Ben Crowder

Archive: Religion

No other success

I recently finished Mindhunters, John Douglas’s account of his work as an FBI criminal profiler catching serial killers. It’s a fascinating book. What stood out to me most was this paragraph towards the end:

In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I’ve never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit.

On a related note, a passage earlier in the book:

At the request of Buffalo SAC Richard Bretzing, I came up that weekend. Bretzing is a very proper, solid guy, a real family man and a key member of the FBI’s so-called Mormon Mafia. I’ll never forget, he had a sign in his office saying something to the effect of, “If a man fails at home, he fails in his life.”

No doubt it was “No other success can compensate for failure in the home,” often attributed to David O. McKay, who was quoting James Edward McCulloch’s 1924 book Home: The Savior of Civilization. I hunted down the book here at the BYU library and, for curiosity’s sake, I present to you the full paragraph (p. 42):

When one puts business or pleasure above his home, he that moment starts on the down grade to soul ruin. The loss of a fortune is nothing compared with the loss of home. When the club becomes more attractive to any man than his home, it is time for him to confess in bitter shame that he has failed to measure up to the supreme opportunity of his life and has flunked in the final test of true manhood. No other success can compensate for failure in the home. This is the one thing of limitless potentialities on earth. The poorest shack of a home in which love prevails over a united family is of greater value to God and future humanity than the richest bank on earth. In such a home God can work miracles and will work miracles. The greatest miracle that King Herod ever saw was John the Baptist. The religious home, though poor, produced John the Baptist. The most dazzling miracle of all history is Jesus of Nazareth. His education was that of a united religious home. Pure hearts in a pure home are always in whispering distance of Heaven. In such a home there is always a key which one may use in opening the reservoirs of the Infinite and start a Pentecost. The great, good God who made this world ordained man and woman for the home and He is seeing to it that they may search the whole world over but will never find the sweetest joys of life anywhere but in the home. In obedience to God’s law for human life, one should make it his highest ambition to build an ideal home. Make home your hobby; for, if anyone makes a loving home with all his heart, he can never miss Heaven.

Body of Christ

I was reading through C. S. Lewis’s letters the other day and came across this bit in a letter to Genia Goelz on 20 June 1952:

I would prefer to combat the “I’m special” feeling not by the thought “I’m no more special than anyone else” but by the feeling “Everyone is as special as me.” In one way there is no difference, I grant, for both remove the speciality. But there is a difference in another way. The first might lead you to think, “I’m only one of the crowd like anyone else.” But the second leads to the truth that there isn’t any crowd. No one is like anyone else. All are “members” (organs) in the Body of Christ. All different and all necessary to the whole and to one another: each loved by God individually, as if it were the only creature in existence. Otherwise you might get the idea that God is like the government which can only deal with the people in the mass.

Agreed.

Truth will remain

I loved this quote from chapter 10 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual:

So far as the philosophy and wisdom of the world are concerned, they mean nothing unless they conform to the revealed word of God. Any doctrine, whether it comes in the name of religion, science, philosophy, or whatever it may be, if it is in conflict with the revealed word of the Lord, will fail. It may appear plausible. It may be put before you in language that appeals and which you may not be able to answer. It may appear to be established by evidence that you cannot controvert, but all you need to do is to abide your time. Time will level all things. You will find that every doctrine, every principle, no matter how universally believed, if it is not in accord with the divine word of the Lord to his servants, will perish. Nor is it necessary for us to try to stretch the word of the Lord in a vain attempt to make it conform to these theories and teachings. The word of the Lord shall not pass away unfulfilled, but these false doctrines and theories will all fail. Truth, and only truth, will remain when all else has perished.

Why I believe: Heavenly Father

This essay is part of a series called Why I Believe.

First, what I believe: that there is a God, a kind, loving Heavenly Father who created the universe and who is the father of our spirit bodies. Further, I believe that he cares about us and that we can have a personal relationship with him, for before we were born we lived with him in heaven, and we’re now on Earth in a mortal probation for the purpose of becoming more like him. And, most importantly, I believe that someday we will return to him.

This post won’t cover all of that, but I’ll talk about some of the rational reasons I have for believing these things — arguments that provide enough plausibility to persuade the logical side of my brain that I’m not completely irrational for believing in a hyperintelligent extraterrestrial.

Who is God?

To clarify terms, when we ask whether God is real, we mean an intelligent, all-powerful, all-knowing being who created the universe, and beyond that we mean the particular God who talks to Judeo-Christian prophets, according to said prophets. In other words, we’re asking whether our particular conception of God is real.

