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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lehi's Library on the Horse and Mesoamerican Art

Lehi's Library has a noteworthy post showing several examples of Mesoamerican art with humans riding deer, and a quotation dealing with several possibilities related to a favorite Book of Mormon puzzle, the horse. (One theory being that "deer" might be the actual species in question.) There are a range of possibilities regarding what is meant, each with problems, and each with some degree of plausibility. If the Book of Mormon is true (hint: it is), then we will need more data to resolve the various possibilities.

Related page: "Mormon Answers about Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon (LDS FAQ)."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Olive Trees and the Book of Mormon

In Gospel Doctrine today, we dealt with the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon, the magnificent Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5, in which various stages of the Lord's dealing with the House of Israel and others are explained symbolically. Jacob explains that the lengthy passage is taken from a Jewish text by Zenos that was among the sacred writings available on the brass plates that Lehi brought with him from Jerusalem.

Jacob 5 offers a detailed description of practices regarding the cultivation of olive trees. Information about olive trees in the text agrees well with what is known of ancient olive cultivation in ways that seem far beyond what Joseph Smith could have known. While Romans 11:13-26 refers to grafting of olive trees and has some obvious parallels to the Book of Mormon, significant enough that a common ancient source can be considered (naturally, those who don't accept the Book of Mormon can argue plagiarism), Paul's passage offers scant information compared to the extensive and detailed information in Jacob 5. Excellent discussion of the chapter is available from Brant Gardner's Multidimensional Commentary for Jacob 5, which includes an analysis of the links to Romans 11 and reasons why Paul may have been referring to or influenced by another ancient source that might have common roots with the writing of Zenos.

There is so much that can be said about the impressive details of Jacob 5 that an entire book of scholarly analysis has been prepared: The Allegory of the Olive Tree, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1994), 624 pages. A good place to start is Chapter 21, "Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5" by Wilford M. Hess, Daniel J. Fairbanks, John W. Welch, and Jonathan K. Driggs, pp. 484-562, along with other chapters about ancient olive practices and symbolism. The details in Jacob 5 appear to be a masterful and accurate representation of ancient horticultural practices regarding olive trees, including the art of grafting branches from one tree to another, which is still common for those caring for olive trees.

Below is an excerpt from John Gee and Daniel C. Peterson, "Graft and Corruption: On Olives and Olive Culture in the Pre-Modern Mediterranean," in The Allegory of the Olive Tree, pp. 186-247, taken from pages 223-224:
[Jacob 5] purports to be the work of an ancient northern Israelite author, living between 900-700 B.C., about olive growing. [Footnote 275 discusses the details leading to this conclusion.] Almost every detail it supplies about olive culture can be confirmed in four classical authors whose authority on the subject can be traced back to Syro-Palestine. Zenos's parable fits into the pattern of ancient olive cultivation remarkably well. The placing of the villa above the vineyards [Columella, Rei Rusticae I, 5,7] means that, when the master gives instructions to his servants, they have to "go down" into the vineyard (Jacob 5:15, 29, 38). It was also customary for the master of the vineyard to have several servants (cf. Jacob 5:7,10-11,15-16, 20-21, 25-30, 33-35, 38, 41, 48-50, 57, 61-62,70-72,75). [Cato, De Agri Cultura 10; Varro, Rerum Rusticarum I, 18.] When only one servant is mentioned in Zenos's parable, the reference is most likely to the chief steward. Likewise, Zenos's mention of planting (Jacob 5:23-25, 52, 54), pruning (Jacob 5:11, 47, 76; 6:2), grafting (Jacob 5:8,9-10,17-18, 30, 34, 52, 54-57, 60, 63-65, 67-68), digging (Jacob 5:4, 27, 63-64), nourishing (Jacob 5:4,12, 27, 28,58,71; 6:2), and dunging (Jacob 5:47, 64, 76), as well as the fact that dunging occurs less frequently in the parable than the nourishing, all mark it as an authentic ancient work. The unexpected change of wild olive branches to tame ones (Jacob 5:17-18) would have seemed a divine portent to our ancient authorities. [Theophrastus, Historia Plantarum II, 3,1.]

Even more striking, for Joseph Smith to have made up the parable from these classical authors, he would have had to read all four: Theophrastus is the only one to discuss the differences between wild and tame olives, the tendency for wild olives to predominate, and prophetic use of the olive tree as a sign. [Romans 11:16-24 does mention wild and tame and grafting, but nothing about the fruit or the purposes thereof. A casual reading of Paul leaves the impression that it is as easy to be one way as the other.] Varro and Columella are the only ones to acknowledge the Phoenician connections. Cato and Varro are the only ones who discuss the servants' roles. Cato and Columella alone note the placement of the villa above the groves; Varro is the only author to discuss the "main top" in association with the "young and tender branches" (cf. Jacob 5:6). Yet Joseph Smith probably did not have access to these works. And even if he had, he could not read Latin and Greek in 1829. Theophrastus's Historia Plantarum first published in English in 1916, [Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, trans. Arthur Hort (London: Heinemann, 1916)] and no part of his De Causis Plantarum was available in English until 1927 [Robert E. Dengler, ... Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1927]. While English translations of Cato, Varro, and Columella were available to the British in 1803, 1800, and 1745 respectively [Thomas Owen, M. Porcius Cato concerning Agriculture (London: White, 1803), ...], it is hardly likely that they were widely circulated in rural New York and Pennsylvania. Joseph Smith could have known nothing about olives from personal experience, as they do not grow in Vermont and New York. Can it reasonably be supposed that Joseph simply guessed right on so many details? And even if he somehow managed to get the details from classical authors, how did he know to put it into the proper Hebrew narrative form? [The narrative of Zenos follows the Hebrew narrative pattern as laid down by Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).]

Even if Joseph Smith had somehow gathered the details of ancient olive culture from someone who knew it intimately, he would still have had no plot. [Zenos's plot is much more complicated than Paul's, and if Joseph Smith is adding to the plot, it must be explained how he got the extra details ... and made them fit in with ancient olive lore.]
And here is an excerpt from "Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to The Allegory of the Olive Tree" by Wilford M. Hess, Daniel J. Fairbanks, John W. Welch, and Jonathan K. Driggs in The Allegory of the Oliver Tree (pp. 552-554):
Based on the botanical and horticultural information present in the archaeological and historical record, and reflected in Jacob 5, we can conclude that the ancients were superb horticulturists and had a profound understanding of vital biological and plant cultural principles. Most of the botanical and horticultural principles in Jacob 5 are sound and are very important for olive culture.

In addition, the one or two points, according to our interpretation, that represent unusual or anomalous circumstances are necessary enhancements to the message of the allegory.

In this single chapter of the Book of Mormon there are many detailed horticultural practices and procedures that were not likely known by an untrained person, and may not have been fully appreciated by professional botanists or horticulturalists at the time the Book of Mormon was translated.

Even today, outside of olive-growing areas, professional horticulturalists may not fully appreciate some of the unique aspects of olive culture. Given the extensive detail about olive culture present in Jacob 5, we must give Zenos much credit for a high degree of horticultural knowledge, which many take for granted.

