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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Youth Conference in China and the Contributions of Young Single Adults


Our recent May 2015 Youth Conference in the Shanghai International District of the Church was a good demonstration of many roles that Young Single Adults can play. They were integral to the success of our event.

The leaders planning our Youth Conference realized that we could use more adults to help run a two-day event with a big group of young people, so they asked if we could get some of our YSAs to come help. Great idea! The LDS Young Single Adults in China tend to be a hardy, energetic group with great attitudes, a desire to serve, and a love of others. That shows in the way they stay cheerful and faithful in the midst of heavy burdens at times and many surprises.

Many come here to teach English for very little pay for a semester or two, taking on heavy classroom burdens and sometimes chaotic situations and difficult living conditions. Most of our teachers are in the Nanjing Branch or the Suzhou Branch. Others are here with study abroad programs (e.g., the BYU Flagship program in Nanjing) or internships with corporations. A few are here for the long haul in interesting jobs, including long-term teaching positions.

We went to the District President to get approval to bring YSAs in to help with Youth Conference. We (the District) would pay for their transportation and also provide housing for them. Then I went to the Nanjing and Suzhou Branch Presidents to request their help in identifying some YSAs who would be good additions to our Youth Conference program. I was thinking we would be lucky to get two or three helpers, but we ended up with 10, and what a difference they made. Eight women and two men who taught classes, helped run events, participated vigorously in activities, shared testimonies and spiritual thoughts, and served as loving, interesting, fun role models. I was so proud of those young people and also of the youth who came.

The YSAs weren't just random volunteers the branch presidents found. They carefully considered who would be able to serve well. I have to say everyone of them was a terrific addition. Of course, the active LDS YSAs in China are such a great group that maybe a random selection would have been just as good, but we sure had a strong mix of talents, testimonies, and teachers who made a huge difference and really helped the younger people they came to serve.

Of course, I think much of the success of our Youth Conference was really due to diligent, well-prepared leaders coupled with great young people.

The two-day conference was held on a Friday and Saturday on a weekend where Friday was a national holiday. The event was held at Sun Island, a resort area in the middle of the Huangpu River about an hour or so west of Shanghai (that's an hour based on actual vehicular motion, which often doesn't occur on Shanghai roads). We rented some villas providing enough rooms for everyone, including the YSAs. We asked them to come into Shanghai on Thursday night and stay with local members (4 stayed with us), then they would stay at Sun Island on Friday night and again with members after the event on Saturday night, giving them a chance to attend church in Shanghai if they wished, and most did.

For many YSAs, coming to Shanghai is a real treat, and having transportation, meals, and lodging provided made it a good deal, even though they would spend most of the time here busily serving others. But it was fun service. My wife and I had one of our most enjoyable weekends, choosing to be part of Youth Conference instead of flying to some exotic part of China as we might have otherwise done.

The conference included outdoor activities like games and yoga, indoor workshops at the resort hotel, including an "Ask the Leader" session where answers to tough questions were discussed, a dance on Friday night held in a disco area at the hotel, a service project (letter writing to missionaries) and a testimony meeting. Plus good food.

One of the parents sent a note to the leaders who were over the event, shared here with her kind permission (with asterisks replacing some names):
My kids LOVED youth conference!  They came home so excited.  They enjoyed the workshops and games.  They said that the dance Friday night was one of the best youth dances ever (compared it to EFY).  They loved having the YSAs as leaders.  **** was sad that she had to leave early.   
The youth in our branch only had positive things to say.  [My husband] and I drove four of the YM home from the church last night and they all just loved it!  I heard great things about Brother Linday's magic tricks [anonymizer malfunction!].  And they really enjoyed the testimony meeting.  It seemed like the youth in our branch grew closer together during this conference too.  One of the YM said it felt like they were together a lot longer than 2 days -- in a good way!  You packed a lot in! 
Today in church several of our youth shared their testimonies about their youth conference experience.  **** talked about the theme.  And **** talked about something she learned from her YSA leader. 
Honestly, well done!!!! 
I bet you are exhausted, you deserve a rest this week. 
Thanks so much!!!!

After reading the note and pondering how well the conference worked, I asked the District YM and YW Presidents what they felt made it go so well. Here is how our superb District YW President summed up the things that made this event so effective:
  • Excellent, involved, easy-to-please youth [Jeff's note: they aren't all perfect, but we really have an unusually sweet mix of good young people here--that can make any youth event a lot easier]
  • Maturity and energy of the YSA leaders - thanks to careful selection by the branch presidents
  • Delegation of certain tasks (i.e., snacks team, water team, tent/trash team)...
  • Hotel/bus arrangements were all perfectly managed
  • YSA-led classes were inspiring according to a few youth I talked to...
  • The Ask Your Leader session that I attended was fun and enlightening. They are such bright kids!
The YM/YW leaders did a great job in organizing. Things were planned with great attention to detail. Packets of information and custom T-shirts designed by one of our young women were provided to every individual. Arrangements for food, transportation, facilities, etc. have been carefully made.
The only real gap might have been failure to anticipate a Shanghai rarity: the potential for sunburn. Usually there is enough haze from pollution or "natural fog" (especially when natural coal burning plants are at full capacity) that sunburn isn't a threat, but we had blue skies and strong sun on our first day. I ran off and bought two tubes of sunblock and ran around like the paranoid overprotective parent I am, trying to administer to everyone, and we still had a couple cases of painful sunburn. Rats! But it could have been worse.

Our situation in China may be quite different than yours, but perhaps there are some things you can learn from our Youth Conference experience and the value of tapping the energy and testimonies of great YSAs. I guess that's what happens in EFY events in the States, but I've actually never been to one of those.

Thanks to our District Leaders, the YSAs, our young men and women and their parents for enriching our lives with this event. Here are some photos:













Friday, May 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Increasingly Strange Text of the Book of Mormon

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Human Side of Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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











Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mother's Day and Grace, Mormon Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grace and the Temple: Insights from a Jewish Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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