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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Beauty of Chance Encounters

From several years ago, a photo of my wife and I
at Mount Lao near Qingdao, China, by a large
stone with the word "yuan" meaning destiny or fate.
In Chinese culture, the concept of "yuanfen" plays a significant role, referring to the fate or destiny that may be behind our encounters. The "yuan" part of that word is a truly beautiful and mysterious character.

After writing about the issue of coincidences vs. blessings from above in my past post, I had an experience that reminded me of just how rich my life has been made by various coincidences and chance encounters, especially those that seem to have a bit of "yuanfen" to them. Whatever the cause, these things have been great blessings to me, and I don't think there is any risk in expressing such gratitude to the Lord, even if He might not wish to take credit for all of it.

A few nights ago my wife and I were enjoyed the blessing of a series of coincidences as we joined some of our favorite friends for dinner. This dinner was special to me in many ways and involved a number of interesting coincidences. The people we were with were what made it truly special: a recently retired engineering professor and his nuclear scientist wife. along with their daughter (a brilliant teacher in New York) and two of their neighbors, another engineer and scientist wife pair with some surprisingly similar interests.

As were were enjoying an exciting conversation on numerous topics and eating some especially interesting and artful food, we had the most remarkable view from the 50th floor of a gorgeous building that I have long wanted to visit. The view of Shanghai was just stunning, but it touched me with more than its beauty. The restaurant spanned the entire floor and provided a 360-degree view of the city, but the particular slice of the city we could see from our table next to a window was especially meaningful to me. By chance, we were overlooking the first apartment building we had lived in and the crazy and interesting old city around it, leading us to ponder on our arrival here and our evolving story in Shanghai.

Further, as night settled upon the city and its skyscrapers began waking up with bewildering lights, the newest and probably brightest tall building on our side of the Huangpu River suddenly caught my eye with its full-building animated display. In between colorful scenes, it was showing the name and logo of my company, APP China, the company that brought me here to help them with intellectual property and innovation. For a moment, I had the sense of looking at a slice of the past, the present, and the future (perhaps the future part is because I always get a sense of looking at the future when I gaze at Shanghai's skyline, but the majestic new building that caught my attention made somehow made me think about my future here). How unexpected and off, to see my company's logo so prominently displayed across a mammoth screen about two football fields long.

Another coincidence began a few days before this I was looking up at the tallest building that watches over a beautiful and popular part of Shanghai called Xujiahui, not far from where I live. I looked at that building -- the one I was now dining in -- and thought, "I really would like to go there sometime." It's a building that has impressed me for years and I have often wondered what was in there on the upper levels, but have never had cause to go. A couple of days after that, I had the pleasant surprise of the invitation to dinner on the 50th floor from a professor friend of mine. I was so happy to learn where dinner would be. It was truly exciting to be there and to eat some of Shanghai's most artistic food at the City View Cafe at the Pullman Hotel. Yes, that's a high-end restaurant, so I was worried that our friends were taking us to a terribly expensive place, but with their typical savvy use of online deals, they had booked a set meal promotion that I think was reasonably priced and mercifully not too heavy (I prefer meals that are light but adventurous, and this was perfect for my tastes). It was certainly a wonderful way to treat their daughter and friends.

The most meaningful coincidence associated with this remarkable meal began over 7 years ago, a few months before I was invited to consider a job in China. I was traveling on a work assignment and was in the Chicago airport between flights. As I stepped off my plane and began walking to my next gate, I walked past a Chinese couple struggling to communicate with a United Airlines agent at a nearby gate. Even though my Chinese was very basic, I felt like maybe I could help, so I walked over and talked to them in Chinese. They were on their way back to China, having just landed in Chicago, and were wondering where they needed to go to forward their checked bags to Shanghai. They were thinking of the process they faced when they came to the US as they went through customs in Chicago, a process which involved getting their checked bags and then after clearing customs taking them to another agent to be sent to their next flight. But for their return flight, that wasn't needed, and their bags would go directly all the way to China. I helped to explain this, and while I wasn't really all that helpful, they were so happy to have an American interested in China try to help them that they have me their contact information and told me to please visit them if I ever came to Shanghai. That chance encounter would be one of the sweetest random blessings in my life as we meet periodically with them and other friends of theirs. They are such thoughtful, kind people who represent the very best of China.

Our appealing meal with its particular view, the restaurant in the building I had just wished to visit, and the dear friends whose lives are tied to mine now through a delightful chance encounter, all represent chance and coincidence, beautifully arrayed to make my life more meaningful. Such small means, random or not, pure chance or not, can with the touch of the Lord's hand become meaningful and precious, like many of our friendships and relationships in life. Do not overlook the possibilities that can arise from chance encounters, nor discount the kindness that may be shown to you through coincidence. Be grateful for it all and welcome the Lord's ongoing guidance on how to respond to the opportunities and blessings that may arise from chance, or at least seem to.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Coincidence or Miracle?

On my recent trip to several parts of the United States, I was in the Chicago airport for a couple of hours on my way to visit my parents. I planned to spend some time with my parents to help them with some issues they are facing. To prepare, I had spoken a few weeks ago with my sister who lives in England and needed to speak with her again. She has spent a lot of time with them recently and is most aware of the details of their situation. However, two recent call attempts, email, and text had failed, probably because she has been extremely busy herself.

My wife and I had been sitting at our gate, but eventually both felt it would be good to wander down the hall and look for some food. We considered McDonalds but I couldn't see anything I would want to eat, so we continued further to a food court. With hundreds of people around me, my eyes were simply drawn to one particular woman who seemed familiar. As I got closer, i realized this was my sister, the very person I most needed to talk to in order to help my aging parents deal with some very serious issues.

She lives in England. what was she doing at the O'Hare Airport? We had no idea she was in the United States, but she had come here on a very quick trip to take care of another complex issue and was now on her way back to England. The chances of meeting her in the huge and busy Chicago airport were minuscule, yet there she was, the person I most needed to see and had tried to reach recently without success. The information I got from her during our chat would help us in our visits with my parents and make us much better aware of their needs. Just a random coincidence? Yes, perhaps, but it was certainly the kind of coincidence that should at least open one's mind to the possibility of a blessing from the Lord. The proper response, even if it was just coincidence this time, is gratitude, in my opinion, and a recognition of at least the possibility of the hand of the Lord in the event.

There are some coincidences that really are random or from sources other than divine intervention. The investigator who is visited by an anti-Mormon minister just after meeting with Mormon missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence, or the result of well-meaning friends arranging the coincidence to save a soul from Mormonism. Likewise, it is possible that the person who prays to know the truth and then sees an ad for the Mormons on TV right after the prayer or gets a knock on the door from missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence. It could be by divine design, but coincidence or not, the process of deciding to accept the LDS religion obviously must involve much more careful diligence than just relying on a lone coincidence, even if it may have been a deliberate blessing. It's fair to be open to the possibility of meaning behind the event, but it is not the end of the investigation process.