Examples of what the ancients and Zenos evidently knew were how to prune, dig about, dung, and nourish; how to graft tame to wild and wild to tame, and how to graft tame back into tame; how to balance tops and roots by pruning, and the reasons for doing this; how to save the roots of trees whose branches had decayed, and how to transplant branches to preserve the desired traits of good plants; how to preserve and store fruit and how to distinguish between good and bad fruit; how well plants grow on good and bad soil; how to care for trees to cause young and tender branches to shoot forth; that they could graft wild to tame to rejuvenate tame; that specific cultivars produced well in certain areas; . . . that they could burn an orchard to reestablish a new one; that plants grown from seeds would not have desirable characteristics; the importance of elimination of old wood and debris by burning, and how to deal with pests and pathogens; how to prevent heavy bearing one year and no bearing the next by proper pruning; the necessity to plant more than one cultivar for pollination; and how to propagate scions with the desirable genetic material.

Interestingly, much of this sophisticated technology was probably lost in the Nephite civilization, for the olive is not mentioned again in the Book of Mormon after Jacob 5, an indication that the lands of the Book of Mormon may not have been suitable for growing olives ... The only regions on the American continents with Mediterranean climates where olive culture is economically feasible are the regions of California, Chile, and Argentina.

Joseph Smith probably knew how to prune, dig about, dung, and nourish local fruit trees; he probably knew a little about grafting, and he may have been familiar with some other horticultural principles, but not likely those peculiarly related to olive culture.
For online verification of olive culture principles from non-LDS resources, consider "The Secrets of Olive Trees" from BienManger.com (also LeGourmetMarket.com), from which the following excerpts are taken. That page verifies several concepts in Jacob 5, such as the ability of olive trees to grow in rich and poor soils, the importance of grafting, the ability to regenerate or rejuvenate a decaying olive tree, and the practice of applying dung:

The olive tree often grows on poor and dry soils, but gives remarkable results on rich soils (California) or by irrigation (Spain and Oranie). . . .

GRAFTING : the propagation of a given variety of table olives is done by grafting, except in special cases (cuttings, stump chips of the same variety).

Depending on what has to be grafted, the following techniques are being used :

For the seedlings and the sprouts coming from stocks of a different variety, you can use cleft grafting or budding.

In the case of older trees, be it the grafting of wild olive trees or of olive groves whose production is to be modified, it is advised to use inarching or bark grafting. . . .

It may be necessary to rejuvenate an olive grove if it has not been maintained for a long period or if it has suffered accidents, thus becoming unable to produce a normal crop.

It is sufficient to cut away all branches, except the largest ones and then graft the remaining stumps. The grove should then bear a unique variety of table olives and be able of bearing fruit in excellent conditions.

A trunk in very bad shape should be cut at the base in order to start with three replacing shoots. . . .

Although manuring largely pays off, olive trees are still too rarely manured. Manure should be organic, on a basis of dung or cattle cake.

When possible, a culture of green fertilizers (vetch, lupin, etc.), mowed at maturity and ploughed in, will complete the dressing of organic matter. . . .
Here is some information from a modern olive-tree cultivator:
Some ancient olive trees in Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives date back 2000 years. When old large limbs are pruned on large aged olive trees, new branches grow and a new olive crop grows. . . .

The leaves of olive trees are gray-green and are replaced at 2-3 year intervals during the spring after new growth appears. Pruning yearly and severely is very important to insure continued production. The trees have the unproductive limbs removed, "so that it will be more fruitful" John 15:2. An olive tree can grow to 50 feet with a limb spread of 30 feet, but most growers will keep the tree pruned to 20 feet to assure maximum production. New sprouts and trees will emerge from the olive tree stump roots, even if the trees are cut down. Some olive trees are believed to be over a thousand years old, and most will live to the ripe old age of 500 years.

Olives generally are beaten off trees with poles, harvested mechanically or by shaking the fruit from the trees onto canvas. Most ripening olives are removed from the trees after the majority of the fruit begins to change in color. It is important to squeeze out the olive oil within a day after harvesting or else fermentation or decline in flavor and quality will occur. The olive oil can be consumed or used in cooking immediately after its collection from the press. Olive oils are unique and distinct, each brand of olive oil having its own character, as determined by many factors, like those unique flavor differences found in fine wines. Prepared commercial olive oils can vary greatly in aroma, fruit flavor; whether the taste is, flowery, nutty, delicate, or mild, and the coloring of olive oil is quite variable. . . .

Olive trees can survive droughts and strong winds, and they grow well on well drained soils up to a pH of 8.5 and the trees can tolerate salt water conditions. In Europe, olive trees are normally fertilized every other year with an organic fertilizer. Alternate bearing can be avoided by heavy pruning and generally the trees respond to this very quickly and favorably.

Olive trees should be purchased that have been vegetatively propagated or grafted, because the seed grown trees will revert to a wild type that yields small olives with an insipid taste. Olive trees are more resistant to diseases and insects than any other fruit tree and, therefore, are sprayed less than any other crop.
Other olive-related resources are provided by the University of Georgia (note the discussion of soils, indicating that olive trees can grow on soil too poor for ordinary cultivation, consistent with Jacob 5) and the California Rare Fruit Growers.

The Book of Mormon does not say that the Nephites raised olives, however. For more information on the issue of plants and animals in the Book of Mormon, you might want to see my LDS FAQ page on that topic.

Friday, April 25, 2008

God Bless America

"God bless America!" What wonderful words to hear from the Pope, who appears to hold our nation and its foundational values in respect. A welcome contrast to the troubling words of another far-too influential minister, who instead invoked the curse "God da** America." We live in an era filled with what the prophetic Book of Mormon calls "dissenters" who despise our nation and individual liberty, and often have sympathy for our enemies.

May we as a nation turn our hearts to God and ask His blessing, that this nation may stand as a beacon of liberty and hope to the world, and that we may each turn and better follow His ways.

Blake Ostler on Personal Spiritual Experiences

Blake Ostler's talk, "Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment," resonates deeply with some of my personal experiences. I'm touched that he would share some of these personal experiences and use them to help us understand the challenge of knowing God for ourselves. Here's an excerpt that involves not only the quest that led to his testimony, but an amazing example of listening to the Spirit to literally save another life:
Now I have, in listening to experiences of others, come to believe that what they have experienced is very much like what I've experienced; but I don't believe that it could be identical or that I could even know whether it's identical. I only know when I was about 14 years of age, like Joseph Smith when he walked into the grove, I watched a very interesting show. It was Brigham Young. In fact it had a very interesting actor in it, Dean Jagger; no, not that Dean Jagger, the other one. This Dean Jagger, when he was 80 years old, became baptized as a Mormon, by the way. But I didn't know that at the time. I watched the movie and toward the end of the movie Brigham Young is about to go tell all of the Saints that he's actually a fraud, that he's not really a prophet. And then the seagulls come in and swoop down and eat the crickets and save his bacon so he doesn't have to make this confession. And even to a 14 year old, it dawned on me that if that's the way it really was, it wasn't worth committing a life to. And I was not going to commit a life because there were things that looked a lot better to my 14 year old eyes than going to church every Sunday, believe me. And so I went to my very, very wise mother and I asked her, "Mom, where can I read about Brigham Young?" And she said, "I don't know, maybe the Doctrine and Covenants."

Now as you all know, there's not much about Brigham Young in the Doctrine and Covenants, but I read it anyway. I took on the goal of reading ten sections a day. And I remember somewhere around the second day having come to the firm conclusion that I wished I could know like Joseph Smith knew whether he was a prophet, but I didn't believe anybody could know that. I didn't believe that it would be possible. You see, that was long in the past and there's no way to know what he personally experienced; the man I really wanted to know. And so with every page, with every paragraph, with every sentence, and every word in every sentence, I asked the same question, "Is this true? Are there clues here to suggest that this is worth committing my life to?" About the third day it began to dawn on me that my life was not in accordance with what I was reading, and I remember very simply getting down on my knees and saying, "I've been really stupid, forgive me." And what I experienced was if somebody took fuller's soap and washed me from the inside out. I knew that I'd been forgiven, and I sat down and began to read again. Somewhere around the eighth day I was sitting on my bed reading all about Brigham Young in the Doctrine and Covenants. And you can guess the sections I was reading because on the eighth day I would have begun with section 80 and gone through section 90. And as I read, my heart burned within me, and I knew. I knew that my heart was burning. I knew I wasn't creating it, and I knew it was an answer to what I thought was impossible to know. And even a 14 year old like me could figure that out.

