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

Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Discovery Shakes More Mesoamerican Paradigms

Recently we had a discussion about what I called the infancy of knowledge about ancient Mesoamerica, where I argue that Mesoamerica has been much less explored and studied than Bible lands (partly due to the relative lack of ancient written documents since so many were destroyed by the Spanish). This makes it premature to rule out the Book of Mormon based on what we think we know about the area. One further example to illustrate that point comes from "The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings" by William Saturno, National Geographic, Vol. 209, No. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 68-77, which just came to my home. This short article describes new discoveries at a Guatemalan site, San Bartolo, where an ancient mural yielded surprising information. The explorer makes this comment on the significance of a beautiful ancient mural he found inside a royal tomb dated to about 150 B.C.:
Clearly Maya painting had achieved glory centuries before the great works of the Classic Maya, in the 7th century. In Western terms, it was like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo.

The far end of the mural held another surprise. Some scholars thought that at this early stage in Maya history, the Preclassic, city-states had not yet evolved into full-fledged monarchies, with all the trappings seen later. But here was a king, named and titled, receiving his crown. In short, this one chamber upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya.
Interestingly, the Book of Mormon teaches that full-blown monarchies were in place among Nephites and Lamanites at the same time Mesoamerica (e.g., King Mosiah and King Noah among the Nephites and King Lamoni and many other kings among the Lamanites).

A mere mural showing a king being crowned has "upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya." That's food for thought.(Fortunately, if anything, this upending slightly enhances rather than weakens the case for plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document.) Stay tuned for more paradigm shifts, for there are still many large voids in knowledge about ancient Americans during Book of Mormon times.

To save some of you a little effort, let me note in advance that this finding does not prove the Book of Mormon to be true, and that we are not aware of carvings stating such things as "Welcome to Zarahemla, City of Nephites. Lamanites may not loiter on walls." That doesn't mean that there was not an ancient Mesoamerica city that called itself Zarahemla, but we typically do not know what locals called their cities in Book of Mormon times, or how they pronounced their names at all. The great ancient city Kaminaljuyu (now largely buried under Guatemala City), for example, was given that Mayan name in this century. We simply don't know what its ancient name was. That's part of why our knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica is so much less than it is of the ancient Old World in Bible lands - but both regions offer us the potential for many surprises as more research is done. Be patient.

New Theme Song for Missionary Work?

Shirley Temple singing "Get on Board, Lil' Children" might be the ideal theme song for your ward's missionary efforts. Give it a try!

(Turn your speakers down before clicking on the link.)

By the way, what's your nomination for the next song to be added to the LDS Hymnbook? I don't think "Get on Board" is it, but how about "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"? It was once in our hymnbooks, and I really miss it.

Prepare to Be Deleted....

I've had a couple anonymous posters get all upset (what else is new?) when I deleted comments that I found to be off-topic and nasty. Frankly, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed deleting them.

I'm growing weary of anonymous nastiness and really stupid off-topic comments. Anonymous comments will be deleted more frequently from now on, and offensive off-topic comments are always fair game.

It's so vicious!

I have no fear of truth, but I am annoyed by snarky comments from people who don't dare identify themselves.

Snip snip! Be warned.

Mormons Advance Modest Prom Attire - Now What About Sumo Garb?

I'm proud of the LDS young women and parents who have advanced the cause of and market for modest attire for proms. Now I'm hoping some of you will turn your fashion skills to the next great challenge for decency: sumo wrestling.

While my boys were checking sports events yesterday, they ran into a televised sumo wrestling event. Yikes - way too much flesh. One American competitor had on some kind of elastic undergarment beneath the traditional sumo thong, but it really didn't solve the problem. I dream of a day when sumo wrestlers can proudly wear attractive, modest attire so that all of us can watch sumo wrestling without suffering intense distress. And when that problem is solved, maybe we can do something to enhance modesty in body building competitions. Perhaps a full body burqua just thin enough to show rippling muscles?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Outraged by The Chronicles of Narnia?

This week I took my family to see The Chronicles of Narnia, based on the book by one of my favorite Mormon authors. (Well, nearly Mormon. The writings of C.S. Lewis frequently jive with LDS views and he may be the most cited non-LDS author in General Conference.) I left the movie pondering the Atonement and my own treason to Christ and others through sin, and yearned to be more true.

While I found the movie to be powerfully uplifting, I figured that those who reject Christ will surely be appalled by the overt Christian symbolism of Aslan and his willing sacrifice and resurrection. But I didn't realize just how negatively some critics would respond. Rather than just saying something like, "That's stupid - I don't believe that," the reaction in some quarters is surprisingly angry. Based on my experiences with this blog, you would think I would have learned by now that anger is the expected reaction of some people to anything religious. But I was still quite surprised to read Polly Toynbee's response in Britain's outstanding online news site, The Guardian, with the headline: "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion." Here is an excerpt:
Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. . . .

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. . . .

Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory." Well, here's my huff.

Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. . . . So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.
Ah, Aslan is all about Republican neo-fascist power and sadism, eh? Aslan is not a tame lion, and that's exactly Ms. Toynbee's problem. She has no trouble with a Christ symbol that just rolls over, suffers, stays silent, dies, and vanishes forever. But the triumphant Christ, the Resurrected Lord and King of all, the Creator, the Ultimate Power of the Universe who will return and judge us, who alone can heal us and save us from our sins, this is a Being to be feared and hated by the wicked. He who has done all to be our greatest ally is the ultimate enemy to some hardened souls. He is not a tame lion, and those who fight Him have much to fear.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Coffee: A Must-Read Post by Wilfried Decoo

"Coffee" by Wilfried Decoo over at T&S is on my essential reading list. The simple story told there says much about the unappreciated secret burdens that our fellow members may bear. May we all be more cautious in making assumptions about the level of faith and commitment found in those who seem weak.

No Yaks, No Camels: How Can We Compete?

I was feeling pretty good about the beautiful and reverent Christmas Eve Devotional that we held Saturday afternoon in my town of Appleton. Fabulous music, short spiritual readings, a refreshing and uplifting program. Nicely done - another great event and something to be proud of. And then I had to wreck it all by going to Dave's Mormon Inquiry and reading his sensible post, "It's Beginning to Feel A Lot Like Smithmas." Nothing wrong with the post, but unfortunately for me he included a link to the Crystal Cathedral's Glory of Christmas pageant.

How mortal I am, so quickly falling prey to envy and other vices as I read the descriptions of the event and watched the video trailer. Even greed kicked in as I realized that our ward budget problems were not being addressed by offering our devotional as a free service, in contrast to the substantial but surprisingly affordable ticket prices for the many performances at the Palace.

As I contemplated the opportunities to step up our production, I felt a sense of frustration and even anger as I faced the reality imposed by the numerous rules and regulations we Latter-day Saints have to face regarding the use of our buildings, and especially the use of the chapel. To understand my frustration, just look at the description of our competitor's service:
In 1980 the Crystal Cathedral was dedicated. In 1981 the beautiful living nativity, The Glory of Christmas premiered inside the first all-glass church.

The Cathedral seats 2,736 for church services--2,508 when holding the enormous Glory of Christmas set.

Installing the production set takes a month of preparation-including lighting load-in, angel track installation and rigging, as well as set construction.

Eight angels fly throughout both productions. Some fly as high as 80-feet and can travel as fast as 25 miles per hour.

The Cathedral's pipe organ has 287 ranks of pipes, 16,000 individual, 549 horizontal trumpet pipes in the East and West Balconies and 5,000 additional pipes in the South Balcony division, making it the largest collection of such pipes in the world.

More than 300 volunteers dedicate over 160 hours each to The Glory of Christmas as both cast members and volunteer ushers.

