Blog Archives

The Missing Mormon Literary Renaissance

November 11, 2013 | 96 comments
2013-11-11 Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Oppenheimer wants to know why there are no great Mormon writers. More specifically: In the United States, Jews, blacks and South Asians, while they have produced no Milton or Shakespeare — who has, lately? — have all had literary renaissances. Mormons are more likely to produce work that gets shelved in niche sections of the bookstore. And as it turns out, Mormon authors themselves wonder if their culture militates against more highbrow writing. They have a range of possible explanations. Now, before we get to the question of why there are no great Mormon writers, I have to... Read more »

Beware Instrumental Beliefs

November 4, 2013 | 66 comments
2013-11-03 Evolution

Back in 2009, Pew Research released a research package on public opinions about evolution in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Just last month, a friend on Facebook posted the headlining chart from that package, and a lively debate ensued. The tone of the folks posting this chart (I saw it on several walls) was one of exaggerated dismay, e.g. “A depressing — but unsurprising — revelation about Mormons.” The fact that the result fit so neatly alongside myriad preexisting cultural skirmishes should have been a major indicator that the results were unreliable, however. Lots of... Read more »

Children Like Ender

October 28, 2013 | 12 comments
Children Like Ender

As a friend of mine living in Germany informed me, Ender’s Game has already started to play in some markets, and the United States release is coming up this week. With that in mind, I thought I’d return to the novel once more. In the days before The Hunger Games and Battle Royale made the idea of children murdering each other part of mainstream entertainment, the combination of very young characters and serious violence was one of the more provocative and controversial elements of Ender’s Game. Young Ender Wiggin is only six years old when he beats another child to death, and... Read more »

The Metaphysics of Sealing

October 21, 2013 | 74 comments
2013-10-21 SLC Temple

As Mormons, we practice a faith full of ritual ordinances. We are taught in scripture that some of these ordinances, like baptism, are necessary for salvation. We are also given very specific instructions for performing these ordinances, and failure to execute them properly seems to nullify their efficacy. Taken together, the precise instructions for carrying out ordinances and their eternal significance seem dischordant. When we are immersed during baptism, does the water actually do something? If not, why is it so strictly required? I know of three three conventional attitudes to this problem. The most straight-forward is to believe that... Read more »

Does God Help Find Car Keys?

October 14, 2013 | 47 comments
Does God Help Find Car Keys?

I remember reading a story in the Ensign while I was on my mission. The story was about a police officer who had been searching for a toddler who had been lost when his mother’s car was stolen while the child was still in the back. The mother was desperate to be reunited with her child, and time was running out. The police officer prayed, he followed a hunch, and the child was found and returned to his parents safe and sound. The story bothered me. It wasn’t the story itself. I have had miraculous experiences in my own... Read more »

Peter Wiggin as Lucifer

October 7, 2013 | 4 comments
2013-10-07 Some Family You Fight Against

(This post is the second in a series on Ender’s Game. Read the first here.) Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a Third. This means that he is the third child in a family which–in the strictly population controlled United States described in Ender’s Game violates both the law and social taboo. Ender’s oldest sibling is Peter, a sociopathic genius who takes to torturing small animals when his favorite target, Ender, is shipped to Battle School. Peter himself was rejected because the military concluded he “had the soul of a jackal.” After Peter, his parents had Valentine. Although just as intelligent as Peter, she... Read more »

Ender as the Everyman

September 30, 2013 | 22 comments
The cover art for the YA version of Ender's Game.

With very few exceptions, everyone loves the Harry Potter books. (The exceptions consist of people who cannot read and people who have no soul.) The appeal is fairly straightforward, with themes of magical escapism, coming-of-age, and friendship woven directly and beautifully throughout the narrative. Ender’s Game is also a very popular book. Although of course it’s not as widely read as Harry Potter (very little is, after all), it’s one of the best-selling and most-awarded science fiction novels of all time. The most interesting contrast between the two, however, is that whereas everyone seems to be on the same... Read more »

Aspirational Obedience: Obedience is a Process

September 23, 2013 | 14 comments
2013-09-23 Obedience

Our Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on obedience, and to great (and mostly positive) effect. It’s quite common, especially in the Bloggernaccle, to fault the Church and its members for being too conformist, and as I’ve written there is some legitimacy to those complaints. But I’ve also been struck in my life–more and more as I get older–that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it exists in practical reality does a pretty darn good job of making decent folk and/or making folk decent. There’s a culture of practical service that is easy to... Read more »

