Friday, December 31, 2010

Your Wine or Your (Second) Wife

History says that you've got to have one or the other, so either the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants (the LDS prohibition against alcohol) or Wilford Woodruff's Manifesto (the LDS prohibition against polygamy) will have to go. According to a new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists (an organization I would definitely make fun of if I wasn't an academic myself), the discontinuation of polygyny (multiple wives) is closely linked to the rise of viticulture--the drinking of alcohol and, especially, the phenomenon of intoxication (getting drunk).

In "Women or Wine?" the authors "find evidence of a positive correlation between alcohol use and monogamy both over time and across cultures," meaning that as social groups transition from polygamy to monogamy they begin to consume alcohol. This historical trend, obviously, is one that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have bucked; the church officially disavowed polygamy in the aforementioned 1890 Manifesto from President Woodruff. If the relationship between monogamy and alcohol were causal, then we would have expected members of the church to take up drinking alcohol at some point over the past 120 years; instead, if anything, church emphasis on the Word of Wisdom and abstinence from alcohol has been strengthened over that period.

I'm not sure what there is about the prospect of spending the rest of your life--"till death do you part"--with just one person that has driven men and women to drink, but perhaps eternal marriage provides a substitute form of intoxication; the beautiful Mrs. Monk certainly makes my head spin (which I hear is a common side effect of alcohol).

ps--as a side note, the research for this paper was prompted by the existence of fundamentalist LDS sects that continue to practice plural marriage AND obey the Word of Wisdom's prohibition against alcohol.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 44

As previously noted, the land of Israel was dotted with temples during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah; in addition to the main (and famous) temple complex built by Solomon in Jerusalem, Israelites worshipped in at least fifteen other, smaller temples built to Jehovah. Unfortunately, Israelite patrons converted many of these temples to the worship of Canaanite gods, especially Baal and Ashtorath. Isaiah condemns this corruption of temple worship repeatedly in his messages to Israel but especially in chapter 44.

Through Isaiah the Lord reminds his people that they salvation can only be found in and through Him: "I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God" (44:6). But this reminder, as Isaiah knows very well, has come too late; the Israelites have already begun to worship other gods, abandoning their covenants and perverting temple rituals. Isaiah complains that "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule [a plumb line used to measure and square]; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man" (44:13). This carpenter--in his perverse usage of divinely appointed creative powers and methods--mocks a God described in the scriptures using those same tools to create the earth and to build the New Jerusalem ("When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth," [Prov. 8:27]; "He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end," [Job 26:10]; in building a "city . . . holy unto the Lord" "the measuring line shall yet go forth over against it upon the hill Gareb, and shall compass about to Goath," [Jer. 31:38-40]).

This idolatrous carpenter imitates Yahweh by creating a figure in the form of a man, but unlike Yahweh, he has no power to animate it, to fill it with "the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7). This idol, Isaiah charges, is no more alive than the scrap wood that the idolatrous carpenter burns to bake his bread; without the breath of life, the idol is no more alive or powerful than the dust that Adam was formed from, and Isaiah warns that an individual who worships such idols "feedeth on ashes" (44:20). Because of his false worship the idolater "cannot deliver his soul, nor say, 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?'" (44:20). In abandoning the appointed forms of worship, Israel has forsaken their claim on "the saving strength of [God's] right hand" (Ps. 20:6); they have left "the path of life . . . at [God's] right hand" (Ps. 16:11) for "the hand of strange children; whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood" (Ps. 144:7-8).

Notwithstanding these transgressions, the Lord reminds Israel of his love for them and invites them to return: "I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins; return unto me; for I have redeemed thee" (44:22). Then, as if to compare the idolatrous carpenter's powers and his own, Jehovah reminds Israel of his own creations: "I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself" (44:24). Whereas the carpenter "stretcheth out his rule" the true Carpenter "stretcheth forth the heavens." By reminding Israel of the difference in the creative capacities of these two carpenters, Isaiah "frustrateth the tokens of the liars" (44:25) and--implicitly--calls on Israel to remember the tokens of their covenant with the Lord, tokens carved into their own flesh as well as their God's: "And he shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Gen. 17:11); "Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands" (Isa. 49:16).

Isaiah isn't simply condemning idolatry in chapter 44; he's reminding Israel of their temple covenants, of the Lord's incomparable creative powers, and of the physical, fleshly tokens of their covenant relationship with Jehovah. He does condemn idolatry, but he also reminds Israel of the appropriate temple worship in which they have covenanted to participate exclusively.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Surprising History of "Small" Temples

Quick--without looking at Google or, how many temples are currently in operation around the world?

Answer: There are currently 134 temples in operation around the world, with another 23 either under construction or announced. Those 134 temples are more than 6 times the number of operating temples in existence 30 years ago, and when the St. Louis, MO temple was dedicated in 1997, it was the 50th--so in the last thirteen years, more than 100 temples (twice the number previously extant) have been built or are now being built. This explosion in temple construction has been made possible by the proliferation of "small temples," buildings much smaller than the Salt Lake or Washington D.C. temples, but that nonetheless "accommodate baptisms for the dead, the endowment service, sealings, and all other ordinances to be had in the Lord’s house for both the living and the dead."

