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

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Incredible Design of Owls' Feathers

National Geographic has a news story on the incredibly silent flight of owls. The feathers of owls are brilliantly designed to allows stealth flight for quiet hunting. Now owl technology may help human designers make quieter aircraft. Leading engineers are trying to learn from the cunning aerodynamic principles in owls' feathers - serrations on the leading edge feathers and tattered trailing edge feathers result in significant noise reduction, and the velvety down elsewhere helps absorb high frequency sounds as the birds rush through the air. The reduced noise helps surprise prey, and allows owls to hear well enough with their unusual asymmetric ears that they can use sound in the dark to help pinpoint prey. All cleverly designed - no other word fits - for night hunting.

Naw, these things just happen by blind chance. Strange that highly educated human designers can be so inspired by such accidents.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Two Quotes to Remember

I just read Steven Covey's commencement address given at Utah State University in 2001. He urges people to write a mission statement and make our lives matter. The four basic needs of life, he says, are to live, to live, to learn, and to leave a legacy (to matter). Though there are some things I disagree with in his talk (his praise for several popular modern political figures is ill placed), he does a good job of emphasizing the need for principles and excellence.

He quotes Gandhi:
Seven things will destroy us: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principles.
What a powerful indictment of the trends in modern society!

He also quotes Mother Theresa:
The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.
Wonderful words to ponder.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Office of Bishop

John Tvedtnes has an interesting article, "The Office of Bishop," at LDSMag.com. Many of us don't realize how much the office of Bishop has evolved over the years.

Dialogue Online!

Kudos to Dallas Robbins for sharing the news about the online version of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, made available by the University of Utah. While this journal contains some controversial items, I have found a number of thought-provoking and fascinating essays and poems. Issues up to 1998 are available. For more recent issues, head to a library or make an online purchase.

One of my favorite articles is not yet available online not at the U of U site but is now available at the Mormon Fortress: Michael Ash's "The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution" (Dialogue, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2002, pp. 19-59). It offers an excellent overview of the issue of evolution in LDS thought, clearly reminding us that there is no official LDS position on this topic, contrary to the assumptions of many. (It's one of the works I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about science and Mormonism.)

Speaking of science and Mormonism, I gave a fireside at our local church last Sunday night on the topic of "Science and the Book of Mormon." Talked non-stop for over an hour - pity my audience! But I didn't fall asleep once. It was actually a High Priest Group social that we extended to anyone interested in the topic. We began with several fine batches of chili and some other light refreshments, and then came the lecture.

Key topics: the limitation of science and the scientific method, Arabian Peninsula geography (including candidates for the River Laman, Valley of Lemuel, Nahom, Shazer, and Bountiful), Mesoamerica, volcanism and Third Nephi, and DNA and the Book of Mormon.

Toward the beginning I mentioned that clashes between science and religion often are due to incorrect assumptions, and that we may need to discard old assumptions (such as the assumption that the "days" of Creation refer to 24-hour periods, when the Hebrew word can equally well refer to an age or era, as in the "times" of the Creation account in the Book of Abraham). Needing to reconsider an errant human assumption is not necessarily the same as needing to abandon one's faith. Science, being forever tentative, calls upon us to regularly update and revise our understanding of things and our assumptions. But properly viewed, the areas where science can shed light on the Book of Mormon can enhance our appreciation of the text and even strengthen our testimony. Those who claim to have lost faith in God or the Church because of science are, in my opinion, drawing errant conclusions based on faulty and often naive assumptions.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Mormon Temples and "Secrecy"

I've often received questions about the issue of "secrecy" in Mormon temples. To us, the key factor is what is sacred, not secret, but this still leaves many people confused, especially when they hear the spin of critics. For example, some people point out that Christ said that "in secret have I said nothing" (John 18:20), so they wonder if the idea of "secret" temple ceremonies is contrary to the Gospel. Even if they accept the concept of holding some things as sacred, they still contend that the idea of "sacred" teachings or ceremonies not for public observation is contrary to original Christianity.

My response: No, LDS Temple practices are remarkably Biblical and provide evidence that important practices of early Christianity have been restored today. The evidence for a restoration from early Christianity is provided in part by Barry Robert Bickmore's excellent book, Restoring the Ancient Church (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999), now available online at FAIRLDS.org, which is used for much of the following comments for this answer.

While Christ's teachings may have been essentially public before the Crucifixion, shortly before then he told his Apostles that He had "many things" more to teach them that they were not yet able to receive (John 16:12). These teachings undoubtedly include what He taught them during His 40-day ministry after the Resurrection. Of that ministry, all we have recorded is thee statement in Acts 1:1-3 that He showed Himself alive to the apostles after the Crucifixion "by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of he things pertaining to the kingdom of God." This ministry was not public and His teachings from then have not been recorded. An extensive Christian tradition exists holding that sacred and secret doctrines were taught during those 40 days.

But even during His mortal ministry, there were teachings that appear to have been given exclusively to the Apostles and not the public at large. Professor Joachim Jeremias in The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, pp. 125-130, as cited by Bickmore, p. 292) explains that Christ gave a variety of esoteric teachings to a very limited audience. For example, predictions of his own death were not given publicly but only to his close disciples (Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10: 32-34). The same holds for predictions of the end of the world (Mark 13:3). And many teachings were done in enigmatic terms or through parables where the deeper meaning would be available only to those had "ears to hear" (Matt. 9:15) or were "able to receive" (Matt. 19:12). In fact, Jeremias goes on to say that Jesus hinted at secret teachings that would be disclosed later (Matt. 10:27, Mark 4:22), doctrines which Paul may have referred to when he spoke of the "mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1), the "hidden wisdom of God in a mystery" (1 Cor. 2:6-7), or doctrines that some Christians, though they had been Christians for years, were not yet able to bear (1 Cor. 3:2) (see Jeremias, pp. 130-132). Paul's analogy of feeding milk before meat in 1 Cor. 3:2 applies very well to the modern LDS view of the temple as well.

Barry Bickmore provides extensive evidence from early Christianity that hidden truths and mysteries were an important part of Christianity. These esoteric teachings were given to the disciples privately and were kept secret from the world. (See, for example, the comments of Peter in the Clementine Homilies, 19:20 in ANF 8:336, and the Clementine Recognitions 2:4 and 3:1 in ANF 8:98 and 8:117, respectively.) Some knowledge of these secret teachings continued at least into the second century, for Ignatius of Antioch spoke of heavenly things that he feared to disclose to the Roman Christians lest they would not be able to receive it (Romans 9 in ANF 1:104).

