Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

To the Temple and Back: The Journey of Two Faithful Peruvians

Yesterday in sacrament meeting in the Shanghai Branch (one of three meeting in Shanghai) a friend of mine shared the story of how his parents were married in the temple. It's one of those stories where it seems like everything goes wrong at first for someone trying to get to the temple for the first time.

It was about 40 years ago when his parents-to-be fell in love and decided to get married in the temple, a goal that his mother especially insisted on, though it would be difficult. At the time the nearest temple was in Sao Paulo, over 3500 kilometers away. They were not wealthy, but both began saving diligently. Soon they had just enough to fly to Sao Paulo, when a huge currency devaluation occurred that suddenly put them far from their goal. They began saving again, and as they neared their goal, another currency devaluation set them back. They eventually had to settle for a lower cost route that involved many hardships and set backs. They finally got to the temple, but 3 days later than they had scheduled. But they were thrilled to finally be sealed for time and eternity in the House of the Lord. They were alone, without family or friends, but so grateful.

The way back was especially difficult, for they ran out of money completely in Bolivia. With his last bit of cash, the new husband paid for a room for the night, left his wife there, and then went to a private place outside and cried. He plead with the Lord for help to somehow find a way home. Both he and his bride were ill from the hardships of their journey. After his solemn prayer, he felt a rush of inspiration: go to the public square to beg for money. Ashamed at the thought of having to beg, he nonetheless went to the square, prepared to do what he could. As he entered it, he heard a voice call him: "Juan!" It was an old friend from Peru, another member of the Church. The friend had been backpacking around South America, taking odd jobs every now and then. When he learned of Juan's story, he said, "Juan, I know what it's like to be away from home with no money. I was just paid today. Here, take my money and return home with your wife." And just like that, in his extremity, Juan received the assistance he needed to return home safely.

My friend bore testimony of the blessings of the temple in his life and in the life of his family, and said that the sacrifices it takes to receive those blessings are completely worth it. From my experience, I have to agree. The House of the Lord is such a wonderful blessing in my life as well.

Monday, November 05, 2018

"Arise from the Dust": The Transcript and Slides for My 2018 FAIRMormon Presentation Are Now Available

For those who listened to my presentation live at the 2018 FAIRMormon Conference or the streaming video, the speed of my delivery may have been a bit too high for those of you who don't listen to audio recordings at, say, twice the normal speed. Fortunately, you can now read the transcript at your leisure. The transcript and the slides are now available at FAIRMormon.org for "'Arise from the Dust': Digging into a Vital Book of Mormon Theme."


The Conference was such a marvel to me -- so much content and thought behind. I was wildly happy to have this chance to share my thoughts, and really enjoyed hearing some excellent questions as well. Many thanks to all the people and organizations that make this event possible!


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Moving Away from Big Pageants: New Announcement

In a brief announcement at the LDS Newsroom, the Church has indicated a desire to move away from big pageants, the most famous of which is the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Here is the statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing across the earth. As this occurs, local Church leaders and members are encouraged to focus on gospel learning in their homes and to participate in Sabbath worship and the Church’s supporting programs for children, youth, individuals and families. The goal of every activity in the Church should be to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to share His gospel message throughout the world. Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged. As it relates to existing pageants, conversations with local Church and community leaders are underway to appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.
On the same day, a Deseret News story gave more specific information: "The Hill Cumorah Pageant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will cease its 81-year run after its 2020 season."

If you think the real reason for this change is that the real Hill Cumorah must be in Mesoamerica, you'll be disappointed that there are no plans to move it to, say, the Hill Vigia in Veracruz State in Mexico, or the nearby Cerro San Martin, both possibly plausible candidates that could provide the military advantage and access to water required by the Book of Mormon.

Many of us will miss the Hill Cumorah Pageant, but in an increasingly complex and turbulent world, the Church's emphasis on family and local learning and simplification is probably a very wise thing, in spite of the fabulous tradition that this and other pageants have been over the years.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Primed by a Mosquito for a New Ministering Assignment

Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, mosquito expert, with Jeff and Kendra
Earlier this week I lost some sleep here in Shanghai when a mosquito viewed me as an all-you-eat buffet. Mosquitoes seem to be more strongly attracted to me than anyone else around, but it's largely unrequited affection, though I do marvel at their design. In fact, I am one of the few Americans to not only set foot in the easily overlooked Mosquito Museum (officially the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but to also spend time discussing mosquitoes with the charming woman scientist who built that amazing, quirky place, Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, arguably the world's leading expert on mosquitoes. She is far more positive about the overall role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem than I am.

Although I was convinced that our Shanghai apartment was mosquito free when I turned the lights out, I awoke at about 4 AM with an itching arm that had about three bites. I reached for one of the greatest inventions known to mankind, the mosquito racquet, a bug zapper that looks like a tennis racquet. Eventually I grabbed two to double my killing power, yearning for a soul-satisfying zap. With no luck yet, on went my LED flashlight to support a meticulous scan of walls, the ceiling, the headboard, pretty much everywhere, always waving the wand in random places while I searched for signs of a resting or flying mosquito. I was successful in my secondary goal of not waking my wife, but my zap-and-nap strategy never reached the zap phase.