Life is full of coincidences. Some may seem both wildly improbable and a genuine blessing that solves a major problem, as my encounter in the airport did. For coincidences of that nature, I think it is fair and healthy to recognize that it may have been by divine design and to receive the blessing with gratitude. But be careful not to let a strange coincidence replace the careful consideration needed in making important decisions.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Thinking DIfferently About Same-sex Attraction: A Valuable Presentation from Jeff Robinson

One of the highlights of this week's 2018 FairMormon Conference for me was the presentation by Dr. Jeff Robinson, "Thinking Differently About Same-sex Attraction." Dr. Robinson has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy (BYU) and has spent over 15,000 hours in the past 25 years in his private practice interviewing and learning from individuals experiencing a conflict between their religious or personal values and same-sex attraction. I was touched with the compassion and passion he spoke in helping the audience understand the need for compassion and love for others, and in helping us to think differently about SSA.

Robinson explained how those experiencing conflicts related to SSA almost always wish to understand the why behind their challenges. What makes some have SSA? Saying that why is irrelevant does not work well, he explained, because the assumptions people make about the cause will strongly influence the steps they take.

His recommended approach is to simply explain SSA as "something you know how to do." He used the analogy to one's native language. Why do I speak English? Is it in my genes that makes me simply born as an English speaker? Is it because I suffered psychological abuse as a child and am somehow damaged goods? Is it because as a small child I chose to speak English instead of Swahili or other equally valid choices? My genes certainly hardwire me with a predisposition to speak and express myself in language, but the nature of the language(s) I learn can be influenced by many other factors, and English is not the only language I can learn.

If we understand SSA as nothing more than something one knows how to do, it resolves the problems with other theories. We need not assume that someone with SSA is mentally ill or psychologically damaged, or that they have made evil choices and are to blame for their state. Further, we need not accept the myth that they are born into an iron-clad "orientation" that excludes other possibilities. Robinson explains that a large number of those with SSA also experience some degree of opposite-sex attraction (OSA). If they assume they are born into a fixed "orientation," they may be likely to ignore or deny whatever degree of OSA they experience, thus missing the hints of other hopeful possibilities.

This understanding can give us tools to be more accepting, less judgmental, and more supportive of those who face conflict between their values and their attractions. I greatly appreciated his viewpoint.

Update, Aug. 6, 2018: Dr. Robinson was not saying that SSA can be eliminated. He tells his patients that they should expect to experience it throughout their lives. He was not advocating reversion therapy. But he does urge caution in the use of labels and believes at least some people have greater options in life than they realized, including the option to find greater peace in how they live.

Dr. Robinson's patients are those who are seeking help to deal with the conflicts they face between their values or religion and SSA. He clearly indicated that his patients are not a representative sample of the entire population. His approach, which may benefit many of his clients, may not be needed or relevant to many with SSA. If you feel that other ways of thinking about SSA better describe your situation (e.g., being "born that way" with a genetically-determined sexual orientation), that is fine. Dr. Robinson's practice and views in that case may be irrelevant to your situation. But for some seeking to cope with some particular conflicts, it has been very helpful.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Enjoying the 2018 FairMormon Conference and Speaking Tomorrow on the "Arise from the Dust" Them in the Book of Mormone

I'm attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center today. The crowd is even bigger than last year, maybe 300 people I'm guessing. I missed yesterday's session due to family responsibilities, but the program today has been terrific with many highlights, including the report from Jeffrey Bradshaw about the stories of many individuals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he just completed a mission. I'm looking forward to learning from tomorrows speakers as well, with the exception of the one at 1:00 PM, which will be given by me on some of the tentative discoveries from exploring the ancient motif of dust as applied so appropriately and artfully in the Book of Mormon.

Some presentations today include:
  • Sara Riley, “'Even as Moses Did': The Use of the Exodus Narrative in Mosiah 11-18," a careful and insightful analysis of the many subtle allusions to the Exodus found in the Book of Mosiah.
  • Brad Wilcox, "'Have You Been Saved By Grace?' How Do We Respond?," a powerful, illuminating, and entertaining presentation on the power of grace and how to help other Christians better understand our views on how grace leads to salvation by understanding what salvation actually means.
  • Steve Densley and Geret Giles, "Barriers to Belief," a much-needed and highly valuable discourse on the role of mental health issues (various forms of anxiety, for example) in responding to complex or difficult aspects of the LDS faith. By better understanding the needs of others who think and respond differently than we do, we can better minister to their needs.
  • Jeffrey Bradshaw, "Stories of the Saints in the DR Congo," a remarkable and inspiring review of the lives of many individual Latter-day Saints in the DR Congo. This will motivate many of us to be more attentive to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Africa and elsewhere.

Monday, July 23, 2018

When Lehi Left Jerusalem: 605 B.C.? A Plausible Hypothesis from Jeff Chadwick

A frequent question and criticism of the Book of Mormon involves Nephi's statement at the beginning that Lehi had a vision in the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah. Afterwards, when Lehi and his family have left Jerusalem, Lehi prophecies that the Messiah would be born 600 years later (1 Nephi 10:4, repeated in 1 Nephi 19:8 and 2 Nephi 25:19, and confirmed in 3 Nephi 1:1, 9–19). Since it has long been known that Zedekiah's reign began in 597 B.C., and since it is generally accepted that Christ's actual birth was around 5 B.C., the 600-year prophecy poses an obvious problem. Viewing the 600-year prophecy as a rounded approximation seems inadequate, given the specificity of the text.

Several approaches have been taken to deal with the 600-year prophecy, including an appeal to a 360-day year of the Mesoamerican calendar or a 354-day lunar calendar, but Professor Jeffrey R. Chadwick of BYU has what seems to be a superior treatment. In his newly published "Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem," BYU Studies 57/2 (2018): 7-51, Chadwick proposes that when the Egyptians killed Josiah in battle in 609 B.C. and later Jehoiakim on the throne, the rightful heir was Zedekiah and many faithful Jews might have naturally viewed the Egyptian appointment as illegitimate. Indeed, Jehoiakim was strongly denounced by Jeremiah.

In the minds of the Jews of that day, the rightful reign of Zedekiah had already begun, though he wold not ascend to the throne for several more years. Chadwick's proposal seems to neatly resolve several issues and provides for a reasonable time for Lehi to minister in Jerusalem before he had to flee for his life. It also fits well with some of the social and political realities that might have made later travel too risky. He considers a wide variety of details and concludes that the Book of Mormon account is remarkably consistent with what we are learning about Israel in that era.

On quibble is that Chadwick insists that the River of Lemuel must have been a wadi that only temporarily had flowing water, otherwise a perennial stream (such as the excellent candidate found by George Potter) would have attracted a large settlement and would not have been available for any random family to wander up to and use. But remote, hard-to-find locations can remain largely uninhabited, as we see with Khor Kahrfot/Wadi Sayq, the leading candidate for Bountiful which remains substantially uninhabited in spite of having the largest freshwater lagoon in the Arabian Peninsula. When there are other sources of water in a region, a remote and difficult location won't necessarily attract a crowd.