First, could a God exist? There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not. It’s easy to imagine that there are other living, sentient creatures that we can’t see right now. Seeing the power spectrum among us, it’s also not hard to conceive of beings more powerful than we are. Given how much we don’t know about the universe, both in structure and in other solar systems and galaxies, I don’t see how anyone can rule out the possibility of a God, at least in theory.

The traits of God

If God does exist, what would he be like? A concept or abstraction? A cloud? Spacetime itself? In theory, God could be anything.

While I don’t discount the possibility of finding sentient life in forms wholly foreign to us — like an intelligent comet or galaxy cluster or a lifeform that only achieves sentience near black holes — I have to say that based on what we can observe, namely that the only sentient thing around is humans, it follows that if there is an intelligent, all-powerful being that created something as complex as the universe, it’s not unreasonable to think that such a being could also be humanlike. It’s not mandatory, but it’s not impossible, either.

So we have a God who could be humanlike, albeit much advanced. If God is a person, the next question is this: is God good? Bad? Something in between?

If God is evil, selfishly bent on causing pain and getting gain — if an insanely powerful, demented, corrupt being had created this earth and is manipulating everything — wouldn’t things be far worse than what we see? In spite of all the darkness in the world, we still see rampant love, hope, friendship, kindness, compassion, service, and more. If God were a dark god, I don’t think he’d allow much of that.

If God is a mixture of good and evil, like all of us, then we’d expect to see both kindness and capriciousness, love and jealousy, sacrifice and selfishness. It wouldn’t be hard to interpret things this way (especially the Old Testament), and I think it’s a possible scenario.

If God is good, then we’d expect to see lots of good in the world, and we do. I think we would also expect to see pain and suffering, and in a moment I’ll explain why. God being good means God is kind, loving, full of compassion, building things up rather than tearing them down. This is the kind of God I naturally want to believe in, because things are too bleak otherwise. It also matches with what I see around me.

The children of God

If God is a living creature, it stands to reason that he, like almost all living things we’re aware of, would procreate. It’s possible that superintelligent beings are all sterile, but it’s more likely that they do reproduce.

Procreation perpetuates species — horses give birth to horses, not cows; apple seeds make trees that make apples, not monkeys or daytime television; humans give birth to humans, not mountains or stars or dolphins. (Sidenote: are there any biological examples of creatures that don’t follow this pattern? I’m curious. It wouldn’t negate what I’m saying here, but it would certainly be intriguing.)

So, based on what we saw all around us, it makes sense for the offspring of God to be of the same kind as God, and to start as infants in godhood, eventually growing up to be adult gods.

For the children of God, are the godlike powers innate, like breathing and sleeping, or are they learned, like walking and doing calculus and building a house? Given what I see here on Earth, I’m led to believe that the children of God — us — inherit a small amount of godlike power (love, procreation, etc.), but must learn or earn the rest.

Now, if God is good, and if he wants us to become like him, it stands to reason that he would only want us to gain full powers of godhood if we too are good and wise. If he were to give these incredible powers to irresponsible, wicked, selfish people, they would naturally become evil forces of destruction, wreaking war across the universes (Hitler + omniscience + omnipotence = bad), and God would be complicit — he would be their enabler. So it makes sense to me for God to vet us thoroughly, limiting these powers to those of his children who prove that they really are truly good and not just putting on a show.

The plan of salvation

A good way for God to vet us seems to be to put us in a sandbox and give us lots of opportunities to choose between good and evil, to make choices that matter. To be worthy of godhood, people have to love goodness — it has to be who they are at heart, something that won’t change once they’re uplifted (to use science fiction terminology) to godhood. Otherwise you end up with cruel gods creating worlds and populating them with children just so they can watch them suffer.

So we’re here on Earth in the middle of the vetting. I don’t know why a test like this requires that we don’t remember what came before, or why we have to relearn everything about God and goodness, relying on faith and belief. I suspect it’s partly because of God’s compassion and mercy — if we know full well that God is there and that good and evil exist, and if we then choose evil, we’re far more culpable. At that point it’s more likely that we’d keep choosing evil, stuck on a track that ends up being irredeemable almost from the beginning (cf. Satan and his angels). If we can’t see God, however, then there are more opportunities for us to repent and decide to start choosing good. Less damning, more hope.

The problem of pain

This is often seen as a reason to think God isn’t there, because how could a loving God allow bad things to happen? But given the reasons for the test — to see if we’ll stay true to God and righteousness no matter what — I don’t see how it could be any other way. Bad things have to happen. Otherwise our loyalty to good can’t be fully tested, and we can’t be trusted with those powers of godhood. We have to be tested and tried through a wide variety of experiences.

