I’ll give you a couple of book discussions after one short paragraph on fiction and history. Both fiction and history are a form of narrative. Historical narrative is (ideally) constrained by facts and historical evidence; both fiction and history are constrained in a looser sense by the sensibilities of their reading audience, as few people will read a boring or irrelevant or uncredible narrative, whether packaged as fiction, nonfiction, history, or scripture. We readers want plausible, relevant, interesting narratives. Life is too short to bother with anything else. So let’s start with some fiction, Mette Ivie Harrison’s His Right Hand, the second installment in an ongoing series. The blurb on the front cover describes it as “A Linda Wallheim mystery set in Mormon Utah.”
It has been a tough year for the NFL. Football is a sport; the NFL is a brand. After years of growing viewership, energetic fan support, spiking television revenue, and multiplying sponsorships, a series of largely self-inflicted mishaps has tarnished the NFL brand. There is the national anthem protest controversy, initiated by Colin Kaepernick and carried on by a handful of other players and teams, stoked by comments from President Trump, and now sort of fading into the background — but leaving many fans feeling somewhat alienated from the game. There is the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, which turned into the Ezekiel Elliot court case (a court ruling yesterday reinstated his six-game suspension). This has somehow morphed into an ugly public feud between Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. And of course there is the mounting evidence that the regular jarring contact between NFL players causes long-term brain injury, whether or not concussions are sustained. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. Quarterbacks are dropping like flies. Here’s what passes for good news for the NFL in 2017: Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings got his leg back (he is back on the active roster as of this week) and Zach Miller of the Bears didn’t lose his (but it was a close call).
I have heard a lot about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), so I finally got a copy and read it. Short summary: Christian writer figures out Protestants no longer enjoy the benefits of informal religious establishment in the USA and goes into panic mode. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I doubt that Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists reading the book have much sympathy for the plight of Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who now have to deal with the same church-state and citizenship issues that we have had to deal with for hundreds of years.
After a few warm-up posts last month (here, here, and here), it’s time to get serious about apologetics. Greg Kofford Books just published Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson. The book is a collection of essays by a variety of LDS scholars giving their informed view of the development and current state of Mormon apologetics. Some defend it, some critique it, others offer proposals for a new and improved approach. Three chapters at the center of the volume look at the neglected issue of the role of women in LDS apologetics and its impact on female readers — I hope to have a separate post on those essays next week. In this review I will look at six of the fifteen essays in the book that I find most interesting, then offer some general comments on the volume as a whole. [Note: At the publisher’s site, you can see the table of contents and preview a couple of the essays, as well as read a Q&A with the two editors.]
I attended a local Tedx evening earlier this week. One talk critiqued the “cult of happiness” that is fostered by social media posts. Everyone posts the great or good things about their life, complete with carefully cropped photos (the trip to Italy, the great new job, lost 10 pounds) but almost everyone conveniently edits out the bad things (can’t pay the bills, relationship problems, actually gained 15 pounds). So most readers think everyone else is doing great and they, knowing all their own bad stuff even if they don’t post it, feel like a loser. The suggestion seems to be that if you avoid social media, you’ll be happier. If only it were so simple.
How do you talk to an Ex-Mormon? Or a less-active Mormon who you bump into at church or a ward activity or the grocery store? Here are some examples of what *not* to say: What’s wrong with you? Why don’t your religious beliefs agree with mine anymore? What serious sin have you committed that explains your change in belief? This general problem is the topic of a post at Flunking Sainthood titled “An open letter to my Mormon family and friends.” The author of the post, an LDS author of some repute, has apparently been on the receiving end of these sorts of intrusive questions. Somehow, despite the best of intentions, Mormons sometimes end up being rude and nosy instead of friendly and supportive. Maybe we just need better conversational skills.
Time for another installment in this occasional series. As reported in the Deseret News, Elder Christofferson delivered a presentation to new mission presidents at the Provo MTC in June. He first discussed the use of the Book of Mormon as a proselyting tool: “[H]ow will your missionaries get people to read the Book of Mormon, and also to pray with real intent about its truthfulness?” Then he recounted a personal conversation he had with a returned missionary who had completed his mission and served well, but had some concerns.
Here is a clear positive step for the Church: posting an online resources page with almost 30 links to pages or sites with information on LDS doctrine and history. Each link gets zero, one, or two asterisks, depending on if it is within the LDS.org domain (zero), if it is a Church-related site like byu.edu that is not within the LDS.org domain (one), or if it is a third-party site not directly affiliated with the Church (two asterisks). The page is actually under the Seminaries & Institutes umbrella as part of the Doctrinal Mastery program (the upgraded Scripture Mastery). And what are they linking to, you ask?
The golden era of Mormon apologetics ran from Nibley to FAIR and Old FARMS. With so many distinctive doctrines as well as a high public profile, Mormonism attracts a lot of criticism, so the urge to publicly defend Mormon beliefs is understandable, and there is now plenty of Mormon apologetics out there. What is badly needed is some reflection on the whole enterprise, trying to distinguish between good and bad apologetics and perhaps some thoughts on when the best response is no apologetics (polygamy comes to mind — trying to defend it just seems to dig a deeper hole). Enter the latest publication from Greg Kofford Books: Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, a collection of essays covering a broad spectrum of views on the topic. We will have two reviews of the book and maybe a Q&A here at T&S in a couple of weeks. For now, I want to address a narrower question: What’s worse, bad apologetics or no apologetics? Does bad apologetics do more harm than good?
