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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program

I have to admit that I was a little puzzled by the new ministering program in the Church, where home teachers and visiting teachers have been replaced with "ministering brothers" and "ministering sisters." When it was first announced, to me it looked a little like a name change with a welcome decrease in statistics, but still seemed essentially the same, or maybe even watered down. Was this really an important step for the Church? Today, while nominally fulfilling an assignment to give some training to others on the topic of ministering, lights went off in my head that were triggered by two words: "strengths" and "scheduling."

That second word was used by a member from Ghana as he answered a question I posed and explained his view on the ministering program. In the old system, the emphasis in his mind in his work as a home teacher was on scheduling. "Can I get my schedule to align with my assigned families' schedules so that I can get into their home and visit them?" The difficulties of scheduling to get into a home were a major part of home teaching for many of us. Now that's a much smaller issue. The emphasis is on what we can do to help and to be friends. Ministering can include visiting, but it can also include meeting for lunch, going to an activity together, talking on the phone, sending an inspirational thought, spending time praying for the welfare of others and thinking of creative ways to help, etc. For a great discussion of what ministering looks like, see the inspiring talk of Jean B. Bingham from the April 2018 General Conference, "Ministering as the Savior Does."

Whether you can successfully make a visit before midnight of the last day of the month is a non-issue now. The only real issue is ministering. Less structured, more flexible, and more loving. Scheduling: that is no longer the key. A subtle difference, but crucially important.

My wife points out that visiting teaching was also highly centered around scheduling. In fact, the issue of scheduling was often at the forefront in selecting assignments for visiting teachers. The scheduling issue revolved around evaluating whether groups of sisters were free during the day or only free during the evening or weekends in order to make appropriate matches based on the potential for overlapping schedules that could permit visits. But now that the scheduling of visits is less important, leaders and members may be more free and more creative in making assignments and in making ministering work to really bless lives and not just foster visits. Yes, visits are still important and desirable, but not the key goal that we need to achieve and report on.

The other word, "strengths,"  instantly opened my eyes to another subtle but important aspect of the new program. It hit me this morning about 10 minutes before I heard the comment on scheduling. While reading some of the resources on ministering for stake and ward leaders (available at LDS.org or in the Ministering section of the Gospel Library App), I saw the word "strengths" in the Frequently Asked Questions document. I noticed this in Section 15:
As needed, elders quorum and Relief Society leaders counsel with the ward council regarding strengths and needs identified in ministering interviews and make and enact plans to serve and bless ward members. [emphasis added]
I would see similar language in other parts of that document and in other new resources.

That word "strengths" touched me: when discussing the people being ministered to, we aren't just focusing on problems. We are being encouraged to see the whole person, including strengths as well as needs. Understanding the positives, the goodness, the talents and capabilities of our people can help us understand them more fully, and also help us recognize opportunities where they can help or inspire others and grow more fully by using their strengths. I really like the idea of actively considering the strengths of others when we seek to minister.

This theme of also considering strengths came up later today when my wife and I watched the video below, "Ministering Interviews," on the issue of interviews with ministering brothers and sisters. So simple, yet to me so inspiring. Within the discussion once again is the recognition of the need to look at and consider strengths as well as needs. That subtle but emphatic guidance is healthy, holistic, and healing. It's there because the work of the Church is now even more effectively oriented at truly ministering to others. The changes announced this year represent one of the Lord's many "small means," but through this revealed guidance great things can come, even miracles, if we will accept this direction with energy and faith and do more to bless the lives of others around us. Less scheduling, more discovery of the goodness and strengths of others, and more Christlike ministering. I'm slowly beginning to see the power and the revelation behind what I initially misunderstood as minor adjustment.

Related resource: see the videos on ministering at LDS.org.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Preparing for Disruption in Sacrament Meetings

In my past post, "My Take on the Joseph L. Bishop Scandal, and Steps We Can Take to Better Help Victims and Reduce the Threat of Abuse in the Church," I expressed my desires for resolution to the scandal and expressed sympathy for the victim who is raising serious charges about an event that took place 30 years ago. The woman, McKenna Denson, recently escalated attention to her case by walking to the pulpit in Joey Bishop's ward in Arizona to make public accusations against him. Ouch. Regardless of the truthfulness of her accusations, this is clearly the wrong forum to raise them and creates a truly difficult situation for the bishopric in charge of running a religious service that is meant to be spiritually uplifting and at a minimum must be a safe, family-appropriate environment for those attending. So what is a bishop to do when someone takes the pulpit to lash out at another member and make accusations of rape or other crimes? Just cringe and smile?

The current Handbook of Instructions does not seem to provide guidance on these kind of situations. There is guidance about helping to correct serious doctrinal errors that might come over the pulpit with gentle clarifying statements if needed, while always seeking to avoid embarrassment and so forth. But when someone misuses a sacrament service to attack another member or make criminal charges or raise other topics that are clearly in appropriate and possibly severely damaging to other members, what should leaders do? In this case they asked her politely to stop, and when she didn't, they escorted her away from the pulpit. But this escorting involved touching her to move her away. This led to McKenna stating that they were assaulting her and has led to condemnation of the men for their insensitivity and harsh treatment as they "dragged" her away. "Dragged" strikes me as an inappropriate word for what I have seen. It better describes the Untied Airlines moment when an uncooperative passenger was pulled out of his seen and off the plane, but not the much gentler effort to get an uncooperative person away from the pulpit. But should a different approach have been taken?

I think Ward Councils should spend some time discussing how to prepare for similar events in the future. It's not an academic exercise. Similar inappropriate events can occur from time to time, and pose some of the most difficult scenarios for church leaders.

In my service as a bishop, I faced some difficult situations where I wondered if I should interrupt and stop someone from continuing, and a time or two did so in the gentlest way I could think of (I think I said something like, "we're short on time, could you briefly share your testimony and wrap up in a few seconds?"). But I did not face the nightmare situation of having accusations of terrible crimes levied against a fellow member sitting in the audience. What would I have done? With the publicity and support the victim has received for her stunt in Arizona, I think similar tactics may be tried again by others. Latter-day Saint congregations need to have a thoughtful, cautious plan in place to cope with disruption, ideally one that won't look bad on YouTube and  won't give the accuser the chance to claim that she was assaulted by men who dragged her away from the pulpit. But what to do?

One suggestion to consider is this: After politely asking the person two or three times to please stop, if they continue, then 1) turn the microphone off and 2) go into a loud hymn with enough verses to give the accuser time to realize that he or she is not going to be allowed to continue speaking to a captive audience. If they persist, then at the conclusion of the hymn, announce that sacrament meeting is over for now and we will now move into classes (or perhaps have a 15 minute break and then resume, giving time for police to come help). You could also announce that those who want to hear the details of the accusation can join the accuser for a press conference to be held later at a nearby park. Do it all in a calm voice, with a smile. After all, you are probably being filmed.

Don't attempt to physically escort the person. Don't push, don't touch, don't drag, don't carry. Be absolutely aware that the disruptor will have friends filming every moment of the event and that whatever you do may be projected in the worse possible light, so act with great caution and respect. If by chance they strike at you, then flinch, duck, move away, but don't use any serious self-defense tactics other than fleeing unless there is genuine risk of physical harm. Don't shout even if they do. As much as possible, respect the person, stay out of their personal space, try to avoid heated confrontation, but if they insist on disrupting, close the meeting and move on. Splitting up into classes takes away the excitement of having a large audience. If they want to move into Gospel Doctrine class and continue the accusations, at least they won't be doing that in front of the young children, and frankly, only a tiny fraction of most wards ever seem to make it into Gospel Doctrine, so any harm there is minimized.

That's just my suggestion. I think Ward Councils should discuss this scenario and bishoprics or branch presidencies should use that input to have a plan in mind so that they can act with calmness and love when a nightmarish scene erupts. And yes, remember that however angry and unhinged the disruptor may seem, what that person is saying may be completely true and may need careful action, so please be sure to ask to meet with the person immediately to more fully understand the charges, and be open to the fact that what is being said may be real and serious, however preposterous it may seem at first. On the other hand, all of us  also need to emphasize the role of due process and recognize that some accusations are only partially correct and others are entirely fabricated. In this case, I remain sympathetic to McKenna and what she has suffered, and believe something serious occurred, but wish she had not disrupted a sacrament service in this case. The ends do not justify the means.

