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?"