Had Joseph been the brilliant Bible scholar he is sometimes required to be, he would have known that Zedekiah's reign began in 597 B.C. The 600-year prophecy would have at least been dialed down to 597 years. The 597 B.C. was well-known as the beginning of Zedekiah's reign in Joseph's day is illustrated in a printing of the Bible with commentary showing the date 597 B.C. at the top of the pages for Jeremiah 27. The source is Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments According to the Authorized Version with Explanatory Notes and Practical Observations, vol. 3 (Boston: Samuel Armstrong, 1823), available at Google Books; https://books.google.com/books?id=jaJOAQAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA323. The commentary explains that there may be a scribal error in Jeremiah 27:1, for that verse speaks of the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim, but the rest of the chapter is addressed to Zedekiah.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"Artifact or Artifice?" Orson Scott Card's Brilliant 1993 Essay Still Rings True

Twenty-five years ago a famous name among fiction writers, Orson Scott Card, gave a speech at BYU that provided a novel way of evaluating Book of Mormon claims. The speech was “The Book of Mormon – Artifact or Artifice?” at the 1993 BYU Symposium on Life, the Universe, and Everything; see his transcript at The Nauvoo Times. Card applied his profound skills to examine the artifacts of fiction we should find if the Book of Mormon had been fabricated and not merely translated by Joseph Smith.

Upon reading this article today, one familiar with Book of Mormon studies may be impressed with how well Card’s analysis has stood the test of time. So many of the points he made have become more relevant or strengthened by subsequent explorations into the text of the Book of Mormon, the details of its translation and publication, the scholarship into the lives of the witnesses, and many new studies relevant to evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon and the meaning of the text.

When Card spoke in early 1993, he did not have the benefit of the major discoveries related to Lehi’s Trail from the work of Warren Aston that highlight numerous details such as the existence and location of an ancient place with the name like Nahom or the existence of a fully plausible site for Bountiful exactly where it should be. Card did not have the benefit of the field work of George Potter examining the prospects for what was once said to be impossible, the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel three days south of the beginning of the Red Sea. He didn’t have the body of evidence from John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex or the insights about the Mesoamerican perspectives in the Book of Mormon uncovered by Brant Gardner in his Traditions of the Fathers. He lacked the revolutionary insights from the study of the earliest Book of Mormon texts by Royal Skousen or the analysis of the language of the Book of Mormon by Stanford Carmack.

Card’s speech was also before LDS scholars became familiar with the work of Scottish researcher Margaret Barker and before she became familiar with the Book of Mormon. Barker has sought to reconstruct the early Jewish religion before the reforms of Josiah and before the major changes of the Second Temple period. Barker was impressed with what she found in the Book of Mormon, for it seemed to reflect an ancient environment and ancient worldviews consistent with her research, and again, quite foreign to the knowledge available to scholars in Joseph Smith’s day.

Much has changed since Card tugged at the text from the perspective of a master of science fiction, but for the most part the added knowledge twenty-five years later only increases the value of Card’s approach. Card looked for telltale threads of modern fiction, revealing instead that the text was of quite a different weave. Card sees it as the tapestry of multiple authors from an era far removed from modern fiction, a work impossible for even a skilled writer of fiction in our day or Joseph’s. Using the lens of a science fiction writer, Card reveals patterns woven into the text that defy explanation based on Joseph Smith as author. Today I'll just mention two of the many issues Card mentions and consider what we can learn from further research since his speech.

Voices and Viewpoints of Authors, Ancient and Modern

Card points out that authors write with a vast network of assumptions from their environment coloring the way they perceive and describe events. The environment the author has inherited provides numerous views on life and society that are easily taken for granted without realizing that it may not be this way at other times or in other societies. The environment that influenced the author can often be revealed by examining that which the author recognizes as unusual and in need of explanation in the text versus what the author sees as normal and requiring no explanation.

One of the first points Card mentions to illustrate such subtleties is the contrast between the attitude toward valuable documents showed by Book of Mormon characters and Joseph himself. He mentions Amaleki’s statement in Omni 1:25 wherein he justifies his decision to turn over the records he has inherited to King Benjamin:
Which, by the way, is something that would certainly not be a cultural idea available to Joseph Smith. You don't turn ancient records over to kings in the world of the 1820s in America. Kings would have nothing to do with ancient records. You would turn ancient records over to a scholar. We know that that was Joseph Smith's personal attitude because when he wanted to find support for his translation in order to encourage Martin Harris's continuing support, he sent Harris, not to a king or a president or a political leader, but to a scholar.
This is one of many indications of implicit cultural views consistent with the ancient world of the Book of Mormon and highly divergent from Joseph Smith’s environment, and a valuable observation by Card. Indeed, the issue of the handling, preservation, and transmission of sacred records in the Book of Mormon has been a fruitful area for additional research since 1993, particularly John Tvedtnes’s book published in 2000, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness unto Light. Tvedtnes examines the authentic ancient aspects of relevant features in the Book of Mormon such as the use of treasuries to store records, the practice of hiding or sealing ancient records for a future time, the use of stone boxes to preserve records, traditions about records entrusted to the care of angels, mountain repositories, and ancient traditions about glowing stones used for revelation, all showing evidence that the world of the Book of Mormon is highly consistent with ancient Near Eastern practices and traditions.

Turning to Mesoamerica, John L. Sorenson also shows that Book of Mormon practices regarding record keeping are consistent with ancient Mesoamerican traditions, as is also true for the nature of records and writing systems, including the keeping of dates, recording of prophecies, genealogies, keeping of lineage histories, etc. (Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, Chapter 5, “The Nature of History in the Book of Mormon,” 104–108). For example, the Quiché Maya had an office of record keeper that was passed from father to son, similar to the Nephites’ practice. The records also played an important role as symbols of political and religious authority (ibid., 106).

One thing I deeply appreciate about the Book of Mormon is the great care Mormon shows for his document and for his sources. There is no sense of an omniscient narrator. Statements may be flawed or imperfect, but we know where they came from and can often gain insights by carefully considering why something is said and how it relates to what others did or did not observe in making their report. As Card pointed out, digging into the assumptions and viewpoints of the authors of the text is a fruitful exercise, and one that frequently reveals the absurdity of crediting it all to Joseph's creative dictation to his scribes. His many points in this regard are still fresh and meaningful today. 

A Rarely Attempted Feat, Or, Mormon vs. Ossian

Card also makes an interesting argument regarding the alleged forgery of the Book of Mormon, one that may motivate some to examine some interesting but apparently forged ancient poetry from Scotland, the famous Ossian works of James Macpherson from shortly before Joseph's day. 
 
Critics frequently try to defuse respect for the Book of Mormon by suggesting that the purported fraud of Joseph Smith is routinely done with even more impressive results. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy are commonly cited, showing that it is possible for a writer to concoct a beautiful, complex, and generally consistent “history” involving many places, numerous new names, great battles, political intrigues, and so forth. The fact that Tolkien had advanced education and put in a lifetime of work to produce his polished masterpiece, points often made by LDS apologists in response to critics citing Tolkien, is a minor point in light of Card’s insight.

