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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ezra Taft Benson and Teachings of the Presidents for 2015: Some Things You Won't Be Learning This Year

I'm glad to see that the LDS manual for Teachings of the Presidents in 2015 will cover Ezra Taft Benson, the man who was President of the Church from 1985 to 1994 and served as an Apostle beginning in 1943. Though he was often controversial for his views on government, one thing you must remember about him is that he may have more experience with government and politics than any other LDS president or apostle, having served as serving as United States Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961 under US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also had more to say on government than almost any other Church leader, and throughout his tenure as an Apostle frequently addressed topics such as the proper role of government, the US Constitution, threats to freedom, the existence and goals of secret combinations, etc.

Much of what he said on these topics was said during the Cold War era, so his comments and rhetoric are often directed to communism and socialism, and surely will be offensive to many in our day, especially those who consider socialism as progress. The progress of the US government in size, power, and debt generation since his day surely has been impressive, and is quite in line with some of his warnings. His frequent statements on such topics, however, strike me as thoroughly downplayed in the new manual with his teachings, which may be entirely appropriate given the potential for political divisiveness and distraction from the goals. (The manual is intended for use during adult classes on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of the month, and is used during the 3rd hour of our 3-hour block on Sundays.) But some may interpret the relative silence on such topics in the new manual as the result an official stance that such views are discredited and irrelevant today. I don't think that's a justified assumption. On the other hand, his controversial statements while an Apostle quickly became much more toned down once he was President of the Church, though he did not become completely silent or drop his stance, as you may see from a reference I mention below.

Personally, I think much of what he had to say is worth understanding in the context of where the world was then, and in terms of the basic principles of personal liberty. We don't discuss these issues in much depth any more, I fear, though I hope we will consider these issues in our studies and have a healthy discussion in appropriate forums. The world has changed a great deal since the Cold War, but the conflict of personal liberty versus concentrated power in the hands of conspiring men (or even well meaning men) is still relevant, in my opinion, just as it was when the Constitution was framed. He saw and experienced a great deal about how government works, and I think it is foolhardy to disregard what he learned and saw without seeking to understand him. Further, for those who take the Book of Mormons seriously, it may be a fruitful exercise, regardless of your political views, to compare Book of Mormon teachings with his interpretation of its content relevant to government and secret combinations.

For a little further background regarding his views, see his 1979 General Conference address, "A Witness and a Warning." Also see his October 1988 talk given as President of the Church, "I Testify," which makes an ominous reference to Ether 8 in the Book of Mormon and the complex topic of "secret combinations." If you want to more fully see what made him so controversial and so despised by some, dig up a copy of a book he wrote before he became President, An Enemy Hath Done This.

His tenure as President was a difficult one, touched with controversy not just from his previously expressed views on politics and government, but also with his tenure while ill and incapacitated. His last couple of years were sad and frustrating ones for his family and for the Church.

May the Priesthood and Relief Society lessons in 2015 be worthwhile and helpful, without painful controversy and political divisiveness. For those who didn't like President Benson or his more controversial views, my scanning of the new manual suggests it won't be too difficult of a year for you. There is wisdom in sticking to the basics in our classes, but also much wisdom in digging deeper on our own.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Winter of Miracles

The past few weeks have been a winter of miracles for me, and I wish to express my wonder and gratitude. One of the top blessings was the baptism of a friend of ours who experienced a series of small miracles as she was rescued from a life of disaster with the help of a sweet LDS family. There are so many aspects to the story that led them to reach out to her at just the right time. The family felt inspired to offer their help and take on the risk and burden of bringing her across the country into their home, where her life has radically, wonderfully changed. The LDS family did not push her to attend church and offered to take her to the local congregation of her former faith, but she experienced a series of small miracles once she exercised the faith to attend with them and again when she chose to meet with some great sister missionaries. Though I could not be there, her baptism is one of the highlights of the year for me, a story of miracles, of charity, and of the power of Atonement to reach and bless those who might seem beyond hope.

Other surprise blessings occurred with a surprise trip to Atlanta, Georgia at the request of my employer in order to attend an industry-related meeting. Being in Atlanta for that meeting allowed me to attend a technical conference during the same week that led to serendipitous encounters with important new technologies and companies that have already been of great importance in making my work more fruitful and productive. I can't go into the details, but so many valuable things on different fronts came out of those few brief days in Atlanta, where I was also able to meet many good friends, make many new friends, solve pressing gadget problems, and attend the Atlanta Temple. It was a week of miracles that continues to bless my life and career.

As I write, I am in the Midwest, spending time with family and having a marvelous Christmas time. Among the many small miracles I've experienced here has been the miracle of education as I rejoice in the advances I see in my grandchildren, thanks to the diligence of their parents in teaching them. Whatever you think you might know about home schooling could well be challenged if you were to observe the teaching done by a daughter-in-law of mine. Simply amazing what children can learn and do with sound techniques and good tutelage.

I was especially impressed with the language abilities of my 8-year-old granddaughter, who surprised me by not only being able to anticipate a pun I was setting up in one of the silly stories I like to tell, but, unlike most adults, showed remarkable intelligence and sophistication by actually laughing at my jokes.

To help you appreciate this little wonder, I'll explain that the story I was telling involves Yog the Caveman, an ancient man from roughly 100,000 years ago who now lives in Wisconsin and tries his best to cope with the modern world. In this story, my granddaughter had kindly been helping him with English, and had explained the meaning of "ex" as in ex-friend, ex-wife, and ex-employer. Something that used to be but isn't now. Then, in the story, she also helps Yog make progress with personal hygiene, and congratulates him on not being so stinky anymore. Then Yog, realizing that he used to be stinky but now isn't, suddenly quits smiling and begins to sob. As I told the story, my granddaughter started laughing vigorously at this point, and said, "Oh, he's crying because he thinks he's gone extinct. Ex-stinky, extinct." Based on a lifetime of experience telling bad puns, I was flabbergasted. She saw it coming too quickly. Most of my adult victims don't get the jokes that early, and some never do. But to go beyond just getting the joke and to actually laugh heartily, while not exactly a first, was still quite a surprise. Someone anticipated my joke and then laughed at it. Yes, this has been a month of miracles.

May you all see the occasional hand of the Lord in the small blessings and sometimes miracles that we receive from Him, even in the midst of trouble and pain. His greatest miracles began with what may seem to some to have been among the smallest and humblest of gifts, the birth of a baby in a manger 2,000 years ago. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Beautiful and Record-Breaking Nativity Scene

Even if you have seen this already, it's worth a view. Also look at the sister video promoted the end that shows the making of this spectacular production. With beautiful music from the Piano Guys and vocalists Peter Hollens and David Archileta, a cast of over 1,000 assembles to create a brilliant nativity scene. I watched this before going to bed and had some really interesting dreams plagiarizing a few parts of the video. Might work for you, too. And unlike other dreams I've had recently, this one was completely free of commercials and blatant product placement. Are you guys getting a lot of dream spam recently or is it just me?

I love the humble, understated simplicity that is the background for the grand miracle of Christ's birth, that all-important event that brought the Creator to our mortal realm as a man to rescue all of us, if we will let Him. Ponder His birth and life as you watch this video, and be sure to pay attention to the surprise in the final seconds where the light of hundreds of angels gives added meaning. Very cool.

Merry Christmas the land of miracles, China.





Friday, December 05, 2014

More to LDS Garments Than Meets the Eye

A few days ago I discussed the new video from the Church discussing basics of the LDS garment. Today I'd like to mention some interesting connections it has to ancient religion. Our critics assume that Joseph Smith just plagiarized the concept of the Temple from pieces of Free Masonry mingled with scripture or other influences from Joseph's environment. There is no question that there are some common elements with Masonry, as I discuss on my LDSFAQ page on temples and Masonry. But for those wondering if the Temple is a modern invention, there I raise several issues there that point to  ancient roots for key aspects of the Temple.

One issue that I am adding to my previous comments on the Temple is the antiquity of the LDS concept of temple garments, including the use of some simple marks on the garments to remind us of covenants to follow God. For those interested in better understanding the ancient nature of the LDS temple and its practices, there are some outstanding and thought-provoking resources you may wish to consider.