After 20 or so minutes of waving and searching, I wondered if I may have scored a silent kill, and decided to go back to sleep. But first I applied some DoTERRA grapefruit essential oil, containing a small but possibly effective amount of nootkatone, the amazing compound that is vastly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes (though my friends at DoTERRA didn't know that). In fact, it can even kill mosquitoes (though the essential oil I used may not have enough nootkatone to kill) due to a surprising interaction it has with a mosquito's wing regulator system. It causes the regulator system to go out of control and make the mosquito buzz way too fast until it just drops dead. Sweet! (Sorry, Dr. Rampa. I still think you are fabulous and admire your lifetime of research on the critters I despise.)

Grapefruit oil is relatively safe on humans but don't get it in your eyes or lungs. Like many citrus essential oils, it can be painful or harmful in the eyes. I can testify of the pain that grapefruit essential oil causes: a very small amount touched near my eye caused long-lasting pain the other day that was not quickly reduced by heavy rinsing with water. Ouch, ouch, ouch! But I still love the smell and it seems to be effective in warding off mosquitoes, though it is fairly volatile and might not last terribly long. That's also a challenge for nootkatone, not to mention its terribly high price (though two companies have developed techniques to make it cheaper, one using bacteria to produce it and another using catalysts to make it from a low-cost orange oil compound).

When I awoke later, I found that critter on the ceiling. I got it this time. Where had she been hiding during all my earlier searches?

But the point of this is what happened after I tried to go back to sleep. At about 5:15 AM, as recorded by my Pleco Chinese dictionary app's history function, I was troubled by an important thought: "You don't know the Chinese word for PRIME NUMBER." Yikes, prime number -- I need to know that word, I thought. Now if you're like me and enjoy hanging out with geeks and science fans and people who love to read and learn, you've probably had discussions about prime numbers with other people, oh, about twice in the past 5 years or so (excluding my wife, a math teacher, who really enjoys chit chat on all sorts of math issues, including prime numbers which came up about a month ago when I told her about the news of a possible but controversial proof of the Riemann Hypothesis).

Really, almost nobody talks about prime numbers in casual conversation. Why would I ever need that word in Chinese? But I did want to know. "I'm curious, but I can just look it up in the morning. Time to sleep now." And then came the thought: "If you don't look it up now, you might forget to do it later. Why not just do it now?" I've justified numerous lengthy departures from sleep with that kind of reasoning and have been trying hard to resist that path, but this time seemed different. "It will just take a second, if I'm careful." And so I looked up the word for prime number. Two different terms, actually, but apparently zhishu (质数) is the more commonly used one. It could be translated as "number of substance." Interesting and logical. Cool. And then I kept my promise to myself and tried, with eventual and brief success, to go back to sleep.

A few hours later that morning, I would get a call from the executive of one of China's finest private charities (in my biased opinion), the Huang Yicong Foundation for which I am delighted to have been recently added as a board member. The executive director wanted to talk to me. I rushed over to her office on the same floor where I work. As I sat down, I was touched with a beautiful Buddhist image attached to the lower portion of her computer screen. I was struck with this thought: "This faithful Buddhist woman is serving the same God I worship in her devotion and service to others." I reflected briefly upon the goodness in so many faiths and in those who seek to live higher laws learned through their faith.

She began by telling me about a challenge among some outstanding students in one of the schools we support. As she was interacting with these students recently, she told me, she was asking what their biggest challenges are in education. English was a key issue. And in her discussion, she realized that there is vocabulary in English related to many of the areas that they need to study that they really don't know. "For example," she said, "I asked the students if they knew the English word for 质数, which is prime number." "Whoa!" I said. "This morning I had a strange feeling that I needed to look up the word for prime number. Look, here it is in my Pleco dictionary. There is the search for prime number at 5:15 AM. Zhishu. Never needed it once in my seven years here, and now after that strange experience, here you are talking to me about prime numbers. So strange. Anyway, whatever you are about to ask me, I think it's going to be important." And it was.

She wanted to ask me and my wife if we could spend some time at least monthly or more often if possible doing a videoconference with those special students to help them improve their English while also using helping them with vocabulary related to math and other fields they are studying. We also may be going there to visit them. Time has been tight recently, but I think we can do this and we both would love to help, and now my Chinese teacher, touched by this story, has also volunteered to help. I saw the class today in a brief initial videoconference and was impressed with the sharp, sweet, and well-behaved group.

Of particular significance to me was the way she presented this assignment to me. It was done it a personal interview. It began with a discussion of the particular strengths and needs of the people I would be assigned to. It was done with love, respect, and charity. I should have asked that fine leader if she had been reading the new LDS materials on ministering, because she delivered the assignment in exactly the right way. Those materials, available in the Ministering section of the LDS Library App, emphasize that assignments to minister should be given in a personal interview that includes discussing not just the needs of those involved, but also their strengths. She did it perfectly, lovingly, and so effectively. What a great example to follow. I marvel at her natural leadership and ministering skills.

I look forward to seeing where this assignment leads us. How interesting that an annoying sleep-depriving critter and a coincidence involving prime numbers could play a role in awaking me to the significance of a leader's thoughtful assignment. I hope I can live up to this opportunity.


Related post: "Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program"

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Surprisingly Modern Book of Mormon: The Perspective of an Archivist

One of the most astounding aspects of the Book of Mormon is the intricate detail it provides regarding its sources. As largely compiled by the military leader and master historian, Mormon, and concluded by his son, Moroni, the Book of Mormon relies on numerous documents, including the brass plates brought from Jerusalem around 600 BC, Nephi's small plates with many authors, the large plates, the Jaredite record, and then a host of sources drawn upon by Mormon or others such as the record of Limhi, military reports, epistles, etc. Through it all, we are frequently told where the information came from and who is writing or editing it.

