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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dealing with a Flawed and Spiritually Superior Spouse

My last post dealt with religious tensions in marriage, especially when one spouse in an originally LDS marriage decides to fall away from the Church. In response, one anonymous commenter asked what to do when a spouse announces that they are on a higher spiritual plane (Zion Airlines, perhaps?). I'd like to discuss this briefly as a separate topic.

If your spouse ever tells you that you are spiritually inferior or that he or she is somehow on a higher spiritual plane, recognize that this is a red flag pointing to a serious problem. It indicates a huge gap in the marriage that needs to be resolved. Mutual respect and courtesy may be lacking and one or both parties may have a problem that needs attention. The recipient of this unkind statement will naturally feel that it is the self-professed more spiritual one that has the real problem here: arrogance, self-righteousness, unkindness, a tendency to nag and belittle, lack of respect, etc., etc. However, the real path to recovery at this point must begin with the response of Peter and the other Apostles when Christ announced that one of them would be betray him: "Lord, is it I?" (Matthew 26:22). There's a problem here: it it me?

We men instinctively know that the problems in marriage are the fault of the wife. But for some crazy reason, pointing to her flaws doesn't seem to help (I'm speaking hypothetically here, drawing upon the experience of others, since I married a nearly perfect woman). In fact, the more we try to help by pointing out her weaknesses and giving wise husbandly tips for her improvement, the worse marriage gets and the worse her apparent flaws become. When men do the counter-intuitive step of focusing on their own weaknesses (dig deep--surely there's some little flaw you can find?) and strive to become kinder, more loving, more self-sacrificing, and, above all, LESS CRITICAL at the very moment when all our male instincts are saying it's time to step up the critique of that very flawed other being who is obviously causing all the problems, then the most unexpected thing happens: her flaws start to become less severe, more tolerable, and maybe almost invisible, and marriage becomes more joyous and fun, almost as if the problem the whole time was with us and not her. Go figure! It's crazy stuff--we can't change them unless we only try to change ourselves--maybe that's why they say women are from a different planet. Actually, don't try to figure it out.

So if you have a highly flawed spouse who insults you by claiming to be on a higher spiritual plane (and it certainly does sound insulting and, like I said, a huge red flag pointing to a deep divide), the appropriate response is to recognize that there is a serious problem. While the problem may be 100% hers (or his), the course to recovery may well begin with a 100% focus on you.

In cases where the wife says something of this nature to a non-believing husband, it may sound like she's saying she wants him to convert and become some kind of saint, but she might really be saying that she wishes he would drop some offensive behavior or come to church with her occasionally. I would suggest to the husband in that case that he strive to become kinder, less critical, take the garbage out, get his socks off the floor, stop complaining, cook something nice for her, go to church with her occasionally or as much as he can stand, watch General Conference with her, and focus on what he can do and what he can change--and then perhaps he'll see the magic happen and find that all the work he did to change himself has actually changed her. He may find that his terribly flawed, arrogant, self-righteous wife has been transformed into someone closer to the perfect woman than he ever imagined possible.

This is just my seven cents (two cents in 1980 dollars). Again, I speak purely from a theoretical, hypothetical perspective, having only been married to a nearly perfect woman who has never had any need of stating the obvious: that she's on a higher spiritual plane than me. Which is why, I'm afraid, I sometimes still leave my socks on the floor. Be grateful for the opportunity before you!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Marriage Tip: Maintain Faithful Behavior Even When There is a Crisis of Faith

The FAIR Blog tackles the allegation that the Church breaks up families by exploring some details of one ex-member who at least partly blames his divorce on the Church. I've been close to enough people going through divorce and marital problems to be highly suspicious of either party blaming any church, religion, employer, club, friend, or sport for the failure of their marriage. They may be right, but I often find that issues closer to home might be more important.

If someone struggles with their faith, they need patience and support. If they cannot accept the Church anymore, I hope that they can also be treated with patience and love. When that person goes beyond just lack of faith into active violation of the principles that were part of the common foundation for that marriage--for example, deciding that it's OK to go off to questionable parties and drink alcoholic beverages, or taking up tobacco--the sense of betrayal would seem to me to be higher.

I have seen many some examples of loving support of an LDS spouse by a non-believer who was never LDS, but has been understanding and helpful. Some of these men and women eventually accept the faith, though many do not. Some come to Church patiently with their spouse and provide help in numerous ways. I think of the example of one of the most loving men I know, a Jewish man who attended Church with his sweet wife for years and endured many lessons on Jesus Christ and several efforts from well-meaning Mormons to convert him. (In his case, he surprised and delighted us all after he moved away and decided to be baptized as a result of his own personal spiritual journey. He's now officially a fellow Latter-day Saint, though he always seemed that way.)

I would hope that those who lose faith for whatever reason will not lose sight of the feelings and needs of their spouse, and continue the courtship through regular dates and even going to church, and always respecting the standards of the Church as much as possible. Even if you conclude that there is no God and that, in theory, it's now perfectly fine to smoke, drink, swear, and leave the toilet seat up, I think you would be wise and your marriage will be stronger if you remain as faithful as possible to the standards you had already agreed to live when you said "I do."

Being faithful to the behaviors that were expected of you when you wed would seem like a loving and courteous thing to do, even when the faithful behaviors are no longer propped up by a vibrant faith.

Please note: I'm not saying divorce is justified when someone rejects the Church and refuses to participate, or takes up social drinking or other behaviors in tension with LDS faith. I prefer to see people work things through and deal with changes and differences with mutual love and respect. I am saying that your love and respect for your spouse ought to lead you to be very cautious about doing things that depart from the agreed-upon rules for your marriage and that would hinder your spouse's religious life.

