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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"The Experiment" - Helping Disruptive Students Become Successful

""The Experiment" by Karen Case Ho-Ching (June 2006 Ensign) describes an experience she had as an elementary school teacher dealing with a disruptive child. Her approach defied current wisdom about special education children. The wonderful results may have been a complete fluke, a rare miracle, but the principle of helping others show love and kindness even to the most annoying among us is inspired and can lead to dramatic changes in all who try this. I've seen evidence that cruelty and exclusion by peers can turn bright kids away from academic success. And in the Church, it can turn people away from the Gospel, wiping out many spiritual IQ points as well.

I urge you to read "The Experiment."

New MMM Book On Its Way: Local Church Leaders Take the Blame

"New Mountain Meadows Book Places Blame on Local Leaders" is the story in the Desert News on the new Oxford University Press book by LDS Church historians Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard. Some important issues from the aftermath of the Massacre will be addressed in a second book. This one focused on the tragedy itself and the role that various people played. Isaac C. Haight plays an especially critical role in the final analysis, ultimately taking the blame for ordering the crime. He was a Stake President (something the Deseret News story did not mention). The historical records do not indicate that Brigham Young was responsible, contrary to hostile claims. See, for example, the evidence discussed in Robert Crockett's review of Will Bagley's book that seeks to blame Brigham Young. Also see the FAIRWiki article on the Massacre (see especially the long quote from John Widtsoe).

I'm not sure I look forward to anything else on this topic, but I'm glad that Oxford is printing this book and hope that it will enhance understanding, for those who actually want to understand. From what I know of the authors, I expect a fair, thorough, and scholarly work, though those who want to revile Brigham will simply dismiss it since the authors are LDS.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Salt Lake City Travel Tip: Use the International Terminal to Get through Airport Security Quickly

Just a quick tip for those of you who travel to or from Salt Lake City. When checking in at the Salt Lake International Airport, the security line at the main terminal for domestic flights often gets backed up, with waits well over 30 minutes. But you can skip that long line and go outside to get to the International Terminal just a few yards away, where the security line is often very short. Once past security, it's only a few yards back to the domestic terminals.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Love the Revised Initiatory System in the Temple

The updated initiatory ordinances (related to the Biblical "washings and anointings") in the Temple are old news, but it wasn't until last week that I got to participate in those ordinances since the change. Very nice! Much better, not just for newcomers to the Temple, but for oldtimers as well. The core concepts remain unchanged, but the updated details of administering the ordinance are much better suited for our era and will make the overall Temple experience even better.

While critics guffaw at any change we make ("The Changing World of Mormonism" is one series I've heard on the radio), they often fail to recognize how dramatically their religion and texts have changed over the centuries. Given their rejection of continuing revelation since the last page of the New Testament was written, changes in doctrine and ordinances raise many questions. But I respect the flexibility that is possible within the Church, based on an understanding of what is policy or practice versus doctrine and core covenants, and based on the concept of continuing revelation and inspired, authorized leaders.

Inspired adjustments made by properly authorized leaders is something we need not fear, especially changes in policy and practice. The real problem is when there has been loss of truth and loss of covenants from unauthorized changes, such as the changes that resulted in the lost understanding of the nature of God and Christ, or the introduction of infant baptism, and the many other examples of loss and improper change that have occurred over the centuries.

Yes, there are plenty of arguments to make against the LDS version of the Temple. Is it needed? Why do we do this or that? How do you separate ancient elements from modern influences? Can we really trace allegedly ancient aspects to ancient times? Did early Christians really have the same ordinances?

I won't go into those issues here. For me, as one who has experienced the Temple and has dabbled in some aspects of the ancient world, I'm impressed with what we have and can respect it as an inspired institution with ancient roots and divine covenants to bring us more fully to Christ and to help complete the work of His Church on the earth. Indeed, I can rejoice at what a jewel the Temple is, the House of the Lord, a prophesied institution that would play a role in the gathering of Israel in the last days. It is the powerhouse of the Restored Church, as High Nibley put it. And it just got a little better with an inspired tweak in the format of its initial ordinances.

(I don't want comments that get into details of the Temple here, and do not consider this to be the place for the usual assaults on this institution. For this post, keep comments short and respectful, please.)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ken Jennings on Anti-LDS Bigotry

A hat tip to Ian Cook for drawing my attention to Ken Jenning's post on anti-LDS bigotry. Excellent points, Ken. And I'm pleased to learn that Ken has a blog. Cool!

German Liberty also at Risk?

The gradual or even sudden erosion of hard-won freedoms in a once-free nation is a threat that must be guarded against with diligence in every free nation. While I recently expressed concerns about the potential emergence of dictatorial power in the United States, other once-free nations are equally at risk. For example, Germany has picked up some troubling trends in the US and added their own twist. Using anti-terrorism laws, Germany's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has called for "preventive detention" of people he thinks might commit a crime. See, for example, the story in the International Herald Tribune. On top of that, German police have again implemented a tactic from the East German secret police, the Stasi, who collected scent samples from potential criminals to track them down with dogs later should they be suspected of a future crime. It's now happening again in Germany.

Teeka Tiwari discusses this in "Germany goes Chavez on Itself." While he speaks from the perspective of a businessman worried about economic implications, the excerpt below should be sufficient to concern those who care about broader issues such as the liberty of nations and the freedom of our brothers and sisters in Europe and elsewhere. As the West is increasingly marching in unison in terms of political architecture and seeking to become homogenized in laws and practices ("national sovereignty" being a term approaching profanity), we might see the freedom-eroding trends in the US and Germany to extend to other lands as well. Should we be concerned? Naah - we've got American Idol!
On June 8th of this year, the town of Hiligendamm, Germany will host the G8 summit. This is where the world's leaders come together to share a few drinks, swap a few stories, discuss world trade etc. Needless to say, not everybody is happy with our global leaders, and previous G8 meetings have been met with massive protests, oftentimes marred by violence.

German response to this potential threat is to embrace an old, cold war tactic of taking scent samples from people who they think will be trouble makers so they can track them later with dogs. This exact tactic was used by the East German secret police, the Stasi (think KGB). The Stasi was a collection of thugs and sadists that flourished under the freedom crushing rule that was East Germany.

What is even more terrifying is the decision by Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, to incarcerate people the government THINKS MAY pose a POTENTIAL threat.

These are people, guilty of no crime, who are being imprisoned under a term called "Preventative Detention."

OK, think about this: A guy from the government knocks on your door and says, "Mr. Smith, we think you are going to commit a crime, so we are putting you in prison before you commit it!"

This is the lunacy currently gripping Europe's most important economy.

These de facto Minority Reportesque pre-crime detentions of so-called potential trouble makers sets a precedent that is truly troubling.

How do you think massive human rights abuses are perpetrated?

All at once in a big bang?

