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

Friday, May 22, 2015

"I Have Said, 'Ye Are Gods'" -- The Latest Scholarship on the Controversial 82nd Psalm

Latter-day Saints often need to discuss or defend LDS teachings about the potential of sons and daughters of God to become more like him (our version of theosis, which we feel is on solid ancient ground with strong ties to early Christianity). A commonly used passage in such discussions, a proof text, is Psalm 82:6, "I have said, 'Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.'" Christ quotes this in John 10:340-36, a passage we commonly use as well:
34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
These are interesting passages indeed, but the source, Psalm 82, raises some questions since the context doesn't fit neatly into the LDS position. Who are these people being called "gods" and why are they being condemned? Doesn't sound like such a great thing for actual exalted beings, right?

The gritty details of Psalm 82 and its relationship to the words of Christ in John 10 are explored in detail by Daniel O. McClellan in "Psalm 82 in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Tradition" at Mormon Interpreter. This is the most thorough and satisfying discussion I've seen, yet it will leave some of us unsatisfied since it becomes clear that there is not a neat resolution in the "non-harmonizing perspective" provided by McClellan. But understanding Psalm 82, both what it might have meant to its author and the different way it may have been understood and applied in New Testament times will help all of us better understand how these verses relate to LDS theology.

Here are McClelland's concluding remarks:
So this brings us to the final question. If we understand John’s description to be a verbatim account, is Jesus misusing scripture by reinterpreting Psalm 82? I suggest he is not. I believe Jesus is doing what all scripture-based religious communities do, namely reading scripture in a way that makes it applicable to their time. He likens the scriptures to his own day, to paraphrase 1 Nephi 19:23. In John 10, the reference to Psalm 82 refers to foundational narratives in the Jewish community’s shared identity, namely the Exodus and Sinai traditions. Peterson and Bokovoy do the same thing in proposing that Psalm 82 can be ideologically linked with Abraham 3’s council in heaven. This is a Latter-day Saint foundational narrative. When we can tie texts like these to our own communal narrative, we strengthen our community’s identification with sacral past and utilize that past to inform our present experience. This makes the scriptures a dynamic tool, not just a frozen text.
On a literary level, Jesus’s defense here has a wider rhetorical purpose, as well. Not only does he identify himself as one of the Jews by appealing to a shared understanding of the Psalm’s meaning, but by appealing to that tradition, whereby those who received the word were made divine, the author reminds the reader/listener of a promise made a few verses earlier (John 10:28): “I give to them eternal life, and they shall never [Page 96]perish.” John 1:12 is no doubt also in view here: “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” John’s message is this: The Israelites were briefly made immortal and thus divine by the reception of God’s Word. The Word is now incarnate among you, and he is inviting you to receive him. John 10:34–36 and Jesus’s appeal to Psalm 82 is not just about Jesus’s divinity, it is also about the divinity of those who hear and believe.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Increasingly Strange Text of the Book of Mormon

Stanford Carmack's series of four articles at the Mormon Interpreter provide a large body of detailed data pointing to something strange, increasingly strange, in the Book of Mormon: the grammatical patterns of the original Book of Mormon firmly rooted in Early Modern English (EmodE), giving it a grammatical signature earlier than the KJV Bible. Explaining the Book of Mormon as a crude imitation of the KJV is now more problematic. But understanding the Book of Mormon is much more interesting now. It may still take much more analysis and study to come up with theories that stick for the origins of the Book of Mormon language. Why EModE? How was it provided? Was there a pre-translation?

In Carmack's latest article, "Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)," he adds to the data by exploring several additional patterns, the most interesting of which I felt is his examination of "it supposeth me," a rare inverted syntax pattern that occurs four times in the Book of Mormon, each consistent with language much earlier than the KJV in ways that make it highly unlikely for Joseph to have picked this up on his own. Interesting.
Could Joseph Smith have known about this inverted syntax? I suppose he could have seen it, had he spent time reading Middle English poetry. Was it accessible to him? No. This grammatical structure is exceedingly rare, the embodiment of obsolete usage. Had he ever seen it, he hardly would have recognized it and been able to transform it.... Yet the text employs inverted syntax with suppose appropriately and consistently four times. 
Along the way, Carmack points out just how complex and interesting the Book of Mormon text is:
Let me also say at this point that it is wrongheaded to propose Moroni as translator in order to account for “errors” in the text. He may have been involved in the divine translation effort, but to employ him as an explanatory device in order to account for putative errors is misguided. The English-language text is too complex, diverse, and even well-formed to ascribe it to a non-native translation effort. Again, as I have stated in an earlier paper, the BofM is not full of grammatical errors. Rather, it is full of EModE — some of it is typical and pedestrian, some of it is elegant and sophisticated, and some of it is, to our limited or uninformed way of thinking, objectionable and ungrammatical. The BofM also contains touches of modern English and late Middle English. It is not a monolithic text, and we are just beginning to learn about its English language.... I have certainly come to realize that it is not the text of the BofM that is full of errors, but rather our judgments in relation to its grammar.
For those wanting certainty, that's disturbing language. But this smells like an adventure that will lead somewhere. Critics and fans alike should find this challenge worth digging into. Will new insights about Book of Mormon cause it to go down in flames? Critics may hope so. Carmack already offers a strongly worded thesis, feeling that whatever the details are that led to EModE in the Book of Mormon, the complex pre-KJV content of the Book of Mormon implies that the Lord "revealed a concrete form of expression (words) to Joseph Smith" and that the text itself is of divine origin.

I think the devil is not in these details, but something is, and further work is needed.
In the middle of his latest paper, after summarizing some of the many interesting findings so far, Carmack makes an even stronger series of assertions/conclusions that I'm not quite comfortable with, though I think I understand his excitement:
  • The BofM is full of King James English whose meaning obligatorily derives from the 1500s (since much kjb language derives from 16th-century translations, especially Tyndale’s).
  • The BofM has quite a few instances of older, nonbiblical meaning, including:
    counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult,’ used in Alma 37:37; 39:10; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1547.
    depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.
    scatter = ‘separate from the main body (without dispersal),’ as used in the BofM’s title page; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1661.
    choice = ‘sound judgment’ or ‘discernment,’ used as an abstract noun in 1 Nephi 7:15.
  • Past-tense syntax with did matches only mid to late 1500s usage.
  • Complementation with the verbs command, cause, suffer matches only the late 1400s and the 1500s.
  • Syntax like Nephi’s brethren rebelleth (in the prefaces to 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi) corresponds to 1500s usage; it is not in the kjb and was obsolete in the 1800s.
In view of the foregoing observations and evidence, I assert the following:
  • There is undeniably substantial evidence in the BofM of EModE meaning and syntax that was inaccessible to Smith and scribe.
  • Smith could not have known the obsolete meaning of some of these words except from context because semantic shifts are unpredictable and unknowable to anyone in the absence of specific philological study.
  • The pervasive EModE syntax as well as the existence of obsolete, inaccessible (nonbiblical) meaning in the text mean that Smith must have received specific words from the Lord throughout the translation.
  • Therefore, the wording of the BofM did not come from Smith’s mind; he dictated specific words that were given to him.
  • God was in charge of the translation of the English-language text of the BofM; no mortal translated it.
  • Smith translated the BofM in the sense of being the person on earth integrally involved in conveying Christ’s words from the divine realm to our earthly sphere; Smith was not the translator in the conventional sense of the term.
My discomfort lies in extrapolating the data to determine what did or did not happen in Joseph's mind. Yes, if  EModE points to tight control, then specific words or grammatical patterns would seem to have been provided somehow. But as Carmack has noted, the text of the Book of Mormon is not monolithic, and the way Joseph responded to whatever was provided to him may not have been monolithic for every sentence, verse, and chapter. I believe God was in charge of the whole project, but being in charge did not stop Him from allowing Oliver to hear and write words incorrectly, nor did it stop the printer from introducing errors, nor did it stop Joseph from making corrections and changes, including many fixes of obviously bad grammar (to our ears) that we have just learned was typically good grammar from a much earlier era. If the hands and minds of men could play a role in all those stages, was Joseph left out at the earliest phase when he dictated text to his scribes? Is it not possible that a base translation was available in some way, but it could still be modified at times as it went through Joseph's mind and lips? Was there still some flexibility at play in how Joseph conveyed whatever came to his mind or eyes? I don't know, but think it is possible, and perhaps even needed to deal with instances of apparent loose control in the text (all of which may need to be reconsidered as we move forward with the data from Carmack, Skousen, and hopefully many more contributors in this area).