People ask why God doesn’t prevent more bad things from happening (because it’s clear that he does, from time to time). But I wonder why God ever interferes at all. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very grateful for answered prayers and averted danger. But we talk about pain and suffering as a refining fire, and it’s true: the really hard trials are the things that push us most toward godhood, strengthening and clarifying our loyalties. Since that’s the whole point, it would make sense for life to be one massive trial after another. And yet for most people it’s not that way — it’s an alternating flow of good and bad, blessings and sorrow. I suppose if life were a continual flow of bad, after a certain point in the barrage we’d just give up. Whatever the case, God often lets wickedness and natural disasters and disease and death run their course. It’s all part of the test.

Also, suffering provides more opportunities for people around the sufferer to have love and compassion and to serve. Our family has been on the receiving end of that with our daughter’s cardiomyopathy. While I certainly wish she didn’t have this heart problem, I can see how God uses it to bring about more good in the world, and to test not only me and my family but also those around us.

Prayer

I have too many answered prayers on a regular basis to chalk it up to placebo effects or wishful thinking or even chance.

Evidences of God

In general, it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that all of this — the universe, Earth, etc. — happened on its own. Even with an infinity of universes where probability dictates that something like this must happen, I have a hard time believing that what I see around me is merely the result of billions of years of iteration and blind evolution. If any of this is real in any way, it’s far easier to believe that there is an Architect behind it.

A sample of other evidences:

  • Our universe just happens to have all the right parameters so life can exist.
  • Gravity. Not only does it make it so galaxies and stars and planets can form, but simpler things like the fact that we can walk and run and jump with relative ease, and the fact that there’s a ground for us to do those things on, and that the atmosphere is there so we can breathe.
  • The sun happens to be at the right distance to give us just enough heat and light. And the photons that stream from the sun at such a high speed, bouncing off things in such a way that it not only lights our world (which is a miracle) but also gives us colors (which is a second miracle). And by the way, we just happen to have these rods and cones and eyes to receive all that data, and we just happen to have brains that can interpret it. Ditto for sound waves and ears. This is crazy. (Sure, there are still real things we can’t see or hear, but the fact that we can see or hear at all is amazing.)
  • The complexity of human physiology. Considering how many things can go wrong at any point, it’s a miracle that anyone ever stays alive at all, period.
  • The way we can eat and digest a vast variety of food, enabling us to live all over the planet. And to have delight and joy in our daily sustenance. And the fact that things like delight and joy exist as emotions.
  • The relative lack of accidents on freeways.
  • Consciousness and thought, which is why we’re able to talk about all this in the first place.
  • The arts.
  • Love and friendship.

Conclusion

It’s entirely possible to look at all the things I’ve listed and interpret them as natural phenomena, as odd facets of human neurology. In the end, I choose to see it as God. I don’t yet understand everything about him or why he set things up the way he did, but I know that believing in God and living his laws makes me happier (I know this because the periods of doubt and sin have unquestionably been the least happy parts of my life). And I’m okay with not having all the answers yet.

In defense of the prophets

My friend Scott asked on Facebook for my response to two posts by J. Max Wilson, one on rejecting living prophets by following future prophets and the other on the limits of prophetic fallibility. I’ve been meaning to blog something along these lines anyway, so here’s my response.

We were always a peculiar people, but the culture of the world seems to be diverging more and more from the doctrines the prophets teach, which means those doctrines (and those prophets) will keep growing more embarrassing and unpopular and awkward.

And yet I think this is good for the Church. It helps people with lukewarm beliefs decide whether they really do believe that God speaks to prophets today and that we can trust both the prophets and their message. It’s all about the prophets.

As for the fallibility card, I’d rather play it safe and follow the current prophets, because assuming that they’re wrong and that future prophets will correct them is, as Max said, a shaky, dangerous path. Yes, continuing revelation means some things have changed since Joseph Smith’s time. But a lot of things haven’t. Yes, future revelation may allow same-sex marriage and ordination of women and even a lesbian, female prophet. But it may not. To my understanding, God has told us to live by the revelation we’ve actually received, not the revelation we hope we’ll receive someday.

The question, then, is whether God wants us as a people to urge the prophets to try to receive new revelation on these matters. Yes, revelation usually comes in response to questions, and God does want us to ask questions. But people are acting as if the prophets haven’t already been asking these questions of God all along. Considering that God seems to believe they have good judgment (since he called them as prophets in the first place), I think we can safely assume they’ve asked.

(Sidenote: I don’t feel comfortable demanding transparency from the prophets as to whether they’ve asked God about these matters, etc. Suits notwithstanding, this is the church of God, not a public corporation or a secular government. If we believe they’re prophets, we should trust them to do what God called them to do.)