No, my friends, the erosion of personal freedoms occurs slowly. First, among the fringe elements where it won't be noticed or cared about. Then the precedent set by those actions becomes the springboard for a MUCH BROADER APPLICATION of those powers.

Totalitarian policies foster social unrest, and social unrest is rarely good for business. As a society loses faith in its future, so does it begin to lose faith in all but the here and now; money gets hoarded, purchases get postponed. In short, business suffers.

Western countries cannot allow the threat of harm to turn us into what Petra Pau (German opposing government law maker) calls "preventative security states." Such a transformation among Western countries would have a most deleterious effect on all businesses save those dedicated to military/security applications.
OK, that part about totalitarian governments "rarely being good for business" makes me laugh. Hundreds of millions of bodies slaughtered by totalitarian powers is more like what we should be concerned about. But yes, establishment of a dictatorship in the US or Germany will probably also have an impact on your retirement account. Unless you are invested in the Vanguard Dictatorial Fund, perhaps.

I'm not saying we're about to see tanks rolling through our neighborhoods. This is a wonderful and largely free country. But there is a price to be paid for liberty: vigilance, self-sacrifice, active participation in the process. And liberty DOES NOT come by sitting back and trusting leaders because we think they are in the right political party or because they have a Christian upbringing. The Founding Fathers were truly paranoid: they crafted a government with layer upon layer of inefficiency to stop any one man or group from having too much power, for they knew that power will attract some of the most dangerous people, and that few men can truly be trusted.

Now I know some of you will think I've become a delusional conspiracy theorist who lacks the basic faith needed to just relax and trust elected political leaders, whether here or in Germany. After all, there's no way an advanced civilized nation with an educated Christian populace like the US or Germany could ever fall into tyranny, right? I mean, it's not like that's ever happened before, right? Could it really happen? Heil no! Preventive detentions, preventive military strikes, spying on citizens, and unilateral directives for putting all power into the hands of one man or group in the event of any kind of serious emergency ("regardless of location") is all just the normal stuff that good government is made of, and certainly for our own good, right?

Right? Yeah, I'm beginning to feel better already. Maybe a few more American Idol reruns will help.

{Long pause. Deep silence. The sound of ice cracking. A mosquito buzzes, followed by a soft sizzling pop from a bug zapper.}

Wait, the fear is back.

Did you notice the mention of Minority Report above? Preventive strikes against nations or criminals will be tolerated by most Americans because they will seem to "work" and because the strikes are done against just a few people and nations that we don't like. Nasty, smelly, heavily-tattooed hippies in the street protesting against beautiful people in suits. Haul them away before they stir up trouble - it makes a lot of sense. And people with past criminal records who could be potential terrorists - sure, lock them up without due process, hold them for years without filing charges since they seem like "enemy combatants." Who could object? As long as we are wisely curtailing a few "rights" of suspect minorities for the good of the country, we should be fine - except, hello Utah, hello Zion, we Mormons are one of those suspect minorities in the eyes of many people. In fact, almost anybody could become part of a suspect minority depending on what they say, do, or believe.

I guess that's the price we need to pay for security. I'm sure we'll get used to it. Now get back to work and quit worrying.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dictatorship: It's for Your Own Good (The New Presidential Directive Flushing the Constitution)

This is not about politics. This is about the utter trashing of the US Constitution and a dangerous new development that gravely threatens the liberty of the United States. I care nothing for any of the political parties vying for power, but do care about our fundamental liberty, which is essential for our religion to flourish or survive. And that liberty is facing a critical new assault in the form of a May 9 National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive that essentially bypasses the entire US Constitution, allowing sole power to be placed in the hands of the Executive Branch if there should happen to be some big emergency. And who decides when it's an emergency and how long it lasts? Guess for yourself.

Did you hear that great flushing sound echoing across this nation? It was the sound of the US Constitution going down the toilet. Maybe that's putting it too dramatically. You probably didn't notice, you probably won't hear any debate about it from Presidential candidates from either of the two major parties, you probably won't lose any sleep over this silent development, but we are one emergency away from dictatorship, in my opinion. The thread that holds the US Constitution in place is frayed and about to break.

A small handful of sources have picked up on this story. The conservative World Net Daily has an article: "Bush grants presidency extraordinary powers: Directive for emergencies apparently gives authority without congressional oversight." (Also see a related column by Jerome Corsi.) A search of news on Google using the terms National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive May 9 returns only a few hits, and it appears that only 3 minor US news sources mention the directive. But the directive is there, at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/05/20070509-12.html.

According to the May 9 Presidential Directive, dictatorship, or rather, a nation under the sole power of the Executive branch of government, can be implemented if there is a "Catastrophic Emergency." What's that? It is explicitly defined as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions." So, could we face an emergency in the form of "disruption" of the economy - perhaps a speech by Al Greenspan? Or could it be an environmental disaster, or even a government building burning to the ground (an emergency that helped justify dictatorship in Germany several decades ago)?

There is lip service to the continued existence of other branches of government. But direction will come from the top:
This directive establishes a comprehensive national policy on the continuity of Federal Government structures and operations and a single National Continuity Coordinator responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of Federal continuity policies. This policy establishes "National Essential Functions," prescribes continuity requirements for all executive departments and agencies, and provides guidance for State, local, territorial, and tribal governments, and private sector organizations in order to ensure a comprehensive and integrated national continuity program. . . .
Dictatorship is often justified by its architects as being "necessary for the good of the people." And if a once-free people will buy that, then they will quickly sell their freedom and almost else they once had. Today, in May of 2007, the American people are being asked (without any discussion) to sit back and trust their President, and all future Presidents, with power to bypass the Constitution and assume sole power if they feel it's justified by some kind of "emergency." Perhaps President Bush is our modern Captain Moroni who may need to impose martial law to put down the King Men and execute those who won't be loyal (watch your head, Michael Moore). But Captain Moroni is about to leave office (unless there's another Presidential Directive I missed), so are you prepared to trust Captain Hillary with the same power?? Many of my friends have a lot of confidence in President Bush and think he's a sincere man trying to do good. But even if that's correct, this directive doesn't expire in 2008. There's no hint that it ever expires. Can we trust all future Presidencies as well with the opportunity to seize unlimited power?

If you think I'm crazy, then just ignore my plea here and comfort yourself with these words: "Absolute power doesn't corrupt. It doesn't tempt. It doesn't hurt a thing." Put it into rap form and chant it over and over - while you're still free to chant.

Joseph Smith once prophesied that the US Constitution would hang by a thread. I say this to remind you that when there is grave peril to the Constitution, as he hinted, there will be a duty for us to rise up in its defense. We need to do more than just sit on our thrones while our freedoms are at stake.

One doesn't need to be into conspiracy theories to worry about this. It's a public document that you can read for yourself. There is a plan, a directive already signed and put into effect that, if not opposed now, could easily be used at some point in the future to transform a single branch of government into the sole ruling branch. Isn't that radically contrary to anything in the Constitution? Shouldn't we be concerned, even if we are confident that our leaders are trustworthy and honorable saints with no ambition for power?

