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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Moving Away from Big Pageants: New Announcement

In a brief announcement at the LDS Newsroom, the Church has indicated a desire to move away from big pageants, the most famous of which is the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Here is the statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing across the earth. As this occurs, local Church leaders and members are encouraged to focus on gospel learning in their homes and to participate in Sabbath worship and the Church’s supporting programs for children, youth, individuals and families. The goal of every activity in the Church should be to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to share His gospel message throughout the world. Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged. As it relates to existing pageants, conversations with local Church and community leaders are underway to appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.
On the same day, a Deseret News story gave more specific information: "The Hill Cumorah Pageant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will cease its 81-year run after its 2020 season."

If you think the real reason for this change is that the real Hill Cumorah must be in Mesoamerica, you'll be disappointed that there are no plans to move it to, say, the Hill Vigia in Veracruz State in Mexico, or the nearby Cerro San Martin, both possibly plausible candidates that could provide the military advantage and access to water required by the Book of Mormon.

Many of us will miss the Hill Cumorah Pageant, but in an increasingly complex and turbulent world, the Church's emphasis on family and local learning and simplification is probably a very wise thing, in spite of the fabulous tradition that this and other pageants have been over the years.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Primed by a Mosquito for a New Ministering Assignment

Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, mosquito expert, with Jeff and Kendra
Earlier this week I lost some sleep here in Shanghai when a mosquito viewed me as an all-you-eat buffet. Mosquitoes seem to be more strongly attracted to me than anyone else around, but it's largely unrequited affection, though I do marvel at their design. In fact, I am one of the few Americans to not only set foot in the easily overlooked Mosquito Museum (officially the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but to also spend time discussing mosquitoes with the charming woman scientist who built that amazing, quirky place, Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, arguably the world's leading expert on mosquitoes. She is far more positive about the overall role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem than I am.

Although I was convinced that our Shanghai apartment was mosquito free when I turned the lights out, I awoke at about 4 AM with an itching arm that had about three bites. I reached for one of the greatest inventions known to mankind, the mosquito racquet, a bug zapper that looks like a tennis racquet. Eventually I grabbed two to double my killing power, yearning for a soul-satisfying zap. With no luck yet, on went my LED flashlight to support a meticulous scan of walls, the ceiling, the headboard, pretty much everywhere, always waving the wand in random places while I searched for signs of a resting or flying mosquito. I was successful in my secondary goal of not waking my wife, but my zap-and-nap strategy never reached the zap phase.

After 20 or so minutes of waving and searching, I wondered if I may have scored a silent kill, and decided to go back to sleep. But first I applied some DoTERRA grapefruit essential oil, containing a small but possibly effective amount of nootkatone, the amazing compound that is vastly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes (though my friends at DoTERRA didn't know that). In fact, it can even kill mosquitoes (though the essential oil I used may not have enough nootkatone to kill) due to a surprising interaction it has with a mosquito's wing regulator system. It causes the regulator system to go out of control and make the mosquito buzz way too fast until it just drops dead. Sweet! (Sorry, Dr. Rampa. I still think you are fabulous and admire your lifetime of research on the critters I despise.)

Grapefruit oil is relatively safe on humans but don't get it in your eyes or lungs. Like many citrus essential oils, it can be painful or harmful in the eyes. I can testify of the pain that grapefruit essential oil causes: a very small amount touched near my eye caused long-lasting pain the other day that was not quickly reduced by heavy rinsing with water. Ouch, ouch, ouch! But I still love the smell and it seems to be effective in warding off mosquitoes, though it is fairly volatile and might not last terribly long. That's also a challenge for nootkatone, not to mention its terribly high price (though two companies have developed techniques to make it cheaper, one using bacteria to produce it and another using catalysts to make it from a low-cost orange oil compound).

When I awoke later, I found that critter on the ceiling. I got it this time. Where had she been hiding during all my earlier searches?