The existence of secret teachings and ceremonies in early Christianity was a focal point for attacks by early anti-Christians, as it is today for their modern anti-Mormon counterparts. Celsus, a leading anti-Christian demagogue and agitator (and expert in the tactics so typical of modern anti-Mormons), made strong accusations along these lines. But Origen defended the faith, explaining that Christians weren't the only ones having esoteric doctrines:

In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd.But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric.
(Against Celsus, 1:7, in ANF 4:399, as cited by Bickmore, p. 296. )
But Origen distinguished initiation in the esoteric pagan systems with the esoteric aspects of Christianity in the higher demands of worthiness for the Christian:
[W]hoever is pure not only from all defilement, but from what are regarded as the less transgressions, let him be boldly initiated in the mysteries of Jesus, which properly are made known only to the holy and pure. The initiated of Celsus accordingly says, "Let him whose soul is conscious of no evil come." But he who acts as initiator, according to the precepts of Jesus, will say to those who have been purified in heart, "He whose soul has, for a long time, been conscious of no evil, and especially since he yielded himself to the healing of the word, let such an one hear the doctrines which were spoken in private by Jesus to His genuine disciples." Therefore in the comparison which he institutes between the procedure of the initiators into the Grecian mysteries, and the teachers of the doctrine of Jesus, he does not know the difference between inviting the wicked to be healed, and initiating those already purified into the sacred mysteries.
(Against Celsus, 3:60, in ANF 4:488, as cited by Bickmore, p. 296.)
There is much of value in the above quote from Origen. We learn that the Christians did have initiation ceremonies involving sacred mysteries taught privately by Christ to the disciples, and that those receiving these mysteries had to live high standards of personal worthiness and do so for a long time. This is remarkably similar to LDS practices. The temple is viewed as a sacred place with knowledge reserved for the pure. Temple recommends require interviews with two priesthood leaders, such as a bishop and a stake president, who determine if the candidate has been living high standards and keeping basic commandments of the Gospel. New converts must wait at least one year prior to being able to receive their Endowment in the temple, and extensive preparation is expected on the part of candidates.

Say, how do anti-Mormons explain the remarkable parallels between early Christian esoteric practices and the modern LDS approach? It's a question worth asking.

By the way, some knowledge of these mysteries persisted into the third and fourth centuries. Even Athanasius spoke of the need to maintain a tradition of secrecy for some aspects of Christianity:

We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended.
(Defense Against the Arians 1:11, in NPNF Series 2, 4:106, as cited by Bickmore, p. 300.)
This sounds like the LDS approach today as well.

The word "mysteries" in early Christian writings can refer to ordinances, not just teachings. As used in Greek, it normally referred to the practices of the Greek "mystery religions" that included ceremonies and teachings. As used it the New Testament, it can carry this nuance of rites as well as knowledge (see G.G. Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, New York: E.J. Brill, 1996, p. 133, as cited by Bickmore, p. 300).

The LDS Temple is a marvelous, Christ-focused place where great blessings are offered to faithful members of His church. The ceremonies and teachings there are sacred and treated with the respect that the sacred pearls of the Gospel demand. Like the earliest Christians, Latter-day Saints have sacred, private ceremonies offering the most lofty and beautiful aspects of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Related questions about the LDS Temple are answered on my page, Is the LDS Temple Derived From Masonry?.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Specter of Abortion: Lost Hope for a Pro-Life Justice

Many pro-lifers continue to hope that a pro-life justice will be appointed to the Supreme Court. Those who observed what happened last year in Pennsylvania know better. Arlen Specter, the liberal Republican (in name only) and ardent pro-abortion Senator, the man who led the battle against Robert Bork, the man who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has great power to prevent pro-life nominees from making it through the system, almost lost to a strong pro-life Republican in a primary election last year. But with the strong support of President George Bush, Specter managed to squeak by his opponent. Some details are provided in Timothy Carney's column at National Review Online. In the primary campaign, pro-life Republican Rep. Pat Toomey was taking on Specter and making abortion a central issue. His pro-life position was gaining the favor of many Republicans, and he may well have won. When the chips were down for Specter, President Bush came into the state and lent Specter much-needed support. Cheney also spoke in favor of Specter. With the help of the Bush Administration, Specter beat Toomey, 527,000 votes to 510,000 votes. And now, instead of a pro-life Senator, we have the man who saved Roe v. Wade not just in the Senate, but as chair of the critical Senate Judiciary Committee.

If we are to make progress in standing up for the value of all human life, if we are to halt the flow of innocent blood being shed by the abortion industry, we cannot look for true support at the top, either in the Supreme Court or the White House. Any hope for a pro-life justice on the Supreme Court in the next few years is delusional, though there may be some vain attempts at nominating pro-lifers to keep us happy and hopeful and inactive.

I think we must work at a grassroots level to educate, to provide alternatives to abortion, to promote morality, and to elect honorable men and women to Congress who will dare to speak out for the innocent and weak.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Don't Forget Cement

I continue to be intrigued by the way that "ridiculous" elements in the Book of Mormon eventually become significant evidences of authenticity. The mention of cement in Helaman 3 is a case in point. I've mentioned this before, but it's worth remembering. Here is an excerpt from my Book of Mormon Evidences page:

In 1929, Heber J. Grant (former President of the Church) told the story of a man with a doctorate who had ridiculed him for believing in the Book of Mormon. That learned man cited the mention of cement work as an obvious lie "because the people in that early age knew nothing about cement." President Grant, who was a young man at the time of that conversation, said:

"That does not affect my faith one particle. I read the Book of Mormon prayerfully and supplicated God for a testimony in my heart and soul of the divinity of it, and I have accepted it and believe it with all my heart." I also said to him, "If my children do not find cement houses, I expect that my grandchildren will." He said, "Well, what is the good of talking with a fool like that?" (April 1929 Conference Report, p. 128 ff.)
President Grant's statement was prophetic. Today, tourists to Mesoamerica can find ancient cement work in abundance at Teotihuacan (which is clearly "in the land north" according to modern models for Book of Mormon geography). Mesoamerican cement was being used at least by the first century B.C. (David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, UT, 1981, p. 121). Palmer shows a photograph of cement used to surface a temple at the Chiapa de Corzo site. Palmer also cites Monte Alban, which is south of Teotihuacan but still in the "land north," as another example of ancient cement work. Several examples of cement work use tiny volcanic stones (0.5 to 2 mm diameter) mixed with clay and lime to produce the cement. Cement was also used in the ancient city of Kaminaljuyu (modern Guatemala City).

