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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Forgive My Excitement, But Have You Seen . . . The Latest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies?

If you haven't searched through the publications of the Maxwell Institute, ma I suggest you begin today with a careful reading of the latest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies? It's a blockbuster issue with some outstanding scholarship addressing a variety of issues that I take up here from time to time, including Book of Mormon evidences, baptism for the dead, and the Book of Abraham.

Here are the contents with links to the articles:
The article on Elkenah shows that the name introduced in the Book of Abraham for an Egyptian god is plausible (something Kerry Shirts has shown for Elkenah and the other three names given for the gods associated with the canopic jars from Facs. 1 of the Book of Abraham). The article on Lehi points to recent evidence that it was an ancient Semitic name for males and not only a placename. The article on salvation for the dead shows some of the history of loss in Christianity regarding one of the most precious truths that was restored through the prophet Joseph Smith. John Welch's article on the Holy of Holies shows that a profound understanding of ancient temple concepts were artfully woven into the Book of Mormon.

Finally, I'd just like to point to one interesting paragraph from the reprinted 1967 essay by LDS scholar High Nibley. Decades before DNA evidence lead some misinformed people to pronounce that science disproved the Book of Mormon, and decades before critics claimed that the rather obvious limited geographical scope of the Book of Mormon along with the possibility of many other migrations was "desperate Mormon backpedaling" to cope with recent DNA data, Hugh Nibley stated something that other careful students of the Book of Mormon before him and after had pointed out. Namely, we are dealing with a record covering limited operations in a limited geography that leaves plenty of room for many others in the continent who got here via other migrations, Bering Strait included:
Throughout this big and complex volume, we are aware of much shuffling and winnowing of documents and are informed from time to time of the method used by an editor distilling the contents of a large library into edifying lessons for the dedicated and pious minority among the people. The overall picture reflects before all a limited geographical and cultural point of view--small localized operations, with only occasional flights and expeditions into the wilderness; one might almost be moving in the cultural circuit of the Hopi villages. The focusing of the whole account on religious themes as well as the limited cultural scope leaves all the rest of the stage clear for any other activities that might have been going on in the vast reaches of the New World, including the hypothetical Norsemen, Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans, or prehistoric infiltrations via the Bering Straits. Indeed, the more varied the ancient American scene becomes, as newly discovered artifacts and even inscriptions hint at local populations of Near Eastern, Far Eastern, and European origin, the more hospitable it is to the activities of one tragically short-lived religious civilization that once flourished in Mesoamerica and then vanished toward the northeast in the course of a series of confused tribal wars that was one long, drawn-out retreat into oblivion. Such considerations would now have to be included in any "minimal statement" this reader would make about the Book of Mormon.
Falling apart when our erroneous interpretations of the book are challenged by science is not the most intelligent response. The text itself does not impose requirements that are contrary to any DNA findings, though errant readings may topple. Updating our reading of the text may be in order rather than abandoning one's faith. Just my two cents.

Dig into this issue of the Journal and past issues as well. I think you'll find some impressive insights and outstanding scholarship for the most part.

Are You a Sunbeam Whisperer?

During Sunday services, LDS congregations have a program for children known as Primary, and the youngest class (apart from the nursery) is known as the Sunbeams. Teaching a class of irrationally exuberant four-year-olds can be more challenging than trying to manage the US economy. In one ward in our Stake, one of the children was so challenging--so wiggly and fully of spunk--that a second teacher was needed in the class to help keep things under control. But a newly called teacher came with some amazing skills and quickly demonstrated that it was possible for a single person to calm the raging waters of Lake Sunbeam. He is now the Sunbeam Whisperer, according to one Stake leader in awe of his powers. In addition to loving and talking with the children, one of the keys that others have gleaned from him so far is that he sets clear limits for the kids so they understand what is OK and what is not. That sounds pretty straightforward--I'm sure there's a little more magic involved. I'll be trying to find out more secret tips in the near future. Or maybe some of you are also Sunbeam Whisperers and care to share your skills here?