I suggest beginning with Blake Ostler's article "Clothed Upon" in BYU Studies, 1982. Brother Ostler explains the numerous connections between the endowment and sacred garments in the ancient world. There is a reasonable case to be made that the LDS temple and LDS temple garments can be viewed as a restoration of ancient concepts that are not easily explained as elements from Joseph's environment. There are some intriguing surprises in that article for LDS people familiar with the Temple.

After reading Ostler, take a look at a later article from John W. Welch and Claire Foley, "Gammadia on Early Jewish and Christian Garments," BYU Studies, vol. 36:3 (1996–97). There you will find more interesting connections with the ancient world of Christianity and Judaism. Of course, some symbols of note such as the compass and square go back long before modern Masonry and can even be seen in the ancient Egyptian document we have in the Book of Abraham, known as Facsimile 2.

Many minor details in the LDS temple and in temple clothing can change with time, but core elements are unchanged and speak not of modern copying but very ancient roots, in ways that can enhance our respect for the temple. There is more to it (and to temple garments) than meets the eye.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

My remarks below are made as an observer in China, distant from the Ferguson scene and the tensions in the US, so I apologize if I am missing important parts of the story. But the call for peacemakers is one that will apply in every land and era. May there be more of them, and may we all take steps to promote peace.

I was frustrated to see the violent outbreak in Ferguson. Everyone seemed to know that there was going to be mob violence when the decision came out, regardless of what it was. So where was the National Guard? They were needed and wanted, bu they came a day late, after the rampage. Why do we send our troops all over the world to interfere with other nations in the name of security, even making preemptive strikes in nations where we have no legal authority to act, but don't take obvious steps needed to protect our own nation from harm? If we really have to have a massive domestic spying infrastructure that can listen in on our conversations and read all our texts and emails, all massive violations of personal privacy done in the name of "protecting us," why not use that information to reduce predictable mob violence aimed at burning and looting a town?

How sad to see that many of the victims of the riots were black Americans (although I detest the looting of anyone, regardless of race). Terribly, a church was burned in the rioting--the church where Michael Brown's father was baptized. The black pastor is now a victim of the lawless anger that raged in Ferguson (though this may have come from white supremacists or outside anarchists who took advantage of the situation). If there is a fund we can donate to to rebuild his church, please let us know.

The Book of Mormon reminds us that stirring up people to anger is a classic tool of evil men seeking power. From King Noah to the dissenters and Gaddianton robbers in the midst of the Nephites, conspiring, power-hungry men according to that ancient text have long taken deliberate actions to stir up anger in order to manipulate people and gain power or wealth. Anger is not always just an accident or natural response, but sometimes is fanned and guided to achieve someone's aims. Who benefits from the anger being fanned now? It's worth a discussion at least.

Most importantly, in times like these, we need peacemakers, not instigators and provocateurs who stir up anger and rekindle old grievances.

I also had hoped that if the President was going to get involved, it would be in a way that vigorously urged peace and calmness. For me, the message he delivered fell short of that. While recognizing the need to respect the law, it implied that the accused officer may have acted out of racism, and reminded people of America's legacy of racism. He told angry people that they were "understandably angry." I don't think that's good peacemaking. I wish he had told people that if the grand jury found no reason to charge the officer, Americans had no reason to become angry about this case and that any violence was absolutely unjustified and definitely not understandable. Why not say this was an event between one cop and one apparent assailant in one town, not a national problem ("an issue for America")? OK, easy to criticize--I would have probably said something really stupid unintentionally. No matter what he said, though, violence was going to happen. Wish better steps had been taken to deal with it, including sending out the National Guard promptly when requested by the mayor. Again, easy for me to criticize!

We should learn from Ferguson and from the mob violence in LDS history. The ugliness of mob violence is something Latter-day Saints should understand and abhor from our roots in Missouri and Illinois. Sadly, in the 1838 "Mormon War" in Missouri, the Mormons weren't always the good guys and victims. In response to the mob actions they had faced, some Latter-day Saints returned an eye for an eye and then some by forming a mob or two of their own and burning down some homes. Ugly and terrible. War of any kind is that way. The line between self-defense and unjustified aggression can easily be blurred, and innocent victims may abound. One of the problems in the era was a terrible speech given by Sidney Rigdon stirring up Mormon anger toward their already angry neighbors. And then we had Sampson Avard secretly stirring up and organizing the "Danites" for his own power. This made the dangerous situation in Missouri far worse. We needed more effective peacemakers then and we need them today.

Pray for peace and seek for peacemakers.

The great thing about anger, from Satan's perspective I suppose, is that it makes it so easy to manipulate a human being. What is the balance between righteous indignation and the anger in the hearts of men that comes from the Adversary? Sometimes people think their indignation is righteous when it's just good old fashioned anger and hate, the kind that lets someone else use you for their gain. I've written enough for today, so I leave that as a question for your input. How do we tell the difference between the two? Please stay calm as you respond.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Upgrading My Gadgetary Life in China: More Blessings from Frustrating Failures

Over at the Nauvoo Times, I just shared a story involving the frustrating failure of two Samsung devices that happened within the same week. Wonderfully, the failure of the camera led to new information from a Samsung technician about known trouble with Samsung's USB cables. While that was irrelevant in resolving the camera problem (that had to be shipped to a US repair center for a major overhaul), it made me wonder if the firmware upgrade disaster I had experienced with my Samsung tablet might have been due to a cable problem. When I tried the upgrade again with a 3rd party cable, the problem was overcome, allowing me to keep my main Chinese translation tool in my hands instead of losing it for a couple of months. The failure of the camera (which I don't really need anyway) was a blessing that helped me regain the use of something I really needed at the time.

Here's an update: One week ago, my 3rd Samsung device, my most important one, also failed. I was in Atlanta, Georgia for a couple of important meetings, including the AIChE Annual Meeting, when my old but essential cell phone, a Samsung Galaxy, died. The touch screen wouldn't work at all, so I couldn't send or receive calls or texts. Suddenly I was a bit isolated and vulnerable. How did Primitive Man ever survive without these things?

This phone was 3 years old and had some other problems already, like a memory issue that made it impossible to add applications. I had lost so much time fighting problems with my Samsung tablet that I resolved to buy a better device next time, even if the cost was painful.

In fact, I had been trying for a few weeks to buy an iPhone 6 Plus in China, a device that could be both a phone a replacement for my tablet, but the demand here is so high and the supply so small that it is just about impossible to buy one. You have to sort of win an online lottery held each morning around 8 AM to reserve a phone, and my efforts so far had all been in vain. Now on my last day in Atlanta, as I was wrapping up my conference and about to head back to my hotel after a little shopping, my cell phone died. I had been told by an Apple employee in China that it would be best to buy my phone in China since a US phone would be locked and might be difficult to get it working on the Chinese network. But when I went to the mall near my hotel in Atlanta, to my surprise there was an Apple store there, so I thought I should at least inquire.

In the Apple store, I learned that a Verizon-version of the iPhone had been reported to work OK in China. It might work, but they couldn't guarantee it. But they had the phone I wanted in stock, the 64 Gig 6 Plus--and in gold, the color of choice in China. Do I dare risk buying it, knowing that it might not work at all? Foolishly perhaps, it just seemed like the thing to do, and having done all I could to make this decision, chose to risk it. The full story is shared on my "Shake Well" blog about life in China, but basically it ended up being the perfect choice and the 4G SIM card from China Mobile ended up working fine, even though a China Mobile technician explained that the model Apple sold me could not possibly work in China. In fact, I have now heard that had I bought the phone in China, it would only work with a China Telecom contract and the card my company provides wouldn't fly. Not sure if that's the case, but I certainly have to be grateful for the perfect timing of another Samsung failure that helped me upgrade my gadgetary life.

The wonderfully timed failure of the Samsung cell phone gave me the impetus and courage to respond to the surprise encounter with an Apple store to get the phone I felt I needed for roles and activities that really require having a good gadget with me (Chinese translation, communication, and many other tasks). I was able to get it at just the right time, leaving me just enough time to also visit the nearby Atlanta Temple that night before taking an early flight back to Shanghai the next morning.

Sometimes failures are blessings in disguise, though the disguise was thinly veiled in this case.

