting when trying to evaluate a fragmentary record from an allegedly ancient source. Sorenson's work does directly support Book of Mormon plausibility, but it also helps us to better understand the Book of Mormon and its peoples. It helps us understand the region they lived and the many dramatic as well as subtle influences on their lives from the climate, the landscape, the surrounding peoples, the cultural setting, the plants and animals, the horticulture, the religions and languages, the patterns of war, infrastructure and social economy, political practices, and so on. Sorenson explores these in terms of what we scholars have learned about Mesoamerica and what we can draw from the Book of Mormon text, and then examines the correspondences and implications. The result is increased granularity and plausibility for the Book of Mormon record, and more informed questions for the future and new hypotheses to test. Along the way, some former objections to the Book of Mormon are soundly shelved.

Those wanting a quick and easy tool to defend the Book of Mormon will be disappointed, at least initially, for Sorenson takes over a hundred pages just laying some foundation regarding ancient Mesoamerica as well as the Book of Mormon, without providing any jaw-dropping arguments to win over converts. What he does, though, is provide new ways of looking at the text, informed by the skills of a professional anthropologist. Over the 800 pages of the text, he provides extensive evidence that the Book of Mormon fits numerous aspects of ancient Mesoamerica, ranging from issues of language, political society, practices of trade and war, the impact of natural disasters, and so forth. Some of the most interesting New World evidences known to date for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon can be found in this tome.

Why the Setting Matters
One quickly learns from Sorenson how much physical geography affects a society. The physical location of a place determines climate, available raw materials, opportunities for agriculture and other economic activities, and practical modes of transportation. It shapes political boundaries and influences strategies and tactics for warfare. Geographical barriers and isolating features like the terrain of the central depression of Chiapas can allow a region to experience reduced influence from other cultures in the area and develop its own ways more easily. These factors play major roles in the story of a people, even if those details are briefly mentioned or merely implied.

Mormons limit their ability to fully grasp the Book of Mormon when they dismiss its geographical setting as something unimportant. True, the Church has no official position on geography, and it is certainly secondary to the teachings about Christ, but the its authors felt physical details were important enough to riddle their text with references to them. It's a gritty text, linked to physical realities and real places, not just theoretical platitudes and lofty doctrine. Book of Mormon authors bothered to cite specific hills, valleys, rivers, cities, and lands with names and real physical locations carefully and accurately woven into the story. There are temples, thrones, prisons, fortifications, markets, and social structures to match: priests, kings, lawyers and judges, soldiers, and merchants. In some cases, these details matter a great deal and are part of the message for our day. Such things are not the trappings of Native American life Joseph Smith could have gleaned from his upstate New York environment, but they are elements of authentic Mesoamerican culture in the only place that offers hope of plausibly locating the places built into the text of the Book of Mormon. They matter not just for validating or defending the text, but for better understanding what happened, to whom, and why, sometimes with added understanding in drawing lessons for our day and our lives.

Aligning Details
The reasons why Mesoamerica is clearly the most reasonable setting have been discussed elsewhere and are again touched upon in Mormon's Codex: the requirement for an ancient tradition of written language, the existence of many elements of civilization found in the Book of Mormon (armies, kings, temples, taxation, and complex social structures), the narrow neck of land, and many other details with major implications such as the apparent volcanism and seismic activity described in the text. These broad issues force us to consider Mesoamerica as the most reasonable candidate for the setting of the Book of Mormon, but if so, can the details of the text correspond in any degree with the details of Mesoamerica? This is the issue tackled by Mormon's Codex. Literally hundreds of "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon are identified that create a powerful case that the Book of Mormon really does have its origins in Mesoamerica, so much so that scholars would be wise to reconsider the Book of Mormon as the most extensive surviving document from the ancient New World, a precious ancient codex that can teach us much outside of its spiritual message.

One can accuse Sorenson of "parallelomania," straining to find parallels that really aren't significant. Parallelomania is often seen in attempts to find plagiarism in the Book of Mormon. Sometimes seemingly impressive parallels can be piled up that, upon closer inspection, are contrived and can be simply due to chance or situations that naturally involve common phenomena. For example, in a written description of war in texts from Joseph Smith's day, one should not be surprised to find descriptions of battles, prisoners taken, casualties suffered, defenses built, weapons stored, and so forth. These are common to war. It is in the uncommon details where we can see elements that may be meaningful parallels. Chance can always account for some intriguing finds, so we must be careful not to make too much of any one factor. What makes Sorenson's work so interesting is the abundance of intricate correspondences coupled with insights from the proposed physical setting that repeatedly add insight to the text.

I was continually intrigued with the way Sorensen extracts and examines numerous social and physical details from the text of the Book of Mormon and from modern knowledge regarding Mesoamerica. His analysis based on his proposed setting helps to fill in missing details in the Book of Mormon, adding more granularity to our understanding of Book of Mormon peoples while also challenging lazy assumptions and stereotypes we sometimes import into the text.

A Mix of Broad and Narrow Details
The relationship between the Olmecs and later Mesoamerican peoples is one of the broad issues that fits the Book of Mormon remarkably well, with the rise and fall of the Jaredites and the subsequent remnants of Jaredite culture found in the Book of Mormon corresponding well in numerous ways with Mesoamerica. It's an area that challenges unwarranted assumptions we have long made about the destruction of the Jaredites. A more informed approach must recognize, however, that in the midst of the civil war and chaos the ended the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon, that many people would have fled and survived. Since the Book of Mormon itself provides abundant internal evidences of an ongoing Jaredite tradition, with Jaredite names like Corihor/Korihor (Ether 7, 13, & 14, & Alma 30) and Nehor (Ether 7:9 & Alma 1) cropping up among the Nephites, generally associated with dissenters who had not fully bought into Nephite traditions. The remnants of Jaredite society among Nephites and Lamanites fit in well with the ways we can expect Olmec culture to have continued to influence Mesoamerica after their fall.

The rise and fall of the Olmecs has many parallels that can relate to the record we have of the Jaredites, and then rise of Mesoamerican cultures after the Jaredites can also accommodate the information we have regarding the Nephites and Lamanites, with numerous parallels that we can extract from the limited information we have today. Even the final destruction of the Nephites in the widespread warfare (ca. AD 350) toward the end of the Nephite record coincides remarkably well with the Early Classic depopulation in the Central Depression of Chiapas that Sorensen documents in Chapter 25.

What I found especially in Mormon's Codex were the specific details of individual sites fit with the Book of Mormon. For example, Sorenson proposes a Mesoamerican archaeological site known as Santa Rosa as the city of Zarahemla. The archaeology of that region fits the text well. It was a small chiefdom in the 3rd century BC with evidence of Olmec influence in its past, similar to what we might expect if it had been occupied by the Mulekites that had taken on the Olmec influence of their region when they arrived.  From 75 BC to 50 AD, Santa Rosa saw a huge burst of activity, region its peak of socioeconomic activity at the time Zarahemla was experiencing its peak under the reign of judges. "Like the Central Depression [of Chiapas] as a whole, Santa Rosa was abandoned from about ad 350, very near to when the Nephites at last fled from the land of Zarahemla" (p. 586).