We will occasionally see more extreme attempts at abusing the pulpit in our sacrament meetings. It's vital that we be ready in order to keep our cool, respond in love (not only for the accuser, but also for the accused!), but also respect the sacred nature of sacrament services and keep them uplifting, family-friendly, and safe.

Scenarios we should consider include anti-Mormon critics looking for a chance to attack some aspect of the Church, angry people lashing out at an ex-spouse, people expressing hate toward other members or even non-members (politicians included), and many other antics that can derail an uplifting sacred service. Have a plan to respond gently and also take some steps to explain ahead of time where the limits are so members will be less likely to unknowingly violate our expectations for sacrament meetings.

One final hint. When someone approaches the stand and suddenly a bunch of cell phones go up to record the incident, know that something is about to happen. Smile. Be on your best behavior. Take a deep breath and begin a silent prayer for guidance. You are about to be on a potentially viral Youtube video. The actions you take next may be used to judge the Church by millions of others, so handle the crisis well. It may be hymn time any moment. Pick one that sounds good.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Mary at the Tomb: How We Can Easily Misjudge Evidence of a Miracle

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at the FAIRMormon Conference in Provo, where I spoke about the ancient biblical theme of "dust" that is so artfully woven into the Book of Mormon, a topic I've discussed here in the past and have published at The Interpreter (also see Part 2 and Part 3). For my opening slide, I selected a freely available image from the Media Library at LDS.org. The image depicts Mary standing at the empty tomb, with the "gardener" in the background, though of course it is actually the Lord, freshly risen from the dust.

Mary puzzling at the empty tomb: evidence of a misdeed or fraud?
 After selecting this image, it occurred to me that it is relevant to the issue of examining evidence for miraculous events, including the miracle of that voice from the dust, the Book of Mormon. I mentioned this both at the beginning and again at the end of the presentation, where I showed it again as I made my concluding remarks.

Mary is looking at evidence for the greatest miracle of all time, the miracle of the Resurrection of Christ. Yet as she beholds the evidence of the empty tomb, she apparently sees it as evidence of something wrong--a gross violation of Jewish practice, or perhaps deception, fraud, or theft. Thus, her question to the "gardener" was, "Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thous hast laid him" (John 20:15).

It was only when she recognized the voice calling to her and turned to look more closely at the "gardener" that she could see things more clearly: what she had encountered was evidence of a divine miracle, not wanton misbehavior.

The Book of Mormon is a continuing and powerful witness for the reality of the Resurrected Lord that abounds with evidences of the divine. But we can look at every aspect of the evidence with doubting eyes and see only fraud and deception. The numerous witnesses of the reality of the gold plates and of the translation process? We can see that as evidence of conspiracy. Other evidences can be downplayed, ignored, dismissed as a lucky guess, or recast as evidence of fraud pointing to Joseph furtively drawing upon various texts, maps, scholars, etc.

King Benjamin's speech, for example, can be seen as just a 19th-century religious revival meeting dressed up in KJV language, obviously a fraud based solely upon Joseph's environment, while others look at the same speech with astonishment as it abounds with Hebrew poetry (over a dozen clear chiasms and many other interesting forms of parallelism), reflects ancient Near Eastern coronation rituals, embodies all the elements of the ancient Near Eastern covenant formulary that was not elucidated until the 20th century, and poses numerous challenges to any theory that it was based on Joseph's environment. And yes, it appropriately and aptly connects the theme of dust to both coronation and covenant making, beautifully in line with modern scholarship on the rich covenant-based meanings of dust as motif in the ancient Near East. Not bad for a farm boy dictating for a couple of hours from his hat. Hats off to Joseph's technical advisory committee!

May we look past our initial assumptions of fraud and listen to the gentle, divine voice that beckons to us from the pages of this divine record from the dust, a new witness and source of evidence for the risen Lord and for the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is only when we listen more closely, then turn and look with a fresh perspective that we will be able to embrace with the joy the blessings that await us, and find the more powerful evidences of one of the great miracles of all time in the Book of Mormon. It is true, and there are rich evidences of its truthfulness that await you, though we are given the freedom to look at the evidence however we wish.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Update on "Healthy" Alcohol Consumption: Massive New Study Reveals the Optimum Daily Dose is ZERO

My previous post discussed the $100 million government study on "moderate" alcohol consumption that the alcohol industry was furtively funding and designing to give favorable results, a study that fortunately was scuttled after the New York Times exposed the scandal. One of the comments  to my post (thanks, "Last Lemming"!) pointed to an important 2018 publication from just a few days ago in the major medical journal, The Lancet, which combined hundreds of studies and conducted massive analysis to determine the mathematically optimum amount of daily alcohol one should consume. The answer: ZERO. Not one ounce, not half a glass of wine, not even a teaspoon, but zero.

The study is Max G. Griswold et al. (a huge list is buried in that "et al."), "Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016," The Lancet, August 23, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31310-2. Here is the summary:


Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for death and disability, but its overall association with health remains complex given the possible protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption on some conditions. With our comprehensive approach to health accounting within the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2016, we generated improved estimates of alcohol use and alcohol-attributable deaths and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) for 195 locations from 1990 to 2016, for both sexes and for 5-year age groups between the ages of 15 years and 95 years and older.


Using 694 data sources of individual and population-level alcohol consumption, along with 592 prospective and retrospective studies on the risk of alcohol use, we produced estimates of the prevalence of current drinking, abstention, the distribution of alcohol consumption among current drinkers in standard drinks daily (defined as 10 g of pure ethyl alcohol), and alcohol-attributable deaths and DALYs. We made several methodological improvements compared with previous estimates: first, we adjusted alcohol sales estimates to take into account tourist and unrecorded consumption; second, we did a new meta-analysis of relative risks for 23 health outcomes associated with alcohol use; and third, we developed a new method to quantify the level of alcohol consumption that minimises the overall risk to individual health.


Globally, alcohol use was the seventh leading risk factor for both deaths and DALYs in 2016, accounting for 2·2% (95% uncertainty interval [UI] 1·5–3·0) of age-standardised female deaths and 6·8% (5·8–8·0) of age-standardised male deaths. Among the population aged 15–49 years, alcohol use was the leading risk factor globally in 2016, with 3·8% (95% UI 3·2–4·3) of female deaths and 12·2% (10·8–13·6) of male deaths attributable to alcohol use. For the population aged 15–49 years, female attributable DALYs were 2·3% (95% UI 2·0–2·6) and male attributable DALYs were 8·9% (7·8–9·9). The three leading causes of attributable deaths in this age group were tuberculosis (1·4% [95% UI 1·0–1·7] of total deaths), road injuries (1·2% [0·7–1·9]), and self-harm (1·1% [0·6–1·5]). For populations aged 50 years and older, cancers accounted for a large proportion of total alcohol-attributable deaths in 2016, constituting 27·1% (95% UI 21·2–33·3) of total alcohol-attributable female deaths and 18·9% (15·3–22·6) of male deaths. The level of alcohol consumption that minimised harm across health outcomes was zero (95% UI 0·0–0·8) standard drinks per week.


Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss. We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero. These results suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.
So much for the myth of healthy moderate alcohol consumption. If it's health you want, don't touch the stuff at all.  If you do choose to drink, please don't repeat the myth that you are just drinking a healthy amount. The healthy amount is zero. Anything above that can be expected to bring net harm to your health. Don't mislead others with the bad science of the past. Of course, you may not experience any ill effects, just like some smokers manage to live surprisingly long. Health consequences are statistical matters with huge variance. But the expectation, based on extensive data, is that any alcohol increases the risk of overall harm. The healthy choice is zero.

A serious amount of education is needed now to reverse the decades of bad science that have given us the myth that a little alcohol is a healthy choice.  A little alcohol is healthy in the same way that a little tobacco smoke is healthy since both have the same optimum level. Zero. Now get out there and let people know!