Related resource: The Primary Primer at Times and Seasons

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cutting Back on Sports and Other Demanding Activities for the Sake of Family and Church

The Wall Street Journal's recent story, "Kids Quit the Team for More Family Time," reminds us of the constantly escalating demands on the time of young people involved in competitive sports. The problem is not just with sports, but can also occur in drama, forensics, music, and other competitive fields, but sports often takes the cake when it comes to demanding a high percentage of a young person's life.

I'm pleased to see that some people are pushing back. The story focuses on parents who say no, but I know some young people who recognized that if they stuck with a high school team, they wouldn't be able to attend seminary, mutual, and other church and family events, and decided to push back and say no on their own. Some switch from a sport they would have enjoyed, like basketball or football, to one with more reasonable demands (tennis in my part of the world falls into that category).

Many of us appreciate the opportunities and discipline that competitive sports can bring, but parents and youth should step back and weigh the demands and costs versus the benefits and make wise decisions in light of family, church, and other aspects of life that might be neglected. Tough decisions with no simple answers.

Parents, talk to your kids about sports.

Friday, July 16, 2010

So Proud of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: 100 Years of Recording History

I had the unexpected privilege of attending the Pioneer Day Concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the amazing Conference Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. This was my first time attending any event in the Conference Center, and the first time in over 20 years seeing the Choir live. It was an overwhelming experience. We had tickets on the main floor, maybe just 40 yards away from the stage. To be there and hear such incredible music was a true delight.

What impressed me almost as much as the music itself was the expert camera work. Two large screens on either side of the stage showed various scenes from the performance. Each moment of the show was expertly orchestrated: close-ups of the organist's feet during a dramatic moment of footwork, cool shots of individual musicians right on cue, sweeping wide angle shots and numerous dynamic effects that were fascinating to watch. Brilliant!

President Monson spoke as well--what a treat to be there.

The Choir has been on the cutting edge of broadcasting since 1910 when they made their first recording, the world's first recording of a large choir, in what was a collaborative experiment with a record company. No microphones were used--that would come later. Instead, two large recording horns were used, suspended on cables, with wax platters kept warm with electric light bulbs. The experiment succeeded, and this began the first of many great moments in recording history with the world's greatest choir, a choir that helps advance the mission of the Church in bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation.

Thank you to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and to the Church for this incredible musical gift, one that has come at great sacrifice from so many talented people.

Were any of you there, too? How did you like the program? I was brought to (manly) tears several times and was just thrilled and touched by the offerings, especially Amazing Grace with the touch of Scottish bagpipes.

A Vision for Temples in the Millennium: Where the World's Best Sushi Chefs Will Work

While in Utah recently, I was trying to find an LDS temple that wasn't temporarily closed for maintenance. LDS.org/temples/ makes it easy to search for temples according to location, and includes information on schedules and whether a temple offers rental clothing and cafeteria service. As I contemplated temples and food, I suddenly had a vision for the LDS temple in the Millennium. The Bible prophesies that saints will be serving God day and night in the temple during this time (Rev. 7:15). Why will the Saints be so eager to spend so many long hours in the temple? What will keep them energized and motivated?

Part of the answer could be my prediction that the world's best sushi chefs will be working the temple cafeteria circuit. That would strengthen the arguments that the Isaiah 2 passage about the latter-day temple has been improperly translated. Instead of beating weapons into plowshares and pruninghooks, an alternative could be various sushi utensils. The case for the updated translation is tentative, but tantalizing, just like good sushi.

