Semi-Random Thoughts in No Particular Order

I’ve participated with the “Bloggernacle” since before it was called that (I recall the whole Banner of Heaven debacle, which shows my age somewhat).  I have never served as a power player or all that prolific, and I mostly just lurk these days as I find most of the arguments the same old same old; you can only have the same arguments about authority, obedience, scripture, etc. before they get really tiring. However, I do have a few random thoughts/reflections (in no particular order) on the ‘Nacle based on my many years hanging around.  Your mileage will definitely vary about whether my insights make any sense or not:

T&S welcomes guest poster Ivan Wolfe

If you’ve been following the LDS blogging world for the last 20 years or so, you’ll recognize Ivan Wolfe from posts and comments at various blogs. Ivan lives in Arizona, where he teaches writing at ASU. He has published essays on several topics I’d like to hear more about, including Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy, The Princess Bride and Philosophy, and others. Please join me in welcoming Ivan Wolfe.

The Race of the Gods

Traditionally artistic depictions convey deity in the ethnicity of the artist and his/her surrounding culture. Consequently, I’m not going to begrudge early Latter-day Saint art’s depiction of a European Heavenly Father any more than I would a Japanese depiction of Amaterasu looking Japanese. However, as a faith becomes more cosmopolitan it becomes all the more important for all its members to be able to see themselves in depictions of deity.  As far as God’s actual “race,” race is a social construct in the here and now, so it’s a bit of misnomer to try to define God in terms of race and ethnicity. Still, as Latter-day Saints we have very much reified God’s biology. Half of the nucleotides in Jesus literally  came from God the Father because he has nucleotides and body parts himself, so as believers in a corporal God it raises the question of what ethnicity Heavenly Father would look like. However, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s description of the risen Savior sounds fairly a-racial, where his glory overrides any characteristics such as the type of hair or skin tone.   His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun. However, we still artistically depict God in our image, and I think that’s okay. In my last post I created an image of Heavenly Parents together, and one of the…

AI Generated Imagery of Repentance, Heavenly Parents, and Moses’ Vision

I haven’t had as much time to produce AI religious art as I would have liked, so this might be it until we get the next version to play around with, but a few insights: AI is actually okay at depicting religious sentiment in art without specific prompts. For example, below is a MJ image (not mine, from a FB page I follow) with little else in the prompt except “repentance” and “forgiveness.” If you can ignore the extra fingers it’s a reasonably moving depiction.  AI is sometimes okay at depicting imagery with little else but the actual scripture verses themselves. Below is the result of my simply inputting Moses 1:8 (“And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.”). The people invoked in the verse aren’t there, but it’s still somewhat faithful to the image described. “Descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” I’ve done this one before in the earlier Midjourney, but this version is much more photorealistic. 3. Not super important, but a fun story: the adult filters are a little temperamental. An image of Adam and Eve I generated gave them full frontal nudity. (Without going into detail, the AI-generated…

Susa and Alma’s Divorce

In Saints, volume 2, one of the key players was Susa Young Gates. A prominent daughter of Brigham Young who went on to do a lot of notable activities herself, Susa is a relatively well-known figure in Latter-day Saint history. One aspect of her story that received attention in Saints was Susa Young Gates’ divorce with Alma Dunford. The  was an important part of both of their life stories, and an aspect that was the focus of a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk with Lisa Olsen Tait. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). One of the great difficulties in talking about any divorce is that they affect many parties and involve many different factors. To make matters more difficult in this case, as Lisa Olsen Tait observed, “we have to remember that in those days, divorce was an adversarial process—one party had to file a complaint against the other party establishing grounds for divorce. There was no such thing as ‘no-fault’ divorce.” It can also be difficult to write about situations that lead to divorces when domestic abuse is involved, as was the case for Susa and Alma. People are complicated and have many aspects in their lives to consider, but abuse is also abhorrent and should not be excused. With all of that in mind, Tait wrote that she recently published a study of the…