Now, I want to talk a bit about this experience. At that point in my life I was merely a spiritual neophyte like we all begin. About a year later I had, like Joseph Smith had, fallen into some disreputable conduct again notwithstanding the fuller's soap that had cleaned my soul. But I was, in fact, just across the street from where we sit right now in Jordan High School. I was going into an assembly and I was seated on the stairs to go into the gymnasium. (In fact, where I'm standing now is where I had my first automobile accident on the driving course, but that's beside the point {laughter}). I was going into the gymnasium and a girl that I barely knew came and sat down by me. She was a Senior and I was a Sophomore, and she was pretty and I was intimidated. Now normally I would have never said anything to her because to speak to a pretty Senior girl when you're a lowly Sophomore is just simply verboten. But there was nothing I could do to stop from saying, "I know this is going to sound really strange, but I have a message to you from our Heavenly Father. He wants you to stop thinking about suicide." And her eyes got real big and her jaw dropped and she said, "How did you know?" And I told her as honestly as I could, mustering all the courage I had, "I don't know; I simply know." And she explained to me that she had laid out on her bed stand a whole bottle of pills that she was going to go home and take right after that assembly. In fact, the next day she came and told me that I'd literally saved her life. And it dawned on me at that moment in my life, "What if I hadn't listened?" What if, instead, I had gone to my head and thought it through? What if I had relied on my own noggin? Well, the answer's very simple, she would be dead. She's not, she's a mother and she's doing well.
The article goes on to explore the deep issue of knowing God and gaining a testimony. But I am especially touched by his story of daring to speak inspired words to an intimidating female.

For me, age 14 was also the time when I concluded that if the Church weren't actually true, then no matter how fine it seemed, I didn't want to make the sacrifices it asked (tithing, mission, etc.) or stand for something wrong. That led to my quest with the Book of Mormon, with a powerful experience (even a series of experiences) related to Brother Ostler's. And along the way, in the following years, I have to credit a couple of inspired females who listened to the Spirit and took some personal risk to speak inspired words to me at key junctures in my life to help me avoid destructive paths. How grateful I am for their courage and kindness, and for some of the other gentle but direct nudges I received over the years.

That intimidating stranger we meet - or perhaps an old friend - may be someone whose life can be changed with a few inspired words. How vital that we stay close to the Lord each day so that when He wants us to do something, we can listen and act. And when we listen and act, when we serve others by following the promptings of the Spirit, we will often find some of the most powerful testimony-building experiences in our own lives.

Testimony comes from more than just sitting in a cave praying. The strongest testimonies involve study, prayer, and active faith expressed through service and labor for others and for the cause of Zion. In my experience, those who have the faith to not only study the Book of Mormon but also do their home teaching or visiting teaching or other acts of selfless service are much more likely to develop solid testimonies that can withstand the assaults of the Adversary.

Testimony floundering? Have you prayed for the families you are responsible for? Done any meaningful service for them? Done anything to help the needy? Pray and exercise faith in doing good, and the influence of the Spirit in your life will be all the stronger, based on what I've seen. But don't do this for yourself, please, but remember that the people we serve really do need the help we give, and in some cases, can make the difference between life and death.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon

If you're interested in possible Book of Mormon "Hebraisms" (language structures in the English translation suggesting Hebraic roots in the original), one good essay is "The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon" by Dr. John A. Tvedtnes. This is a chapter in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Comp., 1991), pp. 77-91. This is one of several excellent books available free online at the Maxwell Institute (FARMS).

Here a couple of excerpts:
Hebrew uses another compound preposition that would be translated literally as from before the presence of or from before the face of. English would normally use simply from. The influence of the Hebrew can be seen in these Book of Mormon passages:

"they fled from before my presence" (1 Nephi 4:28)

"he had gone from before my presence" (1 Nephi 11:12)

"they were carried away . . . from before my face" (1 Nephi 11:29)

And here's one from the discussion of conjunctions:
Another difference between Hebrew and English conjunctions is that in Hebrew the same conjunction can carry both the meaning and and also the opposite meaning but. Here are two well-known Bible passages in which the King James Version renders the conjunction but:

"Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it" (Genesis 2:16-17).

"And as for Ishmael . . . I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac" (Genesis 17:20-21).

Evidence for Hebraism in the Book of Mormon lies in the fact that some passages use the conjunction and when but is expected. Here, for example, are two different versions of the Lord's promise to Lehi:

"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence" (2 Nephi 1:20; compare Alma 50:20).

"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence" (2 Nephi 4:4).

In one of the quotations of this promise, Joseph Smith rendered the conjunction and, while in another place, he rendered it but. In other Book of Mormon passages, Joseph translated and when in English we would expect but because a contrastive meaning is clearly called for:

"And when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and (= but) when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it" (Moroni 9:4).

"He commanded the multitude that they should cease to pray, and also his disciples. And (= but) he commanded them that they should not cease to pray in their hearts" (3 Nephi 20:1).
And from his final section:
Words Used in Unusual Ways

At several points in the Book of Mormon, we encounter English words used in ways that are unknown or unexpected in our language. King Mosiah said, "I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people" (Mosiah 1:11). In English we would expect distinguished from. But the Book of Mormon passage reflects the normal Hebrew expression, which uses the compound preposition that means from above.

Jacob wrote that Nephi instructed him regarding Nephite sacred preaching, revelations, and prophecies that "I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates" (Jacob 1:4). The term head seems out of place. We would expect something like most important to be used. But the expression is readily explainable in terms of Hebrew. The Hebrew word for the head of the body is sometimes used to describe things as chief (see Deuteronomy 33:15; Psalm 137:6; and Proverbs 1:21) or precious (see Amos 6:1; Song of Solomon 4:14; Ezekiel 27:22). This is probably the sense in which Jacob used the word.

Nephi wrote, "We are upon an isle of the sea" (2 Nephi 10:20). It seems strange to have Nephi call the American continent an island. But the Hebrew word generally translated isle in the Bible has a wider range of meaning than just island. It most often refers to coastal lands.
Food for thought, I hope.

A Thought from Isaiah 50 on Obedience

I'd like to put in a good word for one of the words that can get you branded as a cult: "obedience." In our local newspaper, a fellow Christian (an evangelical minister, I think) once published a letter to the editor that "proved" Mormons were a non-Christian cult. He said all it took to prove our non-Christian status own Third Article of Faith:
We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
Mormons by their own profession believe in "obedience" to the Gospel and think they have to obey laws and commandments, whereas Christians, in contrast, are saved by grace. No obedience needed. End of story.

One wonders how that writer would react if he ever stumbled upon these words from Matthew 19:
16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

1 7And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
Sounds dangerously close to some kind of obedience - a theme that is found abundantly in both the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, a unifying theme in both testaments is the need for man to follow and obey God in a true covenant relationship, a theme that has been sadly lost in much of modern Christianity, as discussed in the earlier post on covenants below.

As one of many related passages on this basic theme, here is one I came across today in Isaiah 50:
10 Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God.