When the late President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the advent of smaller temples, he explained that this innovation would make ordinances available to members who lived at a remove from the major metropolitan areas that traditionally attracted a sufficient concentration of members. I remember his announcement at the October 1997 priesthood session of General Conference; I was floored. While smaller temples seem very commonplace today (especially for someone who lived in Raleigh and made bi-monthly visits for four years), it seemed like a revolutionary concept at the time. Come to find out, there's a long history of "small temples" among the Lord's covenant people.

Let's try a new version of the quiz that opened this post: how many temples were in operation in Old Testament times (during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, if you want to pin down a specific date)?

One you say? Solomon's? Think again.

You can probably think of plenty of "temple experiences" in the Old Testament--Abraham on Mount Moriah, Jacob at beth-El, Moses on Mount Sinai, the tabernacle in the wilderness, etc., but I'd be willing to bet that your knowledge of actual stone-and-mortar temples in the Old Testament is limited to the one built by Solomon. Hey, I would have said the same thing until yesterday. Yet it turns out that ancient Israel--like the latter-day version--made temple worship available to those who lived outside of the capital in Jerusalem.

In Solomon's Temple William Hamblin and David Seely explain:

"Although Solomon's temple remained the great central national shrine of Judah, from its construction (c. 950 BC) until the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah in the 7th century BC Israelites also worshipped the Lord at other holy places, such as Ramah, where Samuel led the people in sacrifice. The Bible describes at least eleven [ELEVEN!] buildings that can be identified as shrines dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, including Shiloh, Dan, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Hebron, Bethlehem [interesting, no?], Nob, Ephraim, Ophrah, and Gibeah. The most prominent of these was Shiloh, where the Ark was kept, and where Eli the priest is depicted sitting beside 'the doorpost of the temple of the Lord' (hekhal Yahweh) (1 Sam. 1:9). Shrines at Dan and Bethel also existed from very early times; there was apparently a statue of Yahweh in a temple at Dan (Judg. 18:28-31). Later, these sites were appropriated by King Jeroboam who set up golden calves there. A platform and small altar have been excavated at ancient Dan. Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of at least four Israelite temples not mentioned in the Bible that flourished during this period [bringing our total up to FIFTEEN temples other than Solomon's]: Megiddo, Arad, Lachish, and Beersheba" (33).

One of the reasons that we so casually gloss over the existence of these additional temples is the fact that Josiah (who reigned from 640-609 BC) consolidated temple worship in Jerusalem in order to prevent idolaters from using these "small" Israelite temples to worship Baal and Ashtoreth. Presumably Josiah believed that he was acting to enforce the decree of Deuteronomy, where the Lord explains that Israel should establish a temple "in the [singular] place which the Lord shall choose in one of thy tribes" and that those who live "too far" from that lone temple should "kill of thy herd [...] and thou shalt eat in thy gates whatsoever thy soul lusteth after" (12:15, 21). After Josiah Israel never again deviated from the model of centralized worship that he created (although there were temples of Yahweh in Egypt during the second century BCE) and so readers of the Bible--who spend a disproportionate amount of time studying the New Testament--assume that the status quo in Christ's time (one temple) also applied during the earlier eras of Israelite history.

The bottom line is that President Hinckley's paradigm-shifting move to "small temples" was anything but revolutionary; when his people have been unable to travel to temples, the Lord has always--in the time of ancient Israel as today, in latter-day Israel--brought temples to his people. So the next time that you find yourself worshipping in one of the "small temples" built under the guidance of President Hinckely, pause a moment to reflect on the ancient Israelites who lived on the outskirts of Shiloh and worshipped in the local temple because they couldn't afford the trip to Jerusalem. The Lord loved them in the same way that he loves you, and the proof lies in the proximity--and the oridnances--of his House(s).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Maybe I Should Have Stayed in the Monastery . . .

So I've just finished my first semester of full-time university teaching. The good news is, my students seem to like me and claim to have learned life lessons and academic skills in my classes. The bad news is, my somewhat narcissistic belief that I've somehow made a difference in their lives is probably misguided.

Lars Lefgren and David Sims, two economics professors at my own school, have just published research which suggests that a teacher's impact on his students' lives, whether that impact is positive or negative, is a fleeting phenomenon. "The researchers report that most of the gains from a highly rated teacher vanish quickly. In reading [English!], 87 percent of the benefit fades after one year." Now, to be fair--the findings of Lefgren and Sims were drawn from middle school data, so their research might not reflect the ability of college students to learn and retain skills/knowledge . . . but it's a sobering reminder that education is not a silver bullet for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For a reminder on what factors HAVE been shown to permanently impact childrens' education, brush up on your Freakonomics; a child's parents and home life are clearly the most important factors--but perhaps not in the way that you might expect.

So maybe, if I wanted to change lives, I should stay at home with my wife, in the monastery.