Far more than just acknowledgement of sources is involved. The Book of Mormon gives us intricate details on the creation, transmission, preservation, and reliability of those sources--in other words, abundant details on provenance.

In this way, the Book of Mormon is quite different than the Old Testament, where we are often left to wonder who wrote which parts of the various texts. For those interested in the Documentary Hypothesis and the various ways ancient scribes and editors may have compiled and redacted their texts, the data from the Book of Mormon should be a welcome reference point for detailed study.

But not only does the emphasis on record keeping and provenance in the Book of Mormon differ strongly from what we have in the Bible, it also differs radically from record keeping practices in Joseph Smith's day. The record keeping aspects of the Book of Mormon often seem fairly normal to modern readers because it reflects our modern understanding of good practices in dealing with historical records, but those practices were largely absent in Joseph Smith's day, as an archivist, Anita Wells, has explained. Anita has a master's degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and recently published an outstanding examination of the record keep issues in the Book of Mormon that many of us gloss over or take for granted. See Anita Wells, "Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 99-122. An excerpt follows (see the original for the references deleted here):
Some historic tablets and scrolls indicate that scribes signed their work and noted the lineage of copy transmission.Yet the idea of record provenance, which traces the chronology of ownership and custody of records to document their authenticity, was a nineteenth and twentieth century development by European archivists. In the mid-nineteenth century, American interest in the past grew with the formation of historical societies (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) to honor the dying colonial generation. However, American society experienced a slow beginning in organizing historical records. As a historian noted, “the handwritten world of colonial records did not adopt a sophisticated recordkeeping system. Discussions on colonial records and recordkeeping mostly focus on individual or organizational negligence or natural damage by fire and water.” It was not until the twentieth century revolution of typewriters and duplicators (and further digital transformations) that record keeping changed dramatically.

The resources for a historian in Joseph Smith’s era would have been limited, insofar as library access, organization, and retrieval went. A nineteenth-century frontier historian searching through volumes of early Plymouth history or Harvard College’s records would not have the benefit of alphabetical arrangement, indices, cross-references, and topical searches, as these concepts were in their infancy. Additionally, more advanced archival principles like chain of custody, keeping fonds (an archival group of papers) together (officially known as “respect des fonds”), and archival integrity were nascent at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

While archival methodology began to move in new directions around 1830 (interesting coincidence of date) in Europe, it was not until the early twentieth century that these ideas became accepted on a widespread level in the United States:
Although archives have existed for thousands of years, much of the archival paradigm — not unlike that of library science — coalesced between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several key treatises and manuals codifying archival theory and practice were published between 1830 … and 1956. … The most influential of these was the Manual on the Arrangement and Description of Archives, written in 1898 by Dutch archivists … which brought together the French and Prussian ideas of respect des fonds and provenance. The translated manual was widely disseminated and was a major topic of discussion when librarians and archivists met for the first time for an international congress at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. As a result, the concept of provenance was adopted by the congress as the basic rule of the archival profession.
Consider how the above information affects our understanding of Book of Mormon studies: the archival profession as we understand it now did not exist in Joseph Smith’s time. The concept of provenance (a record of ownership to guide claims of authenticity) and chain of custody (documenting that record of ownership) was not identified. The Bible, Joseph’s main resource for an example of ancient writing at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, gave very little indication of who wrote it and how its records were copied and transmitted throughout the ages. These ideas were not something anyone in the mid-nineteenth century could have held a working conceptual knowledge of that would allow their incorporation into the Book of Mormon. Provenance is a modern convention used today and developed in the past century to validate claims (notably in art auctions); Mormon made the chain of custody and provenance of his record abundantly clear from millennia prior. As “questionable provenance can still create an atmosphere of distrust,” conversely a secure, credible provenance can foster belief. The Nephite authors were doing something unknown from biblical texts, and unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day.
Anita makes the point that the treatment of provenance in the Book of Mormon fulfills the modern expectations associated with that term, including these issues pertaining to evidence for provenance: "Is the record (1) what it says it is, (2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession, and (3) in substantially the same condition until it passed into the next person’s custody?" Analysis of the information provided in the Book of Mormon account, including its final transmission to Joseph Smith and its translation, provides a powerful and very modern "yes" to each of these questions. Thus, the Book of Mormon provides evidence for its provenance and reliability in a surprisingly modern way that was not part of the paradigms used by either farmers or professional record keepers in Joseph Smith's day. And while that paradigm is not found expressed in the Bible, it is a reasonable paradigm for an ancient, literate society highly reliant on and dedicated to preserving ancient sacred records.

Perhaps we will find more of the archivist's attitude as we recover more preserved records from other ancient Americans in the past, where in Mesoamerica we can see remnants of several ancient literate societies, most of whose ancient books and documents were destroyed by the Spaniards.