11 Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.
This is the part that is really hard for many modern folks to accept, the idea that there could be authorized servants of God like apostles and prophets, and that listening to and obeying them could somehow be a good thing. It was no easier in the days of Moses, Isaiah, Peter, or Paul. It's easy to see the warts and just the human being. It's easy to wonder how there could be anything special about a local farmboy or even a carpenter's son (who was far more than any prophet, of course). It's easy to think that miracles and revelations are all from the past, from a time that no longer applies. It takes faith to realize that there might be more than meets the eye in the Church and in the Book of Mormon, for example.

This is meant to be just a quick, almost random thought from Isaiah 50. I'm not really interested in rehashing the whole false dichotomy of grace versus obedience. But I would like your thoughts in Isaiah 50 and what it means for us today.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Don't Just Pray for the Kids, Pray for the Texas Doctors, Too

Many of you are praying for the welfare of the young children that have been taken away from their mothers and appear slated for the Texas Foster Care System. Some of you might be praying that the kids miraculously avoid the painfully large percentage of foster situations where children are physically and emotionally abused. Thank you! You might want to also add Texas doctors to your prayers. Since 2/3 of children in the Texas Foster Care System end up being required to take mind-altering drugs (according to a TV story by NBC displayed at Day of Praise), the doctors will face the difficult challenge of picking the right psychotropic drugs for most of these kids. And sadly, they have to do this with the annoyance of pesky outsiders second-guessing their work, outsiders like NBC News. It's a lot of stress for these healthcare workers.

Kudos to Day Of Praise for posting a YouTube with the NBC story about the use of mind-altering drugs in the Texas Foster Care System. Kudos also to Dave's Mormon Inquiry for some great coverage - and tough questions.

Given the well-known problems with foster care, I hope that it will only be used as a last resort when a child can be proven with reasonable evidence to be in genuine physical danger if allowed to stay with parent or relative. I think justice here requires attention to individuals, case by case, and not blanket treatment of groups.

Along these lines, Dave points to one of the painful ironies of this case with a tongue-in-cheek observation about rounding up Catholic kids, using the same logic (but perhaps with better factual evidence) that was applied to FLDS families. Ouch! (And remember, Dave's not being serious. No more serious than I was in calling for raids on those poor Bunnies at Hef's mansion. Humor-impaired and overly sensitive readers beware.)

Update: And yes, I know Child Protective Services folks are generally good people sincerely trying to protect children, having to walk a painfully difficult line between protecting children and respecting parental rights. Here in Wisconsin, they seem to be very careful. Based on what I know - yes, what little I know - I can't imagine our Wisconsin agencies hauling away over 400 children from a community on the basis of such weak evidence. There are times when I think our folks could have taken more vigorous action, but in general I have pretty high respect for them. Maybe what happened in Texas was the right thing, but there are a lot of questions remaining to be answered. And I think it's fair to ask, given the trauma now being inflicted on young children suddenly removed from their parents, perhaps permanently.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Decline of Covenants in Christianity

The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, is replete with teachings grounded in a covenant framework, and even has passages (e.g., King Benjamin's speech) that reflect the findings of modern scholarship about ancient covenant formulas used in the Middle East. My reading of the scriptures has always left me a little puzzled about why covenants have become rather downplayed in modern Christianity, and why the idea of Latter-day Saints making covenants to obey God and keep His commandments would be viewed with such revulsion, as if that were to deny the grace that God offers us (through a covenant relationships). The word "covenant" is thrown around, but the substance is often lacking, in my opinion.

Such views will be immediately rejected by those not familiar with our faith and our understanding of covenants, but there's a resource that I think will be helpful both to Latter-day Saints and others in understanding this intriguing issue. Noel Reynolds, one of my favorite writers, has a carefully documented chapter, "The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought from the book, Early Christians in Disarray (in the list of online books at the Maxwell Institute - click on the link to see a list of links to individual chapters). One of the interesting insights, for example, is that the term "covenant" in Roman law referred to illegal secret societies, and thus there was heavy pressure in the very early days of Christianity to tone down references to covenants and covenant making. That, coupled with the Hellenization of Christianity and other factors, brought us to the state where one-way sacraments rather than two-way covenants are the norm. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Media on Hefner and Other Exploiters of Young Women: Is It Time to Raid the Another Compound?

Just a couple days before I heard the shocking stories about the raids on that strange fundamentalist compound in Texas, I heard another story about Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion. Predictably, it was a positive, glowing story - have you ever heard any other tone from the mainstream media about Hefner? Then came the FLDS story and the massive moral outrage about old men exploiting young girls (yes, of course this is wrong) and the the repugnant nature of one man having more than one wife. In spite of my church having encouraged polygamy until 1890, and in spite of my acceptance of the Bible as scripture, where polygamists like Abraham are treated with respect, I struggle with the concept in era and am glad it's relegated to our distant past. So I can understand the moral stance of the media being quite upset over the allegations from that fundamentalist group in Texas. But I wonder if anyone has considered comparing the polygamist pariahs to the media's favorite idol, Hugh Hefner?

Hugh has better lawyers, of course, or at least listens to them, and is careful to avoid exploiting women under the age of 18 (perhaps with a couple of minor exceptions (search for "youngest"), so to speak, when a 16-year-old Playmate in the early days lied about her age, and then there was a 16-year-old in Germany who posed for the German edition). But here we have a guy in his 70s exploiting multiple young college girls. They are plural throw-away wives, in a sense, who sign contracts, get rights, money, benefits, and become his temporary playthings. Lower than wives. More troubling than plural marriage, IMO. And the media loves it, celebrates it, encourages it - have you ever seen a major reporter or journalist point out the "yuck factor" here? I don't watch much TV, so I may have missed it, but what I've seen has been 100% adulation. Have any of Hefner's girls been asked tough questions on TV about their physical relationship with such an old, filthy lecher? Anyone creating a sense of shame over the debauchery and licentiousness that goes on in the Playboy Mansion? You want gross, that is the capital. But I've heard journalists indicate that they would love to be invited to a party there, as if it would be about the highest honor they could hope for. And can you think of anyone in the major networks who cries shame?

What makes a 70-something lecher genuinely corrupting multiple young "throwaway wives" so wonderful compared to FLDS polygamy? The anonymous complainer was allegedly 16, which is terribly young, but actually legal marriage age in many states if there is parental consent. Do those two years make that big of a moral difference?

Yes, we need to protect young women from older men. Maybe we could start with a raid on the Playboy compound to free the exploited Bunnies, and expose one of the most vile men and most vile empires of all time. Authorities, please feel free to use this post as your anonymous tip. (5-17-08: For troubled readers, this is not a serious request.)

I would also suggest that media-celebrated agencies like Planned Parenthood, in encouraging sexual promiscuity among teenagers, are inevitably promoting sexual activities between young girls and older men. I think moral outrage about immorality and the exploitation of young women needs to extend to groups and empires other than just fringe religions.

This nation would be much healthier if we celebrated high moral standards at all levels, rather than celebrating the ultimate in moral trash as a subject of envy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Don't Mess with the Reich of Texas: The Abuse of Children by the State

On the basis of an alleged anonymous call and an anonymous informant who saw a female hair on a bed and claimed that a teenage girl was pregnant, 416 children were forcibly removed from home and many have been separated from their mothers.

I was in New Orleans when I saw CNN's heavy coverage on the raid on the strange religious compound of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint (FLDS) Church in Texas. Sadly, my reaction was a selfish one. I cringed and felt embarrassed to have anything in common with these religious cousins, and wished that modern polygamy in these strange groups would just go away and stay out of the news. Here were 400 children being ripped away from their home and their families by the power of the State, one of the most traumatic things that could happen to them, and my reaction was to think about me and possible PR problems for my religion ("no, we don't practice polygamy! those people aren't us!"), while ignoring the trauma of fellow humans in my own nation who might have much in common with me. I apologize for my pettiness.

I erred in not raising questions sooner about these actions. I accepted the media coverage at face value - something a lifetime of experience has taught me to be foolish. But then some questions began percolating. I recalled some of my painful experiences with the Hmong community, where teenage marriage is a common part of their culture, even here in the U.S. In my experience, the child protection authorities rarely do anything severe in these cases. Raiding a Hmong family or "compound" with a pregnant teenager and taking the kids away would be unthinkable here (and that's a good thing). I know one case where a 25-year-old man "married" a 13-year-old girl, who soon gave birth to a baby. This was over a decade ago, when I think the laws were enforced a little more vigorously. The man had serious legal trouble and was convicted of a felony, but the child was not removed from the home, the marriage was not broken up, the man was not imprisoned as far as I know, and the family remains a healthy and happy family to this day. The woman tells other Hmong girls not to do something as stupid as marry at age 13, and says it made her life "hell" for quite a while - but she has triumphed in so many ways and is a remarkable mother, woman, employee, and now a college graduate.

I know of recent cases where 18- or 19-year-old men married 14-year-old girls who soon gave birth, and the girls attended high school and the couple seemed to live in the open without having to flee from authorities anxious to take kids away. There have been times when I wished the authorities would have stepped in and saved a young teenager from being pressured into marriage. In one case, at the request of a 16-year-old girl, I got involved with the police when an older (age 19) man who had sex with her and had been pressuring her to marry him got angry and told her to commit suicide. He gave her a bottle of pills to swallow, and she took them (she was OK, thanks to her mom getting her to the hospital quickly). Shortly after she got out of the hospital and the 72-hour mental health watch (as I recall - it's been a while), I was there with her mother trying to help the police understand that this guy was dangerous, that charges should be filed and that he must be kept away. How shocked I was when a woman police officer who had just interviewed the good-looking man came to talk with the girl. In the officer's view, it was just a wonderful love story. I can still hear the voice of that officer: "But he loves you." How sweet - it was all just a misunderstanding and now the couple could be reunited. He ended up "marrying" her and took her to Minnesota, where her life was hell. She finally got the courage to take her two boys and leave him. Her life was set back terribly though all that. How tragic. I've seen things arguably worse than the alleged crime in El Dorado be pretty much ignored by the authorities. Yes, there are differences and gaps between regions, but when I look at what's going on in Texas, it seems more like an intergalactic void than just a regional gap.

The point is, in this day an age of rampant sexual promiscuity, I don't see a lot of raids occurring because a 17-year-old man gets a 16-year-old girl pregnant. Maybe Texas has much higher standards. If a 16-year-old was improperly married to an old man, then investigate that case and file charges against the man. But how dare we sit back and allow an entire community to be raided? How dare we ignore the cries of mothers whose children have been ripped away from them?

Wake up, fellow Mormons. You could be next. Like me, you're a bunch of crackpot loonies teaching your children bizarre things about angels, gold plates, miracles, prophets, and revelations, and you build strange compounds you call temples. Some of you and your kids sit through three-hours of mind control each Sunday, reinforced by early morning seminary for tired teenagers at 6 am each weekday morning to cement their minds with your rigid religious views. And then there's your cult-like/gang-like programming of young men in the Boy Scouts of America, complete with uniforms, colors, and strange hand symbols. How can the all-powerful state allow this kind of deranged parenting to go on? It's not about Mormon mommas and poppas, it's about the children! You can do anything in this world "for the children."

And you Protestants could be on the list next, right after us, and you Catholics, and everyone else. Some of you even live in homes with beds - beds that may very well have an tell-tale female hair or two on them. Which is about the extent of the physical evidence that got 400 kids hauled away from their families in Texas.

The removal of 416 children from their families in the state of Texas is beginning to look more like the Third Reich or the Cultural Revolution of China than the Land of the Free. (Kudos to Guy Murray for his coverage of the case. His blog, Messenger and Advocate, is a good source for tracking the play-by-play action.)

After the broadcast of grieving FLDS mothers a couple days ago, the Texas authorities explained what this action was all about. Pay attention to their words, or rather, to the tone and the messages behind the words, for I think they reveal what you really need to know. The following text comes from a KSL news story, "Texas Defends Separation of FLDS Mothers from Children" by John Hollenhorst and Marc Giauque:
After the sobs and tears of FLDS mothers were broadcast around the world overnight, Texas officials are defending their removal of children from parents. Texas officials aren't backing down a bit in their two-week battle with the religious group led by Warren Jeffs.

Marleigh Meisner, with Texas Child Protective Services, said, "Quite frankly, it's not about us, and it's not about the mommas. It's about these children whose cries have been unheard."

A total of 416 FLDS children are now in state custody, mostly at the Coliseum in San Angelo. Eighty-two mothers of younger children remain in the shelter; 57 mothers of older children were sent away by order of state officials; 51 of those returned to the FLDS compound, and six asked to be taken to safe shelters elsewhere.

A TV station in Texas is reporting that some of the children have been taken a very long way from home. Buses arrived last night at Boys Ranch, just outside of Amarillo. That's in the Texas Panhandle, about 350 miles from the FLDS compound in Eldorado. There was no direct confirmation from state officials, but they did acknowledge that about 20 adolescent boys from the FLDS group have been bused away from San Angelo. There's no explanation yet as to why that group is being handled differently.

Under federal and state laws, the children are entitled to a showdown in court on their status. That will happen Thursday.

Today there were some hints that state officials might allow some of the children to see their parents, at least occasionally, in the future. . . .

For the FLDS members, it was an unheard of public relations strategy: they opened the gates last night and allowed news crews to talk to moms. Their tears drew national sympathy. One mother said, "Where are my children? I don't know who's taking care of them."

But Texas officials are giving no ground. One Texas legislator, Rep. Drew Darby, said, "In Texas we have a saying, 'Don't mess with Texas.' Well, I'm going to change that up a bit and say, 'Don't mess with the children of Texas.' And that's what this is about, is protecting those children."
It's not about the mommas, eh? You're darned right it's not. What about these "unheard" cries of children - who do you think they are crying for? So if some girls are at risk of marrying older men, or if some have gotten pregnant from older men, explain to me how "protecting those children" requires taking them - all 416 of them, a whole community! - away from their homes and especially away from their mothers? Get an injunction to keep older men away from the younger girls, if you must, but to haul off little kids and strip them from their mothers? Their cries are certainly not being heard by those who are abusing them, the officials of Texas.

The message that needs to be heard in that quotation above is not the self-righteous proclamation of concern about the children, but the message of trashing parental rights. This isn't about the mommas, and it's not about the children (why abuse them this way if you really cared?). It's about the power of the State, supreme in power over its citizens, able to trash parental rights at will.

Get a bunch of religious weirdos together, have some anonymous tipster point a finger, and then send in the dogs, the troops, or, in the case of Waco, the guns, tanks, and incendiary devices. Tear away all the children, or burn down the whole compound and everyone in it if needs be. By Gov, the State will stand supreme. We can say "good riddance" when it's someone we fear or even detest. But who will be there to stand for us when it's our turn? Because when it comes to religious weirdos, many, perhaps even most of us fit the bill, nutcases who believe in heaven and God, or Allah, Buddha, Elvis, whatever. We're all mentally ill enough and certainly - atheists included - incompetent enough as parents that that a totalitarian State can easily find reason to march in and take away our kids, as long as they can round up an anonymous accuser, or claim there was one, and then find a hair or two on a bed, a child who looks untidy, or evidence of religious mind control like Bibles or Books of Mormon. Not to mention food storage - what are they going to make of that? Let's get this over with and just lock me up now.