Update, Sept. 4, 2018: An associated article at The Lancet is "No level of alcohol consumption improves health" by Robyn Burton and Nick Sheron, also published on Aug. 23, 2018. This discusses the Global Burden of Disease 2016 study and explains that it is "most comprehensive estimate of the global burden of alcohol use to date." The study reveals that alcohol's impact is significantly greater than previously recognized. In fact, it is "a colossal global health issue."
The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer. There is strong support here for the guideline published by the Chief Medical Officer of the UK who found that there is “no safe level of alcohol consumption”. The findings have further ramifications for public health policy, and suggest that policies that operate by decreasing population-level consumption should be prioritised.
For your convenience in sharing this information, I've prepared two TinyUrl.com shortcuts for the two links at The Lancet. The shortcut to the study itself is https://tinyurl.com/liquorbad and a shortcut to the brief associated article is https://tinyurl.com/boozebad.

Speaking of shortcuts, this blog can be reached via https://tinyurl.com/mormanity or just Mormanity.com. Oh, that's right -- I was finally able to use my Mormanity trademark to require a serial cybersquatter to relinquish Mormanity.com, so that domain is no longer serving up objectionable ads, but now redirects to my blog here. Have plans to develop it as a standalone site, and your suggestions for improvements are welcome.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Word of Wisdom is Coming Back into Style: Conspiring Men and the Myth of Healthy Alcohol Consumption

Did you catch the recent reports in the New York Times of a major National Institutes of Health study on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption? It's a great story of how useful scientific research can be when done with abundant resources and talent,  courtesy of $100 million in funding largely from the liquor industry. See "Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund Study on Benefits of Moderate Drinking" by Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times, March 17, 2018.
It was going to be a study that could change the American diet, a huge clinical trial that might well deliver all the medical evidence needed to recommend a daily alcoholic drink as part of a healthy lifestyle.

That was how two prominent scientists and a senior federal health official pitched the project during a presentation at the luxurious Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2014. And the audience members who were being asked to help pay for the $100 million study seemed receptive: They were all liquor company executives.
While the study was wrapped in the normal robes of pure, unbiased research in the quest for truth, the information the New York Times was able to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests and good investigative work reveals that the researchers behind the study were pitching it to the alcohol industry as a great opportunity to definitively prove that moderate alcohol consumption is healthy. Fortunately, thanks to the scrutiny of journalism (yes, real journalism still happens occasionally!), the NIH has stopped the now-controversial study. See the NYT article, "It Was Supposed to Be an Unbiased Study of Drinking. They Wanted to Call It ‘Cheers’" by Roni Caryn Rabin, June 18, 2018.

It's "common knowledge" these days that moderate alcohol consumption can be healthy. A little wine in particular is great for your heart., right? Hasn't science proved that? That was the conclusion that we've been hearing for years based on some early studies in the 70s and 80s. But since then there have been some very good reasons to question that story. First, those studies don't actually prove that alcohol was the reason for the health benefits that were reported. In comparing wine drinkers to those who don't drink wine, an important detail not properly accounted for is that those who drink wine tend to be wealthier, upper-class people who have better access to health care. It may be their wealth and higher-quality health care that improves health, not their wine. Later reports challenged the claims of health benefits and suggested that any such benefits, if real, would be very small. The previous studies touting health benefits were said to be the result of "confused research." For example, the apparent heart benefits were most visible in the heavy drinkers, not the light drinkers, but the harms of heavy drinking obviously outweighed the benefits of clearer arteries. There was much to question in the work claiming health benefits to drinking.

Then came the World Health Organization's 2014 World Cancer Report  that claimed that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe because of the increased risk of cancer associated with alcohol. (See discussion at WebMD and Medscape.) So there has been a growing need for the beverage industry to find something they can hang their hat on and claim that their products are healthy after all. And for $100 million, a group of scientists appeared ready to deliver. As Roni Rabin reports,
The study was intended to test the hypothesis that one drink a day is better for one’s heart than none, among other benefits of moderate drinking. But its design was such that it would not pick up harms, such as an increase in cancers or heart failure associated with alcohol, the investigation found.

Scientists who designed the trial were aware it was not large enough to detect a rise in breast cancer, and acknowledged to grant reviewers in 2016 that the study was focused on benefits and “not powered to identify negative health effects.”

“Clearly, there was a sense that this trial was being set up in a way that would maximize the chances of showing a positive effect of alcohol,” Dr. Collins said last week as he accepted his advisers’ recommendation to terminate the trial.

“Understandably, the alcoholic beverage industry would like to see that.”
Of course, the scientists seeking big bucks from the liquor industry didn't exactly guarantee that the desired result would be delivered. But they certainly created that hope and expectation. And they allowed the industry to work with them in designing the study. And guess what? The study was designed to appear comprehensive and thorough, while apparently masking the harmful effects of alcohol.

The risk of increased cancer, such as increased breast cancer in women, is a significant harmful effect, but to see it with statistical confidence requires a much longer study than the one planned, and requires a larger sample size, otherwise the effect will be buried in random noise. The selected sample size and duration would enhance detection of expected positive effects in some areas while reducing risk of detecting some key negative effects. Further, while two drinks a day has long been the threshold for "moderate" drinking, the study would involve only one drink a day, which reduces the risk of falls, car accidents, etc. Further, those most at risk for health problems from alcohol would be excluded from the study.

Whatever health benefits might be found would not reflect the real impact on society that "moderate" drinking brings, but would be used to justify increase sales to millions of "moderate" drinkers likely to ramp up their "moderation" and bring a healthy return on the $100 million investment for the "definitive" study. A smart business deal, indeed, accurately foretold in Joseph Smith's 1833 revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (Doctrine and Covenants 89:4):
In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation....
But wait, what's the difference between conspiracy and just a clever business model?  It's a fair question, but the more conspiratorial aspects of the story come in the revelation that the scientists were deliberately obscuring the source of the funding they were seeking and were hiding their association the liquor peddlers. Not exactly the above-board transparency and spotless ethics we expect, or at least often hear about, when it comes to academic research.

The health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have not been proven and may be a myth when the negative issues are fully considered. For now, at least, it looks like the Word of Wisdom is back in style, at least that part about alcohol. And I think "moderate" smoking isn't a good idea, either. Meanwhile, while doing the best I can with the tidbits we have been given, I will gladly welcome any further updates the Lord may wish to reveal regarding other details (green tea? "paleo" diets? quinoa vs. wheat? any good foods to reduce hair loss?).

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Least Religious Book on Ministering that Church Leaders and Members Ought to Read: Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Some time ago in a complex corporate setting, I made the CEO of a large company quite angry and now he had me come in his office where he was yelling at me. Yelling. He had another leader there supporting him, adding to the pressure. I don't handle that kind of pressure and intimidation well. Had I not been prepared  for this moment, courtesy of a valuable new book I had just completed, the outcome would have been easy to predict: As a peon with very little power, I would have been terrified, intimidated, and would quickly look for ways to make concessions and stop the conflict. He would have won and some people I care about would have lost, but the loss, though unpleasant, would have seemed fair and unavoidable to me. After all, what else could I have done? And since that man was powerful and I would need his ongoing support in the future, making a sacrifice to gain his favor would have seemed like a reasonable move. But such thinking was a delusion that I was able to avoid.

I can't share details of what the disagreement involved, but it was a classic case of a negotiation in which the obvious thing to do was to "split the difference." It was somewhat like this: "You have four of my people, I want them back. Give me two and it's good." Fortunately, I had a roadmap and a plan. I didn't waver. Following the principles on negotiation I had learned from the FBI's former head negotiator for hostage crises, Chris Voss, in his groundbreaking book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, instead of breaking down, I smiled and explained that returning his people was not an option, and while I couldn't give back what he wanted, I was there to talk about how we would help him solve the real problem they had. He repeated his demands and each time, in a calm low, voice, I smiled and apologized that we couldn't do that, but discussed how we would help and asked for his guidance on how best to help them meet their real needs.

When his people demanded to know why I couldn't make the concessions they wanted, I didn't need to give them reasons to nitpick. I was there to help, not to argue. "I'm sorry, we can't change that, but let's talk about what we can do to help you...." I was in problem solving mode, seeking suggestions on how we could best help them with their real problem. I expressed our desire to cooperate and talked about how we could do that, but no unnecessary concessions were made. No groveling in fear was needed. I was able to acknowledge their emotions: "It looks like this is very disturbing to you. It must seem very unfair that I have something you want and won't let it go." "Yes, exactly. Give them back now." "I'm so sorry, we can't do that, they are all needed where they are, but here's what we will do to address the real problem...."

