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

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Latter-Day Responsibility: Questions Answered by LDS Author Connor Boyack

A few years ago while on a business trip from Wisconsin to Utah, I met Connor Boyack, author of Latter-day Liberty and the forthcoming book, Latter-day Responsibility. We actually had lunch together twice, once in Salt Lake and once in Provo. I was interested in his previous web page design work and some other accomplishments. The fact that he shares my distrust of politicians in both parties makes him all the more likable.

With Latter-day Responsibility coming out soon (see LatterDayResponsibility.com), I posed a few questions on this topic and have permission to share his responses.

The topic of personal responsibility is important to me and in my opinion is one of many significant aspects of LDS theology that can help people find much more meaning and happiness in life, particularly when infused with a sound knowledge of what the Atonement of Christ does. On the other hand, I've been disappointed to see the words "personal responsibility" used too harshly in dealing with people in great need. Yes, we must help people develop responsibility, must not create dependency, and must recognize that many times simply giving money is not the answer. However, in expecting responsibility from others, we cannot abandon our own personal responsibility to minister, to love, and to share, even with the beggar whose own irresponsibility may be (or may not be) the cause of his poverty. That sharing, of course, is most effective when it is done the Lord's way which, as I understand it is, is based on voluntary giving and service and not, as too often happens, through the compulsion of bureaucrats using concern for poverty as a pretext for seizing and controlling great wealth. Of course, there are no easy answers to how to best help the needy, which is why I think it is right for welfare issues in the Lord's kingdom to be handled individually, case-by-case, with leaders seeking revelation through the Spirit of the Lord to know how best to help feed His sheep.

Before sharing the Q&A, here is a snippet from the book:
Just as was the case during the war in heaven, it is imperative that we fight here on earth to defend our agency against any who might wish to inhibit it or take it away. As President Hinckley taught, today’s continuation of that protracted war is “between truth and error, between agency and compulsion,” and requires “that we close ranks, that we march together as one.” It is arguably more important, however, that rather than simply defending agency, we promote its wise use. This entails, among other things, making good decisions, obeying God’s commandments, and using our agency in a righteous and responsible manner. By acknowledging, accepting, and acting upon our personal responsibilities, and by encouraging others to do the same, we switch from playing defense to playing offense in the battle to preserve agency. We put Satan and his legions on the ropes, and we increase tactical advantages. We win battles and gain ground, rather than defensively trying to limit our casualties.

Responsibility is one of the three Rs of agency, the other two being right and results. The right to choose is paramount and precedes the others, since having the unfettered ability to weigh and choose between different options is what allows agency to even be possible. This right comes directly from God, who made his children “agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56) who are “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27) their course. The responsibility of choice requires taking accountability for one’s decisions, suffering whatever the consequences of those choices are, whether for good or for bad. This leads to the result of choice, where the consequences of one’s decision are brought to pass, whether immediately or in the future. The rights, responsibility, and results implicit in our agency are either a burden or a blessing, depending on how they are used. When we choose to fulfill our personal responsibilities—when we pay the price for the results we seek after—then we increase our ability to be free and independent. By choosing to abandon those responsibilities, the result will be much like what is occurring in the world around us: staggering debt, dependence upon the state, weak and broken families, and a general deviation from God’s commandments.

By being responsible, we become wise stewards of the many things God has placed under our care. As wise stewards, we protect our agency and promote righteousness. In becoming righteous, we ensure that our individual liberty has a strong and sure foundation upon which to resist the encroachments of the state. It is a virtuous cycle. In short, only by “supporting and defending the principles of truth, right, and freedom” can we truly preserve liberty. The cycle begins by choosing to be responsible.
Now here are some questions I posed with Connor's answers.

1) Can personal responsibility sometimes be an excuse to ignore those who need our service and financial aid? How do we let personal responsibility strengthen rather than hinder our compassionate service to others?
This is such an important question to ponder and address. Latter-day Saints have a complex history of attempting to balance a life of self-reliance and yet service to (or rendered by) others. Many seek after independence, when the true ideal is interdependence. Our responsibility is not just to ourselves and those within our stewardship, but to those around us as well—to all of God's children. I love this statement by Joseph Smith: “A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."

In the quest to be independent and self-reliant, I've observed many of Christ's disciples turn a cold shoulder to somebody in need, claiming that they didn't want to foster dependence in that person. I've even heard the "if you give a man to fish, you'll feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you'll feed him for a lifetime" phrase used to justify denying a proverbial fish to somebody in need. And yet in that case, no fishing instruction was given.