Your bad luck, your trials, your pains, can sometimes lead to good that might not have been realized otherwise. So don't be overly frustrated when things around you fail, or when you look back at your own failures. Look forward to the good that come next and be grateful for each new blessing that comes your way. And for all I know, there's probably even an app for that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

President Henry B. Eyring's Visit to the Vatican: A Gentle Call to Strengthen Marriage

President Henry B. Eyring just did something that my wife and did earlier this year: visited the Vatican. OK, our visit wasn't newsworthy. We stood in line with lots of other tourists as we explored a little of the endless art at the Vatican Museums and admired its surroundings. President Eyring was doing something more noteworthy than sightseeing. He was sharing a message from the Church about the importance of the family at an international summit at the Vatican that was opened by Pope Francis.

While some might have expected direct arguments against same-sex marriage in President Eyring's talk, he took a more indirect and gentle approach, calling for a "renaissance of happy marriages and productive families" while also reminding us of the need to strengthen (traditional) marriage through greater unselfishness. I respect what he said and how he said it, though it naturally leaves open the argument that unselfishness and growth through family relationships can happen between any two individuals regardless of gender. 

In fact, whether or not we agree with the trend of changing law and traditional institutions to recognize same-sex marriage or other non-traditional relationships, I think it's fair for us to recognize the growth, the selfless service, and the happiness that people in non-traditional relationships can experience. And yes, I also recognize that argument can also be applied to relationships that I'm especially uneasy with, such polygamous relationships or adultery dressed up in robes of love and service. So opportunities for service or feelings of growth and happiness are not the standard in determining what the law should be nor what what divine standards are, but I think in our diverse society we need to be open to what others experience and why it is so important to them, even when we disagree with their position. That said, those who believe in traditional marriage or the wisdom of having a father and a mother in the lives of children need not retreat from their principles. President Eyring's talk illustrates a reasonable effort to stand for those principles, rooted not in legal argument or statistics, but on a foundation of faith. Accepting the Proclamation on the Family is definitely a matter of faith, though one can make a variety of secular arguments for some of its points.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of his remarks:
We must find ways to lead people to a faith that they can replace their natural self-interest with deep and lasting feelings of charity and benevolence. With that change, and only then, will people be able to make the hourly unselfish sacrifices necessary for a happy marriage and family life—and to do it with a smile.

The change that is needed is in people’s hearts more than in their minds. The most persuasive logic will not be enough unless it helps soften hearts. For instance, it is important for men and women to be faithful to a spouse and a family. But in the heat of temptation to betray their trust, only powerful feelings of love and loyalty will be enough.

That is why the following guidelines are in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued in 1995 by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

“Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. ‘Children are an heritage of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

“The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.”

Those are things people must do for us to have a renaissance of happy marriages and productive families. Such a renaissance will require people to try for the ideal—and to keep trying even when the happy result is slow to come and when loud voices mock the effort.

We can and must stand up and defend the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. Professor Lynn Wardle has said, “The task we face is not for summer soldiers or weekend warriors who are willing to work for a season and then quit.” A past president of our Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, offered similar counsel, as well as encouragement, saying, “We cannot effect a turnaround in a day or a month or a year. But with enough effort, we can begin a turnaround within a generation, and accomplish wonders within two generations."
What would you have said if you had a chance to speak at the Vatican on this topic?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

LDS Newsroom Releases Helpful Video on Temple Garments

The LDS Newsroom at LDS.org surprised me with the new announcement and video on the LDS temple garment. It includes views of LDS temple robes and LDS garments, the simple clothing items that our foes love to call "magic underwear" or other offensive terms. The LDS Newsroom resource should help thoughtful people better understand this aspect of our faith, and might help LDS members know how to better answer some common temple-related questions. Nicely done, IMHO.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Turning Flaws Into Art: Recognizing the Hand of Lord in Our Lives

During a trip to Taiwan in September, my wife and I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei and saw one of the world's great works of art, the Jadeite Cabbage. An unknown Chinese artist apparently in the nineteenth century took a highly flawed piece of jade with uneven color, blotches, cracks and veins, and used those flaws as part of the design. The white stone became the stalk of a cabbage and the darker green regions became the leaves and a couple of magnificent insects. Cracks became delicate veins on the stalks. In the end, the work was far more beautiful and lifelike than if it had been made from flawless uniform jade. It was almost as if the jade had been designed to be a cabbage, but this was really the result of the hand of the master making the most of imperfect raw materials. What a fitting analogy for how the Lord deals with our flaws, if we'll let Him sculpt us. I was pleased to see that the Oct. 2014 Ensign has a brief article making this point (Ellen C. Jensen, "The Jadeite Cabbage").

This sculpture is the highlight of Taiwan's National Palace Museum, which contains much of the most precious art that once was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai Shek. For most visitors it is the leading attraction of that splendid museum.

There are many ways the Lord can turn our flaws into something better and even help us find good or do good in the midst of the chaos we create, when we repent and turn to Him. Sometimes the craftsmanship is so fine that we might mistake our flaws for virtues or even our sins for things there were somehow "meant to be."

On my mission, there was an outstanding elder who broke a bone while playing basketball. Our mission had a specific rule against basketball, probably because there had been so many injuries like the one that put this enthusiastic elder in the hospital for a number of weeks. While there, though, he didn't cease from sharing the Gospel, and gave some Books of Mormon to the staff, including one nurse who seemed interested in the message. Later, in a testimony meeting, that Elder shared his belief that his whole experience there in the hospital might have been divinely arranged in order to reach that nurse and maybe some others. I can understand the feeling, and in a sense, he's right--but had he kept the mission rules a little more strictly, he would not have had that injury. So was it God's will that he break a mission rule in order to reach the nurse? That might not be the right way to look at his situation. Rather, wherever we end up, there is always good to be done, and as we seek the Lord, the experiences, even our failures, will seem tailored and meaningful.

Just don't confuse a good tailor for a great physique. God is a master tailor and can craft things to fit us perfectly, even when we are in pretty bad shape.

Frankly, we are all off course, somewhere other than where we would have been had we lived perfect lives. Yet wherever we are, the Gospel tends to help us experience miracles, blessings, comfort, and meaning that makes it seems like this error-ridden path was designed and tailored for us, even intended for us all along. Alma the Younger's story would have been much different and perhaps much less interesting and less helpful to us today had he not been a rebel. The good that he was able to do after repenting does not justify the harm he did before, and surely as a mature prophet he wished that he had never departed from God in the first place, but we can praise God that such a flawed rebel was able to become such a powerful tool for good. Do not doubt the good that God can do with you now and the mess you may have already created in your life. Follow Alma's example and do all you can to let God guide you with His hand, and you will find beauty and surprise in the end.

We must repent and move forward with hope rather than beat ourselves up over the permanent departure from the imaginary state of what would have been ideal. The unwed mother, the divorced couple, the missionary sent home for some foolish error, the driver whose mistake creates tragedy--all these may be painful departures from the ideal, and yet the Lord can be there for each of these parties and bring them through the pain to find new meaning and blessings that are uniquely crafted for who and where they are.

I think there is a better way to understand what happened to the missionary brought down by basketball and what happens to all of us when we fall in some way but seek God's guidance. It's not that all our departures from God's paths were actually secret shortcuts that we were destined to follow according to God's will. Rather, God's hand guides us to experience growth, do good, and  find paths forward no matter what ditch we've driven into, no matter how deep in the mud of some no-man's land we managed to wander into. Like the GPS that continually revises the suggested route after our errors in driving, God keeps working with us to bring us forward, if we'll accept guidance from His hand.

The journey we take and the destinations we encounter may be much different that they might have been, but He is there to guide again and again and again, and along the way, we will have miracles. As we work our way back to the main road, there may be stragglers we can use a lift. Miracles, love, service, healing--these things never cease if we are willing to let God work with us. Yes, they may be designed and tailored for us, allowing us to be in the right place at the right time, even after we've wandered leagues from where we were really "supposed" to be all along.

In one sense, to recognize the hand of the Lord in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21) might be to see that His hand is always there in our lives, pointing, beckoning, holding, helping, pulling, lifting, blessing, and crafting beauty out of the flawed raw material that we are. When we see the beauty and the good that come from such flaws, let us not admire the flaws, but the Craftsman.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

More on the Ebola Threat and the Need to Prepare for Deliberate Spread of the Disease

In a previous post on the Ebola threat, I reminded us of our need to be prepared for crisis when I raised the specter of terrorists deliberately spreading Ebola in the States. I suggested that our lax border security could make it way too easy for enemies to bring infectious materials and infected people into the nation. Of course, the laxness that threatens us involves not just the borders that people walk across illegally, but the borders people fly across with proper documentation.