But the point of this is what happened after I tried to go back to sleep. At about 5:15 AM, as recorded by my Pleco Chinese dictionary app's history function, I was troubled by an important thought: "You don't know the Chinese word for PRIME NUMBER." Yikes, prime number -- I need to know that word, I thought. Now if you're like me and enjoy hanging out with geeks and science fans and people who love to read and learn, you've probably had discussions about prime numbers with other people, oh, about twice in the past 5 years or so (excluding my wife, a math teacher, who really enjoys chit chat on all sorts of math issues, including prime numbers which came up about a month ago when I told her about the news of a possible but controversial proof of the Riemann Hypothesis).

Really, almost nobody talks about prime numbers in casual conversation. Why would I ever need that word in Chinese? But I did want to know. "I'm curious, but I can just look it up in the morning. Time to sleep now." And then came the thought: "If you don't look it up now, you might forget to do it later. Why not just do it now?" I've justified numerous lengthy departures from sleep with that kind of reasoning and have been trying hard to resist that path, but this time seemed different. "It will just take a second, if I'm careful." And so I looked up the word for prime number. Two different terms, actually, but apparently zhishu (质数) is the more commonly used one. It could be translated as "number of substance." Interesting and logical. Cool. And then I kept my promise to myself and tried, with eventual and brief success, to go back to sleep.

A few hours later that morning, I would get a call from the executive of one of China's finest private charities (in my biased opinion), the Huang Yicong Foundation for which I am delighted to have been recently added as a board member. The executive director wanted to talk to me. I rushed over to her office on the same floor where I work. As I sat down, I was touched with a beautiful Buddhist image attached to the lower portion of her computer screen. I was struck with this thought: "This faithful Buddhist woman is serving the same God I worship in her devotion and service to others." I reflected briefly upon the goodness in so many faiths and in those who seek to live higher laws learned through their faith.

She began by telling me about a challenge among some outstanding students in one of the schools we support. As she was interacting with these students recently, she told me, she was asking what their biggest challenges are in education. English was a key issue. And in her discussion, she realized that there is vocabulary in English related to many of the areas that they need to study that they really don't know. "For example," she said, "I asked the students if they knew the English word for 质数, which is prime number." "Whoa!" I said. "This morning I had a strange feeling that I needed to look up the word for prime number. Look, here it is in my Pleco dictionary. There is the search for prime number at 5:15 AM. Zhishu. Never needed it once in my seven years here, and now after that strange experience, here you are talking to me about prime numbers. So strange. Anyway, whatever you are about to ask me, I think it's going to be important." And it was.

She wanted to ask me and my wife if we could spend some time at least monthly or more often if possible doing a videoconference with those special students to help them improve their English while also using helping them with vocabulary related to math and other fields they are studying. We also may be going there to visit them. Time has been tight recently, but I think we can do this and we both would love to help, and now my Chinese teacher, touched by this story, has also volunteered to help. I saw the class today in a brief initial videoconference and was impressed with the sharp, sweet, and well-behaved group.

Of particular significance to me was the way she presented this assignment to me. It was done it a personal interview. It began with a discussion of the particular strengths and needs of the people I would be assigned to. It was done with love, respect, and charity. I should have asked that fine leader if she had been reading the new LDS materials on ministering, because she delivered the assignment in exactly the right way. Those materials, available in the Ministering section of the LDS Library App, emphasize that assignments to minister should be given in a personal interview that includes discussing not just the needs of those involved, but also their strengths. She did it perfectly, lovingly, and so effectively. What a great example to follow. I marvel at her natural leadership and ministering skills.

I look forward to seeing where this assignment leads us. How interesting that an annoying sleep-depriving critter and a coincidence involving prime numbers could play a role in awaking me to the significance of a leader's thoughtful assignment. I hope I can live up to this opportunity.