Mesoamerican work with cement involved more than merely applying a veneer to buildings. Important structural elements were made with cement, and the use of cement in Mesoamerica dates to about the time when the Book of Mormon reports its development (46 B.C.). John Welch provides further data in his article, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. D.W. Parry, D.C. Peterson, and J.W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), pp. 372-374:
No one in the nineteenth century could have known that cement, in fact, was extensively used in Mesoamerica beginning largely at this time, the middle of the first century B.C.[1]

One of the most notable uses of cement is in the temple complex at Teotihuacan, north of present-day Mexico City. According to David S. Hyman, the structural use of cement appears suddenly in the archaeological record. And yet its earliest sample "is a fully developed product." The cement floor slabs at this site "were remarkably high in structural quality." Although exposed to the elements for nearly two thousand years, they still "exceed many present-day building code requirements." [2] This is consistent with the Book of Mormon record, which treats this invention as an important new development involving great skill and becoming something of a sensation.

After this important technological breakthrough, cement was used at many sites in the Valley of Mexico and in the Maya regions of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, which very well may have been close to the Nephite heartlands. Cement was used in the later construction of buildings at such sites as Cerro de Texcotzingo, Tula, Palenque, Tikal, Copan, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. Further, the use of cement is "a Maya habit, absent from non-Maya examples of corbelled vaulting from the southeastern United States to southern South America." [3]

Mesoamerican cement was almost exclusively lime cement. The limestone was purified on a "cylindrical pile of timber, which requires a vast amount of labor to cut and considerable skill to construct in such a way that combustion of the stone and wood is complete and a minimum of impurities remains in the product." [4] The fact that very little carbon is found in this cement once again "attests to the ability of these ancient peoples." [5]

John Sorenson has further noted the expert sophistication in the use of cement at El Tajin, east of Mexico City, in the centuries following Book of Mormon times. Cement roofs covered sizable areas: "Sometimes the builders filled a room with stones and mud, smoothed the surface on top to receive the concrete, then removed the interior fill when the [slab] on top had dried." [6]
Footnotes for the above passage:
1. See Matthew G. Wells and John W. Welch, "Concrete
Evidence for the Book of Mormon," Insights (May 1991): 2.

2. David S. Hyman, A Study of the Calcareous Cements in
Prehispanic Mesoamerican Building Construction
Johns Hopkins University, 1970), ii, sec. 6, p. 7.

3. George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975), 201, emphasis added.

4. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, An Album ofMaya Architecture
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), xv.

5. Hyman, A Study of the Calcareous Cements, sec. 6, p. 5.

6. John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon,"
Ensign, October 1984, 19.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Preparing for the Temple

Ben Spackman just created a useful new page, LDS Temple Preparation FAQ, aimed at helping those who are planning on going to the Temple. The page answers many common questions and offers helpful advice. Kudos, Brother Spackman!

I think the more a person knows about what to expect, the better he or she will benefit from their first temple experience. Some people don't realize that they will be entering a different world with foreign, ancient paradigms. For those who have been there and seek to better understand the incredibly richness of the experience, it can help to learn about ancient covenant forms and the ancient temple concept in general. With such information, I think it becomes clear that Joseph Smith could not have fabricated the temple experience by turning to Masonry or other things in his environment.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Lawyers and the Millennium

An LDS blog I just discovered, A Bird's Eye View, offers an intriguing post about the possible role of lawyers after the Millennium. Will they be out of a job? There are some reasons to think otherwise.

I like the legal and religious perspectives from A Bird's Eye View and have added it to my list of favorites. Kudos!

Eat Meat Sparingly: Major New Study Links Red Meat with Cancer

As reported at Nature.com, a major new study by the American Cancer Society found that red meat is strongly associated with colon or rectal cancer. The study tracked 150,000 people in the US over a 10-year period. The people were grouped into three categories. The high red mean category had a 40% higher incidence of colorectal cancer. Those in the high risk group averaged 55-85 grams of red meat a day, roughly equivalent to one average hamburger (less than a quarter-pounder).

The reference for the study itself is A. Chao et al., Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 293, pp. 172 - 182 (2004).

Mormons and all people, actually, would do well to take the revealed Word of Wisdom seriously. The recommendation to "eat meat sparingly" may be important to your health. There is more to living the Word of Wisdom than just avoiding tobacco and alcohol.

It's time to add a little more wisdom to our lives.

LDS Foundation: Online Tsunami Aid (and It Can Count for 2004 Taxes)

You can help the tsunami victims through a donation made on the LDS Foundation Website. Thanks to a special act just signed by President Bush, donations made by Jan. 31, 2005 can be applied to 2004 taxes.

Pondering the Creation

Pondering the recent news about the complex beauty of the moon Titan, I am reminded of the many other scenes of stunning beauty and wonder that are periodically uncovered in remote, inaccessible places such as in long-hidden caves or around thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. The artistry of God fills many canvasses with beauty that no mortal has ever seen. While this adds to the joys of human exploration, perhaps some of the hidden beauty of our planet, our solar system, and indeed, the universe is there for purposes other than the enjoyment of mortals. Perhaps much of it is just the natural result of the finely tuned physics of the Creation, but might some of it be for the added satisfaction of those beyond our mortal realm? In any case, after the Resurrection, there are a lot of places I want to explore!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Greek Philosophy and the Apostasy

Greek philosophy was not the cause of the apostasy, but its influence played a role in the corruption of original Christian teachings. Without the "rock" of revelation in the Church after prophets and apostles had been rejected and killed, some men in the Church felt great pressure to make Christianity seem more logical and acceptable to the intellectuals of the day, who were steeped in Greek philosophy, and specifically in the system known as Neoplatonism. It is a matter of record that Neoplatonism strongly influenced the development of "mainstream" Christian doctrine, beginning at least with the fourth century. Consider the following excerpts from the article "Neoplatonism" by P. Hadot in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. X, pp. 334-336 (excerpts from page 335):
From Plotinus to Damascius [leading figures in Neoplatonic thought], Neoplatonism was always anti-Christian. Attacking the Christian Gnostics, Plotinus simultaneously combatted specifically Christian notions, as for example, that of creation....

From the middle of the 4th century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East, Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and Nemesius of Emesa, and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine, made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphyry, frequently without citing them. In the 5th century, Pseudo-Dionysius borrowed his hierarchical universe from Proclus. In the East, this direct influence of Neoplatonism continued throughout the Byzantine period, notably up to Psellus (11th century), Michael Italicos (12th century), Nicephoros Gregoras (14th century), and Gemistos Plethon (15th century). Plethon played a role in restoring Neoplatonism to the West in the course of the Italian Renaissance, at the court of the Medici. In the West, from the high period of the Middle Ages onward, Neoplatonism was accepted through the works of Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, Calcidius, and Macrobius. In the 9th century, John Scotus Erigena translated the writings of pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, and, in his De divisione naturae, combined the Proclean Neoplatonism of pseudo-Dionysius with the Porphyrian Neoplatonism of Augustine.
P. Hadot then notes that Neoplatonism further entered the West via Arabic literature. Arabic philosophy had become "a Neoplatonic interpretation of the works of Aristotle. . . ." He continues:
Once it came into Spain during the 12th century, this Arabian philosophy placed Christian thought into renewed contact with Neoplatonism.

From the 12th century onward, Latin translations from Arabic or Greek gave Christian theologians a direct knowledge of Neoplatonic works. . . . Having received a strongly Platonized thought from the Christian tradition [i.e., the post-apostolic tradition - Platonized thought is not found in the Bible!], certain theologians of this era, reading these Neoplatonic texts, regarded Platonism as naturally Christian. (emphasis mine)
Note that a dominant pagan philosophy that strongly influenced Christianity would, centuries later, seem "naturally Christian" to those steeped in Hellenized thought.

Neoplatonism was closely related to Platonism - a philosophical system based on the teachings of Plato. Regarding Platonism, J.O. Riedl in the article "Platonism" in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. XI, pp. 433-438, writes:
[Platonism] is also used by some for Neoplatonism, although this is more commonly considered a separate philosophical movement closely related to Platonism. Among patristic, medieval, and modern scholars, the term is generally used to designate currents of thought of Platonic origin that flourished among the Greek and Latin Fathers, among medieval schoolmen, . . . [etc.]. Not infrequently, Platonism has also influenced the elaboration of religious doctrines, and on this account is variously called Jewish, Islamic, or Christian. . . .(p. 434, emphasis mine)

Neoplatonism, in the view of one historian, "was the last breath, the last flower, of ancient pagan philosophy; but in the thought of Augustine it became the first page of Christian philosophy" (Copleston 1:506). Apart from influences that are now recognized as Neoplatonist, however, Christian writers found much in the older Platonism that helped them in their understanding of Christian theology and much that helped them answer philosophical questions without compromising their theology [Riedl is overly optimistic here!]. They found evidence for the unity of God, preexistence of the forms of things in the mind of God, creation of the world, . . . [etc.].

The Greek apologists during the reign of Antonines were educated in the pagan schools of philosophy. They used their knowledge to point out to the emperors, themselves philosophers, that Christian doctrine was reconcilable with philosophy, and therefore not to be condemned. . . .

At Alexandria Christian scholars adapted Platonic thought to religious instruction and scriptural exegesis. (emphasis mine)
The story of the influence of pagan philosophy on "mainstream" Christian doctrine after the loss of prophets and apostles is long and complex, but the effort to make Christianity seem compatible with pagan philosophy - perhaps viewed as essential for the survival of the Church - rapidly accelerated the process of apostasy. The Church - or its remnants - thrived and became the political tool of emperors and conquerors, with many doctrines that truly were adapted to be compatible with pagan intellectual thought. Thus, an immaterial God without body, parts, or passions was defined, which now appeared to be more "the God of the philosophers," as Origen put it, than the God in whose physical image we were created, as early Christians and Jews believed. Creation became the philosophically appealing creation ex nihilo, which was not known among Christians in New Testament times. The perfect unity of the three distinct Beings of the Godhead became a unity of substance in the philosophical sense. Many plain and pure teachings were corrupted, though much that is good and wholesome remained. Nevertheless, there was loss of priesthood authority, of revelation, of sacred ordinances and basic teachings, and there was great need for the miracle of the Restoration that began with the Prophet Joseph Smith.

When DNA Evidence is Ignored: Systematic Bias Against Non-Asian Origins of Ancient Americans

One of several issues that I raise in my essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon is the tendency for scientists to ignore DNA evidence that might point to non-Asian origins for Native Americans. Non-Asian DNA types found in living Native Americans is almost universally assumed to be from European admixture (often a reasonable assumption, of course), and non-Asian DNA types found in ancient DNA (from, say, pre-Columbian remains) is often assumed to be due to modern contamination (again, this is a correct conclusion in many cases), even when there is no apparent source to explain the alleged contamination. Such discarding of non-Asian genetic links, in my opinion, may sometimes be made not so much because it is truly demanded by a sound scientific analysis of the data, but because it is demanded by the paradigm of the "established" Asia-only origin of Native Americans.

It is wrong to say that there has been no DNA evidence pointing to non-Asian (e.g., European or Middle East) origins of ancient Native Americans. But some of the possible evidence has routinely been discarded and ignored. Here is an excerpt from my essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon:
The problem in applying DNA analysis to the Book of Mormon goes beyond the likelihood of discarding the most relevant evidence. There is also the possibility of attributing evidence of pre-Columbian migrations to recent admixture. Worse, there is the possibility of missing the date of entry of the most relevant genes, and thus eliminating them from the scope of the Book of Mormon, as we shall discuss below.

All this is compounded by the fact that researchers are understandably interested in explaining the dominant genetic origins of Native Americans, which will likely correspond to the dominant population groups that were already on the continent when Lehi's little boatload of people landed. There is typically little interest in understanding or even studying the origins of unusual haplotypes in Native Americans. For example, Bonatto and Salzano (1997), in concluding that the four major mtDNA haplotypes likely derived from a single Asian migration, felt that other less common haplotypes could be safely ignored:
We agree that some additional founding haplogroups (such as group X from Forster et al. 1996; also see Bailliet et al. 1994; Merriwether and Ferrell 1996) might exist, besides the four major ones studied here. However, they constitute only ~10% of the sequences now found in the Americas and, because of their very small sample size, could not be analyzed in the study. Since we analyzed each haplogroup separately, and since the number of haplogroups was not a relevant parameter, including these putatively additional founding haplogroups should not significantly change the results presented here.
Salzano (2002) lists 7 biallelic haplotypes for Y chromosomes in Native Americans in his Table 9. He states that haplotypes 5 through 7 "occur in low frequencies, and since they present high prevalences in European or African populations, may be due to interethnic gene flow." But these haplotypes occur in Eskimos, Na-Denes, and Amerinds of North American, as well as in natives of Central America and South America. Can we safely ignore them because they are also characteristic of Old World peoples outside of Asia?