I think sometimes we believe that those in need have to work harder and be more responsible, and if they applied themselves just a little more, they would not be asking for assistance. But going back to the previous question, regarding work/responsibility and grace, I think it's important that we remember one of the ways we see grace manifested in our lives, namely, through the work and fulfilled responsibilities of other people. God's hand is seen most easily through the hands of his servants.

The general mandate to be responsible and self-reliant was not intended by God to be absolute, as if all of his children must independently provide for themselves and forge their own path. This mandate is, I think, contextualized by countless commandments to freely impart of our substance and succor the weak.

We should recognize that God's desire for us to increase our personal responsibility is so that we can increase our agency. By dedicating our time, talents, and resources to building the kingdom of God (by building up others in need, both spiritually and temporally), we increase our power. In effect, as instruments in God's hands, we become more precise and effective the more we are used. Seen in this light, our responsibilities are not checklist mandates that carry condemnation for non-compliance, but opportunities to become like God.

2) As you explored this topic, did you come away with any new insights on the process of repentance and how we can better encourage repentance for people trapped in sin (OK, let's not just talk about me - try to keep this general)?

This book aims to be a practical one—discussing the importance of these responsibilities, their application to our everyday lives, and specific things we can do to better fulfill them. While I don't refer much to repentance per se, I do heavily discuss the relationship between liberty, agency and responsibility. They are inter-related and co-dependent; we cannot defend and promote our liberty or agency without also fulfilling our responsibilities. I believe that each of these influences the other—as we become more responsible, we are able to enjoy more liberty. Conversely, as we become less responsible, we become less free.

How can we help those trapped in sin? Are we all not in this situation? Remember that sin comes in two types, commission and omission. Most of us are familiar with, and primarily focus on, the sins of comission—adultery, theft, jealousy, violence, etc. These are easily identifiable, and therefore receive most of our attention when referring to sin. But personal responsibility deals in many ways with sins of omission, since we so very often fail to do things that we ought. We should have faith, be morally clean in action and thought, do our civic duty, serve those in need, get out of debt, be a more caring spouse or parent, and on and on and on. Falling short of these high standards is itself a sin, but a less recognizable one since it mainly involves a lack of action, and not an observable and identifiable action.

We're all very familiar with the repentance required for sins of commission. In short, it involves simply ceasing to do the sinful action. But how do we encourage repentance for people trapped in sins of omission? "Many of us... have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission," said Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions."

My goal in writing Latter-day Responsibility is to generate more conversation about this fundamental concept. To have liberty, or to be a better steward, or simply to obey God, we must rise to a higher level of action. Lehi's counsel is a clarion call to be a responsible people: "Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust."

Personal responsibility is a fundamental (and largely unrecognized) pillar of our society. That pillar has progressively become weakened through increased dependence upon government, indifference towards those in need, and myriad distractions leading people to abandon their responsibilities and avoid accountability for their actions. This alarming and long-standing trend must be called out and confronted by Latter-day Saints willing to be a light to the world, showing what personal responsibility really looks like in practice. And so as I look around at my fellow Saints, and inwardly at myself, I think… we've got some work to do.

3) Does the LDS view of personal responsibility trump grace? What is the relationship between our responsibility and the work of grace from Christ?
I don't really explore this angle in my book, as I contrast responsibility against individual liberty rather than grace. But it's an important question since responsibility is part of the "work" Christians are required to do, and therefore part of the larger work/grace debate that may never reach any satisfying conclusion for the general Christian community until His second coming.

To answer the first question directly, no, I don't believe that the Latter-day Saint view of personal responsibility trumps grace. "After all we can do," said the prophet Nephi, "it is by grace that we are saved." Nothing should (or can) trump the enabling and healing power of Christ's atonement for mankind.

When serving a mission in Honduras, I would often use the example of a drowning person being swept away in a fast-paced river. Imagine a friend on the shoreline extending a branch to save this person. All the drowning person has to do is accept and utilize the assistance being offered. Such a small amount of work is required to take advantage of a life-saving opportunity.

It's our responsibility to extend such branches to those in need—to be the instruments in God's hands. But it's also our responsibility to be smart about not jumping in the river to begin with, or at least being mindful of the current and taking necessary precautions. And yet the miracle of Christ's atonement is that no matter how irresponsible we may have been, He can make up the difference.