I called the offices of my Senators today and asked them to oppose this directive. I hope you'll also speak up on this issue. I know there are some big advantages to dictatorship, so maybe this request isn't right for all of you. But if you agree, speak out and ask your elected officials in Congress to do their duty to preserve the checks and balances of the Constitution. There is no need for sole power in the hands of one mortal man, no matter how serious a disaster we face.

Noteworthy LDS Blog: Mormon Momma

I just spent some time over at Mormon Momma. Excellent blog! Will add it to my blogroll. It was cited in a recent comment about Al Sharpton's weak apology and Sean Hannity's kind comments on Mormons. I found many other thoughtful posts, including one that I think many single people would do well to read: "I'm Dating a Porn Addict." Excellent analysis, great comments. Sobering issues.

Thanks, Mormon Momma!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Al Sharpton's Visit to Salt Lake

Al Sharpton got some heated criticism from pro-Republican voices a couple weeks ago when he made an off-handed remark about Mitt Romney's faith: "As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways," he said on the air, "so don't worry about that; that's a temporary situation." It was one of the mildest examples of religious prejudice I've seen, so mild I would have hardly noticed it on my own, though it was disappointing. As much as I disagree with his politics, I'm pleased with him for seeking to patch that mistake in his recent visit to Salt Lake City. As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, he has apologized for his comments and has expressed good will toward the Latter-day Saints, who he recognizes as Christians. I think that's a very positive step. Nice to see some good news occasionally.

While I've become a bit weary of some of the anti-Mormon prejudice that has erupted in light of the Mitt Romney campaign, I think most of it pales in comparison to "spitting on the grave" phenomenon we've seen by the political and moral enemies of Rev. Jerry Falwell. As a Protestant minister, Rev. Falwell certainly had his disagreements with Latter-day Saints and perhaps had his share of human frailties, and its understandable that people on different political and cultural wavelengths would disagree - but the vile mocking of his life before he's even been buried and the cruel rejoicing in his death by some of the far-left crowd has revealed some truly ugly anti-Christian prejudice, driven by an almost insane rage. Can you imagine what would happen if right-wing groups viciously gloated in the passing of, say, a left-leaning Hollywood celebrity or politician? The country would be outraged and the errant voices would immediately recognize that such vile behavior is not acceptable in this country. But bigotry seems increasingly acceptable when it is directed to conservative Christians (including Mormons). May it end.

Lessons from My Son: Sometimes Being Nice Isn't So Bad

Warning: This post may contain more antics of proud LDS parents.

I've learned many things this year watching the growth of my third son, Benjamin, a senior in high school on his way to BYU this fall. He's had an amazing year with successes in academic competitions, music, and tennis, in addition to early morning seminary and being active in Church activities and service. What has given me food for thought is how he has managed to succeed in some things with the Lord's help in spite of limited time that he has freely sacrificed to do his duty and help others. Sacrifice doesn't always lead to loss -- sometimes there are blessings that clearly compensate for what has been given up. An example of this has been the honor he received recently as a soloist in the Appleton area Annual Commencement Concert, where soloists perform with the orchestras of the three high schools in the Appleton school district.

Several months ago when he auditioned for a highly sought-after slot in the concert, we were worried. The piano concerto piece he would play, Schumann's piano concerto in A minor (first movement), was demanding and had to played from memory (10 minutes long). With all the demands on his time from so many school and musical activities, plus seminary and Church, he hadn't had all the time he had wanted to prepare. In fact, during the previous week when his practicing should have been most intense, the demands of AP classes and a variety of commitments were especially heavy. But he kept his commitments, including a service project at an elementary school. A day or two before the audition, a fellow student learned that her accompanist for her vocal audition for the concert was no longer available, and asked Ben if he could fill in to help her. Being the kind person he is, he didn't hesitate in offering to help. But this offer would mean that some of the last few hours he had to prepare would go to helping out "the competition." There were still some rough spots, but we just hoped and prayed that he would do his best. My wife came back from the audition almost in tears: his performance had been the best he had ever done on that piece. She was simply amazed, and we were truly grateful. A few days later we learned that he had been selected as a soloist.

As we approached the big concert on May 20, a similar story unfolded. There were so many demands on his time - tennis competitions, many AP tests, huge projects, service, Church, friends needing help, etc. Saturday, May 19, was to be a day where he could really focus on preparing. My wife and I were in Chicago for most of the day for our Stake Temple Day (plus some photos at the Chicago Botanic Gardens), expecting that his day would have been focused on preparing, but when we called at 8 PM on our way home, we were worried to learn that he hadn't had any time to practice yet. He had participated in tennis with a group of friends in the morning, had carried out chores like mowing the lawn, had practiced several cello pieces with a friend for a very kind musical service project they were doing in two days for senior citizens, and then had been asked to do some service for some good friends in our ward to help with their move. He had done a lot of good, but hadn't been able to practice. We were again quite worried, and I regretted the lawn mowing chore we had given him and wished I had thought more about shielding his time.

I know how some critics on this blog will respond, so let me save you some trouble. With all the gruesome problems in the world, I should have been praying and working for world peace, an end to poverty, and the healing of polar ice caps. But at the moment, in a few seconds of quiet prayer, I was focused on the challenge that my son would face the next night and my desire for him to avoid disaster and to feel like he did well. He had the piece down well, but so much could go wrong in the pressure of the actual performance and the difficult opening was beginning to get a bit rough at times. Insanely narrow in my focus, I prayed for his well-being and for the avoidance of disaster, noting how heavy the demands had been on him and how much he had sacrificed to help others and do his duty over and over in the previous weeks. I may have put in a plug for world peace and the ice caps, but that part is cloudy now. I know it is terribly offensive to some of you to think that God - or anybody, for that matter - would care about a tiny little moment in any one individual's life when our list of Great Big Demands remains unfulfilled, but it is often in the tiny details of individual lives turning to God where we can seek and find traces of His occasional gentle influence, rather than in the massive statistics of life and death in this crazy mortal realm. If it helps, I have my own list of Great Big Demands, nearly all of which seem to be ignored (though the half-degree of global warming is a step in the right direction for us Wisconsites).

When we got home and heard him practicing, our fears began to fade. He was bringing things together pretty well after all. And the next night, at the critical moment, the last of nine soloists, he strode onto the stage with confidence and performed the best we had ever heard him play. The orchestra did remarkably well also - the piece is very challenging for them as well. It went beyond my hopes, and the crowd seemed to love it, giving him a standing ovation (they stayed on their feet as all the soloists were brought back for a bow - they were all magnificent, I thought, and all deserved it - being at the end of the program probably helped). And through all the praise that followed from many people afterwards, including a big crowd of sweet girls, he stayed his own good-natured and humble self, as far as we can tell.

