Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mormon Perspectives on Ishmael and the Abrahamic Covenant: An Open Letter

Dear Akram,

There is nothing that I like better than a good question, so I’m grateful that you chose to attend Gospel Principles some weeks ago when I taught lessons 15 and 42 from the old manual on the nature and gathering of Israel. You asked whether Ishmael and his descendants were included in the Abrahamic covenant, and I couldn’t answer you on the spot, though I suspected they were not. After spending some time with the scriptures and other resources, I think I have a more thorough answer for you.

When I first read the account in Genesis, I was confirmed in my initial opinion, that Ishmael is not included in the Abrahamic covenant, but I found someone willing to argue the opposite case in volume three of Studies in the Book of Abraham: Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant. Janet Hovorka cites ancient Mesopotamian religious practices to argue that “Hagar and her son were disinherited from Sarah’s wealth but not necessarily from Abraham’s” (155). Hovorka also claims that Hagar was included in the covenant because she received similar promises from the Lord: “Like Abraham and Sarah, Hagar obeyed the commandments of the Lord, was deemed righteous by Him, and shared in the same blessings of the Abrahamic covenant: a great posterity, a land of inheritance for her children, and the companionship of the Lord. . . . Yahweh negotiates a covenant with Hagar and Abraham which is virtually identical to the covenant negotiated with Sarah and Abraham” (158). As further evidence that Ishmael was included in the covenant, Hovorka points to the circumcision of Ishmael: “This will guarantee him participation in the history of salvation, and will give him rights of inheritance in the house of Abraham” (159). The final piece of evidence presented by Hovorka comes from noncanonical sources. She notes that “in Jewish tradition Hagar’s name is later changed to Keturah, the name of the third wife of Abraham (Genesis 25:1). In light of the first covenant token of Abraham and Sarah [the token being the new names given to Abram and Sarai], a name change to Keturah could suggest Hagar’s entry into the covenant” (161). There is also, from modern revelation, at least one verse that supports Hovorka’s case. In the revelation on the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord instructs Joseph that “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins . . . God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises” (D&C 132:30, 34).

To summarize the case for including descendants of Ishmael in the Abrahamic covenant: 1) Hagar was dismissed from Sarah’s service, but the bond between her and Abraham was never broken. 2) Ishmael received, through Hagar, promises analogous to those made to Abraham—promises of a great posterity, a land of inheritance, and the companionship of the Lord. 3) Ishmael was circumcised, a sign of the covenant. 4) Hagar may have received the new name Keturah (and, if this is true, she returned to live with Abraham after Sarah’s death—see Genesis 24:67, 25:1). 5) Modern revelation explains that Hagar’s children fulfilled, at least in part, the covenant made between God and Abraham.

Hovorka’s evidence seems fairly solid, but she ignores important passages in the Bible and modern revelation. When the Lord first covenants with Abraham, he tells him to “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto [Abraham], So shall thy seed be.” Abraham is also told that this promised seed “shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years . . . and afterward shall they come out with great substance” (Genesis 15:5, 13). Isaac’s descendants were enslaved in Egypt before emerging laden with Pharoah’s wealth, but I (admittedly no historian of Middle Eastern history) can think of no parallel for Ishmael’s descendants—so the promised seed seems here to refer exclusively to the Israelites. Another point that Hovorka elides in her analysis of the blessings [land, posterity, favor with God] promised to Hagar is the fact that these blessings are promised to Hagar herself (Genesis 16:10), not to Abraham; she might be a participant in a parallel covenant, but there is no indication she was ever included in the covenant made to Abraham. Indeed, when the Lord renews his covenant with Abraham in chapter 17 of Genesis, Abraham explicitly petitions for the inclusion of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, saying “unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” The Lord crushes Abraham’s hopes and responds with the news that

"Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee." (Genesis 17:18-21)

You have to feel for Abraham. The man is told—fairly explicitly—that the covenant does not apply to Ishmael (who will be the recipient of other blessings) and what does he do in response? Immediately after this rejection of his request for Ishmael to “live before” God and be included in the covenant, he “took Ishmael his son . . . and circumcised the flesh of [his] foreskin in the selfsame day.” Ishmael’s circumcision is not a sign from God that he is a partaker in the covenant, but 1) at the least an act of obedience by Abraham, who circumcised all the men in his household and 2) at most the last ditch effort of a parent to reverse the Irreversible. When things come to a head years later and Sarah tells Abraham that “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac,” the Lord reaffirms His earlier judgment: “in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Then he reminds him that Ishmael has been designated to receive a kind of consolation prize—“And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed” (Genesis 21:10-13). Ishmael might be the seed of Abraham, and he might become a great nation, but he is not to be called the seed of Abraham.

Things look even worse for Ishmael when you get to modern revelation. Paul writes in Galatians that everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and participates in the ordinances of the gospel through the priesthood of God is adopted into the Abrahamic covenant: “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In the ensuing explanation of this adoption, he turns the positions of Ishmael and Isaac with respect to faith and the covenant into an extended allegory:

"For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which two things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of the promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free."

In his reading of Genesis, Paul sees the efforts of Abraham and Sarah to fulfill the Lord’s promise through Hagar in the same way that he sees the efforts of Pharisees to save themselves through obedience to the law of Moses. Ishmael’s birth technically fulfills the promises made to Abraham, but he is a product of human strivings, not divine grace. In other words, Ishmael’s birth is, in part, a product of Abraham’s failure to have faith in God’s promises. Naturally, then, the promises made to Abraham are not fully inherited by Ishmael, in the same way that the Lord rewards basic obedience but reserves the fullness of his blessings for those who receive grace in and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s never good when you become an allegory for Pharisaical strivings to be saved on your own merits.

To sum up the biblical evidence against Ishmael’s inclusion: 1) Ishmael’s descendants don’t seem to have experienced the prophesied bondage that the Israelites did in Egypt. 2) Promises of land and posterity are made to Hagar and Abraham, but that doesn’t mean that Hagar’s child (Ishmael) receives the same promises made to Abraham; that would be like saying that you received a $100,000 inheritance from your parents, and I received a $100,000 inheritance from my parents, so we must have the same parents. Not good logic. More importantly, the Abrahamic covenant is about more than just land and posterity—we’ll get to that soon. 3) The Lord refuses to identify Ishmael as a part of the Abrahamic covenant, and even seems to exclude him. 4) Ishmael’s circumcision is the act of Abraham (who doesn’t get to decide whether or not he is covered by the covenant), not God. 5) Paul excludes Ishmael from the covenant, using him as a negative example of works without faith.

Based on the evidence presented thus far, I think the consensus has to be that Ishmael was excluded; Hovorka’s claims won’t stand up without additional evidence. But since we “believe the Bible to be the word of God [only] as far as it is translated correctly,” I am actually of the opinion that Ishmael—and all of Abraham’s other physical descendants—are included in the covenant, that the covenantal blessings are not limited to the children of Israel.

The last and most important point about Ishmael’s relationship to the Abrahamic covenant is made in the book of Abraham, where the blessings of that covenant are made more explicit than in the corrupted version of Genesis. There, the Lord promises Abraham “a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations . . . and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, in thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel” (Abraham 2:9, 11). The priesthood—not land or posterity—is the most important part of the covenant. If you hold and honor it, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. More importantly, check out the language in verse eleven: “this right [to the priesthood] shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body).” We have to presume that all of Abraham’s literal, physical offspring are included in the covenant unless they disqualify themselves.

There is also circumstantial evidence (at least a little) that Ishmael and his descendants may have had the priesthood. As exhibit one, I bring forward Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. We know that Jethro had the Melchizedek priesthood (D&C 84:6) even though he probably did not receive it from an Israelite. Instead he received it through an alternative line of descent. Presumably Jethro was eligible (at least in part) because he was related to Abraham; he was a Midianite, the descendant of Keturah’s son (possibly Hagar’s son) Midian, and “the literal seed” of Abraham’s physical body. Main point: there are holders of the priesthood descended from Abraham that we know not of, and Ishmael/his descendants very well may have held the priesthood in fulfillment of the promise that the right to the priesthood continues with all those who are Abraham’s literal seed.

As a second piece of evidence for this possibility, I present the weddings of Esau. Esau’s first marriage was to a pair of Hittite women who “were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah”(Genesis 26:35). The grief is presumably over the fact that Esau married outside the covenant. When a wiser, older Esau marries a second time, he goes to “Ishmael and took the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife” (Genesis 28:9). There’s no expression of parental disapproval regarding this marriage, so it seems reasonable to assume that Esau married within the covenant—that Ishmael’s daughter was well versed in the gospel and received its ordinances. There is no proof that Ishmael possessed the priesthood and that he was, therefore, included in the covenant, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that this was the case.

So if Ishmael—and “Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah” (Genesis 25:2)—and their descendants are all part of the Abrahamic covenant (and I now believe they were/are), why does the Bible seem to limit covenantal blessings to Isaac? To answer this question, I think you have to look at the motivations of the authors and editors of that volume. The Bible is both sacred scripture and a nationalist history. It certainly seems possible to me that Paul’s perspective on Ishmael—or that of Ezra, who edited Genesis—may have been shaped by nationalist indoctrination that negatively influenced the way in which they portrayed Ishmael. But with the clarifications offered in modern revelation, it seems clear to me that Ishmael was indeed covered under the Abrahamic covenant.

Probably more than you wanted to know. Still—thanks for such a stimulating and interesting question!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In Celebration of Jesus Christ's Birth

In the councils of heaven that preceded the creation of this earth our Father announced the need for a Savior—a volunteer who would live a life unblemished by sin and then willingly lay it down on our behalf. “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me.” Jehovah, the Firstborn of the Father and “the holiest of all” His children, agreed to descend “below all things” so that you and I might be lifted up and return to the Father’s presence; he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” for our sake.

Even before His birth prophets testified of his coming. After the Fall, “the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden,” and “[t]his is the plan of salvation unto all men, through the blood of mine Only Begotten, who shall come in the meridian of time.” While many plain and precious truths concerning the coming of Jesus Christ have been lost from the Old Testament, Jacob testifies in the Book of Mormon that “none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.”

Those who heed this prophetic message have always looked to the Savior for deliverance. Isaiah promised the ancient Israelites that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Even now in the spirit world, “the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison,” and we regularly implore Jesus Christ to “Come, O Thou King of Kings.” Whether the wait is for his birth, for temple ordinances or for his Second Coming, the anticipation of Christmas—of redemption through Jesus Christ—is a consistent aspect of worship among Christ’s covenant people, Israel.

For those who look forward to the Christmas season “with an eye single to the glory of God” it seems as though “all things denote there is a God”; they find types and shadows of Christ in “the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it.” The sight of a well-formed tree calls to remembrance Isaiah’s words concerning “the stem of Jesse” and the “Branch [that has] grow[n] out of his roots.” The twinkling Christmas lights strung on such a tree and the stars in the heavens are just two of the many reminders that Jesus Christ is the “light of the world.”

Those who have “ears to hear” will find an audible testament of their own dependency on the Christ in the sound of a bleating sheep as it searches for the “Lord Jesus, that great shepherd” or in the sound of a gavel as a magistrate passes sentence in the same way that Christ will when we meet him and the servants he has sent to guide us through mortality “before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” Indeed, for those who will open their “ears to hear,” even the ringing of chimes or the pealing of a bell can be a beautiful “melody in your heart to the Lord” as you contemplate the perfect example of and the transcendent gifts given us by “The Prince of Peace.”

With the Christmas season comes an extra measure of good will. Remembering the “condescension of God,” when the “only Potentate, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,” “descended below them all” and was born into a stable, it is easier to make good choices and to bless the lives of others, even at the expense of our own pride. It is easier to be patient with those who try our patience, to serve those who take our service for granted, and to love those who love only themselves. This extra measure of good will is both a spiritual gift available through the enabling power of Jesus Christ’s perfect Atonement and the only gift that we can possibly give to him in return.

During his mortal ministry the Savior taught that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” This is a principle that resonates with us throughout the Christmas season as we share our time, talents, and material possessions with others more willingly than at other times of the year. As our increased good will stimulates our generosity, let us not forget to be generous with our most precious possession: our testimonies of the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ lives and that he has restored his Church to the earth! This is good news indeed, and as Christians—men and women who have pledged to “stand as witnesses” of his name “at all times and in all things, and in all places”—we ought to share our knowledge and joy with all those around us.

When Jesus Christ was born more than two thousand years ago, angels descended from heaven to announce his coming. The angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth and to Mary, to Zacharias and to Joseph. An angel likewise appeared to shepherds in a field and proclaimed “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” On the night of Christ’s birth the very heavens bore witness of his divinity as a star appeared in the sky and angels descended to earth.

In acknowledging the angelic hosts that testified of the infant Immanuel’s eternal identity, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland offered this reminder: “I have spoken here of heavenly help, of angels dispatched to bless us in time of need. But when we speak of those who are instruments in the hand of God, we are reminded that not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods. Some of them gave birth to us, and in my case, one of them consented to marry me. Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.”

In this, the dispensation of the fullness of times, you and I are responsible for sharing the love of God and the news of his Son’s birth and life, his death and resurrection. Alma wished that he “were an angel, and could . . . speak with the trump of God, . . . and cry repentance unto every people,” but realized that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word.” We are called to be ministering angels to those we live with, to teach those of our own nation and tongue the gospel. Having heard the angels’ song, we must now go forth and share it with others.

Of all those who eagerly awaited the birth of Jesus Christ, surely no one felt more love and devotion for the Savior than Mary, the mother of his mortal body. It was Mary’s privilege and responsibility to rear the Christ child as her own son, to provide an example of obedience and faith to the great Exemplar, who was obedient even unto death and by whose faith “the worlds are and were created.” We know that Mary took this responsibility seriously, making regular visits to the temple and doing “all things according to the law of the Lord.” Because of her efforts, at least in part, Jesus “grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.”

The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that “we see in Mary a pattern of piety and submission to the will of the Lord which is the perfect example for all” parents. As Mary taught her son and Savior “to love and serve” others, provided for his “physical and spiritual needs,” and demonstrated by example the need “to observe the commandments of God,” so too must we “raise [our] children in love and righteousness.”

The little ones for whom we have a sacred responsibility—whether by virtue of familial relationships or church callings—are no less innocent and pure than Jesus Christ was on the night he was born, and we are responsible for preserving that holy connection to heaven in their hearts for as long as possible. The tender feelings of Mary must be our feelings, and we must treasure our little ones in the same way that she treasured hers.

In addition to caring for the children placed in our custody by our Father in Heaven, you and I also have a responsibility to learn from their example. When his apostles asked the mortal Messiah “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? . . . Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

When the mightiest of all God’s children condescended to enter mortality as a small, helpless infant, he voluntarily left his place at the right hand of the Father to set a perfect example for us. We honor Jesus Christ for the exemplary life he lived after his baptism, but it is appropriate that the one sent to save us from our sins came in the guise of a little child. He came as a baby in purity and light so that we might reach our potential as children of God. As we commemorate his birth and remember that he has come to save, let us look forward to the day when we shall once more be like him as he was both at his birth and at his death—pure as he is pure, holy as he is holy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's that time of year again...

No, not Christmas, although it's always a good time to celebrate Christ's life.