We obviously need to treat each other with Christlike love and respect in all of this, but some ideas are in fact wrong and dangerous (whether blatantly or subtly so) and need to be spoken against, especially in this day of calling good evil and evil good. In a way it feels like we’ve entered a new(ish) war against the prophets, and that’s no good. God does call prophets and we can in fact trust them. And when what they’re saying is very unpopular, we should then trust them all the more, because it’s far more likely that the world has strayed than that the prophets have fallen.

Why I believe: Good and evil

This essay is part of a series called Why I Believe.

I initially thought I could knock this essay off in half an hour or so, but it has proven to be somewhat more knotty than that, mostly in figuring out what I actually think since I haven’t spent as much time pondering this as I have with the other topics.

I’m starting this series off with good and evil — morality — because these principles are foundational. If they don’t exist, everything else crumbles.

The meaning of morality

As humans, we have this thing called behavior: we think, we speak, we do. We make choices, hundreds or more each day. We make things happen, on a dizzyingly wide spectrum from very small things to massive, world-changing things. Now, things happen in the natural world as well — the sun rises, water flows, gravity pulls, trees grow, animals eat and mate and die. The difference is that we humans classify our behavior on a scale of good and evil. We have consciences.

Much human behavior is neutral — choosing between two brands of bread at the grocery store, to pick a mundane example — and the actions of both animal and nature also seem to be neutral. Is it good when a rock falls down a cliff? Is it evil when the wind blows the leaves off a tree? It seems to me that the closer animals get to humans in behavior and form, the more we project our morality onto them — a chimpanzee beheading and eating its offspring strikes me as far more horrifying than an ant doing the same — and yet it all appears to be just projection, anthropomorphizing as we tend to do. Animal behavior isn’t good or evil. Those classifications are reserved for humans alone.

What, then, are good and evil? They are the two halves of a scale upon which we measure our thoughts, words, and actions. Intriguingly, you need both for either to make any sense; without good, there is no evil, and vice versa. (Lehi said this more eloquently.)

So, we have this concept of morality. It leads to a number of other questions: whether the definition of the scale is up to us, for example, and whether such a scale should inform our behavior.

The definition of the scale

Are we making this stuff up? That’s the question. I wrestled with this for a while and I don’t know that I have a solid answer yet, but I find that it’s easier for me to look at it from the inverse: does moral relativism make sense?

First, some terms kifed from Wikipedia: descriptive moral relativism is the idea that people see morality differently. Next, meta-ethical relativists believe that “good” and “evil” are relative to the traditions or beliefs of an individual or group. Finally, normative relativists go a step further and believe that we ought to tolerate others’ behavior regardless of whether it falls under our “evil” or not.

Descriptive relativism is of course quite true — there is, to understate it, a difference of opinion on what is good and what is not, across cultures and time. But then again is there really as much of a difference as we might think? Most religious traditions generally agree on what is good — helping others, being kind, etc. — and what is evil — lying, stealing, hurting, killing, etc.

Because of that (among other things), meta-ethical relativism doesn’t ring true to me. There does seem to be an underlying foundation of morality that is universal. Interpretations of it may differ, and we almost always stack our own extra cultural made-up rules on top of it, but there’s something there, something beyond our making. More on that in a moment.

Normative relativism is just ridiculous (and its minions are thankfully few). By its standard, we should tolerate an individual raping, murdering, and eating a child. But that “should” is problematic by their own standards because it attempts to prescribe the normative relativists’ standard of good (toleration of all behavior) onto other people whose standards of good are different (toleration of only some behavior).

The next question is whether this universal morality is just a byproduct of evolution. To my understanding, this would mean that being “good” would help you live longer and make more posterity (life must go on). “Good” would mean maintaining a healthy relationship with those around you — knitting societies together — for greater protection against danger and for a greater chance at reproductive success. A lot of the human behavior we classify as good makes sense under this rubric, but some of it doesn’t — for example, it doesn’t explain why we consider it good and noble for someone to lose their life saving that of a perfect stranger.

So, as I’ve found moral relativism lacking in substance, and as evolution doesn’t quite explain morality to my satisfaction, I find it easier to believe that this universal morality comes from outside of us humans, namely from God.

Whether it matters

If there is in fact a standard of good and evil, and if it’s something real outside ourselves and not just whatever we want it to be to suit our convenience, then yes, of course morality matters. Some ramifications:

First, we ought to know what the standard is — what is good and what is evil. This requires going to the source of the standard, rather than relying on flawed, distorted human interpretations of it.

Second, we ought to listen to our consciences. We all seem to have one (the exceptions are rare enough that we won’t consider them here), and that conscience urges us to choose good over the evil that we naturally tend to choose.