When we discussed the event with him later that night, it seemed to all of us that the Lord had blessed him to do his best, helping him to serve as a good example. He had been quoted in the newspaper (part of being recognized as one of the "Academic All Stars" in the area) as saying that a key reason for choosing Brigham Young University was its wholesome Mormon environment, and is widely known to be LDS. And perhaps with all the negative flack about Mormons that some people are facing, it will help to see that a nice young man with some great things going for him is LDS and not ashamed of it. And perhaps it will help me and others to appreciate that the sacrifices we make in serving and doing our duty won't always be real sacrifices, and that sometimes the Lord will help us compensate and do better than we could have on our own. Or perhaps the real lesson is that we should get out there an patch up the polar ice caps. It's your call.

Goodness, I have become one of those bragging parents. I've tried to keep it down but it is quite difficult. Each of my four sons gives me similar reasons to want to brag and tell you how cool they are. The interesting thing is that I can clearly see that the things they do and the skills they develop are theirs, not mine, and I can sit back more as an observer now and sometimes just watch with wonder. There are sorrows at times, but the joys make up for all that. My wife and I feel so blessed to have had the privilege of raising and getting to know four unique and fascinating young men. How rich our lives have been because of that - far more rewarding than anything involving my work with technology and intellectual property.

I've got a nice VHS tape of Ben's performance, which I may be able to convert to a digital format later. (I've got to buy a digital recorder, I know. Have been too cheap.) For now, all I can offer is a crummy recording from my Olympus digital camera, with a tiny, tinny built-in microphone. After being further compressed for YouTube, it really doesn't do justice to the performance, but here it is.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Every Religion Is Goofy - So Why the Emphasis on Romney's Mormon Faith?

I'm appalled at the thinly veiled religious bigotry that is being stirred up by some people in the media and elsewhere in the name of "covering" the Mitt Romney campaign. It almost seems as if there is a de facto religious test. If you want to be President, not only must we scrutinize and question your religious beliefs, but also the historical roots of your religion and all the apparent dirt we can find associated with it.

If the same standards were applied to other candidates, I think there would be public outrage.

Consider Hillary Clinton. Has there been scrutiny over the threat that her religious beliefs might pose to her abilities to serve as President? Have we heard details about some of the problems in the history of her religion and the quirks of Methodists? Have we been reminded that Methodists believe in some truly bizarre things - like the Old Testament? Has she had to defend the Methodist faith before sniveling atheistic journalists who ridicule her beliefs? No? Well, wouldn't that make for some grand entertainment?

Think what a skilled ax-man with the right anti-Methodist and anti-Christian literature could do with this little story from 1996, "Hillary Clinton Asks Fellow United Methodists to Continue Social Witness for Children":
Acknowledging the profound impact of the United Methodist Church upon her life, Hillary Rodham Clinton called upon the denomination to continue its social witness for the world's children.

The First Lady -- who was introduced by Arkansas Bishop Richard Wilke as a "warm and gracious friend" -- spoke here April 24 to about 3,700 people at the United Methodist General Conference.

Her 30-minute message, interrupted intermittently by applause, was accepted with a standing ovation at the end by fellow United Methodists. She shook hands with some of the conference participants as she left the Colorado Convention Center hall.

"I have to confess to you that I have not been this nervous ... since I read my confirmation essay on 'what Jesus means to me' at my home church," Clinton quipped as she stood before the podium.

During her youth, the First Lady and her family were active members of First United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill. There, she said, she learned from ministers and lay leaders "the connection between my personal faith and the obligations I face as a Christian."

She also paid tribute to the work of Sunday school and vacation Bible school teachers and the lessons offered through such simple songs as "Jesus Loves the Little Children."

A line from that song, "Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight," has stayed with her more "than any earnest lecture on racism," Clinton noted.

The First Lady said she was "equally grateful" that her daughter Chelsea has had the same opportunities for faith and witness. The Clintons currently attend Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C.

All young people need to experience spiritual growth and fellowship. "In today's world, churches are among the few places in society where young people can let down their guard," she noted.

With today's challenges, "we know we need to strengthen the spiritual and moral context of our lives," Clinton said, as well as cultivating "a new sense of caring" about responsibilities to the larger society.
Frightening - absolutely frightening. Here is a woman who, as a Methodist apparently having extreme loyalty to her faith, may very well make major decisions sometimes by turning to God or the Bible instead of "the people" (you know, the people of the New York Times, Hollywood, Haliburton, Ben Bernanke, etc.). Dare we allow such a person in the White House? And why have there been no questions about her underwear? This double standard must end. Equal abuse for all candidates!

And what about her loyalty to her favorite sports team, the Yankees? And the Cubs? And the Red Sox, Braves, and Brewers? Will those religious loyalties impair her judgment? Or has it already happened?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of Fruit Flies and Mormons: Can Science Shed Light on Free Will?

"Defending Free Will: A Fruit Fly Makes Choices" is the headline of the Reuters story about scientists who think they may have seen evidence of free will in fruit flies. This has profound theological implications, of course. If fruit flies have free will, then is it such a stretch to believe that free will may also exist in Mormons? I somehow feel compelled to ask this question.
The researchers placed a single fruit fly in a pure white chamber -- devoid of visual cues. The fly was fixed in place and its attempts to turn were recorded. Researchers repeated their experiment on many flies and analyzed the data using a series of complex mathematical models.

What they found was surprising.

Lacking external input, Brembs said he had expected a pattern of entirely random movement or noise -- akin to static on a radio that is tuned between stations. Instead, the flies showed a pattern of flight that was generated spontaneously by the brain and could not have been random.

"The decision for the fly to turn left or turn right, which it changes all the time, has to come from the design of the brain," Brembs said.

Brembs said the finding reveals a mechanism that could form the biological basis of free will.
My son Benjamin, a high-school senior who just took the AP psychology test (OK, so it's not a Ph.D. in psychology, but it's a start), is not completely convinced. He observes that there are many forms of stimulus besides visual input. Doesn't having some hideous contraption attached to your back that keeps you from going anywhere count as stimulus?

But such hairsplitting misses the point. We are faced with scientific evidence that flies have free will. And if so, perhaps Mormons and even all of humanity does. This doesn't completely "prove" Mormon theology on free agency (the idea that we do have freedom of choice, at least to some degree), but it's worth further exploration. To confirm the extension of this concept to human free will, one more experiment is needed. Let's take some researchers, put them in an all white room, tied tightly to an uncomfortable chair that can record their movements. Now, in the absence of any stimulus, let's see if they still wiggle first to one side, then then to the other, as if their brains were making a choice. If so, we will have demonstrated free will. We need to do this experiment - in fact, I think we are predestined to do it. Any "volunteers"? Come on, you know who you are.