This case is not about the children. It's about the power of the State. No apologies. No backing down. No care for the children who are being traumatized and abused as they are torn from their mothers. It's all for their own good and protection, just like the Cultural Revolution.

Can you imagine going into downtown L.A. or the projects of Chicago and, on the basis of allegations that there are some abused kids there, sweeping in with the police and taking away all the kids from the community? There may a variety of crimes that have taken place among the FLDS Church. There may be genuine abuse that needs to be addressed. But the grotesque, massive overreaction of the State of Texas is about something far more than protecting a pregnant 16-year-old, and cannot be compatible with the noble principles of the US Constitution. Let them get away with this abuse, and we will all be at risk in the future.

The Washington Post in an April 15 story provides further insights:
One woman, Marie, said the women weren't allowed to say goodbye to their crying children.

"They said, 'your children are ours,'" said the sobbing 32-year-old whose three sons are aged 9, 7 and 5 and who would not give her last name. "We could not even ask a question."

She said the children at the ranch have not been abused, but she feels like "they are being abused from this experience." She said the children have been "have been so protected and loved."

The women believe the abuse complaint that led to the raid came from a bitter person outside their community.
"Your children belong to us." That's what this story is about. Not how much we dislike a religion, but who children belong to. Parents, or the State? The control of the rising generation is always the key issue when a state expands it power to dangerous levels. It is a dangerous current that can sweep everything else away in time, and we are already knee-deep in the flow.

I think the FLDS Church is dreadfully wrong and hope its members will get out. I am oppose child abuse, teenage marriage, polygamy, and forced marriages. But those accused of crime still rights and require fair, honest due process based on credible evidence, not hysteria and bigotry. And traumatizing children by separation from their parents should be a last resort only when truly needed to protect the child from eminent harm. If a 16-year-old was abused, if a 14-year-old was pregnant, if one suspects that a bed was used for something other than sleeping, how does that require that little boys and girls be stripped away from their mothers who may only be guilty of having strange beliefs, perhaps only marginally stranger than yours and mine?

Anyone out there dare to speak out? There isn't much time left.

Update: Anderson Cooper's blog has an interesting interview with Kathy Jo Nicholson, a former FLDS member who warns of how harmful the FLDS system has been. More reasoned and credible than much of the coverage. Troubling stuff, yes - but my question is whether the heavy-handed community-wide actions of authorities were justified, and whether it sets a precedent that can be used to haul away children of other strange groups, like the real Mormons, or the Baptists, when anonymous calls are made and "everybody knows" the group is extreme or harmful in some way.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Curious Reflections Triggered by the Hymn, "Upon the Cross of Calvary"

I had a curious experience in sacrament meeting today as we sang Hymn #184, "Upon the Cross of Calvary." It's a sweet little hymn, whose many virtues include being extremely short. That virtue is why it played an important role at a critical formative moment in my life.

I was eight years old in fourth grade in Mrs. Fillmore's class at Monroe Elementary School in Boise, Idaho. Mrs. Fillmore was on maternity leave, as I recall, and we had an old, irritable substitute teacher for several frightening weeks (I’m sure she was a nice woman, but she scared me). She had been doing a unit on singing, which I enjoyed somewhat but wasn’t especially good at. And now, suddenly, she had announced that we were to have a test for this unit in which we had to pick and sing a song. Sounded easy enough, but only because I lacked the imagination to foresee what such an exam must inevitably entail.

The story is still firmly etched in my mind. I went to my father the night before the test and asked if he could help me prepare. He was in the bathroom brushing his teeth when I approached him. I told him I needed to pick a song and was looking for suggestions. He suggested I find a hymn in the hymn book we had. I carefully picked "Upon the Cross of Calvary" because it was the shortest one I could find. Then my father had me sing it a time or two and gave me some kind pointers. How I wish that he could have been the teacher and the exam would have then been finished. But I felt somewhat ready, just hoping to get through the test quickly and privately. Privately? Somehow I assumed that she would have us come one by one into her office to sing. I don’t think I grasped that the test would involve each child standing before the entire class and singing to an audience that might not be entirely supportive. For me, this "test" would seem more like a hazing.

When she announced that it was time for the test, and that we would each stand one by one in front of everybody to sing, dread mixed with unfounded hope filled my mind. Perhaps all would be well, perhaps my ten minutes of preparation would pay off, perhaps the fire alarm would go off before my turn came. But I was one of the first. As I stood at my desk, my knees weren’t the only thing trembling and crackling. But mercifully, it was soon over, and the snickering wasn’t bad, or perhaps I didn’t notice much of it. The hazing was over, and I survived! Life would go on. I had given it my best shot and, in a sense, triumphed -- or at least avoided total disaster.

That was my optimistic and naive summary of that trial, a cheery outlook which lasted for a couple of weeks. Then I got the report card. I was an overweight, clumsy little boy who did poorly in sports, but by golly, I could get good grades. That’s where I hung my oversized self-esteem hat. Would I have another record report of straight A's this time? I hoped so. When I opened the report, I was devastated. "Singing: D." I hadn’t missed class, I hadn’t refused to sing, I had participated and been a good sport through it all, but apparently on the basis of my poor performance on one brutal test, my academic career had been ruined. "D." On top of that, I got a "D" for handwriting. Might as well kiss college good-bye. (Well, I didn’t actually think of that then, fortunately, but I was devastated.) I would joke about my bad grades and try to act like I didn’t care, but I cared. I learned an important lesson: don’t sing. Don’t even try. Hide, run, mouth the words if necessary, but don’t sing.

Next year, in fifth grade, the teacher caught me sitting behind the piano when singing time came up. She thought I was just being funny. (I would have gladly remained hidden. Music is something that is difficult for the musically clueless to avoid.) How foolish of me - such an unnecessary overreaction. But that fear of singing would affect me in every grade. I allowed it to dictate my reaction to roadshows, to holiday gatherings, to public worship. I tried to overcome it in high school and on my mission, and especially when I was bishop of my ward, but I marvel at how long-lasting my poor attitudes toward singing have been.

As I sang that hymn today, this flood of memories came over me, and then the strangest emotion: gratitude. How valuable that weakness has been, I felt, and what an intriguing and integral part of my life it has been. And it may have helped me avoid a little of the pride that I am subject to, and helped me indirectly in other ways. Ditto for the acne, the obesity of my childhood, and various other problems I faced in different phases of my life. As I pondered these things and related burdens, I felt that a kindly hand had been supporting me in spite of myself and maybe even had been helped guide the placement of some elements in the collage of weaknesses glued onto my personal poster. I could suddenly see that they played valuable roles in shaping me, and that there were benefits to at least some of them that I could only be grateful for (at the same time, I can't excuse my overreactions and poor choices). It was the strangest experience to have all these thoughts fill me as I sang and pondered during the sacrament.

The fact that I often enjoy singing now, though I’m still not good at it, is largely due to the patient kindness of my musical wife and also my musical daughter-in-law, who was instrumental in helping me get past some of my hang-ups. How silly that for decades I let an almost trivial incident in fourth grade hold me back.