To better appreciate the potential for mayhem here, I recommend Marc Thiessen's article in the Washington Post, "A ‘Dark Winter’ of Ebola terrorism?" He points out that the ease of access Islamic extremists have to Ebola-afflicted regions in Africa and the willingness of some to sacrifice their lives to create disaster for others could lead to abundant opportunities to spread infection in the West, infecting many before authorities knew an attack was underway. The result could rapidly overwhelm our ability to respond and lead to chaos in many regions. I hope these are crazy concerns, but to me, it's crazy not to be prepared for that kind of trouble in this age. It is possible.

In addition to food and water, basic supplies to maintain hygiene can be vital in times of crisis, including lots of soap, rags, towels, extra blankets, and abundant plastic bags. Be prepared.

There might be other agents that terrorists will choose to use besides Ebola, but is there any reason to think that they won't eventually turn to deliberately induced epidemics to spread their terror? I suspect our politicians will continue to do what politicians tend to do, namely politics, and are not going to take this problem seriously until it is too late. But you can act now to be ready just in case.

Plastic bags: have you stopped to imagine just how useful these can be in times of chaos? Very valuable for hygiene and other purposes. Paper towels, wipes, rags, face masks, etc. Imagine different scenarios and be prepared. These "small means" can be the difference between life and death when epidemics strike.

What supplies do you feel are most important?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Old Map Offers More Potential Evidence on Joseph's Views on Book of Mormon Lands

On this blog, I've previously discussed statements showing Joseph Smith's views in support of Mesoamerica as the primary location for Book of Mormon events in the New World. Thanks to Warren Aston, I just learned of another factor to consider. In the archives of the Church is a map from some early Latter-day Saints allegedly giving information obtained from Joseph Smith about the travels of Moroni from Bountiful in Book of Mormon lands to the burial place of the Book of Mormon in the Hill Cumorah of New York State. Bountiful, according to the map, was in "Sentral America" (Central America). For details, see H. Donl Peterson, "Moroni, the Last of the Nephite Prophets" in The Book of Mormon: Fourth Nephi Through Moroni, From Zion to Destruction.

The map claims that Moroni stopped in Manti, Utah on his way to New York. Well, I guess that could happen. But to me the interesting point for now is that the statements of the men involved are again consistent with the idea that Joseph Smith was open to Mesoamerica/Central America as a setting for ancient Book of Mormon events. Potentially another piece of evidence for understanding Joseph's views.

Friday, October 10, 2014

LDS Family Takes on a Giant Risk and Rescues a Troubled Young Lady

So far it looks like a real miracle underway, an amazing story of rescuing a lost soul. A young lady in a broken family who just turned 18 had been in our prayers for a long time. We were pained by the stories we heard and the tragic downward spiral in her life. We knew she was smart and had vast potential, but it was being wiped out by drugs,  horrific friends, and a lengthy list of tragic problems.

She was leaving home and about to trapped forever, it seemed, in a hopeless situation, when an LDS family with their own children and challenges did something amazing. In spite of the risk, they brought her into their home and gave her a chance to find herself again. To my amazement, it seems to be working. In a new environment away from the worst influences in her life and with loving coaching, she was able to see that she could change and regain control over her life. The rescue, to me, is a miracle. It is a touching example of what I like best about the teachings of the Church, namely, the idea that each soul is a daughter or son of God with infinite potential and the power to change, with God's help.

The Gospel expands our imagination. It helps us imagine that the drug addict with a criminal record and abundant bad behavior is worth loving and helping. It helps us dare believe that change is possible. It helps us take on risk to reach out to others when we might normally want to just lock up our doors and stay away. It helps us defy the world's logic that "everybody is doing it" or "a little sin is perfectly OK" and strive to live better each day. But the results of such expanded imagination are far from imaginary. While disappointment is common in dealing with mortals, sometimes, as with this young lady, the results are miraculous.

Thanks to all of you who dare to love and serve those in trouble in spite of the logical temptation to stay away. Thanks to all of you who love, pray for, and reach out to those who seem lost. They can be rescued, and whether they respond or not to your efforts, they are infinitely worth rescuing and loving.

Thanks especially to a brave LDS family who reached out to a lost young lady and brought her back. I chatted with her recently and then the LDS father and was simply delighted to hear details of the story. More wonderful than I imagined was possible.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A New International Accent in General Conference

Over here in Asia, some of us are thrilled that a General Authority could deliver his talk in Cantonese (see the news story at the Salt Lake Tribune). Elder Chi Hong (Sam) Wong made history as he gave the first General Conference sermon in a language other than English. We had the pleasure of meeting him a while ago in Shanghai--very kind and interesting man. Later Elder Eduardo Gavarret gave his talk in Spanish. Awesome!

I look forward to hearing some talks in Mandarin in the future.

English will continue to dominate the leadership of the Church, but it may become a minority language among Mormon leaders in the future.

Which reminds me, this would be a good time for more of you to start studying Mandarin. Great for your own personal enrichment, great for business, and great for communicating with so much of the world. Just a suggestion, one that President Kimball himself made a few decades ago.

Friday, October 03, 2014

A Quiet Path Leads Us to the City of the Dead in Kyoto, Japan

As I write, I am in the beautiful city of Kyoto, Japan. Yesterday we and thousands of others tourists visited the popular site of Kiyomizu-Dera, where an beautiful ancient temple sits on a lofty hill overlooking Kyoto. As we departed the crowded site, we noticed a quiet little detour from the exit path leading to some iron gates. Curious, we continued and entered into what I felt was the most spectacular view of all in this area: the Kiyomizu-Dera Graveyard, where thousands upon thousands of cremation remains are marked with tombstones that stand like little skyscrapers over a vast city of the dead. To me, it looked like a miniature scale version of Shanghai with its endless towers.

What a beautiful scene and moving place to ponder the lives of those who have gone before us. What an inspiring place to contemplate life and history, especially the rich and often painful history of Japan. How strange that we were the only ones there! Busload after busload of people were coming and going, passing within a few dozen meters from this place, seemingly unaware that it was here. After a few moments, an elderly English couple came by who apparently had seen us wander through the gates and came to see what we had found. Good for them!

I have often felt that the most interesting and valuable portions of our explorations in many popular venues were the little detours that took us to places the masses overlooked. The "road less traveled" is filled with treasures. I feel the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that way. Overlooked or shunned by many, hardly a popular destination, but waiting there in quiet paths for seekers looking for beauty and inspiration. The perspective of the Gospel is one that helps us to look upon scenes like Kyoto's City of the Dead with wonder, respect, and hope, knowing that their stories matter and that those souls yet live, waiting for the joy of the Resurrection when they will be part of the great Heavenly City that awaits us. 

 
 
 
 






 
 


 

 
  
 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Want More Scientific Evidence About the Main Candidate for Bountiful? Here's How You Can Help!

Meridian Magazine is launching a series of articles reviewing the detailed reasons for accepting Wadi Sayq at Khor Kharfot in the nation of Oman as the best candidate for the ancient Book of Mormon site of Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula, one of many intriguing examples of Book of Mormon evidence. The story of the discovery and basic exploration of this site is remarkable, and the evidence so far stands as some of the most impressive factors supporting the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, or at least its opening chapters.

Yet there are still many questions. A genuine archaeological investigation has not been conducted (one was supposed to happen, but the funded investigation went elsewhere for reasons I don't fully understand). The site is suffering from vandalism, tourism, decay, and environmental change. This strange, extremely unusual biological enclave needs to be protected, documented, and carefully explored by professionals, not just because it's of interest to Mormonism, but it is a rare and unusual spot on the globe that should be of interest to many naturalists, archaeologists, and other scholars.