A final except from Anita Wells:
Richard Bushman noted that “in between Nephi and Moroni, we never lose sight of the records. Their descent is meticulously accounted for … [and] the Jacobean record tells us step by step of the passage from one record-keeper to another. For a time in Omni, the transmission of the records was nearly all that was written about. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is a recurrent clanking of plates as they pass from one record-keeper to another. To my mind, it is noteworthy that there is nothing like this explicit description of records and record-keeping either in the Bible or in books current in nineteenth-century America” [Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 68-69]. Science fiction author Orson Scott Card explained that written hoaxes are a product of their time, easily unmasked by later scientific understanding. If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers. Yet the more we learn about archival provenance and chain of custody, the more remarkable it is to discover the precise documentation of such practices in the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

It Took Two Typhoons, Two Kind Italians, and a Strange Computer Glitch to Get Us to the Temple in Seoul, Korea


The Seoul, Korea Temple
My wife and I just returned from a marvelous vacation in Seoul, Korea, where we unexpectedly ended up staying in a wonderful part of town within walking distance from the beautiful Seoul, Korea Temple. Being so close allowed us to attend several sessions easily. To our surprise we also learned that Sunday Church services were being held there in a building next to the Temple, so we could attend regular services there, too instead of just watching Conference from our hotel room as we had planned (Korean units will dedicate the following week to Conference). This was during China's "Golden Week," a week-long holiday that we had been looking forward to for a long time.

The strange thing is that Korea was not part of our plans at all. We were going to spend the entire time in Okinawa and on nearby Aka Island, where we planned to meet our favorite diving instructor, Maiko, a woman from Japan, whom we first met in Thailand, formerly an engineer who grew tired of corporate life and is now living her dream as a very competent dive master working all over the world, but with Okinawa as her hase. Our primary goal was to explore the pristine reefs around that island with Maiko's help.

Our plans faced severe headwinds, you could say. It took two typhoons, two Italians, and a strange computer glitch to get us out of paradise in Okinawa and move us close to the Temple in Korea.

As Golden Week neared, we were worried that Typhoon Trami that would hit Okinawa right before we were to fly there (we would fly from Shanghai to Naha, Japan via Seoul, Korea, and our return flight would be on the same out). Fortunately, the typhoon ended the day before our flight, and the resilient people in Naha, Okinawa had things back to normal by the time we arrived. Sturdy buildings, great drainage systems, effective clean-up crews.  We were worried that the typhoon would make the water muddy, but decided to go anyway and make the best of our planned trip. With a couple of lucky breaks, things turned out remarkably well.

The first big break for us was meeting two Italians from Shanghai. After we arrived in Naha, we went through a slow taxi line. When we were at the front, I noticed a couple of people at the read of the line who seemed agitated and concerned. Figuring they could speak English, when our taxi pulled up, I called to them and said if they were going near the ferry, they might want to ride with us. They were more than happy to share a taxi and jumped in. This good Italian man and his wife turned multiple potential disasters into blessings for us, and would spend most of the next two days with us.

The first potential disaster was learning that that the Tuesday morning express ferry to Aka Island, where we were supposed to go diving on Tuesday and Wednesday, was sold out. Our dive shop had not told us of the need to book it in advance, just that it was essential to take that ferry in order to team up with them for Tuesday diving. Fortunately, the dive shop suggested that if we went a little early, there might be no-shows making it possible to get a ticket after all. Our Italian friends wanted to go there also, so we planned to meet at the ferry ticket office about 45 minutes early to seek stand-by tickets. Fortunately, our friends showed up over an hour early and were near the front of the line for standby tickets, and obtained two for us as well.

Our Italian friends helped us make the best of the next disaster. When we arrived at Aka Island, excited at the prospect of diving and spending two days at that beautiful spot, we were greeted by our former dive instructor who came onto the ferry and immediately told us to go back because the whole island was closed, our hotel there was cancelled, and there would be no diving due to a new typhoon on its way. What?

Our weather forecasts from US-based services said nothing about a new typhoon, but that didn't change the fact that a serious storm was coming. So we were about to just wave good-bye to our good friend, when our Italian friends pressed for more information and asked if there was someway we could still see the island. It was then about 10:15. Our dive master explained that the last ferry would leave at 2:30 PM, so we could stay until then. But there was no diving and no food. I was thinking, "Why bother? Let's go back to Okinawa and do something." But since our Italian friends wanted to stay, and since there might be a chance to talk a little more with Maiko, we decided to stay also. What a blessing that was!

Maiko was able to drive all four of us to a spot where swimming and snorkeling was allowed, and about the only thing still open on the island was a little shop there that rented snorkeling gear and even had some local food ("taco rice," a specialty like taco toppings on rice derived from the tastes of American soldiers). So we all went snorkeling and while it was not as spectacular as a typical scuba dive, the reefs we saw were beautiful and there were many species of fish there. Delightful.

Maiko met us for lunch and took us to the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the island and the pristine water around it. It was surprisingly clear for having just been hit with a typhoon. We had just enough time for fun snorkeling, a good taco rice lunch, some photos, and some warm good-byes before leaving our sweet dive master to catch the departing ferry. Disaster turned into blessing, thanks to our Italian friends.

Aka Island was so beautiful, in spite of not being able to dive. But perhaps the best part was the reunion with a kind friend, Maiko, though only for a short while. 

A view of Aka Island from a hill overlooking the beach and snorkeling area.
With our diving cancelled, we figured we would be able to see what we wanted to see on Okinawa faster than expected, so maybe we could take an earlier flight to Seoul and spend some time there. At the last minute in Shanghai I had packed a white shirt in my bag just in case something would give us some time in Seoul, where there is a temple I had not yet seen. Now I was thinking that might come in handy. Checking weather forecasts while on the boat back to Naha, I finally found one that recognized the approach of a typhoon, and based on that, it looked like Friday would be a good day to leave Okinawa. Our friends were also planning something to change their flights to Friday for a return to Shanghai. Great. We would meet again for dinner that night, after I spent a couple of hours on Skype to get our flight to Seoul move up a couple of days to Friday. Yay! We would have a chance to see Seoul and the Temple on Saturday, so we thought.