Card’s experience as a science fiction writer enables him to make a salient observation about the alleged fraud of the Book of Mormon. If it is a fraud, what Joseph did is rarely attempted and almost certainly results in obvious failure. What he did, if the Book of Mormon were a fraud, was not simply write a work of fiction set in a different culture and remote time. Many writers stand with Tolkien in being able to write such fiction well, with a product that is clearly fiction written by a single modern author for a modern audience. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, claims to be written by multiple ancient authors over a long expanse of time within a distant and changing culture. Such a fraud, to have any hope of long-term success, would need to be written from the cultural perspective of the authors in that different culture, not one that explains or indicates what is foreign relative to our modern culture. Such a work must reflect different authorial interests of the various writers and reflect the changes in culture or perspective that occur over time. It is a breathtakingly complex project. Such a work almost never attempts to pass itself off as a genuine document from a remote culture and time.

Card then cites an important example where a fraudulent work purportedly from antiquity was passed off as genuine by a modern author. The work was a collection of Gaelic poems said to be written by an ancient poet named Ossian. The poems had been “translated” into English by a Scottish politician and writer, James McPherson. McPherson’s publication was a hit and added to his fame and fortune. He died wealthy, wealthy enough to buy a spot at Westminster Abby for his tomb. But he did not die without being denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson, who also was buried at Westminster Abby, but as a token of respect, not as a result of his wealth.

The poetry of Ossian inspired many influential people including Napoleon, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Selma, Alabama was named after Selma, the home of the Scottish warrior Fingal from the poems of Ossian. The work has had a significant influence in many circles, in spite of concerns about fraud.

The text is available at Sacred-Texts.com, where J.B. Hare, the website’s founder, summarizes the controversy:
James Macpherson claimed that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript. There was just one problem. The existence of this manuscript was never established. In fact, unlike Ireland and Wales, there are no dark-age manuscripts of epic poems, tales, and chronicles and so on from Scotland. It isn't that such ancient Scottish poetry and lore didn't exist, it was just purely oral in nature. Not much of it was committed to writing until it was on the verge of extinction. There are Scottish manuscripts and books in existence today which date as far back as the 12th century (some with scraps of poetry in them), but they are principally on subjects such as religion, genealogy, and land grants.
For this and several other reasons which are dealt with in the Preliminary Discourse et seq., authenticity of the work was widely contested, particularly by Samuel Johnson. A huge (and probably excessive) backlash ensued, and conventional wisdom today brands Ossian as one of the great forgeries of history.

In fairness, themes, characters and passages of Ossian are based on established Celtic and Scottish folklore. Much of the fourth volume of J.F. Campbell's massive Popular Tales of the West Highlands is devoted to tracking down Ossianic fragments in circulation prior to Macpherson, or elicited from illiterate Highland peasants who had never heard of Ossian.

Macpherson is today considered the author of this work. The language of composition was probably English: As Campbell determined, Macpherson wasn't even particularly fluent in Gaelic. [ J.B. Blare, “The Poems of Ossian by James Macpherson [1773],” introductory comments, Sacred-Texts.com]
What some view as a definitive work on the fraud of Ossian came out after Card’s article with the 2009 publication of Thomas M. Curley’s Samuel Johnson, the Ossian Fraud, and the Celtic Revival in Great Britain and Ireland  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009). I have njoyed this book, but am not sure I recommend it -- might be a bit tedious and doesn't dig into the poetry and the linguistic issues thoroughly enough, IMHO. In summarizing his survey of the Ossian fraud, Curley praises Samuel Johnson for recognizing the nature of the fraud, a conclusion that has withstood the test of time and Curley’s own extensive detective work:

Johnson’s sense of  the falsity of the  Ossian works was  correct, despite professions to the contrary by some modern scholars. Twenty-eight out of Macpherson’s thirty-nine  titles—72 percent of all the individual works comprising Ossian—have no  apparent grounding in genuine Gaelic literature and are therefore entirely his own handiwork. The remaining 28 percent of the titles have but generally  oose ties to approximately sixteen Gaelic ballads. Contrary to his assertions, Macpherson was no editor or translator of ancient poetry. He was the author of new, largely invented literature in violation of true history, legitimate Gaelic studies, and valid national identity in Scotland. As Johnson had charged, Macpherson committed literary fabrication. [Thomas M. Curley, “The Great Samuel Johnson and His Opposition to Literary Liars,” Brgewater Review, 28(2), article 6 (Dec. 2009), http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1253&context=br_rev.]
Macpherson claimed to have original Gaelic manuscripts that he translated. Samuel Johnson, recognizing the many indications of fraud in the translation, demanded that Macpherson present the originals for review. One can easily draw a parallel to Joseph Smith who was also asked to show his gold plates to the world, if such existed. But unlike Joseph Smith and the gold plates, Macpherson provided no extract of copied characters from the manuscripts, sought out no independent scholarly examination of a portion of his translation, had no witnesses to support the existence of the original manuscripts, and had no witnesses of the translation process. Further, with no angel requiring that the original document be returned for divine safekeeping, Macpherson lacked any excuse for the failure to let others see the documents he had translated.

McPherson’s fraud is not without evidence of authenticity, for many of the names he uses were ancient Gaelic names that can be found in documents going back several hundred years. But as Curley and others have explained, these are names that could have been picked up from current lore that he extracted from his wanderings in the British Isles. Curley also explains that there are also 16 authentic Gaelic sources that are used in some way by Macpherson, giving it several small kernels of apparent authenticity. Some have argued that Macpherson was simply taking liberties with the existing poems and still acted largely as a loose translator, but Curley argues that such defenses are unjustified and that the fans of Ossian poetry must confront that fact that the vast majority of it is simply fabricated.

Curley argues that the evidence of fraud is clear cut and easily exposed, and most scholars today may agree. On the other hand, some scholars have sought to revive Macpherson’s Ossian, claiming that it is much more authentic than Samuel Johnson recognized. Ultimately, though, it seems that what Macpherson offered his enthusiastic audiences was his invention.  Defenders suggest that Macpherson was drawing upon authentic material but applying a great deal of his own creativity to translate in his own style, but this overlooks what Macpherson insisted upon from the beginning: that his translation was “extremely literal” and that the unusual word order in the English was often adjusted to reflect that of the original. But this was artifice, not an artifact of authentic translation. Yola Schmitz describes Macpherson’s artifice as translatese–the deliberate creation of nonstandard syntax to create the sense of a highly literal translation from a foreign language.

Compared to the Book of Mormon, what McPherson attempted was not a complex history spanning vast stretches of time and epic migrations from the Old World to the New, but mere poems, and not from a wholly unfamiliar culture, but from his own island and from his own country and ancestors though removed by fifteen hundred years. Macpherson had the benefit of being well educated, of being raised in a society familiar with Gaelic tales, with access to abundant sources of relevant information for his project. What Macpherson attempted is quite unlike the feat of, say, having a poorly-educated New York farm boy with scant resources write about travel across the Arabian Peninsula, or create ancient poetry rooted in ancient Hebrew, or describe battles, cities, natural disasters and other events in an unfamiliar New World setting. What Macpherson attempted was kid stuff compared to the Book of Mormon, and yet his Ossian project failed, in spite of some hopeful supporters seeking to overlook its flaws. It was successful enough to add to his wealth, but he had already been vocally denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson and remains widely recognized as a fraud who got very much wrong. It has certainly not withstood the test of time. From the beginning, basic questions about the existence of the original documents could not be answered nor could witnesses be provided.