Analysis of the terrain around Santa Rosa helps shed light on troop movements and crop destruction from battles near Zarahemla, and helps to readily explain how travelers sent from the City of Nephi seeking for Zarahemla could have missed it and wandered into the land northward instead. (See pp. 581-594.)

The two key centers of cultural development in southern Mesoameria in the Central Depression of Chiapas and in the Valley of Guatemala in the first century B.C. correspond well with the land of Zarahemla (Nephites) and the land of Nephi (Lamanites) in the Book of Mormon (see p. 602-604), with detailed correspondences on many fronts. In the field of warfare, for example, the correspondences are especially interesting since just a few decades ago, there was a huge gap between expert opinion about Mesoamerica and the record of warfare in the Book of Mormon. The Mayans were viewed as having been peaceful for many centuries, quite unlike the constant warfare in the Book of Mormon text. But recent scholarship has completely reversed that view, showing that Mesoamerica was a scene of armed conflict from Olmec times and beyond, consistent with the Book of Mormon record (p. 606-7).

Understanding Mesoamerican warfare helps us recognize, for example, that Onitah, the "place of arms" mentioned in Alma 47:5 where rebellious Lamanite soldiers fled, was likely an obsidian outcropping used to produce the dominant weapons in the area, near the Lamanite heartland in the land of Nephi. Remarkably, we now know that for the people of Chiapas, the vital mineral obsidian mostly came from El Chayal, a big volcanic outcrop near Guatemala City, the candidate for the city of Lehi-Nephi (which became a Lamanite capital after it was abandoned by the Zeniffites; see Alma 22:1), where the archaeological site known as Kaminaljuyu is largely covered by the modern city. El Chayal qualifies well as Onitah in the Book of Mormo (p. 608). Further, lines of confrontation between Mayan groups and Mixe-Zoqueans in the region, as identified by modern scholars, also correspond well with Nephite and Lamanite boundaries in the Book of Mormon (p. 609).

Many other specific locations are discussed in depth. The results to me were somewhat overwhelming, usually interesting, and occasionally quite surprising. He has put a great deal of thought into his proposals, and while some sections are speculative and one of several possibilities, some of his proposals are difficult to dismiss.

Sorenson explores numerous social issues, including the role of secret societies in Mesoamerica. He finds parallels with merchant guilds among the Aztecs and others in Mesoamerica. There were also predatory secrecy-based groups in other forms (e.g., the nahualistas) that could correspond with Book of Mormon descriptions. (See pp. 274-277.)

Natural Disasters
One of the most impressive series of correspondences is the large number of natural disasters that struck parts of Mesoamerica around 50 A.D., including volcanic activity and associated fires that can be see in geological and archaeological records. These disasters may account for some of the dramatic changes in Mesoamerica at that time, including large shifts in population and also major shifts in economics and religion. The changes included an abandonment of many long-standing cultic practices, offering an abundance of correspondences with the record at the climax of the Book of Mormon beginning around 3 Nephi 8 and beyond, when there was great destruction followed by the visit of the Resurrected Messiah, ushering in widespread changes that persisted for many decades before the region fell into widespread apostasy and warfare again, culminating in the destruction of Nephite society.

Arch Support for the Book of Mormon
As an example of the many fields of knowledge touched upon in Mormon's Codex, Sorenson also considers evidence related to architecture. In Chapter 16, he states:
Friar Torquemada observed, “It is also worth noting the division of this [Aztec] temple; because we find that it has an interior room, like that of Solomon, in Jerusalem, in which the room was not entered by anyone but the priests.” Moreover, the floor plans of various Mexican temples are shown with “two [nonstructural] pillars at the entrance, at Tenayuca, Malinalco, Tepoztlan, Tetitla, Palenque, Yaxchilan, [and] Piedras Negras,” and in Late Pre-Classic Oaxaca. Since the temple in the city of Nephi was specifically patterned after the first Israelite temple (2 Nephi 5:16), it would have incorporated the two-pillar feature discussed by, for example, Meyers. It could have in turn modeled the feature for subsequent Mesoamerican temples. 
Another architectural feature of note might or might not have been incorporated in temples: the true arch. For years it was assumed that Mesoamericans lacked knowledge of the true (keystone) arch. Over the years, reported finds have demonstrated the contrary, but only very recently has a comprehensive survey of those cases definitely shown that the principle was widely known, though little used. Hohmann now states unequivocally that “the principle of the true arch was already known amongst the Maya in the preclassic period.” He adds that the principle was also used at Monte Alb├ín by around ad 600 and still later at Chichen Itza. The arch was, of course, widely known in some Old World centers much earlier. If the concept was not imported by transoceanic migrants, we would have to accept the somewhat questionable idea that it was invented independently on opposite sides of the earth. In light of the extensive evidence of cross-oceanic voyaging presented in chapter 9, it is more plausible that knowledge of this architectural feature was imported to Mesoamerica, whether by a group reported in the Book of Mormon or by others. The arch principle may or may not have been used in Nephite sacred buildings in this hemisphere (it was not used in Solomon’s temple), but the probability that the keystone arch came to Mesoamerica from the Old World supports the Nephite record’s historical assertion about the Near Eastern origin of the founders of its tradition. (p. 327)
These architectural details are issues I had not previously considered.

Transoceanic Diffusion: Plants, Animals, Disease, Cultural Practices, Architecture, and More

One of Sorenson's strengths is his vast body of knowledge regarding evidences for ancient contact between the New and Old Words. Primarily in Chapter 9, "Transoceanic Voyages," and also in Chapter 12, "Human Biology," he provides conclusive evidence that there were episodes of transoceanic contact between the Old and New World before Columbus, consistent with general Book of Mormon claims. He delves into several topics with rich examples and references, especially for plants and diseases. One of the most interesting discussions, in my opinion, involves the hookworm (pp. 159-160).  The hookworm points to ancient human contact via oceanic crossing, not wandering along the Bering Strait, because the life cycle of the parasite requires warm soil. A people moving through the Bering Straight would become hookworm free by the time they reached the Americas. The pre-Columbian presence of this southeast Asian parasite in a Peruvian mummy dating to AD 900  and in much older Brazilian remains (ca. 5000 BC) seems to require one or more ancient transoceanic voyages by human hosts from the Old World to the Americas. This is one of an abundance of evidences Sorenson provides for ancient transoceanic contact between the Old and New Worlds. It is not central to his thesis relating to the Book of Mormon, but is supporting evidence for the plausibility of the kind of migrations described by the Book of Mormon.

Future Work
Sorenson repeatedly explains how little is known about many key regions and specific sites, many of which have not had extensive digs. Some, of course, cannot be explored adequately because they may be covered by modern cities or, in some cases, by lava flows. Others are in difficult terrain, often coupled with political and security risks, making exploration difficult and dangerous. But we hope much further exploration will take place. Sorenson offers many hints about regions in need of more research, and even offers what may be taken as tentative predictions of some things to look for. For example, Laguna Mecoacan is identified as a good candidate for the City of Moroni (Alma 50:13) which would sink into "the depths of sea" (3 Nephi 9:4), possibly into the lagoon. This would be an intriguing find, though the city was probably small, having been built primarily for defensive purposes in a war. But finding a sunken city there dating to around 50 A.D. would be interesting.