Religion matters in marriage. It's an issue that young couples should discuss carefully before tying the knot so they understand what they are getting into and what is expected of one another, especially when children will be raised. Respect for your spouse's religion should be high on your priority list, even if you personally lose respect for that religion for whatever reason.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Today I was Robbed on My Doorstep, Held at Smilepoint by a Local Gang

Right here in "safe" Appleton, Wisconsin, I was victimized today by a bold gang who robbed me right on my doorstep. Beware, you could be next. I should have noticed the bright gang colors as they approached: blue and yellow shirts, baseball caps, with bright bandannas around their necks. There were two main perpetrators, relatively short white males, about 3 foot four, no visible scars or tattoos, and there was an accomplice nearby, an older white male who pulled the red getaway wagon. This dreaded local "Cub" gang held me at smilepoint until I agree to fork over $20 for a 1-pound bag of toffee popcorn. Thank goodness I didn't have a lot of cash with me, or it could have been much worse. I might be wolfing down two bags instead of just one.

Don't waste your time calling the police when these gangs come after you--turns out quite a few police have sons who are tied to these groups. Some even help them out during so-called "fundraising drives." The only thing you can do to protect yourself is to be prepared: remember, no matter what they say, don't look at those eyes and especially not at those smiles. It's kind of like a reverse Gorgon effect: one look and your stone cold heart will turn all soft on you and have you handing out your hard-earned money to fundraising gangsters. Be prepared!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Two Gems in Alma 7: When Weaknesses in the Book of Mormon Become Strengths

Back-to-back verses in Alma chapter 7 of the Book of Mormon provide interesting lessons for all of us in dealing with the many arguments that have been proffered to demolish the Book of Mormon. I would say that the issues involved in these verses relate to two of the top 10 arguments used against the Book of Mormon. Alma 7:10 is where we have a prophecy that Christ would be born "at Jerusalem, which is the land of our forefathers," giving rise to the argument that Joseph Smith was such a Bible-illiterate ignoramus that he didn't even know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Who can trust a book with such a ridiculous error and such obvious evidence of forgery by an idiot?

Then we have Alma 7:11, where the Book of Mormon once again borrows from the Bible, this time drawing upon Isaiah 53:4. While this verse just uses a short phrase from Isaiah, the Book of Mormon's heavy use of Isaiah and other biblical texts has led to charges of plagiarism, of slavish and dull-witted copying, and suspicious use of King James language. The "plagiarism of the Bible" attack is one of the most common.

Both of these verses have stories behind them that will do much to enlighten those who wish to understand the text. For the many who don't and who cannot risk opening their mind to the possibility that maybe this book could be for real, please just go on knowing that "Jerusalem, not Bethlehem" is all you need to know about this book (just like it's all you need to know about the Bible, too, right?). For those with more interest in learning, wow, what a treasure we have here. See "On Alma 7:10 and the Birthplace of Jesus Christ" by Daniel C. Peterson (I've also got a short discussion on my website). Quick summary: The Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence that the term "land of Jerusalem" was an authentic ancient Jewish concept describing the territory around Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, just 5 miles from downtown Jerusalem. For ancient Hebrews in the New World, separated from the land of their forefathers by several centuries and thousands of miles, it would be entirely natural to refer to place of Christ's birth as Jerusalem, or certainly the broader and authentic term "land of Jerusalem," when Bethlehem was a minor suburb. It's like me telling people in Wisconsin that my wife is from Salt Lake, when in fact she is from Sandy, a suburb over 10 miles south downtown Salt Lake. In fact, if Joseph Smith were the actual author of the Book of Mormon, of course he would have regurgitated what every schoolchild knows (well, used to know, before recent advances in public education): Christ was born in Bethlehem. Instead we have this pathetic blunder of being born "at Jerusulem, the land" (hello, it's a city, not a land, right?). In light of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the relationship between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we can now see that this silly blunder is in a strong point in favor of the plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text. I know, I know, it's just a lucky guess--like the First Nephi information on the location of the ancient burial place Nahom/Nehem and Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula. But it should at least count for something that one of the top arguments against the Book has, with further research and discovery, become a strong point. This, at least, should NOT be a reason for walking away from the Book of Mormon. (Please, I'm NOT saying that apparent evidence for plausibility equates to PROOF of divine origins.)

The second verse, Alma 7:11, is also quite interesting. Please read "The Hebrew Text of Alma 7:11" by Thomas A. Wayment. Contrary to the worn-out claim that Joseph just slavishly copied from the Bible, there are numerous subtleties in the Book of Mormon text that pose challenges to the claims of the critics. In Alma 7:11, we have language clearly citing Isaiah 53:4, but it is a much better translation of the Masoretic Hebrew text than is in the King James Version. Wayment does a nice job of exploring a variety of related issues, with ample documentation. Here is his final paragraph:
In summary, Alma's fortuitous inclusion of Isaiah 53:4 in his sermon to the people of Gideon allows us to see that Book of Mormon authors did indeed have recourse to a text very similar to our Hebrew Masoretic Text, at least in some ways. In this particular instance, a Book of Mormon author's rendering of Isaiah 53:4, as translated into English by Joseph Smith, is much more accurate than our modern English translations. It is also unimaginable that the Prophet Joseph Smith, without inspiration, could have translated such a passage into English so that it would be more reflective of our Hebrew text than the already well-established English KJV tradition, which contained significantly different wording. Most translators tend to gravitate toward established and authoritative translations of important texts. In this instance it would be natural to assume that Joseph would have translated the Isaiah passage using the wording of his KJV Bible, but instead he translated it literally, being unaware that it was an Isaiah quotation included by an ancient Book of Mormon author.
My take on the use of King James language in the Book of Mormon is that when dealing with quotations from the Old Testament, Joseph as translator made the logical choice of relying on the KJV translation and language, the standard for English scripture, as long as it was good enough. A close look, though, shows many instances in which the Book of Mormon text departs from the KJV, sometimes with profound implications, as we have in Alma 7:11 (but here, Wayment speculates, Joseph might not have recognized the quotation, otherwise he might have relied on the KJV language).

In another post, I'll mention some interesting insights about how and why the Book of Mormon authors turn to the Old Testament so much. I suppose it's not the kind of thing one would do in trying to pass off a made-up document as new scripture to sell a lot of books, but it is a very plausible thing for ancient writers of Hebrew heritage.

For more on the allegations of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon, see my LDSFAQ article, "Plagiarism in the Book of Mormon? Is It Derived from Modern Writings?" If you have a really warped sense of humor, also see "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass?"

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Toxic Exposure and Respect for Women

Recently a peer with international business experience told me of a visit he had about 20 years ago to chemical company in another nation, a nation that has long been praised for being progressive and for having protected women's rights in its laws. The company told him about their work with a particular polymer. Testing of this polymer, important for quality control, required putting it in a special solvent without any carbon-hydrogen bonds. My friend understood the technical challenges and was curious about what chemical they used because the most convenient suitable solvent is hexachlorobutadience, a very toxic compound. The man who was giving the tour acknowledged that they did use that dangerous material. "OK, so how do you manage the safety issues?" my friend asked. "Oh, no problem," was the reply. "We just use women as our technicians."

I am horrified at this story. Perhaps dozens of women were exposed to a compound that can gradually cause liver damage, neurological problems, cancer, and other disorders. But almost as if they were less than human, that was viewed as an acceptable "solution" to a safety problem, at least in the eyes of one man. They were just bodies to be exploited for pay and then thrown away--and this in a nation is that is praised for advances in women's rights and "equality." That kind of callousness, that kind of exploitation, that kind of toxic environment for women for the benefit of a man, makes me think of another person praised for being progressive and a champion of women's rights: Hugh Hefner. Not just Hugh, but all those who profit from pornography and from all the vices that exploit the bodies of women and treat them as objects to be used and then, after having been overexposed and used up, just thrown away like all Hugh's girlfriends.

There's an outrageous new movie out praising Hugh Hefner as a champion of women, as a rebel, as a cool and sensitive guy, when he's so repulsive and a shame to the male gender. This is not who we are meant to be. His perverted world is one we must flee from and utterly reject. We, men and women, are not pieces of flesh, but sons and daughters of God meant to be united in loving, lasting, even eternal relationships, not for momentary and selfish gratification, but for divine goals and the lasting joy found most fully in the sacred institution of the family. Reaching our purpose and finding that joy requires work, sacrifice, self-restraint, and giving, not just taking and never exploiting.

The false saints or demigods of our era, men like Hefner and the child-molesting Kinsey, are glorified with the greatest of lies. A quick peak under the covers reveals a diseased and grotesque reality. Pornography destroys relationships and makes men and women less, far less. It throws away real love and replaces it with cheap lust while damaging our perceptions of others and of relationships in ways that can harm people for years. How grateful I am for Church leaders who are teaching us to flee this danger in our midst. May we have the wisdom to see beyond the lies of those who build it up. Shame on those who recklessly exploit the bodies of men and women for corporate and personal gain.

I'll conclude with an except from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at the last General Conference, from his talk, "Place No More for the Enemy of My Soul":
As Sister Holland and I recently disembarked at a distant airport, three beautiful young women getting off the same flight hurried up to greet us. They identified themselves as members of the Church, which wasn’t too surprising because those not of our faith usually don’t rush up to us in airports. In a conversation we hadn’t expected, we soon learned through their tears that all three of these women were recently divorced, that in each case their husbands had been unfaithful to them, and in each case the seeds of alienation and transgression had begun with an attraction to pornography.

With that stark introduction to my message today—one it is challenging for me to give—I feel much like Jacob of old, who said, “It grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech … before … many … whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate.” But bold we need to be. Perhaps it was the father in me or maybe the grandfather, but the tears in those young women’s eyes brought tears to mine and Sister Holland’s, and the questions they asked left me asking, “Why is there so much moral decay around us, and why are so many individuals and families, including some in the Church, falling victim to it, being tragically scarred by it?”

But, of course, I knew at least part of the answer to my own question. Most days we all find ourselves assaulted by immoral messages of some kind flooding in on us from every angle. The darker sides of the movie, television, and music industry step further and further into offensive language and sexual misconduct. Tragically, the same computer and Internet service that allows me to do my family history and prepare those names for temple work could, without filters and controls, allow my children or grandchildren access to a global cesspool of perceptions that could blast a crater in their brains forever.

Remember that those young wives said their husbands’ infidelity began with an attraction to pornography, but immoral activity is not just a man’s problem, and husbands aren’t the only ones offending. The compromise available at the click of a mouse—including what can happen in a chat room’s virtual encounter—is no respecter of persons, male or female, young or old, married or single. And just to make sure that temptation is ever more accessible, the adversary is busy extending his coverage, as they say in the industry, to cell phones, video games, and MP3 players.

If we stop chopping at the branches of this problem and strike more directly at the root of the tree, not surprisingly we find lust lurking furtively there. Lust is an unsavory word, and it is certainly an unsavory topic for me to address, but there is good reason why in some traditions it is known as the most deadly of the seven deadly sins.

Why is lust such a deadly sin? Well, in addition to the completely Spirit-destroying impact it has upon our souls, I think it is a sin because it defiles the highest and holiest relationship God gives us in mortality—the love that a man and a woman have for each other and the desire that couple has to bring children into a family intended to be forever. Someone said once that true love must include the idea of permanence. True love endures. But lust changes as quickly as it can turn a pornographic page or glance at yet another potential object for gratification walking by, male or female. True love we are absolutely giddy about—as I am about Sister Holland; we shout it from the housetops. But lust is characterized by shame and stealth and is almost pathologically clandestine—the later and darker the hour the better, with a double-bolted door just in case. Love makes us instinctively reach out to God and other people. Lust, on the other hand, is anything but godly and celebrates self-indulgence. Love comes with open hands and open heart; lust comes with only an open appetite.

These are just some of the reasons that prostituting the true meaning of love—either with imagination or another person—is so destructive. It destroys that which is second only to our faith in God—namely, faith in those we love. It shakes the pillars of trust upon which present—or future—love is built, and it takes a long time to rebuild that trust when it is lost.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New Evidence for the Authenticity of Lehi as an Ancient Semitic Male Name

Contrary to what one would expect if Joseph Smith were just making up the Book of Mormon, a surprisingly large number of the names introduced in the Book of Mormon have tantalizing evidence in favor of their plausibility as ancient names with Semitic roots. Some of the most interesting finds involve names that critics have attacked as blunders, such as the clumsy "mistake" of using the female Latin name Alma for an ancient man's name. Thanks to 20th-century archaeological finds, we now know that Alma was an ancient Jewish name for a man (more info is on my Book of Mormon Evidences page).

Today I'd like to point to the new evidence for the plausibility of Lehi as an ancient man's name in the Near East. Before discussing this any further, let me waive off the usual howls by pointing out that in showing evidence for the plausibility or authenticity of one tiny element in the Book of Mormon, I am not claiming that the Book of Mormon has been proved to be absolutely true. I am simply suggesting that one argument for rejecting the Book of Mormon might have been weakened.

The argument in this case involves the name Lehi, which does occur in the Bible but only as a placename, not as the name of a person. The Book of Mormon begins with a prophet named Lehi in 600 B.C., who ends up leading his family (including his son, Nephi, the record keeper introduced in the first verse) to the New World via an entirely plausible route through the Arabian Peninsula. Critics have suggested that Lehi is not known as a person's name and that Joseph Smith made a mistake in treating it as such.

Evidence for Lehi as an ancient male name is presented by Jeffrey R. Chadwick in his article, "Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on an Ostracon from the Shore of the Red Sea," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, vol. 19, vo. 1, pp. 14-21, 2010. It's a good read. I'll just share the conclusion:
That the lḥy element of Ablehi was written in Aramaic script of the Persian period, just like the name lḥy on Ostracon 2071, and that the two inscribed names even look very much alike, also seems significant. If, indeed, it is quite plausible that the lḥy element of Ablehi is actually a Hebrew name (in a Samaritan context, north of Judea), then the plausibility of lḥy on Ostracon 2071 being a Hebrew name (in an Edomite context, south of Judea) is enhanced.

It is also an interesting coincidence that similar evidence for Lehi's wife's name has turned up in a papyrus document, written in Persian period Aramaic, in the era following the sixth century BC. The female Jewish/Hebrew name Sariah appears in an Aramaic papyrus from the fifth century BC (albeit partially restored by the original publisher). The document is known as C-22 (or Cowley-22), and was found at Elephantine in upper Egypt around the year 1900. The appearance of the name Sariah was first published as a possible example of the Book of Mormon female name Sariah by myself in 1993 [see "Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri"]. The female name Sariah does not appear in the Bible, just as the male name Lehi does not. Yet both appear in the Book of Mormon. That we can now identify both the Jewish/Hebrew names Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri and Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on Ostracon 2071 represents two significant steps forward....
Again, I'm not saying this is any reason to join the Church. But I will venture my humble opinion that alleged problems with ancient names like Lehi, Sariah, and Alma are NOT good reasons to leave the Church or reject the Book of Mormon. There are plenty of other good reasons to choose from, if that's your goal, but my hope is that people will give the Book of Mormon a chance and actually read and study that majestic text before rejecting it out of hand based on what they've heard from the critics. It's a book that has changed my life and made it so much richer. I hope you'll experience the power of this Christ-centered book in your life, too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dream Big: The Recommended Music Video to Accompany That Soup

Naturally, those of you who are trying out my just-released recipe for butternut squash soup are asking, "Jeff, what music video goes best with this soup?" That's a tough question. To narrow it down, I chose one particular and possibly subjective subcategory: music videos made by people that don't look like they need to be locked up as soon as possible. Then I went even narrower: music videos by musicians with musical talent. It was still a tough decision, but here's one candidate. For those of you in Utah, it's from a band with Utah ties: Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand, perhaps most famous for their hit "Dream Big" -- that's the video I suggest. There are some parts of this video that require the warning, "Do Not Attempt This at Home" (mostly the guy with the bottle). Anyway, this song has a rhythm and message that I think go well with the conflicted philosophical background of my butternut squash soup.

The video is on YouTube. Embedding has been disabled so I can't place it here, but just go to the YouTube link. Warning: there's a 10-second commercial at the beginning. The one I saw had a child asking Congress to quit digging us deeper into debt. Some viewers with an insatiable appetite for more debt found that horribly disgusting and couldn't swallow my healthy, frugal soup after that. In the spirit of equal time, I tried to find a music video with an ad in which children called for more crushing debt to be put on their backs, but in every case the musicians were the kind who need to be locked up as soon as possible. I found some plain old non-musical political ads with that message--same problem with the politicians, though. So I'll have to stay unbalanced for this post. But feel free to think positive thoughts about crushing debt. Meanwhile, for those of us with the crazy dream of bringing fiscal sanity to this nation, all I can say is, "Dream Big." (Or anything but spend big.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Mormon-Approved Secret Combination: Spiced Onions in Butternut Squash Soup

While I'm generally opposed to the "secret combinations" decried in the Book of Mormon, I have to admit that I have created and benefited from one of my own. I've kept my own oath of secrecy on this for years, but now it's time to come clean and expose it for what it is--a delicious (IMHO), comforting soup where the essence of the secret combination is butternut squash mixed with base notes from sauteed onions and spices. Everything is blended and thinned with half and half (or milk and cream) plus chicken broth to give a relatively thick, smooth, creamy soup with flavors you don't find in typical butternut squash soup, thanks again to the secret combination revealed below.

Every batch is a little different (read: I hate to follow recipes), but here is my general procedure.

Essential ingredients:
1. Ripe butternut squash, 2-3 medium or 1+ large. Best in the form of fresh produce, but frozen butternut squash packages can work (may impact texture and flavor, though). A mixture or turban squash and a little pumpkin can work reasonably well, especially when blended with butternut squash (I tried this last year with good results). If you use summer squash or other squash species, the result can be good but definitely inferior to the rich, smooth tones from ripe baked butternut squash. But feel free to experiment.

2. One large red onion or 2 small onions (yellow or white can work).

3. Olive oil (butter works, too).

4. One quart of half and half (or a pint of cream and one or more pints of milk).

5. 1-2 16-oz cans of chicken broth (roughly 24 ounces).

6. Maharajah curry powder (my favorite product from Penzey's spices, a rich slightly hot yellow curry with cardamom and a touch of saffron). Sweet yellow curry can also be used.

7. Other spices: garlic (I like both fresh garlic and good garlic powder), dried basil, paprika, cinnamon (prefer Ceylon cinnamon), tarragon (optional), nutmeg (optional), turmeric (yes, it's already in the curry, but I still use it directly in preparing the spiced onions), Aleppo pepper or cayenne (optional), cardamom powder (optional but good), fresh ground black pepper (optional - maybe white pepper if you want to reduce black specks), dried dill greens (garnish for serving).

8. Optional ingredients: mushrooms and grated cheese. I prefer it with a little cheese built into the soup and on top when served. For cheese, I prefer a flavorful white cheese than can melt well, such as a not-highly-aged Wisconsin Gruyere, Muenster cheese, medium to sharp cheddar, Gouda, or Monterrey Jack. I don't think Ementhaler or US "Swiss" works well, and don't use Parmesan or Asiago. Please don't use so-called American cheese - don't use it ever. Gag.)

Equipment: good blender, large pot, frying pan (cast iron skillet is great for this).

Preparation:

A. Bake the squash. Slice the squash lengthwise to prepare for baking. Cutting off the top and bottom parts can make the vertical slice easier and less risky. Or cut into whatever shapes you can manage. Be careful! Knives can slip - cutting a squash sometimes can be difficult, especially for large specimens. If you have any trouble, rather than risk slicing a finger, have your teenage son hurl it onto a clean portion of your driveway and wash off the pieces. It doesn't have to be pretty, just baked--bakes faster if open. Once sliced open, remove the seeds. Place opened-side up on a cookie sheet. I can't resist adding a little brown sugar and butter into the hollowed-out regions that held the seeds. That is the filet mignon region of butternut squash and you have to enjoy a few spoons of it after baking. I then cover the squash sections with aluminum foil and bake in the center of the over at 350 F for about 2.5 hours. If not covered, the exposed surfaces may become dried out and hard. We want nearly the whole thing to be succulent and tender.

B. Prepare the secret onion mush. The idea is that you'll fry onions with a lot of spices to create an oily, soft mass of very flavorful translucent onions that will go into the blender and become part of the smooth soup. (You may wish to add a few mushrooms to the mush--their earthy base notes can go well with the mix.) Key spices are garlic, a turmeric-heavy curry, basil, paprika, and some cinnamon. Salt, too, and I usually grind some pepper as well. There are many variations possible, but I think cardamom should be present either in the curry itself or in a couple small pinches of added powder. So, dice the onion (slices are OK). Heat a frying pan with three of four tablespoons of olive oil in it (I sometimes use a mix of olive oil and butter - butter is what I use when I fry mushrooms if I'm adding them to the mush). Add salt to the onions and sprinkle in about 1 teaspoon of turmeric to give a yellow color to the onions as they cook. During the frying, add about 1 tablespoon of dried basil. Grind the basil between your fingers to turn it into powder--this improves the aesthetics of the final product, in my opinion. Add a lot of garlic - I'll smash up five or so large garlic sections (maybe a whole clove of garlic) and add a teaspoon or two of garlic powder. Don't use ultra-cheap bitter garlic--get the good stuff. As the onions are becoming well cooked, blend in almost a tablespoon of the Maharajah curry or a sweet curry. Add a pinch or two of cardamom to taste. You want the onions to taste strong with rich earthy notes so that blending them in with the butternut squash imparts some real flavor. Shake in paprika and let it blend in with the oil. Add cinnamon, maybe 1 teaspoon or a little less. If the spices soak up too much of the oil, add a little more. Cook until the onions are soft and the spices well absorbed. Maybe 20 minutes on low to medium heat.

C. Blending time. We're going to blend up the onion mush and the squash in three or four batches. I'll assume 3 batches, but it depends on the size of the squash and the capacity of your blender. I use a typical, small blender. S assuming 3 batches, add about 1/3 of the onion mush (around 1/4 of a cup, I think) to the bottom of the blender. Add a little half and half and some chicken broth to help it blend. Blend it for a few seconds. Then scoop out about three cups of soft, warm butternut squash and put it in the blender, too, and add about a cup each of chicken broth and half and half. Turn the blender on. Stop immediately. Clean off the ceiling and now put the lid on the blender and try again. There should be enough liquid so that the mix will blend with flow occurring throughout the mass. It should be thick, somewhat like a rich fruit smoothie. Blend it for 60 seconds or so and check to make sure that onion pieces have been completely disintegrated. You will see some specks of spices, but that's OK. Take the liquefied contents and poor them into a large pan for final preparation. Repeat this process for the other batches: onions, broth, milk+cream, butternut squash, and blend until thick and smooth. Now combine it all into one large pot (or split between two pots). At this point you may wish to thin it with additional broth and milk and make final adjustments to flavor as you stir and heat the soup to serving temperature. The only adjustment I make at this stage is possibly adding more Maharajah curry, salt, cinnamon, and grated cheese so that the hot soup has a rich, comforting flavor. Stir regularly or you'll get boiling at the bottom with big burps of steam that splatter.

D. Serve. I put a cup or so of hot soup in bowls and garnish the soup. My preference is to put three bands of color across the top of the soup with a little thin line of sprinkled paprika, a thin line of green dill particles, and a line of white grated cheese for a red, green, and white theme across the middle of the bowl. That's optional, of course.

Enjoy!

Oh, since this is a religious blog, be sure to pray before your meal. Naturally, following the example of Alma when he dined with Amulek in the Book of Mormon, you'll also want to follow the old Hebrew practice and pray after the meal--that's how grateful I hope you'll be. Oh, and when serving the soup, place the bowls on plates with a compatible color. Yes, I suppose gold plates will do.

Finally, as you explore what can be done with the amazing flavors of baked butternut squash, seriously take a moment to reflect on the majesty of the Creation and the wonderful foods and rich flavors that we are blessed with. Be grateful to the Lord who created such splendor for our benefit.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

BYU Education Week: Watch Recent Sessions on the BYU Broadcasting Site

BYU Education Week is a huge event every August where thousands of people from all over come to BYU to hear hundreds of great speakers on numerous topics in over 1000 classes. This program began in 1922. A few highlights of Education Weeks from the past decade are available at BYU Broadcasting (BYUB.org). Right now I'm watching the presentation by Clyde Williams, "Why the Fall, the Atonement, and Agency?" given on Aug. 17, 2009.

I expect highlights from 2010 will soon be available.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Church of the Magic Walk-on-Water Shoes of Liquid Mountaineering Saints

Millions of people have seen the amazing "liquid mountaineering" video that featured athletic men who were able to apparently run on water for a few steps without sinking by using special water-repelling shoes and advanced techniques. Their video that went viral is well done, dramatic, and created many believers who tried to do the same thing. I believe it also created a temporary surge in sales for the Hi-Tec brand of shoes, the magic shoes needed for walking on water. After becoming an Internet sensation, the company finally came clean and explained that the video was a hoax with the men just running on walkway submerged a couple inches below the surface of the water. Here is the original video followed by the video on its making in which we are told that they "just wanted to change the way people think." Right, they did that. Now when people think about that brand, many will think, "Hey, those are the people that fooled me about their product before?" But it was a fascinating classic stunt.

What does this have to do with religion? First, a number of people have compared the gullibility of the many who fell for the video hoax to the alleged gullibility of those who believe in God and any form of religion. Second, I think a more interesting issue for LDS people is how things might have played out if the mastermind behind the video was not just selling shoes, but trying to launch a new religion with impressive evidences. Take a look at the videos, if you haven't seen them, and then let's talk below.




OK, yes, humans are gullible and believe in some crazy things. I'm not just talking about Keynesian economics, fad diets, or the Higgs boson (which may exist, who knows?). Gullibility extends into all spheres of human thought, including religion. There's a lot of intellectual quicksand out there, so tread carefully or you'll sink, magic shoes and all. All of us must recognize that there are many things about our knowledge that may be imperfect or quite wrong, and even things that we have really experienced and may truly know can be misinterpreted. This is one reason why were are told to seek, study, and learn constantly, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and to not trust in our own often errant wisdom and understanding. Right, no easy answers here. Endure, press forward, study, and one day we'll get the answers we're anxious to have now.

Now to the second issue. What if Hi-Tec's head of marketing, Simon Bonham, had been out to create a religion? What if his team were all to be new apostles in the Church of the Magic Walk-on-Water Shoes of Liquid Mountaineering Saints (LMS for short)? The team, of course, would be in on the fraud, but through generous stock options and stringent confidentiality agreements, they would have strong incentives to keep the fraud secret and advance the cause of the LMS faith, faith that would go viral with its dramatic video evidence of supernatural power that had been given to the faithful who could literally walk on water.

The church could offer a business model in which faithfulness was measured by the ability to do supernatural water walking. First, members would have to buy the magic shoes, but that's just one step. They would also need magic underwear in the form of Hi-Tec body suits, available only to those who advanced the cause and donated lots of money. Then the magic could only happen at approved holy sites, requiring additional investment. The whole thing could be a vast fraud, a conspiracy to exploit gullible members and take their money. Well, not gullible in the sense of people who believe in the unseen with mere faith, but gullible in the sense of more intelligent people who insisted on tangible, visible evidence, amply provided in video form and with public demonstrations at holy water-walking sites.

The religion could certainly make an initial splash, but where would it go? Even with stock options, bonuses, secrecy agreements and physical threats, what would happen if the group of conspiring "apostles" had a falling out with the head of the church? What would happen if they were excommunicated and cast out of the church? When legal battles erupted, when the church was discredited and despised by the world, when speaking against it and telling your story could land you a spot on 60 Minutes, Letterman, or even Oprah and bring lucrative book deals, how many apostles would remain quiet?

Now a really ridiculous question: how many of the initial gang of conspirators, after having broken away from the lead con man, would go to their graves, long after his death, insisting that it was all real and that they had really walked on water with supernatural power? It would be beyond belief that any would.

That's the contrast, gullible readers, between the imaginary LMS church based on fraud and the group of many credible witnesses of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon. Yes, one can imagine that it was all a fraud, but after having studied the lives and statements of the many witnesses of the Book of Mormon, it becomes hard to rationalize their actions with the idea of a sustained fraud. All of them, every one of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses and others who became witnesses of the physical reality of the gold plates and other elements of the Book of Mormon, went to their graves being true to their witness. They never denied it, in spite of some having been excommunicated by Joseph and having good reason to feel anger toward him. When time, distance, and lack of church affiliation stood between them and their original testimony, the easy way out of claiming pressure or delusion or hypnotism or deception was never a question. They knew what they had seen and experienced and could not deny it.

They didn't think Joseph ever walked on water, but they knew had received the gold plates through the aid of an angel and that they were translated with the power of God. The hypothetical LMS church with its impressive video evidence was a fraud that took in many educated people, including some who were too intelligent to ever believe in something as crazy as God. The LDS story, on the other hand, is one in which the primary fruit for Joseph Smith's call as a prophet, the Book of Mormon, becomes more interesting and impressive with time rather than falling apart within moments of going viral because the witnesses to the fraud couldn't all be kept silent.

Disclaimer, Sept. 11, 2010: One reader felt that I was claiming that the LDS Church must be true because one of its founding events was not likely to be a fraudulent conspiracy. No, that's not my point. My point is simply that it is highly unlikely that the origins of the Book of Mormon are due to a conspiracy of fraud among, say, all or some of the Three Witnesses and Joseph Smith, as some have suggested. Not being a deliberate fraudulent conspiracy is DIFFERENT than being "proven true and from God." I would like to disclaim any such implication in my post. In fact, I disclaim any alleged implication from any of my writings that the Church or the Book of Mormon has been "proven" true. I said that the Book of Mormon becomes "more interesting" with time, but that doesn't mean "proven true." I did say, however, that the witnesses "knew" that Joseph had received the plates through the aid of an angel. OK, that's what they said and experienced, but to be more clear, I acknowledge that what one person sincerely "knows" may be wrong or incomplete for a number of reasons. They may have been deceived or delusional, though they insisted that they were not. The angel Moroni and the gold plates may have been a result of hypnotism, a hallucinogen, an actor in angel robes hired by Joseph Smith to fool his brethren, a Satanic ministration, an alien named Zordak just playing with human minds while visiting earth on vacation, etc. Sky's the limit. Bizarre and seemingly delusional events have happened with groups before. So maybe Joseph was the lone fraudster, or maybe even he was delusional and sincere, and then through a series of successfully pulled-off delusion-inducing events, he convinced every witness of the gold plates that it was all real and divine. You'll have to wade through the possibilities yourself.

I would also point out that even if the Book of Mormon is truly divine, as I believe it is, this does not of itself mean that the Church is true or that other actions and policies from Joseph and subsequent leaders were necessarily correct. The history is complex and there are all sorts of possibilities to consider. Faith is going to be needed for any aspect of even true religion, so I'm never going to say that any event or apparent evidence "proves" anything about God and the truthfulness of the Church. It may strengthen the case for plausibility, it may increase confidence, it may stimulate thinking, but during this mortal journey, I don't expect absolute proof for anything that involves the divine.

But I can't accept the notion that Joseph, like a VP of marketing, and a group of co-conspirators/marketers were deliberately making up stories to fool others for gain. That conspiracy would have come unraveled quickly and not endured intact throughout the lifespan of each conspirator.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Forty-Four Seconds: An Annoying Disaster and Possible Blessing from a Master Teacher

One of the things I really love about the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the emphasis on meaningful prayer to help us in our daily walk. We are taught to pray morning and night by ourselves and to pray with our families also. A husband and wife are taught to have a prayer together as a couple daily. We are taught to discuss our lives and our decisions with the Lord and to listen to the Spirit to seek guidance and personal revelation. We are taught to pray for deliverance from temptation and to constantly strive to repent and draw closer to the Lord. We are taught that God is a loving Father, indeed, the Father of our spirits (see Hebrews 12:9; see also Acts 17:28-29), and that He will listen and answer (though the answer may be "No," "Not yet," or, rather often in my case, "What on earth were you thinking?"). Apart from the blessings of divine intervention and revelation that can occur when God wills, daily prayer brings clear and obvious benefits just from helping us to refocus and to consider our standing before God and our relationships with others. Family prayer or prayer together as a couple helps strengthen relationships and bring unity. I suppose it would make sense even if there was not a God, but there most certainly is and prayer to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ is one of the most vital and wonderful ways to draw closer to Him and have His blessings in our lives.

With all that, with a lifetime of teachings and experience teaching the importance of daily prayer, you would think that it would be an easy matter and that temptations to skip it would be easily overcome. Yeah, that would make sense. I hope it will be even easier after the instructive little disaster I just suffered from the conspiring hands of a Master Teacher.

Part of my day job involves working with intellectual property strategy and, for some select clients, getting into the nitty gritty of crafting patents (usually complex ones) as a US patent agent. Recently I was preparing to file a complex patent that I really wanted to file that night (didn't have to be then--was more of a self-imposed deadline with an initial priority date already in hand from a previous filing). I made some last minute improvements, verified things with the client, and prepared the documents for electronic filing with the US Patent and Trademark Office (uspto.gov). A little after 10 pm Central I began uploading my documents, with plenty of time to have them in by 11 pm (midnight in Washington) to have the filing count as being on that day. As I was going through the filing process, my wife came over and asked if I would move a box of books upstairs that we could put on the porch to give to a local thrift shop. "I'm a bit stressed right now," I said as I stared at my laptop. "I'll take care of that when I get this filing done." Then a few minutes later she came by again. "I'm going to bed. Would you like to have a prayer?" Again, I was zoned out of everything except my shrinking laptop-centric world. Hardly looking at her, I said, "I'm just about done. I'll be up in just a minute and then we can pray." Off she went. It was about 10:20 pm then and I was maybe 5 minutes away from success.

Things were looking good. I had all my documents uploaded and all the information updated and ready to submit. Now just a quick check. I clicked on one of the links showing my uploaded documents to have the PDF file displayed just to verify that the upload had gone smoothly. I clicked on the link to the Oath and Declaration and, bingo, up came--wait, what on earth? The fee calculation document was displayed. Then I clicked on the drawings link and up popped the power of attorney form. Huh? I removed some documents and uploaded them again and still had the same results. I called the USPTO help line--wonderfully, the patent help desk is well staffed and almost always able to help me get quick guidance when I have questions. I reached someone right away, and as I was identifying myself, the line dropped. I was using a landline, so it wasn't a fading cell phone signal. It was as if they just hung up on me. Huh?? I called again--same thing. And again. For the first time ever, I couldn't reach the help desk because of what looked like some bug in their phone system. OK, think, think. Ah, the problem might not be theirs but my browser. I was using Firefox. Maybe if I switched to IE I could get better results (tip: I probably could have just cleared the cache on Firefox--plus I had probably opened too many windows).

I went back into the USPTO web site, opened my saved case, checked the documents, and HURRAY! They were all properly uploaded after all and ready to submit. Whew. Still plenty of time--it was only 10:40 pm. So I submitted the case, paid the fee by credit card, and relished sweet success at last. I assembled the documents I had submitted to send to our client in an email to announce the successful filing, and then--oh no--noticed that there was one more document that I had forgot to attach in my rushing. A minor document, not one that would jeopardize the filing date of this application, but one that was still needed. No trouble, I still had plenty of time to add it to the case and have everything together on the same day (splitting some parts across that midnight boundary could result in a "notice of missing parts" and a late fee--stay away from midnight!).

So I went to the IE browser window that was currently displaying the receipt and filing information for the case I had just filed, and tried clicking on the "Attach documents" tab. No, that didn't work. It took me back to the beginning--I guess the case was no closed and I was logged off--so I had to re-enter the system. No problem, just a few seconds of delay. Then, to access the case, all I had to do was enter the serial number information and the confirmation number from the browser window that was on display . . . a few seconds ago, before I moved away and before I saved it, as I normally do. Ugh. With all this trouble, I had become distracted and forget to save information that I always instantly save. No trouble, though, the information could be retrieved. Let's see, how? I know! I'll just call the Help Desk. Reached a friendly person, started to talk, and then they hung up on me again. Oh, right. The phone problem, whatever it was. OK, think, think. Ah, I found the way to retrieve and display receipts from recently filed cases, and voila, there was the filing information I needed. No problem! Success at last. Got the data, pulled up the case, attached the final document. Verified that it had uploaded properly - yes it was there, all was good-- and then clicked submit. Success!

The confirmation for the successfully submitted document was now displayed. Finally I could relax. As I looked at, I noticed in a bold font the confirmed filing time for the document that completed my case: 00 : 00 : 44. Forty-four seconds after midnight!! So much stress, so many barriers, so many things went wrong, and at least the last part of that journey was all in vain because I could have just waited until the next day to file that document--they don't care if it's 44 seconds or 23 hours after midnight--it was still the next day. Bizarre. Frustrating. It was like I was up against some kind of conspiracy to impede my work. Why? How bizarre. How strange. How unkind.

I shook my head in frustration as I went up the stairs--and then saw two boxes of books that my wife had brought up and put by the front door. Ouch. I felt like a loser of a husband, having neglected my wife's request for help for my own vain pursuits. She had split the big box of books into two and carried them up herself, figuring I'd forget. Um, ouch.

I went into our room ready now for prayer. She was sound asleep. I had completely missed the prayer that she had wanted to have. Now I was an even bigger loser. As I looked out the window of our bathroom, reflecting on the frustrations and the conspiracy that had hindered my efforts, I looked at my own reflection and realized that I had fallen into one of my classic weaknesses, becoming too focused on my projects and missing more important needs and opportunities around me. I had failed to help my wife. I had missed prayer. And if I had only taken time to pray and to help, to put my wife and our marriage of my self-imposed deadlines and imagined urgent needs, then few moments of delay that would have caused would undoubtedly have saved me far more time than was lost. If I had taken time to pray, I am sure that I would have been more focused and not forgotten to upload one of the documents for the case. I would have been more efficient and not overloaded Firefox with dozens of open windows that probably led to the problem with the links. I would have retained the filing information right away and, if it were needed, would have had it ready to deploy. If I had taken time to pray, I think I would have had success with a completed filing by 10:25 pm. Instead, it was 44 seconds after midnight, and it might as well have been hours after midnight.

I know this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory to some of you, but one could suspect that somebody was kind enough to pull a few strings to make everything go wrong. Failed links and failed phone systems coupled with unusual mistakes that I made in my haste (failure to upload all documents, failure to save filing information immediately) led to a 44-second disaster. Perhaps just a fluke, but I think I should accept it as a tailored blessing from Someone very kind who can also be most annoying for our good. If I will only learn from this possibly tender and tailored disaster, maybe I can better do what the Church and the scriptures have taught me to do all along: put my relationship with God and with my wife ahead of all the secular distractions this world offers, and never forget to pray.

Have you had any 44-second disasters you'd like to share?