Animals play an integral role in the production's recreation of the ancient land. In The Glory of Christmas you will see three adult camels and a baby, six horses, a yak, a llama, a baby water buffalo and many sheep and goats.
And then I recalled some of the First Presidency Bulletins I have seen over the years. Wasn't there one forbidding the use of camels in the chapel? And if memory serves me correctly, didn't the Church's Physical Facilities Department issue an onerous edict around 1995 that came down harshly on the use of goats and especially yaks for non-essential purposes in our buildings?

It's bad enough that we can't offer polka masses out here in the nation's leading polka state, but the limitations on yaks and camels puts a heavy burden on our human backs instead. We have competition like the Crystal Palace, and even right here in town we have at least one local church that uses multiple live animals in their Christmas pageant. How can we compete?

I began contemplating some work-arounds based on a possible loophole regarding llamas - could they be made to look like camels? Could small ones look like goats and sheep? Plans for a glorious service unfolded in my mind, with visions of llamas and flying angels, but these hopes were suddenly dashed when I recalled the 1993 bulletin from the Church's insurance agency: due to liability issues, the maximum flight velocity for suspended angels in local units was a mere 5 miles an hour and suspension heights could not exceed 15 feet. Forget the animal problem: lame angels is the real show-stopper here.

Well, at least we've got the Hill Cumorah Pageant out in New York, but for local purposes, we'll just have to keep hoping for the day when camels and yaks can march proudly through our services.

(Actually, I think it's great that someone can put on a major spectacle for Christmas. Looks like an amazing program. Have any of you seen it?)

Cement at Teotihuacan






For those of you interested in the issue of cement in the Book of Mormon, here are some photos I took earlier this year at Teotihuacan near Mexico City, where the ancient Mesoamericans clearly used a form of cement to construct some of their buildings.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Christus in Mexico City


Photo of the Christus statue in the visitor's center of the Mexico City Temple, taken April 2, 2005. The role of the temple is that of the Church: to bring people unto Christ. This statue is a wonderful reminder of that basic fact.

(Click to enlarge.)

The Pink Coat: A Christmas Experience

One of my favorite Christmas experiences:

A couple years ago when I was serving as a bishop in the Appleton Second Ward, we had a Christmas party for the Hmong members of my ward. The Hmong people in the US came here as refugees from genocidal oppression from the brutal Communist government in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War (I discuss their history more on my page about the Hmong people in America), and many have struggled financially in this strange foreign land. Many of them are great and noble people, and it has been an honor to know and work with many of them.

After an enjoyable afternoon, several groups began to leave. The temperature outside was 1 degree Fahrenheit - bitter cold on any scale. One little non-LDS girl, about 9 years old, was getting ready to go out the door with her sisters. I noticed she wasn't wearing a coat, just a light sweatshirt. I asked about that and she said she didn't have one, and had been going to school everyday without one. I was worried for her.

What I didn't know until later was that my wife had already tried to deal with the problem earlier in the evening. My wife had retrieved an old coat from our closet that had belonged to one of my sons. It would have fit, I think, but the Hmong girl shook her head and refused to try it on. She was poor, but she was still a girl with basic human sensitivity about how she looked, and she wasn't going to wear an ugly coat. At that moment I recalled that a kind member of the ward had just given me two grocery bags filled with clothes in case they could help someone in need. I brought over a bag that had some coats in it. At the very top of the bag was a pink coat. I took it out and noticed that it seemed to be her size. I asked her if she would try it on, and her face lit up as it fit perfectly and looked beautiful on her. She was so happy! She looked great in that coat, and left warmer, but not nearly as warm as I felt at that moment, grateful to the sweet member who made the donation and so grateful to the Lord for such a small but memorable Christmas gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve Devotional

Spent a few minutes in heaven this morning as I listened to the choir rehearse music for tonight's Christmas Eve Devotional at the Appleton Stake Center. If you're in my part of the wood, please drop by for the service at 4:00 PM tonight (425 West Parkridge, Appleton). It's the most wonderful night of the year, and our biggest missionary event also.

I have previously discussed
the Appleton tradition of holding a Christmas Eve Devotional and have shared a few photos. Now I hear that Provo and other areas have something similar. Way to go! It's one of the best things the Appleton Second Ward ever did, in my opinion.

Time for a Churchwide Tune Up?

Out-of-tune pianos may not be the biggest challenge facing the Church, but I think the problem deserves a little more attention. I used to think it was a local problem only, but a musician friend of mine from Missouri was telling me about how widespread the problem is in his part of the world, too. To be frugal with Church funds - a highly commendable objective in general - local leaders with responsibilities over buildings tend to negotiate bottom-dollar contracts with tuners to handle the pianos of multiple buildings in the area. It saves a lot of money, but it also means that the work tends to go to low bidders who may not see a profit if they give each piano as much time and attention as might really be needed. Typically, the people calling the shots about who does the tuning and how often it is don't recognize when the work is not being done well. As a result, wonderful instruments may be chronically out of tune. Ouch.

One possible quick fix is for musically oriented folks to hire a competent piano tuner on their own and smuggle him or her into the building to do the job right, perhaps on a Monday evening when it's almost sure to be unoccupied. Is this ethical?

A better solution might be for musicians and Church leaders to work together to ensure that pianos are well tuned. If cost really is a barrier, I know that cheerful donors could readily be found in every Stake.

Local leaders and physical facilities managers, I encourage you to not take shortcuts on this issue. Music is an important part of worship, but when a piano is out of tune, it can hinder skilled musicians (especially when additional instruments are present) and limit the power of music for the rest of us as well.

New Essay on Polygamy

"Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" by Gregory L. Smith, published at FAIRLDS.org. This a helpful essays about some of the commonly asked questions about polygamy and the accusations made against the Church because of it. Why wasn't Joseph Smith more up front about polygamy? What are we to make of denials that it was being practiced? I think Gregory Smith provides a valuable perspective in confronting these issues and a few other common charges. Recommended reading.

I am grateful that polygamy is forbidden by the Church, and am not sympathetic with the excommunicated polygamous rebels who incorrectly call themselves Mormons.

Friday, December 23, 2005

"Happier Than I've Ever Been": A Result of Doctrine or Social Programs?

Recently I met with a spunky and intelligent elderly woman who joined the Church a few years ago. When I asked how she was doing, she said, "I'm happier than I've ever been since joining the Church." I asked her what it was about the Church and the Gospel that would make her say that. She said that it was the "sense of completeness" that the Gospel brings, the knowledge of who she was and Who God is, and her purpose in life. When I asked if the happiness might be due to "our great social programs," she laughed and spoke more about the impact of LDS doctrine on her life and how the teachings of the Church have helped bring her closer to God and find profound meaning.

She was expressing the very things that I feel. It is the doctrine and teachings of the Church that bring me this "sense of completeness" and understanding of the God's eternal plan and His dealings with man. It is the spiritual power of the Church, the experience of prayer, the reality of the Priesthood, the marvel of the scriptures, the joy of Temple service, the light of revelation and the manifestations of the gift of the Holy Ghost, that glue me to the Gospel - all of which are experienced at a personal and private level, not through attending social events or having people leave a surprise plate of cookies at the door (though treats are always welcome over here!).

Having heard so many critics charge that conversion to the Church is just due to our social programs and LDS fellowshipping, I asked this sweet widow if our great social programs might be the reason for her happiness in the Church. She chuckled at the thought, and reiterated the significance of the teachings of the Church.

Our needs may differ widely. We all need friends in the Gospel and we all need to feel loved and accepted, and LDS people often do a good job in reaching out and helping newcomers feel accepted. But that alone does not bring the sense of joy that some of us experience in the Gospel. Ultimately, it is matters of doctrine, including the Priesthood, the Temple, and the scriptures, for example, that help us develop our private relationship with the Lord and find the peace and joy that only Christ can bring.