A more important place to investigate might be the candidate Sorenson offers for the Nephite city of Bountiful. He feels it should be at the mouth of the Tonala River, about 6 miles downstream from La Venta. The modern community of Tonala is built over a large archaeological site overlooking the mouth of the river. There is a large pyramid there, and it is in its debris where the town's cemetery is located. Sorenson states that as far as he known no trained archaeologist has even visited the region, much less conducted detailed investigation. If future work there shows that it was inhabited during the Late Pre-Classic era, corresponding with the Book of Mormon description, this could be another interesting correspondence.

Much remains to be understood and future exploration and research is sorely needed. But what we do know does provide an abundance of evidences and insights that can be of great value to students of the Book of Mormon. I highly recommend this complex and, yes, heavy volume.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Video to Share for Easter: Because of Him

Tomorrow, like every Sunday, live every day of our lives if we're wise, we will remember the greatest victory of all time, the only one that really matters because it is the one that gives true meaning to life. We will remember the moment that put an end to endings and gives us the hope of clean slates, new beginnings, and ultimate joy. We will remember and worship Him, Jesus Christ.

This video comes from the Church's Easter website, Because of Him at http://easter.mormon.org/

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Arabian Peninsula: The Roots of a Remarkable Adventure in Understanding the Book of Mormon

The first part of a series of articles on the Arabian Peninsula and the Book of Mormon was just published in Meridian Magazine. "Beginnings: The Discovery of Nephi’s Bountiful" by Warren Aston retraces the events behind the discoveries relevant to the Book of Mormon in the Arabian Peninsula. Part 1 looks at the formulation of the hypotheses Warren Aston wanted to test.

As a result of work by a few individuals, we now have remarkable treasures of knowledge regarding the Book of Mormon and evidences supporting the plausibility of First Nephi, as I discuss on my Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Meeting Warren Aston last year in Australia was one of my highlights for the year. I am inspired by his story and how much good one man, entirely self-funded, was able to do. But much remains to be done to more fully explore key sites in Oman, Yemen, and Arabia (not to mention the New World!). The surface has barely been scratched. What an exciting time to be a Latter-day Saint.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thumbs Up to Mormon's Codex (But Buy the Physical Book, Not Deseret's Flawed Ebook)

I'm nearing the end of John Sorenson's monumental tome, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book, and highly recommend it. There is a lifetime of serious research from a good scholar in this work. Book of Mormon students will find numerous details from the geography, geology, archaeology, anthropology, and natural science of Mesoamerica enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon and even its message. It's worth the weeks that it may take you to get through this very large book.

 It's not an easy read, especially if you buy the electronic version from Deseret Book and try to read it on an Android device. Abandon hope. Deseret Book is aware of the failed execution of their ebook and is giving refunds to those who are experiencing trouble. Stick with real paper--it's healthier, easier on your eyes, easier to read, and being made from a carbon-dioxide-removing renewable resource, is actually better for the environment than using coal-powered electricity from destroyed mountain tops in West Virginia, but that's another story. The main thing is you can read it and enjoy it far better as a physical book than an ebook. However, it appears that Amazon is now offering a Kindle version. If that's really a Kindle version and not an ebook that must use Deseret Book's unfortunate Deseret Bookshelf software, then that should work. Actually, the Deseret Bookshelf version was fine when I was reading it on my old iPad 1, but after moving to a Samsung Android device, I was pretty much unable to read longer chapters, make notes, or add highlighting. Sad.

I've got a lot to say about the book and some of the gems I've found in it. More on that later.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting Nuclear with Doubt: Lessons from a Sixth-Grade Nerd

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher taught a science section on the nature of the atom. In our classroom we had a physical model with some wooden balls glued together to represent the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus, and some other balls on a metal wire tracks representing electrons and their orbits. I think most of us realized that real atoms weren't made of wood, but beyond that we had no idea just how technically inaccurate and even misleading almost everything about this physical model was. The horrifically wrong relative dimensions, the portrayal of components as solid particles, the nice fixed orbits instead of fuzzy orbitals, and other aspects were already thoroughly "wrong" based on what was known in that day, and things have only gotten more complex since then. Taking the gross oversimplification of the Bohr Model of the atom, we learned about the building blocks of the material world: a neat kit of protons, neutrons, and electrons in their precisely fixed orbits gave us the foundation for everything.

My confidence in this young new teacher was not high (this is the same teacher who gave me a shocking 0%, an F, on a math test involving monetary sums even though all my calculations were correct, for I had not put a needless dollar sign in front of every answer), so I wondered if he was teaching us correctly. I went home that night and dug out an old encyclopedia that we had picked up at a garage sale a few years before. It was thoroughly out of date already, yet it had enough information on the atom to make me realize that what our teacher was passing off as science was just a tiny piece of the picture. I learned that there were more particles and entities to consider than just the three we had learned about. I didn't understand what I read, but I learned about particles (actually classes of particles) called baryons and leptons. I think the article may have mentioned neutrinos and mesons as well. Mercifully, the encyclopedia was too old to mention the existence of quarks, gluons, and the intricacies of quantum chromodynamics, or what happened the next day in class could have been an even bigger headache for everyone.

In a few moments of superficial study, I had learned for myself that the world of physics and the nature of matter were much more complicated that what our teacher had said. Well! I rubbed my hangs together with glee as I pondered an embarrassing question or two I would ask the next day as he wrapped up the science unit and asked, "Are there any questions?"

At that age, I struggled with the dual affliction of being both a nerd and a smart aleck. Students, if you are suffering from this as well, please get therapy before it's too late. As I would gradually learn, this combination usually does not win much respect from teachers or from the cute girls I sometimes tried to impress. There are better ways, so I've heard.

The next day the magic moment came: "Are there any questions?" Hah, he has played right into my trap! My hand sprung up. "Yes, uh, I'm wondering if you could tell us about some of the other subatomic particles that are important parts of matter. You know, particles like baryons and leptons."

"Uh, what?"

"Yes," I said knowingly, perhaps even a bit triumphantly, "it turns out that there are quite a few other particles besides just electrons, protons, and neutrons, so maybe we should learn about those, too."

"Well, Jeff, maybe you'd like to tell us a few things about them." Hmm, he didn't crumble as quickly as I hoped. 

"Sure. Baryons are heavy subatomic particles, and leptons are light subatomic particles, and their are neutrinos and muons and many other things. So I just think we should include these, too."

"Uh, right. Let me look into that and get back to you later. But today, it's time to move on to our next subject…."

Smelled like a cover-up. Totally evasive. I had exposed the weak underbelly of 6th-grade science education.

My silly and rather ignorant question may have been perceived as hostile and annoying, and that would be accurate. However, deep down there was a sincere desire to understand, not just to criticize and show off. I wanted to know more and not have my questions blown off. He never got back to me on my questions--I would have respected him much more if he had even tried.