Congratulations to Connor on the new book. May he keep writing, thinking, and sharing in this critical era when far too little real thinking takes place. He's a good example of someone who has demonstrated a great deal of personal responsibility in his efforts to make the world a better place.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Temple Gone Dark: An Important New Slant on the Themes of Nephi’s Vision and Lehi’s Dream

Lehi’s famous dream and Nephi’s expanded version of the vision just became more meaningful, thanks to the insights offered by D. John Butler in his ebook, Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men, available at Smashwords or Amazon for a pittance. In this short book written in a relatively light conversational style, Butler surprises the reader with a wealth of research about ancient Jewish temple concepts and the Day of Atonement ritual, giving a surprising new twist to the visions in First Nephi.

The book suggests that Jewish temple concepts are woven more deeply into the Book of Mormon than we have previously realized. In the most significant section, he presents a credible and intriguing case that Nephi is using Jewish imagery to describe a temple gone dark, representing the apostasy of the religious establishment of his day. He begins by explaining how the ancient Jewish temple had three sections. First is the ulam, often translated as “porch,” a room that may be roofless or very tall. Then comes the hekal, the main middle room. That word literally means “building” or “great building.” A high, lofting building. And then comes the debir, the holy of holies, representing the presence and power of the Lord.

Recall how Lehi begins his travel in a “dark and dreary wilderness” that joins a “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world” (1 Nephi 8:20). When I last read that verse a few months ago, I remember feeling jarred by the phrase “a world.” It just seemed odd and out of place. But Butler’s framework makes wonderful sense of it. The Hebrew word ulam for the first part of the temple is very close, almost identical in sound, to olam, the word that means “world.” In Butler’s view, there is a Hebrew play on words linking the great and spacious field, “a world,” to the Temple’s ulam. It’s one of many clues that we are on a Temple trip—but not the happy place of light and joy we normally associate with the Temple. In Lehi’s dream, it’s a temple gone dark. Dark and dreary, filled with wicked priests representing the corrupt religions establishment of his day.

After the ulam comes the hekal, the “great building.” Recall Lehi’s words of what he saw after the field/world/ulam:
a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. (1Nephi 8:26-27)
The word “fine” is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to describe the clothing of the priests in the temple, not secular clothing. The people with the fine clothing in the great and spacious building include the priests of the temple in a sinister hekal, part of Lehi’s dark temple experience. Butler also compares the fumes of incense that are part of the hekal with the mists of darkness that lead people astray. The waters of life that are part of many temple scenarios in ancient literature are replaced with filthy waters that lead people astray.

Only those who resist the corrupt religious establishment of his day and the temptations and pressures of the adversary, clinging to the word of God (the iron rod) can make it past the dark ulam and sinister hekal and arrive safely to debir and the tree of life, rich in temple imagery also.

Butler argues that the Book of Mormon preserves a “loser’s eye view” of the religious controversies of 6th century B.C. Jerusalem. Nephi records in visionary form the two temple rites at the heart of the religion of his father, in 1 Nephi 8 and 1 Nephi 11-14. Understanding those vision-ordinances, according to Butler, gives us a key to understanding the rest of the Book of Mormon, and seeing that the entire book, from start to finish, is about the temple and the people who worshiped inside it. While I struggle with a few parts of his presentation, I am intrigued and have found several outstanding nuggets so far in his work.

There is much more in Butler’s delightful contribution, which reminds us that the Book of Mormon is more fascinating and more thoroughly ancient and Semitic that we may have realized. What a treasure that book is, filled with surprises and insights still being uncovered by those who dig.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A New Twist on the Spalding Theory--And Sidney's Amazing Voice Trick

For some critics, the story of the lost 116 pages in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is utterly ridiculous. Some say it shows Joseph was just making things up on the fly and would have all sorts of accidental changes as he went through the fabrication process a second time, so for safety, he just punted with the first part of the record and concocted the story of the small plates. This is the "Joseph was an idiot with bad memory" theory. The story of the 116 pages from that perspective directly challenges the popular theory of "Joseph got help from Sidney Rigdon or some other very smart person" to create the impressive and remarkably self-consistent text of the Book of Mormon. These theories based on plagiarism and texts from the likes of Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon or both assume that there was some text that had been prepared and carefully edited over many months or even years in preparation for the grand Book of Mormon scheme. When Joseph was dictating the Book of Mormon to his scribes, he must have been reading from the pre-written manuscript. If such a manuscript existed, then it would have been no trouble reading it again exactly as read before.