He is real, His Gospel is real, and the joy that He offers us is real.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The 19th Century Response to John Lloyd Stephens' 1841 Book on Mesoamerica

In response to my recent post on the general lack of knowledge about Mesoamerica when the Book of Mormon was published, one critic has argued that information about ancient Mesoamerican civilization was common knowledge then. It is true that the basic story of the Spanish conquest was known in many circles, and several scholars like von Humboldt had written about Mesoamerica, but I understand that the concept of advanced ancient civilization and vast cities does not appear to have been part of the common knowledge of the masses. For example, David Whitmer noted that the Witnesses were afraid that people would reject their testimony and the Book of Mormon because the idea of "a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities" seemed so odd at the time. When basic information about the grandeur of Mesoamerican civilizations became popularly known through a book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841), the response of Latter-day Saint leaders shows that this was news to them. It may have been old news to some, but details of Mesoamerica were not part of the popular body of common knowledge in that day.

Added insight into the state of knowledge prior to Stephens' popular book comes from an 1841 review of Stephens' work found in The North American Review, Vol. 53, 1841, published by James Monroe and Company, Boston, available online through the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library, a resource that I have just recently encountered thanks to the same critic who has been contending that Mesoamerican details relevant to the Book of Mormon were well known in Joseph's day. It is true that an 1825 publication states that "At the time of the conquest it is well known, that Mexico was a city of great extent and splendor." Certainly this rather vague bit of information and more was known in some circles. The basic story of the Spanish conquest must have been well known. For more details about Mesoamerica, several Spaniards had written about Mexico, the German von Humboldt had published several works before Joseph Smith's day, and Ethan Smith cites von Humboldt several times, for example. But there is no evidence that Joseph Smith had access to this information, and reading these works shows no hint that they were relied on in producing the Book of Mormon. Indeed, if Joseph were familiar with all that and were fabricating the Book of Mormon, he missed many goldmines of information that could have been used to dress up the book and add to its plausibility.

Let's turn back to the review of Stephens' book, which begins on page 479 of the publication. Near the beginning of the review, on page 480, we have this comment regarding the ancient Mesoamericans and "the riddle of their history":

The recent discoveries in Central America have attracted a new attention to these questions. The time for constructing a theory is not yet. The materials are still too scanty. But they are accumulating in great richness; and to no part of the world does the historical inquirer look with a more intense interest, than to that country, lately as little thought of as if it did not exist, now known to be so fruitful in marvels.
Now look at page 489:
It would be all but incredible, if it were not now shown to be certainly true, that in the wilds of Central America are found vast architectural piles, with complicated decorations chiselled in hard stone, which, different as is their style, might without extravagance be called worthy of the best eras of European art. The "vast buildings or terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented," struck Mr. Stephens on his first approach, as "in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes."
Stephens is quoted on page 490 as he describes the experience of looking out over one of the ancient cities:
There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.
Stephens is challenging the day's common knowledge of Native Americans, showing that the architectural evidence points to an ancient people who were not rude savages or barbarians.

Also see page 491 and page 492, where we read an amusing illustration of the ignorance of the day. The reviewer quotes a passage from a competitor's journal that argues for the ignorance of learned men and the British public by pointing out how some allegedly new discoveries were previously documented by others (". . . we can adduce an extraordinary instance of the ignorance prevailing among literary and scientific men in general. . . . This circumstance is alone sufficient to show that the subject is, unlike Egyptian antiquities, comparatively new to the reading British public"), but the reviewer then points out that this is in fact a serious error and that Stephens' report of Copan appears to be the first - all of which only strengthens the case for the lack of widespread knowledge about Mesoamerica in that era among the learned, and certainly among the masses.

The point is not that Mesoamerica was completely unknown in 1830, but that it's unlikely that someone like Joseph Smith could have relied on common knowledge or even available publications for the information needed to even begin attempting a fraud that would include Mesoamerican features aimed at enhancing the plausibility of the text. There is simply no prima facie case to explain the Mesoamerican elements in the Book of Mormon as something that Joseph Smith could have fabricated based on what he could have drawn from his intellectual environment. To dismiss the Book of Mormon as the obvious product of fabrication based on common knowledge of that day is rather unreasonable, in my opinion. That doesn't prove anything, but one thing is clearly unproven: the theory that Joseph Smith fabricated the text.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Hope for the Future: Young People Who Save

Recently I spent some time talking with a 19-year-old who is preparing for a mission. I was surprised to learn that he is not only saving for his mission, but is also interested in saving for retirement. He's got a full-time job with a savings plan, and he's already for some funds in an IRA. He asked some questions about mutual funds, stocks, and precious metals. In an age when so many Americans are on a quest to get every further into debt, in an age when people tend to spend all they have and rarely make reasonable decisions for their future, it was so refreshing to talk with a young person who is not only saving for a mission, but is also seeking to save for the distant future. More of us need to do the same.

Don't think you're prepared for the future just because you have a good food storage. The counsel from Church leaders has been to not only store food for emergencies, but also to live frugally and save wisely as well.

I've enjoyed learning about the stock market and making my own decisions about where to invest. But the reality is that how one invests is usually not nearly as important as how much one invests. Quantity, not quality, is the first thing to consider. Investing 10% or more of your income in a lackluster mutual fund is usually more likely to give you a significant nest egg than putting just 5% of your income into more successful securities. Rather than spending tons of time figuring out how to get a few extra percent from your investments, it's probably smarter to work harder and spend less so that you save a lot more. (But once you are saving aggressively, why not do some extra research to get more out of your money? Understanding the roles of stocks, bonds, precious metals, etc. can make a huge difference in what you achieve.)

If you're in a situation where you can save money, you should be. How can we adequately provide for our families and seek to be self-sufficient if we don't save for the future? And if you are saving now, I suggest it's time to ramp it up. And teach your kids to do the same.

There are young people out there thinking intelligently about the future and I've met several recently. That's encouraging!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Utah Mormons Rally 'Round the Cross

Relatives of mine in Utah inform me that many Mormons are rallying around the cross in their efforts to stop the expulsion of religious symbols by an atheist group. Since the cross is not the preferred LDS way of remembering Jesus and does not adorn LDS buildings, I am proud of the support for the cross that Utahns are offering.

The story involves the traditional use of crosses to mark the spot on a road where a person was killed. In this case, it's the State Highway Patrol that has marked 14 sites where their officers have been killed. American Atheists, Inc. is suing. Somehow, marking sites with crosses is supposed to be an appalling violation of civil liberties.

Frankly, I think we should all pitch in with donations for the atheists behind this suit. If we gave them a bucket of cash, they could get out more often and go someplace like Washington, D.C., where they might notice that crosses are used in places like Arlington National Cemetery [note: they are typically engraved on markers], that references to God are inscribed in national monuments, that at least some Federal inaugurations are done using the Bible, etc. And with that bucket of cash, they might notice that "In God We Trust" has long been part of US currency and coins. Maybe they would recognize just how out of touch they are with America and the real intent of our Constitution: to protect religious liberty, not stamp it out. On the other hand, if they are incensed by 14 obscure crosses scattered around Utah, they might just suffer instant cardiac arrest upon seeing thousands of crosses on Federal land at Arlington.

Related stories: "Rally to oppose atheists on cross issue" from the Deseret News, and "Another Atheist Cross To Bear" from KOMO TV. Also see Lee Benson's commentary, "Atheists Are Crossed Up Over Crosses.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Would We All Fly to Pieces If the Lord Answered Our Questions?

I was discussing the issue of evolution and the Creation in a phone call with my mother the other day. I expressed my desire to have more revealed information about the scientific aspects of the Creation, but she wisely pointed out that it might not wise for the Lord to answer many of our questions right now.

She figures that whatever the truth is, it almost certainly will challenge all of our assumptions, whatever they are, and would try the testimonies of the weak and inflexible while giving critics in and out of the Church one more thing to mock.

If the Lord gave President Hinckley a few clear answers to pressing scientific issues like the age of the earth, the processes used to bring the biosphere to its current state, the role of divine intervention in past genetic change, the details of who Adam was and what the Garden of Eden was, the nature of apparent pre-Adamic humans, the history of the rise of multiple races, and just what species of fruit the forbidden fruit was (could it have been the sensuous avocado? or perhaps the tempting pomegranate?), I think most of us would fly to pieces. We would probably all find something to offend us and make us question the Lord and His servants.