I was put off by the grossly oversimplified model that was being presented, but in my ignorance failed to appreciate why it was useful for both teaching and even actual scientific calculations. It was far from complete, but useful. Teaching it was not the result of dishonesty or a cover-up, though I feel it would have been much better had the teacher added a disclaimer like this:
In reality, for those of you who care, the atom is much more complex than our little model shows and things like electrons and protons aren't really nice round particles at all, though they sometimes act like particles, and other times don't. The details are way beyond what we can cover in this class, but if you want to know more, I can suggest some books to read. 
I loved science and would go on to study it more over the years. Later I would learn about quantum chemistry and the bewildering more advanced models we have for the nature of electrons and other components of matter. I would take a graduate-level class on quantum chemistry that still makes my head spin when I think about it, though I somehow managed to get a decent grade. In later readings I would learn of string theory, multiple dimensions, dark energy and dark matter, and a host of other bewilderments that make me feel that today I know much less about the nature of matter and the universe than I did in sixth grade.

The universe is a complex place, and so is the Gospel and Church history. History can be profoundly complicated as we struggle with conflicting accounts and inadequate documentation, not to mention our lack of psychic skills understanding the real motives for apparent actions. As for matters of doctrine and the things of God, we have models to describe concepts like the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, the nature of sin, godliness, spirits, the spirit world, and Eternal Life, but we know so very little and can easily import numerous incorrect assumptions into our models and into what we teach and into the questions we formulate as we struggle to understand. Once we detect that some things are more complex than we realized, we may mistakenly interpret the gaps as the fruits of deception, when they may be the result of sloppiness, mistaken assumptions, or a good faith effort to simplify in order to teach basic principles. Or other times just painful mortal blunders.

In reflecting upon my sixth-grade experience, I see an analogy to the Gospel and the issue of dealing with doubts and tough questions about our faith. My antagonistic stance before the teacher sometimes resembles those who throw out seemingly hostile questions, the kind we sometimes view as "anti-Mormon." Yes, there may be hostile intent with a loaded question or criticism that might embarrass or weaken faith. At the same time, many who ask these questions still have, to some degree, especially initially, a sincere desire to know and not just belittle. Some are learning and are simply troubled when they find out that Church history or other elements related to our faith are much more complicated than the simple models they learned in Sunday School or seminary. When these questions come, we would be wise to take them seriously and not belittle or ignore the person who might actually be asking with a touch of sincerity, or even deep and obvious sincerity. We may not have the answers, but we can help. We can help that person know that we care, that there may be answers, and there may be people who have those answers, and try to actually get back to them with something more useful than just saying "pray about it" (though that is, of course, an essential component in dealing with doubts and in building our testimonies and our relationship with God).

There are legitimate questions and legitimate doubts that we may face. How can it be any other way given how little we know and how much there is yet to be learned and revealed? How can we not face troubling questions as we expend out knowledge to break past oversimplified models and touch upon the bewilderments of a "quantum faith" with its spiritual quarks and all their strangeness, charm, and unseeable color? For some of these questions, we can only wait and hope for more to be revealed or learned. But for many questions, there are great answers and people who can help us face them. We must let those who doubt know that we care and will get back to them. We can help them turn to resources like those at The Mormon Interpreter, the Maxwell Institute, FAIRMormon, LDS.org, and other resources, along with the writings of many authors who tackle tough issues related to our faith, sometimes even with brilliance.

People with tough questions may discover, as I have discovered, that many of the weaknesses in our faith have, with time, become strengths. For example, many once challenging attacks on the Book of Mormon have not just been blunted by further research and discovery, but have become pillars of strength for the case of Book of Mormon plausibility.

I could mention things like the many recent discoveries related to the journey of Nephi's group through the Arabian Peninsula, including archaeological finds from Lehi's day supporting the case for a rare place name mentioned by Nephi being exactly where and when it was supposed to be. I could mention the many discoveries pointing to the plausibility of ancient writing on metal plates, or the use of cement in the ancient Americas, or intriguing little details like the once laughable use of Alma as a man's name in the Book of Mormon--when everyone knows it's a modern woman's name--now confirmed as an ancient Jewish male name from records unearthed long after Joseph Smith's day. The Book of Mormon today is truer than ever, with a growing array of evidences to help overcome objections and give room for faith and the Spirit. In many areas where the Book of Mormon once had big question marks, we now have answers, and sometimes very impressive answers, turning weakness into strength. The Book of Mormon doesn't just withstand study and scrutiny, it invites it, it urges us to study, ponder, and dig into to the text. Take it seriously. Don't blow it off as an annoyance now worthy of a response.

When we are willing to apply both faith and patience, the quest for more knowledge and the challenge of dealing with doubts can lead to journeys that uncover many treasures that steadily strengthen our testimony. That testimony isn't just fuzzy emotions. It involves the mind and serious intellectual processes. One of the things I love about the Gospel is that we are invited to think, to ponder, to study, and to reason, and even to apply a form of the scientific method in gaining knowledge about the details of the Gospel. That is the point of Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, a chapter addressed to those with a high level of doubt because they were just on the verge of believing. Alma challenged them to experiment with the word and to put principles of the Gospel to the test, scientifically, and observe the fruits of the experiment as people apply and live those principles. He speaks of true principles causing not just spiritual feelings, but intellectual enlightenment as the mind expands. In the Doctrine & Covenants, we are also reminded that revelation involves both hearth and mind (D&C 8:2,3). Our minds should expand and grow in knowledge as we pursue the things go the Spirit.

While I have more questions than ever about the nature of the universe and about the nature of God and the Gospel, there are some core things that we can grasp and know to be real. Just as we can know that there is a nucleus inside the atom with real properties, whatever it may be and however it is held together, we can also identify and know some core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am confused by the complexity of matter and space, I can marvel and rejoice at the intricacy of the design of the cosmos and its very fabric that gives us such remarkable physical properties to enable the majesty of stars and galaxies, of planets and our ecosystem, and the glory of things like the carbon atom that enables the machinery of life. The more I learn about matter and physics, the more I marvel that a solution was even possible to enable this wondrous existence of ours and the glory of the heavens. The more I learn about the Gospel, in spite of all my questions, the more I can appreciate the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and their love for us. And the more I can appreciate the power of the Book of Mormon, even with its puzzles and warts, as a witness of Jesus Christ and an authentic ancient document that can bring us closer to God--if we'll let it, if we'll press forward with patience and faith, and if we'll never stop learning and seeking to understand more. May we press forward with patience, and add to our own patience a little patience for those who annoy us with their seemingly ignorant questions, who triumphantly toss out information that might be meant to embarrass, yet who may have a willingness to grow and learn if only we can get back to them with helpful answers to what may have at least started as a sincere question. Some critics are just out to attack no matter what, but some doubters really need the benefit of a doubt in order to move on toward more intelligent faith.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relaxing to the End?

One of my pet peeves in China is the lack of rush in rush hour. The biggest problem is the widespread use of electronic gadgets. People are texting, watching movies, of playing games on their devices as they move through the subway or stand on the escalators instead of doing anything close to the healthy rush that I would impose on the world if I reigned. The left side of escalators are supposed to be for movers: "stand right, walk left" is the rule, but gadget gawkers often block the moving lane for everybody below as they stare cluelessly their toy/ultimate productivity device. at least for us long-legged foreigners who like to walk fast through the streets and prefer to keep climbing on escalators.