So what's a lover of knowledge to do, LDS or otherwise? You'll be pleased to know that there is a non-profit organization aimed at promoting knowledge of the Khor Kharfot area. The Khor Kharfot Foundation (http://khor-kharfot-foundation.com/) may be exactly what we need to advance scientific knowledge in this small but significant spot in the Middle East. From their website:
The Foundation exists, therefore, to facilitate exploration and documentation of Khor Kharfot in its anthropological, archaeological, faunal and botanical aspects so that the history of human occupation is better understood. It also acts as an advocate for the protection of the site. At all times the most qualified specialists will be utilized and, wherever possible, Omani citizens will be involved in the effort.

Publication of findings will be undertaken as expeditiously as possible in both popular and scholarly outlets. Making information available is also intended to enhance awareness within Oman of Khor Kharfot and to encourage preservation of the site from further degradation.

With the generous assistance of Meridian Magazine, the Foundation solicits funds toward that end. All donations to the Foundation are tax-exempt under Section 501 (c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended.

The Khor Kharfot Foundation has no connection with any other organization.
I made a donation today, and hope you will also donate.  Thank you, Warren Aston and Meridian Magazine for taking up this cause.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Amazing Tale of One Man's Perilous Journey from Islam to Mormonism

My experience with members of the Islam faith has been extremely positive, and I have respect for the peaceful forms of that religion that many people practice. But the chasm between our faith and Islam can be quite wide. Crossing it can be an incredible challenge. One man's journey from Islam to Mormonism is a gripping tale shared at LDS Living. Tito Momen's story is told in "My Name Used to Be Muhammad: One Man's Journey from Muslim to Mormon." Read the article (or the book) and let me know what you think.

Fifteen years in an Egyptian prison for just his conversion to the LDS faith--how many of us would be willing to pay that price? How much he suffered and lost for his beliefs.

Even the darkest trials of our lives can have value when we turn to God. Thank goodness Tito endured his trials and clung to his faith.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Problem of Evil and Some LDS Perspectives, Or, We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is Over

Shame and Anger: A Response to Small Miracles in a World of Big Pain and Evil

Latter-day Saints and other Christians I know sometimes share faith-promoting stories of how a prayer was answered or how they experienced a miracle of some kind. These miracles are rarely the bigger and more dramatic ones we would like to see, such as finding a cure to cancer or a way to heal Ebola.Yet these small miracles can be real and may be received with gratitude from the recipient, for whom the miracle may play an important role in strengthening faith or solving real problems. The sharing of these miracles, however, often brings negative or even hostile responses, typically draped in stinging sarcasm.

Wo unto the person who shares a story of losing and finding their car keys, after praying for help. Better that a millstone was attached to those keys and they were tossed into the depths of the sea than to be found with gratefully received divine help. Better that two millstones were attached to a grateful believer's lost kitten. And wo, wo, wo unto any member, but especially any allegedly insensitive male church leader, who would dare publicly recognize a kindness from God in finding a quarter to buy some food when tired and hungry (see my discussion of Elder J. Devn Cornish's story in my post, "Trivial Miracles and Petty Prayer: How the Accuser Teaches a Man Not to Pray"). Better that the purchased chicken parts were cast into the sea along with the found quarter and the hungry man himself, than to hint that God might miraculously help someone eat while millions starve with no sign of divine aid. Those who dare give public thanks for small miracles are likely to become "a hiss and byword" or, as Deut. 28:37 warns (NIV), "You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples," especially on the Bloggernacle, where some LDS thinkers are horrified and appalled when others imply that God could be so callous as to care about lost keys and kittens when there are big problems in a world where terrorists rage, disease ravishes, and Congress is in session again.

On the Web, believers soon become trained to be ashamed of God's tender little mercies, or even to become angry with those who express gratitude for rare but possibly real encounters with God's love through small miracles. For a faith in which we are encouraged to recognize the hand of God in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21), this is unfortunate, in my opinion. Others in the Church and beyond are free to disagree, but I'd like to share some of my thoughts on this issue and also on the complex problem of evil.

Bethlehem, Cana, and the Problem of Evil

The story of Christ in the New Testament begins with His miraculous birth, a small but important miracle for Christians that remains completely unimpressive to skeptics since it surely looked like an ordinary pregnancy and natural birth. That small miracle was accompanied with the horrific massacre of infants in Bethlehem precipitated by Christ's arrival, thanks to the evil of one jealous king. The life of one infant was spared with a warning from God given through a dream to a parent, a classic small miracle with large consequences, while no timely warning came for the rest as far as we know. We see that God was capable of sparing those lives, but apparently chose not to. We are swiftly introduced to the problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

Monday, September 08, 2014

David L. Paulsen on the Problem of Evil

Many thanks to Matt W. at New Cool Thang for mentioning the outstanding speech by David L. Paulsen, "Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil." This is an excellent summary of the serious challenges to Christian faith presented by the abundant presence of evil and suffering in the world, and a sound demonstration of the power of the revelations given to Joseph Smith in helping us to better address these issues. Much more to say on this topic later, but for starters, let me know your thoughts about Paulsen's treatment of 3 major aspects of the problem of evil. Good stuff, IMHO.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Joseph Smith's Hick Language in the Original Book of Mormon Manuscript: Divine Irony?

Executive Summary

Skousen's study of the first Book of Mormon manuscripts found evidence that the awkward grammar often displayed Semitic influence or, in some cases, came from Early Modern English, predating the English of the KJV. This theory is developed much more fully in a recent Mormon Interpreter article, "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" by Stanford Carmack. Carmack argues that a close look at the initial language of the translated Book of Mormon reveals that much of the seemingly nonstandard grammar is actually acceptable Early Modern English that is frequently independent of and earlier than the King James Bible, seriously challenging the notion that the Book of Mormon is based on plagiarism from and imitation of the Bible.

However, I felt a weakness in Carmack's paper was neglect of a nonstandard form that to me was particularly annoying: the use of "a" before many verbs, as in Alma 10:8 in the Original Manuscript: "...as I was a going thither...." Isn't that just "hick language"? After posting my question at Mormon Interpreter, I did more digging and found, to my surprise, that this is an important and standard form of the English progressive in Early Modern English, again consistent with Carmack's thesis. Brother Carmack later responded to my query, confirming what I had found and also noting that there are some instances of the "a" + verb form in the KJV, though so far I only know of two and never consciously noticed them in my reading.

But what does this all mean and why would pre-KJV language be used? A hypothesis I offer below is that this is an example of one of God's little ironies jokes, but a meaningful and helpful one.  

Update, Sept. 10: "Joke" in this post was a poor word choice, as a couple readers took offense at the idea of joking God who would therefore seem to not be adequately concerned about the problems of the world. I do not have trouble with a God who embraces humor in addition to all forms of joy even while also fully feeling and knowing our pains, but suggest that "irony" might be better for my post.

If the strange evidence for pre-KJV language is real and did not from Joseph and his environment, then perhaps it will serve as one of the evidences that overthrow some common attacks on the Book of Mormon. If so,  it would be ironic that all these years the hick language we had to correct and apologize for might  actually support the miraculous origins of the book. Ironic. Almost humorous. Not a callous prank, but a hidden little gem that could strengthen faith while still raising many questions for further research and debate. Or maybe all just a human mistake to be eradicated with further research. Stay tuned

God's Little Joke? Divine Irony? Thoughts on the Bad Grammar in the Original Book of Mormon

One of the first anti-Mormon challenges I encountered as a teenager shortly after my own serious study of the Book of Mormon was the claim that 3,913 changes had been made in the Book of Mormon. (That's actually a very poor estimate--way too low!) Looking at the changes and understanding the reasons for them gave a little appreciation for how different the original Book of Mormon was from the way I would put a book together. The lack of punctuation, verses, etc., naturally necessitated a great many changes to prepare the text for a readable edition.

There were other problems, including many typos or other errors due to both the dictated nature of the text and the errors that arose in copying from the original manuscript to the printer's manuscript and then preparing the printed text. Those are understandable. But then comes the problem that makes it easy for critics to poke fun of the book and its miraculous origins: the original text, as dictated by a prophet of God to his scribes, is loaded with bad grammar. Numerous changes would be needed to fix awkward, non-standard phrases that just sounded bad. Why couldn't the Spirit help Joseph dictate proper English?

We've had a plausible answer: the inspired meaning still came out of Joseph's lips in his language, and his own bad, farmboy grammar with a strong dose of "hick language" had to be cleaned up into more proper standard English, but in King James Style. Fair enough. Being a prophet doesn't make one a grammarian.