Related post: "Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program"

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Surprisingly Modern Book of Mormon: The Perspective of an Archivist

One of the most astounding aspects of the Book of Mormon is the intricate detail it provides regarding its sources. As largely compiled by the military leader and master historian, Mormon, and concluded by his son, Moroni, the Book of Mormon relies on numerous documents, including the brass plates brought from Jerusalem around 600 BC, Nephi's small plates with many authors, the large plates, the Jaredite record, and then a host of sources drawn upon by Mormon or others such as the record of Limhi, military reports, epistles, etc. Through it all, we are frequently told where the information came from and who is writing or editing it.

Far more than just acknowledgement of sources is involved. The Book of Mormon gives us intricate details on the creation, transmission, preservation, and reliability of those sources--in other words, abundant details on provenance.

In this way, the Book of Mormon is quite different than the Old Testament, where we are often left to wonder who wrote which parts of the various texts. For those interested in the Documentary Hypothesis and the various ways ancient scribes and editors may have compiled and redacted their texts, the data from the Book of Mormon should be a welcome reference point for detailed study.

But not only does the emphasis on record keeping and provenance in the Book of Mormon differ strongly from what we have in the Bible, it also differs radically from record keeping practices in Joseph Smith's day. The record keeping aspects of the Book of Mormon often seem fairly normal to modern readers because it reflects our modern understanding of good practices in dealing with historical records, but those practices were largely absent in Joseph Smith's day, as an archivist, Anita Wells, has explained. Anita has a master's degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and recently published an outstanding examination of the record keep issues in the Book of Mormon that many of us gloss over or take for granted. See Anita Wells, "Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 99-122. An excerpt follows (see the original for the references deleted here):
Some historic tablets and scrolls indicate that scribes signed their work and noted the lineage of copy transmission.Yet the idea of record provenance, which traces the chronology of ownership and custody of records to document their authenticity, was a nineteenth and twentieth century development by European archivists. In the mid-nineteenth century, American interest in the past grew with the formation of historical societies (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) to honor the dying colonial generation. However, American society experienced a slow beginning in organizing historical records. As a historian noted, “the handwritten world of colonial records did not adopt a sophisticated recordkeeping system. Discussions on colonial records and recordkeeping mostly focus on individual or organizational negligence or natural damage by fire and water.” It was not until the twentieth century revolution of typewriters and duplicators (and further digital transformations) that record keeping changed dramatically.

The resources for a historian in Joseph Smith’s era would have been limited, insofar as library access, organization, and retrieval went. A nineteenth-century frontier historian searching through volumes of early Plymouth history or Harvard College’s records would not have the benefit of alphabetical arrangement, indices, cross-references, and topical searches, as these concepts were in their infancy. Additionally, more advanced archival principles like chain of custody, keeping fonds (an archival group of papers) together (officially known as “respect des fonds”), and archival integrity were nascent at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