Third, we ought to relentlessly strive to ensure that all our behavior is good and not evil, for our own sake and for the good of those around us (because it’s good to care about others’ needs above our own). When we do think, say, or do evil things, whether small or large, we ought to stop and never do it again, and fix whatever mess we’ve made.

Conclusion

This wasn’t quite as personal as I’d hoped it would be, but I suppose that’s part of talking about things this way, aiming for objectivity instead of subjectivity (if that’s at all possible). Let me just say that beyond all this, the idea of good and evil resonates with me, especially as I look at my thoughts, words, and actions. I can see how what I do has an effect for good or ill on myself and on those around me. It makes sense.

With that foundation, we can now move on to the source of this standard of good and evil: God.

Some thoughts on prayer

I don’t know why it never occurred to me before (because it’s rather obvious in retrospect), but this morning I realized that closing our eyes when we pray has a purpose beyond just showing respect for God and being the way we’ve always done it, a purpose I’d forgotten till today: focus.

Closing our eyes shuts out visual signals, getting rid of most external distractions. With the visuals out of the way, our ability to listen — physically, but hopefully spiritually as well — seems to get amplified. And then we can work on clearing our minds of internal distractions as well.

Without my noticing, I’ve recently been subconsciously discounting the physical aspects of prayer — closing your eyes, kneeling, folding your arms or clasping your hands — as being less necessary, but I see now that I’ve been wrong. These physicalities of prayer are in fact essential to good praying — to communing with God in a meaningful, sustaining way and not just mentally dictating a quick memo to him. (And yes, in some situations the physical aspects aren’t possible — closing your eyes and kneeling while driving a car would fall under the “Not Very Wise” category of things to do. I suppose you would get to meet God face to face fairly quickly, though…)

Also, creating this meditative environment for prayer, along with staying on your knees afterward to listen, is a great antidote for Internet ADD.

Why I believe: Introduction

At the request of one of my friends, I’ve been writing down the reasons I believe in the Church from a rational, intellectual perspective. I’ve decided to post those reasons here as a series of short essays, mostly to help me clarify my thoughts.

First, a disclaimer: these are not rigorous mathematical proofs. They are crutches I use to think things through when I’m not as spiritually in tune as I ought to be, a way to silence the occasional doubts so that I can see clearly again. They work for me, but they won’t be convincing for everyone. It’s also possible that they are convincing only to me. Keep in mind, too, that my main reason for belief is feeling the touch of God upon my mind and heart — numinous, spiritual experiences throughout my life. Aesthetics are also part of it, and I hope to touch on that as well. Logic is very much a part of my thought patterns and my beliefs, but it’s not the backbone of my testimony.

Disclaimer about the disclaimer: I’m not saying that doubts come about because of being spiritually out of tune. It does seem to be the case in my own life (usually when my scripture study gets too casual and skimpy), but I don’t think I can generalize beyond that.

With that introduction, then, here is the tentative outline for the series (I’ll update this page with links to the essays as I post them):

  1. Good and evil
  2. Heavenly Father
  3. Christ
  4. Prophets
  5. Joseph Smith
  6. Book of Mormon
  7. The modern Church

If any of you have specific topics or issues you’d like me to cover, let me know.

Book of Mormon study edition: Lulu

Just a quick note: I’ve finished retypesetting the study edition of the Book of Mormon, and you can now get it on Lulu for $20.45 plus shipping (at cost with one penny profit to make it trackable). The PDF—which is 448 pages now, down from the original 538—is also available for free download.

Disclaimer: I haven’t ordered one myself, so it’s possible that something may be wonky. (Explanation of disclaimer: I don’t quite trust Lulu’s system for uploading and printing covers. It’s possible that the text on the cover might not be quite centered. But the body of the book should be just fine.)

Book of Mormon study edition

Book of Mormon: Study Edition

It’s taken me two years to stop procrastinating this project, but I’m pleased to (finally) announce that my study edition of the Book of Mormon is done and available for free download as PDF.

The goal with this edition was to make something you can print out and write on, with large outside margins and somewhat generous line spacing so there’s plenty of room for notes. I’ve also pulled the verse numbers out to the side and faded them out a little so they’re less distracting.

I originally planned to release a Lulu edition as well, but it’s a bit of a hassle, so I’m just releasing the PDF. If someone wants to put this up on Lulu, though, they’re welcome to. (By “Lulu edition,” I mean a print-on-demand, bound copy you can order online, rather than printing the PDF out yourself or at a copy shop.)

Update: I’ve decided to do a Lulu edition after all. It’s going to take some retypesetting to get the book to fit within Lulu’s coil-binding page limit, but I’ll post again when it’s ready.

Also, I’ve decided I don’t care about (typographic) widows or orphans. Maybe I should, but they don’t bother me when reading, and the aesthetic benefit gained by removing them is minimal at best (to my eye). So yes, this PDF is a orphanage. And I’m okay with that.

