Another Open Letter to Trent Horn About Mormonism

Trent Horn graciously replied to my previous post to him. Here are my thoughts in return:

Hello again, Trent! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed response. I love exchanges of thoughts that are both kind and productive, so thanks also for that. I’d like to continue our conversation.

On sources

I’m still curious about your education in my faith; you say that you’ve “read extensively the work of contemporary Mormon apologists,” for example, but what constitutes “extensive” here? It’s one thing to note that you “cite primarily” from LDS sources, but quite another to have studied those works holistically and fairly, rather than using them as research for quotes alone. (Also, why leave out the Bible when you define our “standard works?”)

I certainly didn’t mean to accuse you of having any attitude at all, much less one that finds this subject “irrational or easy to refute,” and I’m sorry if it sounded that way. You quite rightly say that I can’t fault you for the conclusions you’ve drawn about my faith as they’re grounded in your own faith’s perspective–fair enough, yes–but surely it’s reasonable for someone to hear your teachings and want to ask about what has gone into forming and supporting them.

Speaking of which, you say that you are “well aware of the arguments made for Mormonism, as well as Mormon rebuttals to arguments made against the faith, all of which I have found unconvincing.” Really, *all* of them? There’s not a one that carries any weight at all? That’s odd.

If you used some space in your book, though, to accurately correct misconceptions about the LDS church, then you have my sincere thanks. We agree then that there is much erroneous information out there in need of correction.

Continue reading

An Open Letter to Trent Horn

Hi Trent!

I heard you on the radio last Monday talking about Mormonism. I tried calling in but the lines were busy. I tweeted you on Tuesday asking to talk about it, but you haven’t responded yet–maybe you’re busy?

At any rate, I thought this post might be a good way to open a dialogue, if you’re OK with that. Feel free to respond to any and all of the items I discuss here, or proceed as you see fit. I look forward to a friendly and respectful, but candid and productive discussion!

I didn’t hear the entire program, as I was driving around and running errands at the time, but I think I got the gist of it; certainly, I heard enough to be able to address what I think your major points were.

First, I want to offer some general observations, in the form of questions, about what I heard you say on the radio. (I’d love to hear your actual answers to these questions, please–they’re not meant to be merely hypothetical!) Then I’ll cover a few of the biggest specific issues you raised.

10 questions regarding general observations

1. You invited Mormons to call in and discuss your teachings, and this leads me to wonder: have you engaged many Latter-day Saints in conversation about your claims regarding us? Have any of them had the equivalent education and training in their religion that you’ve had in yours? Do you feel you have a solid understanding of what LDS answers to your objections are?

What have their responses been? Have you found any of those responses compelling at all?

If not, doesn’t it strike you as odd that a religion with so many adherents should be incapable of adequately explaining *any* of your claims? Might that seem to indicate the presence of confirmation bias on your part?

Do you ever address these responses in your presentations on Mormonism? If not, why not?

2. If you have not sought out responses from qualified Latter-day Saints, why not? Shouldn’t someone who professionally teaches about the perceived negatives of another group seek out responses and even rebuttals from that group as assiduously as possible as part of their own preparation? Wouldn’t that bolster your credibility and, frankly, be the most civil thing to do?

3. What have been the primary sources of your education about Latter-day Saints? What would say are your top five sources? Continue reading

The Book of Mormon Loves the Bible and Leads Us Back To It

Some anti-Mormon critics have pointed out that the Book of Mormon uses specific and unique phrases from the Bible several dozen times.  They’re wrong, of course.

The Book of Mormon uses specific and unique phrases from the Bible several hundred times.

This amazing presentation by a BYU scholar at a recent conference on the complex language of the Book of Mormon goes into this.  There’s no concrete explanation for how this phenomenon is to be accounted for: for the faithful, we don’t know exactly how so many of these non-quotation uses appear in the Book of Mormon; for the critics, since there’s so much subtlety and deep understanding evident in the phrasing (and it in no way helped any hypothetical hoax), there’s no way to simply write this off as lazy copying.

Continue reading

A Spiritual Metaphor

Each of us is a complicated congregation.