Weaknesses have their purpose, but there are times to move past them. Sometimes the Lord even helps them to become turned into strengths. Not yet in this case, but maybe, if I had a little more faith, and just a little talent. New vocal chords might help, too. My singing may not be that great, but never fear -- I can get good grades. Sometimes, anyway.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pickpocketed in Barcelona: Thoughts on Theft

In preparing to visit Barcelona in March, my wife warned me about the abundance of pickpockets there, so we prepared carefully by using money belts, having photocopies of passports and other information, and making sure that we each had a different credit card (leaving others at home) so that canceling one due to theft would not leave us stranded. Our little group of five (my wife, youngest son, mother-in-law, and one of my sisters) planned how we would stand around each other when using ATM machines to keep codes hidden and prevent theft, etc. And in spite of all that caution, I walked into the bustling crowds at the main market in Barcelona with my little Flip video camera in the pocket of my jacket. While busily taking photos of all the fish and produce with my main camera (firmly gripped, strap usually wrapped around my hand or around my neck to prevent theft), I recall someone bumping into me in a strange way, but didn't even think about the other camera at that moment. It must have been one of the more clumsy pickpockets, because I'm sure my little Flip video camera could have extracted much more gracefully in that crowd. And maybe it was - maybe the probing bump came after the theft had already taken place.

My son, on the other hand, was intrigued at the thought of pickpockets stalking the streets, and brought a cheap wallet that he put in his rear pocket. He adjusted it so it would stick out and be easy to snatch. This bait was empty, of course, but he wanted to see how the game worked and see where it would be snatched. No one took the bait - a genuine disappointment.

Fortunately, the morning before my little $150 video camera was stolen, I downloaded some precious video files of my granddaughter and cleared the memory. Whew! So the loss wasn't all that painful. But it did make me ponder the crime of theft.

When someone simply takes something valuable from another person against their will, it is a statement that the other person's life doesn't matter, or is not nearly as important as that of the criminal. It's a terrible, tragic statement. One can try to downplay the seriousness of the crime by saying the other party doesn't need it and won't miss it, but how does one know that? Steal a wallet, and the victim might not be able to attend his or hew own wedding, or a funeral, or a job interview that might make all the difference in the world. Steal a little video camera, and previous memories may be lost. Steal a purse, and life-giving medications may be lost. Many tragedies can follow from one simple selfish act, however minor the intended harm was.

One of my most memorable experiences with theft occurred in the happy Mormon town of Provo. It was one of the most trying weeks of my early married life. My wife was expecting our first son, wasn't feeling well at all, and was insanely busy trying to complete her master's degree as we went into finals week. I had major challenges with my courses as well and other duties. We were so busy that we simply hadn't had time to go shopping for a while. I finally hopped in the car and spent $50 on groceries (that was enough to last a couple weeks back then). That was real money, and we didn't have much. As I came back, I took in about 1/3 of the purchase when the phone rang. Something urgent from the ward. When I got off the phone three minutes later and went back to get the rest of the groceries out of the trunk of our car - a trunk that I had naturally left open in this safe little town - the groceries were gone. Some enterprising person - surely not a BYU student, right? - took advantage of the opportunity and walked off with my groceries. This was a painful loss. We just made do with the bag or two I had brought in. We could laugh about it, but it was a painful laugh.

The theft of groceries or a camera is small time stuff. The theft of massive amounts of all of our money by cancerous corruption in government is far more serious. Witness the incredible Bear-Stearns bailout and the enormous deficit spending by out-of-control politicians who trample upon the limited government principles of the Constitution. And now the same gang behind the credit problems and the erosion of our financial system and currency is demanding that vast new regulatory powers be given to them, to one unelected, unaccountable, unaudited body closely tied to Wall Street, who will help "prevent" further trouble by assuming vast control over the whole nation's financial services industries as well as our money supply, along with new assumed powers to spend huge amounts of your money without Congressional approval when one of their own needs a bailout. Incredible. And yet so-called conservatives and so-called opponents of "special interests" and so-called representatives of the people and defenders of the little guy from both parties are going along with the idea, as the media (generally owned and certainly influenced by the Wall Street crowd) tells us that this is good for us, that we should trust the Fed to fix things up and strengthen the economy that they have been ravishing. Theft is occurring before our eyes on the most grandiose scale of all time. You don't have to buy an empty wallet and walk around Barcelona to have the thrill of being victimized this time. You will get to keep your wallet - but it will be emptier than ever. Whew, was that a rant?

And with that cheerful thought in mind, here are a few photos from the amazing city of Barcelona (click to enlarge):

(Some things are even better than paella!)

(Photos are copyright 2008 Jeff Lindsay. Rights are assigned to Planet Lindsay, LLC. FYI, this blog and all my Websites are property of Planet Lindsay, LLC - just so you know who to sue!)

Here's a Viewbook file with some additional photos (you can view these enlarged in full screen mode by right clicking and selecting "Go full screen"):

Yes, I'm hooked on this city. Such amazing architecture, bustling life, fabulous food, and great people. If you can come up with any excuses for me to return soon, please let me know. Anyone there need a little help with patent strategy, innovation systems, or new business development? Quiero ayudar!

Friday, April 11, 2008

If Joseph Were Translating the Plates Today, with Secular Gadgets

What if Joseph Smith had been born a couple decades ago and had just received the golden plates of the Book of Mormon? What if, instead of a Urim and Thummim or seerstone, he had to rely on modern gadgets, except for a quick divine upgrade to his automated translation software to include the reformed Egyptian used by Mormon in the 4th century A.D.? What would the translation process look like?

Well, on day one, Joseph might spend his time digitizing a portion of the text. Using his iPhone or other electronic device with a camera, he might take photos of several pages of the text. Then, on day two, between mob assaults from local vigilantes seeking to preserve biblical truth, he might launch his character recognition and translation software to begin wading through the text. He would want to check the machine generated text one sentence at a time to ensure that it is readable, and when offered two or more alternate translations for ambiguous passages, might select the most reasonable choice or otherwise assist in the final wording. If he wanted to be old-fashioned at this point (perhaps because the last mob stole his printer and ripped out his cable modem in searching for the plates, safely hidden in a bucket of wheat in his food storage), he could dictate his final text to an assistant, line by line. To make it easier to see the screen on his electronic device, he might even stick it in a hat and look at it in a darkened environment to reduce eye strain (and to increase battery life by using the lowest brightness setting, since he only had a few days of battery life left after another mob smashed his recharger - the translation must move ahead quickly now!). And then he might later digitize some more and then translate some more, until he was done.

An observer, unaware of how Joseph's gadgets worked, might wonder how he could translate the gold plates when he wasn't even touching them or looking at them as he dictated the text. Was he just making things up on the fly? And if he could translate by looking into a device in a hat, were the plates even needed at all? Later Church paintings and drawings might miss some of the technical details in the translation process and naturally depict the translation process with Joseph staring at the plates, scanning a line with a translator pen or iPhone in hand, overlooking the fact that the scanning may have started or even been finished before assistants were brought in.

Modern translation gadgets make it possible to dictate a scanned and translated text to others without having to physically touch and see the original physical document for each page dictated, though it begins with and relies on the original document. If that is possible with modern man-made (but highly inspired!!) gadgets, then it certainly could be possible with more advanced or more inspired technology.

I say this because I've seen some people become upset about the accounts from some witnesses that Joseph did much of the translation of the Book of Mormon by looking into a seerstone in a hat. Some members have been highly offended by the suggestions that popular paintings and drawings showing Joseph translating the gold plates might not be technically accurate. Some critics of the Church have spent a great deal of energy in mocking the Church and accusing us of some kind of dark "cover up" about the details translation process.