I would love more information, but we may need to have faith and patience until the grand era of the Millennium when the Lord will reveal all these things and many more. As the Lord states in Doctrine and Covenants 101:
32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things--
33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof--
34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.
35 And all they who suffer persecution for my name, and endure in faith, though they are called to lay down their lives for my sake yet shall they partake of all this glory.
36 Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.
37 Therefore, care not for the body, neither the life of the body; but care for the soul, and for the life of the soul.
38 And seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life.
I take it that those things pertaining to how the earth was made will, once revealed, be appreciated as "hidden things which no man knew." I think that means our guesses and speculations in 2005 are still inadequate, even those made by the most learned among us. But let's keep learning as much as we can, understanding that science is forever tentative, and that our assumptions and frameworks for interpreting data and scripture may be based on flawed assumptions that may require later revision. If you think you've got it all figured out, beware!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Remembering Him

The Lord Jesus Christ has inspired artists throughout the ages. A large fraction of the world's great art provides inspiring reminders of Him and His majesty and goodness. Since stained glass is often associated with Christian churches, it's no surprise that the art in the Smith Museum of Stained Glass at Navy Pier in Chicago often deals with the Savior. Here are a couple of my favorites from my visit there earlier this year. May we always remember the Savior and look to Him for inspiration. He alone can show us the way to true happiness.



(Click to enlarge.)


When we partake of the sacrament, may we each make that an intense moment of reflection upon our covenants to follow the Savior. We all fall so short, but still He reaches out in mercy to us and urges us to always follow Him and remember Him.



The photographs are of the following works, in order:

1. Detail from "Traditio Legis (The Legal Tradition)" by F.X. Zettler of Munich, Germany, 1906. "Legal Tradition" refers to the founding of the Church as Christ gave Peter the keys of the kingdom.

2. "The Sacred Heart of Jesus: Vision of Saint Sister Margaret Mary" designed and fabricated by Tyrol Art Glass Co. in Innsbruck, Austria, around 1910. Sister Margaret Mary, born in Burgundy, France, reported having four visions of Jesus Christ between 1673 and 1675.

3. "Christ in Mandorla" by Charles J. Connick Associates, Boston, from the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Gary, Indiana, c. 1920. A mandorla is an almond or womb-shaped intersection of two circles representing heaven and earth in which Christ stands.

Other photographs are available in my photogallery for the Smith Museum of Stained Glass.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Samuel the Lamanite: A Witness for Jesus Christ

In discussing the Book of Mormon, we must never forget it's primary purpose and focus: to testify of Jesus Christ. It is truly a Christ-centered book, providing the richest information I have ever encountered about His Atonement and grace.

From my reading today, I was impressed with Samuel the Lamanite's call to believe in Christ. His words were spoken to an arrogant and corrupt Nephite people just a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Here is an excerpt from Helaman 14, where Samuel stands upon the wall of Zarahemla to preach to a city that had cast him out:
[2] And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name. . . .

[8] And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall believe on the Son of God, the same shall have everlasting life. . . .

[13] And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

[14] And behold, again, another sign I give unto you, yea, a sign of his death.

[15] For behold, he surely must die that salvation may come; yea, it behooveth him and becometh expedient that he dieth, to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, that thereby men may be brought into the presence of the Lord.

[16] Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death -- that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.

[17] But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.

[18] Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

[19] Therefore repent ye, repent ye, lest by knowing these things and not doing them ye shall suffer yourselves to come under condemnation, and ye are brought down unto this second death. . . .

[30] And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

[31] He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you.
Faith in Christ is not merely acknowledging Him as the Son of God, but drives us to follow Him and change our ways to better conform to His will. Faith leads us to repentance, for we have all fallen and fall short of His expectations. But His Atonement makes repentance and forgiveness possible, and gives us means to change and better follow Him through faith on His name. This is the message of the Book of Mormon: believe in in Jesus Christ and follow Him.

What a tragedy that so many in the Christian world are afraid of this book, and have been led to believe that it is of the devil.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Oliver Cowdery: A Powerful Witness of the Book of Mormon

A message sent out by the folks at the NephiProject.com reminds me of the significance of Oliver Cowdery's role as an eyewitness to the Book of Mormon. The message turns to October 1848, when Oliver went from his home in Tiffin, Ohio to Iowa to rejoin the Saints. At a conference on October 21st, Oliver Cowdery gave the following account regarding the Book of Mormon:
Friends and Brethren: My name is Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery. In the early history of this Church, I stood identified with her, and one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance; not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called, to fulfill the purposes of God. He called me to a high and holy calling. I wrote with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by the book, "holy interpreters." I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the "holy interpreters." The book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. It contains the everlasting gospel, and came forth to the children of men in fulfillment of the revelations of John, where he says he saw an angel come with the everlasting gospel to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. It contains principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light and obey its precepts, you will be saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high

(Joseph Fielding Smith, The Restoration of All Things, p.114)
Oliver was just one of many who saw the plates and knew they were real and of divine origin. None of these witnesses ever retracted their testimony of the Book of Mormon, in spite of some leaving the Church after becoming upset with later events or with Joseph Smith.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Mormon Fast Offering Program and Early Christianity

In my last post, I mentioned that the Church's fast offering program has long been an inspiration to me. I have had many testimony-building experiences in watching that program at work and seeing how it affects the lives of people. I have seen many evidences of powerful inspiration in its administration.

In addition, there are some intriguing hints about the reality of the Restoration when we consider this program wherein members of the Church fast regularly on Sabbath days and donate the savings in food (or many times the savings, if possible) to help the needy, as administered by the Bishop with the help of other priesthood holders. Fasting is part of the process wherein we can make our Sabbath observance "perfect" (see Doctrine and Covenants 59:12-14).

Now we know that early Christians fasted, but the Bible offers few details about how they fasted. It is understandable that in the absence of such revelation, there are many diverse forms of fasting among modern Christians, including practices such as doing without red meat on certain days, or giving up a favorite food for period of time, or just ignoring the issue altogether. But what did the earliest Christians do, and how does that related to LDS religion, which claims to be a restoration of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Insight into early Christian practices comes from a book that was accepted as scripture by many early Christians in the second and third centuries, but which was dropped from the canon by later Christian leaders. The book is the Shepherd of Hermas, apparently written in Italy written shortly after the apostolic era. In this book, Hermas receives revelation in the form of visions and parables about Christian religion and practices, including baptism for the dead (see my LDSFAQ page, Baptism for the Dead) and the principle of fasting. John W. Welch in "Fasting in Earliest Christianity" (Insights, Vol. 21, No. 9, 2001, a publication of FARMS) summarizes the teachings from the Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5, about how to fast. Hermas is told:
1. You are first to "guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world."

2. Then you must "estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day on which you intend to fast, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need."

3. Moreover, "you must observe these things with your children and your whole household and in observing them you will be blessed [makarioi]."

4. Furthermore, those who receive fast offerings are to pray "on behalf of [hyper]" those who have extended their generosity in this way.

"This fast," the Christian is told, "is very good in keeping the Lord's commandments," and if you will do these things, "this fast of yours will be perfect [teleia]" and "your sacrifice will be acceptable in God's sight, and this fast will be recorded, and service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous" (compare perfect and rejoicing in D&C 59:13-14).
These principles are in remarkable accord with Latter-day Saint practices, as revealed to modern prophets. Welch offers further analysis:
If these directives may be described as the true order of fasting, it is evident that few Christian churches today follow this essential instruction. Is it possible that this was one of the "plain and precious things" taken away from the original gospel as it went forth from the mouth of the Son of God as foreseen by Nephi of old (1 Nephi 13:28)? But Nephi also beheld that some of those truths would be restored by "other books" that would come forth "from the Gentiles" (1 Nephi 13:39).