While archival methodology began to move in new directions around 1830 (interesting coincidence of date) in Europe, it was not until the early twentieth century that these ideas became accepted on a widespread level in the United States:
Although archives have existed for thousands of years, much of the archival paradigm — not unlike that of library science — coalesced between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several key treatises and manuals codifying archival theory and practice were published between 1830 … and 1956. … The most influential of these was the Manual on the Arrangement and Description of Archives, written in 1898 by Dutch archivists … which brought together the French and Prussian ideas of respect des fonds and provenance. The translated manual was widely disseminated and was a major topic of discussion when librarians and archivists met for the first time for an international congress at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. As a result, the concept of provenance was adopted by the congress as the basic rule of the archival profession.
Consider how the above information affects our understanding of Book of Mormon studies: the archival profession as we understand it now did not exist in Joseph Smith’s time. The concept of provenance (a record of ownership to guide claims of authenticity) and chain of custody (documenting that record of ownership) was not identified. The Bible, Joseph’s main resource for an example of ancient writing at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, gave very little indication of who wrote it and how its records were copied and transmitted throughout the ages. These ideas were not something anyone in the mid-nineteenth century could have held a working conceptual knowledge of that would allow their incorporation into the Book of Mormon. Provenance is a modern convention used today and developed in the past century to validate claims (notably in art auctions); Mormon made the chain of custody and provenance of his record abundantly clear from millennia prior. As “questionable provenance can still create an atmosphere of distrust,” conversely a secure, credible provenance can foster belief. The Nephite authors were doing something unknown from biblical texts, and unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day.
Anita makes the point that the treatment of provenance in the Book of Mormon fulfills the modern expectations associated with that term, including these issues pertaining to evidence for provenance: "Is the record (1) what it says it is, (2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession, and (3) in substantially the same condition until it passed into the next person’s custody?" Analysis of the information provided in the Book of Mormon account, including its final transmission to Joseph Smith and its translation, provides a powerful and very modern "yes" to each of these questions. Thus, the Book of Mormon provides evidence for its provenance and reliability in a surprisingly modern way that was not part of the paradigms used by either farmers or professional record keepers in Joseph Smith's day. And while that paradigm is not found expressed in the Bible, it is a reasonable paradigm for an ancient, literate society highly reliant on and dedicated to preserving ancient sacred records.

Perhaps we will find more of the archivist's attitude as we recover more preserved records from other ancient Americans in the past, where in Mesoamerica we can see remnants of several ancient literate societies, most of whose ancient books and documents were destroyed by the Spaniards.

A final except from Anita Wells:
Richard Bushman noted that “in between Nephi and Moroni, we never lose sight of the records. Their descent is meticulously accounted for … [and] the Jacobean record tells us step by step of the passage from one record-keeper to another. For a time in Omni, the transmission of the records was nearly all that was written about. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is a recurrent clanking of plates as they pass from one record-keeper to another. To my mind, it is noteworthy that there is nothing like this explicit description of records and record-keeping either in the Bible or in books current in nineteenth-century America” [Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 68-69]. Science fiction author Orson Scott Card explained that written hoaxes are a product of their time, easily unmasked by later scientific understanding. If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers. Yet the more we learn about archival provenance and chain of custody, the more remarkable it is to discover the precise documentation of such practices in the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

It Took Two Typhoons, Two Kind Italians, and a Strange Computer Glitch to Get Us to the Temple in Seoul, Korea

The Seoul, Korea Temple
My wife and I just returned from a marvelous vacation in Seoul, Korea, where we unexpectedly ended up staying in a wonderful part of town within walking distance from the beautiful Seoul, Korea Temple. Being so close allowed us to attend several sessions easily. To our surprise we also learned that Sunday Church services were being held there in a building next to the Temple, so we could attend regular services there, too instead of just watching Conference from our hotel room as we had planned (Korean units will dedicate the following week to Conference). This was during China's "Golden Week," a week-long holiday that we had been looking forward to for a long time.

The strange thing is that Korea was not part of our plans at all. We were going to spend the entire time in Okinawa and on nearby Aka Island, where we planned to meet our favorite diving instructor, Maiko, a woman from Japan, whom we first met in Thailand, formerly an engineer who grew tired of corporate life and is now living her dream as a very competent dive master working all over the world, but with Okinawa as her hase. Our primary goal was to explore the pristine reefs around that island with Maiko's help.

Our plans faced severe headwinds, you could say. It took two typhoons, two Italians, and a strange computer glitch to get us out of paradise in Okinawa and move us close to the Temple in Korea.

As Golden Week neared, we were worried that Typhoon Trami that would hit Okinawa right before we were to fly there (we would fly from Shanghai to Naha, Japan via Seoul, Korea, and our return flight would be on the same out). Fortunately, the typhoon ended the day before our flight, and the resilient people in Naha, Okinawa had things back to normal by the time we arrived. Sturdy buildings, great drainage systems, effective clean-up crews.  We were worried that the typhoon would make the water muddy, but decided to go anyway and make the best of our planned trip. With a couple of lucky breaks, things turned out remarkably well.