The previous agreement they wanted reversed stood. In the end, their real needs were met without any painful concessions. I've met him since then and he is surprisingly friendly. He's no longer the CEO there -- there have been two replacements since that crisis. Any investment in the relationship by sacrificing others would have been meaningless in the long run. The proposed win/lose would have become a loss for both parties eventually. I'm so grateful that I found the guidance I needed for this crisis at just the right time.

That book, Never Split the Difference, has influenced me time and time again and helped me find a path forward in many complex situations. Unlike some of the terrible advice one finds in the business world on the topic of negotiations and sales, Chris Voss is not teaching one to crush opponents and take everything, destroying long-term trust. His approach is not the win/lose dynamic of bargaining, but is aimed at helping you get what's essential while helping the other party to be treated with respect and to have their needs met as well (though sometimes, in the world of FBI negotiations, they will need to go jail, a superior alternative to being shot).

Voss's broad approach recognizes that negotiation is at play in any conversation or interaction where you want to bring about change. What makes Voss's work a "church book" in my opinion is that it is essential for those seeking to minster, for ministering is about interaction to bring about change in the lives of others. The principles Voss teaches, often based on scientific research and profound psychological insights from decades of research within the FBI, are potentially useful in religious settings while obviously valuable in many aspects of business and life in general.
Negotiation is simply communication with results. You are negotiating in every conversation where you want to make something happen, such as:
  • Arranging an activity
  • Giving direction to a group or individual
  • Making a purchase (especially in China!)
  • Guiding a child's behavior
  • Asking somebody for help
  • Encouraging a friend to come to Church 
  • Responding to tough questions about religion
  • Helping worried parents support your decision to marry someone they don't understand
Never Split the Difference reflects decades of research and experience within the FBI in dealing with some of the harshest and most dangerous people on the planet: criminals, bank robbers, terrorists, crazy people willing to kill the hostages they have taken. I know, this doesn't sound like the kind of experience that is going to help your local bishop deal with his congregation, or a parent deal with an ordinary teenager having a minor crisis. But the brilliant insight behind this book is that each of these people, however threatening and crazy they seem to us, are still people deep down and have some basic humanity that needs to be respected. What the FBI has learned from numerous interactions with criminals of all kinds has revealed a great deal about humans in general, and Voss has found that his experience is broadly applicable. Based on my experiences in applying his work, I strongly concur.

When the criminals holding hostages start making crazy demands, something important is happening: they are reaching out and asking to be heard. This is a critical opportunity for change if and only if someone is willing to do one of the most difficult, fundamental steps of real negotiating: listening. Not arguing, not shoving threats and arguments down their throat, but listening carefully and intensely to what is being said. In hostage negotiation, the FBI may have six or more people listening intensely to every conversation, tuning in to difference aspects to learn as much as possible. What is the emotional tone of the opponent? What can be learned from background noises, from word choice, from references to other parties, from statements about the hostages, from threats or the details of demands?

Listening brings information that can be used for advantage to resolve problems and meet real needs. It builds rapport. It can reveal what the real issues are. It is through the trust and understanding that comes through listening that FBI negotiators often find opportunities to save lives and bring about real change. This should be a fundamental principle for LDS ministers and actually everybody seeking to be more effective in life. Voss teaches a great deal about the art of listening and building trust, not based on sham techniques, but on sincerely listening with all one's energy to hear what the real issues are on the other side, and letting the others know that you are seeking to understand. So basic, but it's an art. I don't do this well, but some of my best moments have been when I really tried.
On the supreme task of listening in negotiation:
  • “Most people approach negotiation so preoccupied with their own arguments to support their position that they are unable to listen attentively.” -- Chris Voss
  • Your top priority is to focus on what the other person has to say and to understand them as fully as possible. This gives you the information you need. This build trust so they can share information and find a solution with you.
  • The most dangerous way to approach a negotiation is to assume you know everything already. There is always something important you don't understand, and you will never understand that if you don't listen carefully with an open mind. You must challenge your assumptions as you listen to find the hidden realities regarding the other party. 
Voss follows his extensive guidance on listening with a treatment of the tool of constructive questions. Rather than looking for ways to press your position and push your arguments in negotiation (ouch, that's how I've negotiated--or rather, argued in vain--so often in my life!), the smart negotiator looks for ways to help the other party find solutions to their problems. Constructive open-ended questions are often the key. These questions are respectful and in essence ask the other party for help. For the FBI, such a question might be, "How can I pay the random when I don't even know if she is still alive?" This presents a problem and asks the other party for help -- for evidence about the state of the hostage -- without demanding that in a way that might just get a "no" answer. Other examples of such questions could be, "The whole report by Monday? How am I supposed to do that?" or "How can I give you the car keys when you haven't kept your part of the agreement yet?" or "What about this agreement doesn't work for you?"

Properly constructed questions can educate the other party about a problem without causing conflict by lecturing them about the problem. The question does not offer a direct target for attack like a statement does, and does not invite a mere yes or no answer that gets you nowhere. They typically begin with "what" or "how" and avoid "who," "when," "where," or other forms that can result in a quick answer that doesn't move the interaction forward. Carefully constructed questions, often crafted in the preparations for a negotiation, can let the other party feel they are being respected and are in control, but can bring out information or concessions as they respond to the problem before them. When needed, open-ended questions can also buy valuable time.

Also key to Voss's approach is the role of emotion. We like to think that negotiation is about both parties logically finding an intermediate solution based on rational principles, but as David Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow reveals, emotion often and easily dominates our decision making process, and if we don't understand and control the emotional aspects, we can make poor decisions. Voss gives vital guidance on controlling our emotions and understanding the emotions of the other party to reach a good outcome. Almost weekly in the business world I see negotiations go awry as parties become emotional or angry and upset the possibility of a sound resolution. Learning to stay calm, cheerful, smiling and in control even when under pressure or attack is so valuable. Understanding how another party may seek to manipulate your emotions can also help you avoid trouble.

When someone you care about suddenly attacks the Church or states that they aren't going to college after all or wish to make a decision you find terrible, the natural man is ready to respond with emotion. It is the saint that can stay loving, listen, and build a lasting connection with the rebel that may be able to influence them for good in the end. Voss's book, whether he realizes it or not, helps bring out the saint in us to help us better cope with threatening challenges such as a crisis of faith. Stay calm. Slow it down. Listen carefully. Be cheerful. Smile. Use a calming voice. Don't let your emotions run away. These are tools for hostage negotiators, but also for ministers, missionaries, moms and dads, employees, and all of us as we face conflict, change, disappointment, and, in the midst of it all, the opportunity to make a difference.

Voss's work shows great sensitivity to the nuances of language. The way we say something is critical. This is a vital lesson for religious leaders, of course. Too often we can speak truth in ways that drive people from it. Gentleness, respect, caution, and emotional intelligence is urgently needed in our religious dialogues and in all our discourse. Reading Voss can move us forward in this area.

Voss teaches the need to understand and label the emotions of the other party. This approach helps show you are listening and understanding, and acknowledging their position in a non-judgemental way. Rather than ignore the emotions of the other party, they can be identified and influenced through "tactical empathy" to guide behavior. His treatment of emotions is one of the most valuable of many significant contributions in his book.

Never Split the Difference is loaded with high-tension, dramatic stories sharing some of the joys and griefs of a seasoned hostage crisis negotiator. But Voss has found the common vein of humanity through it all that connects our more mundane experiences to the life-and-death dramas where the world's best negotiating techniques have been honed. Not techniques for tricking and crushing an opponent, but for helping them and us at the same time. Techniques that can even become a valuable tool in the work of ministering, when properly applied.

Voss does give some hard-hitting guidance and tools that can be misapplied, and I cannot say that every page or chapter is Gospel-compatible. But I believe there are core principles and many useful techniques that, applied in love and sincerity, will be valuable to a Christian seeking to better help others in ministering or just being a good friend or family member.

It's the least religious "church" book that I think ministers, Christians, and good people of all faiths ought to read in order to better succeed in life and in the work of helping others.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Beauty of Chance Encounters

From several years ago, a photo of my wife and I
at Mount Lao near Qingdao, China, by a large
stone with the word "yuan" meaning destiny or fate.
In Chinese culture, the concept of "yuanfen" plays a significant role, referring to the fate or destiny that may be behind our encounters. The "yuan" part of that word is a truly beautiful and mysterious character.