As a further characteristic example of the exclusion of "other" DNA types, Malhi et al. (2002) investigated the mtDNA haplogroup identities of 1,612 Native Americans. They state that:

Individuals whose mtDNAs did not belong to one of the five Native American haplogroups were not included in this analysis. Although it is possible that one or more of these individuals possess previously undocumented founding Native American mtDNA types, previous studies indicate that the frequency of "other" mtDNA types is very low and that most--or all--of these result from recent admixture (Torroni et al. 1993b, 1994; Huoponen et al. 1997; Smith et al. 1999).
An excellent discussion of the very real problem of contamination of ancient DNA samples is provided by Kolman and Tuross (2000), who also provide an interesting example in which pre-Columbian genetic material from a Native American appears to provide reproducible evidence of European origins. In spite of numerous efforts to exclude contamination, this result, identically reproduced in multiple careful trials, is presented as a case of "obvious" contamination because it was non-Asian:

The data presented here can be used to illustrate the dangers of imprudent inclusion of data. The DNA sequence identified in sample 5 had never been detected in our laboratory or in New World indigenous populations. All associated extraction and PCR controls were negative. Multiple extractions resulted in the same RFLP/deletion haplotype. Therefore, it could be proposed that this haplotype represents a new founding lineage for the New World. However, the fact that this haplotype is found at high frequency in European populations (17%, Richards et al., 1996) and is not found in presumably ancestral Asian populations argues against this interpretation and against the inclusion of this sequence in a NewWorld database.

In total, seven different non-New World sequences were identified in the current study. They are most likely all European in origin and may represent a minimum of seven independent sources of contamination. . . .

In sum, there is no easy, objective method of identifying contaminating sequences other than to painstakingly analyze them within the genetic framework of the ancient population under study.

The conclusion is understandable, if one is constrained by the paradigm that all ancient Native Americans must have DNA originating from Asia. But when an ancient human's DNA comes up as European, in trial after trial with great precautions taken to prevent contamination, and then that data is simply excluded as a fine example of the dangers of contamination because it is not Asian, what chance do we have to find non-Asian genes in ancient human samples from the Americas? Ancient DNA that does not fit the out-of-Asia paradigm is repeatedly discarded from consideration because of "obvious" contamination.

There is no evidence in the paper by Kolman and Tuross that any of the other samples discarded for "contamination" had contamination from any of the researchers conducting the study. The approach appears to be that anything unexpected will be discarded as due to contamination. Is it any surprise that this approach - apparently a common approach - consistently suppresses surprises, surprises like the presence of non-Asian groups in ancient America?

Further work with the typically neglected outliers still needs to be done, and done without instantly assuming that modern contamination or admixture is the source of genes that appear to have a non-Asian origin. While contamination can be a serious problem, it is still possible to get good results with ancient DNA if proper procedures are followed, as shown by Gilbert et al. (2003). More recently, Matthew Spencer and Christopher J. Howe (Spencer and Rowe, 2004) have established statistical tools and recommended procedures to help researchers determine the probability that an amplified DNA sequence from an ancient sample actually corresponds to ancient DNA or modern contamination. Their discussion of the problem of contamination is also helpful.
References cited above:
Bailliet, G., et al., "Founder Mitochondrial Haplotypes in Amerindian Populations," American Journal of Human Genetics, 55(1): 27-33 (July 1994). (Available online.)

Bonatto, S.L. and Salzano, F.M., "Diversity and Age of the Four Major mtDNA Haplogroups, and their Implications for the Peopling of the New World", American Journal of Human Genetics, 61:1413-1423 (1997a). (Available online.)

Forster, P., Hardin, R., Torroni, A., and Bandelt, H.-J., "Origin and Evolution of Native American mtDNA Variation: A Reappraisal," American Journal of Human Genetics, 59: 935-954 (1996).

Gilbert, M.T.P., Willerslev, E., Hansen, A.J., Barnes, I., Rudleck, L., Lynnerup, N., and Cooper, A., "Distribution Patterns of Postmortem Damage in Human Mitochondrial DNA," American Journal of Human Genetics, 72:32-47 (2003). (Available online.)

Huoponen, K., Torroni, A., Wickman, P.R., Sellitto, D., Gurley, D.S., Scozzari, R., and Wallace, D.C., "Mitochondrial DNA and Y Chromosome-specific Polymorphisms in the Seminole of South Florida," European Journal of Human Genetics, 5:25-34 (1997), as cited by Malhi et al., 2000.

Kolman, C.J., and Tuross, N., "Ancient DNA Analysis of Human Populations," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 111: 5-23 (2000). (Available online.)

Malhi, R.S., et al., "The Structure of Diversity within New World Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups: Implications for the Prehistory of North America," American Journal of Human Genetics, 70(4): 905-919 (April 2002). (Available online.)

Merriwether D.A., and Ferrell, R.E., "The Four Founding Lineage Hypothesis for the New World: A Critical Reevaluation. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol., 5:241-246 (1996), as cited by Bonatto and Salzano (1997a). (Abstract available online.)

Richards, M., Corte-Real, H., Forster, P., Macaulay, V., Wilkinson-Herbots, H., Demaine, A., Papiha, S., Hedges, R., Bandelt, H.-J., Sykes, B., "Paleolithic and Neolithic Lineages in the European Mitochondrial Gene Pool," American Journal of Human Genetics, 59:185-203 (1996), as cited by Kolman and Tuross (2000).

Salzano, F.M., "Molecular Variability in Amerindians: Widespread but Uneven Information," Anais de Academia Brasileira de Ciencias, 74(2): 223-263 (2002). (Available online.)

Smith, D.G., Malhi, R.S., Eshleman, J., Lorenz, J.G., Kaestle, F.A., "Distribution of mtDNA Haplogroup X among Native North Americans," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 110: 271-284 (1999).

Spencer, M. and Rowe, C.J., "Authenticity of Ancient-DNA Results: A Statistical Approach," American Journal of Human Genetics, 75(2): 240-250 (Aug. 2004). (Available online.)

Torroni, A., et al. "Asian Affinities and Continental Radiation of the Four Founding Native American mtDNAs," American Journal of Human Genetics, 53: 563-590 (1993b).