Even when people are climbing up the escalator, I've noticed something strange: there is an almost universal tendency for people to stop moving as they near the top. It's like once the next level is in sight, their legs stop and they relax for the last part of their journey. Why stop then? It should be the easiest part of the climb, the one with the most gain per calorie expended, but they just stop moving. During crowded times, this causes a chain reaction, because the person behind them now has to stop even earlier than they normally would, and so on down the chain, and sometimes a long escalator out of a subway loaded with would-be climbers on the left stops moving completely because one person stopped climbing shortly before the end. The world would be a more productive place if we'd all just follow one simple principle: "Everybody get out of my way." Wait, no, I meant this: "Keep moving. Endure to the end." There, that sounds better.

Why do people relax before they reach their goal? Endure to the end, keep running the race, keep moving forward: these are basic concepts from the Gospel and sound principles for life in general. Sadly, I see some people who have lived faithfully for years feel like they can take a detour from the Gospel later in life and who abandon the path of service, charity, and building the Kingdom of God, instead choosing to relax or perhaps just stare at some productivity enhancing device. Don't lose your grip with the peak just around the corner. Don't lie down on the track and nap just yards from the finish line. Stay awake while driving. Floss daily. It all sounds so easy, but we too often slow down, let go, slip, sleep, whatever, before it's time to relax. Press on!

There's a saying from Confucius on this point: "Though in making a mound I should stop when one basketful of earth would complete it, the fact remains that I have stopped. On the other hand, if in leveling land I advance my work by one basketful at a time, the fact remains that I am advancing." May we all keep advancing, and go easy on the gadgets.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Gospel Topics Area at LDS.org Now Includes a Statement on Becoming Like God

One of the most controversial aspects of LDS belief is the concept of becoming more like God, or thesis as some early Christians called it. The Church addresses this topic in a statement, "Becoming Like God," one of several recent statements on heavy issues in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. It's also a topic I address on my LDSFAQ page, "The Divine Potential of Human Beings - or Do Mormons Believe They Can Become Gods?"

Other recent topics include:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Misquoting the Book of Mormon is Bad Enough; Don't Misquote Science As Well

The use of DNA evidence to attack the Book of Mormon often involves multiple errors, such as people getting the Book of Mormon wrong (e.g., assuming it explains the origins of all Native Americans) and making serious errors regarding what science actually says as well. Dr. Ugo Perego deals with a frustrating example of some people in an LDS publication seriously misquoting the science to conclude that "There is no longer anywhere for a successful population of Middle-easterners to hide in the Native American family tree." In his response, "Misquoting Science,"Dr. Perego brings clarity to this issue. His response, coupled with the Church's 2014 statement on DNA and Book of Mormon issues, should help members of the Church and everyone interested in the Book of Mormon to better understand what that sacred text actually says and what the science really shows. It does not rule out the Book of Mormon by any means.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

When Goats Fly

One of the Young Single Adults in Shanghai recently talked about her experiences in doing family history research. In learning about her ancestors, she had learned stories about their lives that made her enjoy and appreciate her heritage much more. One of the stories she had learned involved a flying goat. Here's what I recall from her story, based on my notes.

Her great grandfather, W.C. Bowman, was a miller working in a saw mill in the United States next to a river. The mill was fairly open, making it easy for the goats in the neighborhood to wander in, seeking a handout of food. The goats would occasionally make it up to the third floor of the mill where her grandfather worked. Company policy dictated how to handle the goats when they got up to the third floor, where I guess they would have been a problem. Instead of leading a goat all the way down the stairs to get them back outside, the mill workers would take the goats to the window and, uh, gently toss them into the river below. They apparently survived this process. Today, of course, we have different ways of dealing with such problems. At least the more advanced mills do.

One day a few women were on the shore of the river near the mill having a picnic. One of the women looked up and to her horror saw a man at a window of the mill take a poor little goat and toss the creature into the river. The inhumane brute! She marched over to the mill, went up to the third floor, found the guilty man, and gave him a piece of her mind. As she was chastising the man for his inhumane treatment of animals, the man listened patiently. Before he had a chance to explain that he was just following company policy and give any other explanations for what they were doing, he couldn't help but notice what a charming and beautiful woman she was. He then said a few things that calmed her down, chatted a little more and asked if they could get together for lunch or something, and not long after that Emma became Emma Bowman, the great grandmother of one of our great Young Single Adults in Shanghai.

Stories from our ancestors help us know and love them better, and help us understand who we are. Sometimes our stories involve the most unlikely of events such as flying goats that lead to romance and marriage. How wonderful when they are recorded and shared. The incredibly rich resource, FamilySearch.org, now allows you to post and share your family history stories and photos for other relatives to access, ensuring that these precious items will be archived and preserved over time. Don't wait until pigs or goats fly before heading over there and uploading your stories, photos, and more.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Standard of Liberty in the Book of Mormon: Just Another Anachronism and Evidence of Plagiarism?

The list of works that Joseph Smith allegedly plagiarized or drew upon to produce the Book of Mormon continues to grow. In addition to the old standards such as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, Shakespeare, Solomon Spalding's writings, the sermons and essays of various preachers, and James Adair's A History of the American Indians, many more works have been identified by critics in recent years such as an obscure book on the War of 1812 (The Late War Against the United States) and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Golden Pot (for some details, see my LDSFAQ page on plagiarism). Most recently someone asked me if there could possibly be any rebuttal to an attack from Thomas Donofrio, whose zealous search for parallels has yielded another group of works that Joseph must have drawn upon, with Mercy Otis Warren's 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution being at the top of the list. Is this the smoking gun for Book of Mormon plagiarism? While there may be no evidence that Joseph ever saw this book and, like many favorite candidates for Book of Mormon plagiarism, it does not appear to have been among the books in the Manchester Library where Joseph theoretically could have borrowed books during his translation of the Book of Mormon, it was still possible for Joseph to have encountered it. So does Warren's work succeed in explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon?

One Latter-day Saint thinker quite familiar with the details of parallels between texts explains that Donofrio actually greatly underestimates the number of parallels between the Book of Mormon and Mercy Otis Warren's lengthy work. In fact, there are thousands of parallels, many more than Donofrio's short list provides. See Ben McGuire's "Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories" (2007), where we see that there are over 7,000 three-word parallels between Warren's book and the Book of Mormon. Plus there are nearly 2,000 four-word parallels! Amazing! Or so it seems at first glance, until you do some actual analysis and explore the statistics with other texts as well, and then see that this is nothing unusual at all.

Common words and short phrases that are the building blocks of language will be used and repeated by speaker, writers, and translators, inevitably leading to numerous random parallels between texts in the same language, especially when writing about related topics such as war. Finding strings of words scattered in the text and claiming this as proof of pilfering is an exercise one can do with almost any two works, most easily with lengthy works like Warren's three-volume book. For an example of erroneous "proof" of Book of Mormon plagiarism, see my satirical but I think instructive analysis of Walt Whitmans' Leaves of Grass, which I suggest offers far stronger and more numerous parallels than anything Donofrio has conjured up with his sifting of texts. Until you can come up with better parallels than those random parallels, finding a few frequently used English locutions shared by Warren and the Book of Mormon is not particularly meaningful.