The Book of Mormon was a surprise bolt from the blue from a poorly educated, impoverished farm boy not known to be a bookworm or a writer, unexpectedly announcing he had received an ancient record, then daring to show the plates to numerous people, and then translating it by dictation at a prodigious rate apparently without the use of any manuscripts. Consider the contrast we find in Macpherson’s preparation for his work, as described by Yola Schmitz in her 2017 chapter on the Ossian fraud. See Yola Schmitz, “Faked Translations James Macpherson’s Ossianic Poetry,” in Faking, Forging, Counterfeiting: Discredited Practices at the Margins of Mimesis, ed. Daniel Becker, Annalisa Fischer, and Yola Schmitz (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag, 2017), 167–180; http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxr9t.13:
Macphersonʼs upbringing put him in the perfect position. He was born in Ruthven, in the Scottish Highlands where he was brought up in a Gaelic-speaking community and accustomed to the oral tradition of the bards of the clans. Yet, he also experienced first-hand the serious effects of British oppression. In 1745, the nine-year-old Macpherson witnessed the Jacobite Rising with all its devastating consequences for the collective identity and the heritage of the Scottish clans. In its wake, many customs and traditions, such as the tartan plaid and playing the bag pipes, were prohibited.
However, one of the worst consequences must have been the subsequent ban on using the Scottish Gaelic language. Therefore, Macphersonʼs forgery can also be considered an attempt to recuperate what was left of the literary tradition of the Highlands and to rehabilitate a people, thought to be uncultured and uncivilised.

These circumstances provided Macpherson with all he needed to produce a successful forgery. He was an insider of Scottish traditions and, at the same time, he had profited from an academic education. He had not only learned how classic works of poetry were studied, but also how they were supposed to be presented. When the scholars in Aberdeen showed interest in this kind of poetry and offered to sponsor an excursion to the Highlands, Macpherson seized the moment and delivered. [emphasis added]

Card’s comparison with Macpherson’s fraud makes valid points that have only become stronger in light of further research both into the Ossian fraud and into the origins of the Book of Mormon, including the translation process, for which there were multiple credible witnesses.

Macpherson’s fraud could also be considered in light of a few other attempted forgeries, including Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley papers, purporting to be poems from a 15th-century monk named Rowley. The poems were initially accepted due to a general lack of attention at the time of publication to the details of the English language and its changes over the centuries. Chatterton used antique paper for his poems, but was unable to properly reflect the language of the time he sought to mimic, ensuring that the fraud would be detected.

Failure to appreciate linguistic change over time was a key weakness in the Ossian fraud. Macpherson claimed that the Erse language (ancient Gaelic) of 300 A.D. had remained pure and unchanged over the centuries, allowing him to read and understand ancient Erse and translate Ossian’s poetry into English. In spite of Macpherson’s outstanding education, this was a monumental blunder, one easily picked up by critics in his day. Some observed that Gaelic in Scotland showed obvious variability just from one valley to the next. With such obvious change across short distances, how could the language remain unchanged over more than a thousand years?

On the other hand, the challenges of linguistic change over time is an area where the Book of Mormon shines and far surpasses what Macpherson and presumably Joseph knew. Linguistic change is implicit as a fact of life in the Book of Mormon narrative. Nephi’s scribal work may already be blurring the lines between Egyptian and Hebrew (1 Nephi 1:1-3; see Neal Rappleye, “Nephi the Good: A Commentary on 1 Nephi 1:1–3,” Interpreter Blog, January 3, 2014; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/nephi-the-good-a-commentary-on-1-nephi-11-3/.). We see the Mulekites, immigrants without written records to help maintain their language, have lost much of their language (it had become “corrupted”) and need to be taught to understand the Nephite’s Hebrew after just a few hundred years of separation (Omni 1:17–18), with their rapid linguistic drift presumably accelerated by contact with local peoples in the New World. We see Nephites treasuring their written records as a means of helping them maintain their scriptural language system (Mosiah 1:2–6). We see the Lamanites losing their written language and later needing to be taught the Nephite writing system (Mosiah 24:1–7). And in spite of their written records, centuries later Mormon acknowledges that their Hebrew had been altered (Mormon 9:33) and that their script for recording scriptures, now called “reformed Egyptian,” had been altered over time and was unknown except to them (Mormon 9:32, 34). These are realistic views on linguistic change, in contrast to the much less reasonable claims from the highly educated Macpherson.  

Card's comparison of Ossian and the Book of Mormon remains a fruitful exercise and one that I'll mention in some more detail in the future. 

I highly recommend Orson Scott Card's "Artifact or Artifice." There's much of value there to contemplate, in spite of a great deal of new research since that day. 
 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coach Lindsay's Power Secret for Success in Tennis and in Life!

Roger Federer, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Tonight I'll confess to having watched some television (while diligently working on a crucial project, of course--hardly noticed the TV for at least some of the time). The Wimbledon semifinals tennis match between two charming tennis players, Roger Federer and Kevin Anderson, has been outstanding. I am a long-time Federer fan (from Switzerland, my beloved mission country!), but it's hard not to also cheer for Anderson, a fellow excessively tall person (oops, that's a microagression: I mean "altitudinally different"). Both are great athletes and great sports.

Like many people, I have a great deal of unearned self-confidence and consider myself to be a good tennis player, good enough to beat either of these men on any given day. Here I define "given day" to mean "day when my opponent is severely injured or in prison." But I'm an even better tennis coach. Through years of careful analysis of tennis, I have developed some sure-fire secrets of tennis success that I am sure would do much to improve the play even of these champions.

I'm revealing these secrets at no cost as a gift to my readers. First I'll review some basic  secrets, and then comes the real power secret.

Basic secrets you may already know:

#1: When receiving a serve, stand where the ball is going to come. Aces tend to do where you are not. You should have been over there, waiting for it. Come on!

#2. Hit the ball over the net and inside the lines. So simple, but so many points are lost by not following this overlooked secret.

#3. When serving, hit the ball to where your opponent isn't standing or likely to reach. Amazing how often this basic secret is overlooked. 

But these secrets are for winning individual points. The power secret that you are about to learn is not about running around all day trying to win a point here or a point there. It's about focusing on the one thing that really matters: not losing the match.

Here's the critical insight: in the end, winning a match comes down to the final point, the match point. If you never lose a match point, you will never lose a match. That's the key! That's the secret! Secret, you ask? Yes! In fact, it's obvious that even Federer himself doesn't fully understand this secret and it's proper application, which you are about to learn.

