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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Touched by the Worldwide Youth Devotional with President Nelson and His Wife

Although it's been several years since I qualified as a youth in the Church, I was still delighted to listen to and read the recent Worldwide Youth Devotional featuring President Russel M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, two of the most youthful old people around. The energy and vitality of that ninety-something President of the Church is remarkable.

In encouraging our young people to become more involved in the greatest work on earth, President Nelson offered 5 suggestions for things they could do now to become and achieve something more. I was quite intrigued by his first recommendation: a seven-day fast from social media. Here I am, struggling with guilt over not doing more with social media, while others suffer from the opposite problem and are entangled in a pseudo world where social media dominates too much of their life. His challenge to the youth on this issue began with a story that reflects not only wisdom from the parents of a young man, but a healthy willingness to learn displayed by the initially furious young man himself. I love what he learned in the experiment President Nelson describes:
And now I invite you to prepare yourself by doing five more things—five things that will change you and help you change the world.

First, disengage from a constant reliance on social media, in order to decrease its worldly influence upon you.

Let me tell you about one young man your age, the grandson of a dear friend of mine. He is popular with his friends and a leader in his high school. Recently, his parents found things on his phone that were inappropriate for a follower of Jesus Christ. They insisted that he go off social media for a time. They exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone, and he panicked. How would he stay connected with his friends?

Initially he was furious with his parents, but after just a few days, he thanked them for taking his smartphone away. He said, “I feel free for the first time in a long time.” Now he calls his friends on his flip phone to connect with them. He actually talks with them instead of always texting!

What other changes have occurred in this young man’s life? He says he now loves being free from the fake life that social media creates. He is actively engaged in life instead of having his head in his phone all the time. He participates in outdoor recreational activities instead of playing video games. He is more positive and helpful in his home. He seeks opportunities to serve. He listens better in church, has a brighter countenance, is so much happier, and is actively preparing for his mission! All this because he took a break from the negative influence of social media.
President Nelson then called for a seven-day fast and reminded us of further problems from excessive reliance on social media:
So, my first invitation to you today is to disengage from a constant reliance on social media by holding a seven-day fast from social media. I acknowledge that there are positives about social media. But if you are paying more attention to feeds from social media than you are to the whisperings of the Spirit, then you are putting yourself at spiritual risk—as well as the risk of experiencing intense loneliness and depression. You and I both know youth who have been influenced through social media to do and say things that they never would do or say in person. Bullying is one example.

Another downside of social media is that it creates a false reality. Everyone posts their most fun, adventurous, and exciting pictures, which create the erroneous impression that everyone except you is leading a fun, adventurous, and exciting life. Much of what appears in your various social media feeds is distorted, if not fake. So give yourself a seven-day break from fake!

Choose seven consecutive days and go for it! See if you notice any difference in how you feel and what you think, and even how you think, during those seven days. After seven days, notice if there are some things you want to stop doing and some things you now want to start doing.

This social media fast can be just between you and the Lord. It will be your sign to Him that you are willing to step away from the world in order to enlist in His youth battalion.
I've been amazed at how social media leads people to become digital savages. The sudden formation of virtual mobs to mock and slander others is a painful phenomenon to observe or to experience. The ease at which insults are hurled and judgements made on the moral values or human worth of others is disheartening. The impersonal nature of writing short quips and the ability to hide behind a screen when insulting distant targets brings out the brute and the coward in many people.  Breaking away from that environment will be a healthy step for many. Ditto for dropping the savagery and mindless waste of time that typifies many online games. I am astounded at how often I learn of parents troubled over their promising child who insists on spending every spare moment shooting people or smashing things up via video games.

President Nelson's call is to make something more of our lives and to use our time for things that really matter. Bravo!

Overall, I was impressed and touched by the messages shared by both President Nelson and his wife, Wendy. We are so fortunate to have such people in our midst. Now I need to just find some more time to get out there and (politely) Tweet about this!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Out of the Best Books: Donald Parry's Valuable Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon

If you don't have this book already, I recommend that you download (for free!) one of the best tools for study of the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry's  Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute for Religious Research, 2007), available as a PDF file from the Maxwell Institute. This text is reformatted to distinguish narrative from sections employing various forms of parallelism. For example, it is now especially easy to see many examples of Book of Mormon chiasmus just by browsing the text.