A more imaginative anti-Mormon "solution" to the origins of the Book of Mormon has been proposed. Robert W. Thurston's Unlocking the Great Mormon Mystery: A Radically New Approach to Deciphering Mormon Origins (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008) is actually one of the "best" and most responsible anti-Mormon books that I have read--"responsible" in the sense that it actually acknowledges the existence of pro-Book of Mormon scholarship from people such as Stephen Ricks and Daniel Peterson of BYU rather than just alleging that there is no serious evidence of any kind for ancient origins. Thurston has seen the evidence, recognizes that some of it can be quite impressive, and has to conclude that the Book of Mormon could not have been authored by the likes of Joseph Smith. In that sense, he's actually ahead of many Latter-day Saints in appreciating the richness of the Book of Mormon text. And I'll also credit him for a generally enjoyable and readable style in his writing.

His imaginative solution takes an old, tired theory and gives it an interesting new twist. Thurston argues, as a number of others have, that the Book of Mormon is far too sophisticated to have been written by Joseph, so it must have come from--you guessed it--Sidney Rigdon with the aid of Solomon Spalding, well educated men with access to scholarly resources, men who were able to put years into their masterpiece of deceit (Hebraisms! Arabian Peninsula details! even the Narrative of Zosimus!). Their carefully drafted manuscript only had to be dictated by an alleged prophet who would claim to be "translating" a text from gold plates. This man would be their partner in crime, Joseph Smith, Jr. The scheme was designed to bring Sidney access to religious power and fame, and would give Joseph a chance to introduce polygamy so he could party with lots of wild Mormon women (when he wasn't being jailed or tarred and feathered, that is).

The basic framework of Thurston's solution, the Spalding theory via Sidney Rigdon, is easily refuted and has been rather dead for years (more on that later), but there is a cute twist: the doomed manuscript that Joseph gave to Martin Harris was actually not the 116 pages of partially completed dictation to a scribe, but, through a horrific and remarkably stupid blunder, the full, big, original manuscript, the much lengthier Spalding manuscript itself that was the basis for the whole fraud that Sidney and Joseph were developing. This hypothesis supposedly solves several problems.

Thurston, who has impressive experience in solving secular problems, feels that perplexing little details in the story may be the key to finding the surprising truth. One of the little details that others allegedly ignore and he uses as a key to discovery is the reaction of Joseph Smith to the loss of the manuscript he gave to Martin Harris. Thurston says Joseph's gloom-and-doom reaction is completely illogical if he were a prophet of God. If a prophet, Joseph would have just shrugged off the loss and said, "OK, let's retranslate." Or he could have relied on the powerful Angel Moroni to simply transport the manuscript back into his hands. No trouble! But the depression and anxiety shows something else was going on, according to Thurston.

Here I begin to have trouble with Thurston's analysis--or perhaps it's just a personality thing. He must be a very easy-going fellow who doesn't understand what it feels like for some people ("spiritual Type A" perhaps?) to take on a huge responsibility, to feel the full weight of an important project or duty affecting other lives, and then to make mistakes that lead to failure. For some of us, failure, especially when it is clearly our fault, is a terribly painful ordeal. I have felt similar pain for much smaller and less serious blunders. Maybe Joseph, like me, was more prone to guilt trips than the general population, but to dismiss his reaction as absurd is sloppy. Joseph's reaction makes sense to me and I can accept it at face value. Maybe Thurston would have been comfortable telling the Almighty that he had just lost the sacred manuscript he was supposed to publish and "let's just start again--no problem, right?" But it was a much bigger failure for Joseph.

If Joseph were a fraud, argues Thurston, his reaction still poses difficulties. Losing the dictated text, the 116 pages, is an inconvenience that simply requires starting over to dictate the "translation" exactly as before. Just a few days of copying would be lost. But if Joseph had an original manuscript with a carefully written text upon which all depended, and then, through amazing stupidity, handed that to Martin Harris instead of the smaller 116 pages, it truly would have been a disaster. That's the interesting twist proposed by Thurston, and I have to credit him for creative thinking here and for significantly advancing the cause of the Spalding Theory. The Spalding Manuscript itself is what Joseph foolishly handed to Martin Harris, according to Thurston. Wow!

Such a mistake by Joseph would be a double disaster, actually, because the manuscript was lost and their main source of funds for the scheme, Martin Harris, might be lost as well. Instead of strengthening his faith in the work to lead him to give financial support, he would be puzzled about receiving the full manuscript when it was supposed to be only partially translated, only 116 pages so far. He might notice that the text was already complete and in someone else's handwriting, or perhaps, I would suggest, he might see that it looked like a carefully written and edited manuscript that had been around for years, not a fresh dictation to a scribe. Gratefully, Thurston acknowledges that Martin Harris can't just be dismissed as a con-man accomplice knowingly supporting a crooked scheme (the same actually applies to the other witnesses such as Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, but this is conveniently overlooked and they remain knowing accomplices of Joseph's outrageous fraud in Thurston's model). So the concern was that Martin, the one they needed to dupe to gain access to his funds to publish their book, might, uh, begin to have misgivings. He would need to be given revived confidence in Joseph the "prophet" and the divinity of the Book of Mormon. How to rescue the scheme? Here comes another creative twist with a kicker that I just love.