First note that McGuire's initial link to Thomas Donofrio's initial article on Book of Mormon parallels is broken, but you can see the archived form of the original article he refers to using these links: "Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Parts 1 & II" and "Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Part III."

Ben McGuire understands "intertexuality" (the manifold connections between a text being studied and other texts) and is skillful in applying computer tools to analyze documents. For valuable background, see his recent and quite relevant works at the Mormon Interpreter: "The Late War Against the Book of Mormon" (2013) and, for a good foundation in the problems of parallels, see especially his "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part One" and "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part Two"(both 2013).

More recently, Donofrio has authored "Book of Mormon Tories" (the link takes you to a hostile "post-Mormon" website) which attempts to partially explain the Book of Mormon as a derivative of Warren's book. (Wish it had been entitled, "No Man Knows His Tories." Missed opportunity--oh well.) Reading that article and the dramatic response from some of the guffawing critics made me shake my head. These people are impressed with parallels such as "safety and welfare," "[his or our] little army," "power and gain," "flock to their standard" and "the cause of liberty"? As if people haven't been writing for millennia about safety, welfare, war, the use of standards and ensigns to gather and organize troops, and the too-frequent need to defend oneself from captivity?

The lead example Donofrio gives particularly left me wondering. Joseph Smith apparently had to draw upon this little gem from page 623 of Warren's massive book:
"...they were responsible for all the additional blood that had been spilt by the addition of their weight in the scale of the enemy…"
in order to somehow regurgitate a fragment of Alma 60:16:
"...were it not for these king-men, who caused so much blood shed among ourselves..."
Plagiarism Joseph Smith-style just looks like an awful lot of work, whereas simply blaming someone for a tragedy is the kind of thing anyone can do without having to dig through volumes of other books to get one fragment of a verse at a time. In fact, it's something that has been done for millennia. Warren's fragment on page 623 gives nothing close to a plausible explanation for anything in Alma 60.

I find it puzzling, even bizarre, that a muddled parallel for part of Alma 60:16 would be the lead example when, with a bit of perseverance, Donofrio surely could have come up with much more interesting and even unsettling parallels similar to those that I have shown from a truly impossible Book of Mormon source, Walt Whitman. The many parallels I found illustrate the kind of things that happen due to luck and a touch of creativity from a persistent critic. Thomas, really, you could have made your Tories piece much more interesting. I suggest you contact Ben McGuire for assistance in using electronic tools to create heftier and more impressive but equally meaningless list of parallels.

Some people might find Donofrio's parallel "the standard of liberty" to be especially meaningful, since that is a fairly well-known Book of Mormon term that we sometimes feel is "owned" by the Book of Mormon. Finding it in Warren's book should be unsettling, no? No. You can find it in numerous sources in Joseph Smith's day. In the English language, the phrase "standard of liberty" shows widespread use for many settings other than the Revolutionary War. See for yourself searching Google Books with a time range of, say, 1400 to 1830. The "standard" of the Book of Mormon is also hardly a modern concept. It is usually used in its military sense in the KJV also (see search results for "standard" from BibleGateway.com). Standards are used in war to rally, gather, and organize. Having people gather to a standard or to an ensign is hardly a modern innovation, and rallying to protect one's liberty from invaders or rebels is also not a modern notion. Liberty is also something one finds in the Bible and numerous other sources, not just the Revolutionary War.

You can see how the term "standard of liberty" grew and waned in popularity over time using Google's Ngram viewer. It was definitely used more commonly in Joseph's era than ours. Look at an example from Joseph's era describing Greeks in a recent war, or another describing events during the Roman empire. Or consider an example describing much later events in Italy in the 14th century.

There are many examples of this phrase being used in diverse settings because it's a part of the English language and a useful term to describe a widespread phenomenon, that of stirring people up to defend themselves from captivity. Though the words in the translation are modern, the usage is not. Donofrio and his Tories tell us nothing about the origins of the Book of Mormon, no more than random parallels in Whitmans' writings do.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pray for Ukraine

A friend of ours, a brave, faithful, and well educated businessman from Ukraine, has asked his friends here in Shanghai to pray for Ukraine. He and his family have wept over the news coming from his homeland, including the senseless shooting of many citizens who committed no crime but simply showed up to voice their protest over the corruption of their government. When I spoke with him, he was particularly moved by the account of a farmer who came into town to speak out and was shot by one of the dictator's gunmen.

Those whose rule is based on force and corruption are made nervous by the events in Ukraine, where a great many people are no longer willing to endure corruption and criminality among their top leaders. May they succeed in improving their lot and casting out corrupt politicians who rob, oppress, and kill to grab power and wealth.  

I pray that Ukraine may swiftly shake off the corruption that has worn it down so long, and that it may rise with less oppression and a greater degree of liberty for the people. Parliament has taken some bold steps in the past few hours, but so much hangs in the balance. May good come out of this and may the bloodshed cease. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why Wait for the Fruit of the Tree of Life When You Can Eat the Biscuit of Omnipotence Now?

Adam and Eve had their temptation in the form of the fruit of knowledge. Mine came in the form of the Biscuit of Omnipotence. And it tastes even better than it looks!

Adam and Eve were just after a little knowledge, not even the full omniscience deal. My temptation is much better. Omnipotence is cool because it includes omniscience--or does it? I forget. But I think this awesome Chinese product, purchased in the Emart store next to our apartment, is working already. I'm definitely feeling more powerful now. Not sure how many more I'll need to eat to get the full effect, but it's great knowing there's such a handy shortcut.

Some Christians spend their lives in a quest for the divine fruit from the tree of life to be given to them after this life is over. Why wait for that when you can eat the Compressed Biscuit of Omnipotence now? It has to be compressed, of course, because all that infinite power has to be packed into a finite volume.

I'll let you know how things turn out after a few more servings.

The product, by the way, tastes like a dense, compressed mix of saltine crackers and graham crackers. Crumbly, but not bad. Not exactly how I expected omnipotence to taste--just another of the many surprises that China offers.

Friday, February 14, 2014

From the Nauvoo Times: I Survived Switzerland (Mission Reminiscences)

This is a recent post from the Nauvoo Times:

This week I had to dig into some information about a company in northern Switzerland, including looking up its location on a map. As I did so, I couldn’t help but reminisce over my mission in the now-closed Switzerland-Zurich Mission. That mission has been closed (I think combined with an adjacent mission) because of visa barriers--see the Dec. 2010 story in the Deseret News. It wasn’t an especially easy place for missionary work when I was there, and I guess it’s even harder now. Sure hope the government there will back off and let missionaries return.