Paul used this fact in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where he used various body parts to represent different gifts and callings, showing that just as a body needs all its parts to cooperate in order to work best, so does the church need a variety of gifts and offices to best perform its duties.

It occurred to me recently that we could apply that metaphor to an issue in the church today:

Each of our individual “congregations” is led by a presidency: our spirit is called to preside over the rest of us, perhaps with the mind as first counselor and the heart as second counselor.

The rest of the things that constitute ourselves–the “members,” as Paul put it–have their various functions, but all work best in an established order, cooperating harmoniously and ever submitting to the leadership of the presidency.

Whenever a member decides to disregard the order–indulging in its own desires and placing its own wisdom above that of the presidency–the entire congregation suffers.  Whatever member that is–the stomach, the eyes, the genitals, the ego, etc.–risks apostasy.

In any congregation–the global church, a stake, a ward, or our own individual selves–the best way to live is to follow the order established by God.  That means training ourselves to live under the mentoring of our leaders.

Favorite Quotes from John Taylor

“I have no ideas only as God gives them to me; neither should you. Some people are very persistent in having their own way and carrying out their own peculiar theories. I have no thoughts of that kind, but I have a desire, when anything comes along, to learn the will of God, and then to do it.”

The Life and Ministry of John Taylor

The only question with us is whether we will cooperate with God, or whether we will individually work out our own salvation or not; whether we will individually fulfil the various responsibilities that devolve upon us or not; whether we will attend to the ordinances that God has introduced or not; for ourselves to begin with, for our families, for the living and for the dead. Whether we will cooperate in building temples and administering in them; whether we will unite with the Almighty, under the direction of his holy priesthood, in bringing to pass things that have been spoken of by the holy prophets since the world was; whether we will contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the Saints. These things rest with us to a certain extent. …

Chapter 1: The Origin and Destiny of Mankind

Continue reading

A Letter From Boyd K. Packer, Artist

PackerArt 3Besides being a bold firebrand of an apostle, the recently departed Boyd K. Packer was also an accomplished folk artist.

Ten years ago, my family and I toured the Church History and Art Museum in Salt Lake City.  One of the exhibits was of the painting and wood carvings Elder Packer had done throughout his life.  I was struck by how excellent they were, particularly the wood carvings of small animals and birds; clearly the result of careful real-life observation and exquisite technical skill.  (An example of his work is seen to the left.)

Later, I wrote him a letter thanking him for some talks he’d given and complimenting him on his art, especially the wood carvings.

He replied in a letter dated August 17, 2005.  One paragraph reads: “I am glad you enjoyed the museum visit.  That seems like another life as the years have moved on.  Because of causes incident to age, I am not able to do that fine work anymore.”

The pathos of those statements also struck me.  I noted that he didn’t blame his lack of recent art on the demands of his ministry, but only on the realities of advancing age.  (In retrospect, it’s inspiring that despite “causes incident to age,” he still maintained a vigorous and productive global ministry for another decade after writing that letter!)

Clearly, though, he loved those carvings and it hurt to not be able to do them anymore.  At least in his golden years he had all those great achievements to look back on, and the memory of the feeling of creating them in the first place.

Truly, this was a life deeply and well lived.

More examples of his art can be seen here and here.

Adam and Eve and Evolution: Some Theories

This is a subject of perennial interest and controversy, isn’t it?  Sometimes we even hear of people having trials of faith because of apparent conflicts between scriptural history and scientific knowledge.  I thought I’d share a few of my own ideas on reconciling the two, on the off chance that they may be interesting and helpful to anyone.

Of course, these are only theories.  They’re not necessarily true.  I don’t even necessarily believe them.  I do, however, find comfort in the idea that these ideas exist, and could be true.  Still, if any authorized leader clearly refuted any or all of my ideas here, I’d immediately and gladly give them up.

 

ADAM & EVE & EVOLUTION

I’ve never understood the antipathy some have towards evolution, especially from Latter-day Saints, as a close reading of Abraham 4 practically demands something like evolution.