I don't know what Joseph saw and experienced, but am deeply intrigued by this new mystery of sound Early Modern English infused into the text. To me, it does seem to defy the theories offered so far by those who see Joseph as the author of what is merely a modern text dressed up in KJV language with some embarrassing hick grammar that had to be cleansed. It does seem to support the possibility of divine origins. But I think we need to be cautious of inferring too much.  The implications of EModE content need to be explored patiently and tentatively to see where they lead as the details are more fully fleshed out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Blame Mom: A Late Mother's Day Gift from CNN, Peggy Drexler, and UC San Diego

Like most universities, the University of California, San Diego strives to assure parents that their university is a safe place for the children that parents will be sending there. These parents trust the University with the physical and mental well-being of their children. To assure parents, the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Resource Center at UCSD has a web page entitled "UCSD Parents and Families--Frequently Asked Questions" that has this wise statement:

"Sometimes victims and survivors feel responsible, or are made to feel responsible, for what happened to them. Know that experiences of sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking are not your student’s fault."

I totally agree. But maybe that statement needs a slight tweak, courtesy of CNN: "But it may be the parents' fault, especially if they complain about dirty old men on our faculty who pressure their children to get naked for final exams."

Just hours after Mother's Day, CNN responded to the shocking events at UCSD (50-something male professor requires his entire class to get naked in front of him to take their final exam) by providing an incredible response from Peggy Drexler insisting that that the real problem in this story was the mother who complained about the situation, not the man behind it. (See, but don't look too closely due to the appalling photos from CNN's lewd related stories, the story "Helicopter mom wrong on naked exam," May 13, 2015.) The mom who felt that her daughter had been victimized and dared to challenge this unsafe university is the one we need to blame. She's just a "helicopter mom" who refuses to let her little girl be an adult. This, from the radical professor of gender studies who tells us in her book Raising Boys Without Men that boys raised without fathers but lesbian mothers are actually even better off than when raised in a more traditional family with a father (see the review by Albert Mohler). The hostility of Drexler and CNN toward a mother in this case really surprised me, but given the warped politics and moral debauchery of academia these days, nothing should surprise me anymore.

When the adults in charge have lost all common sense, when the "normal" heavy drinking and sexual promiscuity of co-ed dorms is base enough for a university, when anybody in an authority position can require all the students in a class to get naked in front of members of the opposite sex, there is a need for parents to speak out, even when the class is optional. The fact that the nudity requirement was announced long before the final exam does not make it acceptable, in my opinion, but I recognize that is just my opinion. My point is that when something that may be highly questionable is going on, to expect the students to be only ones with the right to object is unreasonable. Parents ought to be able to do more than fork over cash.

Hurray for parents who are to stand up to authority figures that put their children in harm's way, even when they are 18 or older. Sometimes young people, even after age 18, need parental help, and not just financial help. 

I've raised four boys. I know how hard it is for them to be different and to challenge local school authorities when things are absurd or out of control. We've had long discussions about some of the problems they've seen and in a case or two, felt a need, with their support, to step in and speak out to school authorities. Nothing that drew media attention, thank goodness, or CNN would surely have let the world know that the problem was the parents. Yes, that was high school, not college, but parents ought to still care and be ready to protect when there is an abusive situation and pressure on the child.

Many parents will pay large amounts of money to the university to fund the education of their children. Many will continue to be responsible for their children long after graduation when they find that their major does not seem to have any value with the people who need capable employees. Parents should be able to speak out against abuse and sexual exploitation without being blamed as if they were the problem, not the perpetrator.

The parents' page at UCSD also states:
Sexual assaults most commonly take place between acquaintances in familiar surroundings. SARC educates students on this issue using various campaigns and workshops. SARC also provides comprehensive services to victims, including individual and group counseling, support groups, on campus advocacy and accompaniment to police interviews, medical evidentiary exams and court dates. SARC is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year. 
Just wondering of SARC has looked into this case. What is being done with the photographs from the final exam? Maybe this is a non-issue, but has anyone asked? Were there hidden cameras? Open cameras? Anything done to prevent photographs from being taken and shared? Any counseling offered to the students? Any recognition of the abusive situation this created? Any actual adults there at the University who don't live in a fantasy land where anything is OK (except parental objections)?

Children, young adults, and even older adults need moms. Moms who do more than just pay for their miseducation. We need moms and dads, in fact, though it doesn't always work out that way. We need to support parents in their parental roles as protectors, not just check writers, and not blame the mom when a seriously misguided professor at a university instructs a daughter or a son to undress in front of the opposite sex for a final exam or for any other purpose.

Universities are not especially safe places these days. Some seem to condone binge drinking. Most seem to condone and promote promiscuity. Abuse of many kinds is far too common. A friend of mine, while on the faculty at a philosophy department at a major US university, told me it was common knowledge in the department that one professor had required some of the females in a class to sleep with him to get a good grade. That's not safe. I'm not aware that any of the victims had the courage to share the problem with mom and have mom step in, but they would have been better off to resist that pressure and not go along. One good "helicopter mom" could have helped. Might have been blamed, censured, and ridiculed, but she would have helped.

Hurray for moms and dad who dare to challenge the insanity of universities. My condolences to the students at UCSD. Stay close to your parents. You may need more than just their moral support based on the quality of education you seem to be getting.

Note: The class in question was optional, and the requirement for nudity in the final exam could, according to the professor, be fulfilled in other ways without necessarily taking one's clothes off, though the desired and intended outcome is obviously full physical nudity, and that's what all the students did in this year's class and apparently that's what nearly everybody does, though I read one one report of someone in the past keeping their clothes on. The optional aspects, like optional attendance at the university itself, does not lessen the questionable nature of the requirement for nudity in a final exam at a university, especially one running on tax dollars, nor does it lessen my discomfort with blaming the mother instead of recognizing the obvious problem of student nudity in front of a professor.

Yes, I admit that I have strong biases and may be overly harsh in viewing that activity as unwise and lewd. But I think parents should be able to speak out about the environment their kids are in without being treated like they are the problem.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Human Side of Trees

Diane Wirth has an interesting article at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (BMAF.org), "Cutting Down a Tree: a Metaphor for Death in Scripture and Mesoamerica." It draws some connections between the symbolism of trees in Mesoamerica with those of the Old World, especially the Near East. This is a meaningful topic in the Book of Mormon also, where we have, for example, the profound imagery of the olive tree/vineyard in Jacob 5, the imagery of the tree of life in Lehi's vision and elsewhere, and other instances of tree-related symbolism.

After reading Diane's article, I suggest reading further about the ancient concept of the Axis Mundi or Cosmic Tree. Wikipedia could be a place to start. (You may also see many concepts that link the LDS temple firmly to its ancient roots.)

One of Diane Wirth's points is that in the Old World and in Mesoamerica, there was a tendency to invoke trees as symbols of humans and divine beings. This reminds me of something right here in Shanghai.

 In the midst of the tallest buildings in Shanghai, near the center of the town, lies an unexpectedly serene and generally overlooked park with one of Shanghai’s most intriguing mysteries. Lujiazui Park is a beautiful but small park, offset against the towers on all sides. But within its borders lies the mystery of two unusual figures, rising and hovering over the city, sculpted by an artist who I understand to be a Christian. These angels begin as trees rising from the earth, and then transform into feminine angels watching over and nurturing the inhabitants below.

Angels? Sculpted by a Christian, in a public park in a Communist nation founded firmly on atheism?