The refreshing light of truth

Watching general conference today, I was reminded again how absolutely critical it is to stay immersed in the word of God.

See, the world is seductive. The world is persuasive. And, in a lot of things, the world is dead wrong. But of course that’s not kosher to say these days (one of Satan’s victories, sadly), and in our tendency to try to fit in and be “normal,” we sometimes forget who we are and what’s actually true.

The solution — the only reliable solution, really — is to study the word of the Lord every day. I’ve found that the longer I go without being in the scriptures (or conference talks), the less real the gospel seems and the more rational and acceptable the world’s perspective starts looking. And that’s dangerous. Really, really dangerous.

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance. (2 Nephi 28:22)

If you don’t believe in a real, unseen devil who is (insanely) trying to dethrone God and, as part of his plan, trying to pull you down and turn you into an agent of evil, then yeah, scriptures and conference and commandments and covenants and all the rest don’t seem to matter that much. Try to be a good person and not hurt others and you’re good to go, right?

But the words of the prophets and apostles are clear and have always been clear: there is an adversary, a cunning, ruthless mastermind who wants to destroy everything good in this world and who will use any tactic he can to get what he wants. He’s not folklore or myth. He’s not the invention of campfire storytellers or the concoction of priests trying to control congregations. He’s real. And he’s deadly.

The thing is, it’s not cool anymore to believe in Satan — which, of course, is exactly what he wants.

I’m not saying we need to fixate on the devil and keep him in our thoughts continually. That’s ridiculous. But if we forget that there’s a devil, it’s not very hard to also forget that we desperately need a Christ to save us. Without a real evil, real good means nothing. It becomes watered down, diluted to the point where it makes no visible difference in our lives. And if there’s anything the gospel is meant for, it’s to make a difference in our lives. God gave us the gospel to change us, to raise us up and transform us from earthy mortals into gods and goddesses.

Getting back to the beginning of this post, the more we study and live by the word of God, the more clearly we see the difference between good and the fool’s good Satan tries to pawn off on us. Distractions and deceptions don’t work on people who truly live by the Spirit. And it’s not just defense — resisting Satan is merely the baseline, and God is certainly not defined as “not Satan.” He’s far more than that. If we’re living by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God, strengthened by daily infusions of light, we’re filled with power to do good, to build the kingdom and make our home here a far better place in a lasting, eternal way.

If we want to stay true to the Lord — and that’s the only sane thing to do, honestly — then we have to make the word of God a part of us every single day. And if we don’t do that, it’s all too easy to be carried away by the winds of the world, tumbled down off the mountain of the Lord, over the foothills and through the valleys and out far into the wastelands till we finally forget who that God fellow was and why he even mattered.

Greg Smith’s response to Rollo

The saga continues. Greg Smith responded on March 12 to Rollo’s review.

And then Rollo responded on March 18 to Greg’s response.

Reviews of reviews of reviews of reviews, oh my. Will it ever end? Or do we end up in limbo ala Inception?

Joking aside, at this point Greg comes across to me as much more level-headed than Rollo. And regardless of John’s current Church status, the fact remains (as indicated by Greg’s initial review and as admitted to a degree by John in his interview) that many of the existing 400+ Mormon Stories episodes aren’t terribly interested in keeping people in the Church. Which is good to know if you’re going to be listening to them.

John Dehlin and the Mormon Studies Review

Remember the Maxwell Institute debacle? Two updates.

First, Greg Smith has published both the initial review and a followup article about the whole event to Interpreter. They’re a little long — around 100 and 70 pages, respectively — but they’re worth reading.

Second, my friend Lindsay left a comment on the earlier post letting me know that John Dehlin recently posted a three-hour interview to Mormon Stories where he seems to have returned to activity in the Church. I listened to the full interview a few days ago, and you know, it does seem like he’s a changed man. More meek, I guess. Sure, there’s a chance it’s a deceptive fraud aimed at re-establishing credulity for the intent of shattering testimonies. It’s possible. But that’s not the vibe I got from listening to the interview, for whatever that’s worth.

And in the interest of completeness, John responded to Greg’s review. I haven’t yet read Rollo Tomasi’s review of Greg’s articles (linked in John’s post).

Update: I’ve read Rollo’s review, and he does have some good points. Conclusion: All we like sheep have gone astray. Life is messy. Charity is good.

A response to Wear Pants to Church Day

As you may have heard, there’s a Wear Pants to Church Day thing happening this Sunday. And it’s causing a little bit of an uproar. Some thoughts:

First, the pants part. There’s no LDS doctrine or policy that says women can’t wear pants to church, and the event description explains as much, thankfully. Dress-wearing at church is purely a Western cultural tradition, nothing more. I have no problem with women wearing pants to church. And I have no problem with people trying to change cultural traditions.

But sacrament meeting is not the place for it. It’s where we come together to partake of the sacrament and renew our covenants with our God. It’s sacred. I doubt the event founders are consciously trying to destroy the sanctity of sacrament meeting — it’s most likely just a bit of thoughtlessness on their part — but still, sacrament meeting needs to be kept free from things like this. We’re there to worship God through a holy ordinance. We’re not there to prove a point.

And then we get to the insidious part (from later in the description):

We believe that much of the cultural, structural, and even doctrinal inequality that persists in the LDS church today stems from the church’s reliance on – and enforcement of – rigid gender roles that bear no relationship to reality.

I’m fine with people wishing some doctrines of the Church would change. The gospel is meant to make us feel uncomfortable in our natural man skin, after all, so that we’ll turn to Christ and walk the road to exaltation. We also don’t have anywhere near all the answers about why doctrines are the way they are.

But actively trying to change the doctrine of the Church is called apostasy.

If God is real and if he has called prophets and if he says we can trust said prophets to lead us — and that’s a core tenet of the Church — then trying to bend the doctrines we don’t like to suit us more comfortably is apostasy. It manifests a lack of faith in God’s prophets both past and present, and it’s basically kicking against the pricks. The Church is not a democracy. (Thank heavens for that.)

I’m sorry that these feminists feel some of the doctrines of the Church are unfair to women. I don’t know why God set things up this way, but I trust that he knows what he’s doing. I also trust the prophets who have received and continue to receive revelation.

Change the culture all you want. But the doctrine is a precious jewel from God. He’s the one who changes it, not frustrated feminists (or anyone else).

Clarification: When I say doctrine here, I mean the actual doctrine of the Church, not what people mistakenly think is doctrine but isn’t (policy, etc.).

The Morning Breaks: Paper Hymns #001

For a while I’ve wanted to do a series of pieces based on the LDS hymns, because it’s been a long while since my circle series. I’ve also been itching to do some illustrations in Blender with a sort of paper cutout aesthetic.

I ended up deciding to combine them into a single series. The first piece:

Made in Blender, postprocessed in Photoshop.

Why I’m a Mormon

I don’t know that I’ve ever talked on here about why I’m a Mormon. There’s a brief paragraph on my Mormon.org profile, but I want to go into a little more depth, since being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a huge part of who I am (if, you know, you couldn’t tell by all the Mormon-related projects I do).

So, why am I a Mormon? (P. S. This will be one of my longer posts, because there are many, many reasons for my faith.)

Sense and happiness

I’m a Mormon because the gospel and the Church make sense to me. The core elements of the gospel make a congruent, consistent whole that resonates with me and feels right — family, love, sacrifice, purpose, hard work, integrity, service, etc. It has God’s signature all over it.

The gospel feels good to me. It tastes good to my soul. And it’s clear, lightful, piercing, alive. This becomes all too apparent to me when compared to the philosophies of the world, which muddy my mind and usually leave confusion in their wake.

It’s not just that the principles appeal to me in some abstract way, in theory, in my head. The more I live the gospel, the happier I am. Always. Without fail. I’ve tested this over and over again throughout my life, and it’s real. And on the other hand, whenever I choose to go against a commandment of God, I noticeably feel the loss of the Spirit, the darkening (slight or great) of my soul, and a kind of spiritual listlessness that harries my mind and heart until I repent and move back into the light. (Thank heaven for repentance and the atonement.)

Meaning

I’m a Mormon because the gospel makes everything meaningful. We’re here on the earth to become like God, in the pursuit of the unimaginable happiness that comes from living a Godlike life. And the only way for that kind of lifestyle to stick, to really become part of who we are, is for us to come to the earth and see if we’ll choose goodness and God no matter what obstacles we run into, no matter how hard it may be. Everything is part of the test, proving us herewith. Every single instant of our waking lives matters. Every thought. Every word. Every action. Every reaction. Everything is either moving us Godward or turning our hearts from him.

That meaningfulness appeals to me. The world wants to believe that cumulative chance is our sole creator, that nothing we do really matters, that there’s no grand, overarching purpose to life. I can see where they’re coming from, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s a reaction to the intimidating nature of meaning. If life truly is meaningful and everything really does matter, then we’ve got a daunting burden of responsibility and accountability on our backs. And for some it’s easier to pretend it isn’t there. It would certainly be easier to live life if nothing mattered, because then there would be no need for standards of any kind, and we could do whatever we wanted. But would that kind of an empty life be satisfying?