The Italians helped us avert yet another problem. Minutes after completing all the work it took with Travelocity and Korean Area to change our flight plans to Friday, we rushed out of our hotel and met our friends at a fun local Okinawan place. The first words out of their mouths were a complaint about how they had just changed their travel to Friday, and now they discovered that was the worst possible time. Based on the newest forecast, the typhoon would be intense that day and flights would likely be cancelled. I, too, had made a serious mistake and now faced the risk of being stuck without the original return flight available. Travel in Asia during Gold Week involves huge numbers of Chinese travelers making flights very crowded and expensive, and making changes more difficult. Now we risked missing some work and having to eat up precious vacation days waiting to off Okinawa.

With that early warning of trouble from our friends, I got back on the phone right after dinner and found Korean Airlines to be very helpful. They were able to rebook us again at no extra charge on earlier flights on Wednesday night that would avoid the typhoon. We were so lucky there were any seats at all! Our friends would do the same. In fact, we would meet them again at the airport, unexpectedly, and have yet another meal together before parting. In addition, we would spend Wednesday morning together visiting some significant sites in Okinawa, including Hacksaw Ridge. Such good people. We look forward to ongoing association in Shanghai.

The final surprise that got us closer to the Temple in western Seoul was a strange computer glitch. Finding a hotel in Seoul was difficult since nearly everything was fully booked already. I did find one place (Roi House) not far from the Temple but it looked like a hostel, though they had a room with a private bath that looked possible. But I decided to go with another hotel near the center of Seoul, one that included breakfast and was more of a regular hotel, though maybe not in such a great setting. I first ordered that hotel (Chisun Hotel Seoul Myeongdong) on Ctrip (Trip.com). After one hour, it still said it was awaiting confirmation. I finally called Ctrip and learned that there had been some kind of glitch and they would not be able to even try to confirm it until the next day. I wasn't willing to wait, giving how few rooms there were and the fact that many others might be doing the same thing we were, fleeing typhoons and heading for better weather. So then I went to Hotels.com. I had a page open for the Roi house, but since I didn't want that, I opened a new page for the other hotel, and then clicked on "book now." The order went through right away. Great! That was at midnight. I went to sleep, happy to finally have secured the hotel I wanted.

The next day, on the way to the Naha airport for our flight to Seoul, I was looking up the address of the hotel I had ordered so I could tell a cab driver where to take me. That's when I saw a shocking notice in my confirmation email from Hotels.com: the reservations I had were for Roi House, not the downtown place I wanted. I am sure (really? well, I think so!) that I had clicked on the button to order the downtown hotel, but what was ordered was Roi House. Perhaps it was because the Roi House page was loaded in memory somehow? Must be user error and just lack of attention late at night, but it was really a surprise. No refund possible, so we went with the Roi House -- and what a perfect blessing that was. It was comfortable, spacious, and surrounded with pleasant places to walk and some of the best food we've had, including the best gelato we've seen outside of Italy (Gelati Gelati at the mall next to the Hongik University station) and the best Italian restaurant we've experienced outside of Italy (Al Choc), right around the corner from Roi House (best gnocchi ever!) and surprisingly affordable. But most important was the proximity to the Temple, allowing us to go there easily without the stress of long travel or long waits for taxis. Just a pleasant stroll.

This ended up being a beautiful, uplifting, relaxing, and delicious vacation, with new friendships made and an important old friendship renewed. We were booted from paradise in Okinawa, but guided to something even better, featuring a marvelous celestial room in Seoul. (Imagine a clever but mercifully resisted pun here.) We could have gone to the Temple had we stayed at the downtown place, but it would have been harder and probably less frequent. Two typhoons, two Italians, and bizarre computer glitch -- that was our pathway to truly rich blessings.

I came away with a real love for Korea and a respect for the many good Saints there who make Korea an even better, happier country and who do so much to make the blessings of the Temple available there. I also realized that active steps to cope with risk and apply mercifully provided information is important for coping with complex situations. We could easily have been stranded in Okinawa, where many services were being shut down for a day or two due to the new storm and where travel was becoming problematic for many.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fabulous Content in the New Church History Book, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days

One of the most important works of scholarship related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the Joseph Smith Papers project, where an extensive collection of papers are being made available for the world to examine and search. The rise of this vast project has been instrumental in enabling one of the most remarkable resources the Church has made available, the multivolume history of the Church, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. This is a careful work of scholarship that makes details of Church history readily available to members of the Church and anyone else, with a readable text rich in links to original sources allowing readers to dig deeper and evaluate the materials on their own. The close relationship between the Joseph Smith Papers and this work of history adds much to its depth and usefulness.

The Joseph Smith Papers website has this to say about Saints:
For the first time in nearly one hundred years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is releasing a new multivolume work about its history. The first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, which covers key events in the early history of the church, is now available in print, online, and in the Gospel Library app. Subtitled “The Standard of Truth,” the first volume tells the story of the church beginning in 1815 with Joseph Smith’s childhood and concludes with Latter-day Saints worshipping in the Nauvoo temple in 1846 before their exodus west.