Maybe this is why the early Christians used a fish as one of their most important symbols. That and the famous miracle of the fish and sushi rice (often mistranslated as "loaves"). Food for thought.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"A Crooked, Broken, Scattered and Imperfect Language": Dealing with the Limitations of Revelation to Mortals

One of the valuable contributions from the scholarship in the Joseph Smith Papers (see JosephSmithPapers.org) is an enhanced understanding of the revelatory process that we have before us in the papers of Joseph Smith. Some Latter-day Saints might be surprised to find that their imagined views of revelation are challenged. Much of what was revealed through Joseph Smith did not come as complete and perfect dictation from God, but often required revisions. It's a reminder of the limitations of revelation to mortals, in which God comes down to our level and works with mortals in their language, with their limitations in understanding. What mortals put into writing can be incomplete or even inaccurate on several levels, requiring subsequent correction or revised interpretation in the future. As Joseph Smith once put it, "Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison, almost as it were, of paper, pen and ink, and of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language" (letter to William W. Phelps, Nov. 27, 1832).

This quote was used recently in a MormonTimes article, "Scribes Recorded Prophet's 'Crooked, Broken Language.'" This discusses Joseph's reluctance to write and his reliance on scribes. Here's an excerpt:
Mark Ashurst-McGee, coeditor of the JSP's Journals series, added that the Prophet understood the need for record keeping, but fully understood the limitations of his meager childhood education.

Nothing illustrates that better than a letter written on Nov. 27, 1832, to William W. Phelps, the church printer in Missouri. In it, the Prophet writes, "Oh Lord God, deliver us from this prison, almost as it were, of paper, pen and ink, and of a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language."

"That's great writing," Ashurst-McGee said. "But at the same time he's writing well, he's saying, 'I hate this'."

According to the Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, Joseph wrote in a journal for nine days, then not again for 10 months.

"He understands the importance of record keeping, feels strongly about it, and understands its part of the mission of the church, but he doesn't love it," Ashurst-McGee said. "And that's why he starts getting scribes to help him. He's so busy. And (having scribes) builds up more and more in the history of the early church, so that by the time he dies, he has an office staff."
Joseph's discomfort in writing fits the LDS view on the origins of the Book of Mormon, where Joseph was the overwhelmed translator, not a dazzlingly brilliant author. Further, the abundance of records showing the process in which scripture was born, including the original and printer's manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and the manuscripts behind the Doctrine and Covenants, show that Joseph Smith was not in the business of covering up his tracks as part of a massive fraud. We can see the details of the translation process for the Book of Mormon and the details of the processes for later revelations. Now massive efforts are underway to help make all of this more visible for the world through the Joseph Smith Papers project. We'll have much to learn and many assumptions to update as we digest all the information. It's part of a healthy journey in world where we can never fully escape from the limitations of a "crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language."

Update, July 12, 2010: We agree with Moses in Deut. 4:2 and with John in Rev. 22:18-19 that no man should add to or subtract from the text given to us by prophets of God. But God can speak and add all He wants, working through His mortal servants the prophets, and thus Moses and other prophets kept on writing as God kept on revealing or as sacred history kept on being recorded.

Were the words of Moses and the other prophets of the Bible complete and inerrant when first penned? Was there never any revision or need for later correction?

While we do not have ANY of the original texts that led to the Bible, and do not have the luxury of looking over the Isaiah papers or Moses papers, for example, to see how they recorded and prepared their documents, we do have a few hints suggesting that revisions may have occurred. For example, consider the writings of Jeremiah as recorded by Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch. See Jeremiah 36, where we learn that Baruch wrote all the words from Jeremiah that were recorded in a book (vss. 4, 17, 18) Unfortunately, King Jehoiakim of Judah burned the book that contained the words of Jeremiah (vss. 21-25). The Lord commanded Jeremiah to prepare his document again, writing "all the former words that were in the first roll" (vs. 28). In verse 32, Jeremiah then commanded his scribe, Baruch, to write on another roll the words of Jeremiah, "and there were added besides unto them many like words." Many like words added? This doesn't sound like original dictation straight from the mouth of God, perfectly preserved and unchangeable. Prophets speak or dictate by inspiration, but there can be later changes and additions.