Genesis Chapter 1: Midjourney Edition

Some religious artistic motifs and scenes have been done to death while many have barely been touched. Since text-to-image came online I’ve been cogitating about its possibilities for creating religious artistic imagery at scale for every…single..event in the standard works. However, as I have mentioned before, what we have so far, while great in many ways, is not so great at understanding complex scenarios with multiple people. So far it’s primarily good at contexts that can be described simply. As sort of a pilot study I created a Midjourney Art Edition of Genesis Chapter 1. Here I draw inspiration from both my own vision of The Creation from a modern-day scientific perspective as well the perspective of ancient Hebrew cosmology (e.g. the dome covering the earth with an ocean on top of it), as well as some higher-order symbolism (e.g. Adam and Eve as an interracial couple to better represent the creation of all humankind). I use the King James text for its more poetic prose.  Genesis I In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day,…

Is There Less Crime Around the Manhattan Temple?

The New York Police Department has very fine-grained data on crime frequency, with latitude and longitude coordinates for reported crimes. Of course, I’m sure a cop isn’t walking around with a GPS device to get it exact, and if you look at the data it tends to be laid out on a grid, suggesting that the latitude and longitude coordinates are basically placeholders for street intersections and buildings. I was curious whether the Manhattan temple (and religious buildings in general) had an any kind of a crime bubble around it–basically whether the presence of a visibly religious structure might make it less likely for people to commit crime around it, so I made a heat-map of the NYPD’s crime data since 2010. The Manhattan temple is kitty corner (across Broadway) to the blue Lincoln Square blob. As you can see, it looks like it’s in a “green” area, although the area behind the temple is in a lower crime, blue area, but some of that might be because the front area is on a busy street (rule # 1 about data visualizations: don’t make map that is just a population density map in disguise), although the temple itself does appear to be between two higher-crime, yellow areas. When we upload the point data with a marker for each reported crime (although one point can be a placeholder for dozens or even hundreds of crimes that were given the same lat/long),…

What Joseph Smith Looked Like According to AI

I recently took the plunge and dropped the $30 for the monthly subscription to MidJourney v5, the text-to-image generator that is currently leading the pack (by far). I uploaded a picture of Joseph Smith’s death mask, merged it with additional prompts about age and details about Joseph Smith’s eye and hair color, and asked it to make a photorealistic image. As you can see, the skin in the midjourney image still has some flecks from the death mask, but overall it’s not bad (except bottom-left Joseph looks scary). As a point of comparison, here is the death mask and the purported photo that was unearthed last year.   *******Addendum Some commenters suggested trying this same approach with people who have death masks and photos in order to test correspondence. As you can see, results vary, but it does look like it’s in the ballpark (except for Dillinger). John Dillinger James Joyce Abraham Lincoln  

Ken Adkins and Belle Harris

Belle Harris‘s experience in prison is an interesting story from late nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint history. Part of why it’s fascinating is that she kept a record of her time while she was in prison. Recently, Church historian Ken Adkins talked about the Belle Harris prison journal at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, partly due to the recent online publication of the journal by the Church Historian’s Press. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Who exactly was Belle Harris? Ken Adkins explained that: Belle Harris was raised in rural southern Utah. She wasn’t wealthy and didn’t come from a particularly prominent family. But she had ambition, loved to read, and was taught by her family to speak her mind. I tend to think generationally—for better or worse—and I think it is important to note that she is the same generation as Heber J. Grant. They are the first generation of saints to be born in the Utah territory, and they are the last to practice polygamy in the states. Her parents are Joseph F. Smith’s generation, they were born and raised in the faith, but came across the plains as children. So, we are talking about a third-generation Latter-day saint. He added that, at the time: The Edmunds Act was passed in March 1882, and the federal district courts were eager to test it out. Famously, Rudger…

Adventures in Visiting Other Religions’ Services with Rowdy Boys: Memories and Tips