Interestingly, the Old Latin version of the Shepherd of Hermas was first published in 1873 in Germany, and with the study of the crucial Greek text in Codex Siniaticus in the late nineteenth century, people soon realized the great antiquity of this important document. Yet only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as far as we know, teaches and actually operates a regular program of fasting along these earliest Christian lines.
In addition to that insight from John Welch, I ran into something else interesting while reading a book I picked up at a used book sale in Appleton. I discuss that in the following extract from my LDSFAQ page on Mormon practices, beginning with a little background:
In the Aaronic Priesthood, deacons can distribute the sacrament (communion) to people and fulfill other assignments, particularly the collection of "fast offerings" to help the poor and the needy. Teachers can help prepare the sacrament, visit members regularly with a companion to serve them as "home teachers," and perform other duties. Priests can ordain others to the Aaronic Priesthood, can baptize, can bless the sacrament, and can do all that teachers or deacons do.

Though he is a High Priest, Bishop is the President of the Aaronic Priesthood in a ward and the president of the Priests Quorum, and serves under a Stake President who has authority over several congregations. A primary responsibility of the Bishop is to care for the poor and needy, relying heavily on the collection of fast offerings by deacons and others to have resources to help. Interestingly, some of these modern LDS practices closely parallel early Christian patterns. For example, here is a passage from Robert M. Grant's book, Augustus to Constantine (Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1970, p. 150):
The only Christian writer from the middle of the second century to say anything about the organization of the community is the apologist Justin (ca. 150). He tells us that at the eucharist a lector read from the "reminiscences of the apostles" (which, he says, "are called 'gospels'"), and bread and wine were brought to "the president [proestos] of the brethren." After he offered a long prayer or sequence of prayers, the "deacons" distributed the bread and wine to those present and also took them to the absent.

The president's functions were both liturgical and charitable, for he was also the community's administrator of funds for orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, and visitors from abroad.[Apol. 1, 65-67]

Justin is writing at Rome, and it is therefore not surprising that in earlier Roman writings similar functions are described. In the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, we have found "the presbyters who preside over the church," and both bishops and deacons - the latter by definition subordinate to the former - concerned with widows and orphans....

Justin's reticence about presbyters and bishops, contrasting with his explicit mention of "president," lector, and deacons, may also be due to the circumstances. Had he mentioned these offices they might have been subject to arrest by the Roman authorities. In any event, judging from the writings both before him and after 150, the "president" was one among the Roman presbyters, and he was probably a bishop.
Here is the actual quote from Justin Martyr, Apologies for the Christians, Chapter 67:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly....
This has a nice LDS flavor to it! Sunday worship, reviewing the words of the apostles and prophets, distributing the sacrament to those present and having opportunities to take it to the ill who could not come, collecting offerings for the care of the poor to be distributed under direction of the president ("branch president" or "bishop" in modern LDS terminology), a community that is closely knit together and spends a lot of time together - all these things are very typical of the LDS community. Call it a cult, if you will - but it's the kind of cult that my man Justin Martyr wrote about around 150 A.D.

Robert Grant also discusses the office of "presbyter" or "elder" in the early Church, typically older men who served with the Bishop, though sometimes they are also called bishops (pp. 65-66). They have other servants or deacons who work with them. While the terminology for Church offices was very fluid then as it has been in the restored Church, the administrative concepts are very similar: Bishops and Presidents leading with the help of Elders and other offices, including deacons (which just means servant), initially under the direction of apostles and prophets (see pp. 63-68).

As our Sixth Article of Faith teaches, "We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth." There are some differences in detail, typically due to changes in circumstance and need, but the core is the same: multiple priesthood offices such as bishop, teacher, deacon, and elder, all in one organization under apostolic direction, with each office requiring ordination by the laying on of hands by those in authority. We're really serious when we say that there has been a Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Thinking Beyond Fast Offerings

The fast offering program of the Church has long been an inspiration to me. It is such a powerful concept, a way that we can all participate in helping the poor and needy among us. There are no overhead expenses, so 100% of what you donate will help someone, and personal care and attention goes into that help. How grateful I am for that program.

Latter-day Saints often assume that the best way to help the needy is to be generous in our donations through the fast offering program. Please be as generous as you can, but if you have more to give, please don't let your generosity stop there. In some cases, there are real needs that Church leaders are aware of that are difficult to address through the official fast offering program because of the wise restrictions and guidelines in its use. When I was a bishop, I truly appreciated a few generous souls who simply handed me cash and told me to find a good use for it - uses that fast offerings couldn't address. The donors weren't able to get a receipt or a tax deduction for this kindness, but there were several people in great need who were able to get more direct help through such means. Others would provide service or goods or cash directly to people they knew were in distress. Yes, fast offerings are wonderful, but sometimes alternate routes can provide further inspired help for those in need. In any case, I hope we can all strive to be more generous and thoughtful of those around us, especially those in times of hardship and financial stress. Recognize that throwing cash around makes some problems worse, so be wise and prayerful in what you do.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Many Family History Records Becoming Available Online

Check out the new family History Archive as part of BYU's special collections. According to email I received from Denise Bound, the LDS Family History Library has "announced that it has begun the process of digitizing and making available on the Internet all of the Family History
books in their collection. About 5000 books have been digitized and are
available, and they have announced that they are adding about 100 titles a
week to the on-line collection. Copyright issues are playing a role in
determining the order in which they progress through this task; books out of
copyright are being done first."

Many valuable resources are already in this collection. Happy hunting!

Of Mountains and Mole Hills: Something is Smoking

Without faith, it's easy to find reasons to reject the supernatural. There is abundant superficial evidence that God does not exist, that Christ was a fraud, or that modern miracles such as the Book of Mormon are impossibilities. For example, one critic recently guffawed at the idea of Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates and then running through the forest with a 100-pound load under his arm. Actually, the consensus of the most advanced anti-Mormon scholarship puts the mass of the hypothetical gold plates at 200 pounds, making Joseph's fleet-footed escape from would-be thieves all the more laughable, and providing yet another iron-clad reason for rejecting the faith. Those who reject the faith in response and abandon the more intelligent approach of considering alternatives and conducting further research may never learn that evidence from the witnesses themselves and from sound metallurgical reasoning puts the mass of the golden plates closer to 60 pounds, a much more plausible mass for a strong farm boy to carry on his own. You see, it wasn't a solid block of gold, but a stack of thin sheets that surely had air spaces between them due to imperfections, and the material itself was likely an alloy of gold and copper such as the tumbaga alloy known in Mesoamerica, which is lighter than pure gold.

While critics are busy spouting out reasons why we should reject our faith and quit exploring the Book of Mormon, often making mountains of mole hills in an effort to provide a smoking gun to prove Joseph Smith was a fraud, they tend to overlook some smoking evidence of the other kind, evidence that may amount to much more than a mere molehill. One piece of smoking evidence most pertinent to the issue of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon that I'd like to offer your consideration is VOLCANISM in the Book of Mormon. The following is taken from my page of Book of Mormon Evidences.

Volcanism in Book of Mormon Lands

The Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi describes a great disaster that swept over Book of Mormon lands at the time that Christ was crucified in the Old World. This destruction overthrew evil rulers and rocked a society that had become wicked, yet had some righteous people in its midst. The description of the destruction is detailed, mentioning great storms, earthquakes, and risings and sinkings of the land. A terrible storm brought violent wind and whirlwinds, accompanied by unprecedented lightning and thunder. The face of the land was changed and what was once solid rock now was cracked in some places. The violent activity lasted about three hours, though it seemed longer to some. Afterwards, a "thick darkness" was present which could be "felt." "Vapor of smoke and darkness" choked or suffocated some, and thick "mists of darkness" prevented fires being lit for three days. Many cities had been destroyed by burning (six burned cities are named), by sinking into the ocean (the city of Moroni, near the coast), by being covered with earth, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by being covered with rising "waters". (Some cities remained, and basic geographical reference points were unchanged, so the great deformation of the land was largely superficial.)