Angels are not only a symbol from Christianity or Judaism. They play a role in numerous cultures and beliefs, and even for a formally atheistic society, I believe the Party leaders here recognized that angels of this kind can be widely appreciated symbol of protection and favor of China, be it heavenly favor, cosmic, spiritual, or whatever. Yes, there can be a touch of mysticism and cosmic imagination here without subverting official policies. And for those of us who wish to see further dimensions to the art, I welcome the concept of heavenly favor of China. May real angels watch over this grand nation and its peoples!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day and Grace, Mormon Style

As I reflected upon Mothers Day and my relationship with my mother, I saw a potential opportunity to clarify a common misunderstanding about the LDS perspectives on grace and obedience. Some people have heard that Mormons try to earn their way into heaven and seek to keep God's commandments to score points for blessings, unlike them, the "real Christians," who obey God as an expression of love and gratitude for grace already given.

Over the years, my mother has given me a lot of commandments. Some were very basic, like "brush your teeth," "do your homework,"  and "don't throw lemons at your brother when he's standing in front of my china cabinet!" (Sorry, Mom! Had no idea he would duck. I am amazed at how quickly you forgave me after that fiasco.)

Other commandments were more difficult or annoying. "No R-rated movies? But 'Rollerball Murder' just has a little violence, and a lot of my LDS friends are going!" (I'm grateful that I obeyed on that count, though. Thanks, mom.) One of the most important commandments or recommendations, though, was very easy: "You really should marry Kendra." Wisest commandment ever.

Sometimes my obedience was driven by fear of punishment or desire for reward. That was in my early years. But as I grew in maturity and in respect and love for my mother, my loyalty and obedience was no longer driven by considerations of risk or gain, but of love and respect. I listen to her and respect what she says and make sacrifices for her not because I want something for me, but because I love her. She's my mother. She's given me life and so many blessings that have made my life wonderful. I can't repay her, but I can listen, talk, obey, and look forward to being with her in the eternities.

God gives us commandments. He teaches us with warnings and rewards. But as we learn to love and follow Him, our repentance and our service becomes natural, motivated by aligning our interests and desires with His will, driven by a desire to be a good son or daughter of God, whom we love and choose to serve. We are grateful for His commandments. Some challenge us, some are easy, but we strive to grow closer to Him by serving, loving, and obeying. Not because we are in some kind of master/slave relationship, but a relationship of a child to a loving parent who has given us everything, whom we can never repay, but whom we can increasingly love and serve.

Mother's Day can teach us a little about grace.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grace and the Temple: Insights from a Jewish Scholar

Some of our fellow Christians misunderstand LDS teachings regarding grace, feeling that our choice to obey God and respect His commandments somehow means we think we earn our salvation and thereby deny the mercy and grace of Christ. That confusion sometimes becomes frenetic when our critics discuss the Temple, which to them epitomizes Mormon emphasis on works and self-righteousness rather than relying on the merits of Christ. The concept of having to keep specific commandments in order to have a Church leader give you a temple recommend can be especially foreign and irritating, and is easily misunderstood. To our critics, it is a sign that Mormons have abandoned grace and emphasize mortal works instead of the Atonement of Christ.

In reality, the temple is a place of turning our hearts to Christ, using teachings, symbols, and covenants to help us focus our lives more fully on Him and recognize the power of His sacrifice and mercy to transform, bless, and save us. It is, however, a foreign place to us modern people, for it is rooted in ancient Middle Eastern concepts that are a far cry from the mundane world we live in. Recognizing its ancient roots, though, helps us to better appreciate its imagery and meaning. (See my LDSFAQ page on the LDS Temple and Masonry.)

On the issue of grace and obedience in a temple context, the teachings of early Christianity help shed light on modern LDS concepts, as I argue, for example, on my LDSFAQ pages on covenants and on grace and works. But useful insights can be found even earlier that that, going back to the ancient Jewish temple itself. The connection between God's grace and our obedience in the context of temple worship was noted by Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson in his book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985).

Early in his book, Levenson discusses the six ancient steps of the covenant formulary, the archetypal pattern of covenant making that scholars only recently recognized in ancient Middle Eastern documents, and which is also found in the LDS temple and in King Benjamin's covenant-focused speech at the Nephite temple. In discussing how the covenant between God and man was repeatedly renewed, and how God's requirements for keeping his commandments were recalled, Levenson reminds us that the basis for the required obedience is God's past grace, and His desire to transform us into more holy beings:
His past grace grounds his present demand. To respond wholeheartedly to that demand, to accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, is to make a radical change, a change at the roots of one’s being. To undertake to live according to Halakhah is not a question of merely raising one’s moral aspirations or of affirming “Jewish values,” whatever that means. To recite the Shma and mean it is to enter a supramundane sovereignty, to become a citizen of the kingdom of God, not simply in the messianic future to which that term also refers (e.g., Dan 2:44), but also in the historical present. (Levenson, p. 85--page numbers are for the 1985 printing.)
Later, Levenson discusses Jeremiah 7:1-5, Jeremiah's speech at the temple where Jeremiah challenges the Jewish reliance on the temple as a place that will protect them. The potential grace available from that Holy House will not be afforded if the people do not accept the moral code that goes with it and rely on the temple as a place instead of a sacred tool to build their relationship with deity. Jeremiah opposes the disconnect between our morality and the grace God affords.

As you read this next passages from Levenson, consider it in the context of the misleading grace versus works argument so often levied against LDS religion. I suggest that Jeremiah's critique of those who claimed "we are safe" because of the temple is not unrelated to some of our critics who say "we are saved" because of their belief in the Bible while claiming that Christ's call therein to "keep the commandments" somehow cannot mean what it says, and that those who teach that doctrine actually deny God's grace.
What Jeremiah does oppose is the idea that the divine goodness so evident in the Temple is independent of the moral record of those who worship there, in other words, the effort to disengage God’s beneficence from man’s ethical deeds and to rely, as a consequence, on grace alone. To the complacent cry of his audience that “We are safe” (v 10), the prophet responds by noting that the Temple is not “a den of robbers” (v 11). The grace of God does not mean exemption from the demands of covenant law, from ultimate ethical accountability. Grace and law belong together. In separation, they become parodies of themselves. For Jeremiah, this means that one cannot ascend into the pure existence of the Temple with his impurities intact. He cannot drag his filth into paradise and expect to benefit from paradisical existence. Mount Zion is morally positive. It does not accept the moral debits of those who seek only protection there. Rather, the protection follows naturally from the relationship with God which is appropriate in that place. Such a relationship excludes the practice of the sins prohibited in the Decalogue (v 9). (Levenson, p. 168; emphasis mine)
Brilliantly stated! The temple is about the relationship between God and man. It is a cosmic mountain intended to pull us higher, but we must seek to climb toward the ideals that are before us. We must seek to shed, or rather, allow Him to rip away, the impurities that weigh us down and hold us back from God's presence. We cannot cling to Him while clinging to our dross. It is in a covenant relationship with Him in His holy temple where we can most fully receive of His grace. As Levenson puts it, "Grace and law belong together." Levenson continues:
For them [Jeremiah's audience], the delicate, highly poetic image of the cosmic mountain has become a matter of doctrine, and the doctrine can be stated in one prosaic sentence: In the Temple one is safe. The Temple does not thrill them and fill them with awe; the vision of it does not transform them. For them, the appropriate response to sight of the Temple is anything but the radical amazement of a pilgrim. Instead, the Temple in their eyes is simply a place like any other, except that there the long arm of moral reckoning will not reach. Hence, they approach Zion in the stance of one about to take possession of what he deserves, not in the stance of one humbly accepting a miraculous gift which no one can deserve. Jeremiah’s audience seeks to profit from the Temple without committing themselves to the moral dynamic that animates it. (Levenson, pp. 168-9; emphasis mine)
Ironically, it may be that some of our critics--some, not all!--who speak of the security of grace reach for that gift with the same flawed attitude that Jeremiah condemned in the Jews who misunderstood God's work and failed to grasp why they needed to repent in order to obtain the true blessings available through the temple of their day. The greatest miraculous gifts of the Gospel, gifts that we cannot possibly deserve, are offered with conditions in covenant relationships, not that earn us anything, but allow God to transform us into the people He wants us to be as we strive to follow Him and seek to enter His presence.