In this match I'm watching tonight, like almost all matches I've seen, players wear themselves out running back and forth across the court to hit the ball in order to win individual points. Points that don't really matter in the end because they are not the match point! Remember, the winner of the match is the one who wins what? That's right: the match point! Now here is the practical guidance you need for success, Coach Lindsay's Secret Power Tip:

When playing tennis, always check: Is this the match point? If not, let it go. Relax. Save your energy. Don't chase the ball like crazy for a point that doesn't matter. Save all your energy for the one point that does matter: the match point, and just make sure you win it. As long as you win the match point, you will never lose. It's that simple!

Don't sweat the small stuff, don't worry about anything except what really matters: avoiding the ultimate disaster when it's immediately before you. Until then, let it go and enjoy!

Coach Lindsay's Power Secret has not yet affected competitive tennis (understandable--it was unknown to the world until today), but the same principle seems to be at work in many other parts of the economy in the US and other nations:
  • Do we have hyperinflation? Are hungry mobs rampaging in the streets? No? No worry, let's print more money to stimulate the economy. 
  • Have they turned off my utilities or shut off my phone service? No? Then relax and use that credit card to spend a little more money that I don't have. 
  • Am I starving? No? This might be a good time to take a break year before looking for a job. 
  • Are the checks we issue to teachers, firemen, and other government employees bouncing, and are angry mobs of unpaid workers burning down our government office buildings demanding their pension money? No? Let's increase our debt even more to keep our state or city government functioning. (No, I'm not singling out Illinois or New Jersey here.)
  • Have all the people with the capital and sills needed to create jobs left our state already? No? Then let's crank up taxes on them even more. 
  • Has the economy ground to a halt? No? Oh, yes? Um, fix the stats to say it's healthy, and then let's divert more of our nation's capital on unnecessary war in nations that aren't attacking us.
  • Have I lost my job? No? Then no need to develop new skills. Good time to turn on the TV or open up YouTube and watch something fun. Maybe even a little tennis. (Oops!)
So you can play tennis and economics and life the old school way, working hard and being wise and frugal and nervous about the future every step of the way, or you can relax and stay focused on what matters: avoiding disaster by not worrying about it until you really, really need to worry, which is usually a distant tomorrow, right?

You know Coach Lindsay's Power Secret now. Enjoy!

Friday, July 06, 2018

Misdiagnosis!

A few days ago a grieving mom in Shanghai, a good friend of ours, shared some tragic news with me: her teenage son had pancreatic cancer, one of the worst cancers. Her son was likely to die soon, if the doctor was correct. Only about 20% of pancreatic cancer patients live past 5 years. She was almost overcome with grief and had been crying for a couple of days. But even though she had gone to an expensive hospital that caters to foreign clients, she wasn't sure she should trust the doctor. The mother called me to see if I knew where she could turn for help. She didn't know that one of my sons happens to be a doctor treating cancer as a radiation oncologist at a leading US clinic.

I received a photo of the lab report for the boy and sent it to my son. The report mentioned a scan of internal organs showing no unusual problems indicative of cancer. There were no other symptoms, just a slightly elevated CA-19-9 antigen level, with a value of 45 instead of a desired maximum of 37.

My son explained that the CA-19-9 test is not supposed to be used for diagnosing cancer on its own. Absent other symptoms of cancer, its predictive power for cancer is less than 1%, he said. When he learned that the son was just a teenager, he said it's even less likely to be pancreatic cancer because that disease is almost unheard of in young people. The mother's grief was turned to relief.

I later found scientific publications confirming what my son had said. For example, see K. Umashankar et al., "The clinical utility of serum CA 19-9 in the diagnosis, prognosis and management of pancreatic adenocarcinoma: An evidence based appraisal," Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology, 2012 Jun; 3(2): 105–119; doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2078-6891.2011.021:
CA 19-9 serum levels have a sensitivity and specificity of 79-81% and 82-90% respectively for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in symptomatic patients; but are not useful as a screening marker because of low positive predictive value (0.5-0.9%).
Other articles indicate that diabetics, such as this young man, can have inflated CA-19-9 values (this applies at least for Type 2 diabetes--I'm not sure if CA-19-9 artifacts from Type 1 diabetes has been investigated), one of many possible alternative causes of elevated CA-19-9 values. Alternative causes for the elevated test result do not appear to have been  considered by the doctor who terrified a mom by declaring that it was probably pancreatic cancer. Again, the test can be useful in tracking the progress of treatment of a known cancer, but should not be used to diagnose cancer in the absence of other evidence, as in this case.

The family still needs to be cautious and follow up on the possible causes of the inflated test result, but it was only slightly elevated unlike the much higher scores that I've seen reported in patients who actually do have pancreatic cancer.

To be fair, the doctor may have just said pancreatic cancer was one of several possibilities and he did ask the mom to go get further tests, but whatever he actually said or meant to say, what she understood was that her son probably had a usually lethal cancer. He also told her not to discuss it with her son or husband until they had done further tests, which may mean that he didn't want the family to be all panicked for nothing, but the effect of that requirement was that the mother was all panicked and all alone, unable to discuss her grief with others.

In deep grief, the mother had been fasting and praying, unconsoled. After fasting, she felt she should turn to someone to get another opinion, but didn't know where to go. She feels it was inspiration that she reached out to me, not knowing that my son would be able to help.

I am so grateful that my son was able to help bring peace to a mother who had been crying for a couple of days over the "fake news" she received from a generally good hospital. I suggest that here or anywhere else you should be open to the possibility that some doctors don't know what they are talking about. And of course, that can apply to what I've said here. Do your homework, ask questions, and be cautious about what others declare.

I raise this story as an example of how much pain a misdiagnose can cause. This was a minor case compared to misdiagnoses that lead to unnecessary surgery, improper amputation, blindness, or death. It reminds us that even experts can and often do make serious mistakes.

Misdiagnosis is a problem not just for physical health but also for our spiritual health. There are many who have been turned to unnecessary fear and even panic about Mormons and the LDS faith because of a local expert, often a pastor or religious friend, who declares that Mormonism is a cancer and that Mormons aren't even Christian or don't believe in the Jesus of the Bible. This kind of misdiagnosis is more outrageous than treating a mildly elevated CA-19-9 test as evidence of pancreatic cancer in a young person. The hear, anger, and confusion that has been caused by this persistent misdiagnosis truly is malignant.

There are LDS people who panic and abandon what was once a strong testimony over an expert somewhere who proclaims that Mormonism is a cancer or proven to be wrong. Sometimes the diagnosis is based on a rigged or improperly executed test, and other times there is a metric of some kind that points to a genuine problem, but a problem that should not be lethal to a testimony. Such problems can be due to the confusion and errors that always happen when mortals are allowed to do anything in the Church, no matter how much we want them to be infallible. More often than not, I think the real problem are inaccurate assumptions on our part about how God should do things or about what may or may not occur in a Church led by prophets and apostles of God. Such problems are often linked to inadequate information on our part, requiring a recognition of our incomplete knowledge and the patience and faith to wait for more.