When the Joseph Smith Papers Project was launched more than fifteen years ago, its founders envisioned that the project’s publications would be cited and relied upon by scholars and other writers of both academic and popular works. The first volume of Saints is one example of how the project’s publications are finding widespread acceptance and influencing how history is understood and told. Some project scholars assisted with reviewing Saints materials for historical accuracy.

Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department, stated, “Saints relies heavily on the groundbreaking research of the Joseph Smith Papers. The reliance can be seen in almost chapter as evidenced by the hundreds of endnotes that cite to the Joseph Smith Papers and that link directly to the Joseph Smith Papers website in electronic versions of Saints. The new narrative history is one more evidence of the growing influence of the Joseph Smith Papers.”

Saints features the true stories of the women and men who established the church around the globe. Church historians researched and wrote the volume using the records left behind by early church members, and creative writers and editors helped make the history engaging and accessible.
Written in a narrative style, Saints is designed to appeal to readers of various ages and backgrounds. While the English print book is already available in retail outlets, the printed publication will be available in thirteen other languages by the end of the year. Readers can also find the content in fourteen languages on the Church History website and in the Church History section of the Gospel Library app. The audiobook is currently available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
I've been greatly impressed with the style, the content, and the depth of additional resources provided in volume 1 of Saints that is easily accessible in my LDS Library App, online, and elsewhere. This work lets the Church tell its story, warts and all, without running away from complex issues but while also clearing explaining our views and faith. It's a resource that all of us should explore and appreciate.  It's written in language that will be accessible to many readers, with added depth available in its many footnotes.

As one example, volume 1 provides some interesting details about Joseph's receipt of the gold plates. He was told to bring someone trustworthy with him. Alvin originally was intended, but after Alvin passed away, Joseph was confused when told again to bring someone with him to the hill to receive the plates. As we read in Chapter 4 of Vol. 1, by consulting his seer stone, Joseph learned that this trustworthy person should be Emma. This was before they were married. An intriguing detail that many of us didn't know about before.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

Matthew Bowen's New Name as Key-Word Offers a Stunning Surge in Book of Mormon Word Plays Related to Names

While attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference in Provo this summer, I was fortunate to be able to get a copy of a popular new book that sold out on its first day there: Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essay on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation and Salt Lake City: Ehorn Books, 2018) [i]. It's a book rich in hidden gems from the Book of Mormon (primarily) and other parts of the LDS scriptures that can help us better understand the meaning of our scriptures and also better appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of their ancient authors.

In our modern English-speaking culture (and Joseph Smith's culture), many of us give names to our children and mention the names of others in our speech and writings often without knowing or reflecting upon what those names originally meant. For ancient Hebrew writers, however, names were highly significant and their meanings, based on various roots the words might derive from, were frequently the subject of puns or other literary tools that drew upon the meaning of names.

The extensive literary devices tied to names in the Old Testament are much easier for Chinese people to grasp because Chinese culture is much closer to ancient Hebrew culture in its treatment of the meaning in names. In China, almost every Chinese name has noteworthy meaning that may reflect upon a parent's wishes for the child or relate to an ancient tradition in the family line. One of my first friends from China that I met just days after my mission in Switzerland had a given name that can be literally translated as Book Diligent. He became a famous professor through his diligent study and was one of the first Chinese citizens sent to America after the cultural revolution ended to pursue advanced studies and research. He helped fuel my interest in China and blessed my life in many ways over the years until his recent death. He was a credit to his country, to his family, and to his Maker, in my opinion. Such a good and diligent man.

If the Book of Mormon has ancient Hebrew roots, it would make sense that names would be significant to its writers and that word plays might be attempted in some cases. The challenge, of course, is that we don't have the ancient text to see which words were used. In fact, there is some uncertainty as to which language was used as Nephi and others wrote on metal plates. Were they writing Hebrew using some form of an Egyptian script, or writing Egyptian in an Egyptian script with Hebrew influence?

While the debate continues on the nature of the underlying language(s) and script(s) that were on the gold plates, Bowen's investigation suggests that the Book of Mormon authors were aware of the Hebrew and sometimes Egyptian meanings behind many Book of Mormon names, and built word plays into the treatment of those names to give emphasis or added meaning. Bowen’s detailed work shows that when a variety of Book of Mormon names are considered in light of their plausible ancient meaning, clever and pervasive word plays appear in the way these names are used.

The name Alma, for example, now known to be an authentic ancient Jewish man’s name (after so many decades of mockery from critics for Joseph’s “blunder” of not recognizing Alma as a common Latin female name),[ii] is introduced in Mosiah 17:2 with an apparent word play on the Hebrew name: given that Alma name can mean “young man” in Hebrew, the statement that Alma “was a young man” suggests a knowing word play in Mosiah 17:2. A word play with the Hebrew root *‘lm, “to hide,” to be “hidden” or “concealed,” may also occur in the story of Alma being “hidden” and “concealed” while writing the words of Abinadi and “privately” teaching those who would listen. The abundance of word plays involving his name in Mosiah 17–18 “accentuates his importance as a prophetic figure and founder of the later Nephite church.”[iii]

Finding word plays, like other Hebraic elements including Hebrew poetical elements, in an English translation faces the obvious problem of lacking the text in the original language from which one might more fully evaluate the nature of the literary device. However, with names in particular, there is a reasonable chance that evidence of a word play can survive translation if the name is transliterated well and if the associated text has been translated well. An example is the name Jesus in Matthew 1:21: “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” In spite of the Hebrew having been written in Greek and then translated in English, and in spite of not having the original Aramaic or Hebrew words that were actually spoken in Matthew 1, we can still see a connection between the name of Jesus and the Hebrew word yosia meaning “to save.”