“Gothic church & Islamic mosque architectures combined.” From Midjourney v5. I’m a strong believer in the educational value of visiting religious services other than one’s own. However, you need to do it right so that you’re respectful and it doesn’t come off as a “let’s observe the natives in their natural habitat” kind of voyeurism, and that can be tricky. When we lived in Philadelphia we visited the historic Unitarian Church in downtown Philly as a family and realized too late that other churches usually have some kind of Sunday school for the kids while the parents watch the sermon, making the main hall as quiet as a single’s ward. Suffice it to say a rowdy group of Utahns hushing their kids throughout the sermon on global warming was probably a bit of a two-way educational experience. Everybody was nice and understanding at the coffee and cookies afterward even when I had to drag our second-born out as he shouted that he “hated this church.” So with that experience we learned that you should probably do some basic background research before you just show up at a service.   One more sidebar on this: at the Unitarian Church there were several “visibly queer” individuals, and I felt grateful that religious options exist for people in same-sex relationships (saying this as somebody who is not only 100% orthodox on the hot-button sex and gender issues in the Church but has also gone…

On Apologizing for Others

A rhetorical practice I’ve seen more and more lately is apologizing for others. This usually happens in the context of a Church leader saying something the supposed apologizer disagrees with, and often takes the form of “as a Mormon, I apologize for…” I think this approach is wrongheaded, whether you agree with the apologizer or not.  Apologizing implies having been in the wrong. Being “punished for [our] own sins” means we don’t carry the guilt of what others have done. Full stop. There is simply no reason for you to apologize for what somebody else has done. If you feel like your involvement in the Church is itself de-facto wrong, then you can apologize for that in regards to your personal participation, but it still doesn’t make sense for you to apologize for whatever sins you feel a Church leader or the Church as an institution has committed.  People generally understand the principles involved in #1; therefore, the act of apologizing-by-proxy doesn’t actually involve any humility on the part of the apologizer. The term “virtue signaling” gets overused, but I think it’s use in this case is appropriate. Because people intuitively understand #1 and don’t actually think that the apologizer carries any personal guilt for the issue in question, apologizing by proxy smacks more of virtue signaling on the part of the apologizer than any attempt to actually exercise humility in admitting wrongdoing. The person you are apologizing for probably…

The Church in 2080, Part VI: My Long-Term Growth Prognosis

I’m on the record at various places on this blog as warning about future hiccups in Church growth. Medium-term, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to a world where the center of traditional Church strength enters a period of no or negative growth for the foreseeable future. Additionally, as developing countries become developed countries the higher levels of growth in other areas of the world will taper off as well. (However, a few months ago I was on the record as predicting that Church growth would be under 1% this year, and I was wrong). However, for various reasons I’m optimistic about Church growth in the long-run. I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, but if your belief system thrives in places that are thriving and reproducing, and is in a decline in places that are in decline, then the fundamentals are strong even if the Church may ebb and flow temporarily throughout time and space.  When people are promoting a particular worldview or ideology, one seemingly random question I ask in the back of my head is what the birthrate of that ideology’s community is. If it is not at or above replacement, then in addition to not fulfilling the most basic reproductive imperative it’s also a non-starter in terms of whether it’s fundamentally viable. It can survive or even flourish, but its continued existence is a testament to the intrinsic, existential contradiction that its own survival is dependent on…

The 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns

At the start of each year, there is a whole collection of publications that enter the public domain. This year is a relatively big year for people interested in Latter-day Saint song books, since the 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns, along with a few other song books (the 1927 edition of the Primary Song Book and some anthem collections) are now public domain.