The first big break for us was meeting two Italians from Shanghai. After we arrived in Naha, we went through a slow taxi line. When we were at the front, I noticed a couple of people at the read of the line who seemed agitated and concerned. Figuring they could speak English, when our taxi pulled up, I called to them and said if they were going near the ferry, they might want to ride with us. They were more than happy to share a taxi and jumped in. This good Italian man and his wife turned multiple potential disasters into blessings for us, and would spend most of the next two days with us.

The first potential disaster was learning that that the Tuesday morning express ferry to Aka Island, where we were supposed to go diving on Tuesday and Wednesday, was sold out. Our dive shop had not told us of the need to book it in advance, just that it was essential to take that ferry in order to team up with them for Tuesday diving. Fortunately, the dive shop suggested that if we went a little early, there might be no-shows making it possible to get a ticket after all. Our Italian friends wanted to go there also, so we planned to meet at the ferry ticket office about 45 minutes early to seek stand-by tickets. Fortunately, our friends showed up over an hour early and were near the front of the line for standby tickets, and obtained two for us as well.

Our Italian friends helped us make the best of the next disaster. When we arrived at Aka Island, excited at the prospect of diving and spending two days at that beautiful spot, we were greeted by our former dive instructor who came onto the ferry and immediately told us to go back because the whole island was closed, our hotel there was cancelled, and there would be no diving due to a new typhoon on its way. What?

Our weather forecasts from US-based services said nothing about a new typhoon, but that didn't change the fact that a serious storm was coming. So we were about to just wave good-bye to our good friend, when our Italian friends pressed for more information and asked if there was someway we could still see the island. It was then about 10:15. Our dive master explained that the last ferry would leave at 2:30 PM, so we could stay until then. But there was no diving and no food. I was thinking, "Why bother? Let's go back to Okinawa and do something." But since our Italian friends wanted to stay, and since there might be a chance to talk a little more with Maiko, we decided to stay also. What a blessing that was!

Maiko was able to drive all four of us to a spot where swimming and snorkeling was allowed, and about the only thing still open on the island was a little shop there that rented snorkeling gear and even had some local food ("taco rice," a specialty like taco toppings on rice derived from the tastes of American soldiers). So we all went snorkeling and while it was not as spectacular as a typical scuba dive, the reefs we saw were beautiful and there were many species of fish there. Delightful.

Maiko met us for lunch and took us to the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the island and the pristine water around it. It was surprisingly clear for having just been hit with a typhoon. We had just enough time for fun snorkeling, a good taco rice lunch, some photos, and some warm good-byes before leaving our sweet dive master to catch the departing ferry. Disaster turned into blessing, thanks to our Italian friends.

Aka Island was so beautiful, in spite of not being able to dive. But perhaps the best part was the reunion with a kind friend, Maiko, though only for a short while. 

A view of Aka Island from a hill overlooking the beach and snorkeling area.
With our diving cancelled, we figured we would be able to see what we wanted to see on Okinawa faster than expected, so maybe we could take an earlier flight to Seoul and spend some time there. At the last minute in Shanghai I had packed a white shirt in my bag just in case something would give us some time in Seoul, where there is a temple I had not yet seen. Now I was thinking that might come in handy. Checking weather forecasts while on the boat back to Naha, I finally found one that recognized the approach of a typhoon, and based on that, it looked like Friday would be a good day to leave Okinawa. Our friends were also planning something to change their flights to Friday for a return to Shanghai. Great. We would meet again for dinner that night, after I spent a couple of hours on Skype to get our flight to Seoul move up a couple of days to Friday. Yay! We would have a chance to see Seoul and the Temple on Saturday, so we thought.