Still, even when working with the original language, an apparent word play may be unintended and arise from chance. However, when the word play relates well to the text or has explanatory power, and when the word play is applied more than once or in creative, artful ways, the probability of intent is higher. Bowen makes the case for most of his finds that multiple factors point to intentional and clever word plays rather than mere chance. Word plays involving Book of Mormon names in Bowen’s book (which also considers some newly proposed Biblical word plays) include the following:
  • Nephi’s name. Proposed to be from Egyptian nfr meaning good or goodly, Nephi appears to have multiple meaningful connections to the word “good” in the text, beginning with Nephi’s declaration at the very beginning of our text that “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….” Bowen suggests this relationship is at play in not only the opening but also the closing chapter of Nephi’s writings, forming an “inclusio” that appropriately brackets his two-book work and underscores his mission of helping readers know the goodness of God and helping them to choose do good and follow Christ.[iv]
  • The name Mary, related to the Egyptian root mr(i), “love,” “desire,” or “wish.” It is only after seeing Mary in vision that Nephi recognizes the significance of the tree he saw in his vision: “it is the love of God which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things (1 Nephi 11:22). Others possible word plays with other occurrences of the name Mary are also discussed.[v]
  • Mormon’s name and the related place name, the Waters of Mormon, for which Mormon appears to show awareness of a relationship to the same root as Mary for first syllable, apparently resulting in creative links with the words “desire” and “love.”[vi]
  • The name Joseph, which involves evidence of particularly extensive and creative word plays related to a Hebrew root meaning “gather,” “assemble,” etc., and a root meaning “to add” or “increase.” These word plays are primarily made using an ancient Hebrew literary technique known as Gezera Shawa, in which two scriptural passages are brought together based on a shared word in both passages, thereby adding to or reinterpreting the meaning in a creative way. After Bowen’s book went into print, he published another study investigating a further set of word plays related to the name Joseph.[vii] There Bowen makes the case that Nephi’s heavy application of the Isaianic use of yāsap (“to add, to proceed”) in 2 Nephi 25–30 is “a direct and thematic allusion” to a latter-day Joseph who would have a role in in bringing forth additional scripture. “This additional scripture would enable the meek to ‘increase,’ just as Isaiah and Nephi had prophesied.”[viii]
  • The name Benjamin, which is also used artfully with Gezera Shawa by Benjamin himself. In the covenant-making context of King Benjamin’s speech, he seeks to make his people become sons and daughters of God (Mosiah 5:17), with language drawing upon language in 2 Samuel 7:14 which employs the Hebrew leben (“for a son”), and also Psalm 2:7 and Deuteronomy 14:1–2, employing the Hebrew word ben (“son”) or banim (“children”) and to be able to be at the right hand of God. Those who accept the Lord will be at the “right hand” (Hebrew yamin) of God (Mosiah 5:9)[ix], possibly invoking Psalm 110:1. The verses that Benjamin brings together shows further usage of Gezera Shawa resulting in a clever word play on his own name that emphasizes that through making a keeping the covenant with God, Benjamin’s people can become sons and daughters of God and be enthroned at his right hand, each becoming “a Benjamin.”
  • The name Judah and the Jews, with Judah being related to Hebrew roots which can mean “to offer praise out of a feeling of gratitude” or to “praise,” “thank,” or “acknowledge.” In his chapter, “‘What They the Jews?,’” Bowen shows how Nephi applies these meanings as he urges the future Gentiles to grateful to the Jews for the scriptures they have preserved for the world and to resist the temptation to despise and persecute the Jews (2 Nephi 29:3–6). “What thank they the Jews?” in 2 Nephi 29:4, the Lord’s condemning question of future anti-Semitic Gentiles, appears to provide a direct word play between the words for “Jews” and “thank.” To say that the Jews have helped bring forth “salvation” to the Gentiles (also 2 Nephi 29:4) may also be a word play on the name of Jesus. Bowen also observes that Nephi’s closing words which call upon us to “respect the words of the Jews” (2 Nephi 33:14) further underscores the revealed message shared in 2 Nephi 29.[x] Bowen also notes that the Book of Mormon offers the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism found anywhere in the scriptures.[xi] How appropriate that it would be done with Hebraic wordplays.
  • The names Enos and Jacob, as used by Enos to relate his experiences to those of his ancestor Jacob in Genesis 32–33. Enos appears to employ a Hebraic word play between the name Jacob and “wrestle” in addition to a word play on his won name.[xii]
  • Abish, a woman servant among the Lamanites whose name is given, strangely, while most Book of Mormon women go unnamed. In this case, however, her name fits the story with a straightforward wordplay, and also fits an important theological agenda. “Abish” can mean “Father is a man,” an apt name for a woman who, in the same verse that names her, is said to have been secretly converted due to a “remarkable vision of her father.” But since names beginning with “Ab-” in the Old Testament often make a reference to God, “Father is a man” has a very appropriate reference to the nature of God, particularly Christ. Ammon was seeking to teach the Lamanites who the Great Spirit was and how Christ would come to earth as a mortal to redeem all mankind. The name Abish is meaningful in more than one way in this account, and we can be grateful that it was included.[xiii]
  • The place names Zarahemla and Jerson. Jershon was one of the first potential word plays noted in the Book of Mormon, with an easily discernible relationship to the word “inheritance,” the perfect name for the land that was given as a land of “inheritance” to the newly converted and exiled Anti-Nephi-Lehites fleeing their Lamanite homelands. But Bowen reveals more in the literary devices involving Jerson, including intriguing parallels between how Jershon is consistently with the way in which word plays are done with the name Zarahemla relying on its apparent Hebrew meaning of “seed of compassion” or “seed of pity.”[xiv]
  • The names Zoram and Rameumpton. Both names share a common syllable that in Hebrew can describe something that is “high” or “lifted up.” These names may be involved in word plays in descriptions of the Zoramites and their peculiar, prideful religious practices involving standing on an elevated tower or stand called the “Rameumptom” from which they boasted of their elite status. Similar word plays may have been used in Alma’s counsel to his son Shiblon and in Mormon’s description of the corrupt chief judges Cezoram and Seezoram, both with Zoram-dervied named, to emphasize that the proud and wicked Nephites had become lifted up like the Zoramites.[xv]
  • The name Aminadab, which Bowen sees as a Semitic/Hebrew name meaning “my kinsman is willing” or “my people are willing.” Aminadab is the Nephite dissenter among the Lamanites who helps them recognize what is occurring during a miraculous event in Helaman 5 in which the Nephite brothers and prophets Lehi and Nephi are spared in a Lamanite prison. Aminadab, remembering his religious roots, tells the terrified Lamanites that “you must repent and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ” (Helaman 5:41). They are converted and their witness leads to many more converts. Mormon, in concluding this story, notes that it was the “willingness” of the Lamanite people that led to their conversion (Helaman 6:36).
There are many more word plays that have been proposed for various passages in the Book of Mormon, but Bowen’s focus on the significance of names appears to be especially fruitful and generally plausible, and frequently brings out added meaning or answers meaningful questions about the text. In most of these cases, it would be difficult to ascribe the word plays identified to just chance and clever argumentation, though false positives in general cannot be completely ruled out.