This "cover-up" about the details of the translation process (for which we know precious little) is akin to the even more blatant cover-up regarding Nephi, who, based on the latest scientific data about the DNA of ancient Jewish men and nutrition and lifestyle in the ancient Middle East, probably did not have the muscle-bound physique of the Arnold Friberg paintings that our deceptive Church has been foisting upon us for years, published right there in the official Book of Mormon itself. Through these officially endorsed, doctrinal and scriptural paintings published with the full endorsement of the prophets and apostles, the Church has been teaching a terrible lie and deceiving members for years, while contributing to the lessened self-esteem of many of us men who, lacking the biceps of Nephi, Moroni, and even young Jacob, felt unworthy, excluded, and far away from the Church's expectation that we be physically perfect.

Since some of you have a hard time recognizing when I'm not completely serious, let me point out that the previous paragraph is meant to be facetious. The paintings added in some printings of the Book of Mormon are artistic depictions to add a little color and interest, but in no way are meant to be official doctrine, nor are they expected to be technically accurate. Ditto for paintings of the translation process, of the crossing of the Red Sea, or of the Saints crossing the planes. Most Latter-day Saints have images in their mind of how the translation process worked, perhaps influenced by various paintings and natural assumptions, but we really have very little information, and if the accounts of David Whitmer or others challenge our assumptions, don't get bent out of shape about it. We don't have all the answers, in spite of having many precious restored truths and the divine scriptures, including the Book of Mormon. Tiny technical details -- what did Joseph see when he translated, how did the translation process work, was both a Urim and Thummim and a separate seer stone involve in various phases of the translation, was a hat really used, and exactly what size and thickness were the plates? -- might differ from what we assume, and from what leaders of the Church have assumed, without detracting from their role as (human) servants of God, and without detracting from the value and truthfulness of the translated Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

General Conference from New Orleans: Greetings from the New Orleans First Branch

General Conference for me began with a window view of the Voodoo Mart on Canal Street in New Orleans. I stepped out of my lengthy Saturday meetings (a planning meeting for a chemical engineering organization, AIChE) in the J.W. Marriott Hotel to a little corner near a window, where I was able to catch the last talk of the afternoon session on the Internet.

To my delight, another Latter-day Saint in the meeting had a car and offered to give me a ride to the Priesthood Session that evening. We weren't sure if the New Orleans First Branch in town would have the broadcast, but we gave it a try. As we pulled up to the building, the gates to the parking lot were locked, and we were about to leave and try the more distant stake center. Just as we started to drive away, two missionaries showed up and assured us that this was the right place. Thanks to the Mormon missionaries, the gates of New Orleans did not prevail against us, and we were able to enter into a little bit of paradise with the fine people of the branch.

The Priesthood session was one of the best ever. I was touched by the steady emphasis on service and on reaching out to others. As we begin an era of serious economic trouble, this message of compassion and love seems wonderfully timed. And who better to lead us in this area than President Monson? Personally, I am intimidated and almost overwhelmed by his personal example. This man's life is characterized by reaching out to individuals, remembering widows, staying in touch with many dozens of people across the years to love and bless them, listening to the promptings of the spirit day after day, engaging in quiet acts of service and self-sacrifice - it's amazing. Thank goodness he didn't have a blog all these years!

After the conference, a professor from Tulane University in the Branch Presidency here kindly invited us to attend tomorrow and participate in their traditional potluck luncheon after the morning session. Not only is this a wonderfully friendly and diverse branch, but they have incredible food. I was especially impressed by the jambalaya and the large quantities of perfectly seasoned crawfish (a young man kindly revealed his secret techniques of crawfish eating). The bread pudding was terrific also, with the bourbon that the recipe called for replaced with a custom cherry puree. Delicious.

My friend and I felt needed at the Priesthood session because we were able to help get the audio working for the broadcast. There was no audio as the session was about to begin and the Elders were struggling with the system. I found a sheet with a tech support number and had a cell phone, so I called and soon reached someone. When they suggested we should reboot the system (unplug and then restore power), I though I was getting the standard tech support run-around, but it actually worked. The sound came on just seconds before the opening hymn. I noticed after that just how much more meaningful a conference broadcast is with the sound on.

Hey, wasn't President Monson great again in the afternoon session? What a divine sense of humor this man has! And what love he has for his wife!

Greetings from New Orleans!

Here's the New Orleans First Branch building, which I suggest you attend.

Here's the Voodoo Mart, which I suggest you avoid.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

When Truckers Get Fed Up, How Will You Get Fed?

Self-righteous politicians recently hauled oil executives in front of their Congressional committee to lambaste them in front of network TV for the high price of oil. Wish they would have hauled in some of the big rice and wheat tycoons also, and the big dairy lords, the cotton kings, and some iron and nickel mining magnates. And what about the obscene profits of the big sprout industry? Mung bean and broccoli sprout prices just keep going up. The solution, of course, to obscene prices in the energy sector is to add more taxes on the backs of oil producers. Yeah, that's right - let's punish the people who are producing the energy we need so we can have more at lower prices. Genius!

I'd like to haul these politicians before my little committee and grill them. Why have you made it so difficult to produce oil in America? Why is it that not a single refinery has been built for 30 years? Why have you spent away our future so that the dollar is worth far less than it was a few years ago, driving up the price of oil, wheat, and everything else?

Well, I'm not the only one fed up with all this. My trucker friends are getting really ticked, and some are ready to strike. It's not going to help, but it's certainly going to raise awareness of the impact of $4/gallon diesel. But when my trucker buds take action, look out. Without trucking, our groceries will be empty within a couple days - a couple hours with panic buying. You may have no idea how dependent we are on truckers for our food. You're probably going to have a better idea in the near future.

Got food storage? The need is getting more serious every day, in my opinion.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Where We Stand: Archaeology and the Book of Mormon

"Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology" is a transcript of recent presentations by John E. Clark, Wade Ardern, and Matthew Roper. The first part by John E. Clark is especially noteworthy for those who wish to know what archeology has to say about the Book of Mormon.

After 178 years, the Book of Mormon is "truer than ever" and, in terms of external evidence, on more solid ground than ever. That ground has shifted substantially as some old and unjustified assumptions about the text have been updated, a process that began in the 1840s when information about ancient cities in Mesoamerica became known to the Saints, suggesting that they text may have taken place in lands completely unfamiliar to Joseph Smith (and providing compelling evidence for the once laughable concept of great civilizations among the ancient "savages" in America).

Please read the article before commenting. For this post, I'm not interested in getting dozens of the standard uninformed comments about how there is "no evidence for anything in the Book of Mormon." And yes, I already know that there are serious questions about the evidence for horses, silk, metals, and iPods in the Book of Mormon. Well, maybe not all of the questions are serious. But please read the article and respond to the points that Clark makes, if you wish to comment.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Comment from the Psalms on Modern TV

After randomly opening up the Gideon Bible in my hotel room here in Chicago this morning, I found a great verse suggesting that the author may have been prophetically aware of the impact of modern television:

Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things,
And revive me in Your way. (Psalm 119: 37)

The KJV warns against "beholding vanity." I like the phrase "looking at worthless things" better.

A footnote in the NKJV points out that the second part of the verse, "revive me in Your way," is "revive me in Your word" in the Targum (the ancient Aramaic Old Testament). And that points to some of the wisest advice I've heard: cut down on TV and read something valuable instead, like the Book of Mormon or the Bible, for starters. And if time permits, it might be OK to add a blog or two to your diet.