As I looked at the map of Switzerland and zoomed into an area where I once lived, I wondered how I was able to stand my missionary service. It was wonderful, yes, and one of the best experiences of my life, but some aspects were so contrary to my current tastes that I wonder how I stayed so happy. Food was one of the issues. Cooking on our own, we really ate poorly too often, and my first companion preferred that we skip dinner just about every day so we could work more effectively. We were quite effective, but often a little too hungry, at least for my tastes now. Switzerland has some of the best food in the world, but we skipped too many meals and made too many bad ones. Thank goodness that I didn’t have my current tastes in food. Other companionships left more flexibility for dinner, but my first companion was terrific and probably the ideal one for me, in spite of some of the painful adjustments I would suffer.

I also love to explore, to just get out and see as much as I can in new places. Switzerland has so much to see, and I saw so little. We did do some jaunts on a few preparation days, but I wish we had seen a little more. And I wish I had had a working camera. So many memories lost. Today, I’m a total photo fanatic and take hundreds of photos when I travel. Wish I had a few more from my mission.

Another surprise was how much everything cost over there. The financial info I received from the Church with my mission call was a quite out of date, and I didn’t quite realize I would be going to one of the most expensive missions in the world at the time. The amount of money it said to bring was too low, in my opinion, and I would run out of money on my first day after having to purchase a bike that would haunt me for much of my mission because it was way too small for my long, long legs.

If I were transported back in time to serve in that mission several decades ago, without a good camera, without dinner every day, with inadequate money, with a bike that was too small for me, and with little opportunity to see the wonders of the land, I worry that I would go crazy or AWOL. Fortunately, I was only 19, not yet set in my ways, and was genuinely focused on what a mission really is about: serving others. That focus led to riches far beyond food, photographs, and tourist attractions. It led to relationships of joy that changed my life and my appreciation of the Gospel. It led to miracles, growth, and learning beyond anything I would have experienced just touring and eating my fill. It was difficult but so worth it. I’m so grateful I went and went when I was young enough to endure it and actually love it. I loved it enough that when given a chance to extend my mission by a month, I jumped at the opportunity, and had one of the best months of my life rich in new miracles and blessings.

Switzerland was where I met Sophie, whose conversion made all the pain and difficulty of my sacrifice in Switzerland completely worth it. I got to see her in the temple toward the end of my mission with her new LDS husband. A wonderful experience. It’s also where we met a woman whose conversion and subsequent temple marriage would also bring lasting meaning to the final weeks of my mission. We were blessed to see a number of interesting, good people accept the blessings of the Gospel, and we could see what the Gospel did for them. This strengthened my appreciation of just how good the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is.

One of my most important experiences in Switzerland was having a new missionary companion unleash his anger at me and explain what a jerk I was in my own slave-driving approach as his senior companion. That was one of many difficult experiences, but one that helped me soften a few things in my approach and learn to relate a little better with people who are completely different, as we were in many ways. That experience, though, I treasure as a step on the path to preparing for marriage, where being a companion with someone completely different is one of the great challenges and joys of life. Tough missions make for easier marriages, I think.

In spite of a lot of bad food we cooked and potentially good food we missed, the Swiss people and many Italians and other immigrants blessed us with many great meals. Both members and non-members treated us with much kindness, and I especially mean kindness in the sense of food. To this day I still value the frequent and often weekly sacrifice of several noble women in various parts of my mission who found meaning in feeding us (sometimes too much meaning as they fed and fed us almost to bursting). One Italian sister would spend hours before we came over for lunch to prepare her killer lasagna. Her name is often in my mind to this day, as are the names and faces of several others who gave us so much with their cooking skills. Those experiences have made me more inclined to try to be hospitable to others and share the gift of food. And they make me especially grateful that my wife loves to do that for others.

I’m not sure how I got through some aspects of my mission, but I was intent on sticking with it and count it as one of the things in my life that turned out better than I expected, and one of the many things that turned out better than I deserved.

Switzerland, I miss you and hope to be back again some day. Thanks for what you did for me when I was there, and please consider letting some other LDS youngsters into your land to have similar experiences in trying to help those who need their message.

Friday, February 07, 2014

More Progress: A New Seminary Manual that Addresses Complex and Sensitive Issues

"A New Church History Seminary Manual" by Steven Densley at the FAIRMormon Blog discusses the new seminary manual just released by the Church. This sounds like a real breakthrough that will help young people better understand some of the difficult issues in Church history and be better prepared for the kind of challenges they are going to face on their missions or later in life. This is great news.

This comes on the tail of the Church's statement which deals directly and intelligently with complex issues involving DNA and the Book of Mormon, providing valuable resources for those who care about the topic. I can't help but wonder what interesting steps we'll see next from a Church that clearly cares about some of the intellectual challenges its members have faced. Maybe a new priesthood and Relief Society manual extracted from The Mormon Interpreter? Now that would be fun.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Significant and Scientifically Oriented New Statement from the Church on DNA and the Book of Mormon

For some of us who love science and our faith, the new statement from the Church on "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" comes as a pleasant surprise. This is a scientifically rigorous statement that delves into some of the complex issues of DNA studies and gives us wise guidance in understanding how they apply to the Book of Mormon.

The statement, in my opinion, seems to draw heavily on classical "FARMS-style" LDS apologetics, even citing work from well-known apologists such as Daniel C. Peterson and Ugo Perego, who has a Ph.D. in genetics. I had dinner with Brother Perego in Rome recently (I'm in Rome as I write this, about to visit the Vatican) and am pleased to see that his work has played a prominent role in this important statement from the Church. His own DNA results are mentioned in the article (turns out his mitochondrial DNA points to some of the same Asian roots found among many Native Americans, though he has no known Asian connection in his ancestry).

For those of us who have dealt with the Book of Mormon challenges raised by our critics based on DNA studies, this statement is much appreciated. I also like the implicit hat-tip to classical scholarship-based LDS apologetics. This statement comes from the Church and required lengthy review and scrutiny from the Twelve, as I understand. So nice to see it published. May we learn from it and consider its multiple healthy implications.

Update, Feb. 3, 2014: The FAIR Blog has a good discussion of some implications of the new statement.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Greetings from Italy and the Florence 1st Branch; Devotional in Rome on Feb. 2

On Sunday, Feb. 2, I'll have the privilege of speaking at a devotional for LDS single adults in Rome. I will be talking about the Book of Mormon's teachings regarding testimony, evidence, and doubts. My topic is "Dealing with Doubts." It will be at 6:00 5:00 pm in the Roma 1 building. I think it is currently scheduled for the Rome 2nd building, but I should hear back shortly about the possibility of moving it to the Rome 1st building. If you're in Rome, do as a handful of Romans do and join us! I'll be attending church that morning in the Roma 1st building. Special thanks to Dr. Ugo Perego of Rome for extending the kind invitation to speak. 
Yesterday on our first day in Italy we were genuinely blessed to be able to attend church with the Florence 1st branch. With our schedule, we didn't think it would work out because when I checked the LDS church locator website earlier when working out details of our brief visit to Italy, my search indicated that the only meetings in the area were at a time that wouldn't work for us and at a location pretty far outside of Florence itself, and so we figured that we probably wouldn't be able to get to church on Sunday, our only full day in Florence. So, with apologies to the Lord, I explained in my personal prayer Sunday morning that I didn't think we'd be able to make it church, but would be very happy if there might be a way to work around the various constrains I faced to find some way after all. 

