Author: James Olsen

James is the husband of Erin Fairlight Olsen. Together they have conspired to doom their four children to a lifetime of mispronounced names: Gaebriel Joseph, Magdeleine Ysabelle, Myriam Reevkahleh, and Ewa Nuhr. Raised where the buffalo still roam in northeastern Wyoming, James learned how to Anglicize French while serving in the Missouri, St. Louis Mission. Afterward he thought so long and indecisively and with such passionately committed existential anguish about what to do with his life that finally BYU simply granted him a degree in philosophy. He then received a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. Unable to subsequently handle the pressures of looming heteronormativity, however, he once again took up philosophy, this time at Georgetown. Currently he is in Doha, Qatar, hiding out from Georgetown, which, much like his wife, would really appreciate it if he just graduated.

A note on my Reading Nephi series and scriptural interpretation generally

It’s hard for us, as humans, to pry apart the empirical from the normative—and for good reasons. Facts don’t come to us bare of value. Especially with regard to those facts that we appreciate and evaluate in existential contexts (i.e., contexts related to our identity and overall worldview), they always already appear normatively laden (i.e., as meaning something). At least as a pragmatic matter, bare facts are secondary abstractions (whatever metaphysical status we ultimately attribute to them). Nephi certainly saw Laman & Co. as acting in ways that had specific meaning and bearing, and I’m convinced that he saw his written record as likewise bearing an unavoidable upshot (this gets noted briefly in chapter 6 and becomes abundantly clear when we get to II Nephi 25). Similarly, we (all) do the same thing when we read commentary on the scriptures. Textual artifacts don’t simply get picked out—rather, the ways in which we pick combines with the social context in which we’re picking, and the picked artifacts’ display already has meaning (however neutral the language doing the displaying). In a public context like Times and Seasons, there are different, sometimes competing contexts, approaches to, and projects with regard to the scriptures. Consequently, a narrative that is candid about textual details is inevitably going to appear at least somewhat differently to different readers. [FN 1] For example, it’s an empirical fact of the text that Nephi only discusses Laman & Co. in…

Wilderness Starvation – Reading Nephi – 16:12-17

Food is a huge issue for Nephi. I’m tempted to add up the verses that account for the eight years between the Valley of Lemuel and Bountiful and divide them by the number of verses speaking about food. Quantitatively and qualitatively, this is the issue—in a way that it isn’t and really could never be for most of us.

Book Review: The Mormon Jesus

I remain fundamentally unconvinced of the book’s central claim and argument, and am personally ambivalent about it—though in that I’m surely in the minority amongst Mormons (rank-and-file and all the rest) whom I suspect will heartily cheer the book’s primary claim: Mormonism, taken as a whole in it’s historic trajectory, is patently Christian.

Reading Nephi – 14:8-17 part I

The angel begins by reminding or interrogating or raising the covenants of the House of Israel. I’m not sure the angel’s intent. Is this pedagogical priming? Is it interrogation? Is it a test, with the angel serving as guardian or gate-keeper, not allowing Nephi to pass on to the next part of the vision until he’s proven his gnosis? Is it the divine teaching that incorporates Socrates’s great insight that knowledge begins with acknowledgment of ignorance?

Reading Nephi – 13:42-14:7

We return now to the grand parallel Nephi makes in the articulation of his vision—Lehite afflictedness and Gentile blindness. While this passage focuses on the binary possibilities for the fate of the Gentiles, in the context of the parallel there’s a critical message for the Lehites as well—if the Gentiles can assuredly repent, then the remnant of Lehi can assuredly be restored. Overall, it’s a passage concerning the universal possibility of reconciliation and union under the covenant.

Reading Nephi – 13:38-41

Theses passages are tremendously challenging. On the one hand they insist on the historical nature of their prophecies—an understanding of history and of God’s movement in history is their whole raison d’etre. But even retrospectively it’s difficult to get much traction, to pin down events or movements or historical happenings, or to see these passages as illuminating particular events.

Reading Nephi – 13:30-37

Verses 30-33 give the logic of this vision. There’s a grand parallel going on between the dramatically afflicted and nearly destroyed remnant of the Lehites and the “awful blindness” of the Gentiles. God’s ultimate covenant with Israel is rich enough to offer provisions to both in their different but analogously wretched lots. While I find this passage tremendously uplifting and profound, I also can’t simply run away from the stone of stumbling that is this language of God smiting whole peoples and generations. My Mormonism keeps me from being fully modern in many ways, and as communitarian as I believe myself to be, I simply can’t grasp the idea that historical, trans-generational, trans-millennial conglomerates of humans can be both accountable and justifiably acted upon in the same way that an individual can. I want to say that these claims of God smiting people is merely the way Nephi understands and elaborates historical tragedies. And maybe that’s right. But it’s also a dodge; since what do I do if it really is the angel speaking? I don’t know how much stalk to put into chronology here, but if we want to think about the point at which the U.S. was “lifted above all nations,” I don’t think we can place the date before World War II. As large as our history looms in our own eyes, it was only with the conclusion of the thirty-year world wars in the middle of…

Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

After successfully subverting the lands and economies of the natives and then violently refusing to remain party to their political contracts with their countries of origin, Nephi now sees the new immigrant population prospering. What does it mean that they prospered? I immediately think of things like infant mortality and economic growth. What would Nephi have meant by this? Is it a foil to their being in captivity? Does it refer to the fact that they geographically spread? Is it their continued subjugations of and thefts from among the native populations? What were Nephi’s family’s own experiences in the New World? Did they prosper? Did the biblical accounts of displacement together with their own displacement of natives make Nephi desensitized to the latter-day slaughter? Or was that facet simply absent from or downplayed in the dream itself? Or did Joseph’s own view of a righteous American Revolution cover over its dark sides? These questions spring up at me throughout this chapter. And prospering is a key concept throughout the Book of Mormon; I’m not at all confident I know how this concept functioned for Nephi. There’s another contrast or at least link in the first sentence: this new people’s prospering is placed alongside their “carrying forth” a corrupted book. Again, I don’t know what to make of the pairing. The emphasis on the corrupted nature of the book seems to argue against the idea that the Gentiles prospered because of…