In my opinion, one of the more valuable ways to enhance one's study and appreciation of the Book of Mormon is to recognize the portions that employ the many forms of parallelism that are known in ancient Near Eastern tests, especially the Old Testament. The interesting structures and parallels employed are often difficult to note when reading a translation that formats everything as prose. Reading Isaiah, for example, can be much more meaningful when it has been formatted in verses reflecting the underlying Hebrew poetry. While any effort to reformat the Book of Mormon based on possible poetical elements in the original text will face speculation and error due to our current lack of the original gold plates to inspect, it is still possible to identify many seemingly deliberate examples of parallelism that are worthy of consideration. Parry does not capture all the interesting parallel-rich passages that may be present (in part because some candidates, like Janus parallelism or other structures, have only recently been identified), but he has done a great job in capturing many and in highlighting many cases where more may be going on in the text than a casual reader would recognize. It's definitely worth keeping on your electronic devices and using it regularly as you explore the richness of the Book of Mormon, an ancient "voice from the dust" worthy of much more attention.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Oldest Hebrew Inscription and the Psalms in the Book of Mormon

Tiny silver amulets engraved with Hebrew
from the era of King Josiah, found at Ketef Hinnon,
Israel. From the Biblical Archaeology Society.
My recent publication on David and the Psalms in the Book of Mormon ("Too Little or Too Much Like the Bible?" at The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture), responded to some recent critical claims against the Book of Mormon by showing, among other things, that the Book of Mormon makes greater and more sophisticated use of the Psalms than one critical scholar recognized. However, one of the more interesting uses of the Psalms was not mentioned.

Psalm 67:1 is especially interesting because it is related to the oldest Hebrew inscriptions known,  inscriptions that probably date to Lehi's day. Interestingly, it was engraved on silver metal, two very small pieces, not a large book, but still legitimate inscriptions on ancient precious metal apparently serving as amulets. It was discovered near Jerusalem at Ketef Hinnon. The story and significance of the two engravings are discussed by one of the scholars involved in bringing that discovery to light, the Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay in "The Riches of Ketef Hinnom," Biblical Archaeology Review, 35:4 (July/August September/October 2009).
[Each of the] texts of the two inscriptions ... contains slight variations of parts of the three blessings that appear in the famous priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
These are the words with which observant Jews still bless their children before the Sabbath meal on Friday night and that are also used in prayers in synagogues....

The amulets can be securely dated on a combination of three grounds. Paleographically they can be dated by the shape and form of the letters to the late seventh century B.C.E., before the Babylonian conquest. Stratigraphically the first amulet was found only about 7 centimeters (less than 3 in.) above the repository floor, which testifies to its relative antiquity within the repository assemblages, which rose to about 2 feet total. The second plaque was found in the innermost part of the repository, far from the entrance, among the earliest deposits. Finally, the date suggested paleographically corresponds to the chronological horizon of the late Iron Age pottery found in the repository. The silver plaques thus come from the late seventh century B.C.E., or the time of the prophet Jeremiah and King Josiah.

The implications of this dating are startling. First of all, it means that these texts on our silver plaques are the oldest composition of words similar to Biblical verses in existence. The earliest Biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to about 250 B.C.E. at the earliest. That means that our texts are older than the next oldest Biblical texts by nearly 400 years.

Moreover, these inscriptions are the only texts of the First Temple period with clear similarities to Biblical verses.

This has important implications for the Biblical text. The Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is usually divided by text-critical scholars into four source strands, labeled J (for Yahwist, or Jahwist in German), E (for Elohist), D (for Deuteronomist) and P (for the Priestly Code). The priestly blessing from Numbers, which is quoted in our silver plaques, is generally considered part of P, the Priestly Code. (So, too, the passage from Deuteronomy 7:9, which has echoes in the larger silver amulet.)

There is a major scholarly disagreement as to the date of the Priestly Code. Some scholars contend it predates the Babylonian conquest. Others say it is later. Our two texts seem to support those who contend that the Priestly Code was already in existence, at least in rudimentary form, in the First Temple period.

The priestly blessing seems to have been widely used during the First Temple period. Its influence can be traced both in the Bible itself (see Psalm 67:1, for example) and in early Hebrew epigraphy. In addition to our references, an inscription painted on a large pithos at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai Peninsula contains the Hebrew words YBRK wYĆ  MRK wYHY ‘M ’DNY, which can be translated as “[may God] bless you and keep you and be with my Lord.” This, too, dates to the First Temple period.

The Ketef Hinnom excavations have made an enormous contribution, not only to our understanding of life in Jerusalem more than 2,500 years ago, but also to our understanding of the development of the text of the Hebrew Bible.
Psalm 67:1, as noted above, is strongly related to the inscriptions. The KJV is: "God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah."