After writing about the issue of coincidences vs. blessings from above in my past post, I had an experience that reminded me of just how rich my life has been made by various coincidences and chance encounters, especially those that seem to have a bit of "yuanfen" to them. Whatever the cause, these things have been great blessings to me, and I don't think there is any risk in expressing such gratitude to the Lord, even if He might not wish to take credit for all of it.

A few nights ago my wife and I were enjoyed the blessing of a series of coincidences as we joined some of our favorite friends for dinner. This dinner was special to me in many ways and involved a number of interesting coincidences. The people we were with were what made it truly special: a recently retired engineering professor and his nuclear scientist wife. along with their daughter (a brilliant teacher in New York) and two of their neighbors, another engineer and scientist wife pair with some surprisingly similar interests.

As were were enjoying an exciting conversation on numerous topics and eating some especially interesting and artful food, we had the most remarkable view from the 50th floor of a gorgeous building that I have long wanted to visit. The view of Shanghai was just stunning, but it touched me with more than its beauty. The restaurant spanned the entire floor and provided a 360-degree view of the city, but the particular slice of the city we could see from our table next to a window was especially meaningful to me. By chance, we were overlooking the first apartment building we had lived in and the crazy and interesting old city around it, leading us to ponder on our arrival here and our evolving story in Shanghai.

Further, as night settled upon the city and its skyscrapers began waking up with bewildering lights, the newest and probably brightest tall building on our side of the Huangpu River suddenly caught my eye with its full-building animated display. In between colorful scenes, it was showing the name and logo of my company, APP China, the company that brought me here to help them with intellectual property and innovation. For a moment, I had the sense of looking at a slice of the past, the present, and the future (perhaps the future part is because I always get a sense of looking at the future when I gaze at Shanghai's skyline, but the majestic new building that caught my attention made somehow made me think about my future here). How unexpected and off, to see my company's logo so prominently displayed across a mammoth screen about two football fields long.

Another coincidence began a few days before this I was looking up at the tallest building that watches over a beautiful and popular part of Shanghai called Xujiahui, not far from where I live. I looked at that building -- the one I was now dining in -- and thought, "I really would like to go there sometime." It's a building that has impressed me for years and I have often wondered what was in there on the upper levels, but have never had cause to go. A couple of days after that, I had the pleasant surprise of the invitation to dinner on the 50th floor from a professor friend of mine. I was so happy to learn where dinner would be. It was truly exciting to be there and to eat some of Shanghai's most artistic food at the City View Cafe at the Pullman Hotel. Yes, that's a high-end restaurant, so I was worried that our friends were taking us to a terribly expensive place, but with their typical savvy use of online deals, they had booked a set meal promotion that I think was reasonably priced and mercifully not too heavy (I prefer meals that are light but adventurous, and this was perfect for my tastes). It was certainly a wonderful way to treat their daughter and friends.

The most meaningful coincidence associated with this remarkable meal began over 7 years ago, a few months before I was invited to consider a job in China. I was traveling on a work assignment and was in the Chicago airport between flights. As I stepped off my plane and began walking to my next gate, I walked past a Chinese couple struggling to communicate with a United Airlines agent at a nearby gate. Even though my Chinese was very basic, I felt like maybe I could help, so I walked over and talked to them in Chinese. They were on their way back to China, having just landed in Chicago, and were wondering where they needed to go to forward their checked bags to Shanghai. They were thinking of the process they faced when they came to the US as they went through customs in Chicago, a process which involved getting their checked bags and then after clearing customs taking them to another agent to be sent to their next flight. But for their return flight, that wasn't needed, and their bags would go directly all the way to China. I helped to explain this, and while I wasn't really all that helpful, they were so happy to have an American interested in China try to help them that they have me their contact information and told me to please visit them if I ever came to Shanghai. That chance encounter would be one of the sweetest random blessings in my life as we meet periodically with them and other friends of theirs. They are such thoughtful, kind people who represent the very best of China.

Our appealing meal with its particular view, the restaurant in the building I had just wished to visit, and the dear friends whose lives are tied to mine now through a delightful chance encounter, all represent chance and coincidence, beautifully arrayed to make my life more meaningful. Such small means, random or not, pure chance or not, can with the touch of the Lord's hand become meaningful and precious, like many of our friendships and relationships in life. Do not overlook the possibilities that can arise from chance encounters, nor discount the kindness that may be shown to you through coincidence. Be grateful for it all and welcome the Lord's ongoing guidance on how to respond to the opportunities and blessings that may arise from chance, or at least seem to.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Coincidence or Miracle?

On my recent trip to several parts of the United States, I was in the Chicago airport for a couple of hours on my way to visit my parents. I planned to spend some time with my parents to help them with some issues they are facing. To prepare, I had spoken a few weeks ago with my sister who lives in England and needed to speak with her again. She has spent a lot of time with them recently and is most aware of the details of their situation. However, two recent call attempts, email, and text had failed, probably because she has been extremely busy herself.

My wife and I had been sitting at our gate, but eventually both felt it would be good to wander down the hall and look for some food. We considered McDonalds but I couldn't see anything I would want to eat, so we continued further to a food court. With hundreds of people around me, my eyes were simply drawn to one particular woman who seemed familiar. As I got closer, i realized this was my sister, the very person I most needed to talk to in order to help my aging parents deal with some very serious issues.

She lives in England. what was she doing at the O'Hare Airport? We had no idea she was in the United States, but she had come here on a very quick trip to take care of another complex issue and was now on her way back to England. The chances of meeting her in the huge and busy Chicago airport were minuscule, yet there she was, the person I most needed to see and had tried to reach recently without success. The information I got from her during our chat would help us in our visits with my parents and make us much better aware of their needs. Just a random coincidence? Yes, perhaps, but it was certainly the kind of coincidence that should at least open one's mind to the possibility of a blessing from the Lord. The proper response, even if it was just coincidence this time, is gratitude, in my opinion, and a recognition of at least the possibility of the hand of the Lord in the event.

There are some coincidences that really are random or from sources other than divine intervention. The investigator who is visited by an anti-Mormon minister just after meeting with Mormon missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence, or the result of well-meaning friends arranging the coincidence to save a soul from Mormonism. Likewise, it is possible that the person who prays to know the truth and then sees an ad for the Mormons on TV right after the prayer or gets a knock on the door from missionaries may be experiencing a coincidence. It could be by divine design, but coincidence or not, the process of deciding to accept the LDS religion obviously must involve much more careful diligence than just relying on a lone coincidence, even if it may have been a deliberate blessing. It's fair to be open to the possibility of meaning behind the event, but it is not the end of the investigation process.

Life is full of coincidences. Some may seem both wildly improbable and a genuine blessing that solves a major problem, as my encounter in the airport did. For coincidences of that nature, I think it is fair and healthy to recognize that it may have been by divine design and to receive the blessing with gratitude. But be careful not to let a strange coincidence replace the careful consideration needed in making important decisions.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Thinking DIfferently About Same-sex Attraction: A Valuable Presentation from Jeff Robinson

One of the highlights of this week's 2018 FairMormon Conference for me was the presentation by Dr. Jeff Robinson, "Thinking Differently About Same-sex Attraction." Dr. Robinson has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy (BYU) and has spent over 15,000 hours in the past 25 years in his private practice interviewing and learning from individuals experiencing a conflict between their religious or personal values and same-sex attraction. I was touched with the compassion and passion he spoke in helping the audience understand the need for compassion and love for others, and in helping us to think differently about SSA.

Robinson explained how those experiencing conflicts related to SSA almost always wish to understand the why behind their challenges. What makes some have SSA? Saying that why is irrelevant does not work well, he explained, because the assumptions people make about the cause will strongly influence the steps they take.

His recommended approach is to simply explain SSA as "something you know how to do." He used the analogy to one's native language. Why do I speak English? Is it in my genes that makes me simply born as an English speaker? Is it because I suffered psychological abuse as a child and am somehow damaged goods? Is it because as a small child I chose to speak English instead of Swahili or other equally valid choices? My genes certainly hardwire me with a predisposition to speak and express myself in language, but the nature of the language(s) I learn can be influenced by many other factors, and English is not the only language I can learn.