Paradigms and Stumbling Blocks

September 16, 2013 | 72 comments
2013-09-23 Tipping Point Graph

I started thinking about the phrase “stumbling block” recently. It’s such a common phrase that it’s easy to take its significance for granted. And maybe miss its meaning and current relevance. The literal meaning of the words is obvious, and “stumbling block” is in that sense basically the same phrase as “tripping rock”. But “tripping rock” is fresh and so it forces you to take a look at what the words actually mean: a stone that causes people who are walking somewhere to fall. Why should such an apparently innocuous concept be so deeply ingrained in scripture that it... Read more »

Temple and Observatory Group At NYC

September 9, 2013 | no comments

The Temple and Observatory Group, which sponsored an event in July in Provo featuring Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and Terryl Givens is bringing the same lineup to New York City. Come listen to the three speak about negotiating LDS history and faith challenges on Saturday, September 28th from 10am – 3:30pm at 390 Broadway 3rd floor in Manhattan. (Here’s a copy of the official flyer.) Additional events are being planned for the East Coast in coming months including Washington, D.C. (October 19) and Boston (November 9). You can visit the website to keep informed (and learn about the groups’... Read more »

A Game Theoretic View of the Atonement

September 9, 2013 | 13 comments
2013-09-09 John Forbes Nash

The Prisoner’s Dilemma came up in the comments to a post of mine from about a month ago. I outlined my thoughts very briefly there (see comment #12), but I’d like to return to them in more depth today. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is perhaps the most important scenario studied in game theory, and “it shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.” To understand the analysis, however, I’ll need to back up and give a very brief game theory primer.   In game theory, a game is a situation... Read more »

The Abyss of Nothing and Everything

September 2, 2013 | 17 comments
2013-09-02 The_Scream

I often heard, growing up, that teenagers think they are immortal. I always thought this applied to other teenagers. For the most part I didn’t get into the sorts of shenanigans that make adolescence famous. I felt I had a perfectly rational aversion to death and dying that manifest itself in, among other things, a general trepidation about learning to drive. Passing other cars at a cumulative speed of 100mph with only a few inches and some yellow lines as separation is still a kind of scary thing, I think, if you stop and consider it. It wasn’t until I... Read more »

We Are All the Work of Thy Hand

August 26, 2013 | 12 comments
2013-08-26 We Are All The Work Of Thy Hand WITH TEXT

A number of years ago, a friend wrote me an email that included this reminiscence: Friday was my last day of spring break. I had worked all through the break, and really wanted to do something fun, something indulgent. I immediately thought of the only thing I have ever done when I wanted to be indulgent in past years– go to Barnes and Noble. I have always been haunted by a trip to the temple 20 or 30 years ago, and an old mission friend was along. We went to the book store, and he just loaded up with... Read more »

Maybe We’re All Right

August 12, 2013 | 25 comments
2013-08-11 Blind Monks Elephant smaller

The story of the blind men and the elephant is as useful as it is widespread. It features in Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu lore and has also  been applied in modern physics and biology. In case you haven’t heard it before, the essence of the story is that a few blind men each touch a different part of an elephant (like the tail or ear or leg or tusk) and each conclude that the elephant is like the part that they see (brush, fan, pot, or spear). Depending on the version of the story, they either cooperate to understand... Read more »

Further Thoughts on Sin

August 5, 2013 | 32 comments
Further Thoughts on Sin

Last week I wrote about the conflict between a basic axiom of human behavior (we tend to see ourselves as heroes in our own stories and rationalize our behavior accordingly) and the requirement that sinful actions be in some sense deliberate in order to be sinful. I did this primarily by suggesting that, while the original commission of a sinful act often occurs under duress of some sort (thus mitigating against it’s nature as a deliberate choice), we frequently compound that sin by subsequently trying to rationalize it. I’d like to conclude (for now, anyway) my posts on this subject... Read more »

Some Thoughts on Sin

July 29, 2013 | 20 comments
2013-07-29 Milgram

The textbook definition of sin is doing something that you know to be wrong. And yet, as has been frequently noted in fiction, villains (almost) never think to themselves, “Gee, I’m doing something wrong now.” We each live out narratives in which we star as the protagonist. We are the heroes of our own stories. How can we reconcile these two notions: first, that sin requires a knowledge that what we are doing is wrong and second, that no one really believes what they are doing is wrong at the time that they do it? I’m going to rely... Read more »

Faithful Obedience or Malicious Compliance?