At that point I just felt that my apology wasn't exactly accepted, and instead there was something specific I needed to do: search again for Mormon meetings in Florence. It was a very specific prompting and I'm so glad I didn't ignore it. Right after the prayer, I Googled "mormon church meetings in florence italy" (no quotes were used) and saw the LDS meetinghouse locator again in the top results. So I went there, searched again for Florence, and to my surprise found that there was a service in Florence itself in the morning, with the Florence 1st Branch. Why this didn't show up earlier I don't know. But the time and location, coupled with the fact that things went very smoothly for us with our earlier events Sunday, leaving us with enough time to catch a  taxi and arrive early enough to meet several new people and make some valuable and enjoyable connections.

One thing that added a lot to the experience of attending church in Italy was the friendliness of the Italian members and the goodness of the missionaries we met. They translated for us and helped us to understand what was said in a great meeting. Greetings from Sister Holloway (from Portland, Oregon, as I recall) and Sister Strong (from Chandler, Arizona), shown in the photo below (with their permission) with my wife at the end of the special add-on service after sacrament, a pot-luck dinner with real homemade Italian food - the best food we've had so far in this majestic nation, outside of some miraculous gelato. Also shown are two views of the Church building in Florence. One of the great hotspots of this incredibly historic and beautiful city.

My experience reminded me: each day, I should spend a little time in prayer contemplating and reviewing plans because the Lord might have important changes in mind if only I am willing to listen. I am so grateful for the small miracle of being able to attend church in Florence yesterday.

Update, Feb. 3, 2014: Ugo Perego posted a photo from the devotional on his Facebook page. Thanks, Ugo. I was impressed with the attentiveness of the audience and the excellent questions they asked. Fun group. And wow, do I love being in Italy. Rome is marvelous beyond words. Ditto for real gelato. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Much Are We Missing?

Seven years ago on a cold January day in Washington, D.C., a man set his open violin case on the floor near the entrance of a subway station and began playing. Over 2,000 people passed by while he played and almost nobody stopped to listen. After 3 minutes one man paused for a few seconds, then went on his way. It was 4 minutes before the first cash was tossed in the case - a $1 bill. The women who tossed it in didn't stop to listen. At 10 minutes a 3-year-old boy wanted to stop and enjoy the music, but was dragged away by a mom in a hurry. The same happened with several other children. Without exception, their parents forced them to move away quickly. After one hour, he had received a total of $32.

The brutally ignored musician was actually of the greatest musicians in the world, playing one of the most beautiful and difficult pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. This was the famous Joshua Bell. Two days earlier, this man performed in a sold-out a theatre in Boston where the crowd paid on average about $100 each to hear the same music he had been playing for free.

When I saw this story, as told by Suni Bali, I wondered if it could really be true. Sounds like one of those Internet rumors, eh? But Snopes confirmed that it was true and led me to the original source, a remarkable story at the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast" by Gene Weingarten, April 8, 2007. It comes complete with a video of the performance, a discussion of the planning and purpose of the experiment, and feedback from the passers-by who passed by an opportunity to experience remarkable beauty. Fascinating stuff. And a very kind offering from a remarkable musician.

So how much that is majestic and beautiful are we missing in our daily walk?

In Doctrine and Covenants 59, the Lord describes some of the good things that he has given us to bring us joy and gladness. There is a list of the many things we can eat, and the "good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards" (v. 17). There are many things "for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart...to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul" (v. 18-19). We need to respond with gratitude, seeing the hand of the Lord in these these and many other things (v. 21). But gratitude takes time. It requires that pause from the mad rush in the profane world and contemplate higher things that we might see the hand of the Lord or perhaps hear His music.

The list of wonders and delights the Lord has given us could be greatly expanded. We are so fortunate in this era to be able to contemplate and enjoy so much more than our ancestors. We can swell our souls with the majesties of space, revealed through that cosmic Urim and Thummim known as the Hubble telescope, and with the help of science can ponder the marvels of stars, so delicately balanced on the razor edge between explosion from the vast hydrogen bombs detonating every instant within, perfectly countering the claws of gravity that would pull its mass upon itself to collapse and perish into blackness.

Today our eyes can be given assistance to scan not only horizons and sunsets, but pierce once invisible boundaries to stare into the wonders of cells, genes, proteins, chlorophyll, and even atoms themselves, where we can gasp in see at the intricate majesty of carbon and look back to its mother stars, so perfectly tuned to give birth to the stuff of life. What we can behold in this era is majestic beyond comprehension. But do we gaze? Do we stop and marvel? Do we let the miracles of the Lord's Creation please the eye, to gladden the heart, and to enliven the soul?

If we don't take time to contemplate grand music when freely given from one of the greatest musicians of the planet, if we don't marvel at the wonders of life and matter itself, then I suspect we are also likely to overlook the intricate beauty and blessings the Lord has given us in the scriptures. Just as new tools from science and scholarship today give us more profound ways to see the hand of the Lord in the Creation, they also give us new ways to appreciate and understand the scriptures. This is especially the case with the Book of Mormon, where we have so many new and rich opportunities to find hidden treasures. For me, some examples of these recent hidden treasures being brought to light in our day with new tools might include:
  • The rich discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula offering layer upon layer of new insight and bold new evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. 
  • The numerous correspondences between ancient civilizations on the American continent in Mesoamerica with the civilizations and peoples described in the Book of Mormon, exemplified by the extensive scholarship of John Sorenson in Mormon's Codex
  • The work of non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker, exemplified by her groundbreaking work, Temple Mysticism, which I am currently reading. Barker's discoveries regarding early Jewish religion fits well with the world of Lehi and Nephi, with surprising and fascinating parallels. There is so much for us to learn by understanding the ancient temple-centric prophetic traditions that have been lost to the world (and fortunately, restored). 
  • Numerous discoveries about the Book of Mormon text and the Hebraic elements in its language, even after translation, including far more than chiasmus and other poetical forms, but also including things such as the ancient covenant formulary with 6 elements identified by scholars in the 1930s and present in King Benjamin's speech (and the LDS temple concept). 
  • Detailed historical analysis of the lives of the many witnesses to the Book of Mormon from Richard L. Anderson and others which add to the power and unity of these diverse individuals and their diverse experiences and responses, all leading to the reality of what they experienced and never denied. 
  • Ongoing finds about topics such as ancient writing on metal plates and other aspects of the Book of Mormon that once were viewed as ludicrous, but now have become more plausible. 
  • Careful textual scholarship from Royal Skousen and others helping us to better understand the text, resolve some puzzles and appreciate the gritty details of producing the Book of Mormon. 
It's such a great time to be a fan of the Book of Mormon. It's filled with treasures and miracles that can enrich our understanding, gladden our hears, and enliven the soul--if only we'll take the time to stop, study, listen, learn, and rejoice. It's a modern miracle.

Don't miss the Book of Mormon. But also don't miss Joshua Bell. Here he is performing at a Nobel Prize event: