After Reading The Book of Mormon Again

fd445fc55ad1517bb03f62e79b2441de--count-to-readI started this year by reading the Book of Mormon in 40 days, using this schedule. I really enjoyed it this way, because that schedule breaks the text into big but natural narrative chunks–all the Abinadi chapters in one day, all the Ammonihah chapters in one day, etc. The stories made a lot of sense, and the connections from day to day were clear.

The biggest take away from this reading is just how eventful the Book of Mormon is. I’ve read it many times, but I still found myself saying, almost every day, “Oh, yeah, that’s right! I forgot all about this awesome part!” Those moments just kept piling up. Hardly a day passed without some major, deep, impressive section making me pause and think. The mere fact of the book’s density of originality and quality would be enough alone to make me love it!

I was really overwhelmed with how strongly I was drawn to Helaman 7, until that reaction rang a bell and I checked this blog, to find that I’d had the exact same reaction just last year. To that entry’s love for Helaman 7 and 3 Nephi 5, I now need to add Ether 4: I never realized until now just how special and powerful that obscure little chapter is–the Savior starts speaking in verse 6, but verse 13 begins a direct plea from Him to the latter-day readers of the book, that lasts for the rest of the chapter. That’s a pretty big deal!

 

 

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Ten Thoughts After Debating Hundreds of Anti-Mormons

A little over four years ago, I posted this video about Book of Mormon evidence online. In the last year or so, it has really taken off, and now has over 77,000 views, with over 1300 comments. Many of those comments are from me–I read and respond to almost everything. Here are some things I’ve noticed from engaging those comments:

  • Many people who comment clearly have not watched any of the video at all. They’re posting pre-conditioned talking points on the subject. Most of those people, even when explicitly invited to do so, still do not watch the video. Even when I reply to a comment with just a single, simple question, most people will never return to comment again.
  • Even when I make it clear that my only criteria for posting is that people refrain from rudeness and that they address my questions, many people still won’t. If they repeatedly abuse my hospitality and I block them, others will complain about censorship. To be fair, though, on the other hand, I’ve also had to block several Mormons who won’t stop insulting critics or “spiking the ball” about how the critics are failing to make their points, even after I insist that they be nicer. It’s weird and frustrating.
  • The saddest exchange I’ve had is with a young woman who didn’t care if the evidence was true or not. She had decided to openly rebel against God, whether He’s real or not, because religion doesn’t line up with her political preferences. I didn’t know how to respond to that–it really was shocking. I think this may well be representative of a lot of people these days. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking.
  • Dozens of people have complimented the video overall, but have scolded me for not embracing the Heartland model of Book of Mormon geography. Every time, I tell them that I don’t really care about it, but I post a link to a summary of arguments on the topic and invite them to respond. Not one ever has.
  • Dozens of others have explained the evidence for the Book of Mormon by claiming that Satan inspired it. Nothing else productive ever happens after that.
  • Some of my favorite comments are ones posted from other countries and even in other languages. I’ve used Google Translate to reply to such comments more than once, and it’s a wonderful experience.
  • This hobby has taught me that there are sections of the world where the cruelest, most superficial stereotypes about Mormons and our beliefs are alive and well. There is still a lot of work to do.
  • Many people have written claiming to be innocent investigators who have honest questions. Such people are almost always undercover critics, and they reveal their hostility before long. It’s apparently a standard anti-Mormon trick.
  • Often a commenter will be shown definitively that a claim they’ve made is wrong–not as a matter of belief, but merely as basic factual inaccuracy–and then they’ll repeat the claim again later on in another comment. That makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.
  • But many others have said that they were impressed to study the book because of the video, and that’s immensely satisfying. Dozens have said that it has strengthened their faith. That makes it all worth it! :)

A Thought About Gospel Teaching and Sacrifice

An idea that came up in our ward’s teacher council: to be effective teachers, we must diligently prepare lessons, but we must also be flexible to the needs of our friends during class and must be willing to let go of all that we prepared as the Spirit directs us. We could spend hours preparing a lesson, and only end up using some of it because it becomes clear that a discussion needs to go in a different direction.

And yet, if we do no preparation, no such inspiration is likely to come. A friend remembered a sacrament meeting where a man started his talk by taking the script he’d written, putting it in his pocket, and saying, “Well, I had one talk prepared, but the Spirit is now leading me to say something else entirely,” and the resulting talk was exactly what people needed to hear. I then remembered a time about 20 years ago, where a speaker decided to improvise the entire talk on the fly in order to illustrate the workings of inspiration; he only stumbled and rambled for a few minutes, confusing himself and the congregation, before closing and sitting down.

It’s almost as if the Spirit says, “I will guide you, but only if you put in the work first.”

And that makes me wonder if good teaching is related to the basic law of sacrifice. If we research and draft and prepare good lessons, we have something that we can then give up as needed, so greater blessings can come. If we do no preparation, we have nothing to sacrifice.

Similarly, like the rich young man in the Savior’s parable, we can create materials and then cling to them in spite of what the obvious needs are around us, like a teacher who checks off every item on their lesson no matter what real world needs come up spontaneously in class, which demand that we give up our plan and serve others, if we really want to help.

The classroom, then, is a microcosm of life, and we are all teachers.

“The little warm concrete faith in my hand”

Two hands on sunsut.

Overwhelmed by all
but underwhelmed by myself.

How do stress and wonder blend so cleanly
inside the same small minutes
every single day?

It’s enough force to crack the soul
like continental plates, grinding like my teeth.

So I go courting the Spirit
trying to make the magic moments
that already are:
the paradox of conscious effort.

But maybe that conflict is good,
to highlight the steady solids by contrast,
because in a corner of this epic drama
I feel the little warm concrete faith in my hand.

Beautiful Biblical Writing

I recently read 2 Kings 8, where a sick king sends a servant (who is secretly plotting to kill the king) to the prophet Elisha to see if he’ll recover, and Elisha tells the jealous servant that illness isn’t the enemy the king really needs to worry about. In verse 11, Elisha stares down the servant with classically stoic Old Testament severity, and the scheming servant breaks down under his guilty conscience, but then Elisha likewise breaks down, weeping over the corruption of humanity.

This sweeping drama reaches its climax in that single, short, simple verse: “And he settled his countenance steadfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept.”

I’m impressed by all that goes on there–first, the three major emotional peaks: the prophet’s cold scolding, the servant’s shame, and the prophet’s apparent 180 of attitude from scolding to open sadness about the violent weakness of human nature.

But I was also floored by the sparseness of the prose. It echoes with an empty disregard for decoration, sending out its story with the plain directness of folk art. It’s the kind of style that is actually so often affected in modern times by writers trying to look wise or macho. This tiny sentence perfectly illustrates the way that, for example, Hemingway would punch out prose with a lack of clarity for who’s speaking.

I underlined 2 Kings 8:11, not because it’s profoundly doctrinal or because it provides direction for discipleship or because it’s a useful proof text or for any other such reason. I just underlined it because it’s beautiful.

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Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

Paradise2

Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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General Conference and Choosing the Bigger Life

Late last year, I was preparing for 2017’s New Year’s resolutions. As I surveyed where I was and where I wanted to be, I knew that I wanted to simply get more out of life. I was already happy and satisfied, but I just wanted even more: more happiness, more goals reached, more great experiences, more memories, more health, more spiritual feeling, more deep and rich living with all the wonderful people around me. I decided to approach the new year with a private new motto: “Choose the bigger life.”

This means that whenever I had any choice or opportunity–even in mundane daily activities–I would do whatever would lead to those things, no matter if it took time or energy I didn’t have or want to give. That would lead to the bigger life. And I’ve tried to center my life in the Church more than ever because, more than anything else, that vehicle leads to all of the things I want–it’s our Heavenly Father’s gift to us for realizing the abundant life.

This isn’t the kind of resolution that one keeps “starting right NOW.” It’s a process, and like all such processes, your vision of it grows as you practice. I’ve done a lot more with life this year, but I also realize just how much farther I can and will go.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was sitting in the celestial room of the temple. I didn’t have any particular question or issue on my mind; I was just thinking about my life. In one of the clearest spiritual manifestations I’ve ever had, a concrete idea came into my mind, in a character different from my usual internal monologue. It wasn’t a voice, distinctly, just an outside feeling coming in, and it used a phrase that was pretty common at the time. “It’s time to kick it up a notch,” the thought said. I knew what it meant and have tried to live up to it.

As with this year’s new motto, it’s been a gradual process of fits and starts. Still, it’s made a difference. I really have had a bigger life this year.

What does any of this have to do with General Conference? After all of these talks, I really want to recommit and do even better and even more. I’ve been feeling very tired, stressed, and run down lately. But not now. Now I’m excited, and I want to crystalize that motivation and direct it to the most important things. I want to choose the even bigger life.

Going forward into the final third of 2017, I still have the motto from that resolution in mind. The teachings and stories of General Conference have added fuel to that fire. Looking back on the finished life of Elder Hales, the winding down life of President Monson, and the examples from the life of President Nelson shared by himself and by Elder Andersen have all shown me anew the way to live exactly the kind of passionate, productive life that leads to the biggest life of all, eternal life.

Let’s do this thing.

 

October 2017 General Conference Notes

This post will be updated throughout the weekend.

 

SATURDAY MORNING

President Uchtdorf: The Light is Calling to You

  • We have an innate feeling pulling us towards God, like animals’ instincts to get home
  • God calls out to us, no matter what
  • Our life will be better if we answer the call
  • God will use us to make others’ lives better
  • A good description of the disciple’s life as the good life!
  • “Begin your own wonderful journey home.”
  • “Blessings don’t come from abilities as much as from choices.”
  • Even pioneer heroes were just human
  • The light of Christ…the talk comes full circle!
  • “No one else is responsible for your journey.”
  • “Reach out, encourage, heal…”
  • Life as a pilgrimage

Bonnie L. Oscarson (YW Pres): Service

  • Lose ourselves in service to find ourselves
  • Service is better in person than online
  • Some of our most significant service will be close to home: family and ward family
  • “What makes you think you go to mutual because of what YOU get out of it?”
  • “We are not just receivers and takers of what is offered at church…we are givers.”
  • [When we pull our heads into our shells, our world gets smaller]
  • “Who needs me today?”

Elder Oaks: Avoiding Worldliness on the Family

  • TSM: reject anything that does not conform to our standards
  • Family proc. is essential guidance for exaltation
  • “marriage standards of a declining world”(!)
  • TOO MUCH truth in this talk–amazing job laying down the law on the family!

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The Essential Old Testament

This summer our family took a break from our regular Book of Mormon study so we could take our kids on a tour of the Old Testament. Both as someone who cares about deeply informed discipleship and as an educator who laments the loss of Biblical literacy in our society, I want my children to know the Bible better.

Thus, I put together a short version of the Old Testament, one that we could read and discuss together just during our time together during the break from school.

I wish we’d had more time–I had to skip the amazing Enoch material in Moses 6-7, as well as almost everything from the minor prophets. We missed several days, so we didn’t get it all done, and I updated the list now with a few different choices. Here’s my “essential Old Testament,” with some labels and explanations.

  • Abraham 3:22-28 / Moses 4:1-4 pre-existence
  • Genesis 1 / Moses 2 compare creation details
  • Moses 3
  • Moses 4:5-32
  • Genesis 4
  • Moses 5:1-41 Cain and Abel
  • Genesis 6-8 Noah’s ark
  • Abraham 1
  • Genesis 17 Abrahamic covenant
  • Genesis 37, 39-45 Joseph in Egypt
  • Job 1, 42 first and last chapters
  • Exodus 1-2
  • Exodus 3:1-4:17
  • Moses 1 great vision in the Pearl of Great Price
  • Exodus 4:18-5:23
  • Exodus 6-14
  • Exodus 20 The 10 commandments
  • Leviticus 26:1-13, Deut. 28:1-14 comparing covenant promises
  • Joshua 5-6 the battle of Jericho
  • Ruth 1-4 the whole book!
  • 1 Samuel 17 David and Goliath
  • Psalms 1, 3, 15, 19, 23, 24, 37, 82, 116 some favorites
  • 1 Kings 3 Solomon’s wisdom
  • Proverbs 1-4
  • 1 Kings 8 Temple dedication prayer
  • 1 Kings 17-18 The awesome ministry of Elijah
  • 2 Kings 17 the fall of the ten lost tribes
  • Isaiah 2, 5, 29, 40, 53, 55, 58 some favorite chapters
  • Jeremiah 42 & Ezekiel 33 prophetic warnings, literal and symbolic
  • Ezekiel 37 the gathering of Israel & the Book of Mormon
  • Daniel 6 the lion’s den
  • Esther 1-10 courage in a hostile society

 

We Need To De-Stigmatize Repentance

Scenario: you know you need to see your bishop and confess a problem because the loss of the Spirit is making you miserable, but you can’t, because you know that if you do, you’ll have to stop taking the sacrament, and people will see that, and you’ll be embarrassed.

And what if you’re called on to pray in a class, but you may not be able to–the shame!

And of course people will wonder what awful dirty evil thing you did. They’ll talk about it. They’ll treat you differently. Worse.

In short, your life could be ruined.

What a heartbreaking tragedy that anybody may ever feel this way. But those fears are justified–they didn’t just grow out of nothing in the minds of a paranoid few.

Too many times, we Latter-day Saints do in fact treat people badly because they have clearly Broken A Rule.

And that makes people less likely to go down the path to self improvement. Nobody wants to be a social pariah, or be judged, or looked down on at all.

The biggest tragedy here is that this behavior of ours towards those who are repenting should be the exact opposite of this.

A wise bishop once told a priesthood meeting that if anyone felt hesitant to come to him because of a major sin they’d committed because they worried he might lose respect for them, to not worry–he would have more respect for them because of their courage in confessing and starting up the path to forgiveness.

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Our Way of Life

When I write about my church, it’s usually to analyze some aspect of belief or to defend it from critics. But today I just want to celebrate the beauty and joy of the kind of life practiced in the Mormon church.

For months now I’ve often looked back from the end of a day and thought of just how amazing it was. It’s crazy how many days make me laugh and smile and think, how many days have a little bit of me helping someone else and someone else helping me, how many days see me witnessing and participating in the best and hardest moments in an ever growing number of lives. This isn’t meant to say that any other way of life is worse than this or bad at all; this post is for me to simply say that the practice of Mormon discipleship is a truly wonderful way to live.

*****

For numerous specific anecdotes of exactly what I’m talking about in the daily lives of ordinary Latter-day Saints, please check out the series of posts tagged “on the sweetness of Mormon life” over at the excellent Junior Ganymede blog. Dip into any of those slices of homemade gourmet living and you’ll find your heart filled with a rich light.

The most recent entry:

An old cowboy bears his testimony. he is being released from the bishopric. It is his 3rd bishopric. He cries when he speaks. He say’s he’ll miss the friendship. His successor is a dirt contractor who “grew up rough.”

The first speaker says he’d been working at the temple a few days back. The Temple President came and pulled him from his duties. Unusual. “We need help in the baptistry.” There was only a father and son. Also unusual. They ran a session of baptisms for the dead and then confirmations for the dead, with just the Temple President and the speaker and the father and the son. Very unusual. The father was fighting back tears.

After, the Temple President explained. The son had turned 12 that weekend. A day or two later, the man received his 7-day notice that he was ordered to Afghanistan for one year. The temple had made special arrangements so he could do his son’s 1st baptisms for the dead.

*****

Or you could refer to this summary from the end of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for a remarkable parallel to the kind of life I have in mind:

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Joseph Smith and Chiasmus: Means, Motive, and Opportunity

132This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chiasmus, an ancient poetic writing style, in the Book of Mormon. A great jubilee celebration is being held at BYU this week to commemorate it.

I’ve talked to a lot of critics of the Book of Mormon about this, and the most popular response is that chiasmus isn’t that hard to figure out or write, and that Joseph Smith must have just integrated it into his “hoax.”

But this really doesn’t make sense. Once we look at the situation critics propose in detail, we see that an authentically ancient Book of Mormon is more reasonable than their theory!

In short, critics have only weak answers for the “how” of chiasmus being in the Book of Mormon, and absolutely no answer at all for the “why.”

Let’s consider those three classic staples of investigating a crime: means, motive, and opportunity.

MEANS

Did Joseph Smith have the ability to figure out chiasmus and then duplicate it? For a critic to answer yes to this, they would have to agree with this scenario:

  • Decades before the term was even named by modern scholars, Joseph was able to discern this style from its fragmented, muted use in the Bible. There is no record of anybody else outside of professional scholars ever doing this.
  • Not only did he perform that amazing feat, but he found the writing style significant enough to notice and incorporate into his “hoax” manuscript.
  • Not only did he somehow figure all of this out, but he was able to create a huge number of these poetic narratives–several dozen, at least, and maybe hundreds–covering single verses, entire books, and every length in between, and he did so with clever word play and thematic coherence (consider the literally Christ-centered chiasmus in Alma 36, pictured above, for example).
  • Not only did he do that, but he appears to have done so with no notes, no practice, and with no review or revision to his manuscript. Certainly, all existing manuscript evidence supports this–the critic who would imagine otherwise has to invent hypothetical evidence.
  • Not only did he do that, but then for some reason he restricted its use primarily to that manuscript only–he later produced reams of revelations and other documents, like the books of Moses and Abraham, but none of these would ever use chiasmus again in anywhere near the degree or complexity with which it appears in the Book of Mormon. If it was so easy and he was so good at it, then why not?

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