July 22, 2013 | 50 comments
2013-07-22 Wheels Within Wheels

Malicious compliance is the idea of using the letter of the law to intentionally violate the spirit of the law. It is perfect obedience. It is also sabotage. Since so much trouble seems to arise from the gap between the letter and spirit of the law, we might reasonably ask: why not close the gap? Why not just write down the spirit of the law in the first place? I think the answer is at least in part that whatever is written down and then read and interpreted by a human being is necessarily going to fall short of the... Read more »

Faith Crisis in a Secular Age: We’re All Thomas Now

July 15, 2013 | 43 comments
2013-07-15 Secular Age

The principle behind Mathew 10:34 (“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”) is not that Jesus came to foster contention (see, e.g., 3 Nehi 11:29), but that the presence of the Savior forces people to make decisions. C. S. Lewis’s trilemma is an example of what I have in mind: we must accept that Jesus was mad, that he was evil, or that he was divine. That he was a nice guy who taught good principles but was not divine is not compatible with the textual description... Read more »

Free Will, Existence, and the Uncreated

July 8, 2013 | 50 comments
Free Will, Existence, and the Uncreated

I’ve written about theology before for Times And Seasons, but I haven’t actually done very much theology here or elsewhere in public. I have two reasons for finally taking the plunge. The first is selfish: I don’t think my ideas are going to get any better closeted in my own head. No one who creates really likes criticism, but ultimately its necessary if you want to get any better. The second is perhaps a bit more altruistic. I’ve written that theology is a kind of worship, and I’d like to illustrate what I mean by that. Mormons believe that this... Read more »

Mormonism and Embodiment: Learning from Killing

July 1, 2013 | 58 comments
2013-07-01 On Killing

This week I finished reading On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War in Society, but I knew I would be writing about the book on Times And Seasons long before I finished it. Despite the seemingly narrow focus of the title, On Killing has broad and sweeping implications for understanding human nature, and it has particular if unexpected relevance to Mormon theology. I  must start with the central thesis of the book, however, which is that humans have an incredibly strong inhibition against killing other human beings. The first quantified research in this field came from... Read more »

Reconciling Modesty with Feminism

June 24, 2013 | 39 comments
2013-06-24 Jessica Rey Power Ranger

Some folks enjoy poking a hornet’s nest, but just writing that title has me quoting Shakespeare in my head: “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.” I’m going to go ahead, however, because even though I may be about as welcome in most feminist circles as Feminists for Life (or as my friends at Secular Pro-Life when they showed up at the American Atheist Convention) the reality is that as long as women face staggering rates of sexual assault and systematic discrimination–things I’ve witnessed second hand through friends and family–I will consider myself a feminist. So tough luck... Read more »

The Great Expectations of Mormonism

June 17, 2013 | 69 comments
The Great Expectations of Mormonism

I’m going to wander a little farther from familiar territory in this post. I hope you’ll willingly entertain some speculation and tentative analysis about the institutional nature of the Church in a changing society and indulge my focus primarily on American culture. I’m interested to see what others make of these ideas. First, only institutions that develop successful methods for continuously bringing in new members can survive over the long term. Since the Church has survived and thrived in the centuries since its founding, it stands to reason that the Church must have developed reasonably effective recruitment practices. Of... Read more »

Zion Theatre Company’s Kickstarter Campaign

June 10, 2013 | no comments
2013-06-10 Evening Eucalyptus

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Mahonri Stewart’s two plays The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun. I liked them both. I’m also reading the anthology of plays that he compiled and edited Saints on Stage. So far it’s been fantastic just for the historical overview of Mormon drama from the Restoration until today, and I’m just getting into Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind. So, when I learned that his theater company (Zion Theatre Company) was putting on a Kickstarter campaign, I jumped at the chance to back it. Zion Theatre Company is currently in its third... Read more »

Don’t Debate the Trinity

June 10, 2013 | 63 comments
Detail of a manuscript illustration depicting a knight carrying the "Shield of the Trinity." (Wikpedia)

Against my better judgment, and to the detriment of my workday, I allowed myself to be temporarily pulled into a Facebook debate on Friday about Mormonism and orthodox Christianity. This went about as well as could be expected, of course. The word “cult” was used in earnest, the Tanners were quoted, and all in all it was a horrifying flashback to my high school days as an Internet messageboard crusader. (Thank goodness those days are over!) I eventually came to my senses and retreated like Luke Skywalker fleeing the Mos Eisley Cantina. I did, however, gain some insight into... Read more »