Note, however, that the researchers indicate that the free will behavior is based on programming from the brain, not from an immortal (and possibly resurrectable) soul. Whew! Here's hoping that flies and mosquitoes are for mortality only!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hilarious: Journalist Tries to Link Romney and Mormons to Illegal Drugs from Mexico

"LDS Church -- Mexico Drug Money Connection?" by Susan Mazur is a brilliant example of journalistic creativity. In a piece that begins and ends with references to Mitt Romney (could there be - gasp - political motivations??), Mazur manages to suggest that there are connections between polygamy and marijuana, illegal drugs and LDS tithing, and Church leaders and drug lords. You see, we don't care where that tithing money comes from - and naturally, Mexican drug lords are eager to give away 10% of their loot to the Church. Uh huh. Oh, and could it be that the reason for the increase in missionary work south of the border in recent years has something to do with the rise of the drug trade?
Some hard questions need to be asked about the so-called fastest growing religion in America and its former bishop, Mitt Romney, now running for US President as a follow-up to George W. Bush.
Right, Susan. Questions like, "Can we dare to let Americans vote for a Mormon? A Mormon?? I mean, one of them?" Something tells me that your motivation for this insightful essay was not a concern that Mitt Romney's peers might be bringing some of that old-fashioned polygamist-smuggled marijuana into the States, or lowering the moral standards of American women with the seductive lure of a nineteenth-century LDS alternative lifestyle. Could it be that you aren't really interested in "hard questions" as much as insane hysteria - anything to keep a conservative out of the White House? Or am I hallucinating again, thanks to some polygamy-induced mutations my ancestors picked up five or six generations ago?

Shaking Man

I encountered this sculpture, "Shaking Man" by Terry Allen, 1993, in a San Francisco park last year. I ran across it again tonight and thought I'd ask for your creative thoughts. Can you suggest some ways that this sculpture can be used to illustrate some Gospel principles? The person who gives the answer I like best will win 30 seconds of fame, though not necessarily here. (Click to enlarge slightly.)

May 17: Oops - comments were off. Now they are on.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Often Unseen Fruits of Service

It is rare that we understand the good that comes from service. Several small acts of kindness from others at critical times in my life resulted in changes or decisions that have proven to be crucial. But in spite of some efforts at belated thanks, these friends or good Samaritans probably have no idea how important their kindness was. But sometimes we get an inspiring glimpse of what selfless service can do. Today, for example, I learned about the consequences of a famous act of kindness that came President Spencer Kimball. I had often heard people tell how a story of how he helped an expecting mother at an airport, but the consequences of that little story come as a more recent discovery. This is mentioned in this years' LDS Priesthood Manual, around page 80:
President Spencer W. Kimball urged Latter-day Saints to engage in "simple acts of service" that would bless others’ lives as well as their own.1 He often found opportunities to offer such service himself, as the following account shows:

"A young mother on an overnight flight with a two-year-old daughter was stranded by bad weather in Chicago airport without food or clean clothing for the child and without money. She was . . . pregnant and threatened with miscarriage, so she was under doctor's instructions not to carry the child unless it was essential. Hour after hour she stood in one line after another, trying to get a flight to Michigan. The terminal was noisy, full of tired, frustrated, grumpy passengers, and she heard critical references to her crying child and to her sliding her child along the floor with her foot as the line moved forward. No one offered to help with the soaked, hungry, exhausted child.

"Then, the woman later reported, 'someone came towards us and with a kindly smile said, "Is there something I could do to help you?" With a grateful sigh I accepted his offer. He lifted my sobbing little daughter from the cold floor and lovingly held her to him while he patted her gently on the back. He asked if she could chew a piece of gum. When she was settled down, he carried her with him and said something kindly to the others in the line ahead of me, about how I needed their help. They seemed to agree and then he went up to the ticket counter [at the front of the line] and made arrangements with the clerk for me to be put on a flight leaving shortly. He walked with us to a bench, where we chatted a moment, until he was assured that I would be fine. He went on his way. About a week later I saw a picture of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball and recognized him as the stranger in the airport.' " [Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball Jr., Spencer W. Kimball (1977), 334]

Several years later, President Kimball received a letter that read, in part:

"Dear President Kimball:

"I am a student at Brigham Young University. I have just returned from my mission in Munich, West Germany. I had a lovely mission and learned much. . . .

"I was sitting in priesthood meeting last week, when a story was told of a loving service which you performed some twenty-one years ago in the Chicago airport. The story told of how you met a young pregnant mother with a . . . screaming child, in . . . distress, waiting in a long line for her tickets. She was threatening miscarriage and therefore couldn't lift her child to comfort her. She had experienced four previous miscarriages, which gave added reason for the doctor's orders not to bend or lift.

"You comforted the crying child and explained the dilemma to the other passengers in line. This act of love took the strain and tension off my mother. I was born a few months later in Flint, Michigan.

"I just want to thank you for your love. Thank you for your example!" (In Gordon B. Hinckley, "Do Ye Even So to Them," Ensign, Dec. 1991, 5.)
We may never know whether our attempts at service have a lasting effect or not. Naturally, some efforts will have no lasting impact, but if we seek to follow the Spirit of the Lord in striving to follow Christ, some of our attempts will bring significant fruits that we may one day have the pleasure of understanding more fully. But seen or unseen, let's not hesitate to do more for those in need of a little help. The difference we make could change lives in surprising ways.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Annoying Antics of Proud Parents

LDS parents can be among the most annoying of all parental units, for they are often so quick to brag about their kids. Shameless promotion of offspring shows a far too narrow mindset of these parents, including those who are thrilled over, say, a son and a daughter-in-law who just graduated from Brigham Young University. Look, THOUSANDS of people are graduating from that school every year. Is that a good reason to get all sentimental and proud and boastful? Even if that son and his wife happen to be some of the smartest, nicest, and best-looking people in the country (such as the two pictured below), isn't it best for parents to just keep that to themselves instead of bragging to whole world? Sure makes sense to me.

Oh, did I mention that my son and daughter-in-law just graduated? I can't tell you how proud I am of them - because it would be a tad hypocritical if I did. I'll just let this photo take the place of a thousand or so words on the topic. Congratulations, Stephen and Meliah!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

What Constitutes Mormon Doctrine? New Statement at LDS.org

Some of our critics thrive on the confusion they create about LDS beliefs by finding strange quotes from various old LDS sources, presenting them as if they were official Mormon doctrine, even when they know we don't believe such things. To remind us what constitutes LDS doctrine, LDS.org has a new statement on official doctrine. I think it's helpful and timely. Read the whole thing, but here's a short excerpt:
The doctrinal tenets of any religion are best understood within a broad context . . . and thoughtful analysis is required to understand them. . . .

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four "standard works" of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted. . . .
A hat tip to Mike Parker, who also notes that the statement can be accessed via http://tinyurl.com/2twzvc (redirects to LDS.org/newsroom).

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Scarlet Mormon Butterfly?

Any of you familiar with the Scarlet Mormon Butterfly? I just noticed this on a beautiful photo blog from Marcus Taylor, whom I knew as an outstanding young man way back when I was in the Tucker Ward of Atlanta, Georgia. Anyone know the story?