With Sidney's brilliant help, a backup plan was quickly concocted in short order. The "small plates" story was contrived and a new Book of Mormon text was crafted on the fly (hey, how then do we fit in all the intricate details that had been crafted in the lost original manuscript?). Further, to regain Martin Harris's trust, Joseph and Sidney concocted the "three witnesses scheme" in which those in one the con job (Joseph, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon) would use peer pressure and trickery to make Martin Harris think he saw an angel and the plates. As for the Angel Moroni that Martin would see, it was actually just the voice of Sidney Rigdon--um, hiding behind a tree. That's the best part. I love it!

This may be the most enjoyable anti-Mormon book of the decade, and one of the few with the courage to admit that there is any kind of scholarship on the pro-Book of Mormon side. Many bonus points for that. He discusses chiasmus, Hebraisms, confirmations from Arabian geography, cool parallels to the Narrative of Zosiumus, word print studies and even the Mesoamerican limited geography theory as a plausible location for Book of Mormon events, and attempts to explain it all as good scholarship (good? maybe "genius," "visionary," or even "prophetic" would be better) by Sidney in collaboration with Spalding, drawing upon the scholarship of Alexander Campbell and others.

His fresh take on the old Spalding theory is interesting, but when it comes to confronting the reality of numerous witnesses with track records, reputations, and lifelong commitment to the divine origins of the Book of Mormon, well, Thurston's theory simply falls flat. It doesn't come close to matching the details of the lives and testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the many other facts associated with the witnesses to the plates, the witnesses to the translation processes, and the other details of the Book of Mormon story. And seriously, Sidney behind a tree as the Angel Moroni--an event that would change Martin's life, motivate him to sacrifice all for the cause of the Book of Mormon, and be part of his vibrant testimony to the day he died? Well, Sidney did have a great voice, I guess.

Resources: Update, Sept. 18.: Sigh. How disappointed I am to learn that Thurston's imaginative reworking of the Three Witnesses story, with Sidney Rigdon starring as the voice of the Angel Moroni, is not quite his original contribution after all. In fact, the core of this scenario is over a century old and comes from a 1908 book by William Heth Whitsitt--an author not mentioned by Thurston. It would be unjust to accuse Thurston of plagiarism--he probably picked up the idea from some other anti-Mormon source that plagiarized Whitsitt without credit, and then regurgitated it in this work, dressing it up a bit, and not feeling a need to give credit. That's OK, I guess, but it would have been helpful to know where such an amusing solution came from so we can all give proper credit. The information that unlocks the mystery of the origins of Thurston's Three Witnesses scenario comes from FAIRLDS, in a short page on the alleged missing, second Spalding manuscript. Here is the relevant text (note that Solomon Spalding's name can be been spelled both "Spalding" and "Spaulding"):
The discovery and publishing of the [Spaulding] manuscript put to rest the Spaulding theory for several decades. But in the early 20th century the theory surfaced again, only this time its advocates claimed there was a second Spaulding manuscript that was the real source for the Book of Mormon. However, supporters of the revised Spaulding theory have not produced this second purported manuscript. They do, however, rely upon early works such as a 1908 book written by William Heth Whitsitt called Sidney Rigdon, The Real Founder of Mormonism. The entire book is based upon Whitsitt's initial assumption that Rigdon and Spalding wrote the Book of Mormon. Whitsitt then proceeds to fit the known facts to match that assumption. One of the most amusing parts of the book is the attempt to explain the experience of the Three Witnesses. In Whitsitt's book, Sidney plays the Angel Moroni and the Spalding manuscript itself (the second, undiscovered one) actually plays the part of the gold plates! According to Whitsitt:
It is suspected that Mr. Rigdon was somewhere present in the undergrowth of the forest where the little company were assembled, and being in plain hearing of their devotions he could easily step forward at a signal from Joseph, and exhibit several of the most faded leaves of the manuscript, which from having been kept a series of years since the death of Spaulding would assume the yellow appearance that is well known in such circumstances. At a distance from the station which they occupied the writing on these yellow sheets of paper would also appear to their excited imagination in the light of engravings; Sidney was likewise very well equal to the task of uttering the assurances which Smith affirms the angel was kind enough to supply concerning the genuineness of the "plates" and the correctness of the translation.
OK, Thurston's scenario (or whoever it was that created it) "improves" upon Whitsitt by keeping Rigdon behind the tree and relying more fully on imagination to fill in the appearance of the angel and the plates, but it's still pretty similar. One must remember that anti-Mormon writings are not nearly as original as they seem. There is a great deal of unacknowledged borrowing going on, especially in the works accusing Joseph Smith of plagiarism. Understanding that principle can help us in unlocking the many mysteries of anti-Mormonism.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"I Met My Wife at Her Wedding"