We see through a glass darkly in this life. Faith and patience will always be required (Luke 22:19). There will always be doubts that can be stirred up, but if we have found the pearly of great price through faith, study, patient following of God's counsel and the witness of the Holy Ghost, we should be prepared to deal with the inevitable onslaught of experts and other sources of doubt with a healthy dose of doubt itself, that is, to "doubt our doubts" -- a phrase that to me means to have a healthy dose of skepticism about the attacks made by various experts, and to have an even healthier dose of faith and patience as we seek guidance and help to cope with those doubts. Reaching out to others who may have experience and knowledge with the issue can be helpful. Fasting and seeking inspiration from the Lord may be essential.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Praise for Jared W. Ludlow’s New Book, Exploring the Apocrypha from a Latter-day Saint Perspective

Jared W. Ludlow’s new book, Exploring the Apocrypha from a Latter-day Saint Perspective (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2018) is a valuable resource for Latter-day Saints seeking to better understand an important part of the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism. Though not part of our official canon, they have been a part of the canon in several other faiths and are included in a majority of the Bibles used by Christians around the world. For Latter-day Saints, according to a statement regarding the Apocrypha in Doctrine and Covenants 91, we are told that “There are many things contained therein that are true” (vs. 1) and that “whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom” (vs. 5), in spite of the “interpolations by the hands of men” that are also at play (vs. 2).

Latter-day Saints, unfortunately, have tended to ignore the Apocrypha, but there is value that we should be extracting. Ludlow’s book, in my opinion, is precisely the kind of guide that many of us need in order to know where the richest sources of value can be found and what the key lessons are that we can learn.

Ludlow begins with a helpful overview of what the Apocrypha is. The 183 chapters in that collection come from early Jewish writers well after the latest books in our current Old Testament were written (ca. 400 BC), with many dated to around the first and second centuries BC. These texts were circulated among Greek-speaking Jews as the Septuagint translation from Hebrew to Greek was conducted. Many appear to be original Greek compositions rather than translations from Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek. Ludlow groups them according to three categories and considers each text in this order:

Biblical Expansions
  • The Additions to the Book of Esther
  • Daniel Stories: Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon
  • First Book of Esdras (Greek form of the name Ezra)
  • Second Book of Esdras (the only Apocrypha text not from the Greek Septuagint but found in several Old Latin manuscripts)
  • Prayer of Manasseh
  • Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah
Heroic Stories
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees
Wisdom Literature
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach

As Ludlow reviews each of the books of the Apocrypha, he thoroughly illustrates how “the Apocrypha can be a valuable tool for helping us understand the political, cultural, and religious background of Jesus Christ and his contemporaries” (p. 4) and how these texts provide teachings and stories relevant to Latter-day Saints.

Ludlow explains that as Jewish and Christian groups debated the value of these texts, they were given the label apocrypha, or “things that are hidden.” It was a positive label for some and a negative label for others. The term is also applied to many other texts outside the Apocrypha that were falsely attributed to various prophets and apostles (generally known as the “Pseudepigrapha,” a Greek term describing texts with a “false superscription”), but Ludlow only considers the closed set of books formally known as the Apocrypha.

Ludlow reviews the history of the debate over these books, where views have varied widely. The Catholic Church in the 1546 Council of Trent declared all the books to be deemed canonical except 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. Protestants have generally rejected them but some such as Martin Luther saw value in some of the Apocrypha and portions have often been printed in Protestant Bibles.

Despite the Apocrypha’s checkered canonical history, there can be no doubt that it has impacted Christian and Jewish cultures. In Jewish practice, Hanukkah has become a central festival and the Maccabees form a part of Jewish identity. In the Christian world, the Apocrypha has influenced poets, artists, hymn-writers, dramatists, composers, and even explorers such as Christopher Columbus, who used a passage in 2 Esdras about the earth being composed of six parts land to seek financial support for his journey westward. Even in early Christian sites like the catacombs of Rome, depictions of Apocrypha scenes have been found. (p. 12)

Ludlow devotes a chapter to reviewing the history of LDS views regarding the Apocrypha. The beginning of LDS inquiry into the Apocrypha comes from Joseph Smith, wondering if his inspired translation of the Bible should include the Apocrypha. The answer through revelation on March 9, 1833 is now printed in Section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—
There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly
translated correctly;
2 There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are
interpolations by the hands of men.
3 Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha
should be translated.
4 Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit
manifesteth truth;
5 And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;
6 And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore
it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.
Joseph made other statements that points to the value of the Apocrypha, and apparently respected them enough to include the Apocrypha in the “complete Bible” that was deposited in the Nauvoo Temple (p. 24). However, they don’t seem to have influenced his sermons or teachings (p. 27), though a few other early LDS leaders occasionally used small portions from the Apocrypha.

Ludlow’s review of the contents and highlights of each of the books of the Apocrypha provides valuable historical information that will help readers better appreciate the cultural, religious, and political setting as the New Testament begins. One can also sometimes see influence from the Apocrypha on New Testament writers, such as the Book of Judith’s treatment on searching the depths of God and not knowing his mind, which appears to have influenced Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:6-7,12 (p. 133).

There are also occasional nuggets of particular interest to LDS readers, such as the Wisdom of Solomon’s teaching on the Creation, praising God for his all-powerful hand “which created the world out of formless matter” (Wisdom of Solomon 11:17, see Ludlow p. 188), an acknowledgment that creation was not ex nihilo.

The Wisdom of Solomon also has brief references to the premortal existence (p. 193). Indeed, it was the final section on the Wisdom literature of the Apocrypha that I most keenly enjoyed, and I think many LDS readers will find particular value in those books and that portion of Ludlow, though the entire treatment is clear, interesting, and well suited for a broad LDS audience.

In his closing remarks, Ludlow nicely summarizes the nature of the diverse and complex texts he has treated:
The Apocrypha consists of a variety of texts making it both interesting and challenging. Comprising wisdom literature, apocalypses, tales, and scriptural expansions, the Apocrypha runs the gamut of ancient religious literature. Its eclectic collection is reflected in how each book of the Apocrypha is handled in this work; varied approaches are used in different chapters because of the diverse styles of the texts. Yet despite their diversity, the texts give us a glimpse into the world of Second Temple Judaism and its Hellenistic influence. These texts are also important to understanding the historical background to Jesus and the early Christians and the concerns and aspirations of early Jews and Christians. (p. 223)
I strongly recommend Ludlow's thoughtful work for any LDS reader interested in better understanding the broad body of treasured ancient texts encompassed in the Apocrypha.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Joseph Smith's Universe and Some Ruminations on Chinese Sci-Fi

One of my favorite projects recently was preparing an unusual article for The Interpreter that looks at Joseph Smith's cosmology in light of some truly eye-opening views on the cosmos found in recent Chinese science fiction. Along the way I look at some common charges that what Joseph Smith gave us isn't all that novel after all and just a cheap regurgitation of ideas already abounding in his day. The article, which I hope you'll read and share, is "Joseph Smith’s Universe vs. Some Wonders of Chinese Science Fiction," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 29 (2018): 105-152. It was a bit risky for The Interpreter to publish this unusual piece, but I hope it won't tarnish them too much.