The details about the destruction make excellent sense if volcanic activity was involved. Volcanic ash and fumes can result in thick, tangible, moist mists which can kill people, shut out light for days, and prevent the lighting of fires. (Those who experienced the Mount St. Helens eruption in the United States know about some of this.) Strong volcanic activity can also be accompanied by seismic activity and shifting of earth by either lava flows, ash deposits, mudslides or landslides, and the raising and lowering of portions of the land and by changes in the water levels of nearby lakes. Joseph Smith never experienced a volcano, but the Book of Mormon description is remarkably consistent with modern knowledge of volcanic activity.

Given that the Book of Mormon appears to be describing volcanic activity around 33 A.D. or so, we have an important and readily verified physical detail of great value in assessing the merits of any proposed geography for the Book of Mormon: the Book of Mormon--if it is true history--took place in a region where major volcanic activity occurred around 33 A.D. Is there any place on this continent where something like the destruction mentioned in the Book of Mormon could have occurred? The answer is YES.

Not only is there a location in the Americas where significant volcanic and probably seismic activity occurred near the time specific in the Book of Mormon, but it occurred in the only plausible location for the Book of Mormon based on many other considerations--Mesoamerica. Major lava flows in that area have been dated to about 75 A.D. plus or minus 50 years (one non-LDS scholar, Payson Sheets, said it was at "about the time of Christ"), making the Book of Mormon account entirely plausible. Some of the lava flows from this time buried Mesoamerican cities, such as the city at Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico (see Sorenson, p. 320, for a photo). In the area of Chiapas, which may be the land of Zarahemla, according to John Sorenson (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon), important buildings in the major centers there, Santa Rosa and Chiapa de Corzo, were burned around 50 A.D. plus or minus a few decades (Sorenson, p. 128).

Sorenson writes about the plausibility of the great catastrophe in terms of a proposed Mesoamerican setting (Sorenson, pp. 320-322):

These facts in the Book of Mormon should fit the Mesoamerican scene. The same types of natural destructive forces at work in the 3 Nephi account should be familiar in southern Mexico and thereabouts. After all, it was the intensity of nature's rampage that impressed the Nephite recorder, not the novelty of the phenomena (3 Nephi 8:5, 7). All these kinds of destruction evidently had happened before in the land, but never with such terrifying effect. Not surprisingly, the sorts of natural forces unleashed in that fateful three hours are familiar on the Mesoamerican scene.

That area lies in a zone of intense earthquake activity-the edge of the Pacific basin, along which periodic violent quakes are a fact of life [Manuel Maldonado-Koerdell, "Geohistory and Paleogeography of Middle America," Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Robert Wauchope, Austin: University of Texas Press, Vol. 1, 1964, pp. 22-26; Robert C. West, "Surface Configuration and Associated Geology of Middle America," ibid., pp. 42-58, 75-78]. Scores of volcanoes are scattered along this particular zone of instability from north-central Mexico to Nicaragua. Many of them have been active within historical times [Felix W. McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala, Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology, Publications, Vol. 4, 1947, p. 6]. Antigua, the former capital city of Guatemala, was utterly destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and hit heavily again in 1917. The great damage done in Guatemala in 1976 by another series of earthquakes is typical of many previous experiences. Traditions and the presence of hieroglyphic signs signifying earthquakes demonstrate the profound effect they had on the pre-Columbian peoples [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, p. 26].

A description of the eruption of Conseguina volcano in Nicaragua in 1835 hints at the terror and destruction that resulted from the powerful disaster at the time of Christ. A dense cloud first rose above the cone, and within a couple of hours it "enveloped everything in the greatest darkness, so that the nearest objects were imperceptible." Fear-struck wild animals blundered into settlements, adding to the terror. Then came quakes, "a perpetual undulation." Volcanic ash began to fall, like "fine powder-like flour." The thunder and lightning "continued the whole night and the following day." Dust thrown up into the atmosphere combined with heat from the volcano to trigger the storms. Still later the worst tremor of all hit, strong enough to throw people to the ground. Darkness again came on and this time lasted forty-three hours [Payson D. Sheets, "An Ancient Natural Disaster," Expedition, 13 (Fall 1971): 27]. These conditions, multiplied in both intensity and territory covered, sound much like 3 Nephi.

In chapter 3, citations were made to scientific literature reporting evidence of volcanism right around the time of Christ. Probably the most spectacular was in El Salvador. Archaeologist and geologist Payson Sheets has worked to clarify the date and extent of the eruption there at "about the time of Christ." One volcano apparently devastated a 3,000-square mile area; ash falls up to 40 feet deep buried settlement after settlement.
Sorenson goes on to explain, with ample documentation, how more recent historical accounts of volcanic activity in Central America and southern Mexico are also consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions of great thunderings, storms that are triggered by or accompany volcanism, associated mudflows or ash deposits, etc. Of special interest is the reported fate of the city of Jerusalem (the New World Nephite city), which Sorenson's analysis of Book of Mormon geography places in Guatemala on the shore of Lake Atitlan. Sorensen writes:
The level of this lake has fluctuated as much as 40 feet due to subterranean shifts in the volcanic material that plugs its exit, according to geologists [McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography, pp. 132, 168, 179-80; Samuel K. Lothrop, in Atitlan, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Papers, 444 (1933), p. 83, reported waterworn potsherds from the site of Chuitinamit well above the water level of that time; these can only be explained by extensive fluctuations]. Earthquakes and eruptions could have stirred the base of the lake to make water "come up in the stead" of Jerusalem (3 Nephi 9:7). The nearby land or valley of Middoni, today probably the location of Antigua, former capital of Guatemala, has been fiercely shaken many times [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, pp. 25-26]. The entire fault system and volcanic chain extending through highland El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas [Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 35] must have been involved simultaneously to create the vast havoc described in the scripture. Other volcanic- and earthquake-prone areas lie in a northern system in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico. (Sorenson, pp. 322-323)
Sorenson concludes (p. 323):
Unquestionably the kinds of natural forces that produced the devastation reported in 3 Nephi are thoroughly characteristic of Mesoamerica. Nothing is surprising about the story except the scale. That was unprecedented. Our archaeological sources, meanwhile, provide us with some hints that a landmark disaster did in fact occur around the time of Christ. As years go on, we may learn more about it.
Another good review of the volcanic evidence related to the Book of Mormon is available online at the FARMS Website in an article by Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 87-145. The section of this lengthy article relating to volcanoes is found on pages 112-114, from which the following excerpt is taken:
M. T. Lamb [a prominent anti-Mormon who mentored the Tanners] called the disaster described in 3 Nephi 8-9 one of the most "foolish and physically impossible" stories ever described.57 Recent Book of Mormon scholarship, however, suggests that all the elements of this event can be reasonably explained and best understood in the context of an ancient Mesoamerican volcanic disaster.58

Bruce Warren has discussed evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica around the time of Christ.59 Archaeology provides evidence for such volcanic activity in the Valley of Mexico, where the volcano Xitle is believed to have erupted anciently, covering much of the southern portion of the valley.60 [Jeff's note: the dating of Xitle is now in dispute - it may have occurred a couple hundred years later.] Cummings, the archaeologist who originally excavated at Cuicuilco, believed that Xitle erupted around 2860 B.C.61 Based on more recent evidence, scholars now know that this disaster occurred nearly 2,000 years ago.62 At that time the site of Copilco was buried under more than thirty feet of lava, as was much of the nearby site of Cuicuilco. Archaeological evidence from the sites indicates that the lava flow was preceded by a heavy rainfall of ash.63 Both of these sites are located on the southwestern end of the Valley of Mexico. About thirty miles northeast is the massive site of Teotihuacan. There a layer of volcanic ash, apparently blown from that eruption, covers structures from the Tzacualli phase (A.D. 1-150). Carbon-14 tests of material directly below the ash layer yielded a date of A.D. 30 ± 80.64

Additional evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica near the time of Christ can be found further south in the Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz, a region many Latter-day Saint scholars associate with the Book of Mormon "land northward." In the 1940s archaeologists Matthew Stirling and Phillip Drucker found that a heavy layer of ash covered what appeared to be Late Preclassic pottery and other material at the site of Tres Zapotes. Michael Coe notes that while this pottery has "strong continuities with the Middle Preclassic, . . . in general most resemblances lie with other Late Preclassic phases of Mesoamerica, such as Chicanel of the lowland Maya area, Chiapa IV and V at Chiapa de Corzo, and terminal Preclassic manifestations in the Valley of Mexico. Olmec and other Middle Preclassic phenomena are either absent or very weak."65 Coe then notes that "the famous Stela C," found directly below the ash layer in question, "if read in the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, would read 31 B.C., exactly within the period with which we are concerned."66 If Coe's argument holds, then this would place the San Martin eruption some time after 31 B.C.