There’s an old rhetorical question about whether or not Adam had a belly button.  I’d say that he did because, though leaders as recent as Jeffrey R. Holland have affirmed that there was a literal Adam, the scriptural account of him being created from the dust and then having a spirit put into him leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Understanding that all life forms have a spirit in them, I wonder if the following might be accurate.  Here is a chart that crudely illustrates what I think may have happened (red lines indicate marriages, green lines indicate children).  Basically, humans may have evolved to the point where, when the time was right, two were chosen to be the first to have not just any spirit, but spirits that were children of our Heavenly Father.

 

Adam & Eve

 

Those two then married and had children.  Those children likewise, of course, had divine spirits, but they married others who did not.  The children of those unions would have one parent descended from Adam and Eve (their grandparents), and one parent not, but those children could also have inherited divine spirits.

Marriage and breeding proceeded such that, eventually, all humans could count Adam and Eve as their direct ancestors.

Continue reading

Mothers, Mormons, and Defending the Family

On this Mothers’ Day, I’m reminded of a kerfuffle after the last General Women’s Meeting of the LDS Church, where the leader of our faith’s women around the world urged us to “defend the family.”  This was greeted by some ongoing snarking from the faithless fringe online, who sarcastically queried what exactly is attacking the family in the first place.

Lo and behold, in the last week, a couple of news outlets have caught wind of some teachings by intellectual leaders on the Left which include such gems as these:

“One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.”

         –“Abolish the Family? Or Just Hobble Parents So They Don’t Give Kids ‘Unfair’ Advantages?

“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”

         –“Inequality warriors vs. the family and the individual

Yes, the hostility towards the family is real.  Yes, it needs to be vocally and actively defended in the public sphere.  Yes, we Latter-day Saints have a direct imperative to be at the forefront of this.

And all of those clichéd feel-good bromides about motherhood that we hear in church about mothers being the “guardians of the hearth,” or their teachings to children having “far reaching affects on politics, history, and society,” or that Satan fears mothers because “those who rock the cradle can rock his earthly empire?”

Those are all true.  Experience shows it.  Faith proves it.  Just watching world events unfold offers abundant testimony that we need strong mothers, strong fathers, and strong homes more than ever.

[On an unrelated note, both of the articles linked above compare the leftist remarks in question to one of my favorite science fiction stories–highly recommended to all who want to better understand the sour spirit of these times.]

Muslims, Mormons, and Freedom of Speech

Muslims reverence and honor Muhammad as God’s most special prophet.  As a Mormon, I understand that.  While I and other Latter-day Saints share their dedication to following a prophet, there is absolutely no amount of obscene libel or slander that could ever justify violence in the defense of that reverence.

I believe in God, and I also believe in the marketplace of ideas.  I believe that to truly serve the first, we must preserve the second.

To put it another way: if there were some cabal of fundamentalist Mormons who started assassinating anyone involved in the Book of Mormon Broadway musical, I would immediately, publicly, and totally take the side of the play.  There would be no hesitation, no caveats, no excuses about how the killers were “provoked,” no aggrieved pleas for any “respect” that would equal censorship.

The old saying of Voltaire’s, the one about not agreeing with what one says, but defending to the death their right to say it, may be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  Anyone outside of that civilization must know that, as one of our primary values, that must be respected, and if our value comes into direct conflict with anyone else’s value, we will fight to defend it.

And those of us who are inside of this civilization must actually be willing to do that.

Otherwise, we will lose that freedom which has served us so well for so long.

An Important Book About the Book of Mormon

downloadI’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon again.  It does the Book of Mormon a great service: it examines that text with an eye towards figuring out how it does what it tries to do.

He analyzes how each of the book’s three main voices–Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni–organize and present their thoughts, with careful conclusions drawn from close study of those evident agendas.

Here is a brief summary of the largest lessons:

Mormon and Moroni are very close in the narrative—father and son—but their editorial approaches are radically different.

Mormon demonstrates the reality of Christian doctrine by presenting a factual, historically sourced record with very light editorial intrusion.

Moroni demonstrates the reality of Christian doctrine by presenting a didactic, spiritually plaintive record with very heavy editorial intrusion.

Nephi, meanwhile, is largely content to preach directly from scripture and base his attendant remarks primarily on those texts.

Indeed, though Hardy never uses these exact formulas, his book suggests that the three narrators’ messages could be summarized as follows:

Nephi: come to Jesus by studying the scriptures

Mormon: come to Jesus by following the prophets

Moroni: come to Jesus by seeking the Spirit

The LDS Vote Dissenters And The Intolerance Of The American Left

At this weekend’s global General Conference, the annual sustaining vote for our church’s overall leaders had an unusual wrinkle.  Tens of thousand of Mormons there in person–any many more watching online–said yes.  But about seven people stood up to say nay.

This was a planned protest vote by a group called “Any Opposed?”.  According to their web site, they seem to have wanted an audience with the Apostles so they could air their grievances.  They might have been surprised when the conducting officer, President Uchtdorf, referred them to their stake presidents.

Perhaps they didn’t realize that the church has grown far too large for the old policies of the 70’s to be practical anymore.  (Hopefully they then learned from Elder Cook’s talk on the subject.)  Perhaps they didn’t know that this is the procedure outlined in the Church’s official Handbook of Instructions:

If a member in good standing gives a dissenting vote when someone is presented to be sustained, the presiding officer or another assigned priesthood officer confers with the dissenting member in private after the meeting. (emphasis added)

If they’d really read the handbook, they’d know why dissenting votes are asked for in the first place.  From the same paragraph cited above:

The officer determines whether the dissenting vote was based on knowledge that the person who was presented is guilty of conduct that should disqualify him or her from serving in the position. (emphasis added)

The point of a dissenting vote is to reveal that a nominee for a calling has been cheating on a spouse, or beating children, or getting drunk every night, etc.

But, again according to their own web site, the dissenting voters weren’t accusing leaders of such immoral behavior.  They were protesting the fact that the Church holds opinions contrary to their own about (surprise!) gay marriage and the role of women in the Church.

So their dissenting vote had nothing to do with unworthiness, much less an attempt to find answers or engage in dialogue.  It was an attempt to blacklist people who disagree with their political views.  They wanted to publicly punish and suppress those who are different from them.

This, of course, has become the modus operandi of the American Left these days.  (See here for some recent examples, though there are many, many more.)  The mindset of too many liberals today has become one of automatic righteous indignation towards those who dare to dissent from their party line, with a reflexive response to censor them.

Actually, in the eyes of those who gave the dissenting votes, our general Church leaders really are immoral and thus unworthy to hold office.  Our leaders have committed the ultimate sin, after all: they don’t confess loyalty to the creeds of liberalism.

Such is the “tolerance” of the American Left.

The Book of Mormon and Female Scandinavian Olympians

Talking online with a critic of the Book of Mormon recently, I was reminded of a scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s last good movie, 2002’s Signs.

In the film, two brothers living on a farm in the Midwest investigate noises outside at night.  In classic suspense style, movement just off screen causes the characters and camera to look, just in time to miss whatever was there, but it was clearly someone.  When a police officer comes out the next day to look into it, the following exchange takes place:

OFFICER PASKI
How certain are you, that this was a male?

MERRILL
I don’t know any girls can run like that.

OFFICER PASKI
I don’t know, Merrill. I’ve seen some of those women on the Olympics. They could out run me easy.

MERRILL
This guy got on the roof in like a second. That roof is over ten feet high.

GRAHAM
He’s telling you the truth. Whoever it was, is very strong and can jump pretty high.

OFFICER PASKI
They got women’s high jumping in the Olympics. They got these
Scandinavian women who could jump clean over me.

GRAHAM
I know you’re making a point. I just don’t know what it is.

OFFICER PASKI
Yesterday afternoon, an out of town woman stopped by the diner and started yelling and cussing cause they didn’t have her favorite cigarettes at the vending machine. Scared a couple of customers. No one’s seen her since… My point is, we don’t know anything about the person you saw. We should just keep all possibilities available.

MERRILL
Excluding the possibility that a female Scandinavian Olympian was running around outside our house last night, what else is a possibility?

So, what does this have to do with the Book of Mormon?

In my online conversation, I offered to share three of the best evidences for the Book of Mormon, and invite the critic to analyze and account for them if the book is a hoax.  I suggested 1) the accurate, previously unknown geography of Arabia (Nahom, Bountiful, etc.), 2) the ancient texts that nobody had access to, given in 2 Nephi 12:16 and 3 Nephi 4:28-29, and 3) chiasmus.

His responses were quick.  Continue reading

President Shields

This Sunday the president of the North Las Vegas Stake of the LDS Church will be released. He and his counselors have served for nine and half years. The president himself served as a counselor in the previous presidency for ten years, meaning he’s been in the same leading body for nearly two decades.

President Shields has earned a great deal of love and respect from the North Stake. Here are just ten of the many highlights from his years at the head of our stake:

10. Call to make sacrifices for the stake. Soon after becoming stake president, he asked members to make some kind of financial sacrifice and donate what they could to the stake. He stressed that blessings would come to those who would make a real sacrifice for the stake. In fact, especially in his early years in the calling, he emphasized the blessings that would come to people if they would stay here and not move away.

9. Practical counsel. Around the time the recession started, he gave stake members a list of eight frugal habits to practice that would help get them through hard times, including not letting our vehicles’ gas tanks get more than half empty, and picking up an extra can of food each time we go to the store. If anybody remembers the rest, please let me know: I don’t have them written down and I forgot!

8. Urging everyone to get a blessing. In the September 2007 stake conference, he implored everybody to get a priesthood blessing before General Conference. This endeavor was largely realized through the ministrations of home teachers.

7. Temple painting. President Shields commissioned a unique painting of the Las Vegas Nevada Temple to be done by a talented member of the stake high council, which he then encouraged members to place prominently in their homes. The painting is highly symbolic, including the very vantage point: the temple is seen from several hundred yards away from the southeast, which puts much of North Las Vegas in the background. The painting, titled “A Light on a Hill,” is described in the section of the same name in this Deseret News article.

6. Service initiative. As the recession worsened and more people needed financial help, he instituted a program whereby people needing assistance would be asked to also help in the maintenance work of church buildings, and service for the homes of those stake members who couldn’t physically do it themselves. This program was a beautiful win-win of charity: nobody getting help was idle, and everybody involved got the experience of helping each other.

5. Temple attendance. President Shields once challenged stake members to increase their temple attendance, suggesting that they try for once or twice a month, if possible, for a year. He reiterated the challenge throughout the year, and set an example himself: the stake presidency attended the temple together every Thursday night.

4. Stake choir and orchestra. First he organized a stake choir, to which several dozen members were called; they rehearse weekly and perform at stake conference, every ward conference, and at special concerts throughout the year, including pop concerts, a patriotic fireside in July, and at an annual stake Christmas devotional. Then, he organized an orchestra with members called for that purpose, who perform with the choir. The quality of their combined work easily rivals anything coming out of the Tabernacle! A promotional CD was put together at one point, available on YouTube.

3. Ordained dozens of new high priests. One time, after much meditation in the celestial room at the temple (where President Shields is known to often ponder issues for several hours at a time), he was inspired to do something that nobody had ever heard of before: ordain dozens of men throughout the stake to the office of high priest. There was no calling associated with the ordinations; it was purely a move to strengthen the priesthood and motivate the stake to greater service and devotion. Ultimately, 60 men received such ordinations.

2. Three sessions of stake conference. I was once in a stake that went a year and a half between stake conferences. In North Las Vegas, not only are conferences held every six months, stake priesthood meetings are held halfway between each of those. In fact, in another unprecedented move, President Shields initiated three sessions of our stake conferences—wards would be assigned, say, an 8:30 AM, 11 AM, or 1:30 PM session to attend, where the presidency would speak and the choir and orchestra would perform at all three, and each would feature speakers invited from the wards attending that particular session.

Attendance is always high at our stake conferences.

1. Reading the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the single most impressive thing President Shields has done: our stake’s Book of Mormon reading. In early 2013, he announced in a conference (spontaneously, he explained) that the stake would all start reading two chapters of the Book of Mormon, out loud, in their families, every day. Every household in the stake would read the same chapters, starting and finishing together.

It took about four months, and it was dramatic. He encouraged people to pray about the truth of the Book of Mormon on the last day, and many people wrote down their testimonies and sent them to him.

During this period, sacrament speakers would often refer directly to passages that everyone had just read that week, or would read in the week coming up. The effect was powerful.

In fact, President Shields repeated the same program the next year, and our stake just finished the Book of Mormon together, again, last month.

**********
These are hardly all of the amazing things that have happened during President Shields’ tenure, but they’re my favorites, and the ones that he personally created and managed. Among the other great events that he’s been involved in over the last decade are these seven:

• Stake young men shuttling up to Salt Lake and then spending days riding bikes the 500 miles back to North Las Vegas, together, with spiritual experiences along the way.
• Stake young women having high adventure excursions.
• A stake Primary sports program being organized, with seasons for softball and soccer.
• A vigorous Spanish-language ward (not branch) having amazing activation and attendance rates through a process of personal ministering that President Shields has taught since day one.
• The founding of a Samoan ward (our stake officially has 14 wards now).
• The building of a beautiful new stake center.
• Heavy renovations and improvements at a stake park here in town and, especially, at a camp up in the mountains—those latter improvements have been easily doubled the usefulness and capacity of the camp.

*******

As the North Las Vegas stake prepares to say goodbye to the leadership of President Shields, we all know that it’s not good bye for us as much as it will be hello for many others. After such a record of strong discipleship—and still only in his 50s—every Latter-day Saint around here knows that we’ll be seeing him in much larger and wider roles someday soon.

The $1 Study Bible

I’d been looking around for study Bibles to supplement my scripture study when I was at Alexander Library on Wednesday and saw The NIV Archaeological Study Bible on the shelves.  It looked really good–tons of color maps and articles–but I didn’t check it out at the time.

I kept thinking about it, though, and on Friday I was near Aliante and stopped at their library, hoping they had the same one there. As soon as I walked in, I faced their racks of used books for sale.  The first one that jumped out at me was The NIV Archaeological Study Bible.

It was in perfect condition and was on sale for one dollar.  The cover price was $49.99.

I took the hint and bought it.

Complete Chronological Standard Works-DRAFT

CCSWThis graphic on the left is a rough draft of a project I’m working on—organizing all the standard works of the LDS Church into a single timeline. I think this will be a valuable scripture study tool because it will help us see these writings outside of their monolithic arrangement in our books, and inside their chronological contexts.

For example, instead of seeing the Old Testament as the law, and then the writings, and then the prophets—where the timeline actually ends halfway through the Old Testament and then doubles back to fill in the narrative with the writings of the various persons in that narrative—we can read it in the order in which all of its contents occur. It will aid understanding and appreciation. This makes sense.

Not only the Bible benefits from this, though. By integrating its unique scriptures into this timeline, we can really see just how much time the book of Ether occupies, and how much the early Book of Mormon authors were in tune with the events of the end of the Old Testament.

We can see Book of Mormon stories filling in the gaps between the two testaments, and continuing the tragic legacy of the earliest Christian era after the New Testament ends.

We can see how complicated the “flashbacks” in the books of Mosiah and Alma are.

Much of this is speculative. I’m happy to hear from anyone with refinements. I intend to keep revising it, myself. As I said, this is only a draft.

Narratives that take place at the same time—or nearly so—are presented next to each other. This is most important in the four gospels.

I’ve used the gospel harmony available here at lds.org for this, as well as the chronological order of the Doctrine and Covenants, available here. These are both products of the LDS Church, not mine, and they belong to the Church.

The Bible chronology is one that is widely available online (for example, here, here, and here); I have modified it only very slightly where I thought useful.

The color coding should help us all to follow the flow and see the connections between the various bodies of scripture. The first three—the law, writings, and prophets—are traditional divisions of the Old Testament (see Luke 24:44).