Nope--It's time for frank conversations. A forthcoming study of BYU students found that 35% of male students use pornography on a regular basis and that 9% view pornography daily. This doesn't even include occasional users.

If pornography is such a problem in an environment conducive to purity, how can you be sure that the problem hasn't affected the man (or woman) you love? By asking. Time for another PPI: a Personal Pornography Interview.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Big Picture, Part II

Just a couple more examples of how seeing the big picture might change your perspective on scripture. First, one from Robert J. Matthews, in his talk, "The Old Testament: A Voice from the Past and a Witness for the Lord Jesus Christ," from the book Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament:

"It is interesting to how [Moses in] the book of Genesis allots various space to each of its topics. The Creation is covered in two chapters. The early years of man are also covered rather quickly. The time from Adam's fall to Abraham is recorded in only eight chapters. The story of Abraham, who lived 175 years, requires at least a dozen chapters alone, (that ought to tell us something of his importance), and the story of Jacob and Joseph and the founding of the house of Israel (totaling probably two hundred years) requires all the way from Genesis chapters 27 to 50--twenty-four chapters for only two hundred years. You can see that the purpose of Genesis is to get the idea clearly before us of the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, the house of Israel, and the prominence of Joseph." (41)

Thinking about the space allotment in Genesis also teaches us something about how we ought to study and think about our own sacred history. Moses emphasizes the most recent, relevant portions--if we were to write something like the book of Genesis for our own times, Joseph Smith would take the place of Jacob and Joseph; our focus should be on the Restoration, and that's a lesson available in the composition of Genesis, where Moses helps the Israelites focus on their recent past as a learning opportunity.

OK--just one more bit on seeing the big picture. 1 Nephi 2:15 is one of the shorter scriptures in the Book of Mormon and so got quite a bit of attention during my teenage years, when I was asked to quote a verse of scripture. I've also heard a number of commentators remark on this scripture, explaining that it teaches us something about Lehi's humility, that he stayed in a tent. This may be true (although I think Hugh Nibley would disagree in Lehi in the Desert), but Nephi doesn't tell us that his "father dwelt in a tent" in order to comment on his father.

If you read through the 1 Nephi quickly, in a single sitting, you'll be struck by the fact that this phrase, "And my father dwelt in a tent," occurs repeatedly; in addition to 1 Ne. 2:15, it shows up in 9:1, 10:16, and 16:6--over and over again. If you look at the phrase you'll understand why Nephi uses it: to provide narrrative structure in a book that might otherwise seem fragmented. The repetitions are a reminder that until 1 Nephi 16 Lehi and Co. stay in one place, camped out, not journeying to the promised land. Nephi's account wanders all over, and we might be tempted to think that Lehi and his family do as well--but Nephi's reminders that his father dwelt in a tent actually remind us that he is stationary and remind us of the context in which Lehi's vision, Nephi's vision, and the explanation, take place.

My point is simply that the verses are not intended to be a statement about Lehi; they are meant to help the reader understand 1 Nephi as a continuous narrative experience, and anything they tell us about Lehi is incidental.

Happy hunting in the scriptures...and Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Big Picture

I am currently studying Preach My Gospel, and I'm in Chapter 2: "Effective Study." Near the end of the chapter are "Study Ideas and Suggestions," which provide bulleted lists of ways in which to make your scripture study more effective. Missionaries are encouraged to mark their scriptures, to use study resources (Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary, among others), to apply and live what they learn. These are all good ways to make scripture study more meaningful, but I was most impressed by the heading that encourages missionaries to


I think that members and missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are great at reading individual verses closely and remembering them--in no small part because of the scripture mastery program in Seminary. Without looking at your scriptures, I bet that most readers of this blog could tell me the content of the following scripture references--and perhaps quote them:

a) Isaiah 53:3-5

b) 1 Cor. 15:29

c) 1 Ne. 3:7

d) D&C 82:10

e) Moses 1:39

We know what these verses say, but how many of us know the context and background in which they were given? The scripture from 1 Corinthians, for example, is about baptism for the dead, a point which most Church members know. What they don't remember--or at least don't talk about--is that Paul offers baptism for the dead as a defense of the doctrine of the resurrection: this is an important point because it helps us understand that 1) the resurrection was a more controversial topic than baptism for the dead, and 2) that the resurrection is the only reason that baptism for the dead even matters. Or take the scripture from Doctrine and Covenants Section 82. You might know that it promises "I the Lord and bound when ye do what I say," but do you know when and where this promise was given? This section of scripture was revealed in 1832 in Jackson County Missouri, when the Saints were struggling to establish Zion in accordance with God's directive. The statement is a reminder that his promises regarding Zion were only binding if the Saints were obedient, and verse three of that section--"unto whom much is given much is required"--has a similar meaning: having received the promise of Zion, much was expected of the Saints.

I'm not suggesting that it's a bad thing to read and remember such verses by themselves, only that it would be better if we understood what the verses meant in their original context before we apply them to our own lives. To this end, I want to promote some of the scripture study advice in Preach My Gospel:

"Get an overview by reading the book, chapter, or passage quickly. Seek to understand the context and background.

Try writing the main idea of the passage in a sentence or short paragraph.

Review the sequence of events and the culture. Read the historical information in the Bible Dictionary and the chapter and section summaries." (23)

Having dispensed a prescription, let me provide a sneak peek at some of the payoffs. You've already heard me give a big-picture breakdown of D&C 20; let me provide one here for the book of Matthew.

If you were to read the Book of Matthew through quickly with an eye for the book's structure and not just the content of individual verses, you might notice some interesting coincidences. For instance, you would see that some variant of the phrase "when Jesus had made an end" (Matt. 11:1) occurs five times in the book: 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1. The phrase occurs five times because the book of Matthew is a text with seven parts: a prologue (birth of Christ), an epilogue (death and resurrection of Christ), and five "books." These books are (roughly):

Book I, "Introduction to the New Kingdom of Christ" Matthew 3-7
In the sermon on the mount Christ explains the difference between the old Kingdom (Mosaic law) and his new kingdom (higher law)

Book II, "The Power of the Kingdom" Matthew 8-10
Christ performs miracles

Book III, "Reactions to the Kingdom" Matthew 11-13
Christ condemns and rebukes the Pharisees, others who reject his Kingdom

Book IV, "Leadership of the Kingdom" Matthew 14-18
Christ instructs apostles, takes Peter James and John to the Mount of Transfiguration

Book V, "Future Triumph of the Kingdom," Matthew 19-25
Christ anticipates the last days

Each of these "books" begins with a narrative, moves to a sermon, and closes with "when all these things were ended." Why does it matter that you understand the big picture of Matthew's narrative? Because it helps you understand why he chooses to write Christ's story in the way that he does. (As compared to John, for instance, whose gospel has a completely different structure, audience, and purpose.)

Anyways, I could say a lot more...but I feel strongly that we will understand the scriptures better and be more effective advocates for truths of the Restoration if we strive to see the big picture when we read scriptures. Try it out!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Stuff

At dinner last night I was having a conversation with a friend who described two photographs, one in which a standard, middle-class American family from Texas piled everything they owned into one photograph. You can imagine that the cameraman had to use a wide angle lens. In the other photograph, an Ethiopian family piled everything they owned onto a small table. This got me thinking: maybe I've got too much STUFF. If my life is in constant need of organization, then perhaps I am too much possessed by my possessions. I think this fairly often around Christmas time, when my wife asks me, "What do you want for Christmas?" I don't--I don't want. I like to receive tokens of her love, but I don't want, lack, or desire more stuff.

Just a thought as you ponder buying new wire racks to hold the things you don't use, or new Tupperware to hold the toys from last Christmas that your children don't play with, or even a new house to hold all of the different categories of STUFF that you've acquired. Maybe it's time to downsize, to get rid of it; more importantly, maybe it's time to scale back your personal rate of acquisition, to use your material resources in more meaningful ways. On that note, a closing word on the sacrifice of material goods from the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

"We are often overly concerned . . . with our acquiring or holding turf when, in fact, we are urged instead to let go of the things of the world. Any possessiveness for the things of this world is a wasted effort . . . Our personal possessions and out material blessings are really not ours, so what we sometimes regard as a sacrifice was given to us, anyway" (Quote Book, 257).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

An Answer for Elder Lucas

As a missionary in Brazil, I enjoyed the acquaintance of one Lucas Izhar Seisdedos. Elder Lucas (It wasn't uncommon in my mission for elders to go by their first name if their last name was tricky in some way; we even had new nametags issued to us. I was Elder Zacarias for most of my mission.) was the zone leader in my first area, and I lived with him for two months. He was funloving (as the picture below shows; he's on the right) and had a great sense of humor.

I distinctly remember a conversation we had one night. I had mentioned to him some of the questions that I had not yet found answers for in the scriptures and that I would have liked to ask God about. He quickly responded with a joke, saying that when he died and had his interview with God, he would ask only two questions:

1. Did we really need the mosquitoes? (This seemed quite funny in Brazil, where going to sleep felt like making a donation to the blood bank.)

2. Where are the seven women?

This second question was a reference to a scripture in Isaiah 4 and 2 Nephi 14: "And in that day [the last days], seven women shall take hold of one man, saying: We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by thy name to take away our reproach." Elder Lucas made the reference jokingly, and it drew a laugh. But his question always stuck with me for some reason--and now I have an answer for him; he doesn't have to wait until the other side of the veil for this one (although the mosquitoes bit is still beyond me).

You see, I recently read the following report on the New York Times Freakonomics blog (which I would highly recommend):

"What can polygamy on the outskirts of Russia tell us about the effects of the financial crisis in less remote locales? A lot — or so says Cambridge anthropologist Caroline Humphrey: “In the 1990’s, Russia and central Asia experienced huge economic change: what a bank was, how your career was going, what you could expect from life, everything changed overnight. And of course it had a huge impact on people’s lives, from family life to politics, and polygamy is part of that whole scene. So far, we haven’t had such dramatic change in the west, but you never know.” Humphrey, who studies communities on the edges of the former Soviet Union, found that many men and women advocate polygamy for economic reasons. Men are in short supply and life on the rural farms many women live on is difficult. “Women say that the legalization of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits,” Humphrey told the Guardian."

The upshot of this report is that multiple Russian women are cohabiting with a single Russian man; they desire to be "called by [his] name to take away [their] reproach." This will allow them to have "rights to state benefits" so that they can "eat [their] own bread, and wear [their] own apparel." Sounds like a fulfillment of prophecy--and a sign of the times--to me. Remember, the Lord promises that for "he that believeth ... unto you it shall be given to know the signs of the times, and the signs of the coming of the Son of Man" (D&C 68:9-11).

Elder Lucas asked his question in jest, but finding an answer for it is no laughing matter; the women are one of many signs given in the scriptures that the Second Coming is drawing nigh. The seven women are in Russia, Elder Lucas--and that's no joke.

(Bonus points to any old mission buddies who can find the former Elder Lucas and forward my answer to him.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

You Know I Don't Usually

say or post things like this. But if you haven't heard Melody Gardot sing yet, you've been mistreating your ears.

You can also see a visually spectacular video of the song here.
(Warning: video portrays presumably naked woman in tub. No gratuitous skin, but that's why I only posted the song, not the video on the blog. View at your own discretion--as I did with the Beautiful Mrs. Monk.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On Popularity

In this past General Conference Ann Dibb, the current second counselor in the Young Women's General Presidency and the daughter of President Monson, related the following story:

"A number of years ago, a one-inch article in my local newspaper caught my attention, and I have remembered it ever since: 'Four people were killed and seven workers were rescued after clinging for more than an hour to the underside of a 125-foot-high [38-m] bridge in St. Catharines, Ontario, [Canada,] after the scaffolding they were working on collapsed' (“News Capsules,” Deseret News, June 9, 1993, A2).

I was, and I continue to be, fascinated by this brief story. Shortly after reading this account, I called a family friend who lived in St. Catharines. She explained that the workers had been painting the Garden City Skyway bridge for about a year and were two weeks short of completing the project when the accident happened. After the accident, officials were asked why these men did not have any safety equipment. The answer was simple: they had the equipment; they just chose not to wear it."

Sister Dibb goes on to suggest that our mortal probation is a high-risk atmosphere in which we would be wise to use the safety eqipment of "personal prayer, the scriptures, living prophets, and the Holy Ghost to guide us. At times, using this equipment may seem cumbersome, awkward, and horribly unfashionable. Its proper use requires our diligence, obedience, and persistence. But I, for one, choose to use it. We must all choose to use it."

As you can see I am not afraid to wear safety equipment at the risk of seeming unfashionable:

But the more important point is one about fashion--popularity--itself. Notwithstanding Mosiah's opinion that "the voice of the people [rarely] desireth anything contrary to that which is right" (Mosiah 29:26), the Book of Mormon is replete with warnings as to the pitfalls of popular opinion. We may occasionally attempt to persuade ourselves that being popular need not conflict with righteous living; but unless we are living in Zion, there is always a conflict. Let's look at the evidence from the book of Mormon:

"...those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world ... belong to the kingdom of the devil" (1 Nephi 22:23).

The chief doctrine of the antichrist Nehor is "that every priest and teacher ought to become popular" (Alma 1:3).

"...after [Amulek finished preaching] the more popular part of the Zoramites had consulted together concerning the words which had been preached unto them, [and] they were angry because of the word" of God (Alma 35:3).

Or consider that when Joseph Smith began to share his experience in the First Vision, it was enough to "attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling" (JSH 1:23).

The righteous are always cast out by the popular; this is the story of the prophets (1 Nephi 1:20, Ether 13:13). If unpopularity--being cast out and being "a lonesome and a solemn people"--seems like a hard fate (Jacob 7:26), consider that you are never in such good company as when you have been "despised and rejected of men" (Isaiah 53:3). And if you continue to struggle with a desire for popularity, remember that "the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world ... therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). If the world loves us, if we are popular, it is because we belong to the world; we have placed its priorities above the priorities of our Savior. During his mortal ministry Jesus Christ himself said that there is no better sign of moral decay than popularity: "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). If you are hearing an overabundance of praise, you're probably not listening to the One who matters.

Me personally? I'd rather be lonely than popular because as Wendell Philips once said, "One on God's side is a majority" (Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 16th ed. 462). So ask yourself: "Am I popular? And if so, in what way should I repent?"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Words from the Father

One of the challenges of reading the gospels is constructing a single coherent picture of Jesus Christ's mortal ministry from four complementary (and occasionally competing) sources. Take, for instance, the baptism of Jesus Christ. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all give different accounts with slightly different details. But even if you reconcile those three versions (and the JST alterations of them), you are still missing an important source on the baptism of Christ.

I've always known that 2 Nephi 31 provides commentary on the event, but just recently I realized that it also contains an account of the event itself--with material missing from the Bible. Here's one version of how those four sources might be harmonized if you were to construct a single view of Christ's baptism (JST in bold):

1 Then, when all the people were baptized, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee to Jordan, to be baptized of John.

2 But John refused him, saying, “I have need to be baptized of you; why do you come to me?”

3 Jesus, answering, said unto him, “Suffer me to be baptized of you, for thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.”

4 Then John suffered him and went down into the water and baptized him.

5 Jesus, when he was baptized, went up praying straightway out of the water, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are my beloved Son; I am well pleased with you.”

6 Then those that were present saw the Spirit of God descending in a bodily shape like a dove and resting upon Jesus, and the heavens were opened unto him.

7 And they heard a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son. Hear him.”

8 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes: “He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like nto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.”

9 “After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.”

10 And again there came a voice from the Father, saying “Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Sneak Peek at the Sealed Portion of the Book of Mormon

Curious about what's in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? Me too. But I'm fairly confident I now know a little bit more about one of the bits that was reserved until the last days.

In Ether, we read of Jared--the son of King Omer--and his unnamed daughter, who collectively plot to steal the kingdom. Jared's daughter, who "was exceedingly fair" and knew it, reminded her father of "an account concerning them of old, that they by their secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory" and proposed that "my father send for Akish, the son of Kimnor; and behold, I am fair, and I will dance before him, and I will please him, that he will desire me to wife; wherefore if he shall desire of thee that ye shall give unto him me to wife, then shall ye say: I will give her if ye will bring unto me the head of my father, the king" (Ether 8:9-10). It's your standard tale of corruption, seduction, and patricide--way more exciting than anything you'll get in those cheap murder mystery novels. At any rate, Akish agrees to meet Jared's dowry price and calls on his family and friends for help, and "Akish did administer unto them the oaths which were given by them of old who also sought power, which had been handed down even from Cain, who was a murderer from the beginning" (8:15).

Moroni--who is abridging Ether's story--gives an overview of these wicked deeds but doesn't discuss the rationale behind them or the actual oaths made by the plotters. This is, in part, because earlier prophets who read the account commanded that this information be withheld. When Alma gave the plates of Ether to his son Helaman, he commanded him "that ye retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed" (Alma 37:27). Helaman kept a lid on it, but the details of Jared's wickedness were imitated nonetheless by Gadianton and his band: "Now behold, those secret oaths and covenants did not come forth unto Gadianton from the records which were delivered unto Helaman; but behold, they were put into the heart of Gadianton by that same being who did entire our first parents to partake of the forbidden fruit--yea, that same being who did plot with Cain, that if he would murder his brother Abel it should not be known unto the world" (Helaman 6:26-27). There are two important points in this passage from Mormon: 1) Knowledge of the secret combinations sealed up in the Book of Mormon is still available to those who wish to purse wickedness. 2) The secret combinations are closely linked to Cain, because of his iconic status as the first murderer.

Now--with that in mind, I want to introduce you to some of what I learned while reading the newly translated Gospel of Judas. For those of you who missed the media frenzy that marked its introduction a few years back, the gospel is part of the Nag Hammadi libary (3rd and 4th century texts presenting an alternative view of Christianity that were condemned as heresies at the Council of Nicea) and claims that Judas Iscariot was the only true disciple of Christ. The reasoning of the gospel goes something like this: 1) All matter is evil and prevents our spirits from acquiring true wisdom; wisdom, or sophia, is the god/dess that the Gnostic authors of the gospel worship. 2) Jesus Christ came to show us the way to true wisdom, to achieve union with sophia. 3) As part of that process, he had to be "freed" of his mortal body. 4) Because Judas was the only disciple who understood Christ's true message and purpose, he delivered Christ for crucifixion in order to help him return to sophia. I should note that not all of the Nag Hammadi library is not quite so radical and that there are valuable insights to be gained from several of the other books, especially the Gospel of Thomas (perhaps more on that later).

But to return to the business at hand. The Gospel of Judas is particularly interesting with respect to the secret combinations of the Book of Mormon because it was a text apparently preserved and revered by a group known as the Cainites. Bart Ehrman explains that

"The group was named after Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve. Cain is notorious in the annals of biblical history for being the first fratricide. He was jealous of his younger brother Abel, who was especially beloved of God, and so Cain murdered him. Why would the Cainites choose him, of all people, as a hero of their faith? It is because they believed that the God of the Old Testament was not the true God to be worshiped, but was the ignorant creator of this world who needed to be escaped [remember--this creation, with all of its materiality, is what the Gospel of Judas claims Jesus wanted to escape]. And so, all the figures in Jewish and Christian history who stood against God--Cain, the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, and eventually Judas Iscariot--were the ones who had seen the truth and understood the secrets necessary for salvation.
According to Irenaeus, the Cainites took their opposition to the Old Testament god to an ethical extreme. Anything that God commanded, they opposed, and anything that God opposed, they supported. If God says to keep the Sabbath, not to eat pork, and not to commit adultery--then the way to show your freedom from God was to ignore the Sabbath, eat pork, and commit adultery!" (GoJ 89-90).

I believe that the Cainites give us some insight into the corrupt theology behind the actions of Akish and the Gadiantons. Cain is condemned because "he rejected the greater counsel which was had from God" and "loved Satan more than God"; the Cainites reject the counsel of Yahweh and loved sophia more than God (Moses 5:25, 28). Sophia is just a substitute for Satan--a higher power who reveals that this world and its God are a corruption of a better way, and the Book of Mormon version of the Cainites surely worshipped Satan or sophia, or some other substitute, deceiving themselves into the belief that there was a higher power than God. The Gnostic version of Cain's great secret is particularly deceptive because 1) our flesh really is fallen and a primary reason "our natures have become evil continually," so if you don't understand the plan, it makes some sense to think that the creator of our flesh has the wrong plan/motivation and 2) it provides a positive motivation for doing bad things--ie, Judas could have told himself that he was turning Christ over to be crucified for his own good. There's a wonderful quote from C.S. Lewis that describes this sort of tortured logic and Satan's plan perfectly:

"Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience" (from "God in the Dock").

Anyhow--just some interesting material from outside the Book of Mormon that helped me understand a little bit better what was going through the minds of Jared, Akish, Gadianton, et al. And a shout out for the Nag Hammadi which, like the Apocrypha, contains "many things ... that are true" and "whoso readeth it, let him undestand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom" (D&C 91).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Work Yesterday...

On Monday night, I fully intended to watch My Life in Ruins, (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding; just as funny) with my wife. For some reason, the service I wanted to download the movie from would not cooperate, and I was forced to find a different activity for the night. I ended up putting on paper (screen) some thoughts about/for Mormon women that had been swirling through my head for a long time.

The next morning I went to UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach freshman English, and endured a thoroughly miserable presentation by a guest lecturer. At the end of class a girl who has spoken maybe twice the entire semester came up to me and said, "Mr. Hutchins, I help run a group on campus that is interested in women and religion, and I know you're Mormon, and I was wondering if you and your wife would be willing and able to come and speak to us next Monday night." Obviously she has never asked a returned missionary to do something like this, or she would have said, "Mr. Hutchins, I know that you're happy to talk about your church ad nauseum, but I need you to limit your remarks to an hour." At any rate, in the very moment that she asked me, I felt as though I understood why my movie download hadn't worked the night before.

You've heard me complain about the lack of a Mormon presence on college campuses; you know that I have strong positive feelings for Eve and all mothers; there was never any doubt as to whether I would accept my student's invitation. There is, however, a small problem. While I am Mormon, I am not a woman. My wife is both Mormon and a woman, to be sure, but she is only one woman--hardly a representative sample. So: if you are a Mormon woman, I NEED YOUR HELP. If you were asked to speak about your faith in relation to your gender, what would you say? Please respond (in the comments) by Saturday night if you can. Also--if you have a blog that attracts Mormon readers, would you kindly ask your female readership for their feedback and either send it to me by email or link to this post in your request?

My thanks--as always--for your time and your help.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Especially for Mormon Women

In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provide guidance on gender roles within marriage: "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nuture of their children." To oversimplify, fathers are responsible for bringing home the bacon, and mothers are responsible for making sure the children also eat their vegetables. But don't forget the all important qualifier to this counsel: "In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."

In the 1970s, at about the same time the Equal Rights Amendment was gaining traction in Congress, women across the country--who were not familiar with the as-yet-unwritten Proclamation, but who nonetheless had lived by the gender roles it prescribes up until that time--decided that being equal partners meant that each marital partner needed to fulfill both roles. Fathers needed to become nurturers (without giving up their jobs), and mothers needed to become providers (without neglecting the children). As a result, women entered the workforce en masse. This migration of women to the workforce is the subject of a book that every Mormon woman should read: The Two-Income Trap, by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi. The mother daughter combo examine the impact of women entering the workforce and creating two-income households and provide what I see as compelling evidence that organizing your family in accordance with the gender roles described in the Proclamation is a good financial as well as spiritual idea.

Warren and Tyagi suggest that for many wives and mothers, the decision to enter the workforce was made with altruistic motives--the desire to provide a better lifestyle for their family and children. After all, such women might have reasoned, "two incomes can provide a better living than one." Notwithstanding this optimistic attitude, Warren and Tyagi conclude that the primary effect of women entering the workforce has been . . . an astronomical rise in bankruptcy rates. This seems counterintuitive, yes? Families with two incomes should be more financially secure than families with one, right? WRONG: "Two-income families are more likely to file for bankruptcy than their one-income counterparts" (83). Why? Two reasons. 1) Most people vastly underestimated the economic value of a stay-at-home mom. Mom not only takes care of the kids--she also represents a built-in uninsurance policy if Dad loses his job and can provide care for high-maintenance sick relatives. If Mom's at work, families have to hire a daycare facility, have no replacement worker if and when Dad loses his job, and may have to hire medical care for ailing relatives. 2) No one saved the money brought in by Mom, which meant that the two-income family was living at the edge of its means--but with a doubled risk of unemployment because both Mom and Dad could now be laid off, and no one could take either of their places. Remember the next line of the Proclamation? "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation". . . unless you unnecessarily adapted beforehand by sending mom into the workforce when she didn't have to go and therefore didn't have that option when "Death, disability, or other circumstances" came along.

I'm only giving you the bare bones of their argument, but Warren and Tyagi are pretty convincing, in my mind, that the two-income family is in every way financially worse off than the one-income family of yore. Notwithstanding their own compelling evidence, they are hesitant to suggest that moms and wives should quit their jobs. Instead, they are advocates for new government programs that they believe would provide a comprehensive social safety net, allowing the two-income family to enjoy their new life-style without worrying for the risks it entails. Warren and Tyagi do a fantastic job laying out the problem (and really, I've just covered the essentials; it's worth reading for yourself), but I find their solution to be dubious at best. Their solution sounds to me like something the late President James E. Faust said in a fantastic talk on womanhood: "Women today are encouraged by some to have it all: money, travel, marriage, motherhood, and separate careers in the world." He followed that up by stating that "you cannot do all these things well at the same time. You cannot eat all of the pastries in the baking shop at once. You will get a tummyache. You cannot be a 100-percent wife, a 100-percent mother, a 100-percent Church worker, a 100-percent career person, and a 100-percent public-service person at the same time."

This is the same conclusion that recent research on happy women came to:

The author in the video suggests that women should identify the one thing that makes them happy and seize on that thing without worrying about "balancing" and doing it all. President Faust (and the Proclamation) provides guidance as to what that one thing is: "For women, the important ingredients for happiness are to forge an identity, serve the Lord, get an education, develop your talents, serve your family, and if possible to have a family of your own." Take the advice of Elder Faust as well as daytime TV, and embrace a life of imbalance. But make sure that imbalance is in the right (nurturing) direction, or you could find yourself unhappy--and financially vulnerable.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Getting Ready to Pop the Question? Read This First...

This post is a special gift to my bachelor readers, who might not realize that marriage--and especially marriage to Mormon maidens--is now within their financial grasp.

Like any other man, I had to show the future Mrs. Monk a glistening chunk of carbon before she would consent to marry me. For the last 150 years or so, Mormon bachelors have spent many an hour toiling away to buy the rock that would convince their girlfriends to marry them; toil no more, my brothers! Turns out that engagement rings are meant to purchase something that you don't want to buy--and that any morally upright Mormon maid doesn't want to sell.

Apparently engagement rings are a fairly recent invention, an insurance policy meant to decrease the likelihood that a jilted maiden would file a breach of promise lawsuit. We all know that young men are willing to lie in order to get young women to agree to have sex with them, and one of the lies that young men used (and probably still use) quite frequently involves a promise of marriage--"Of course, we're going to get married, so it's okay if sleep together tonight..." After convincing the object of their affections (read: lusts) to sleep with them, many of these young men reneged on their promise.

The engagement ring was intended to act as proof that a man had promised to marry a woman before deflowering her. If he canceled the engagement, he also forfeited the wedding ring, meaning that the young woman was not left empty-handed (although this legal jargon seems to indicate that men--at least in Connecticut--are now likely to recover the wedding ring if an engagement is canceled). So here's my question: If the engagement ring was basically conceived of as an insurance policy for young women who engaged in pre-marital sex under the belief that the young men who stole their virtue would marry them, why on earth would a Mormon bachelor give--or a Mormon woman expect to receive--such a thing? If the goal is a temple wedding, then he doesn't want to have pre-marital sex, and she doesn't need to worry about him leaving her in the lurch.

Seems to me that Mormon bachelors need to stand up for morality and boldly explain to their girlfriends that engagement rings represent a tradition of lust and concupiscence that a temple-going people should shun. Of course, it also seems to me that any Mormon bachelor who takes my advice should have a shiny carbon backup plan in his pocket, just in case his beloved doesn't take the news as well as one might hope. After all, as anyone who's ever seen a DeBeers commercial knows, diamonds--like temple marriages--are forever (even if the engagement isn't!).

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Bridle All Your Passions," Part II

It's not too hard to figure out why Alma's counsel to Shiblon on avoiding sexual temptation is a good idea, but Alma provides an explicit reminder of the stakes of this particular commandment in his subsequent rebuke to Corianton: "Know ye not, my son, that [sexual sins] are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?" (Alma 39:5). The negative consequences of sexual sin are made quite clear, but what are the spiritual blessings that naturally come to those who bridle their passions? After all, as King Mosiah teaches, there is a blessing--a positive externality--tied to every act of obedience: "he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you" (my emphasis; Mosiah 2:24). So by bridling "all your passions"--and not just your sexual passions, mind you--we do more than guarantee that we won't be spending the eternities with David in the telestial kingdom; we also earn certain blessings that are available to us in no other way, because "when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:21).

Most of us can easily connect the act of subduing our passions to improved social relationships, especially in marriage; the late President Gordon B. Hinckley taught a gathering of young women that "[i]f you can thus discipline yourselves, you will be grateful for as long as you live. Most of you will marry, and your marriage will be much the happier for your earlier restraint" (Discourses V. 2, 67). The Doctrine & Covenants also teach that controlling our passions--controlling the impulse "to exercise unrighteous dominion"--is important because doing so allows to have more natural and permanent social and familial relationships:

"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness ... reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing for afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death" (D&C 121:41-44).

Both President Hinckley's exhortation and the Doctrine & Covenants understand the act of "putt[ing] off the natural man" as a means of social improvement (Mosiah 3:19), but I would like to emphasize a different spiritual blessing that is closely tied to the bridling of passions. When we bridle our passions, we are also given "pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul," and when we "let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly; then shall [our] confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. ... and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever" (D&C 121:42, 45-46). In these verses, the benefits of bridling our passions are less concrete and, apparently, less immediate: our soul expands, we are steeped in the doctrine of the priesthood, and everlasting dominion--the nature of God's existence--comes naturally to us. What does all this mean, and how is it connected to bridling our passions?

Consider this insight from Clement of Alexandria (the earliest, and therefore most authoritative, of the post-apostolic Christian fathers): "The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material" (from Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods (monotheism is another subject I'll bite my teeth into one of these days...) "counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth" BEFORE they actually "came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth" (Abraham 5:3-4). The act of creation is the act of translating mental images and understandings onto physical matter.

What does all of this have to do with bridling our passions? Consider: 1) Our passions are the products of a fallen, physical body. 2) When we "bridle" them, we impose a mental or spiritual order on material substance. In other words, the act of bridling our passions IS an act of creation. We are creating ourselves--or at least our future selves--by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand Elder Bruce R. McConkie's suggestion that "[i]n a real though figurative sense, the book of life is the record of the acts of men as such record is written in their own bodies. It is the record engraven on the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is, every thought, word, and deed has an affect [I think he means effect] on the human body; all these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is Eternal as easily as the words in a book can be read" (Mormon Doctrine 97). As previously noted, apostles are entitled to express opinions that may not reflect official doctrine, but I believe that this particular opinion is consonant with scripture (see Revelation 20:12 on the books of life, and Alma 41 on the principle of restoration, as those who live celestial law are restored to celestial bodies, etc.). So--when we bridle our passions, our soul expands because we have extended our control over our physical bodies, and we are blessed with an everlasting dominion, because we have already begun to wield the creative power that we will exercise in the eternities.

If we believe that the act of bridling our passions is an act of creation, then we are practicing all the time for a future as gods and goddesses who will move from internal (physiological) creations to external (cosmological) creations. Bridling our passions--projecting an internal order onto unruly external material--is the best approximation in this mortal world of that which God did when he created the world. Understanding this truth provides insight into just why it is that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:19). The advantage that comes to those who diligently discipline their bodies and passions is not a reward or prize; it is a natural expansion of their abilities as creators that will allow them to be and create like God sooner than those who have not practiced imposing their will upon matter during their time on earth.

To sum up: there are serious negative consequences for individuals who do not bridle their passions, but for those of you who like to "accentuate the positive," just remind yourself that there are few things in which you come closer to the glory of God's creative power than when you exercise a little discipline and constrain your desires, appetites, and passions within the bounds that the Lord has set forth for us in the scriptures.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Bridle All Your Passions," Part I (Parental Guidance Advised)

In the Book of Mormon, Alma offers his second son Shiblon some advice that--given his third son's interest in the harlot Isabel--might have been better directed toward Corianton. He tells Shiblon to "bridle all your passions." We commonly interpret this counsel as advice that is particularly applicable to cases of sexual temptation, and secular research has recently confirmed the wisdom of making decisions about sexual morality well before the time to actually make such decisions is nigh.

Dan Ariely--the author of Predictably Irrational, and a man with interesting fashion insights--has done important research on the bridling of passions. He asked a number of male undergraduate students to take a survey rating their propensity to engage in a number of different sexual behaviors if and when they were sexually aroused. A sample of some of the questions:

"Is just kissing frustrating?"
"Would you tell a woman that you loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with you?"
"Would you keep trying to have sex after your date said no?"
"Would you always use a condom if you didn't know the history of a new sexual partner?"

The students who answered the survey gave the same answers that most men would probably give:

59% said that "just kissing" was not frustrating.
70% said that they would not lie to have sex.
80% said they would respect their partner's refusal to have sex.
88% said they would always use a condom with a new, unfamiliar sexual partner.

But then Ariely asked the same students to take the same survey again. This time, however, he asked them to answer the questions while actually in a state of sexual arousal--and boy, did their answers change. While aroused,

69% said that "just kissing" WAS frustrating.
51% said that they WOULD lie to have sex.
45% said that they would NOT respect their partner's refusal to have sex.
31% said that they would NOT necessarily use a condom with a new, unfamiliar sexual partner.

Ariely's findings suggest that we make decisions much differently when our passions (and especially our sexual passions) are aroused. Just as important--we're really bad at predicting how we will react when our passions are aroused. The students who answered the questions about how they THOUGHT they would react if and when sexually aroused VASTLY underestimated their willingness to engage in questionable behaviors when they ACTUALLY were aroused. Our minds consistently miscalculate the danger of allowing our passions to become "unbridled"--as Alma would say--and it is much more likely that we will make a bad choice in that condition than we believe before we allow ourselves to become aroused. Ariely writes:

"There are most likely many situations where teenagers simply won't be able to cope with their emotions. A better strategy, for those who want to guarantee that [they] avoid sex [or any other immoral behavior, from gambling to pornography], is to [learn] that they must walk away from the fire of passion before they are close enough to be drawn in. Accepting this advice might not be easy, but our results suggest that it is easier for them to fight temptation before it arises than after it has started to lure them in. In other words, avoiding temptation altogether is easier than overcoming it." (Predictably Irrational 101)

The lesson? Listen to Alma. "Bridle all your passions"--because you're fooling yourself if you think you can limit or accurately predict the amount of damage they will do once unloosed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why Buying--or Even Wearing--a Fake Rolex Could Cost You Your Temple Recommend

A must-see (and thought provoking) video from the author of one of my favorite works of non-fiction (about which you will hear more soon):

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Barack Obama and William Perry: Two Theories of Education

Before I get to my thoughts on Barack Obama's speech to school children (which you asked for), let me briefly note that as of today I am the creator and subject of a new website designed to aid me in my quest for full time employment as a college professor. Your feedback is welcome (particularly if you are a departmental administrator looking for an early Americanist).

Now--as to President Obama's speech. I think there are two important points that should be made up front:

1. This was not a new idea. The first President Bush and President Reagan both delivered addresses to school children.
2. This was not a politicized speech. There were no partisan statements in there; in fact, the most political sentence was his suggestion that "maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team." Hardly a call to elect activist judges and socially liberal government officials.

Obama's speech was full of run-of-the-mill inspirational stories and phrases; his "theory of education" was anything but exceptional, promising that success would follow hard work. Notwithstanding the rather blasé nature of his address, conservative commentators across the country were up in arms over Obama's alleged attempt to introduce socialism into our schools. Given the precedents of Republican presidents Bush and Reagan (about which these conservative commentators surely would not have complained, any more than they would have complained if it was President McCain addressing the kiddies instead of President Obama), I can only assume that these shining stars opposed Obama's speech because of his political party. This is to say that those who condemned Obama's speech in advance view the political spectrum as a dualistic system: There is a party of truth (Republicans in this case) and a party of error (the Democrats).

This dualistic reaction to President Obama's speech on education got me thinking about another educational theorist (okay, Obama's not an educational theorist; work with me, people) named William Perry. Perry studied male college students at Harvard and concluded that between adolescence and adulthood, we pass through four (nine actually, but this is a simplified model) intellectual phases:

1. Dualism. Adolescents see the world in black and white. There is no gray; everything is either right or wrong.
2. Multiplicity. There are lots of different viewpoints, but they are all equally valid. You have your opinion, I have mine, and it takes all kinds of nuts and dips to make a party.
3. Relativism. The merits and drawbacks of different opinions are recognized, but this recognition does not lead the investigator to alter his or her original position.
4. Commitment. Having analyzed the pros and cons of each alternative carefully, the individual makes an informed decision as to their relative merits and makes a commitment to the most sensible alternative

Now, it seems to me that President Obama's speech--and the cries of socialism that it prompted--are pretty good evidence that the two party system has promoted appallingly adolescent political thinking: "Obama is giving a speech to school children. Obama is a Democrat/socialist. Therefore, giving a speech to school children must be wrong." If commentators dislike Obama's healthcare plan or his approach to affairs of state, they should say so; but who, having rationally considered the precedents, pros, and cons, can oppose a presidential speech to school children in the way that Obama's address was opposed? Where has reason gone?

My interest in an issues-based politics (an approach which recognizes that the Democratic and Republican parties both may and do take positions that I support/oppose) as oppposed to the partisan politics that now predominates has led me to cheer like mad for the Blue-Dog Democrats. I cheer not because I think that Blue-Dog Democrats stand for TRUTH any more than regular Democrats and Republicans (I don't)--but because I believe that the emergence of a third, substantial bloc of Congressional power will lead voters (and maybe even commentators!) away from the adolescent and dualistic approach that now prevails. Hopefully Democrats will think "Blue Dogs stand for social liberty...they can't be all bad. Let me weigh the pros and cons of their position on X issue," and Republicans will think "Blue Dogs stand for fiscal restraint...they can't be all bad. Let me with the pros and cons of their position on X issue."

Maybe then American politics will grow out of its ugly adolescence into an admirable and mature adulthood. Hey, it happened to me. Anything's possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pilgrimage, Part the Last: BYU Jerusalem

My time in the Holy Land was wonderful, every minute of it. But...for the first few days that I spent walking the streets that Jesus walked and visiting the sites associated with events in his life, I was less than touched. The sights were magnificent and inspiring, but the experience did not inspire me or move me in the way that I might have expected it to. It was, to be frank, a little depressing.

Then, on a Saturday morning, I hired a taxi to take me to the BYU Jerusalem Center for church services. This is what I saw:

And here's an aerial shot that captures the grandeur and magnificence of the building far better than I could do from the ground:

I entered almost an hour before sacrament meeting was scheduled to begin and took a seat, looking forward to a little time alone with my scriptures, but as soon as I sat down an elderly sister missionary approached me and asked me if I would be willing to sing with the ward choir that would be performing that morning. I said yes...and soon found out that I was the only man who would be participating. And that they wanted me to sing a solo. Yikes! Because I knew that my mother-in-law, whom I love, would want me to, I said yes. The organ that accompanied me, and part of the congregation (there were only a few local families; it was predominantly BYU students on study abroad who were in attendance):

The number that we sang was prelude, and it was followed by the administration of the sacrament. And then I understood something that I previously knew to be true but which I had forgotten during my time in Jerusalem: it is the ordinances that commemorate the events of the Savior's life--and not the places where they happened--which are sacred. As I remembered this truth and partook of the sacrament, I wept with joy because I understood that the experience I had hoped to enjoy in Jerusalem was available to me every week in any church building in the world. Only then, as I sat and observed the scene of Jesus Christ's suffering and crucifixion

did I fully appreciate the meaning of the sites that I had visited. I was reminded of this experience tonight by a poem read by the Raleigh temple matron at our Saturday night session of stake conference (author unknown; not my favorite poem, but it expresses the sentiment I had while I ate the bread and drank the water that represented the body and blood of my Savior, while looking out on the city where he lived and died):

If I could go to Galilee and walk where Jesus walked
And sit in tender grasses on the hillside where he taught.
If I could feel a gentle breeze that lifted from the sea
Where he chose the humble fishermen, how full my heart would be.
If I could sit and ponder on a rock that knew his hand,
Or walk along the seashore where his feet had touched the sand.
My spirit yearns within me, but it doesn't seem my fate,
I'll never walk where Jesus walked, I'll never see . . . but wait.
I've worshiped in His temple, where I know he's walked before.
Have His feet been down this hallway? Have his fingers touched this door?
Has He stood here in this very room and looked at what I see?
In the beauty of His temple I feel His love for me.
I close my eyes and picture Him, my worries melt away.
I don't need to go to Galilee or travel far away.
For my tender heart is filled with what He wants me to be taught
And my testimony burns within. . .I've walked where Jesus walked!

Once I realized that the true experience of Jerusalem was available to me at home in Raleigh or anywhere else there are authorized priesthood holders, everything else that I saw became a little bit sweeter. My time at the BYU Jerusalem Center gave me an entirely new perspective on the artifacts and buildings of Jerusalem, both figuratively, and literally (that's the Dome of the Rock in the midst of the flowers):

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion Off Campus? LDS Institutes of Religion

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently issued a somewhat generic press release describing the back-to-school experience of "hundreds of thousands" of college-age students who attend institute. There are some interesting factoids hidden in there (Did you know that there are 55,000 more institute students outside the US than in?), but I found the press release much more interesting because of a book I'm currently reading: Religion on Campus, by Conrad Cherry, Betty A. Deberg, and Amanda Porterfield.

The book is an in-depth examination of the religious culture at four different universities (whose identities are made anonymous), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is conspicuously absent from its pages. I understand why the Church might not be a robust presence at three of these colleges; you are unlikely to find an overabundance of LDS students at "a Lutheran liberal arts college, ... a Roman Catholic school" or a traditionally black college that was once "a denominational institution but now defines itself as a private, non-denominational school with Presbyterian roots" (6). I understand why the church would not be an important part of the religious culture at these institutions. But the fourth university picked for study was "a large, public state university" set in the west (6).

I looked at USC as a representative school, and the Los Angeles institute currently has 183 students enrolled. Other public universities in California--CSU Long Beach, CSU Fullerton--have enrollments well over 300, and the Spokane Institute that serves Washington State has more than 500 registered students. It seems highly unlikely that the public western university studied by Deberg lacked an institute of religion, but the only mention of the Church in the entire book describes a religion class "into which [Schyller, the teacher,] invited practitioners of several religious groups. These religious groups--Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--are considered exotic or misguided by many more traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics. Schyller gave religious leaders from these communities a chance to present their religious beliefs and practices in their own way, and he gave students a chance to encounter these religious 'others' and ask them questions" (64). That's it. That's the entire presence of the church at a large, public, western state university in a book devoted to the study of religion on campus.

I have two problems with this limited description for what I think will be obvious reasons. First, Deberg describes a number of different religious traditions with relatively few religious practitioners, including paganism, Buddhism, and Taoism, whose theology would, I think, be perceived by "Protestants and Roman Catholics" as much more "exotic" or "misguided" than Mormon beliefs without feeling it necessary to attach the same sorts of stigma-inducing labels. Second, Deberg found official representatives of these smaller religious groups, without finding a significant LDS campus presence? I find that hard to believe. At UNC-Chapel Hill, where enrollment at the institute is 133, there is a robust Church presence on campus. There are two full-time missionaries assigned to the UNC campus, and I see them almost every week. Deberg describes other campus preachers; why not the missionaries? There are also fliers advertising Institute events regularly posted in a number of buildings on campus. I think it is unlikely that UNC is an outlier, an exceptionally well-publicized institute program--especially since a number of the Western institute programs are so much larger.

Now that I've had a chance to vent my spleen a little, let me consider the other side of things. What if Deberg is right? What if that brief encounter with the "exotic" Mormons was the only chance a college age kid had of encountering the Church at a time when most students are deciding who they want to be for the rest of their lives? THAT would be sad. It's possible that the Church--or LDS culture--may even be promoting a sort of isolationism on college campuses in order to maintain their independence. I'm not sure about this, but I don't think that Institute is an official college-sponsored activity or "club" on most campuses. I would imagine that the Church maintains some separation in order to preserve its autonomy, but it may sacrifice a more visible place on campus as a result. Alternatively, it might be that the Institute students themselves are simply not enterprising in the same way that other campus organizations are. While I've seen fliers up on campus, I've never seen an Institute table with LDS students sitting behind it in the same way that I've seen tables for every other campus organization. Have we, while trying to shut out the world, also shut out those who are looking for a new church?

I don't know whether the situation in Religion on Campus is a product of Deberg's sloppiness/distaste for the Church or a product of Institute student apathy/isolationism, but I do know that neither scenario is acceptable. The Church needs to be a visible, inviting presence on college campuses, and I'm just not sure that a press release will do the trick.