Torroni, A., Neel, J.V., Barrantes, R., Schurr, T.G., Wallace, D.C., "Mitochondrial DNA "Clock" for the Amerinds and Its Implications for Timing Their Entry into North America," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 91: 1158-1162 (1994). (Available online.)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Federal Judge Rules: To Recognize Evolution as a Theory is Unconstitutional

An incredible demonstration of religious intolerance came in today's decision of a Federal judge in Atlanta regarding how the theory of evolution can be described in textbooks (also see the report at the Christian Post). Since 2002, science textbooks in Cobb County schools (a northern suburb of Atlanta) have had stickers attached to them with these words: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." That seems like a reasonable way to respect the predominantly Christian community and to put a scientifically fair disclaimer regarding the limits of scientific knowledge. But for some people of the atheist faith, it is anathema to even question their claims about the nonexistence of God, or to leave open the possibility that a Creator might exist.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper felt that stating that (non-theistic) evolution is "a theory, not a fact" is somehow an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. "By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories," the judge opined.

This kind of judicial abuse does not demand another amendment to the Constitution to fix. There are already Constitutional means to restraining an over-zealous judiciary, not to mention the ability to impeach those who abuse their office. What Judge Cooper has done is to take a dramatic step toward the obvious goal of the atheist jihad movement: to establish a state religion of atheism, to interfere in the free exercise of other faiths, and to restrict the freedom of speech for those with other views (you, Christian infidels).
"You want to question our absolute faith in godless creation, and leave open the possibility of a Creator? And you want to do that with a scientifically accurate sticker on a textbook? Good heavens - that might let some deluded Christian infidels maintain their faith in God! This is unconstitutional, my primitive Georgia rednecks! You may not say that our beliefs on the origin of life are only a "theory," and someday soon, when our fundamentalist atheist state is fully empowered and we have completely separated all remnants of the church from our state, you won't even be allowed to think that."
Nice to see those judges standing up for the Constitution.

Say, Judge Cooper, I'd be happy to help remove any unwanted religious material you might have been unwittingly given in your business dealings with infidel Christians. You know, all those slips of green paper in your wallet with the unconstitutional endorsement of God printed on them - promoting not just His existence, but advocating trust in Him. Far more dangerous than textbook stickers! That's got to go, too. (It certainly will - I predict we'll have modified our currency and coins to remove reference to God within the next decade.)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

"And they were filled with madness" - Luke 6:11

I love the story in Luke 6 of the Lord standing before his critics on the Sabbath day as they watch his every move, looking for some way to accuse him of breaking Jewish law. A man with a withered hand is there, and his critics are watching to see if Jesus might heal him on the Sabbath day so they can condemn him. He knows what is going on, and fearlessly asks the withered man to stand. Jesus speaks to his critics: "I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the sabbath says to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?" And after looking around at them, he simply says to the afflicted man, "Stretch forth thy hand." It is now healed. Are the critics impressed by this evidence of Christ's divinity? Do they fall to their knees to worship, or at least show a little respect? No. In fact, "they were filled with madness" and began plotting what they could do to destroy Christ.

We need to realize that there are religious leaders in these days who likewise are filled with madness and seek only to destroy. This certainly includes clerics who stir up terrorism, but I've also seen similar madness in nominal Christians dedicated to the "countercult" movement, the ones who will look for any excuse to condemn, say, the Mormons, and who produce deceptive and sensational videos and books aimed st stirring up anger and fear. These few-but-noisy true-blue anti-Mormons (T-BAMs) are beyond reason and logic. When speaking with them, it is a waste of time to respond to their haranguing arguments, for they are not operating in a plane where logic makes a difference - they are literally filled with madness. I suggest that we not engage in debates with them, but ask them to stretch forth their hand, shake it, and leave. But watch your back as you go.

On the other hand, there are many people who have been infected with T-BAM propaganda, but may listen sincerely when you explain the refutation to one or more of the arguments they might throw out. Such folks may initially show a hostile "anti-Mormon" attitude, but if there is any sign of sincerity or willingness to hear the other side, there may be hope. Directing them to some useful sources of LDS information and showing them some of the wonderful evidences of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, for example, might help them make a paradigm shift and move ahead spiritually. The part of their soul that was spiritually withered may be made whole through the power of the Lord. Conversion may not be the result, but if you can help someone move from irrational fear of the Restored Gospel to some level of tolerance and respect, you've helped them significantly.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Dreams About Coming Missionaries that Lead to Conversion: Elizabeth Buck Garlick, My Ancestor

Last year I posted some information from the life of my ancestor, Talitha Cumi Garlick Avery Cheney, a pioneer woman whose journal stands as a witness of the divinity of the Church and the prophetic callings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Tonight for Family Home Evening I read to my family some information about her mother, Elizabeth Buck Garlick, as compiled by my mother, Mary Miles Lindsay:
Elizabeth Buck Garlick was born May 2, 1795 in Bedord County, Pennsylvania. She married David Garlick October 1, 1816 in Pennsylvania. They lived in Providence, PA. . . .

Elizabeth dreamed she saw two strange preachers and heard a voice say, "These are true messengers of God, hear and obey." The next week, William Baisley and John Wakefield, two Mormon Elders, as they were called, came in that neighborhood and preached. As soon as she saw them, she said, "They were the men she saw in her dream and she knew they had the true Gospel." She and her daughters joined the Church. Her husband was baptized one year later. That was in 1837 when she and the three oldest girls were baptized, although their family group sheet only lists Susanna [the second oldest] as being baptized then. The two others are listed as being baptized in 1839.

Within a few weeks of joining the Church, 20 others were baptized and then the mob spirit arose against them. Their friends and relatives turned against them. After two years they left and headed for Missouri, but the Saints had been driven out of there and so they headed to Commerce, later called Nauvoo. All the houses were full and so they had to live in a blacksmith shop. It had no floor, door, or chimney. . . .
Before tonight, I don't remember hearing this storing about Elizabeth's dream that led to her conversion. It seems to be a theme that many converts throughout history have experienced. My sister had a miraculous experience on her mission in Venezuela that led her to meet a woman who had also just had a similar dream. She and her companion were out looking for people to teach on a hot, sultry day, when a cool, refreshing breeze came out of nowhere. They followed the source of the breeze, seeking its comfort, and it led them several blocks until they came to a household where the breeze had seemed centered, as I recall her story. Then they felt like this was some kind of clue that they should approach this particular house. They did, and were amazed to find a woman who had dreamed of their arrival.

I am intrigued about the use of dreams to alert some people to the coming of messengers bringing the Restored Gospel. I am grateful to learn that one of my ancestors had this experience also.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Ads by Google: Mormons for Sale at Ebay!

Click to enlarge. These are actual ads from Google. It's amazing what you can buy at Ebay!

The other night I found a number of troubling Google ads in response to basic one-word search terms (see my post on Google ads at Sanity Defense). Tonight I noticed some curious results for Mormon-related terms. Hmmm . . . well, if your faith is weak, this might be a good time to stock up at Ebay.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Seeking Wisdom from "the Best Books" - What Are Your Kids Reading?

Several times in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord implores His people to seek wisdom out of "the best books" (D&C 88:118, 109:7,14, see also 90:15). The scope of knowledge we should pursue is broad - nations, languages, kingdoms, scientific matters, etc. (see D&C 88:78-80; 90:15). How are we doing in this category? More specifically, parents, how are your kids doing? Are you paying attention to the type of books that are being used in schools these days? It was bad enough when I was a teenager, reading depressing books like Johnny Get Your Gun as part of my high school experience (though some "depressing" books, like those by Kafka, I found to be brilliant and worth reading - in fact, reading Kafkas's The Castle was a highlight of one of my teenage summers, though now I'm not sure it was the best choice for summer reading). Insight into the trends in books selected by the schools comes from a recent article in a publication for teachers: Barbara Feinberg, "Reflections on the 'Problem Novel'," American Educator, Winter 2004/05, pp. 8-19 (an excellent publication of the American Federation of Teachers).

As a lover of literature, Ms. Feinberg is worried about the trend in our schools - particularly for classes of pre-teens - of focusing on dark, depressing novels that simply fail to serve as the kind of books a reasonable society should encourage its youth to read.

She first suspected a problem when she noticed her kids began to dread reading their assigned books from school. As another 10-year-old she knows put, "They give me a headache in my stomach." Literary critics call the genre "problem novels" and acclaim them for their ability to help children face the "honest realities" - you know, things like suicide, abandonment, physical and sexual child abuse, child prostitution, atrocities in foster care, self-mutilation, and so forth.

Many such books are recommended by the American Library Association and many are Newberry Medal winners. Parents may see their grade-school kids reading award-winning books and conclude that they are being exposed to great literature. But parents may be surprised what their children are being fed. "A desolate feeling in many of the novels prevails. In virtually all of the ['problem novel'] books I've read, the character's mother is dead, missing, or nonfunctional."

While the narrator of these depressing, humorless, traumatizing tales is frequently a child, Feinberg notes that the voice is not an authentic child's voice. There is none of the "magic" and imagination that flavors a child's experience. Instead, the books simply focus on grim facts and reality in a way that is utterly unlike the way real children deal with life (except perhaps in cases of extreme pathology). "The child protagonist, while presented with the darkest and most upsetting situations imaginable, is denied what in real childhood would exist in abundance; recourse to fantasy.... Children also do not play in problem novels. Or if they do, the play sequences are never woven seamlessly into life, the way, for example, Huck in Huckleberry Finn describes his playing life.... But while the children in problem novels don't have rich imaginations, they are given mood states: They are depressed, nervous, worried. And often they feel very guilty. One child I know remarked, 'In those books the kids always hate themselves.'"

Too many of the books I've seen my kids reading for homework in recent years (especially at the high school level) do not fit in the "best books" category, and many appear aimed at causing despair, criticizing Christianity and Western society, stirring distrust for family, promoting Marxism, or pursuing other questionable agendas, such as fomenting negative attitudes about the Revolutionary War and founding of the Republic. Some school districts and teachers seem unable to recognize their bias and see the agenda they are pushing as simply advancing truth - who could be against that? But as parents, we should do our best to make sure that we and our children seek wisdom from the best books, and learn to distinguish the best books from gutter trash.

On a very positive note, I've been delighted with the selection of books that some of my kids have encountered at Appleton's Classical School - a K-8 charter public school that employs the incredible Core Knowledge curriculum. Great classics have been a major part of their fare. While such novels do contain some troubling scenes (something found in many of the best books, including the Book of Mormon and the Bible), they create inspiring vistas with their art and often do much to make a person wiser and better prepared for the future - something the popular "problem novels" of today may fail to do.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Joshua 9: A Great Reminder on the Limitations of, and the Need to Seek Counsel

In family scripture study tonight, we read Joshua 9, the chapter in which some of the local Gibeonites pretend to from a distant country and trick Joshua into making a deal with them. Joshua did not see past their deception and failed to recognize them as one of the local tribes they were supposed to drive out. Joshua 9:14 explains that the deception worked because "asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord."

Not only does this show that real prophets can make human mistakes and must seek to gain revealed guidance - it doesn't just flow automatically. This story should also remind each of us in our lives and ministries that we need to continually seek counsel from the Lord, and that we can be deceived when we rely only on our own judgment.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

"Mommy, I Think It Would Be Fun to Kill People":
Do Video Games Affect Us?

A faithful LDS mother told me recently about an experience with her seven-year-old son. They were out shopping when the young boy looked up and said, "Mommy, when I grow up I think it would be fun to be a soldier and go around killing people." This came after he had what she felt was only "mild" exposure to some typical video games. Is it possible that what we spend hours watching, doing, and rehearsing might somehow affect our attitudes? Is it possible that video images might even have some affect on our behavior? Since we all know the answer is "no," would somebody please tell the sponsors of the Superbowl that the millions they are going to spend in a couple weeks to expose us to a few seconds of their imagery are a complete waste of money? Come on, I'm no more likely to go out and hurt somebody after six hours of Mortal Combat or Halo than I am to go out and buy a BMW Z4 after being exposed to their slick ads. I can't be manipulated like that, and I'll fight to prove it. (But when I grow up, I do think it would be fun to have a Z4 and drive around town shooting at visiting people and showing off my cool wheels. I don't know why - it's just a notion that popped into my head one day.) For those few people who are concerned about video games, one useful resource is the MediaWise Video Game Report Card. In addition to providing a report card on video games, this resource offers a few general warnings that I'd like you to know about:
Why Do They Act That Way?
Advances in brain science show that children's experiences during their brain's growth spurts have a greater impact on their brain's wiring than at any other time of their lives. The groundbreaking discoveries about the teenage brain reveal that the growth spurts continue throughout adolescence, making teens more impressionable than we thought. Teenagers are wiring the circuits for self control, responsibility and relationships they will carry with them into adulthood. The latest brain research shows that violent games activate the anger center of the teenage brain while dampening the brain's "conscience." It's not that every teen who plays an ultra violent game is going to go out and pick up an Uzi. The real impact is more subtle. The worst effect of M-rated games is the culture of disrespect they create. Whoever tells the stories defines the culture. What do we think the effect is when our kids' storytellers are violence simulators that glorify gang culture, celebrate brutality, lionize crudeness, and trivialize violence toward women. The U.S. Army now uses video games as recruiting tools because the games capture the interest of teens, shape their attitudes and influence their behavior. Evidence grows that games teach skills and affect behavior. The important thing to remember, therefore, is that video and computer games are powerful-for good and for bad.