Kudos, Marcus! Nice photo blog!

Hebrew Written in Egyptian Characters?

Critics have long mocked the Book of Mormon concept of "reformed Egyptian" or any kind of Egyptian writing being used the way the Book of Mormon specifies. The idea of writing Hebrew in Egyptian characters, reformed or not, was just silly to our educated foes. I'll agree it was silly in Joseph Smith's day, but since then many examples of this kind of thing have been found. The most recent example involves the earliest known Semitic writing. A breaking story at Eurakalerts.com is "Earliest Semitic Text Revealed in Egyptian Pyramid Inscription." Scholars were unable to decipher some puzzling Egyptian text in a pyramid inscription until someone suggested they try reading it not as Egyptian but as a Semitic language. Turns out that Egyptian characters were being used to write an archaic form of the languages later known as Phoenician and Hebrew. Doesn't prove anything, but perhaps it's at least good for a laugh of our own. (And please don't make the mistake of thinking that it is somehow "evidence" for Book of Mormon plausibility when we find things like examples of "reformed Egyptian" or ancient writing on gold plates or sacred records buried in stone boxes or other things that were laughable in 1830. Remember, there isn't a shred of "evidence" for the Book of Mormon, so such things must be something else.)

A hat tip to D. Charles Pyle.

May 6 Update: I noticed that a critical source discussing this blog is mocking the idea of "reformed Egyptian" and seems to think that I thought I was "proving" the reality of reformed Egyptian in the Book of Mormon. That is an unjustified interpretation of what I said. Without the gold plates in front of us, there is no question that "proof" of reformed Egyptian on the gold plates is not possible. But I was addressing the issue of whether it is possible or even plausible that some ancient peoples wrote Semitic words in a modified Egyptian script. The recent find I discussed strikes me as an example of an early Semitic language being expressed not in the the native scripts of its speakers, but in a foreign Egyptian script. That's not proof for "reformed Egyptian" on the golden plates, but it does make the idea of Egyptian scripts for Semitic words less laughable than it was in 1830.

But it is a dire mistake to think that I am excited about this recent find as some kind of huge breakthrough for Mormons. It's almost a yawner, a minor contribution at best, because there already are several other well-known discoveries that already make a good cause for the plausibility of Semitic writing in a modified Egyptian script. Since the critics who, predictably, are mocking this concept have not bothered to explore the link that I offered on reformed Egyptian, let me share some related information right here to make it a little harder to overlook.

Here is an excerpt from William Hamblin's article, "Reformed Egyptian," from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (see the original for the cited references):
Does the Book of Mormon's assertion that the Nephites took Egyptian characters and modified them to write Hebrew words make historical and linguistic sense?3 It is a common phenomenon for a basic writing system to undergo significant changes in the course of time, especially when written with new writing materials.4 Turning specifically to Egyptian, there are numerous examples of modified (or reformed) Egyptian characters being used to write non-Egyptian languages, none of which were known in Joseph Smith's day.

Examples of "reformed Egyptian"

Egyptian hieratic and demotic. The Egyptian language was written in three related but distinct scripts. The oldest is hieroglyphic script, dating to around 3000 B.C.; it was essentially a monumental script for stone inscriptions. Hieratic, a second script, is a modified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics used to write formal documents on papyrus with brush and ink, and demotic is a cursive script.5 Thus, both the hieratic and demotic scripts could be considered "reformed" or modified versions of the original hieroglyphic script. These are both examples of writing the Egyptian language in reformed versions of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script; there are also several examples of the use of reformed or modified Egyptian characters to write non-Egyptian languages.

Byblos Syllabic texts.
The earliest known example of mixing a Semitic language with modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters is the Byblos Syllabic inscriptions (eighteenth century B.C.), from the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast.6 This script is described as a "syllabary [that] is clearly inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, and in fact is the most important link known between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet."7 Interestingly enough, most Byblos Syllabic texts were written on copper plates. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to describe the Byblos Syllabic texts as a Semitic language written on metal plates in "reformed Egyptian characters,"8 which is precisely what the Book of Mormon describes.

Cretan hieroglyphics. Early forms of writing in Crete apparently developed from a combination of "Egyptian hieroglyphic, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Phoenician native signs into one single, new pictographic script."9 Note again that there is a mixture of Semitic (Mesopotamian and Phoenician) and Egyptian writing systems, precisely as described in the Book of Mormon.

Meroitic. Meroitic, the script of ancient Nubia (modern Sudan), "was first recorded in writing in the second century B.C. in an 'alphabetic' script consisting of twenty-three symbols, most of which were borrowed or at least derived from Egyptian writing....The script has two forms, hieroglyphic and cursive."10 Meroitic hieroglyphic signs were "borrowed from the Egyptian...[and] the cursive script derived mainly from the Egyptian demotic script."11

Psalm 20 in demotic Egyptian.
Scholars have also recently deciphered an Aramaic version of Psalm 20:2-6 that was written in demotic Egyptian characters.12 This is precisely what the Book of Mormon claims existed: a version of the Hebrew scriptures in the Hebrew language, but written using Egyptian characters.

Proto-Sinaitic and the alphabet. Semitic speakers of early second millennium B.C. Syria and Palestine seem to have adopted reformed or modified versions of both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform into syllabic and alphabetic systems of writing. Ultimately, this reformed Egyptian script became the basis for the Phoenician alphabet, from which nearly all subsequent alphabets derive.13 "The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were written in a Semitic language, and...their letters were the prototypes for the Phoenician alphabet. The letters are alphabetic, acrophonic in origin, and consonantal, and their forms are derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs."14 "Since the Canaanite/Phoenician syllabary formed the basis of the Greek alphabet, and the Greek in turn of the Latin, it means, in the words of Gardiner, that 'the hieroglyphs live on, though in transmuted [or could we not say reformed?] form, within our own alphabet.'"15 In a very real sense, our own Latin alphabet is itself a type of reformed Egyptian, since the ultimate source of our characters is Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Reference 12 cited by Hamblin regarding the writing of part of Psalm 20 in Egyptian sounded interesting, so I paid $8 to download that article: Richard C. Steiner, "The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script: The Liturgy of a New Year's Festival Imported from Bethel to Syene by Exiles from Rash," Journal of the American Oriental Society 111/2 (1991): 362–63. Steiner discusses an Aramaic text in Demotic - literally a reformed version of Egyptian - that apparently reflected traditions brought from Bethel of the tribe of Ephraim to a location in Egypt. The authors were actually focusing on an Egyptian ceremony and Steiner indicates that the passage from Psalm 20 has been paganized. But it does show one path leading to Hebrew written in an Egyptian script. According to Steiner,
The text contains two dialogues dealing with the history of the community. In one of them, a man of the community relates that he was forced to abandon his hometown-a magnificent "city full of ivory houses when its spring dried up (XI/6-1 I). The dialogue is immediately followed by the pagan version of psalm 20 (XI/ 11-19), which has been linked by M. Weinfeld and Z. Zevit to Jeroboam's temple at Bethel. It appears, therefore, that the drought-stricken city described in the dialogue is Bethel [a city in Ephraim]. The text betrays its place of origin both in a plea to "raise up our home, Syene" . . . and in the second historical dialogue (XVI/ 1-6). The latter purports to be a conversation between the (Egyptian or Rashan) king and the young spokesman of a newly arrived troop . . . of Samaritans . . . . The king inquires about the boy's origin, who replies that he is from Judea (rylhwt), his brothers are from Samaria . . ., his sisters are now being brought from Jerusalem. . . . It appears that the Rashans either lived among or were themselves soldiers from Judea and Samaria. Either way, a link with Elephantine seems unavoidable.
It may not be surprising that soldiers or others who had come from Israel would adopt Egyptian language and even elements of Egyptian culture and religion, and would use a popular reformed Egyptian script to repeat a form of Jewish verse. Some of the other references cited by Hamblin may have more interesting material, but in any case, it does weaken the common argument that people from Israel would never have stooped to write their ideas in Egyptian. (Just like we would never stoop to conduct business in reformed Arabic numerals. Oh, did I say I paid $8 for that article? I meant $VIII.)