Archaeologist Payson Sheets has published evidence for several major volcanic eruptions further south in El Salvador over several millennia. One of these probably occurred during the late second century A.D. While this is much later than the event described in 3 Nephi, other evidence of earlier volcanic activity in this region has been found. In 1955 Muriel Porter described several sites in El Salvador that were covered by thirty to sixty-five feet of volcanic ash around the time of Christ.67 In a more recent work Sheets has published additional evidence for a lesser volcanic eruption in the region of Costa Rica "about the time of Christ."68 While such evidence is very tentative and preliminary in nature, it does lend plausibility to the account of the destruction in 3 Nephi.

References Cited by Roper:
57 M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, the Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), 83.

58 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, op. cit., 318-23; Russell H. Ball, "An Hypothesis Concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 107-23; John A. Tvedtnes, "Historical Parallels to the Destruction at the Time of the Crucifixion," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 170-86; James L. Baer, "The Third Nephi Disaster: A Geological View," Dialogue 19/1 (1986): 129-32; Bart J. Kowallis, "In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist's View of the Great Destruction in Third Nephi," forthcoming in BYU Studies.

59 Bruce Warren and Thomas S. Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo, Utah: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1987), 40-4. [Roper thanks Bruce Warren for providing him with several key sources on this issue.]

60 Byron Cummings, "Cuicuilco and the Archaic Culture of Mexico," University of Arizona Bulletin (Social Science) 4/8 (15 November 1933): 8-12.

61 Ibid., 14.

62 Copilco-Cuicuilco: Official Guide del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1959), 8, 11-2.

63 Ibid., 12, 18. See also Paul B. Sears, "Pollen Profiles and Culture Horizons in the Basin of Mexico," in The Civilizations of Ancient America: Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists, ed. Sol Tax (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 57.

64 René Millon and James Bennyhoff, "A Long Architectural Sequence at Teotihuacan," American Antiquity 26/4 (April 1961): 519.

65 Michael D. Coe, "Archaeological Synthesis of Southern Veracruz and Tabasco," in Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, part 2, ed. Gordon R. Willey, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 3 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 694.

66 Ibid., 696.

67 Muriel N. Porter, "Material Preclasico de San Salvador," Sobretiro de "Communicaciones" del Instituto Tropical de Investigaciones Científicas de la Universidad de El Salvador 4/3-4 (July-December 1955): 105-14.

68 Payson D. Sheets and Brian R. McKee, eds., Archaeology, Volcanism, and Remote Sensing in the Arenal Region, Costa Rica (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 318.
On Dr. Paul Wallace's page of publications at the University of Oregon's site, please note that the titles of two of the papers indicate that Xitle erupted 2000 years B.P. (before the present):
  • Cervantes P, Wallace P, Magma degassing and basaltic eruption styles: A case study of the 2000 yr B.P. eruption of Xitle Volcano, central Mexico. Submitted to Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.
  • Wallace P, Cervantes P (1999) Magma degassing and basaltic eruption styles: A case study of the 2000 yr B.P. eruption of Xitle Volcano, central Mexico. EOS v. 80, p. 1089.

An abstract of the latter paper is available online.

However, the date of 2000 years B.P. for the Xitle volcano is challenged by a couple of recent publications discussed at the end of the page http://www.intersurf.com/~chalcedony/FOG11.html, one of which says that radiocarbon dating suggests that Xitle erupted "1670 years BP, some 300 years later than previously thought." I have not yet seen the studies and don't know how they affect the above statements on volcanism and the Book of Mormon, but please recall that Xitle is not the only volcanic eruption that LDS writers have tentatively linked to the description in Third Nephi.

For further information about ancient volcanic activity in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Mexico, see the article, "When Day Turned into Night" in PDF format.

Also of interest, a page on Teotihuacan suggests that some of its early inhabitants may have com from further south in Mexico as a result of the Xitle volcano, "which caused major devastation and forced the survivors in the region to seek a new place to settle." Teotihuacan is believed to be in the land north of Zarahemla and the narrow neck of land, a place where cement construction became popular, according to Helaman 3.

Information about and photos of volcanoes in Guatemala (part of Mesoamerica, where leading LDS scholars conclude the Book of Mormon took place) are available at
The Volcanoes of Guatemala site at MayaParadise.com.

Further evidence comes from ice core data. Benjamin R. Jordan, while completing a Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island involving research on volcanic ash layers in Central America, published an article examining evidence for ancient volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. The article, "Volcanic Destruction in the Book of Mormon: Possible Evidence from Ice Cores," was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2003, pp. 78-87, and is available from farms.byu.edu in PDF or HTML formats. Examining reputable, peer-reviewed publications of ice core data from Greenland and Antarctica, Jordan shows that there are spikes in sulfate content that are consistent with significant volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. "There is evidence for large eruptions, within the margin of error, for the period of A.D. 30 to 40."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

On Paradigm Shifts and Negative Evidence: Recommended Reading from Kevin Christensen

The most recent issue of Sunstone Magazine has a short essay from Kevin Christensen, "Determining What is 'Real'." He deals with several key issues that come up regularly on this blog: how does one weigh negative and positive evidence, when is a pipece of negative evidence a "show-stopper" or something to put on the back burner, and, most recently, how should we approach the issue of Mesoamerican culture in the Book of Mormon?

Though it's almost as an aside, here is one interesting passage regarding Alma 32:
I remain mpressed that Alma 32 and Kuhn describe the same epistemology for paradigm decisions, the same values that provide rational constraints on meaning. That is, Kuhn explains that there are no rules that determine paradigm choice, there are constraining values independent of particular paradigms. One can give rational reasons for a paradigm choice—for preferring Copernicus to Ptolemy, or Einstein to Newton—based on values like accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, simplicity and aesthetics, fruitfulness and future promise. Just so, Alma 32 describes faith decisions in terms of the success of key experiments, mind-expanding enlightenment, the delicious appeal of ideas, fruitfulness and future promise.

But don't stop with this quote. The article is insightful on several levels and deserves some consideration. Thanks, Kevin!

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Infancy of Mesoamerican Studies

In a recent post, I discussed the fortifications described in the Book of Mormon and compared them to some of the remnants of similar fortifications in Mesoamerica. I noted that scholars had long thought that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica were thought to be peaceful, but that recent evidence has shown that they faced numerous wars, consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions. One person denounced this statement as unsubstantiated rubbish. While I provided a lot of documentation in that post, I didn't provide much on the old paradigm of the peaceful Mayan people, thinking that this was pretty well known. For those of you who may not realize how wrong past scholars have been, and how recent our knowledge of Mesoamerican warfare is, here is a helpful reminder from the Smithsonian Magazine, July 2004:
For much of the 20th century, Maya experts followed the lead of Carnegie Institution of Washington archaeologist J. Eric Thompson, who argued that the Maya were peaceful philosophers and extraordinary observers of celestial events content to ponder the nature of time and the cosmos. Thompson, who died in 1975, theorized that Tikal and other sites were virtually unpopulated "ceremonial centers" where priests studied planets and stars and the mysteries of the calendar. It was a beautiful vision-but nearly all wrong.