As for the notion of standards of worthiness being connected to entry into the temple, the LDS concept may not be as innovative and foreign to the Bible as our critics would like to think. In the paragraphs shortly after the previous quotation, Levenson makes further points about the temple as he discusses Psalm 24:
This psalm [Ps. 24], chanted by Jews today on Sunday mornings, opens with a cosmic perspective. The first stanzas (vv 1-2) reminds us that the earth rests upon the waters of chaos and owes it endurance to the power of the creator who so established it. This image of God’s putting the earth upon a foundation resting over the waters is, once again, a reflection of the idea of the Temple as cosmic capstone, holding back the waters of anti-creation. [Note: I would add that this resonates with the creation story that begins the LDS Endowment and with the LDS concept of the baptismal font in the lowest part of the temple, which may be symbolic of the waters of chaos and death conquered by Christ and His Resurrection.] The term “all that it holds” (v 1; literally, “its fulness”) reminds us of the chant of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision in the Temple:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, The fulness of the whole earth is his glory (Isa 6:3)

In Isaiah 6, the “fulness of the earth” is God’s glory; in Psalm 24, it belongs to God, who is the king of glory. In both instances, the term indicates the cosmic scope of the Temple. Thus, the second stanza of the psalm (vv 3–6) does not change the subject significantly. We have simply moved from a description of the cosmic rooting of the universe to the question of who shall be admitted to the mountain shrine which still incarnates that original creative energy. In this and in the last stanza (vv 7–10), there seems to be an antiphonal structure. One group of worshippers asks the questions, and another answers. It is not readily evident how the roles were divided, who said what, but one can imagine that vv 3, 8a, and 10a were recited by worshippers seeking admission to the Temple complex and that vv 4–6, 8b–9, and 10b–c are the answers of the priests who guarded the gates. Alternatively, it may be that the priests asked the questions by way of examining the congregation to determine whether they indeed met the qualifications for entry, and that the answers were supplied by the congregation to demonstrate their mastery of the requirements. In either case, the issue in the second stanza (vv 3–6) is, what are the ethical characteristics of life within the Temple precincts? What must one be like to reach the top of the sacred mountain? The last stanza (vv 7–10) makes it clear that the presence of God enters the Temple only after the ethical prerequisites of vv 3–6 have been met. It may be that these verses accompanied a procession of some sort, with the Ark, perhaps, symbolizing YHWH. At all events, it must not be missed that the second and third stanzas are parallel. Each records an entrance to the Temple complex, one by visiting worshippers and one by YHWH the king. In light of the first stanza, it is clear that YHWH might have chosen to dwell anywhere. The world is his. His presence in the Temple, as I have argued, does not imply his absence elsewhere. Rather, he intensifies his presence and renders it most dramatic at the cosmic center. It is there that his power and his sovereignty are most vivid, for it is there that we see the palace he founded upon the tamed body of his primal challenger, the seas. Similarly, according to the second stanza (vv 3–6), those who enter there must represent the apex of ethical purity. They must be people of “clean hands and a pure heart” (v 4). In no way could the cultic and the ethical be more tightly bound together. They are two sides of the same experience. The cult celebrates the glorious victory of God the king, through which he established order in the universe. The ethical tradition, as it appears in Psalm 24, celebrates the order and lawfulness of man, through which he qualifies for entry into the presence of God in the palace he has won. It is significant that in Hebrew the same term (sedeq) can indicate either victory or righteousness/justice. The Temple represents the victory of God and the ethical ascent of man. (Levenson, pp. 170-172; emphasis mine)
The victory of God and the ethical ascent of man are linked, reminding us of what the Gospel is all about. "For this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). God's victory, Christ's victory, is about enabling our righteousness and eternal life through the power of the Atonement, enabled by the transformational covenant relationship offered therein.

When Christ was asked what we must do to obtain eternal life, His answer was unmistakably clear in Matthew 19:16-21: "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." Christ followed that with a request, carefully tailored for the needs of the rich young man He spoke to with love, to go and sell all that he had in order to follow Christ. To sell all for the Kingdom of God was not an impossible request intended to sarcastically mock the notion of keeping the commandments, but was what many early Christians actually did, and what this rich young man needed to do. It's also what modern Christians in the temple covenant to do, potentially, in consecrating themselves and all that they have to the building of God's kingdom. In this way, the wealthy can let go of that dross which weighs them down and hinders their climb on the temple mount, a climb in which God reaches down to us in grace and pulls us into his presence in a sacred grip of grace, if only we will let Him.

Related resources:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Captivity: Or, Keep Your Knees Bent

The day my previous post appeared on deliverance and captivity, I experienced a little captivity and, fortunately, deliverance during an elevator ride in Shanghai. The basic story is that I and several others were trapped in an elevator and could not rescue ourselves. The way out involved making a call to plead for deliverance, and then we were kindly delivered and carefully brought up to safety. It's a nice little analogy to the way we are trapped here in mortality through death and sin, but if we turn to God with faith and patience, we can be delivered and brought back to Him.

Actually, the story is more complex than that and has further lessons about deliverance, about helping fellow travelers in mortality, and dealing with those who don't seem to recognize the problems they create for others. It's also about how a respected institution can lose the trust of its customers by not recognizing the problems they face, which is a lesson to all of us in any organization, the Church included, in listening and staying in touch with those we are responsible for.

First, though, my apologies to Otis, a respected company that is working to make sure our little problem doesn't happen again. Mechanical problems can happen with any machine, and that's what an elevator is. Likewise, misunderstanding about customers and their experiences can happen in any organization. My little misadventure could have happened with any manufacturer. The inconvenience was minor, but I hope some of the lessons from it will be useful to others.

Those stranded with me in a Shanghai elevator were mostly speakers at a United Nations-sponsored conference on intellectual property. They included the Consul General for Bulgaria, the European Union's IP Attaché serving in Beijing, a prominent European patent lawyer, and some Chinese business leaders and IP workers. This little adventure for 10 passengers was supposed to be a brief "three-story cruise" on our way from the lowest level to a five-star luncheon above, but shortly after our Otis elevator began its ascent, the elevator slipped downward a few inches, stopped, and then continued upward, only to slip again and then again. After the third slip, the elevator stopped completely just a few feet short of the second floor.

Being trapped in an elevator with cool people is actually not as fun as it looks.

Lots of joking, but I think we were all a bit nervous after the elevator
slipped several times on the way up before getting stuck.

We were in one of Shanghai's premiere locations, the World Expo Center in Pudong, where one would expect the highest quality in construction and maintenance. We were in an Otis elevator, probably the world's most trusted and famous elevator brand. But we were also in China, a land of many surprises, and a land where tragic elevator accidents are not unknown. A place where maintenance is sometimes an issue, along with shortcuts in construction. I'm not saying any of that applies to this setting, but there have been problems in the past with proper maintenance of elevators in Shanghai and some tragedies as well. Elevator safety is an issue the government here takes very seriously these days, and with good reason.

We rang the alarm button and expected to receive assistance right away. There was no response. We rang it again a few minutes later and it looked like some staff members were observing us (we could look down through some glass to see some staff gathered on the floor below us), so we expected help soon. After a few more minutes, though, there was no sign of real help. We needed help, help from outside. I then noticed that there was a small speaker next to another button and suggested we push that to reach someone. We were able to speak with someone to explain our situation. They told us to wait and I think they said help was on the way.

We chatted and exchanged business cards, but it was getting quite unpleasant inside with no circulation and fairly warm air. I got out a magazine and fanned it over a woman in the back who was having some trouble, and we pressed the alarm again, which now had been disabled so we wouldn't alarm others, I guess. We called again to ask for help and were told to just wait. After a few more minutes we called again and no one was answering now. The alarm was off. The phone was off as far as we could tell. I think we had become too annoying.