If we understand SSA as nothing more than something one knows how to do, it resolves the problems with other theories. We need not assume that someone with SSA is mentally ill or psychologically damaged, or that they have made evil choices and are to blame for their state. Further, we need not accept the myth that they are born into an iron-clad "orientation" that excludes other possibilities. Robinson explains that a large number of those with SSA also experience some degree of opposite-sex attraction (OSA). If they assume they are born into a fixed "orientation," they may be likely to ignore or deny whatever degree of OSA they experience, thus missing the hints of other hopeful possibilities.

This understanding can give us tools to be more accepting, less judgmental, and more supportive of those who face conflict between their values and their attractions. I greatly appreciated his viewpoint.

Update, Aug. 6, 2018: Dr. Robinson was not saying that SSA can be eliminated. He tells his patients that they should expect to experience it throughout their lives. He was not advocating reversion therapy. But he does urge caution in the use of labels and believes at least some people have greater options in life than they realized, including the option to find greater peace in how they live.

Dr. Robinson's patients are those who are seeking help to deal with the conflicts they face between their values or religion and SSA. He clearly indicated that his patients are not a representative sample of the entire population. His approach, which may benefit many of his clients, may not be needed or relevant to many with SSA. If you feel that other ways of thinking about SSA better describe your situation (e.g., being "born that way" with a genetically-determined sexual orientation), that is fine. Dr. Robinson's practice and views in that case may be irrelevant to your situation. But for some seeking to cope with some particular conflicts, it has been very helpful.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Enjoying the 2018 FairMormon Conference and Speaking Tomorrow on the "Arise from the Dust" Them in the Book of Mormone

I'm attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center today. The crowd is even bigger than last year, maybe 300 people I'm guessing. I missed yesterday's session due to family responsibilities, but the program today has been terrific with many highlights, including the report from Jeffrey Bradshaw about the stories of many individuals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he just completed a mission. I'm looking forward to learning from tomorrows speakers as well, with the exception of the one at 1:00 PM, which will be given by me on some of the tentative discoveries from exploring the ancient motif of dust as applied so appropriately and artfully in the Book of Mormon.

Some presentations today include:
  • Sara Riley, “'Even as Moses Did': The Use of the Exodus Narrative in Mosiah 11-18," a careful and insightful analysis of the many subtle allusions to the Exodus found in the Book of Mosiah.
  • Brad Wilcox, "'Have You Been Saved By Grace?' How Do We Respond?," a powerful, illuminating, and entertaining presentation on the power of grace and how to help other Christians better understand our views on how grace leads to salvation by understanding what salvation actually means.
  • Steve Densley and Geret Giles, "Barriers to Belief," a much-needed and highly valuable discourse on the role of mental health issues (various forms of anxiety, for example) in responding to complex or difficult aspects of the LDS faith. By better understanding the needs of others who think and respond differently than we do, we can better minister to their needs.
  • Jeffrey Bradshaw, "Stories of the Saints in the DR Congo," a remarkable and inspiring review of the lives of many individual Latter-day Saints in the DR Congo. This will motivate many of us to be more attentive to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Africa and elsewhere.

Monday, July 23, 2018

When Lehi Left Jerusalem: 605 B.C.? A Plausible Hypothesis from Jeff Chadwick

A frequent question and criticism of the Book of Mormon involves Nephi's statement at the beginning that Lehi had a vision in the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah. Afterwards, when Lehi and his family have left Jerusalem, Lehi prophecies that the Messiah would be born 600 years later (1 Nephi 10:4, repeated in 1 Nephi 19:8 and 2 Nephi 25:19, and confirmed in 3 Nephi 1:1, 9–19). Since it has long been known that Zedekiah's reign began in 597 B.C., and since it is generally accepted that Christ's actual birth was around 5 B.C., the 600-year prophecy poses an obvious problem. Viewing the 600-year prophecy as a rounded approximation seems inadequate, given the specificity of the text.

Several approaches have been taken to deal with the 600-year prophecy, including an appeal to a 360-day year of the Mesoamerican calendar or a 354-day lunar calendar, but Professor Jeffrey R. Chadwick of BYU has what seems to be a superior treatment. In his newly published "Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem," BYU Studies 57/2 (2018): 7-51, Chadwick proposes that when the Egyptians killed Josiah in battle in 609 B.C. and later Jehoiakim on the throne, the rightful heir was Zedekiah and many faithful Jews might have naturally viewed the Egyptian appointment as illegitimate. Indeed, Jehoiakim was strongly denounced by Jeremiah.

In the minds of the Jews of that day, the rightful reign of Zedekiah had already begun, though he wold not ascend to the throne for several more years. Chadwick's proposal seems to neatly resolve several issues and provides for a reasonable time for Lehi to minister in Jerusalem before he had to flee for his life. It also fits well with some of the social and political realities that might have made later travel too risky. He considers a wide variety of details and concludes that the Book of Mormon account is remarkably consistent with what we are learning about Israel in that era.

On quibble is that Chadwick insists that the River of Lemuel must have been a wadi that only temporarily had flowing water, otherwise a perennial stream (such as the excellent candidate found by George Potter) would have attracted a large settlement and would not have been available for any random family to wander up to and use. But remote, hard-to-find locations can remain largely uninhabited, as we see with Khor Kahrfot/Wadi Sayq, the leading candidate for Bountiful which remains substantially uninhabited in spite of having the largest freshwater lagoon in the Arabian Peninsula. When there are other sources of water in a region, a remote and difficult location won't necessarily attract a crowd.

Had Joseph been the brilliant Bible scholar he is sometimes required to be, he would have known that Zedekiah's reign began in 597 B.C. The 600-year prophecy would have at least been dialed down to 597 years. The 597 B.C. was well-known as the beginning of Zedekiah's reign in Joseph's day is illustrated in a printing of the Bible with commentary showing the date 597 B.C. at the top of the pages for Jeremiah 27. The source is Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments According to the Authorized Version with Explanatory Notes and Practical Observations, vol. 3 (Boston: Samuel Armstrong, 1823), available at Google Books; https://books.google.com/books?id=jaJOAQAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA323. The commentary explains that there may be a scribal error in Jeremiah 27:1, for that verse speaks of the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim, but the rest of the chapter is addressed to Zedekiah.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"Artifact or Artifice?" Orson Scott Card's Brilliant 1993 Essay Still Rings True

Twenty-five years ago a famous name among fiction writers, Orson Scott Card, gave a speech at BYU that provided a novel way of evaluating Book of Mormon claims. The speech was “The Book of Mormon – Artifact or Artifice?” at the 1993 BYU Symposium on Life, the Universe, and Everything; see his transcript at The Nauvoo Times. Card applied his profound skills to examine the artifacts of fiction we should find if the Book of Mormon had been fabricated and not merely translated by Joseph Smith.

Upon reading this article today, one familiar with Book of Mormon studies may be impressed with how well Card’s analysis has stood the test of time. So many of the points he made have become more relevant or strengthened by subsequent explorations into the text of the Book of Mormon, the details of its translation and publication, the scholarship into the lives of the witnesses, and many new studies relevant to evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon and the meaning of the text.

When Card spoke in early 1993, he did not have the benefit of the major discoveries related to Lehi’s Trail from the work of Warren Aston that highlight numerous details such as the existence and location of an ancient place with the name like Nahom or the existence of a fully plausible site for Bountiful exactly where it should be. Card did not have the benefit of the field work of George Potter examining the prospects for what was once said to be impossible, the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel three days south of the beginning of the Red Sea. He didn’t have the body of evidence from John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex or the insights about the Mesoamerican perspectives in the Book of Mormon uncovered by Brant Gardner in his Traditions of the Fathers. He lacked the revolutionary insights from the study of the earliest Book of Mormon texts by Royal Skousen or the analysis of the language of the Book of Mormon by Stanford Carmack.

Card’s speech was also before LDS scholars became familiar with the work of Scottish researcher Margaret Barker and before she became familiar with the Book of Mormon. Barker has sought to reconstruct the early Jewish religion before the reforms of Josiah and before the major changes of the Second Temple period. Barker was impressed with what she found in the Book of Mormon, for it seemed to reflect an ancient environment and ancient worldviews consistent with her research, and again, quite foreign to the knowledge available to scholars in Joseph Smith’s day.