Psalm 67:1 is mentioned in a Book of Mormon Central article just released on May 29, 2018, "How Do the Psalms Quoted in the Book of Mormon Teach about the Temple?":
Another related and important part of the ancient temple rites was the idea that when the Lord appeared, He would “lift up” the light of His countenance and His face would “shine” upon the people. This was part of the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24–26) and is mentioned repeatedly in the Psalms [the footnote here cites Psalm 67:1]. The sight of the shining face of the Lord was supposed to effect a transfiguration in those who saw it so that their faces would also shine, as was the case with Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29–35).

Again, this is exactly what happened during Jesus’ visit to the Book of Mormon people. In 3 Nephi 19:25, after Jesus had prayed with his chosen disciples, the record states:
And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus …
These findings demonstrate that Book of Mormon authors had access to at least some of the Psalms, either from the plates of brass or from memory.
So the Book of Mormon appropriately integrates language from a text in Psalm 67:1 and Numbers 6:24-26,  once thought to be a creation from a late Priestly tradition that would not be written until long after Lehi and Nephi left Jerusalem, but now provided with surprising archaeological evidence that those words were known and sacred to the Israelites in Lehi's day. Those words were important enough to be inscribed on thin silver plaques or plates, but rolled up and centuries later unrolled and interpreted in our day.

One little discovery provides helpful evidence simultaneously against three arguments that have been made against the Book of Mormon, the first dated, the second still current, and the third very new from leading scholarship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:
  1. Writing and preserving scriptures on metal plates anciently was unknown and is a ridiculous concept (now it's much trendier to say that this would have been obvious to Joseph Smith since everyone knows this).
  2. The Book of Mormon cannot be authentic in light of the Documentary Hypothesis because it relies on some material from the Priestly source that was not in existence in Lehi's day. 
  3. The Book of Mormon cannot be from authentic ancient Israelites because it does not use the Psalms heavily like some other biblical writers. 
There has been debate over the dating and interpretation of the scrolls, but the evidence appears to be in favor of Dr. Barkay's assessment. For background, see “Bible Texts on Silver Amulets Dated to First Temple Period,” Haaretz.com, Sept. 19, 2004. See also “Ketef Hinnom,” Wikipedia.org. Also see Stephen Caesar, “The Blessing of the Silver Scrolls,” BibleArchaeology.org, 2010. The dating and interpretation was challenged by Nadav Na’aman, “A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,” Israel Exploration Journal 61/2 (2011): 184–195. That work was then rebutted by Shmuel Ahituv, “A Rejoinder to Nadav Naaman’s ‘A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,’” Israel Exploration Journal 62/2 (2012): 223–232. (I have that article but don't have a link to an online version.)

Friday, June 01, 2018

The High Suicide Rate in the Mountain States: Possible Effect of Altitude

The relatively higher suicide rates in Utah and other Mountain States has often been blamed on Mormonism or the culture of the Mountain West or the ready availability of guns, but one factor that some scientists and medical professionals are beginning to recognize is altitude itself.

Here is an abstract from a scientific publication, Rebekah S Huber et al. (including Perry Renshaw, mentioned below), "Altitude is a Risk Factor for Completed Suicide in Bipolar Disorder," Medical Hypotheses, 82/3 (March 2014): 377–381:
Bipolar disorder (BD) is a severe brain disease that is associated with a significant risk for suicide. Recent studies indicate that altitude of residence significantly affects overall rate of completed suicide, and is associated with a higher incidence of depressive symptoms. Bipolar disorder has shown to be linked to mitochondrial dysfunction that may increase the severity of episodes. The present study used existing data sets to explore the hypothesis that altitude has a greater effect of suicide in BD, compared with other mental illnesses. The study utilized data extracted from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), a surveillance system designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). Data were available for 16 states for the years 2005–2008, representing a total of 35,725 completed suicides in 922 U.S. counties. Random coefficient and logistic regression models in the SAS PROC MIXED procedure were used to estimate the effect of altitude on decedent’s mental health diagnosis. Altitude was a significant, independent predictor of the altitude at which suicides occurred (F = 8.28, p=0.004 and Wald chi-square=21.67, p < 0.0001). Least squares means of altitude, independent of other variables, indicated that individuals with BD committed suicide at the greatest mean altitude. Moreover, the mean altitude at which suicides occurred in BD was significantly higher than in decedents whose mental health diagnosis was major depressive disorder (MDD), schizophrenia, or anxiety disorder. Identifying diagnosis-specific risk factors such as altitude may aid suicide prevention efforts, and provide important information for improving the clinical management of BD.
The first such study I am aware of is C.A. Haws et al. (including Perry Renshaw), "The possible effect of altitude on regional variation in suicide rates," Medical Hypotheses, 73/4 (Oct. 2009): 587-90, with this abstract:
In the United States, suicide rates consistently vary among geographic regions; the western states have significantly higher suicide rates than the eastern states. The reason for this variation is unknown but may be due to regional elevation differences. States' suicide rates (1990-1994), when adjusted for potentially confounding demographic variables, are positively correlated with their peak and capital elevations. These findings indicate that decreased oxygen saturation at high altitude may exacerbate the bioenergetic dysfunction associated with affective illnesses. Should such a link exist, therapies traditionally used to treat the metabolic disturbances associated with altitude sickness may have a role in treating those at risk for suicide. 
Now a variety of additional studies have been published, with several cited in the Huber et al. article above. The lower concentration of oxygen at high altitudes can have an effect on serotonin and while that can be positive for many people, it can exacerbate or contribute to depression for others. Multiple studies now point to altitude as having a significant effect on suicide. There is still more to understand and debate, but this is a noteworthy development.