A few years ago Robert Boylan kindly sent me further information on this topic:
You might also like to know that Jeremiah 36:32 is not the only example of prophets revising their prior revelations. Moses revised the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), as seen when one examines Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In addition, Isaiah 36-39 is a revision of 2 Kings 18:13 - 20:19, and Jeremiah 52 is a revision of 2 Kings 24-25. Joseph Smith's actions, contra critics ... are entirely consistent with the actions of Biblical Prophets.
As I understand it, scripture is inherently affected by human limitations. These limitations arise in receiving divine knowledge in the first place, then putting that knowledge into writing, followed by the tasks of preserving the text, translating the text, and publishing the text. Human limitations become especially severe when it comes to interpreting the text. Opportunities for error exist at every step. The original authors or even subsequent prophets may have occasional needs to revise or clarify what once was penned. None of this should shock us.

Some think of scripture as spoken directly by God with every letter and nuance perfectly captured. The conceit behind the easily refuted Bible Code, in which secret messages from God can be found by formatting the Torah into various grids and looking for secret word-puzzle messages, goes beyond that and envisions a Hebrew text that has preserved every letter since the beginning. This idealistic view is easily shattered. We work with texts that may have had many limitations from the beginning, and that were often imperfectly preserved over the centuries, resulting in many competing variants, occasional gaps or lacunae, and some obvious difficulties. It's just one more reason why we need ongoing revelation to guide us. We rely on written revelation and faithful latter-day Saints turn to it daily and use it to gain guidance and revelation for our lives, but we should be emotionally prepared to occasionally recognize that past assumptions and knowledge may need to be updated, and that some things we think we have drawn from scripture may be imperfect and incomplete, in need of revision. Whether it's the age of the earth, the geographical extent of the Flood, the details of the Creation, the value of pi (implicitly 3.0 in 1 Kings 7:23: "ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, . . . and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about"), the settling of the Americas, or all many of historical and doctrinal issues, we must always understand that our knowledge may be more limited than we think, partly because revelation comes though human tools struggling with imperfect language and imperfect understanding in the first place, not to mention all the other challenges that can arise in going from the pen of the author to printed translations much later.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Choice LDS Missionaries: Invite Them into Your Home

Recently we had two local LDS missionaries into our home for lunch. One of them, Elder Vaughan from Alaska, offered a short spiritual message after the meal that set off all sorts of alarms in my head. Ding ding ding ding - alert, alert: wow, this young man is sincerely trying to strengthen our testimonies and make our lives better. There was such a great spirit as he taught and shared, and it was so clear that he was there purely as a servant of God. Not just someone trying to do something religious, but as an authorized, inspired, active servant of our Lord Jesus Christ, there to bless the lives of the Lindsay family and anyone who will listen. It really made an impression on me.

Words do not do justice to this very brief but powerful interaction, but it reminded me that there are some remarkably choice servants of God out there. I hope we can recognize the missionaries as more than just young people trying to endure many months way from home, but as real servants of God with something that can bless our lives. Invite them into your home and see for yourself.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

What Did David Say to Bathsheba?

Wile teaching 2 Samuel 11 and 12 in Gospel Doctrine today (as a guest teacher), I wondered what David might have said to Bathsheba when she was brought over to meet him. "You know, my wives and concubines, they just don't understand me." That's my guess.

The story begins with unchecked lust and then turns to appalling adultery in which a big celeb goes after the wife of one of his valiant soldiers. She becomes pregnant, so David tries to cover up his sin. He tries to get the husband to come home from battle and spend some time at home so people will think the baby is his, but that fails. Then David, once a man of God, a leader in Israel who had prophesied and authored beautiful scripture (and would yet author scripture), chooses to cover his sin by murdering the husband, Uriah. Did Bathsheba have any idea that she was marrying the man who had killed her beloved husband? There's something of a creep factor in this story.

How far are any of us from becoming another David? Are we humbly aware of the dangers we face when step into the world? Have we begun each day prayerfully seeking the Lord's help to be delivered from temptation? Are we mentally prepared for what we must do when we encounter our own Bathsheba moment? It may not be a moment that appeals to sensual pleasures; rather, it may be an unexpected temptation thrown our way that appeals to our greed, our ego, or some other weakness. These temptations will come. We will each have our temptations that could cause us to fall unless we are prepared and decide ahead of time that we will not give in but swiftly turn away. Should we fall, human experience and the scriptures teach that the only safe step is to quickly come clean and face the immediate pain of repentance rather than trying to cover up our sin, which only adds to the problem and magnifies the pain that we will one day face. In David's case, he lost it all and did terrible harm to many through his sins.

How tragic and frightening. I still wonder exactly what he said when they were introduced. I also wish that Bathsheba had been taught by some of the great Young Women's leaders we have today. Might have helped her recognize the danger a little earlier before she got caught up in the excitement of being pursued by the leading rock star of Israel. Might have also helped her be a little more careful about her bathing arrangements. Or was something less innocent going on the whole time? Ah, humanity. We can be so disappointing.

I Know, I Know: It Was Great Britain!

A recent Marist poll reveals that 26% of Americans did not know the nation we declared independence from on July 4, 1776. Not to show off or anything, but since we celebrate our independence on this particular holiday, I thought I'd share the answer to the quiz for those of you who forgot or never learned it: it was Great Britain. Yeah, I knew that by memory (but naturally I did Google it before committing my answer to this post, just to be safe).

The act of declaring independence in 1776 took tremendous courage. The Founders were putting their lives and fortunes on the line--not to gain incredible power, but to tear incredible power down and bring lasting liberty to this nation. It was a liberty that would take constant vigilance. It was a liberty that would require Americans to resist the temptation to let government become a caretaker (and thereby a master instead of a servant). Today we are appallingly out of touch with the thinking and intent of those courageous leaders. Here's one nugget to help us remember. It comes from Thomas Jefferson in his letter to Thomas Cooper, 29 November 1802:
[I]f we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.
Since there are plenty of butchered quotes from our Founding Fathers floating around, you can verify this quotation at the Jefferson Encyclopedia and see an image of the original document at the Library of Congress. The quotation comes from lines 3-5 of image of the last page of the letter.

For you lovers of Jefferson and his brilliant thinking on liberty, one example of a bad quote you may have seen is this:
My reading of history convinces me that most bad government comes from too much government.
The Jefferson Encyclopedia takes up this bogus quote and reveals that the first time it was attributed to Jefferson was 1950, but that it is not to be found in his writings. It sounds like something he might have said, sure, but he doesn't appear to have penned this statement. Sadly, a large sporting goods company in my part of the world ran a half-page ad today in the local Post-Crescent newspaper featuring a series of statements allegedly from Thomas Jefferson, and that was the lead "quote." The second quote was a mangled version of the statement given above about wasting the labors of the people. Oh well, that's what we get for living in the Knowledge Era. That and 26% of Americans not even knowing from whom we declared independence.

By the way, if you look at the details of the poll, those from ages from 18 to 29--you know, those closest to the benefits of modern education and the information explosion--did the worst. 40% of them didn't know. I find that tragic. Think how bad the numbers would have been if the poll had asked anything serious about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

With multi-generational ignorance about the basics of our origins and the workings of liberty, I fear that far too many Americans will have no appreciation for the principles behind the Declaration and those that were meant to be enshrined in our Constitution. I fear, for example, that few will appreciate the wisdom of George Washington's warnings in his great but rarely pondered Farewell Address. Consider these words about the danger of government encroachment by usurping power--something that is standard fare in our era, and rarely a topic of public debate:
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.
(emphasis mine)
This Fourth of July, why not resolve to better understand the principles of liberty that our Founding Fathers sought to protect? Why not seek to understand why the Lord in Doctrine & Covenants 98 would endorse the Constitutional law of the land and say that those principles belong to all mankind and that we should befriend them? The survival of our religion depends upon religious liberty and its preservation requires constant vigilance, in my opinion.