Much has changed since Card tugged at the text from the perspective of a master of science fiction, but for the most part the added knowledge twenty-five years later only increases the value of Card’s approach. Card looked for telltale threads of modern fiction, revealing instead that the text was of quite a different weave. Card sees it as the tapestry of multiple authors from an era far removed from modern fiction, a work impossible for even a skilled writer of fiction in our day or Joseph’s. Using the lens of a science fiction writer, Card reveals patterns woven into the text that defy explanation based on Joseph Smith as author. Today I'll just mention two of the many issues Card mentions and consider what we can learn from further research since his speech.

Voices and Viewpoints of Authors, Ancient and Modern

Card points out that authors write with a vast network of assumptions from their environment coloring the way they perceive and describe events. The environment the author has inherited provides numerous views on life and society that are easily taken for granted without realizing that it may not be this way at other times or in other societies. The environment that influenced the author can often be revealed by examining that which the author recognizes as unusual and in need of explanation in the text versus what the author sees as normal and requiring no explanation.

One of the first points Card mentions to illustrate such subtleties is the contrast between the attitude toward valuable documents showed by Book of Mormon characters and Joseph himself. He mentions Amaleki’s statement in Omni 1:25 wherein he justifies his decision to turn over the records he has inherited to King Benjamin:
Which, by the way, is something that would certainly not be a cultural idea available to Joseph Smith. You don't turn ancient records over to kings in the world of the 1820s in America. Kings would have nothing to do with ancient records. You would turn ancient records over to a scholar. We know that that was Joseph Smith's personal attitude because when he wanted to find support for his translation in order to encourage Martin Harris's continuing support, he sent Harris, not to a king or a president or a political leader, but to a scholar.
This is one of many indications of implicit cultural views consistent with the ancient world of the Book of Mormon and highly divergent from Joseph Smith’s environment, and a valuable observation by Card. Indeed, the issue of the handling, preservation, and transmission of sacred records in the Book of Mormon has been a fruitful area for additional research since 1993, particularly John Tvedtnes’s book published in 2000, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness unto Light. Tvedtnes examines the authentic ancient aspects of relevant features in the Book of Mormon such as the use of treasuries to store records, the practice of hiding or sealing ancient records for a future time, the use of stone boxes to preserve records, traditions about records entrusted to the care of angels, mountain repositories, and ancient traditions about glowing stones used for revelation, all showing evidence that the world of the Book of Mormon is highly consistent with ancient Near Eastern practices and traditions.

Turning to Mesoamerica, John L. Sorenson also shows that Book of Mormon practices regarding record keeping are consistent with ancient Mesoamerican traditions, as is also true for the nature of records and writing systems, including the keeping of dates, recording of prophecies, genealogies, keeping of lineage histories, etc. (Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, Chapter 5, “The Nature of History in the Book of Mormon,” 104–108). For example, the Quiché Maya had an office of record keeper that was passed from father to son, similar to the Nephites’ practice. The records also played an important role as symbols of political and religious authority (ibid., 106).

One thing I deeply appreciate about the Book of Mormon is the great care Mormon shows for his document and for his sources. There is no sense of an omniscient narrator. Statements may be flawed or imperfect, but we know where they came from and can often gain insights by carefully considering why something is said and how it relates to what others did or did not observe in making their report. As Card pointed out, digging into the assumptions and viewpoints of the authors of the text is a fruitful exercise, and one that frequently reveals the absurdity of crediting it all to Joseph's creative dictation to his scribes. His many points in this regard are still fresh and meaningful today. 

A Rarely Attempted Feat, Or, Mormon vs. Ossian

Card also makes an interesting argument regarding the alleged forgery of the Book of Mormon, one that may motivate some to examine some interesting but apparently forged ancient poetry from Scotland, the famous Ossian works of James Macpherson from shortly before Joseph's day. 
Critics frequently try to defuse respect for the Book of Mormon by suggesting that the purported fraud of Joseph Smith is routinely done with even more impressive results. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy are commonly cited, showing that it is possible for a writer to concoct a beautiful, complex, and generally consistent “history” involving many places, numerous new names, great battles, political intrigues, and so forth. The fact that Tolkien had advanced education and put in a lifetime of work to produce his polished masterpiece, points often made by LDS apologists in response to critics citing Tolkien, is a minor point in light of Card’s insight.

Card’s experience as a science fiction writer enables him to make a salient observation about the alleged fraud of the Book of Mormon. If it is a fraud, what Joseph did is rarely attempted and almost certainly results in obvious failure. What he did, if the Book of Mormon were a fraud, was not simply write a work of fiction set in a different culture and remote time. Many writers stand with Tolkien in being able to write such fiction well, with a product that is clearly fiction written by a single modern author for a modern audience. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, claims to be written by multiple ancient authors over a long expanse of time within a distant and changing culture. Such a fraud, to have any hope of long-term success, would need to be written from the cultural perspective of the authors in that different culture, not one that explains or indicates what is foreign relative to our modern culture. Such a work must reflect different authorial interests of the various writers and reflect the changes in culture or perspective that occur over time. It is a breathtakingly complex project. Such a work almost never attempts to pass itself off as a genuine document from a remote culture and time.

Card then cites an important example where a fraudulent work purportedly from antiquity was passed off as genuine by a modern author. The work was a collection of Gaelic poems said to be written by an ancient poet named Ossian. The poems had been “translated” into English by a Scottish politician and writer, James McPherson. McPherson’s publication was a hit and added to his fame and fortune. He died wealthy, wealthy enough to buy a spot at Westminster Abby for his tomb. But he did not die without being denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson, who also was buried at Westminster Abby, but as a token of respect, not as a result of his wealth.

The poetry of Ossian inspired many influential people including Napoleon, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Selma, Alabama was named after Selma, the home of the Scottish warrior Fingal from the poems of Ossian. The work has had a significant influence in many circles, in spite of concerns about fraud.

The text is available at Sacred-Texts.com, where J.B. Hare, the website’s founder, summarizes the controversy:
James Macpherson claimed that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript. There was just one problem. The existence of this manuscript was never established. In fact, unlike Ireland and Wales, there are no dark-age manuscripts of epic poems, tales, and chronicles and so on from Scotland. It isn't that such ancient Scottish poetry and lore didn't exist, it was just purely oral in nature. Not much of it was committed to writing until it was on the verge of extinction. There are Scottish manuscripts and books in existence today which date as far back as the 12th century (some with scraps of poetry in them), but they are principally on subjects such as religion, genealogy, and land grants.
For this and several other reasons which are dealt with in the Preliminary Discourse et seq., authenticity of the work was widely contested, particularly by Samuel Johnson. A huge (and probably excessive) backlash ensued, and conventional wisdom today brands Ossian as one of the great forgeries of history.

In fairness, themes, characters and passages of Ossian are based on established Celtic and Scottish folklore. Much of the fourth volume of J.F. Campbell's massive Popular Tales of the West Highlands is devoted to tracking down Ossianic fragments in circulation prior to Macpherson, or elicited from illiterate Highland peasants who had never heard of Ossian.