During the just-concluded District Conference of the Shanghai International District, with over 500 people attending, Sister Susan Lindsay Gong (the wife of Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the First Quorum of the Seventy) shared some stories from people she has met in Asia. One of my favorite was of a man in India who, when Sister Gong asked him how he met his wife, said, "I met my wife at her wedding." But it wasn't because it was an arranged marriage with someone he hadn't seen before.

The man was Catholic and had been preparing to become a Catholic priest. He was struggling with that decision, feeling that it somehow wasn't right for him. After having prayed to God to understand what path he should follow, he was invited by a friend to attend a wedding there in India. During the wedding, though, chaos broke out. The groom's family made a surprise last-minute demand for a new car to be added to the dowry. The bride's family was outraged and humiliated. A bitter argument broke out with shouting and more, as the bride, hiding behind a barrier, began to sob over the disaster and threaten suicide.

The prospective priest suddenly sensed his purpose and his new direction in life. He had this feeling: "I can fix this." He went to the father and offered a solution. He would end the disaster and bring peace by offering to marry the woman and would require no dowry. "And I will devote my life to making your daughter happy." The father was touched, accepted the offer, and a new marriage was arranged or agreed to as they worked out the details over the next couple of weeks. The once prospective priest soon took on quite different vows and married that woman. He and his wife a few years later met missionaries and became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and have continued strengthening their marriage and their joy.

I would love to meet that couple some day.

Our District Conference, by the way, was a tremendous event. How amazing that we could meet and hold big meetings like this here in China, with the kind permission of the government. Learning from Elder Gong and his wife and from our local leaders and fellow members was a delight. For those interested in Book of Mormon studies, Elder Gong mentioned chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and a few other issues in one of his talks. Cool. He's a wonderfully intelligent man with a great personality. He's also a Rhodes Scholar with a Ph.D. from Oxford. Any of you met him? Extremely kind and likeable man, and his sharp wife is also a powerful teacher and very wise, inspiring Latter-day Saint. I was especially pleased to see how much they cared about our Single Adults.

I was delighted that we had 78 present for the Young Single Adult devotional after the main session of conference. We had planned lunch for about 60 people (to help the YSAs staying after conference for the devotional), but wonderfully one wise and loving sister anticipated our plight and brought a big load of food on Sunday to add to what we had. It came down to the very last slice of bread, the very last paper plate, and hardly a scrap left, but the group was fed and disaster averted thanks to Sister G. Whew. Thanks a million! The people who sense needs and just pitch in are at the heart of what makes a group people a strong community, or even a Zion society, as we say in the Church. May we all build up Zion.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Eternal Souls in Frail Mortal Shells: The Complexity of Gender

One of the great liberating and ennobling teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is the Father of our spirits (Heb. 12:9,10), and we are His children (Romans 8:14-17), beings with an eternal destiny, sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. We are sons and daughters, not just generic sexless spirits, but beings of specific gender going back long before our birth into these frail, imperfect mortal shells. Our gender predates our birth. In the premortal existence where we dwelt as spirit sons and daughters of God, we waited and were willing to be born into mortality and take on all the challenges and pains this brief trial brings.

Latter-day Saint theology helps us understand that we are more than our physical bodies. Much more. Our immortal spirit bodies, male or female, is at the core of the "real us." It is now housed in a wonderful but deliberately limited and fallible device, the mortal body, which is designed to be temporary and to ultimately perish. Not only will it die, but it is subject to all manner of afflictions and trials. Pain, disease, deformity of all kinds, wounds and damage in endless ways are possible. Every gene, every organ, every part of the body is subject to risk and harm. These problems may arise from random mutations, from radiation, from chemicals, from physical injury, gaps in nutrition, threats in the environment, and a host of other factors from the moment of conception onward. What a miracle it is that so many of us can walk, see, taste, bear children, and enjoy the pleasures and wonders of life as we do. May we always be sensitive to those whose struggle is different.