Some scholars discovered that some of the corrections made over the years in the text were fixing odd patterns that were actually perfectly good constructions in Hebrew. That passage with Moroni impossibly waving the rent of his garment--later scandalously changed to the rent part of his garment to cover up that gaping hole in the grammatical fabric of the book--turns out to make perfect sense in Hebrew. Many other structures that are good Hebrew but bad English have been identified that were in the original text but typically later cleaned up. (Say, if all those Hebraisms were some clever attempt to add credibility to the Book of Mormon, why quietly clean them up and never point them out in Joseph's day? It was only in recent decades that scholars began to observe the abundance of Hebraic forms in the Book of Mormon.)

Then came Royal Skousen, the scholar who has done so much to help us appreciate the granular details of the original and printers manuscripts. In 2005, he published a short article for the Maxwell Institute's Insight publication with a shocking statement. In summarizing his findings through studying the early Book of Mormon manuscripts, he begins by listing the following:
1. The original manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could see the spelling of at least the Book of Mormon names (in support of what witnesses of the translation process claimed about Joseph's translation).
2. The original text is much more consistent and systematic in expression than has ever been realized.
3. The original text includes unique kinds of expression that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of these expressions are Hebraistic in nature.
So far so good. Then comes what I would call a shocker:
Over the past two years, I have discovered evidence for a fourth significant conclusion about the original text:
4. The original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.
This last finding is quite remarkable. Lexical evidence suggests that the original text contained a number of expressions and words with meanings that were lost from the English language by 1700. On the other hand, I have not been able thus far to find word meanings and expressions in the text that are known to have entered the English language after the early 1700s.  [emphasis added]
He then lists some plausible examples. So strange. So unexpected.

That theme is taken up in force in a recent article at the Mormon Interpreter, Stanford Carmack's "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar." Carmack contends that so much of what were dismissing as Joseph's bad grammar actually turns out to be acceptable grammar from Early Modern English, featuring many elements that were from decades before the English of the King James Bible, almost as if the translation given to Joseph by inspiration had been deliberately translated into that slightly earlier English. So strange. What is going on?

As interesting as it was, I immediately thought I saw a flaw in the analysis and posted this comment to Carmack's article:
One of the criticisms the Tanners make of the grammar of the original Book of Mormon when they discuss “the 3,913 changes” of the Book of Mormon is the use of “a” before many verbs, such as “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred …” [Alma 10:7], “And as I was a going thither …” [Alma 10:8], “… the foundation of the destruction of this people is a beginning to be laid …” [Alma 10:27], “… he met with the sons of Mosiah, a journeying towards the land …” [Alma 17:1], and “… the Lamanites a marching towards them …” [Mormon 6:7].
I’ve heard this described as “Pittsburgh dialect” I think, with a suggestion that it might have been Oliver’s language. But I also read someone say or guess that this construction can be found in Chaucer. Haven’t had time to check. What are your thoughts?
What I didn't say was that this "a going" and "a marching" pattern really annoyed me, for it sounded like "hick language" to my ears. Why no mention of that in the article? I suspected it must be because it didn't fit the Early Modern English hypothesis. After all, Carmack is not claiming that every case of awkward grammar is squarely from standard Early Modern English. But this form isn't Hebraic either, as far as I know--it's just bad, even embarrassing grammar.

Turn out I was wrong.  After posting my comment, I poked around for more information about this verb form. It's very hard to search for since the key term "a" is ignored or obscured in many of the search strings one might try. But I did stumble upon some articles that led me to look up the history of the English progressive form, and that's where I found interesting material.

The best source I found was  The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. III, ed. by Roger Lass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 217:
Some earlier scholars (e.g. Jesperson MEG IV: 168-9) espouse the theory that be + -ing goes back to the combination of the preposition on > a + the verbal noun ending in -ing (I am a-reading > I am reading). The available evidence makes it more likely, however, that the verbal type without a preposition and the nominal type with one represent two separate constructions which lived side by side from Old English on. In the course of the Modern English period, the verbal type superseded the nominal one. In the seventeenth century the nominal type can be found even in formal and educated writing, but it becomes non-standard in the course of the eighteenth (Nehls 1974: 169-70). There are only half a dozen Helsinki Corpus instances of the nominal type dating from 1640-1710, all of them in fiction, private correspondence or comedies. Lowth (1775 [1979]: 65) gives the following comment on the principles preceded by a: 'The phrases with a… are out of use in the solemn style; but still prevail in familiar discourse . . . there seems to be no reason, why they should be utterly rejected.'

The full form of the preposition on is much less common than the weakened a in Early Modern English. Also other prepositions are possible; instances with upon can be found as late as the eighteenth century (159)….
So yes, that annoying verb form is also good Early Modern English. Carmack's thesis still works on that issue as well. I'm surprised, though pleasantly.

By the way, for an interesting theory of the development of the "on" construction in Middle English and Early Modern English, see Casper de Groot, "The king is on huntunge: on the relation between progressive and absentive in Old and Early Modern English" in M. Hannay and G. Steen eds., The English Clause: Usage and Structure, 175-190, Amsterdam: Benjamins 2007).

Carmack would later respond to my comment by confirming that it is an Early Modern English form, and one that can even be found in the Bible. He mentioned Luke 8:42 and 9:42. Sure enough, there's "a dying" and "a coming." Never noticed that, and haven't found other examples of this in the Bible yet. Do you know of any? Seems like a rare occurrence to me. 

So yes, much of the awkward grammar of the original Book of Mormon appears to reflect language that is not typical of the KJV, being earlier than the KJV era and earlier than Joseph's dialect, though remnants persisted in his day and in ours as nonstandard forms in modern grammar. Carmack sees this as evidence against a modern, fraudulent origin and evidence for divine translation--but why would a divine process result in English forms predating the KJV? Was some sort of Celestial Translator Device set the wrong century by a clumsy angel? However the divine translation process worked, however the language was selected or "seasoned" for delivery to Joseph's mind, what came out can no longer be explained as mere imitation of the KJV or as a modern fabrication that Joseph and his friends or family were capable of.

Here's one hypothesis: The translation into language actually predating the KJV is an example of one of God's little ironies jokes. A helpful little joke, that is, a almost humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay attention, offering surprising evidence that there is far more to this text than meets the eye. Yes, it is quiet and easy-to-overlook evidence that the Book of Mormon is not a modern translation, is not merely drawn from the KJV or any other modern source. It's a little joke, but the real joke is on those who cry plagiarism. Now the difficulty of explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text is far may be greater than we imagined.




Friday, August 22, 2014

Daniel Peterson Quotes a Questionable LDS Apologist, But the Rest of His Presentation Was Good

At the recent FAIR Conference, among the very interesting presentations was Daniel Peterson's excellent reminder about the gaps and fallacies in the commonly mentioned CES Letter. His talk, "Some Reflections On That Letter To a CES Director," was generally thoughtful and intelligent, though it begins with a rather embarrassing gap in which he quotes from a highly questionable amateur LDS apologist, whose frequent gaffes and missteps have been regularly called out right here on this blog (so I am often told). Apart from that little blunder, his presentation was pretty solid and worthy of consideration and debate (the kind where actual logic and factual analysis are used, not just sarcasm).

If you had only 45 minutes to respond to the Big List of anti-Mormon attacks, what points would you want to make? Did Daniel's selection of topics and responses make sense to you? I liked it and appreciate the way he calls attention to some of the big picture issues as well as touching upon some salient details. Of course, there are many, many ways in which a short time can be used to address what could really take weeks or months to be thorough. I am curious to know how any of you fellow LDS defenders would have handled it?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

No Evidence at All?