Macpherson is today considered the author of this work. The language of composition was probably English: As Campbell determined, Macpherson wasn't even particularly fluent in Gaelic. [ J.B. Blare, “The Poems of Ossian by James Macpherson [1773],” introductory comments, Sacred-Texts.com]
What some view as a definitive work on the fraud of Ossian came out after Card’s article with the 2009 publication of Thomas M. Curley’s Samuel Johnson, the Ossian Fraud, and the Celtic Revival in Great Britain and Ireland  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009). I have njoyed this book, but am not sure I recommend it -- might be a bit tedious and doesn't dig into the poetry and the linguistic issues thoroughly enough, IMHO. In summarizing his survey of the Ossian fraud, Curley praises Samuel Johnson for recognizing the nature of the fraud, a conclusion that has withstood the test of time and Curley’s own extensive detective work:

Johnson’s sense of  the falsity of the  Ossian works was  correct, despite professions to the contrary by some modern scholars. Twenty-eight out of Macpherson’s thirty-nine  titles—72 percent of all the individual works comprising Ossian—have no  apparent grounding in genuine Gaelic literature and are therefore entirely his own handiwork. The remaining 28 percent of the titles have but generally  oose ties to approximately sixteen Gaelic ballads. Contrary to his assertions, Macpherson was no editor or translator of ancient poetry. He was the author of new, largely invented literature in violation of true history, legitimate Gaelic studies, and valid national identity in Scotland. As Johnson had charged, Macpherson committed literary fabrication. [Thomas M. Curley, “The Great Samuel Johnson and His Opposition to Literary Liars,” Brgewater Review, 28(2), article 6 (Dec. 2009), http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1253&context=br_rev.]
Macpherson claimed to have original Gaelic manuscripts that he translated. Samuel Johnson, recognizing the many indications of fraud in the translation, demanded that Macpherson present the originals for review. One can easily draw a parallel to Joseph Smith who was also asked to show his gold plates to the world, if such existed. But unlike Joseph Smith and the gold plates, Macpherson provided no extract of copied characters from the manuscripts, sought out no independent scholarly examination of a portion of his translation, had no witnesses to support the existence of the original manuscripts, and had no witnesses of the translation process. Further, with no angel requiring that the original document be returned for divine safekeeping, Macpherson lacked any excuse for the failure to let others see the documents he had translated.

McPherson’s fraud is not without evidence of authenticity, for many of the names he uses were ancient Gaelic names that can be found in documents going back several hundred years. But as Curley and others have explained, these are names that could have been picked up from current lore that he extracted from his wanderings in the British Isles. Curley also explains that there are also 16 authentic Gaelic sources that are used in some way by Macpherson, giving it several small kernels of apparent authenticity. Some have argued that Macpherson was simply taking liberties with the existing poems and still acted largely as a loose translator, but Curley argues that such defenses are unjustified and that the fans of Ossian poetry must confront that fact that the vast majority of it is simply fabricated.

Curley argues that the evidence of fraud is clear cut and easily exposed, and most scholars today may agree. On the other hand, some scholars have sought to revive Macpherson’s Ossian, claiming that it is much more authentic than Samuel Johnson recognized. Ultimately, though, it seems that what Macpherson offered his enthusiastic audiences was his invention.  Defenders suggest that Macpherson was drawing upon authentic material but applying a great deal of his own creativity to translate in his own style, but this overlooks what Macpherson insisted upon from the beginning: that his translation was “extremely literal” and that the unusual word order in the English was often adjusted to reflect that of the original. But this was artifice, not an artifact of authentic translation. Yola Schmitz describes Macpherson’s artifice as translatese–the deliberate creation of nonstandard syntax to create the sense of a highly literal translation from a foreign language.

Compared to the Book of Mormon, what McPherson attempted was not a complex history spanning vast stretches of time and epic migrations from the Old World to the New, but mere poems, and not from a wholly unfamiliar culture, but from his own island and from his own country and ancestors though removed by fifteen hundred years. Macpherson had the benefit of being well educated, of being raised in a society familiar with Gaelic tales, with access to abundant sources of relevant information for his project. What Macpherson attempted is quite unlike the feat of, say, having a poorly-educated New York farm boy with scant resources write about travel across the Arabian Peninsula, or create ancient poetry rooted in ancient Hebrew, or describe battles, cities, natural disasters and other events in an unfamiliar New World setting. What Macpherson attempted was kid stuff compared to the Book of Mormon, and yet his Ossian project failed, in spite of some hopeful supporters seeking to overlook its flaws. It was successful enough to add to his wealth, but he had already been vocally denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson and remains widely recognized as a fraud who got very much wrong. It has certainly not withstood the test of time. From the beginning, basic questions about the existence of the original documents could not be answered nor could witnesses be provided.

The Book of Mormon was a surprise bolt from the blue from a poorly educated, impoverished farm boy not known to be a bookworm or a writer, unexpectedly announcing he had received an ancient record, then daring to show the plates to numerous people, and then translating it by dictation at a prodigious rate apparently without the use of any manuscripts. Consider the contrast we find in Macpherson’s preparation for his work, as described by Yola Schmitz in her 2017 chapter on the Ossian fraud. See Yola Schmitz, “Faked Translations James Macpherson’s Ossianic Poetry,” in Faking, Forging, Counterfeiting: Discredited Practices at the Margins of Mimesis, ed. Daniel Becker, Annalisa Fischer, and Yola Schmitz (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag, 2017), 167–180; http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxr9t.13:
Macphersonʼs upbringing put him in the perfect position. He was born in Ruthven, in the Scottish Highlands where he was brought up in a Gaelic-speaking community and accustomed to the oral tradition of the bards of the clans. Yet, he also experienced first-hand the serious effects of British oppression. In 1745, the nine-year-old Macpherson witnessed the Jacobite Rising with all its devastating consequences for the collective identity and the heritage of the Scottish clans. In its wake, many customs and traditions, such as the tartan plaid and playing the bag pipes, were prohibited.
However, one of the worst consequences must have been the subsequent ban on using the Scottish Gaelic language. Therefore, Macphersonʼs forgery can also be considered an attempt to recuperate what was left of the literary tradition of the Highlands and to rehabilitate a people, thought to be uncultured and uncivilised.

These circumstances provided Macpherson with all he needed to produce a successful forgery. He was an insider of Scottish traditions and, at the same time, he had profited from an academic education. He had not only learned how classic works of poetry were studied, but also how they were supposed to be presented. When the scholars in Aberdeen showed interest in this kind of poetry and offered to sponsor an excursion to the Highlands, Macpherson seized the moment and delivered. [emphasis added]

Card’s comparison with Macpherson’s fraud makes valid points that have only become stronger in light of further research both into the Ossian fraud and into the origins of the Book of Mormon, including the translation process, for which there were multiple credible witnesses.

Macpherson’s fraud could also be considered in light of a few other attempted forgeries, including Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley papers, purporting to be poems from a 15th-century monk named Rowley. The poems were initially accepted due to a general lack of attention at the time of publication to the details of the English language and its changes over the centuries. Chatterton used antique paper for his poems, but was unable to properly reflect the language of the time he sought to mimic, ensuring that the fraud would be detected.

Failure to appreciate linguistic change over time was a key weakness in the Ossian fraud. Macpherson claimed that the Erse language (ancient Gaelic) of 300 A.D. had remained pure and unchanged over the centuries, allowing him to read and understand ancient Erse and translate Ossian’s poetry into English. In spite of Macpherson’s outstanding education, this was a monumental blunder, one easily picked up by critics in his day. Some observed that Gaelic in Scotland showed obvious variability just from one valley to the next. With such obvious change across short distances, how could the language remain unchanged over more than a thousand years?

On the other hand, the challenges of linguistic change over time is an area where the Book of Mormon shines and far surpasses what Macpherson and presumably Joseph knew. Linguistic change is implicit as a fact of life in the Book of Mormon narrative. Nephi’s scribal work may already be blurring the lines between Egyptian and Hebrew (1 Nephi 1:1-3; see Neal Rappleye, “Nephi the Good: A Commentary on 1 Nephi 1:1–3,” Interpreter Blog, January 3, 2014; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/nephi-the-good-a-commentary-on-1-nephi-11-3/.). We see the Mulekites, immigrants without written records to help maintain their language, have lost much of their language (it had become “corrupted”) and need to be taught to understand the Nephite’s Hebrew after just a few hundred years of separation (Omni 1:17–18), with their rapid linguistic drift presumably accelerated by contact with local peoples in the New World. We see Nephites treasuring their written records as a means of helping them maintain their scriptural language system (Mosiah 1:2–6). We see the Lamanites losing their written language and later needing to be taught the Nephite writing system (Mosiah 24:1–7). And in spite of their written records, centuries later Mormon acknowledges that their Hebrew had been altered (Mormon 9:33) and that their script for recording scriptures, now called “reformed Egyptian,” had been altered over time and was unknown except to them (Mormon 9:32, 34). These are realistic views on linguistic change, in contrast to the much less reasonable claims from the highly educated Macpherson.  

Card's comparison of Ossian and the Book of Mormon remains a fruitful exercise and one that I'll mention in some more detail in the future. 

I highly recommend Orson Scott Card's "Artifact or Artifice." There's much of value there to contemplate, in spite of a great deal of new research since that day.