Not the big screen, just lots of small screens. From the LDS Newsroom: Filming Begins on New Book of Mormon Videos. It will not be a beginning-to-end depiction; the project will select certain episodes and events, producing “up to 180 video segments three to five minutes in length, as well as up to 60 more running 10–20 minutes each.” These will no doubt become a go-to resource for Primary teachers, Sunday School teachers, and seminary teachers.
So I finally got around to reading J. Spencer Fluhman’s book “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. I was expecting another account of “beat up the Mormons” episodes in the 19th century. Instead, it was an entertaining and informative review of how informally established Protestantism worked in the 19th century (hence my subtitle to the post). The focus is not so much on Mormonism as on how everyone else, in particular the Protestant majority, reacted to Mormons and their religion in 19th-century America.
The Sunday School curriculum is currently covering the Kirtland period of LDS history, including a full lesson on the Kirtland Temple. While we often treat that temple as part of 19th-century history, it is still around, it is still used for religious services, and it is available for public tours for visitors of any religious faith. I asked Tom Kimball, who lives in Kirtland, to respond to some questions about the Kirtland Temple. Tom is a semi-retired Mormon bookseller of twenty years, a former board member of the Mormon History Association, and presently a staff service volunteer at the Kirtland Temple visitor center.
Ten years ago, I posted one of my very first pieces at T&S, “Missing Essentials,” noting the decline of familiarity with LDS history by the average member of the Church and suggesting this was due, in part, to the lack of a replacement volume for Essentials in Church History. In the intervening ten years, the problem has deepened. What was once simple historical ignorance has become, for some Latter-day Saints, a faith crisis, as they encounter online accounts of troubling LDS historical events. Local leaders are generally no more conversant in the details of LDS history than the membership and don’t have much to offer troubled members who share their concerns. The Gospel Topics essays are one response to this challenging development. Now we have official word that book-length treatments of LDS history will soon be published by the Church, finally filling the role once occupied by Essentials.
It’s good to ponder the end of the world from time to time. Now I’m not really a food storage guy. That has never troubled me much. Until lately. My new approach: Every time North Korea fires a missile, I buy another flat of drinking water and put it in the garage, along with one of those big 2.5 gallon water containers. If the Koreans plunk one in the ocean near Hawaii, I’ll double it. Anyone else feeling a little less secure these days?
General Conference seems to come and go so quickly now. This must have something to do with the ease of streaming it live into every home — 10 hours of Conference in one weekend is more than enough for most of us. Once upon a time getting the Conference Ensign was a treat. Not so much anymore. The Conference cycle seems to have been compressed into just a few days, like binge-watching a TV series on Netflix. That’s not really what I’m going to talk about, just something I have particularly noticed this Conference cycle. Anyone else feel this way?
Borrowing the title from my good friends at BCC, let’s talk about sorcery, another interesting topic that is discussed in the April 2017 Ensign article “The War Goes On.” The central claim of the article is that gay marriage is Satan’s counterfeit version of “marriage between a man and a woman” that is “ordained of God,” because gay marriage “brings neither posterity nor exaltation.” But the article also addresses counterfeit faith, counterfeit love, counterfeit priesthood, and counterfeit miracles: One of Satan’s counterfeits for faith is superstition. His counterfeit for love is lust. He counterfeits the priesthood by introducing priestcraft, and he imitates God’s miracles by means of sorcery.
Yesterday was testimony meeting (for some of you, fast and testimony meeting). By good fortune, I have never had much anxiety about the “ward crazies” who say such interesting things on open mic Sunday — by good fortune, the wards I have attended have not had this challenge. But I do see the standard mix of young children, probably three or four per testimony meeting, some who manage on their own, some who manage with parental prompts, some who require a word-for-word script whispered into their ear. It’s cute if it’s your own kid; it’s not a big deal if it’s someone else’s; it must be a bizarre experience for non-LDS visitors. Why do we do this?
That’s a book by Christian scholar Peter Enns: The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (BrazosPress, 2012). The arguments in the book are directed at Evangelicals, but Mormons can quite profitably read along as well. Given that the LDS Church has “no official position on the theory of evolution” and that evolution is taught as part of the biology curriculum at BYU, you would think evolution is a non-issue with Mormons compared to the trouble it seems to cause Evangelicals. But prior statements of some LDS leaders and certain passages in LDS scripture create difficulties for Mormons that Evangelicals don’t face, so it sort of balances out. For Evangelicals and Mormons alike, the Enns book is an excellent discussion from a believing Christian perspective that attempts to reconcile the apparent tension between biblical and scientific accounts of humankind’s origin, as well as the place of the historical Adam in that account.
The Wheatley Institution hosted a conference at BYU last month, “Reason for Hope: Responding to a Secular World.” Video of the presentations may be posted at the Wheatley website at some point, but for now we have the Deseret News article summarizing the event, headlined as “Mormons with doubts shouldn’t give up the faith without ‘intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming.’” I think the Deseret News headline does a better job describing the conference than the official title.
Love it or hate it, it’s still around: Gospel Doctrine in LDS Sunday School. The SL Trib has a long story detailing the upgrades to the curriculum for the upcoming year, “New scholarship coming to Mormon lessons, but will instructors really teach it?” Apparently the plan for revising the manual is to change absolutely nothing in the current instructor’s manual for D&C and Church History, but to (1) post some additional material online somewhere at the sprawling LDS.org site, (2) hope the teachers use some of the material posted at the Revelations in Context site (itself a subdomain of LDS.org), and (3) print some of this additional material in a booklet to be made available through LDS distribution centers. Maybe some teachers will use this extra material, maybe they won’t.