One critic posting on my comments pages recently explained why he didn't believe in Jesus. The argument he offered looked logically constructed and was presented with a "slam dunk" air. It was just one argument, though I'm sure he must have many more, but he presented it as if this was a sufficient reason to reject Christianity. The argument is based on the New Testament statement from Christ when He is discussing the events of the last days, and says, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34, also see Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). Here is the argument, as presented:
I'm a pretty good reader, and I think I know exactly what Jesus meant when he said (for example) that the judgement would arrive before his listeners' generation passed away. He meant that it would happen when he said it would happen, and since it didn't happen then, he was wrong, and because he was wrong he was not (and is not) God.
Boom. One verse that is an apparent mistake, and now he can handily conclude that Jesus is not divine. When I read this, I was disappointed. The author obviously has an education and prides himself on logic and intelligence, but the argument, as presented, shows no apparent effort to understand and interact with Christian responses to the problems in this verse. It shows no desire to consider the reasons why Jesus might still be the Son of God in spite of confusion about one verse. Five seconds on Google would present him with reasonable Christian defenses of this problem. One quick Google search brought up one common response which explains that the generation of "this generation" was the generation that would be around when the prophecies of Matthew 24 begin to occur. Possible. But there are other approaches to consider, including discussions of what is meant by "generation" and the possibility of human error in recording and transmitting the statement. In any case, I was both saddened and frustrated by his easy argument for rejecting Jesus. I'm sure he has more than that, but it's frustrating to see seemingly lazy arguments with apparent lack of serious research presented as if they represented a serious and decisive victory, as if no plausible response had ever been offered by the other side.

In claiming to "know exactly what Jesus meant" and in claiming that Jesus must be wrong since his literal reading does not appear to perfectly conform to his expectations, the author reveals a  simplistic and rather "fundamentalist" attitude about the scriptures. It's an outlook infused with numerous hidden assumptions that can result in unrealistic expectations that are easily burst, resulting in quick loss of faith for unprepared believers who finally encounter, say, geologic evidence for the earth's age, evidence of abundant human influence and error in the scriptures,  or the many other complexities of faith. It's a danger that many ill-prepared Latter-day Saints face as well.

Now imagine that somebody, let's say a former Christian priest and religious instructor, took that argument and published it in a Big List with dozens of other arguments, all claiming to be carefully researched slam-dunk arguments against Christianity but all showing a lack of familiarity with actual Christian scholarship and the vigorous defenses that have been offered to the arguments. That Big List would be offered as his shocking reasons for departing Christianity. Each argument might have excellent refutations, but readers of the Big List would have no idea, and ill-prepared Christians might be swayed. That would be tragic.

That's pretty much how I feel about the CES Letter by a former LDS member who offers a Big List of reasons why he left the Church. It's filled with dozens of assertions and seemingly slam-dunk arguments, but, as Daniel Peterson observed in his recent FAIR Conference presentation on the CES Letter, shows no familiarity with the abundant research and scholarship in many of the areas he touches upon. It occasionally reveals a simplistic, fundamentalist outlook, in which human error, uncertainty, and complexity are not tolerated. The many evidences for things like the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are treated as nonexistent. Not merely inadequate or not convincing, but as though there was nothing there at all, as Daniel Peterson properly observes.  The evidence is ignored, huge bodies of scholarship are rendered invisible, and answers that a few moments on Google could offer appear to have not entered into the vast research said to be behind the list of arguments. It's tragic, painful, puzzling, and quite unnecessary.

Feel free to disagree and choose your reasons for believing or not, but don't pretend that it's all a slam-dunk without any arguments or evidence on the other side. There is evidence, there are interesting and sometimes very convincing arguments on the other side, and people exposed to the Big List at least should know that such things exist.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Fair Conference: Ty Mansfield on Sexual Identity and Same-Sex Attraction from an LDS Perspective

The recent 2014 Fair Conference, held Aug. 7-8, 2014 in Provo, offers a great selection of faith-strengthening perspectives from a broad mix of speakers. Topics include same-sex attraction, the Book of Abraham, the CES Letter, the role of women in the Church, the authorship of the Book of Mormon, etc. 

In this post I'll call attention to Ty Mansfield's excellent presentation on same-sex attraction and the LDS experience. His talk, "'Mormons can be gay, they just can’t do gay'? Deconstructing Sexuality and Identity from an LDS Perspective," discusses the complexity of sexual attraction and reminds us to be careful about thinking we know things that still puzzle the experts:

So much of the controversy happens around unexamined premises and conclusions drawn, often simply accepted without any real critical thought at all. Once we can understand how these have harmed our understanding, we can then move to a better place to articulate a reasonable response to those who question or criticize the Church’s teachings….
The popular cultural myths that either people are “born gay” or that they chose to be homosexual or that their homosexuality is caused by parental nurturing (or lack thereof) are all reductionistic and cannot explain much, if anything, about the development of sexuality and sexual desire.

It’s interesting to me that our popular and media culture seems to be so sure about something that science and the academy are not. The American Psychological Association’s official pamphlet addressing sexual orientation concedes this point, noting that ultimately, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.” Some researchers have postured that there is no such thing as “homosexuality,” but rather “homosexualities”—that there are multiple sub-populations with different etiologies making for qualitatively different experiences of sexuality that all lay within a broad and diverse umbrella we call “homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction.”

He also addresses issues of identity and the shackles (my term) that we can impose on ourselves or others with terminology that pigeonholes people into an "identity" based on the attractions they feel.

In an LDS context, people often express concern about words that are used—whether they be “same-sex attraction,” which some feel denies the realities of the gay experience, or “gay,” “lesbian,” or “LGBT,” which some feels speaks more to specific lifestyle choices. What’s important to understand, however, is that identity isn’t just about the words we use but the paradigms and worldviews and perceptions of or beliefs about the “self” and “self-hood” through which we interpret and integrate our various experiences into a sense of personal identity, sexual or otherwise. And identity is highly fluid and subject to modification with change in personal values or socio-cultural context. The terms “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” aren’t uniformly understood or experienced in the same way by everyone who may use or adopt those terms, so it’s the way those terms or labels are incorporated into self-hood that accounts for identity. One person might identify as “gay” simply as shorthand for the mouthful “son or daughter of God who happens to experience romantic, sexual or other desire for persons of the same sex for causes unknown and for the short duration of mortality,” while another person experiences themselves as “gay” as a sort of eternal identity and state of being….

As a final note here, however one chooses to self-identify here in a fallen, temporal world limited by human culture and human language, I firmly believe that, like Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which all social and political constructs were swallowed up in the gospel stone that rolled forth to consume the nations, so will the spiritual ideals and identities of the kingdom of God and the Celestial nature swallow up all of our social identity constructs that blur eternal identity (see Daniel 2:31-45).

While I identified as gay for a time, at one point I had a very strong spiritual prompting that if I continued to identify as gay, it would limit my progression. I believe that the more deeply we understand and feel spiritually connected to eternal realities and our eternal identity, the less meaningful any proximate, mortal identities feel to us. If others refer to me as gay, I typically tolerate it for practical purposes, but it’s not how I see myself, and occasionally it can feel particularly oppressive when others seem to insist on projecting and LGBT identity construct on me even after I’ve specified that that is not how I see myself. It’s not a construct that adequately captures who I am, what I believe, or how I feel.

He then explores the issues of chastity and consecration, and the speculation of others that Church will change regarding its stance on same-sex issues. See the transcript at FairMormon.org.

What American's Open Borders Mean in a World with Ebola: An Easy But Hopefully Wrong Prophecy

Have you read Laurie Garrett's piece for ForeignPolicy.com, "You Are Not Nearly Scared Enough About Ebola"? It deserves more attention and perhaps a bit more healthy fear.

Join me in wishing for my complete failure as I make what looks like an easy prophecy regarding health care: Ebola is coming to America. May I be ridiculously wrong. Hopefully Ebola will be swiftly contained and not hurt any more in Africa or anywhere else. But the chances of it spreading eventually could be high, and when it does, it could spread swiftly. Yes, airport security is increasing and many steps will be taken to reduce the risk of Ebola coming through airports. Technology exists to check every passenger coming through our official ports of entry for fever (this is already in place in some Asian airports, for example, to help reduce the risk of spreading bird flu). That's great, but it won't affect some of the most important routes for the spread of infection into the US.

Between terrorists who want to hurt us and virus-infected people who might not intend any harm, our porous borders are a dangerous health care menace. Both of America's political parties seem thoroughly committed to not properly sealing our borders lest they lose votes or be called racists (perhaps am I overly harsh here in explaining their obvious gross negligence), so there is little chance of any serious, life-saving border-security steps being taken (not without your voice, anyway). We face extensive risks of serious disease walking across our borders undetected.