As Bowen observes, whether the text was written in Hebrew or Egyptian, the underlying meanings of names and relevant word plays drawing upon Hebrew roots could have been recognized by readers familiar with the brass plates and the Nephites’ (evolving) spoken language with its Hebrew origins, reducing the impact of uncertainty on the written language on the relevance of word plays based on names with recognized meaning in Hebrew or Egyptian. In spite of such uncertainties, Bowen’s work leaves us with a much richer appreciation of the genuinely ancient literary nature of the Book of Mormon, filled with gems that are only being noticed now nearly two centuries after the Book of Mormon was dictated by a young man who had not yet studied Hebrew and could not have studied Egyptian.

Mercifully, Bowen does not require readers to be familiar with Hebrew or Egyptian, but it is still a book that might be challenging for some readers because of its rich detail and technical content. It's not for everybody, but I think it is somewhat more accessible that some of the original papers upon which it is based (e.g., some highly technical terms have been replaced with more generally understandable terminology). For those interested in digging into the Book of Mormon and exploring the miracle that this rich and ancient text represents, Bowen's work should definitely be on your shopping list and your reading list. Strongly recommended.


Notes

[i] Matthew Bowen's Name as Key-Word contains 16 essays treating names in the Book of Mormon as well as some from the Bible. Readers of Bowen's many publications at The Interpreter (https://www.mormoninterpreter.com) will recognize that much of the content in these essays is drawn from his peer-reviewed publications there, but with some differences, including added insights, strengthening of arguments, a great bibliography, a helpful index, and good introductory material, including an excellent and detailed foreword from Jeffrey Bradshaw.

[ii] Paul Hoskisson, "What's in a Name?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 7/1 (1998): 72–73; https://publications.mi.byu.edu/pdf-control.php/publications/jbms/7/1/S00011-50be297b720ea9Hoskisson.pdf. See also John Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 2001; https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/tvedtnes-HebrewNames.pdf and Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name 'Alma' at Ebla," Religious Educator, 1/1 (2000): 53–56; https://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/volume-1-number-1-2000/personal-name-alma-ebla.

[iii] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, lii–liii and 91–100. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “Alma — Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 343–353; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/alma-young-man-hidden-prophet/ and Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 197–212; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/he-did-go-about-secretly-additional-thoughts-on-the-literary-use-of-almas-name/.

[iv] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 1–15.

[v] Ibid., 17–47.

[vi] Ibid., 24–47.

[vii] Matthew L. Bowen, “‘And the Meek Also Shall Increase’: The Verb YĀSAP in Isaiah 29 and Nephi’s Prophetic Allusions to the Name Joseph in 2 Nephi 25–30,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 5–42; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/and-the-meek-also-shall-increase-the-verb-yasap-in-isaiah-29-and-nephis-prophetic-allusions-to-the-name-joseph-in-2-nephi-25-30/.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 49–68.

[x] Ibid., 69–81.

[xi] Ibid. liii.

[xii] Ibid., 83–90.

[xiii] Ibid., 101–118.

[xiv] Ibid., 119–140.

[xv] Ibid., 141–175. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “‘See That Ye Are Not Lifted Up’: The Name Zoram and Its Paronomastic Pejoration,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 109-143; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/see-that-ye-are-not-lifted-up-the-name-zoram-and-its-paronomastic-pejoration/.

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 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:

Background

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.

Methods

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.

Findings

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.

Interpretation

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?).