Latter-day Saints of all people should be prepared to understand that our gender is determined by something other than the physical appearance of our body. When we consider how variable this mortal shell is and how many things can confuse and confound these mortal shells, we should be well prepared to understand that there may be instances where a male or female spirit is in a body that, due to the random challenges of mortality from mutations or other issues affecting physical development, does not fully or accurately match the gender of the spirit. That this problem can occur is perhaps most easily understood by considering the case of individuals who are obviously born with both male and female attributes. In some cases, doctors make an assignment through surgery to specify which gender such individuals will have. It's possible for us to grasp, then, that the assignment may be incorrect, resulting in a female or male spirit assigned to a body that doesn't match the true gender of the soul. This error in assignment may happen through other means. There are other stories and pathways for us to consider.

I used to be skeptical about such possibilities until I met a valiant Christian woman and learned about her life-long struggle. From birth to about age 50, she was in a body assigned to the male gender, possibly due to problems associated with harmful medications her mother was taking during pregnancy. She is now physically female. I have shared her story on this blog before. Today I'd like to share something kindly written by another voice, the faithful and valiant Christian and Latter-day Saint who is the Webmaster of one of the voices associated with LDSGender.com:
The more I study this issue the more it seems to me like it really is purely a medical one. There is a general medical term called "intersexed" which applies to anybody who has physical characteristics of both males and females. The exact arrangement amongst individuals so affected can vary greatly. Traditionally people limit the application of the term to characteristics that are readily apparent by viewing a person's outer physical characteristics, conditions such as undescended testes or any other number of variations on the genitalia that don't point obviously to the individual being male or female. But then there are other conditions that you can't perceive by simply viewing somebody's body with your eyes but that medical science allows us to see with relatively routine tests.

Examples of this include phenotypical males who are later found to have ovaries and/or a uterus and/or Fallopian tubes, females who are found to have internal testes, phenotypical females who have the DNA of a male and phenotypical males who have the DNA of a female or the combined DNA of a male and a female. The fact that there are numerous readily recognized conditions such as this should show that we tread on somewhat slippery ground when we insist "gender is determined by genitalia." The International Olympic Committee used to think that way, then "advanced" to supposing that "gender was really determined by DNA" until it became clear that even that was not 100% reliable. Now they are not quite sure what to think. Beyond what physical sight can tell us about gender and what current medical science can tell us about gender there is also what future medical science may be able to tell us about gender.

There is growing evidence that the prime determinant of gender rests in a person's brain (which may be the physical organ most closely connected with a person's spirit) and that no amount of nurturing, upbringing or socialization to the contrary, hormone therapy or surgery can fundamentally change. At this point in time we can't really tell if a person has the physical structure of a male brain or of a female brain . . . until they are dead, and studies have shown that those who were phenotypically male in life but who reported having a female identity were indeed found to have a female brain structure upon post-mortem examination. But even with the limitations of current medical technology we can get a decent idea of what gender a person is by doing something rather simple . . . we can ask them. Self-reports, especially self-reports made persistently over a period of time tend to be the best possible determinant of a person's actual gender. And to have a female brain in a male body (and vice versa) is coming to be seen as an actual intersexed condition, even if the actual physical incongruity is known to nobody but the individual. I believe there is already medical evidence to back this up and that growing medical evidence will eventually make it close to irrefutable.

The absolute most humane approach at any point in time is to respect what an individual says about their gender. When a person lives against their actual gender it causes untold stress that takes an additional toll beyond what they are already physically experiencing.

In the Lord's restored and eternal gospel gender is exceedingly important. Eternal unions are formed when a male and a female are sealed by proper priesthood authority. Additionally, sexual sin (including some forms that confuse gender differences) is rampant in our society. It is easy to see how anything related to "sex" can be a very touchy subject. It can also be easy to think of those who are intersexed in the manner spoken of above as loose, degraded, immoral, hyper-homosexual, deviant, on the fringe of Gospel activity (if anywhere near it), etc. Mine is one of a number of voices out there showing that there are those with gender issues who are imperfect but who do not fit that stereotype. I am a lifelong true-blue, through and through, dyed-in-the-wool Mormon born in the covenant to two active LDS parents from good pioneer stock. I have served an honorable mission and have always been temple-worthy and I also enjoy frequent temple attendance. I do my hometeaching, read the Ensign all the way through every month as well as reading all the Priesthood/RS and Sunday School lesson material ahead of time before it is discussed each Sunday. I have strictly observed the law of chastity and have never partaken of drugs or alcohol. I also have never encouraged immoral behavior in anyone else. I have a profound testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has been revealed to me by the Holy Ghost and a fixed determination to live up to all of my covenants, no matter the cost. None of this seems to have changed the reality of the gender issue I face where having a male body doesn't seem to be the correct mortal shell for an apparently female spirit.
I'll have more to share on this topic shortly. There is a great deal of medical research that can give us insight into these complexities, and with that insight, perhaps compassion and understanding may grow. These instances may be rare and unusual, but where they occur, great sensitivity and kindness is needed in a world that can be quite cruel.