Ebola or other disastrous microbes could be brought as humans walk across the border and bring unintended infection. It's also possible for terrorists to bring it across on purpose, possibly deliberating infecting a truckload of undocumented victims right before they cross the border. (This can be done without killing the culprits behind the operation. I won't explain the many paths they can take, but it's not impossible.) Days later, the virus erupts in multiple US cities. It can happen that easily.

An epidemic can happen even if the border is sealed, but to leave it open makes it too easy for intentional and unintentional entry of the virus. This is a time for diligence and strict protection of borders, and careful health screening of anyone coming from a high-risk area. Those without documentation cannot be given a pass and allowed in without consideration of health risks. Those  walking across aren't just from Mexico. They come from many parts of the world, including parts with potentially dangerous viruses.

If Ebola strikes in the US, are you ready? Do you have supplies to clean and disinfect? Do you have plenty of paper goods, wipes, detergents, rubber gloves, face masks, and other tools to help you care for your sick loved ones? Your food storage may be essential if an epidemic is happening, for leaving home to get food could expose you to other infected people. Drinking water may be especially important. Ugh, it's awful even thinking about what can happen when a deadly epidemic breaks out, but it's been a grim reality for millions of our brothers and sisters across the centuries, and while we've been lucky and blessed for many decades, will that luck continue?

Perhaps, but not if we don't take even basic steps to reduce the risks of deadly outbreaks strolling across our borders. Be scared, but more importantly, be prepared.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Standing Ovation for Sharon Eubank and "This Is a Woman's Church"

At the FAIR Conference a few days ago, a rare standing ovation was given for Sharon Eubank, Director of LDS Charities, who gave a bold talk on women in the Church. The title itself is bold, but appropriate to her message and personal experience:  "This Is a Woman's Church." The transcript of the talk is available, and you might be able to watch the video also, though the server seems to too slow for us out here in China, where access to foreign websites is often unbelievably slow or blocked altogether. 

Find out what Sharon had to say that brought the audience to its feet. She brings several important thoughts together and reminds us of some of the basic elements of the LDS experience. This is a valuable presentation for both women and men.
Kudos to FAIR for a great 2014 conference. Wish I could have been there!

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Factory Price, Or, The Price of Friendship

A scene from the markets at Dong Tai Road.

Shortly after coming to China, we made friends with some of the merchants in a classic old market street called Dongtai Road, where the Dongtai Antiques Market is a fun attraction for many tourists and a place we liked to shop for gifts. One of our friends was Miss L., a sweet girl who spoke good English and was married to an artist, Mr. T., who created the paintings she sold in her painting shop. We marveled at the diversity of styles he had. While his works were obvious imitations of other popular works, to imitate so many styles so well was quite impressive. All but one of the paintings we own came from her home. We brought friends to their shop also to buy paintings. Great prices. We visited from time to time and also hired her to help with some groups events we had that needed an English tour guide.

We also enjoyed the love story of this couple. They were two artists from north China. She recognized his great talent and decided to start a business selling his art. As they worked together as starving artists, they fell in love, married, and began raising a family.

After knowing them for over 2 years, they told us they had to close their shop because their side of Dong Tai road was being torn down to make a new hotel. They, like others we knew, faced the challenge of much higher rent to open shops elsewhere in town. They would not be able to get the same amount of business in the new hard-to-find location they had to take, and wondered if we could help them by doing an open house. Sure, we'd be happy to help. But first we bought some additional paintings. One we especially loved: it was his original composition of Dong Tai Road itself, a large and pretty painting of the view approximately right in front of his shop. Wow, we were delighted to buy it. It cost 1800 RMB, about $300, frame included. This was a lot more than other paintings we had purchased, but being an original composition and all, it was definitely worth it. The asking price had been 3000 RMB, but, as usual, we got the special "friend discount." But they couldn't discount it too much, of course, because it had taken so much work to create.

We opened our home to them and their friends for a full day on a Saturday in early December. A large crew came with a truck full of paintings, many freshly painted. Mr. T. had been busy! We had told many of our friends and colleagues at work about this young couple, their love story, and Tony's amazing and diverse talent as an artist. Lots of people came and they had some pretty decent sales of paintings during the day. I was disappointed, however, to see that the prices had been jacked up to about double what they normally charged in their original shop. I felt like they were taking advantage of us with that price spike, but didn't say anything, except to quietly suggest to some people that they could negotiate and bring the price down.

One of our Chinese friends from northern China pulled me over in the kitchen for a private talk. "Jeff," she said, "have you ever seen that artist paint anything?"

"Well, sure, I mean, well, I've smelled fresh paint in his shop, but maybe haven't seen him actually painting the paintings at the moment, I suppose, but I'm sure that...."

"I don't trust him. He's from my part of China and I know his type. I don't think he's a real artist. I asked him some direct questions and he seemed evasive. I think he's a scammer."

I was shocked at her assessment and thought she was being way too paranoid and distrustful of one of her fellow Chinese. I smiled and thanked her and said we had known them for a long time and was pretty sure he was for real.

About a week later, another Chinese friend came over to our home for dinner with her son. Her son was amazed at how big our tiny apartment was and felt so happy to be able to bounce on our chairs and run around. It was like he was in heaven. He has to be very quiet in their little old place with a thin floor so he won't bother the quick-to-complain people below them. While visiting with us, his mother, another merchant, looked at our new painting of Dong Tai Road on the wall and asked how much we paid for it. Then she got angry. "1800 RMB? That's way more than the factory price. She should have given you a friend price. They took advantage of you."

"Factory price? Factory? What factory? You mean Mr. T. didn't paint this himself?"

Our friend laughed at our gullibility and explained to us how the budget painting shops in Shanghai work. There is a large factory, perhaps a sweatshop, where artists crank out slight variations of the same paintings over and over and over. Pretty much the same paintings, all imitations of imitations, are sold all over town. Our Mr. T. wasn't doing the imitation--he was just imitating an imitator, pretending to be an artist. His "original composition" was just a factory production that we've now noticed on sale in many other shops.

Sigh. We had been used. Several times. Lied to. Several times. I felt terrible about inviting others to come and meet the amazing artist and buy his works. On the other hand, they probably didn't pay more than they would have on their own, unless they were good negotiators and knew the "factory price," and they were able to choose some fairly attractive works from China's art factories. But I'm embarrassed that were were all being taken for a ride.

My embarrassment was probably not as bad as what many tourists experience in Shanghai when they are completely scammed by friendly, smiling, English speakers who introduce them to the ever popular Chinese tea ceremony scam or the potentially more dangerous karaoke scam. In both cases, people pretending to be friendly are out to rob gullible tourists. After a few sips of worthless tea or a few rounds of karaoke, the victims are presented with huge bills--hundreds or even thousands of dollars--and tough bouncers are there to enforce payment. People go home shaken up, outraged, feeling betrayed and seriously injured financially. One betrayal like that can ruin a visit to China and sour people on this marvelous and usually kind nation. The scammer so a disservice to millions of fellow Chinese citizens who are honest and treat others with great decency.

Be careful whom you trust.

After Joseph Smith had the terrible failure of losing the first 116 pages translated from the Book of Mormon, the Lord told him he should not have entrusted the pages to someone else's care, and said that he had been deceived. Even though he was a prophet, the Lord told him, "you cannot always judge the righteous, or ... you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous" (Doctrine & Covenants 10:37). This is sound advice for all of less prophetic folks as well. We cannot know that someone is trustworthy just because they smile, seem nice, and have been friendly to us for a while. Being disappointed by those we trusted is going to be a part of our lives. Being exposed to abuse of trust by friends and even loved ones is part of the price of friendship. But sometimes we can minimize the damage with a little caution and common sense.

Be careful out there. Keep your guard up. Ask tough questions and recognize the possibility of risk.

Bonus advise: Don't lend money to friends, if you value the friendship. Money loaned has broken many a friendship. It can turn you from a friend into an evil creditor, a problem to avoided, a source of endless guilt and worry for the person unable or unwilling to pay you back. Why do that to a friendship? If you want to help a friend, feel free to give money as a gift, money that you insist is not to be paid back (OK, pay to charity some day if they insist, but not you), but don't make a loan. Also recognize that money is rarely the answer to the problems others have and sometimes can make things worse, but when the need is real and money really can help, be generous and give. God bless you for caring and trying to help. But don't give more than you actually can. Remember, you are giving, not loaning.