The Church in 2080, Part V: The End of Apologetics

Cowboy riding a tapir, from DALL-E In some fields scholars try to come up with novel takes on the same thing hundreds of their colleagues have studied. Non-genetic, physical anthropology only substantively moves forward now whenever a fluke well digger stumbles upon humanoid remains. Particle physics is kind of nipping at the edges until the next big collider comes online, after which there are thousands of people scrambling to analyze the exact same data. Macroeconomics has theorized and modeled all available macro-level data to death. Oh, and the poor Biblical scholars are trying to come up with novel takes on a relatively small amount of text that has been thoroughly analyzed for thousands of years by thousands of people. That’s not to say that these aren’t noble pursuits, just that it’s hard to see much novel and truly zeitgeist-shifting coming out of these fields in the next hundred years. This isn’t the scholars’ fault, it’s just the nature of the subject matter.  I think we’re at the same place with the old apologetics debates. The past 40 or so years have been foundation forming as new arguments and counter arguments have been proffered, but at some point, when the original material that all that is based off of is in stasis, you’ll eventually come up with every point that could possibly be made about a particular datum, and then it’s just a matter of whether you buy it or not. …

Herod the Great as the Messiah

A repeating theme in Second Temple Judaism is the expectation for a political messiah that would rule Judea. While Christians are aware of this primarily through the expectations that Jesus of Nazareth encountered during his ministry, there are many other people who tried to fulfill that role. Herod the Great may have been one of these people who claimed messiahship. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jodi Magness discussed Herod the Great. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). First, it is important to note who Herod the Great was. As Jodi Magness explained: King Herod ruled Judea as client king on behalf of Rome from 40 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumaean Jew named Antipater and a Nabataean woman named Cypros. … For most people, Herod is probably most known for the massacre of the innocents described in Matthew 2:16, according to which he ordered all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem put to death after being informed that the Messiah had just been born. … Among archaeologists who work in Israel, Herod is known as the greatest builder in the country’s history. So, Herod the Great has a few things for which he is known, even today. And his descendants are also found throughout the New Testament time—such…

The Spencer W. Kimball Journals

President Spencer W. Kimball is well-known for encouraging members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to keep journals. He set an example of doing this, and produced a large journal that was recently made available through the Church History Library digital collections. Recently, Latter-day Saint archivists Jeffrey Anderson and Brandon Metcalf discuss the journals of President Spencer W. Kimball in an interview at the Church history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Wilford Woodruff is probably the other president of the Church who is best known for his prolific journal keeping, and his records provide the major backbone for Church history in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s possible that Spencer W. Kimball’s could come to serve a similar function for Church history in the mid-1900s. As the interviewees explained, President Kimball’s journals are notable because: First, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as President of the Church, he witnessed and captured key information about the development of the Church as it was happening. Second, he kept a journal. Not everyone does. During his time as a member of the Twelve, he wrote nearly every day. Third, his entries are lengthy, rich, and insightful. His writing style is delightful, and at times, those of us familiar with his conference talks can hear that same unique personal style in his…

The Church in 2080, Part IV: The Future of Porn and Opportunity Costs

With the advent of on-demand, free porn virtually everybody has access to a level of sexual novelty, variety, and frequency that an ancient emperor could have only dreamed of. The invention of the VCR allowed for people to view pornographic material without having to go to a seedy inner-city theater; the invention of fast Internet and streaming allowed for even more on-demand accessibility and choices for anyone with an Internet connection; and the advent of Youtube-type services for pornography centralized the options and made them even more cheap and accessible. I believe that with the combination of AI and VR we are entering another stage, and that by 2080 (if not much sooner) it is likely that we’ll be at a place where anybody can have any photo-realistic scenario they could think of in front of them whenever they want. I suspect that each step towards availability has had serious implications for the men in society (and yes, women view porn too, but virtually every survey shows that this is disproportionately a male issue). During the early pornography debates conservatives feared that pornography would whet the sexual appetite of men and lead to all sorts of debauchery and violence, while pro-pornography liberals believed it would lead to liberation and more sex, but I think both sides turned out to be wrong: instead it appears to have muffled out partnered sexuality. People can now have at least a simulacra of sexuality…

Fully Divine and Fully Human

After the death of Jesus Christ, early Christians spent centuries grappling with understanding who he was. The early creeds developed largely as an effort to reach an official consensus on understanding Jesus’s divine and human natures. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the primitive church, early Christianity and the debates they had are still part of our heritage and history. At a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog, From the Desk, Jason Combs discussed some of these early debates and the resulting Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood by W. Paul Reeve is a thought-provoking and insightful book that explores some key aspects of the intersection of race and religion in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To me, this volume is up there with Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy as both the best and most important entries in a fantastic series. Reeve, a professor of history at the University of Utah, draws on his extensive research to provide a nuanced and detailed account of the Church’s racial policies and practices from its founding in the early 19th century to the present day.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is a well-known figure in the New Testament whose life has been the subject of speculation and storytelling for much of Christian History. One of the more recent instances of this is The Chosen. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, Bruce Chilton discussed Mary Magdalene, offering insight into who she was, who she isn’t, and how she has been portrayed over time. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

The Church in 2080, Part III: Scandals and Extinction Threats

One of the more interesting non-profits in the US today is the “Long Now” foundation. Funded by the Silicon Valley types that want to find a more interesting use for their money than library naming privileges, it is concerned with a more long-term approach to thinking about human problems and threats to civilization, and by long they mean long. While concerns about nuclear exchanges or climate change operate on a scale of decades or centuries at the most, what are the biggest threats to our species in, say, the next 100,000 years? Many of their concerns deal with low probability, highly catastrophic events. Even if we get the chance of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange down to very small percentages, given enough time it will eventually happen, same thing with an asteroid strike.  What would an analogous, extinction-level event be for the Church as an institution? Every now and then there’s something that happens that triggers some of the more histrionic corners of the Internet into saying that the Church is doomed; however, as long as you have a critical mass of true believers, established religions tend to be quite robust. For example, if you look at the growth rates for Jehovah’s Witnesses around the time of the failed second coming prophecy of 1975, when Witness leadership was strongly promoting the idea that the Second Coming was going to happen in 1975, they plateaued for a bit, but then kept on…

“In the celestial glory there was three heavens”

Doctrine and Covenants 131

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 131 has had a huge impact on how we understand the afterlife. There is, however, some debate about a few key aspects of the text mean that also have implications for our fate in the afterlife, especially when it comes to marital status. Given the debates, it is probably best to observe a degree of humility about our knowledge of how the afterlife works.

The Church in 2080, Part II: The Kids Are Not All Right, or the Post-Post-Gen Zers

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the mental health crisis facing the liberal kids these days. I don’t know if I have much to add in terms of generalities that hasn’t already been said, so here I’ll discuss its relevance for the Church long-term.  If youth were leaving organized religion in droves and they were thriving, having children, communities, and general happiness that would be one thing, but they’re not.  My responses to the concerns about liberal youth leaving the Church, and how the Church must adjust or die, are several: they’re not as uniformly activist left as supposed, that view is American-centric, there’s no evidence that liberal youth go to either liberal or conservative churches anyway, and in terms of fruits this brave new cohort of youth isn’t exactly inspiring confidence. Each of these points could easily be a post in itself, but here I’ll focus on the last one.  The numbers basically track with the anecdotal observations I and others have been accumulating for some time: for example, in the last class I taught about a third of my students had mental health requests from the disability accommodation office, hardly anyone could get basic assignments in, and I’ve heard similar stories across a wide variety of domains.  Admittedly much of this started around COVID, but things haven’t gotten better post-COVID. The fact is that Gen Z just isn’t super functional. They’re not all bad, and in…

Zerah Pulsipher and the Angel

Was the angel that Zerah Pulsipher saw Moroni

The other day, I came across an interesting talk from Glen L. Rudd about Moroni and his postmortal adventures. While interesting, however, it is unfortunately inaccurate on a few points. In particular, listing Zerah Pulsipher as someone who saw the Angel Moroni is inaccurate to the statements that Pulsipher recorded about his conversion.