Video Game Violence and Youth

For the past eight years, we have consistently expressed concern about a subset of ultra-violent games that are very popular with preteen and teenage boys. 87% of boys play M-rated games and 78% list an M-rated game among their favorites. Parents report they are now being barraged with requests from their kids for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. We know there will be more "killographic" and sexually explicit games each year. Therefore our focus has always been on restricting youth access to these games. That is why we have called for more accurate ratings, more responsible marketing and advertising, greater accountability at the retail level, and greater education for parents about the games and their impact on youth.

Video Games, the Obesity Epidemic, and Babies

Content aside, the amount of time kids spend playing games, even the good ones, is contributing to the obesity epidemic among American youth. For too many kids, the only parts of their body they are exercising are their thumbs. We are particularly concerned, therefore, about the launch of games this year aimed at children as young as two. We know that the industry wants to expand its customer base and that it is in their economic interest to hook babies on games. This trend, however, raises serious implications for our children's health.

What would your kids be like if the time they spent learning the ways of electronic violence were spent reading, serving others, learning a foreign language, exercising, or working on some other worthwhile goal? (A question I ask myself when I think about the time it takes to answer e-mail, update Web pages, and write an occasional blog entry.)

For more family-friendly and Latter-day Saint-friendly games, consider the great selection of games at Deseret Book.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

"Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult?"

Thanks to Michael Nathan Shumate of Tachyon City for his post on cults and also for pointing me to Orson Scott Card's article at Beliefnet, "Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult?" I like Orson't reasoning and wit - especially his final observation that the fear-tactics used by our critics in calling us a cult actually displays some of the very characteristics that they say typify cults (e.g., "don't think for yourselves - let us scare you into behaving the way we tell you to").

My related LDSFAQ resource is "Do Latter-day Saints Belong to a Cult? Issues of the Trinity, the Bible, Jesus Christ, God, and Modern Christianity."

Fasting for the Tsunami Victims

In response to a First Presidency request, our ward is joining many LDS congregations in fasting for the welfare of the tsunami victims and in encouraging extra fast offering donations to provide help for the many people afflicted by the disaster. The scope of the disaster is beyond imagination in some areas.

The tsunami affected a few people in my circle of LDS people here in the Midwest. The brother of one of our members was on Phuket Island, Thailand (they live in Singapore) with his family, relaxing on the beach, when the tsunami struck. All the people were amazed to first see the ocean retreat - so much that it was about ten times as much as what occurs from daily tides. Hundreds of curious people walked out onto the beach, observing marine life that had been left stranded by the receding waters. People grabbed buckets and went out to pick up fish that had been left behind. (Tip: if you ever see the ocean suddenly recede, RUN for high ground!) No one seemed worried by the strange drop in the water level, including several people on jet skis. Then the brother looked up and saw a wave of water in the distance. He grabbed his kids and ran, and got his wife out of the beachfront hotel nearby, and they all ran for high ground, yelling to other people to do the same. I'm sure many of those who had been at the beach with them are now dead. He and his family ended up on the rough of a building, safe.

After the wave swept over everything and the waters began to flow back toward the sea, he decided to risk a trip back to the hotel to retrieve a bag that had all their passports and other needed items. Wading through high flowing water was very dangerous - broken glass, nails, and other hazards were everywhere, and he would need stitches later, but he got the critical items and made it back to the roof of the building. An old man was up there with his family, holding their baby. Suddenly the roof gave way and the old man and the baby fell through. The man was only lightly injured, and the baby was fine. Then another child fell through the roof. But they were all basically safe.

They did need to go to the hospital to treat some of their injuries, and there they felt guilty receiving care because they could see numerous people who were terribly injured or dead, including rooms filled with blood and bodies. They called a friend in Singapore using their cell phone and were able to arrange for flights to get home. Very lucky!

We are grateful for his survival, but they were among the luckiest. So many people were killed, so many more were left homeless or impoverished. How great the need for the people of the world to reach out and help these victims. And I think the best way is through trusted, proven charities - like the LDS fast offering or humanitarian aid programs - that will get help directly to those who need it.

I am less optimistic about foreign aid programs, like the $350 million that President Bush has pledged. I'm sure it will do much good, but many times our Federal aid monies - taken from citizens by force rather than giving as an expression of charity - end up in the hands of foreign governments and corrupt officials rather than helping those the money was intended for. Sort of like the Iraqi oil-for-food program or the $20 billion dollar bailout of Mexico: little of that money went to Mexico, and essentially nothing went to help the average Mexican citizen, but a lot went to bankers on Wall Street. (I apologize for being cynical: feel free to max some extra tax donations, if you're comfortable with that.) I think that LDS humanitarian aid and many other private organizations can be trusted to actually help people who need it. Give generously!

Powerful Lessons About Deity and Revelation: The Christmas Story in Luke 2

When my family reviewed the Christmas story in Luke 2 during recent scripture study, I was impressed with a number of teachings there that might be helpful to LDS people trying to help others understand the Gospel, or in responding to some common questions or objections about LDS views. For example, the issue of revelation from God to man is prominent, with revelatory tools including angels and other means. I found the story of Simeon especially intriguing (verses 25-35). While some non-LDS ministers have challenged the Book of Mormon's teachings on the Holy Ghost, insisting instead that the Holy Ghost was not active ever until after the day of Pentecost, the story of Simeon strongly supports the LDS view. We read that the Holy Ghost has been upon Simeon, and that he had received revelation through the Holy Ghost about the coming of the Savior (vs. 25-26). Further, he was guided by the Spirit to go to the Temple, where he saw the young Jesus. It's a basic example of a person receiving guidance from the Spirit (and being led to the Temple, and to Christ - a divine pairing even today in the Restored Church).