The Scattering of the Gentiles: The Book of Mormon as a Prophetic Guide

The Book of Mormon prophesies that in the last days, the Gentiles in the New World would become a wicked nation, full of corruption and pride, lifted up above all the nations of the world. And if they reject the restored Gospel that will be in their midst, then the native remnants of the House of Israel, remnants that had once been scattered and abused by the Gentiles, would rise up and tread upon the Gentiles, even trashing some of their cities, prior to the return of the Lord. This all must have seemed crazy in Joseph Smith's day, when America was a fledgling country with an uncertain future, far from being lifted up in pride above the lofty nations of Europe, and not at any obvious risk from being overwhelmed by the native inhabitants of the land. But look at what is brewing in the Americas now, with rabid anti-American dictators in nations like Venezuela, and strong anti-American elements in most of the nations to our south. Meanwhile, we are working hard to make it easy for increasing numbers of people to flood across our borders. Some share our values and wish to become loyal citizens of the United States, or at least welcomed guests sharing in the American dream, but if angry militants or well-armed gangs want to come here, there is little to stop them. It is easy to envision scenarios of future rioting or other actions that could fulfill what has been written in prophecy. I say this not to stir concern about illegal immigration, but to point to an interesting aspect of the Book of Mormon. Its prophecies of the future corruption and global pride of this nation and the "scattering of the Gentiles" by the descendants of those originally on the land have become increasingly plausible with the passage of time. Something to think about.

Here are two relevant passages:

Third Nephi 16:
[7] Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them.

[8] But wo, saith the Father, unto the unbelieving of the Gentiles -- for notwithstanding they have come forth upon the face of this land, and have scattered my people who are of the house of Israel; and my people who are of the house of Israel have been cast out from among them, and have been trodden under feet by them;

[9] And because of the mercies of the Father unto the Gentiles, and also the judgments of the Father upon my people who are of the house of Israel, verily, verily, I say unto you, that after all this, and I have caused my people who are of the house of Israel to be smitten, and to be afflicted, and to be slain, and to be cast out from among them, and to become hated by them, and to become a hiss and a byword among them --

[10] And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.

[11] And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, O house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them.

[12] And I will show unto thee, O house of Israel, that the Gentiles shall not have power over you; but I will remember my covenant unto you, O house of Israel, and ye shall come unto the knowledge of the fulness of my gospel.

[13] But if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me, saith the Father, behold they shall be numbered among my people, O house of Israel.

[14] And I will not suffer my people, who are of the house of Israel, to go through among them, and tread them down, saith the Father.

[15] But if they will not turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, I will suffer them, yea, I will suffer my people, O house of Israel, that they shall go through among them, and shall tread them down, and they shall be as salt that hath lost its savor, which is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of my people, O house of Israel.
And Third Nephi 21:
[11] Therefore it shall come to pass that whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him to bring forth unto the Gentiles, and shall give unto him power that he shall bring them forth unto the Gentiles, (it shall be done even as Moses said) they shall be cut off from among my people who are of the covenant.

[12] And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.

[13] Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off.

[14] Yea, wo be unto the Gentiles except they repent; for it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Father, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots;

[15] And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds;

[16] And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thy land, and thou shalt have no more soothsayers;

[17] Thy graven images I will also cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee, and thou shalt no more worship the works of thy hands;

[18] And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee; so will I destroy thy cities.

[19] And it shall come to pass that all lyings, and deceivings, and envyings, and strifes, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, shall be done away.

[20] For it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that at that day whosoever will not repent and come unto my Beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel;

[21] And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.

[22] But if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance;

[23] And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem.

[24] And then shall they assist my people that they may be gathered in, who are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem.
These are amazing days, days that ancient prophets on this law saw in vision. There is no security in wealth and possessions and pleasure, only in living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The remnants of the House of Israel will play a key role in building the New Jerusalem and preparing for the return of the Savior, but before then, some of them may well prove to be tools of the Lord in bringing vengeance to a wicked and corrupt nation. And it's not hard to see how Book of Mormon prophecy on this matter could be fulfilled. Food for thought. Speaking of which, how's your food storage doing? Got food?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Just to Make Sure We Keep Talking Past Each Other . . .

In a recent post, a seemingly devout atheist made a comment that I'd like to respond to:
My fear, with this documentary, is that more people might think that this is a religion. As an atheist, I'm somewhat disturbed by all religious belief. But mormonism is so silly, it's beyond my own understanding of how the world works.

Let me get this straight...a kid goes into the woods and talks to god and jesus. Then, a few years later, he finds some gold tablets that nobody else saw. Then he put a rock in a hat and dictated a new account of jesus.

Mormonism, for the most part, encourages good morals and teaches good things. Why is it necessary to believe that some kid could look into a stone and write a bible to be good people? Can't we be good without silly stories like this?
For those who share that view, how do you deal with someone who says something similar about your views? For example, someone could say the following about a documentary on modern physics:
My fear, with this documentary, is that more people might think that this is actual science. I'm somewhat disturbed by the cult of physicists. They seem nice and even charming, but what they teach and believe is so silly, it's beyond my own understanding of how the world works. They say that an object can be in many different wave states at once, which mysteriously collapse into one whenever you look at it.