The Italians helped us avert yet another problem. Minutes after completing all the work it took with Travelocity and Korean Area to change our flight plans to Friday, we rushed out of our hotel and met our friends at a fun local Okinawan place. The first words out of their mouths were a complaint about how they had just changed their travel to Friday, and now they discovered that was the worst possible time. Based on the newest forecast, the typhoon would be intense that day and flights would likely be cancelled. I, too, had made a serious mistake and now faced the risk of being stuck without the original return flight available. Travel in Asia during Gold Week involves huge numbers of Chinese travelers making flights very crowded and expensive, and making changes more difficult. Now we risked missing some work and having to eat up precious vacation days waiting to off Okinawa.

With that early warning of trouble from our friends, I got back on the phone right after dinner and found Korean Airlines to be very helpful. They were able to rebook us again at no extra charge on earlier flights on Wednesday night that would avoid the typhoon. We were so lucky there were any seats at all! Our friends would do the same. In fact, we would meet them again at the airport, unexpectedly, and have yet another meal together before parting. In addition, we would spend Wednesday morning together visiting some significant sites in Okinawa, including Hacksaw Ridge. Such good people. We look forward to ongoing association in Shanghai.

The final surprise that got us closer to the Temple in western Seoul was a strange computer glitch. Finding a hotel in Seoul was difficult since nearly everything was fully booked already. I did find one place (Roi House) not far from the Temple but it looked like a hostel, though they had a room with a private bath that looked possible. But I decided to go with another hotel near the center of Seoul, one that included breakfast and was more of a regular hotel, though maybe not in such a great setting. I first ordered that hotel (Chisun Hotel Seoul Myeongdong) on Ctrip (Trip.com). After one hour, it still said it was awaiting confirmation. I finally called Ctrip and learned that there had been some kind of glitch and they would not be able to even try to confirm it until the next day. I wasn't willing to wait, giving how few rooms there were and the fact that many others might be doing the same thing we were, fleeing typhoons and heading for better weather. So then I went to Hotels.com. I had a page open for the Roi house, but since I didn't want that, I opened a new page for the other hotel, and then clicked on "book now." The order went through right away. Great! That was at midnight. I went to sleep, happy to finally have secured the hotel I wanted.

The next day, on the way to the Naha airport for our flight to Seoul, I was looking up the address of the hotel I had ordered so I could tell a cab driver where to take me. That's when I saw a shocking notice in my confirmation email from Hotels.com: the reservations I had were for Roi House, not the downtown place I wanted. I am sure (really? well, I think so!) that I had clicked on the button to order the downtown hotel, but what was ordered was Roi House. Perhaps it was because the Roi House page was loaded in memory somehow? Must be user error and just lack of attention late at night, but it was really a surprise. No refund possible, so we went with the Roi House -- and what a perfect blessing that was. It was comfortable, spacious, and surrounded with pleasant places to walk and some of the best food we've had, including the best gelato we've seen outside of Italy (Gelati Gelati at the mall next to the Hongik University station) and the best Italian restaurant we've experienced outside of Italy (Al Choc), right around the corner from Roi House (best gnocchi ever!) and surprisingly affordable. But most important was the proximity to the Temple, allowing us to go there easily without the stress of long travel or long waits for taxis. Just a pleasant stroll.

This ended up being a beautiful, uplifting, relaxing, and delicious vacation, with new friendships made and an important old friendship renewed. We were booted from paradise in Okinawa, but guided to something even better, featuring a marvelous celestial room in Seoul. (Imagine a clever but mercifully resisted pun here.) We could have gone to the Temple had we stayed at the downtown place, but it would have been harder and probably less frequent. Two typhoons, two Italians, and bizarre computer glitch -- that was our pathway to truly rich blessings.

I came away with a real love for Korea and a respect for the many good Saints there who make Korea an even better, happier country and who do so much to make the blessings of the Temple available there. I also realized that active steps to cope with risk and apply mercifully provided information is important for coping with complex situations. We could easily have been stranded in Okinawa, where many services were being shut down for a day or two due to the new storm and where travel was becoming problematic for many.