Then I noticed there were two phone numbers printed on the Otis nameplate. I called one and got a "number not working" notice. I called the other number and was able to reach the Otis company itself, I think in Beijing, and reported the problem. They told us help was on the way.

One of the last hotels I stayed at, a 2-star place near the Yangtze River in China, had a large helpful sign in its elevator. The sign gave directions on what to do if the elevator should slip and suddenly begin plummeting to earth--even though the place was only 4 stories tall. It said we should brace ourselves with our backs against a wall and bend our knees somewhat, apparently to reduce the risk of breaking legs on impact. I debated whether I should share this helpful information with my fellow sufferers, but in the interest of safety, with as much gentleness and optimism as I could muster, I casually mentioned having seen that sign and suggested we be ready, just in case. Then, suddenly, a cable snapped and we all screamed as we crashed toward the earth and--no, actually, nothing like that happened at all.

A few minutes later came deliverance, but not exactly as expected. I thought we would be slowly lowered back down to safety. Instead, once the technician above had accessed the system to override or overcome whatever was halting out journey, the elevator began going slowly up, up, up to the third floor. Recognizing that something was wrong and that slippage was possible, the higher we went the more nervous I grew, knees slightly bent. But we made it. The door opened and we swiftly walked out.

There was an official Otis technician next to the elevator, with a panel open and some wires plugged into a box or something. We were relieved to be rescued. We were greeted by an apologetic hostess and escorted to the delicious lunch waiting us. But I wanted some information. I asked the Otis technician what had gone wrong. He said, "Too many people."

"Really? Then why didn't an alarm go off as happens normally when the load is too high?"

"You must have been near the limit but not quite over it. Not heavy enough to make the alarm ring." He thought that was a satisfactory explanation. I did not.

Our hostess came to take me over to the speakers luncheon. I followed her and saw the great food and would have liked some, but felt that there was a safety issue still there that I couldn’t just ignore. I went to the host, the kind man who had invited me to speak and attend the luncheon, and excused myself. I needed to go back and follow up. This is one of those character traits I have that sometimes makes me genuinely annoying, in addition to hungry.

I went back to the elevator to talk to the technician. Our hostess followed me. I asked what had been done to prevent this problem from happening again to another group of the same size. He gave me a puzzled look and kind of shrugged his shoulders. Our hostess got it and she very diplomatically rephrased my question to make it clear we weren't accusing him of any kind of shortcoming, but just wanted to make sure the problem was resolved for the welfare of others.

But it didn't appear that anything was being changed or repaired. I explained I felt a duty to report this to Otis, and could I please get his name and phone number so headquarters could communicate with him about our questions. The hostess gave this a nice diplomatic spin, and the man gave me that information. I called Otis, reported the problem in detail, and was told I would get a response soon. There was no time to eat now, but it was OK.

Otis called that night while my wife and I were at delicious banquet for speakers and staff. An English speaker this time talked to me and asked what I wanted. I explained I wanted the problem fixed. I explained why it is a serious problem to be trapped in an elevator for 20 minutes or so. Her response really surprised me: "Well, sir, we can fully understand how even a single minute in an elevator can seem like 20 minutes to a passenger." I was bothered by their apparent failure to understand just how long their elevator had trapped its passengers. Fortunately, another passenger was nearby. I asked him to explain how long we had been trapped. He was clear: 20 minutes, at least. Maybe Otis was only timing the response from the time I called them and the time the technician showed up, I don't know. Then the woman said that their contract requires them to respond in 30 minutes, which they had (congratulations!). I reminded her that we trapped passengers don't really care what your contract says. We don't want to be trapped. So what are you doing to fix the problem? I was assured that they would investigate and get back to me Monday.

Monday I got a call from a fast-speaking Chinese technician. He was talking about technical details that I couldn't follow, so I had a friend chat and translate for me. The technician explained that the load cell had not been properly calibrated to detect an overload condition, but now it had been adjusted and all was well. Hurray, I've done my job.

But now that I look at the light-hearted photos I took in the elevator to commemorate the event, I can see the Otis panel indicates it is rated for 1000 kg and 13 persons. There were 10 or 11 of us (my best estimate) and I think I was the heaviest, well under 100 kg, so the total should have been well under 1000 kg. The problem was a mechanical failure, possibly from underrated equipment that couldn't handle maybe 900 kg when it should have been able to handle over 1000 kg. That's not a load cell calibration problem. The cheap fix, of course, is to adjust the load cell so the alarm will go off when there is a 900 kg load, but the elevator is rated for 1000 kg. Come on, guys, fix your elevator! I hope Otis understands that they have a problem. Organizations need to listen carefully to those whose lives they affect. I think the Church is striving to do this, but all of us at every level in the Church need to do this with those we affect and work with.

So tonight, with the help of a friend, I called Otis again and got into the technical details and insisted that they have a mechanical issue they need to address. Let's see where this goes. Deliverance, I hope, for some future group embarking on a three-story cruise. I hope they are listening.

When people we can help or should help are trapped, may we respond quickly in delivering them, and may we take steps to make the way more safe for those who come after. That's what a lot of our work in the Church is all about, delivering others and making pathways better for those coming after us. First, though, we each need our own personal deliverance through the Atonement of Christ.

If you are facing some form of captivity, it is probably much more serious than my little misadventure, but the principles of turning to an outside source for help and deliverance still applies. One call, one prayer, may not be enough. Be persistent, hang in there, brace yourself, and keep your knees bent.

Update: Otis called again today to report the good news that there was no mechanical problem, just a load cell issue. That's a relief! The Otis person told me that load cell failed to detect that we were way overweight since we had 17 people in there.  Huh? 17? We were around 10 by my count, maybe as many as 12, and looking at the photos, taken from near the right front of the elevator, I really don't see how 17 people could be there. There were a couple at the front and one or two at the side by me that don't show up in the photo, but it doesn't add up to 17 by my count. I asked where they got that number and suggested they go verify the video footage to see how many came in and out of the elevator. They are going to check and get back to me. As is so common in elevator entrapment stories, I remain in suspense.

Hmm, a report of 17--that sounds like the kind of data manipulation that happens occasionally to make inconvenient facts fit the desired narrative. If it can happen to temperatures and inflation data, it can happen to passenger counts, too. Seventeen passengers = load cell problem and easy fix. Ten passengers and elevator failure (in a unit rated for 13 people and 1000 kg) = something more troubling or at least more expensive.

I told this to my wife, shook my head, and said that I must be so annoying. "You enjoy this so much!" was her response. Where do women get these ideas?

Update, May 6, 2015: Got a very polite call from Shanghai's general manager of Otis as he was traveling in the U.S. He apologized for the trouble and explained interesting details. There were 12 people in the elevator, as I saw on the surveillance recording he sent me. Not 17. That was a mistake on their part. He also explained that the system was installed by a US team and does have the right motor, but the problem is that the torque delivered by the motor is based on the signal from the load cell, and that's what was wrong. Interesting. I suggested that once there is slippage because torque is too low, the system ought to automatically increase the torque. But what happened is that the system kept slipping and so, recognizing that something was wrong, it shut down completely. OK.

They are going to use this incident as a case study for ongoing training of their staff to help them understand how to respond better. There are many details that they can learn from, and he was very grateful for the documentation and customer feedback I provided. Looks like I'll even get an invitation to come visit their headquarters. Could be fun--but I wonder if it's on the ground floor.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Deliverance and Captivity

A few weeks after moving to Wisconsin long ago, Canadian geese flew over my home and woke me up in time to get our family up and off to Church on a Sunday morning when I had failed to set my alarm properly. It was our first Stake Conference in Wisconsin. We arrived about 10 minutes early. As I walked in the door, I was greeted and given a program for the meeting. I tossed out a little joke to a nearby Stake leader (I think it was the Stake President) as I took the program: "I always like to check these to see if I'm speaking." As I opened the program, I saw my name printed as one of the speakers. Surprised but not flustered, I checked on the recommended theme with the Stake President.

I was grateful for each of the extra 10 minutes I had to prepare. I was also grateful for the geese! Showing up 10 minutes late, as might have happened without their unusual assistance, could have been unpleasantly embarrassing and may have left me unnecessarily irritated at my some wonderful leaders who somehow forgot to call me about the talk. I felt like the talk turned out O.K. and was grateful for the experience.

I've learned to enjoy giving talks on the fly and don't mind filling in, though I'm usually happier with my talks when I've got a few days to think them over. But sometimes the on-the-fly talks come with some pleasant surprises of their own, as I experienced on a recent Sunday when I reflected upon that distant Wisconsin experience as I scrambled to prepare something.

I was sitting on the stand as a visitor from the District in a local branch's sacrament meeting, when the Branch President asked me to fill in for a speaker. The recommended theme was Easter. As I pondered the role of Christ and the meaning of Easter, I chose to focus on deliverance from captivity. For this theme, I love how the Book of Mormon emphasizes the deliverance that Christ brings, so I picked a couple of passages from that volume.

I also recalled a book I had read about an LDS man who became a prisoner of war in World War II, A Distant Prayer, but couldn't remember the name of the author. I wanted to say something more specific about it, so, recalling that I had mentioned it in a blog post on Mormanity, I had just enough time to access my ExpressVPN service on my cell phone to pull up Mormanity and find the post. Ah, it even had an excerpt. I read it quickly and had it ready to use in my talk, if time permitted.

After introducing the theme of captivity, I discussed the many forms of captivity people can face. Even in the midst of apparent freedom, as we enjoy to a surprisingly high degree in China, there are people in deep captivity. It may be the captivity that comes through an addiction or through the sense of being trapped in an unhealthy and harmful relationship. Financial burdens and debt can create captivity. Sometimes physical challenges and other barriers can make people feel trapped. There are many forces and pressures around us and within us which can threaten our liberty. For all of us, in various degrees of captivity, there is hope through the Atonement of Christ.

I mentioned how deliverance from captivity is a major Book of Mormon theme. I mentioned the Book of Mosiah, which is filled with stories of captivity and deliverance. I pointed out that even the name Mosiah is a perfect name to use for that book because it appears to be the Hebrew word mosiach which can mean deliverer (see John Welch, "What Was a 'Mosiah'?").

But for my favorite Book of Mormon passage on deliverance, I discussed Alma 36. I began with verses 1 and 2 which refer to "remembering the captivity of our fathers" who were in bondage, and none could deliver them except God. Then I jumped to end of the chapter, to verses 28-30, where we read of how God delivered their fathers out of Egypt and bondage, and had delivered them from bondage and captivity from time to time, where we again are told to retain in remembrance the captivity of our fathers, mirroring the admonishment at the beginning. In fact, I pointed out how the whole chapter is arranged in a mirror image, with concepts at the beginning reflected in reverse order at the end, with a complex and poetic structure known in ancient Hebraic poetry, which we call chiasmus, after the Greek letter chi, which is shaped like an X showing a top and bottom sections that are mirror images of each other, reflected about a central point that is often given special emphasis in a Hebraic chiasm. This chapter, this poem, in Alma 36 tells the story of Alma's captivity. Not captivity in prison, but captivity to sin and the pains of hell. As he faced his guilt and recognized the horror of his sin in having fought against God, he fell into three days of anguish where he experienced "the pains of a damned soul." But his description of his pain mirror the description of his joy once he finds deliverance and forgiveness, which occurs at the central pivot point of this chapter. In verses 17 and 18, as he suffers, he recalls having heard of "one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world," and he then turns to Christ, crying in his heart: "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me…" and swiftly finds deliverance, remembering his sins no more and instead of pain, anguish, and terror at the thought of facing God, he finds joy and yearns for His presence. He found deliverance from sin and death through Christ, as can we, no matter how much despair our current captivity brings, no matter how challenging our current situation seems.

At this point, I felt like I needed to add the story of Joseph Banks and his deliverance detailed in A Distant Prayer. I mentioned that this gives his actual story of years of captivity, painful and difficult, but filled with blessings and even miracles to help him survive and cope, and ultimately find freedom. There is much we can learn from his lesson.

At the beginning of his story, he miraculously survives being shot down over Germany. Actually, he wasn't shot down--his plane was accidentally blown up by a fellow B-17 that dropped its bombs on his plane after that other plane took a hit on an engine that slowed it down as it started to release its bombs. Brother Banks was knocked unconscious for a while after the first bomb struck his plane. He describes what happens as he regained consciousness:

[I]t took me a few moments to figure out what was going on. . . . I found myself in a tubular section of the fuselage that was open on both ends, spinning in the air as we fell towards the ground four miles below. . . . I was relieved to feel that my parachute was in place, but I couldn't use it because I was stuck against the wall of the fuselage, held there by the centrifugal force. . . . I couldn't get out. I'd try to get up only to be forced back against the wall. In desperation I looked down and saw one of my crewmates lying next to me. I reached out and touched him, but he didn't move. Apparently the explosion had killed him. I knew that I had to muster every ounce of energy I had or I would go down to my death in that section of the aircraft. I tried several times, but to no avail. I was just too weak to pull free, and so the only thing I could do was pray. I asked the Lord to please help me get out somehow. I said it out loud, the words choking in my throat, but He heard me anyway.
At this point I realized his story was more appropriate for my talk than I had realized. Suddenly I was deeply touched by the image of an airman being pinned by powerful forces in a wrecked plane as it was spinning wildly out of control, plummeting toward the earth. He wanted to move, to escape, to get out and jump for freedom and use his parachute, but he was pinned, unable to move. I realized at that moment that the same can happen in our lives in situations where we feel we are spinning out of control and unable to escape. Sometimes the forces pinning us down are simply too great for us to overcome--one our own. For Joseph Banks and for us, there is still one source of deliverance. He turned to God, as we must. And God heard his prayer for help. He explains what happened next:
Suddenly, as clear and as clam as if she was standing right next to me in the living room of our home, I heard the voice of my wife Afton say, "Joe, look down at your legs and you'll see that there's cable holding them. Pull the cable!" That's all she said. I looked around, but couldn't see anyone. Even though I was stunned, I looked down and sure enough there was a cable lying across my legs. I reached down and pulled it with all my might. At first nothing happened, but then I was suddenly sucked out of the fuselage and started freefalling. I later learned that the cable was attached to two pins that held an escape hatch door. When I pulled them loose, the door separated from the fuselage. Talk about incredible. It probably took a second or two for me to get over the shock of being hit by the wind, but then I realized that I was falling backwards through space.
Yes, his parachute worked, allowing him to land in enemy territory. where angry villagers surrounded him and probably would have killed him if a couple of German guards - also not especially nice - had not taken him away for interrogation. This was just the beginning of his troubles and the beginning of the miracles he would experience before finding deliverance from captivity in Germany.

I love that story, and felt like it added an important dimension to my talk. It was a pleasant surprise for me as I read it and applied it.

Our deliverance from the challenges we face may also take a great deal of patience, but we can find deliverance from sin quickly as we turn fully to Christ.

I closed by sharing my personal conviction and witness that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior, Redeemer. He is the Messiah and the Mosiach, source of deliverance. May we have faith in Him and trust in the power of His Redemption and deliverance.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Why Marriage, Why Family"--A Highlight from the 2015 LDS Conference

For those struggling with questions about the Church's emphasis on marriage, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman, a thoughtful talk from the recent General Conference might be of help. "Why Marriage, Why Family" by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles begins with a spiritual insight from a great man of another Christian faith:
Above the Great West Door of the renowned Westminster Abbey in London, England, stand the statues of 10 Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Included among them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian born in 1906. Bonhoeffer became a vocal critic of the Nazi dictatorship and its treatment of Jews and others. He was imprisoned for his active opposition and finally executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was a prolific writer, and some of his best-known pieces are letters that sympathetic guards helped him smuggle out of prison, later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

One of those letters was to his niece before her wedding. It included these significant insights: “Marriage is more than your love for each other.... In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (1953), 42–43.]
I like that expression: "love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God." Marriage is not just about us. It is about our responsibilities to others and before God. It is "a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind." Elder Christofferson goes on to explain why that it is the case. He reviews the work of God and the Plan of Salvation, in which a critical aspect is our role in raising and nurturing children that other sons and daughters of God might also be able to participate in God's plan for us that includes this brief mortal phase where we receive the miraculous gift of physical bodies accompanied by, in many cases, the ability to bear and raise children.

Christofferson explains the divine responsibilities that comes with such gifts:
A family built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God’s plan to thrive—the setting for the birth of children, who come in purity and innocence from God, and the environment for the learning and preparation they will need for a successful mortal life and eternal life in the world to come. A critical mass of families built on such marriages is vital for societies to survive and flourish. That is why communities and nations generally have encouraged and protected marriage and the family as privileged institutions. It has never been just about the love and happiness of adults.

The social science case for marriage and for families headed by a married man and woman is compelling.19 And so “we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”20 But our claims for the role of marriage and family rest not on social science but on the truth that they are God’s creation. It is He who in the beginning created Adam and Eve in His image, male and female, and joined them as husband and wife to become “one flesh” and to multiply and replenish the earth.21 Each individual carries the divine image, but it is in the matrimonial union of male and female as one that we attain perhaps the most complete meaning of our having been made in the image of God—male and female. Neither we nor any other mortal can alter this divine order of matrimony. It is not a human invention. Such marriage is indeed “from above, from God” and is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the Fall and the Atonement.
I also appreciate Elder Christofferson's recognition of the many exceptions among us who are not experiencing the blessings of being in a happy marriage with the opportunity to raise children:
To declare the fundamental truths relative to marriage and family is not to overlook or diminish the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal is not a present reality. Some of you are denied the blessing of marriage for reasons including a lack of viable prospects, same-sex attraction, physical or mental impairments, or simply a fear of failure that, for the moment at least, overshadows faith. Or you may have married, but that marriage ended, and you are left to manage alone what two together can barely sustain. Some of you who are married cannot bear children despite overwhelming desires and pleading prayers.

Even so, everyone has gifts; everyone has talents; everyone can contribute to the unfolding of the divine plan in each generation. Much that is good, much that is essential—even sometimes all that is necessary for now—can be achieved in less than ideal circumstances. So many of you are doing your very best. And when you who bear the heaviest burdens of mortality stand up in defense of God’s plan to exalt His children, we are all ready to march. With confidence we testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him. No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children.
Marriage is a blessing, but also a great challenge. It can test us and try us as it rarely turns out to be all that we hope. For some, it is a blessing never experienced in this life, testing us through its absence or unavailability. But whatever the burdens we face, if we turn to God and rely on the power of the Atonement, the full blessings of God will become available to us, with all the joy and endless potential that He offers. Here in mortality and afterwards, marriage matters. It is not just for our benefit and enjoyment. It is a divine post with great responsibility. May we cherish it and protect it in a world that is increasingly hostile toward one of the great elements of God's plans and one of the roots of human society and civilization.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Satan's Got Your Metadata

Here in China, privacy is something that is a little different than what Americans might be used to. One notices this when shopping for tailor-made clothes at the most popular fabric markets, where the fitting room is a piece of cloth an employee will hold up for you as you change in a corner of the shop or in the hallway. One notices this in the men's room at the beautiful place where we meet for church in Shanghai, where there is a floor-to-ceiling window just right next to the urinals. Privacy is also an issue in phone calls, emails, and other communications, where we recognize that active surveillance is a possible. In this regard, America and China are becoming much more similar, though many Americans don't seem to be paying attention. There is much America needs to learn from China and much I wish America would emulate, but reducing personal privacy isn't on that wish list of mine.

I've been big on privacy ever since I was a teenager and maybe before. As a teenager, I took great comfort in Doctrine and Covenants 6:16, where we read that "there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and intents of thy heart." Whew, what a relief! No matter what, my personal, silent prayers would be private between me and God. No one could snoop. Satan, our sly Adversary, could not know my thoughts and could be excluded from my prayers. Privacy from that most sinister enemy. Whew!

Sadly, years later, some of that comfort has evaporated. Now, in light of certain modern revelations (from non-LDS sources) I am once again nervous about what the Adversary can know and do. Satan doesn't have to be a mind-reader to totally invade my privacy, because at a minimum, Satan's got my metadata.

Metadata has become a more important term in our vocabulary since Edward Snowden revealed just how much snooping the US government is doing on its own citizens. The US government has defended its invasion, claiming that we still have our privacy because they aren't usually actually listening in on our conversations, just getting "metadata" about who we talk to, when, and for how long. Just data about the conversation, not the actual contents. Metadata. So it's nothing to worry about, right? And when it comes to our thoughts, our wishes, and our secret prayers, that's all Satan has to go on, too. Just metadata.

Turns out that metadata is something that Americans should want to protect if they value personal privacy. Metadatter matters. Joe Mornin at Mornin.org has an essay, "Why Metadata Matters," that explains just how little privacy we have left when a powerful agency (or demonic being, for that matter) has access to our metadata. He also has provided valuable legal analysis on metadata and the Fourth Amendment in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Also look at a related article at Wired. Something to consider.

So Americans, I think it's time to be a little more worried about your personal privacy. Should you be worried that Satan has your metadata? Yes. But why? If you don't believe in the Satan of biblical lore, is there any problem? Yes, there is, but it depends on which Satan you mean. There's the demonic being that may or may not be purely mythical, and then there's S.A.T.A.N., the Security Administration That Answers to Nobody. I don't trust either of them. 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Two Starting Points for Exploring the Unexplained Book of Mormon

For critics, the Book of Mormon is ridiculously easy to explain, as I've learned from my years of interaction with them. Many seem to gravitate toward theories of Joseph as a lazy plagiarist. Too lazy to come up with his own words, he just found scattered phrases in the Bible and some other sources and used them over and over in a clumsy imitation of Biblical language to deal with some popular issues of the day like the origins of the American Indians and the intrigues of Masonry. Then grab a few friends and cajole them into thinking they had magically imagined seeing some gold plates, and bingo, the Book of Mormon and the Church was born.

For those who are willing to recognize the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon text, it can be useful to add a shadowy figure or two to Joseph's frontier conspiracy, maybe Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon and associates, someone who may have had the scholarship to imitate Hebraisms and chiasmus, while developing an intricate story line and imaginary geography with the internal consistency needed for a good work of fiction.

The theories of plagiarism immediately satisfy their proponents, but leave a wealth of details quite unaccounted for. As in science, a good theory may begin with some gaps and puzzles, but over time, these should steadily be resolved and the theory, if sound, should increasingly explain the data and be able to account for future discoveries. The ability to explain and resolve should grow with time. When theories are inadequate, the gaps increase with time.

The trend with Book of Mormon data over time is one that I'd like to call attention to. For those of any faith interested in the details and especially the origins of the Book of Mormon, let me point to recent areas of investigation that have yielded many surprises that need to be explained, somehow, if we are to account for what the Book of Mormon actually is, not just what we imagine and hope that it is.

Some of the most important data related to the Book of Mormon is the external tangible data and evidence related to the first book, First Nephi, where we have a clear and specific description of a journey with a known starting point and specific directions and geographical features. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, it was all rather laughable to our scholarly critics who knew that places like Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula or the River Laman simply did not exist. Now we have a wealth of data confirming the plausibility of the voyage and the places visited. There are plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lemuel, the south-southwest path, the place Shazer, the ancient burial place Nahom (including an ancient burial place of a similar name in the precise area that fits the text, and 7th-century B.C. archaeological finds confirming a tribe of a similar name inhabited that area--bingo, bingo, bingo), a plausible eastward path from Nahom to the sea, and two nearby competing candidates for the actual place Bountiful itself, with the primary candidate (in my opinion) being Khor Kharfot. It's not just a surprisingly green spot on the coast of Oman, but one that appears to fit numerous details in the text, even down to the level of being a rare source of iron ore near the surface that plausibly could have been used by Nephi to make tools for the ship he built.

The Arabian Peninsula, including Khor Kharfot, is a physical starting place for better understanding the Book of Mormon. Research at Khor Kharfot in particular is desperately needed to better understand this rare gem that is facing environmental degradation and loss in several ways. Before it is too late, its unique ecosystem and its ancient treasures need to be studied, documented, and preserved. This is a prime starting point for gaining more understanding related to the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, there is an international team of mostly non-LDS scholars and lovers of knowledge and the environment who are joining forces to explore and preserve. I salute the newly formed Khor Kharfot Foundation and encourage all of us to consider making a donation to support their work.

Here is a photo of the Khor Kharfot Foundation team. What a great looking group!

There is another starting place I'd like to suggest. Some of the most interesting and puzzling data related to Book of Mormon origins is coming from extensive scholarly investigation into the dictated text itself, the original Book of Mormon manuscript. This has culminated in the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, which now serves as the best we have for a critical text for the original Book of Mormon. It's what we need to be using for scholarly analysis of the text if we are interested in exploring its origins and the translation process.

The details uncovered by Royal Skousen provide strong confirmation that the text was dictated and written line by line by a scribe based on what he heard dictated, often showing the kind of mistakes and corrections consistent with a dictation process. But there is far more interesting evidence coming from the language itself as dictated. What once was thought to be a lot of hick grammar actually is good grammar, but from several decades before the rise of the King James Bible. The work of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack provide a rich body of new data that we need to understand and account for, somehow, wherever that leads. This is one of the new frontiers for Book of Mormon research. I'll discuss why I think it is especially important in a future post.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Musings

It's Easter Morning here in China. I'd like to share a few recent scattered thoughts as I begin listening to LDS General Conference.

I'm listening to the Priesthood Session live as I begin this post. President Henry B. Eyring's talk reminds us of how much we need to rely on personal revelation to meet the challenges of our callings and our lives. There are great risks, great opportunities for good that can be missed, and abundant opportunities for our own failure and destruction. Daily guidance from the Holy Ghost is needed, and this requires "more than casual listening and reading." Serious study, reflection, and seeking the Spirit must be a part of our lives and ministries. His stories are touching and instructive. He's one of my favorite speakers.

I really appreciate Elder Russell M. Ballard's call for the greatest generation of young adults. When I was young they told me that we were the greatest generation, but I think this would be a good time for the real greatest generation to step up and rise to the increased challenges of our era. I really admire so many of the young people I see in the Church today, and hope they will take on the challenge. (I'm back now from our fast & testimony meeting in Shanghai, where the young people of our ward really wowed me and many other adults. Most of the meeting involved teenagers and pre-teens coming up on their own and sharing sincere observations about their faith and living the Gospel. Quite inspiring! The future is in good hands, at least in some sectors.)

In another talk, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Seventy reminded us of an important truth: “God cares a lot more about who we are, and who we are becoming, than about who we once were.... He cares that we keep on trying.” Exactly. Whatever messes we've made of our lives, God is anxious to welcome us back and move us in surprisingly better new directions, if we'll let Him.

It came as a surprise for me that Elder Michael T. Ringwood of the Seventy selected the easy-to-overlook Book of Mormon character Shiblon as his personal hero from the Book of Mormon. Shiblon is an example of someone who wanted to serve rather than have fame and dominion, and quietly went about doing what was most important. Good observation on his part.

Look out, I sense a tangent coming....

The name Shiblon, by the way, is also a unit of weight (not coinage!) in the Book of Mormon, according to Alma 11:15. This name may be related to a Jaredite king's name, Shiblom, one of a number of Jaredite names that crop in Nephite culture, consistent with the persistence of Jaredite influence among the later Nephites, (e.g., Corianton, Noah, Korihor/Corihor, and Nehor). There is also a Nephite unit of weight called a shiblon, "for a half measure of barley." According to the entry for Shiblon in the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon, a terrific resource to explore possible meanings and connections for Book of Mormon names, this usage of shiblon might derive from Hebrew šibbolet, "ear of grain."

LDS folks have long assumed shiblon was related to the next unit of weight mentioned in Alma 11:16, the shiblum. But the detective work of Royal Skousen leading the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon shows that what Joseph dictated in his translation was actually shilum, and that is what the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon now has. The Book of Mormon Onomasticon's entry for shiblum explains what happened:
SHIBLUM has been the reading in Alma 11:16, 17 since the 1830 edition. It was written down as SHIBLUM in the original manuscript by Oliver Cowdery (probably based on the reading of the word SHIBLON in Alma 11:15, 16. O [the original manuscript] was then corrected by him to SHILLUM by overwriting the b with an l. Then (possibly with the assistance of Joseph Smith) he crossed off the overwritten l to produce SHILUM. In the printer's manuscript it appears only as SHILUM. The 1830 typesetter erroneously set shiblum (in what is now verse 16), which it has remained through the current edition of the Book of Mormon. In verse 17 both O and P [the printer's manuscript] have only shilum, but the typesetter repeated the mistake of verse 16 by setting shiblum, the reading in 1830-2013.[1] While the derivation of shiblum from ancient HEBREW is somewhat problematical, shilum is not. Its derivation from the HEBREW shillum, "reward, payment, compensation" is found in Micah 7:3 in the context of bribing judges.[2] According to Hoftijzer, in Northwest Semitic inscriptions slm has the meaning "to be paid, repaid."[3]
  1. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. vol. 3. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 1810-11.
  2. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds. The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 4. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 1511.
  3. Jacob Hoftijzer, Dictionary of North-west Semitic Inscriptions [Leiden: Brill, 1995], 2:1145.
If you don't have the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, you might want to mark your printed or electronic Book of Mormon in Alma 11 with a note explaining that shiblum should be shilum, meaning "reward, payment" in Hebrew. This is one of numerous examples of Hebraic influence that Joseph probably could not have appreciated since he didn't study Hebrew until around 1835. Without the recent investigation of Skousen into the original Book of Mormon text, it's something we probably would not appreciate today.

The issues around this one word provide one more glimpse into how the Book of Mormon was produced that is consistent with the accounts from witnesses, consistent with some degree of tight control in the translation process, and consistent with ancient Hebraic influences in the text. At the same time, it reminds us of the certainty of human influence and error in the printed product, as is the case with any scripture that goes through human hands, thus pointing to the need for the kind of investigation that Royal Skousen has done in his many years of work leading to the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon.

I look forward to learning more from General Conference. Next weekend is when it is rebroadcast for audiences in Asia (the time difference between Asia and the US can be so annoying), but I've enjoyed getting a slight head start on some of the talks today.

Finally, this is Easter. Let me say that I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior, my Redeemer, and the author of all hope and salvation. In spite of all its beauty and wonder, this world would ultimately be depressing without the love and hope He offers through the Atonement. Our mistakes can be cleansed, our suffering and death can end in triumph, and anguish can become joy, and with His power, we can have strength to change our crudeness and selfishness into the power to love, to do good, and to help others and ourselves find joy.

I marvel in His creations. I marvel that it was even possible to find the solutions that enabled stars (balanced on the precipice between black holes consumed by gravity and massive explosions into nothingness from the fury of fusion and electromagnetic forces) to not only exist but provide engines for creating carbon, iron, and the elements we need for earth and life itself. I marvel at the beauty of DNA and how much structure, instinct, and machinery can be encoded. I marvel at the joys of human life and our abilities to appreciate art, music, literature, fine cuisine, family life, romance, and philosophy.

There is so much more to our life, so much more beauty and potential, than random chemical accidents creating genetic memes that compete to reproduce for no purpose at all. There is glory, beauty, and wonder in this life, especially when considered in light of God's majesty and His purposes for us. Our lives do have purpose and meaning, in spite of all that we suffer, and that meaning is found most fully by recognizing and kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, who personally knows our pain, takes it upon Him, and offers us freedom and joy. How wondrous Easter is!