In looking at how others in Joseph's day reacted to the increasing awareness that there are many stars in the galaxy, and then considering how modern theology deals with the overwhelming magnitude of the Creation that we can now witness through the Hubble telescope and other means, I continued to be struck with the significance of the question, "Why bother?" If God is wholly other, totally immaterial, utterly incomprehensible, totally fulfilled independently of us troublesome humans, why bother with the Creation? So that we can admire His works, some say. But why does He need anyone to admire Him? Why go to such length to create such an astounding cosmos? I find much more compelling guidance in the universe of Joseph Smith, where God declares what His motivation and agenda is: "This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man," the statement made not of a wholly other entity, but of a heavenly Parent yearning for the welfare of His children, His sons and daughters.

What Joseph gave us is much more meaningful that we may have realized.

Postscript: An Unnecessary Distraction from "Electric Universe" Supporters

Talking about science fiction, cosmology, and religion in the same breath is a risky endeavor because it sometimes brings out some pretty wild statements about science from some quarters. Some people have gotten caught up in some strange theories that sound "educated" and "better than Einstein" but really lack a plausible foundation. Already in my Inbox is a dogmatic comment from someone declaring that talk about the Big Bang, etc., is all ridiculous compared to the real science of the "Electric Universe," the theory that plasma and electricity, not gravity, dominate the interactions between the bodies of the universe.

The Electric Universe (EU) theory holds, for example, that the sun is not driven by fusion at its core, but is a plasma ball whose electromagnetic forces are the key to its behavior and its interactions with the solar system. But that aspect of the theory utterly fails and should take about two minutes to debunk. The fusion model predicts a significant flux of neutrinos coming from the core of the sun. The EU model does not. The fusion model predicts that the photons from the sun should show a smooth spectrum typical of thermal radiation, while the EU model, with the sun more like a big fluorescent light, should have a much different spectrum with numerous share lines, not s smooth curve. Both issues provide strong empirical support for the fusion model and contradict the EU model. See "Testing the Electric Universe" by Brian Koberlein, February 25, 2014. Further details on the neutrino issue are discussed by Brian Koberlein in "Neutrino Rain," October 6, 2014.

'The EU model disputes relativity and many other aspects of science for which there is growing and detailed empirical support. Good theories make specific predictions that can then be verified. Bad theories fail over and over, and require special patching to try to add on something to explain the contradictory data. Revision of many details of theories is common and does not of itself rule out the merit of a general theory that was incomplete, but when the theory fails to make any meaningful predictions that can later be verified, and when every test becomes a question mark or direct refutation, there's a problem.

Further resources on this unnecessary distraction (a distraction because this post is about the article at The Interpreter, not about radical alternatives to mainstream science):
But to get a feel for how debates tend to go when the EU theory is being advocated, spend some time reading the comments for "Testing the Electric Universe" by Brian Koberlein, where Dr. Koberlein shows incredible patience in dealing with basic issues over and over. He also raises many other important issues along the way, including the important observation that making a little ball of cool plasma in a laboratory that looks like the sun and shows some interesting hot spots or other sunlike things does mean that it has any plausible connection to the complex phenomena that the massive sun actually has. Yes, plasma can be bright and hot and do some cool things, but the laboratory experiments I've read about don't come close to providing a plausible model for the sun--the mathematical and physical rigor needed is not there. Making something tiny look like something big doesn't mean the tiny lab model in a highly contrived setting tells us anything meaningful about a vastly bigger and much different system.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Touched by the Worldwide Youth Devotional with President Nelson and His Wife

Although it's been several years since I qualified as a youth in the Church, I was still delighted to listen to and read the recent Worldwide Youth Devotional featuring President Russel M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, two of the most youthful old people around. The energy and vitality of that ninety-something President of the Church is remarkable.

In encouraging our young people to become more involved in the greatest work on earth, President Nelson offered 5 suggestions for things they could do now to become and achieve something more. I was quite intrigued by his first recommendation: a seven-day fast from social media. Here I am, struggling with guilt over not doing more with social media, while others suffer from the opposite problem and are entangled in a pseudo world where social media dominates too much of their life. His challenge to the youth on this issue began with a story that reflects not only wisdom from the parents of a young man, but a healthy willingness to learn displayed by the initially furious young man himself. I love what he learned in the experiment President Nelson describes:
And now I invite you to prepare yourself by doing five more things—five things that will change you and help you change the world.

First, disengage from a constant reliance on social media, in order to decrease its worldly influence upon you.

Let me tell you about one young man your age, the grandson of a dear friend of mine. He is popular with his friends and a leader in his high school. Recently, his parents found things on his phone that were inappropriate for a follower of Jesus Christ. They insisted that he go off social media for a time. They exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone, and he panicked. How would he stay connected with his friends?

Initially he was furious with his parents, but after just a few days, he thanked them for taking his smartphone away. He said, “I feel free for the first time in a long time.” Now he calls his friends on his flip phone to connect with them. He actually talks with them instead of always texting!

What other changes have occurred in this young man’s life? He says he now loves being free from the fake life that social media creates. He is actively engaged in life instead of having his head in his phone all the time. He participates in outdoor recreational activities instead of playing video games. He is more positive and helpful in his home. He seeks opportunities to serve. He listens better in church, has a brighter countenance, is so much happier, and is actively preparing for his mission! All this because he took a break from the negative influence of social media.
President Nelson then called for a seven-day fast and reminded us of further problems from excessive reliance on social media:
So, my first invitation to you today is to disengage from a constant reliance on social media by holding a seven-day fast from social media. I acknowledge that there are positives about social media. But if you are paying more attention to feeds from social media than you are to the whisperings of the Spirit, then you are putting yourself at spiritual risk—as well as the risk of experiencing intense loneliness and depression. You and I both know youth who have been influenced through social media to do and say things that they never would do or say in person. Bullying is one example.

Another downside of social media is that it creates a false reality. Everyone posts their most fun, adventurous, and exciting pictures, which create the erroneous impression that everyone except you is leading a fun, adventurous, and exciting life. Much of what appears in your various social media feeds is distorted, if not fake. So give yourself a seven-day break from fake!

Choose seven consecutive days and go for it! See if you notice any difference in how you feel and what you think, and even how you think, during those seven days. After seven days, notice if there are some things you want to stop doing and some things you now want to start doing.

This social media fast can be just between you and the Lord. It will be your sign to Him that you are willing to step away from the world in order to enlist in His youth battalion.
I've been amazed at how social media leads people to become digital savages. The sudden formation of virtual mobs to mock and slander others is a painful phenomenon to observe or to experience. The ease at which insults are hurled and judgements made on the moral values or human worth of others is disheartening. The impersonal nature of writing short quips and the ability to hide behind a screen when insulting distant targets brings out the brute and the coward in many people.  Breaking away from that environment will be a healthy step for many. Ditto for dropping the savagery and mindless waste of time that typifies many online games. I am astounded at how often I learn of parents troubled over their promising child who insists on spending every spare moment shooting people or smashing things up via video games.

President Nelson's call is to make something more of our lives and to use our time for things that really matter. Bravo!

Overall, I was impressed and touched by the messages shared by both President Nelson and his wife, Wendy. We are so fortunate to have such people in our midst. Now I need to just find some more time to get out there and (politely) Tweet about this!