This is a sensitive topic and I still have much to learn since it is so outside my experience. Only recently did I chose to confront it and learn more from others. Just as we need to be loving toward those whose struggles are different, we need to be loving and tolerant of those in the Church whose viewpoints are different. There is a diversity of opinions that will be expressed from various leaders of the Church when they touch upon this topic, if at all. This is an area where slow, gradual development of understanding is likely to occur, and where patience and faith is needed for those struggling with this complex issue and for their friends and families. Bitterness and militancy is not the Lord's way of dealing with tough issues, but are crucial tools for the Adversary who delights in contention, anger, and mocking.

Update, Sept. 10, 2012: Some useful resources to understand the issues related to the complexity of gender can be found at http://ldsgender.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/transsexuality-is-one-form-of-intersexuality/ (great discussion occurs there, too). Also check out the excellent resources listed at http://ldsgender.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/. One publication that I found especially interesting and thoughtful was "Developmental, Sexual and Reproductive Neuroendocrinology: Historical, Clinical and Ethical Considerations" by Dr. Milton Diamond, Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 2011, pages 255-263. Also see the AAAS news item, "New Research Casts Doubt on Surgery for Infants Born with Male and Female Traits."

Saturday, September 08, 2012

New Respect for Brigham Young Leading the Mormon Exodus

Yesterday in Shanghai was day one of a two-day conference for the Shanghai International District of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With members coming into Shanghai from Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Zhenjiang, Changzhou, and other nearby cities, we had a great opportunity to get our Young Single Adults (YSAs) together before and after the 3 pm adult session on Saturday. As co-chairs of the District Single Adults Committee, my wife and I organized a tour of Shanghai for the approximately 70 single adults we expected to be coming into town. Whew! Exhausting.

For the 50-plus group that went with us on the tour, just getting from one side of Shanghai to the other with clear directions, convenient public transportation, comfortable weather and abundant resources resulted in numerous challenges such as some people nearly expiring from hunger (time between eating was too long), some people being lost in the urban wilderness, and many unexpected delays. Still not sure what percentage of the group actually made it to the various member homes they were staying at last night.

This short trek across town was also done with food all around us, air conditioned subway trains, and electric lighting. We were spared the challenges of childbirths along the way. We face no threat of attacks from marauding warriors or soccer fans, no fierce storms to endure (light sprinkle at the end), no mountains to cross, and nothing that genuinely threatened any lives. While we feel the event went well and really enjoyed working with these terrific young people, the little trek was surprisingly difficult and stressful. There are many things we might do differently next time ("leave the stragglers to the wolves" was at the top of the list, but on second thought...). It leaves me with new-found respect for the Mormon Exodus and the leadership of Brigham Young in organizing the outcast Latter-day Saints and leading them across the country in the most dire of circumstances to build Zion in the Rockies. Truly he was an American Moses.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Send Your Pixels on a Mission: Donate Great Photos to the Church

LDS photographers, your photos of LDS-related sites and events might be helpful, along with photos of people. Church publications, including websites, could benefit from some of the great photos you have taken. Note: It's important to have release forms for all of the identifiable people in them in order for the Church to use the photos. This rules out most photos of my readers, but for the few pros and serious amateurs out there who use release forms, consider this a mission call for your pixels.

Here is an email that was sent recently requesting the help of LDS photographers:

Dear LDS Photographer,

We are contacting those who have shared photos with the Church as part of the Church call for photos. A Church department needs a photo of an Asian temple with people in front of it for a project they are doing. If you have a photo that meets this need and would be willing to share it with the Church, please submit it through vineyard.lds.org. Remember you will need to submit a signed participant release for those in the photo.

If you know of others who may have a photo like this, please share this email with them.

As a reminder, we are in continual need of great photos of about anything you can think of, especially people. If you haven’t submitted photos in a while, we invite you to share your talents with the Church. If you love taking photos but don’t have a place to use them, consider sharing your best photos with the Church. For more information, look at create.lds.org.
Thanks for your help,
Member-contributed Media Team
Publishing Services Department
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints