Sunday, January 31, 2010


There's nothing like a little light reading to take one's mind off a stressful job search (ongoing) or the writing of a dissertation (now completed!), so for the past month I've been enjoying Salt, by Mark Kurlansky:

I've highly enjoyed this entertaining and informative read, not least because it has brought me new appreciation for the Savior's words: "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men" (Matt. 5:13). We (his disicples) are the salt of the earth. What is salt?

Kurlansky explains that salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl), is "essential for digestion and in respiration. Without sodium, which the body cannot manufacture, the body would be unable to transport nutrients or oxygen, transmit nerve impulses, or move muscles, including the heart. An adult human being contains about 250 grams of salt, which would fill three or four salt-shakers, but is constantly losing it through bodily functions. It is essential to replace this lost salt.

"A French folktale relates the story of a princess who declares to her father, 'I love you like salt,' and he, angered by the slight, banishes her from the kingdom. Only later when he is denied salt does he realize its value and therefore learn the depth of his daughter's love. Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history." (6)

Disciples of Christ are indispensable to the spiritual health of this world. "Salt deficiency causes headaches and weakness, then light-headedness, then nausea. If deprived long enough, the victim will die" (9); a deficiency of disciples causes spiritual ache and weakness, then an attitude of light-mindedness about serious and holy things, and eventually spiritual death. In this sense the punishment of Lot's wife was appropriate. Lot's family was the living, spiritual salt of Sodom and Gomorrah--the individuals who preserved their neighbors from spiritual death. When they left, the cities experienced spiritual and physical death; when Lot's wife looked back and desired to return, she ceased to be living salt and became "a pillar of [dead] salt" instead (Gen. 19:26).

Salt has many functions: it heals (killing bacteria in infected wounds), preserves food (preventing the onset of bacteria), enhances flavor, and is essential to the preservation of life. So too do disciples of Christ, who can help others find the healing power of the Atonement, preserve them from spiritual mistakes, and enhance or promote their inherent goodness. Until the 20th century, salt was tremendously valuable--it shares the same Latin root as the word salary--even though it was, literally, everywhere. Salt saturates the ocean, and beds of rock salt lie beneath most of the earth's surface. Salt has never been rare; it has only been hidden and required serious work to produce. So too are potential disciples relatively common--but they take a lot of work to produce and are tremendously valuable once made.

Because salt is more or less indestructible--and because it is used to preserve other things for the eternities (including Egyptian mummies)--the Lord used it as a symbol of his covenant with us: "it is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord unto thee and to thy seed with thee" (Num. 18:19). To help his people remember the nature of this healing, preserving, enriching, and life-giving covenant, God commanded Moses that "with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt" (Lev. 2:13). Kurlansky points out that the Jews still preserve a reminder of this covenant in their symbolic Sabbath meal: "On Friday nights Jews dip the Sabbath bread in salt. In Judaism, bread is a symbol of food, which is a gift from God, and dipping the bread in salt preserves it--keeps the agreement between God and his people" (7). So when you pass the salt for your Sunday dinner tonight, remember that the white stuff hasn't always been cheap or readily available--and that it's a reminder of your covenants.

A few of the other highlights from this book:
  • Did you know that ketchup was originally a sauce made from juices crushed out of salted anchovies? Only around the time of the American Revolution did people in the United States begin extracting a sauce from salted "love-apples" (tomatoes).
  • Did you know that Gandhi's signature act of rebellion against the British government in India was picking up a piece of crusty ocean salt? Salt (and taxes on salt) was at least partly responsible for rebellions in India, China, and France.
  • Did you know that there are multiple underground salt mines in which huge ballrooms, chandeliers, and statues have been carved out of rock salt that were once used to hold magnificent balls for royalty? Seriously, check out this picture of the Wieliczka salt mine:
  • Did you know that the Onondaga Indians traded away almost half of New York state in return for the annual delivery of 150 bushels of salt? And that they're STILL receiving the payment every year?
I'm telling you: salt is interesting stuff.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Perspectival Parable

This past Thursday, my wife, the beautiful Mrs. Monk, lost her engagement ring and wedding band. Even though I'm pretty sure diamond rings are a bad idea, my wife is rather attached to hers, so this loss distressed her--especially since we are not currently in a position to replace said rings. After searching frantically for 36 hours, she was ready to give up hope. Since I wasn't nearly so attached to the ring, it was much easier for me to remain steadfast in the belief that we would eventually find it (which we did).

Reflecting on this experience helped me to reevaluate my own, rather nagging anxieties about finding a job. I am lucky in that I know--with 100% certainty--that I will eventually be able to find a job, even if I have to wait longer than expected to do so. And yet, each day that passes without that magical phone call from a future employer leaves me feeling like my wife at the end of those 36 hours: if I haven't heard from them/found my ring by now, it will never happen. Indulging such thoughts is ultimately a fruitless exercise in depression and self-imposed suffering, but we all find ourselves doing something like this in our lives.

Now, let me be the first to say that my wife's anxiety over her ring, and my worrying over a job are not great moments of suffering. Nonetheless, I think that they are typical--in a minor way-- of the experience that we all have of wondering when a given trial will end and why we have to suffer so long, whether that suffering is great or little, mental, emotional, or physical. Such questions might be most heart wrenching when we are not the ones suffering, when we observe the suffering of a small child or a loved one. These experiences leave us asking why. Why must we suffer? Why must even the innocent suffer? And why must the suffering last so long? When a woman recently asked me those questions, I told her the following story:

"I once knew a little girl who loved her mother very much. When the mother made soup in the kitchen, the daughter would find an empty bowl and a spoon so that she too could 'make soup.' When the mother sat down to answer her email at the computer, the daughter would pull a broken, old keyboard from the toy chest and tap away with her fingers so that she too could 'write email.' When the mother nursed her infant son, the daughter would find a baby doll and stuff it under her shirt so that she too could 'feed the baby.' In most of these activities, of course, the daughter only pretended to do the things that her mother did. She could not really make soup, or write on the computer, or nurse a baby. She was only a child, not a mature woman.

"The daughter wanted very much to be like her mother, and every Sunday she would watch her mother prepare for church. She was especially fascinated by the earrings that hung from her mother's ears, and she wished very badly that she too could wear earrings to church. The mother explained that the daughter could only wear earrings if she first experienced the pain of having her ears pierced with a needle. The daughter nodded her head solemnly, affirming that she understood the pain associated with the procedure and still wished to have her ears pierced so that she could wear earrings like her beloved mother.

"The mother knew, of course, that her daughter did not really understand; only the experience itself could teach her the pain associated with piercing. But because she respected her daughter's agency and because she was pleased with her daughter's desire to be and look like her, she took the little girl to have her ears pierced. As the man bored through her earlobes with a piece of sharp steel, the daughter cried out in pain. Her earlobes throbbed, and she struggled to remember why she had volunteered to experience such a painful procedure--all the more so when her newly pierced ears were covered with tape to prevent the wounds from becoming infected. For the next few days she continued to be distracted by pain, but when Sunday morning arrived and she watched her mother prepare for church, she excitedly reached up to touch her own ears, remembering that this was the day that she could remove the protective tape from her earlobes--which no longer hurt quite so badly. After she stripped the tape from her ears, she stood beside her mother, looked into the mirror at their matching gold studs, and smiled. In this one thing, she was now, and would be for the rest of her life, exactly like her mother."

From an eternal perspective, our mortal existence--however painful it might be--is even briefer than the painful moment in which an ear is pierced. "But a small moment" indeed. And because we elected to experience "all these things," we will become like our heavenly parents: beautiful as they are beautiful, wise as they are wise.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mormon Way: Eschewing Business

A short time ago, while commenting (briefly) on the similarities between Israeli youths who serve in the military and Mormon missionaries, I indulged myself in a dig at Jeff Benedict's book,

I don't object to Benedict personally; only to the message this book seeks to convey--that one can have it all (fame! fortune! faith! family!) without making any sacrifices. It is this attitude, the idea, as Hugh Nibley put it, that you can "mix Zion and Babylon" (Approaching Zion 20) that I object to, not any particular profession. And yes, I'm well aware that Elders L. Tom Perry and M. Russell Ballard were prominent businessmen, that President Henry B. Eyring, Elders David A. Bednar, and Quentin L. Cook were professors of business. That being said, I have a serious problem with the notion that the business world--with its emphasis on profits--and the kingdom of God are compatible.

During his time at BYU, Hugh Nibley complained that

". . . almost all the young people I know today want to believe that we do not have to make such a drastic choice between trusting in God entirely and working for money in the bank. Again may I remind you, the choice was deliberately designed to be a hard and searching one. But surely, I hear all the time, there must be a compromise, a common ground between them. The favorite text to support this is 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you' (Matthew 6:33). This is commonly interpreted as meaning that I should first go on a mission or get a testimony, thus seeking the kingdom of God, and then I will be free to seek other things. First wisdom, then riches. But you never cease seeking wisdom, and you are forbidden to seek riches. This is a classic case of a text out of context. There is no thought here of seeking the other things--if you need them they will be added: When are you supposed to stop seeking the kingdom of heaven?" (Approaching Zion 131).

Nibley's rant against riches and profit-seeking isn't just a personal interpretation of one isolated scripture; there are plenty of texts that support his position, including Matthew 13:22 ("the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word"), Mark 10:23 ("How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!"), and Alma 39:14 ("Seek not after riches"). Seriously, go look up all the scriptures in the Topical Guide under "rich, riches"--and set aside a few days for the exercise, because it will take a while.

But as a warm-up for that exercise, let me share a condemnation of riches that you won't find in the standard works. A while ago, when I was connecting the Gospel of Judas and Cainites to the book of Ether, I promised to share a few gems from the Gospel of Thomas. Today I redeem that promise. In that pseudepigraphal gospel, Jesus proclaims "If you have money, do not lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you will not get it back" (verse 95). The function of money, Christ teaches, is not to create wealth but to uplift a neighbor. This point is driven home only two verses later by a brief "The kingdom is like..." parable:

"Jesus said, 'The Father's kingdom is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She did not know it; she had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty" (97).

The point of this parable is simple. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a journey; you and I are on a journey back to heaven. The jar of meal is our earthly possessions and--remembering that Christ's condemnation immediately precedes this parable--our money. The meal is largely immaterial, as far as this journey is concerned; carrying it won't help the woman (or us) get home, and getting rid of it is not a "problem." Indeed, this claim that disbursing the meal isn't a problem seems rather ironic since the woman undoubtedly walked faster without a load of meal burdening her. The real problem would be if the woman was so concerned with preserving and increasing the quantity of meal that she settled down and planted a field instead of hurrying home.

Get the point? You can't have it all. You just CANNOT be wholeheartedly engaged in the pursuit of profits and make good time on your journey home. We all have to work; I get that. But working is different--at least in my mind--from being a businessman or businesswoman.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Sacramental Covenant

Just a brief thought as you prepare to take the sacrament or reflect on your experience in doing so earlier today. Hovorka, who has provided insight in earlier posts on Ishmael and Isaiah, gives a few different possible etymologies for the Hebrew word we translate as covenant:

In the Old Testament, ‘covenant’ is the translation of the word bĕrît (see Genesis 17:7-8). The term does not have an established etymology. One possible Hebrew root, brh means to ‘select’ or ‘choose’ and denotes the idea that the parties to the covenant carefully choose each other as partners. Another possible meaning comes from an Akkadian word birītu, which is to ‘fetter’ or ‘join together,’ and represents an absolute, binding contract. Thirdly, another meaning for the Hebrew root, brh is to ‘eat bread,’ harking back to Semitic hospitality traditions binding a host to protect his guest." (148)

I especially like this last idea, which reminds us of the sacrament's power to protect us--as we become guests at the Lord's table--from the buffetings of Satan, from the creeping influence of worldliness, and from our own fallen, fallible natures. (If you're looking in the scriptures for an example of this third etymology, where breaking bread binds a host to protect his guest, you might see Genesis 18:3-16, 19:1-10.) I hope that you, as I, had a chance to take the sacrament today and receive the heavenly protection that is promised as we become God's guests and he grants his Spirit to us throughout the week.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 51

If you'll recall, right before the Lord utters those words in 3 Nephi 23:1, he commands his listeners (twice!) to "search these things diligently." For those of you whose New Year's resolutions include obeying this commandment, here are some notes from the 51st chapter of that book.

In Isaiah 51:1, the prophet urges Israel to "look unto the rock whence ye are hewn." The rock refers both to Abraham (who is explicitly referenced in verse 2) and, more importantly, to Christ (verse 3, who Isaiah calls "a stone of stumbling" and "a rock of offence" in 8:14). This is a verse cited by John the Baptist (at least implicitly) when he rebukes the Pharisees in Matthew 3:9, chastising them because they "say within [them]selves, We have Abraham to our father: for I [John] say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." The whole point of John's rebuke is that the Pharisees have missed the point of Isaiah, "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4:14). Isaiah's call to look toward the Rock is a call to focus on Christ, a point that the Pharisees have missed in their reliance on the arm of flesh, the arm of Abraham; John's chastisement is a reminder of the importance of focusing on a Living Rock (Christ) as opposed to one who is dead (Abraham).

When Isaiah writes "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you" in verse two, he isn't repeating himself; he's providing two examples of individuals who successfully turned toward the Rock and were saved from the buffetings of Satan (Helaman 5:12). This is a point that we can appreciate more fully with an alternate translation of the Hebrew. Janet Hovorka, who provided evidence regarding Ishmael's relationship to the Abrahamic covenant, provides insight into this verse:

"Isaiah wrote that the Lord 'called him [Abraham] alone' (Isaiah 51:2). Was the Abrahamic covenant an agreement between the Lord and Abraham alone? Isaiah answers in the same verse, "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you." The word translated as 'alone' in this verse is 'ehad, the same word as the numeral one. However, 'ehad can also mean 'united' or 'each one.' Further, the male preposition in Hebrew is inclusive of the female. So Isaiah 51:2 can also be translated, 'Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you, for I called them as one united, and blessed them and increased them each one.'" (162)

This new translation helps us in two ways. 1) It makes it clear that Abraham is not "the rock" to which we must look, because he was not "called alone." 2) It provides Old Testament evidence that the Abrahamic covenant involves a partnership between man and woman, husband and wife; in other words, it provides a sneak preview of the doctrines revealed in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132.

There are lots of other things that could be said about this particular chapter, but time will only permit a look at one more verse. In verse 9, Isaiah cries, "Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?" The first half of that verse would be better translated: "Awake, awake, and clothe thyself with power." Understanding this new translation does two things. 1) It contrasts the clothing of the Lord with the "clothing" of man; in verse 8, Isaiah prophecies that "the moth shall eat [men] up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool." Verse 9 is very much a counterpart to verse 8, a continuation of the imagery begun as early as verse six, where he states that "the earth [symbolic of mortal things] shall wax old like a garment." 2) The phrase "clothe thyself with power" is Old Testament speak for receiving temple ordinances; compare Luke 24:49; D&C 38:32, 38; 138:30.

For a piece of context in understanding Rahab (and turning to the second half of verse 9), I quote The Biography of God, by Jack Miles (an insightful examination of the Old Testament as a literary text):

"Rahab is a Hebrew name for the watery chaos-dragon whom in other Semitic creation myths the high god defeats to create order, or the younger warrior god defeats to restore order." (229)

It's also worth noting that rahab literally means "broad," so when you hear prophets say things like "broad is the way that leadeth to destruction" (Matthew 7:13) or "the devil . . . leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost" (1 Nephi 12:17) or that "broad [is] the way which leads to death," (3 Ne. 27:33), you're hearing overtones of an original Hebrew rahab. There is power in a name!

Just a few thoughts about Isaiah; I hope you think he's as great as I do.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Remarkable, Religious Young People

Dan Senor and Saul Singer have a new book about a deeply religious group of youth. These young men and women have formative experiences between the ages of 18-22, when they receive "training in teamwork, mission orientation, leadership, and a desire to continue serving" their faith. Their "service produces a maturity not seen in [their] foreign peers who spend that time in university. 'They’ve got more life experience,'" says one executive impressed by their maturity. While "perspective typically comes with age," these youth "get perspective at a young age because so many transformational experiences are jammed into . . . their late teens and early 20’s." As a result of these remarkable experiences, the young men and women studied by Senor and Singer are remarkably successful in the business world and are responsible for creating a disproportionally high number of start-up tech companies, hence the title for their new book: Start-Up Nation.

What, you thought this post was about Mormon missionaries? Nope. But the work of Senor and Singer highlight many of the reasons that many returned missionaries should be successful in their own forays into post-mission careers. Not that I would necessarily recommend business as a career path; indeed, it seems to me that Jeff Benedict's The Mormon Way of Doing Business would have provided better counsel if it had been titled, The Mormon Way: Eschewing Business, but my tirade against the business world will have to wait for another day. For now, you can enjoy a Q&A about Start-up Nation over at the Freakonomics blog. The companion book on ex-missionaries is waiting to be written (and would surely include a large section on the PEF).