They say that plain old empty space is actually a brew of virtual particles coming in and out of existence with a vast spectrum of activity, and that what we plainly see and feel as solid matter is really (depending on which of the contradictory sects you talk to) a tangle of invisible strings or waves or higher dimensions wrapped up in weird forms with properties that have nothing to do with what we experience. They also talk about whole universes inflating out of nothing, and on and on with such rubbish and nonsense - even crazy stuff like "sterile neutrinos" and "dark energy" and "Higgs bosons" and "magnetic monopoles" (not to mention antiparticles and muons and gluons and whatever-they-want-to-do-ons) - and we're supposed to believe that these invisible things exist because some techno-priest with a Ph.D. sticks his head in a dark chamber and claims to see little flashes of light from some kind of peep device that shows supposed little trails from collisions of invisible particles that reveal to him the laws of the universe???? Hello??

Any idiot can see it's all made up, all fantasy, just a way to get tax money and tenure and power over the "uneducated" common man with all this B.S. They talk about mythical particles and states and dimensions and "theories of everything" that have nothing to do with the basic laws of physics that we experience. It takes more than blind faith to believe it - it takes utter insanity. I think they are all frauds and charlatans. But they are nice and some even know a few good jokes, and they rarely kill their neighbors (excepting those that gave us the atomic bomb), so I can see some good in them and imagine they are trying to do good - but do we really need all those insane beliefs to just be good people?
That's just my little contribution to help polarize, obfuscate, and divide in our mutual efforts to talk past each other.

Tasty Little Details in the Book of Mormon

Ken Kuykendall of MormonCentury.org recently dropped in with some excellent comments on the recent PBS production. I noticed that Ken's high-quality site has an excellent page of possible evidences that may be of interest to LDS folks: "Sheer Dumb Luck?" I'd like to share one of the passages there dealing with Margaret Baker, whom I've discussed before on this blog and on my site. Here's some good food for thought:
… Margaret Barker, a Methodist minister who has written extensively on both the Old and New Testaments[, …] recently presented a paper at the Worlds of Joseph Smith conference, 6 May 2005, held at the Library of Congress. She discussed the image of the tree of life in 1 Nephi:
The tree of life made one happy, according to the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 3:18), but for detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the noncanonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruits like grapes (1 Enoch32:5), and a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruit like white grapes. I do not know of any other source that describes the fruit as white grapes. Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi's vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation that the Virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh (1 Nephi 11:14–23). This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 bce.
"Behind the Mask, Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Illusion," review by Brant Gardner, 2005 FARMS Review (volume 17, issue 2)
Many of the minor details of the Book of Mormon become fascinating tidbits when coupled with knowledge not available to Joseph Smith in 1830. This includes the some of the many Hebraisms of the Book of Mormon, including chiasmus, the evidences pertaining to volcanism, numerous details about names, and a variety of Mesoamerican elements.

What I think the critics mean when they say that "there is not a shred of evidence for the Book of Mormon" is that scholars have not felt compelled to become Mormons en masse because of the overwhelming evidence, including discovery of the original gold plates, that absolutely proves that Jesus Christ was on the continent in a post-resurrected state, and that there was a people called the Nephites living in a city called Zarahemla, with no wiggle room for doubt of any kind. But while there are plenty of unanswered questions, there are shreds all over the place. Why not have a taste?

Wet Flowers

Without the storms of life, much of the beauty of nature would never be revealed. Whether it's the erosion of a valley or the drops of rain left on flowers, there can be new wonders revealed by the storms. Other times they just wreck everything. I guess that's life. May you survive your storms and come out looking better.

(Click to enlarge - I think the drops of water on these flowers are interesting. Obviously, the weather they were exposed to was pretty mild.)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Trauma of Giving Talks: What "The Mormons" Left Out

Any serious effort to truly understand the Mormon experience must include, shortly after a discussion of the Restoration and the Plan of Salvation, the Mormon practice of asking ordinary members of the congregation to give sermons ("talks" in LDS parlance). The experience, or rather, trauma, of giving talks is a key element of Mormonism, especially for the youth. Gratefully, the mysteries of preparing a typical Mormon talk have been revealed over at BCC (By Common Consent). I was glad to see that local Wisconsin Mormons have been giving their talks by the book, according to BCC's useful guidelines.

Why do so many talks begin with a reference to the trauma of giving a talk? Simple - because it's one of the experiences that mortals tend to fear most. Public speaking is one of the keys to success in life, and I think giving people that experience over and over in the Church helps many of our members do much more with their careers or education or general effectiveness in life, so please don't shun this blessing, no matter how much you fear giving a talk.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Part II of "The Mormons" on PBS - A Valiant Effort

I enjoyed Part II of "The Mormons" more than Part I, and felt that PBS made a valiant effort to reflect the diversity of views about the Mormons in modern life. Sure, from my perspective, there was far too much time given to dissidents (though I thought Tal Bachman was quite interesting and in good form). It seemed that over 50% of the time given to speakers was given to critics of the Church. I was also a little frustrated to find far too little on the intellectual and spiritual satisfaction the theology of the Church offers to its members in understanding the purpose of life and our role and destiny. Faithful Mormons can also be intellectuals.

While some members might be disturbed by some of the opinions and the spin given by some, this production was miles away from the "religious pornography" marketed by some of our critics. It struck me as a sincere and honest effort of outsiders to examine the Mormons and show us, warts and all, as we see ourselves and as we are seen by outsiders, including former members (especially former members, I would say). Overall, I applaud PBS for the painstaking work required to make this high-quality production.

How I enjoyed the comments of Betty Stevenson, the African-American convert who said that the missionaries "came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates. And I thought, 'Mmm. I wonder what they on?'" What a wonderful influence the Church has had on her life. She's my kind of saint. I loved her testimony, and her singing, and would love to be in her ward. If you know Betty, tell her thank you from me!

Of course, there were plenty of other moments where I wanted to jump into the TV to offer viewers a clarifying comment, or to rebut what struck me as slur. And I suppose the critics of the Church felt the same way. I think that's a good sign, as one commenter noted in my previous post on Part I.

The spin on the defunct ERA caught me by surprise. Was the Church really afraid that women would start thinking for themselves? Please. It would have been nice to have at least one voice remind viewers that a lot of very liberated and intelligent women view that amendment as a Pandora's box that would devastate the family and harm women in many ways, especially at the hands of our activist judiciary.

Regarding the repeated assertions that there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon, I wish the producers would have allowed a few concise comments from Dan Peterson, John Sorenson, John Tvedtnes or others offering the other view. Yes, there are many potential evidences for Book of Mormon authenticity, and a robust defense is being offered by scholars in the Church.

I appreciated the views of a Jewish man expressing concerns about baptism of the dead. Though I think they are based on a serious misunderstanding, I think it is helpful for us to understand how others may feel about our practice. Just this week I had marvelous conversation with a Jewish man who told me of these same concerns, and it was helpful to hear it live from someone who has confronted the issue, not just as an abstract concern in print.

Kudos also to PBS for the many notable people they rounded up for this program. Harold Bloom, Michael Coe, Tal Bachman, etc. Nice! OK, they left out the vital LDS blogger community, and Donny and Marie, and, most tragically, the epitome of Mormon success: Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame. Maybe they'll fix all that in a future Part III?