Such findings are gradually making it into popular media, though I suspect that many of us haven't heard much about this yet. One very readable and interesting report is Theresa Fisher, "There's a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why," Mic.com, Nov. 18, 2014 (a hat tip to Russell Osmond for this article and motivation for my post). For a Wyoming perspective, see Joe O'Sullivan, "Altitude may be major factor in suicide," Casper Star-Tribune, Sept. 18, 2011. An excerpt follows:
When it comes to suicide in Wyoming, guns often take the blame as a contributing factor. So does the isolation and flinty independence of rural culture. But a possible cause now being looked at appears to be a more important contributor to self-inflicted deaths: altitude.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found a correlation between how high above sea level people live and per capita suicide rates. Between 1999 and 2007, Wyoming had the fourth-highest rate of suicides per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; states in the Mountain West hold nine of the top 10 spots.

The researchers looked at 35 separate factors that could cause suicide. Using suicide data from the CDC and mapping data by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they found a distinct correlation between elevation and suicide.

“The Rocky Mountain states just jumped out at you,” said Dr. Perry Renshaw, a professor at the university who took part in the research. “No matter what we did, the altitude kept coming up with a significant factor.”

The study shows that suicides occur between 60 and 70 percent more frequently at high elevations compared to sea level, according to Renshaw.

In fact, altitude surpassed both the isolation of rural culture and the prevalence of gun ownership, both of which come up as assumed causes for the high suicide rate, according to Renshaw. Altitude was the second-highest ranking of 35 variables. The only suicide indicator that ranked higher was being a single mother, he said.

Renshaw, who has spent 15 years studying brain chemistry, said lower oxygen levels in the brain affect people with depression and bipolar disorder.
Both of those disorders involve problems with how the brain uses energy, according to Renshaw. Recent research suggests that the amount of oxygen a person receives affects their mental faculties and performance.

“In depression, what we find is that there are changes in these high-energy compounds in the brain,” Renshaw said.

While oxygen makes up the same percentage of air at sea level as it does at high altitudes, atmospheric pressure — the amount of molecules compressed into one space — decreases with height.

That means people take in fewer oxygen molecules with each breath in a city like Casper, which is a mile above sea level, compared to someone living at sea level.
Comparisons outside the U.S.

To prove the data wasn’t just a fluke, Renshaw and the researchers looked overseas to prove their hypothesis. They did this by analyzing suicide rates in a mountainous country with an elevation that at its highest reaches 6,398 feet: South Korea.

“It was exactly the same result,” Renshaw said, referring to a comparison of suicides in South Korea with the Mountain West. “The higher you went, the higher the result.”
O ye mountains high, indeed!

Understanding the impact of altitude for those facing depression or other mental health challenges may now help guide medical professionals in better assisting patients, including single mothers (being a single mother turned up in one study as just about the only risk factor more significant than altitude). If nothing else, getting away to a lower altitude area for a while might be a big help. We'd love to see you here in Shanghai, a place where you may find it's a good thing to have friends in low places.


Update, June 3, 2018: Some readers questioned why Colorado or the Andes weren't considered. Renshaw's work has considered the entire Mountain West and also many nations, and has seen the altitude effect repeatedly.

A very recent publication involving the Andes, not done by Renshaw, also points to a possible altitude effect, though the authors don't seem familiar enough with Renshaw's work to explain why an altitude effect might exist. See Esteban Ortiz-Prado, "The disease burden of suicide in Ecuador, a 15 years’ geodemographic cross-sectional study (2001–2015)," BMC Psychiatry, 17(2017): 342; doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1502-0. They found that "Provinces located at higher altitude reported higher rates than those located at sea level (9 per 100,000 vs 4.5 per 100.000)." A much higher suicide rate for the high-altitude provinces.