When, in the 1960s, the hieroglyphs-the most sophisticated writing system created in the New World-were at last beginning to be deciphered, a new picture of these people emerged. Mayan art and writing, it turned out, contained stories of battles, sacrificial offerings and torture. Far from being peaceful, the Maya were warriors, their kings vainglorious despots. Maya cities were not merely ceremonial; instead, they were a patchwork of feudal fiefdoms bent on conquest and living in constant fear of attack.
If scholars were ignorant of the most basic aspects of Mayan life until recent years, it should come as no surprise that much still remains poorly understood. Other paradigms may yet be shaken. A critical problem is that nearly all of the written documents from the ancient literary peoples of Mesoamerica were destroyed by the Spaniards. It sickens me to read of Friar Diego de Landa burning the books of the Mayan people because they were felt to be evil. Michael D. Coe laments that "our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)

A knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica - the region many of us LDS folks see as the epicenter of Book of Mormon lands - is still in its infancy. Archaeological research is decades behind work in Israel and the Middle East in general. Documents are rare. Digs are hindered by many factors, not the least of which have been political chaos. And scholars have only recently figured out the most basic aspects of ancient life in Mesoamerica, such as the fact that they faced many wars and indeed had to spend a lot of time making weapons and fortifications, including some in Book of Mormon style. So for those of you who think a clear knowledge of Mesoamerican warfare, fortifications, and human sacrifice would have been readily available to Joseph Smith to include in his vain little attempt at plagiarism, think again.

Please note that non-LDS Mesoamerican scholars ARE NOT coming out in support of the Book of Mormon. It's utter silliness to them and provides no compelling reason to believe to anyone who will not read it seriously and ponder. But to those who will look and understand what it really says and does not say, there are increasing grounds for accepting its plausibility, and the impossibility that Joseph Smith just made it up based on what was known in 1830.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

It All Began with a Book of Mormon in a Bag: A Favorite Missionary Experience In Switzerland

I was just reflecting on one of my experiences in Switzerland as a young missionary, and thought I'd share it. It was the last month of my mission in the wonderful St. Gallen area. My companion, Elder Angerhofer, and I were having a great week. Though it's rarely wise to do so, we ended up scheduling a couple appointments on the afternoon of our preparation day to be able get some more teaching opportunities in with promising investigators. But we were soon disappointed. One investigator had left the Book of Mormon in a bag on her door with a note that she didn't want to talk anymore. Naturally, we refused to honor her wishes and kicked in the door -- wait, wrong cult! No, we left, disappointed, and went to the next investigator, who also told us that she wasn't interested.

I remember how we went outside and stood on a sidewalk, feeling a bit forlorn but hopeful that our little sacrifice of time this day might still be worthwhile. We looked over the city below us and prayerfully pondered what to do. Do we go home for a few more hours of a normal preparation day or keep working? We felt that we should work. After further reflection, we felt that we should head toward some tall buildings near a hospital. We went there and picked a street that seemed good, and then tried our luck tracting. We couldn't get into those newer apartment buildings, but tried a couple of buzzers and spoke into the speaker to see if anyone wanted to let in a couple of strange American religious fanatics that they couldn't see. For some reason, they weren't interested. Go figure.

As we left the entryway of the first building and started back toward the street, we ran into a couple of men who looked like something out of the drug culture. In fact, one was completely stoned and the other seemed largely drunk. I was anxious to move on but my faithful companion struck up a conversation and asked if they had time to talk about religion. My body language may have conveyed the message of "Let's get out of here!" but my outstanding junior companion pressed on, and soon we were inside and walking up the stairs to their apartment.

The completely stoned guy was shaking (mostly rocking his torso back and forth) and I was afraid I'd have to carry him up the stairs, but he made it. The department was a filthy little hovel with a tall pile of ashes in the middle of the floor, apparently from whatever they had been smoking over the past few weeks. Clothes, pots, pans, and other items were strewn around the place. The stoned guy lay down and just shook. The other guy said not to worry and told us to go ahead and talk. But first he had to turn on his boombox or radio to provide some helpful rock and roll as loud background music. It might have been the Rolling Stones. I was quite ready to leave when the phone rang. After a few words, the man said he had a couple of American preachers with him and then handed me the phone. Strange.

A Swiss woman, Sonja Schweizer, was on the other end. She was excited that we were from America. "American? Wonderful! Oh, I just love John Wayne!" I'll never forget that - it was hilarious. She asked me if the two guys were on drugs again and told me that she had been working with them to get them clean. She said that God was behind it because she had reached them originally by dialing a wrong number, had recognized that someone had drugs had answered, and had begun pestering them to free them from drugs. Then she asked about us, what kind of missionaries we were. "Mormons? Oh no, anything but that! That's horrible - you have all those wives!" My quick response: "Really, I don't even have one wife. And we don't do polygamy anymore. It's been banned for a long time." She was OK with that, and told us that we needed to bring the men over to her apartment and preach to them there. We agreed, gave the phone back to the somewhat drunk man, and soon we were walking with him to her apartment a few blocks away. The completely stoned guy stayed where he was.

It was a poor attitude on my part, but I felt a little embarrassed to be walking along the busy street with our somewhat drunk friend as he staggered occasionally. Such a petty concern.

We got to Sonja's apartment, where we met that amazing Yugoslavian woman (Schweizer was her name from a failed marriage to a Swiss man) and her two kids. She was in a wheelchair, having suffered many afflictions in her life. She was probably 35, I think. Very dynamic and strong willed. She scolded our drunk friend as we sat on her couch and she talked about how awful it was that he and his friend were abusing drugs and alcohol. She pointed to him and said, "Preach to him!" We decided to talk about the Plan of Salvation, which was the second discussion then, as I recall. Within five minutes, he had passed out completely, but she was all ears. "Yes! Of course - that makes so much sense! Why didn't my ministers ever tell me this? They are such worthless fools!" We got a lot of that as she reveled in the beautiful power of Gospel basics and marveled at how well it fit the Bible and how far modern Christianity had come from what struck her as obvious truth. She said she somehow had already believed that there must have been a premortal existence and so forth. When we finished, she said, "Gentlemen, you've got yourself a convert!"

I am disappointed to report that with her difficult situation in life and other factors, she never did manage to be baptized. Tragically, facing the pain of great physical afflictions, she became a victim to a professionally assisted suicide in 2000, just three weeks before I was planning to visit her on a trip to Europe. How pained I am by that, but I trust I will rejoice to meet her again one day - and pray that the Savior's Atonement will remove her grief and make her fully His.

But during those few weeks I had remaining in Switzerland, Sonja became a powerful missionary for our cause, in spite of her difficulty in accepting baptism. She introduced her nurse to us, a person we could never have reached otherwise because of her remote location and difficult schedule. We were able to teach this busy nurse in Sonja's home and had wonderful spiritual experiences (and the non-spiritual experience of making American root beer for them: "Ugh. It tastes like medicine."). She developed a profound personal testimony of the Gospel, and was baptized shortly after I returned to the states. Sister Sigrist would later go on a mission to Hamburg and marry in the temple. She continues to be a faithful and active member in Switzerland (with a different last name now).

She also introduced her social worker to us, a wonderful man who is one of my favorite people in the world, a real hero who now works diligently in Switzerland to help poor refugees, and who has also worked to help refugees in Sudan. My wife, my two oldest sons and I had the privilege of spending some time with him and his family in Switzerland during our trip in 2000, and I continue to cherish our friendship. He's not a member of the Church, but he's very much like a diligent bishop in the work of ministering to others. An amazing and loving man.

Cherished experiences, precious relationships, and instructive encounters with pains and tragedies of life, all stemmed from that one frustrating moment, standing on a sidewalk in Switzerland holding a bag with a rejected Book of Mormon, prayerfully wondering what to do next. How grateful I am to the Lord for such experiences.