Personal revelation

I’m a Mormon because I crave and receive personal revelation. If things do matter in this life, and if there’s a real good and a real evil, then I want to make sure I’m on the side of good. And the gift of the Holy Ghost is how I do that — context-sensitive guidance every day of my life. It’s way better than Google. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sought inspiration or revelation in pretty much every area of my life, and I’ve always received answers.

Sometimes the answer has been to continue along the path I’m on. Sometimes it’s been to back up and change direction. (Even when that’s the last thing I want to do.) Sometimes the answer is that this is something I can decide for myself, with the promise of a safety-net warning if I choose unwisely. And I’ve found that the answer is always right — it’s always what’s best for me, even if I couldn’t see it at first.

I can’t imagine living my life without daily personal revelation — too crippling.

Questions and answers

I’m a Mormon in spite of not knowing the answer to every question. There are lots of things about the gospel I don’t yet know, and yes, there are some things that seem contradictory or conflicting or that just don’t make sense to me.

But the evidence I do have, both spiritual (those revelations I just mentioned) and physical (in the form of the Book of Mormon, the words of modern prophets, and my own experiences living the commandments, to name a few), is strong enough that I know I can trust God. I know this is his gospel and his church. Like I said earlier, it has his signature, and if there are things God hasn’t revealed yet, I’m fine with waiting till he does.

It’s kind of like science, actually. There are lots of things in the more advanced areas of science that we know are there but don’t yet know why or how they work. And yet we continue to move forward in faith that someday our proven scientific method will give us the answers. It might take a while, and we might need to get a few preliminary answers first to be able to make sense of it all, but we have faith that it will come. Why? Because we’ve seen it work over and over again. We know what we know because of people forging the unknown, doing experiments, recording the results, and sharing their data. That’s how we discovered the structure of the atom and the existence of black holes and how DNA works and the list goes on. And so I’m content to not know everything right now. It’ll come.

Science

Speaking of science, I love that the gospel lives in harmony with it (in spite of what some may think). The gospel welcomes scientific advance and opens its arms to it, because it brings us closer to truth. And we love truth.

We may disagree with some scientists’ conclusions (like the non-existence of God or the historical impossibility of the Book of Mormon), and some scientific findings may not yet make complete sense in context of what we know from the gospel, but the two are wholly compatible. In a way, they’re two sides of the same coin — spiritual truth and physical truth. Our methods for getting to those truths differ somewhat — revelation for spiritual, the scientific method for physical — but at the same time they’re not that different (the way we learn spiritual truth often involves experimenting upon the word before the revelation comes, and both rely on revelatory insights to make true progress).

Zion and the law of consecration

I’m a Mormon because Zion — a society unified in purpose, bound in love, working together without friction — appeals to the deep parts of my heart. Oh man, I love the law of consecration. I live it very imperfectly (I’m far more selfish than I’d like to be), but I love giving of my time and talents to build the kingdom. It feels right. It’s something I can throw my whole heart and mind behind without wondering if I’m making the right choice.

Christ’s Second Coming

I believe that Christ will come again. Soon. For real. (Which also implies that I believe he came the first time.)

His coming doesn’t absolve us of our stewardship toward the earth or toward each other — we need to act as if we’ll be here forever (D&C 51:16–17), even though we know it’s all only temporary. (And yet if the earth is going to be celestialized, then maybe we are going to be here forever after all.)

We’re preparing for the Second Coming by learning how to love unconditionally, how to serve each other when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, how to work together and rejoice in the differences that make our society stronger. We cannot be saved without each other — both those on the earth with us and those who’ve already finished their testing (see D&C 128:15).

Yes, we live the gospel imperfectly. Yes, people make mistakes, and not everyone is as Christlike as they should be. But that doesn’t make one bit of difference as to whether the gospel is true. What matters is how we treat those mistake-making people — whether we still love them and forgive them anyway. Because, of course, we too are leaving a trail of mistakes in our wake.

The wonderfully mind-bending part, though, is that even when we mess up, we can erase that trail and continue on. The point isn’t to get a perfect score in life (because we can’t). The point is to keep moving Christward, to use the atonement to become better people, to let Christ pick us back up every time we stumble. And that’s doable. His yoke is easy and his burden light. I’m a Mormon because I believe that — I believe that we make mistakes, that we’re fallen, and that only the Savior can save us.

Joseph Smith

I’m a Mormon because I believe Joseph Smith was what he said he was. I’ve read most of his writings, and his words don’t have the taint of a lucre-mad con man. They don’t carry the queasy stench of lust and worldliness that would be there if he weren’t a prophet. Someone who was casually pretending to be a prophet would almost certainly have given up the joke once the tar and the feathers came pouring down. Since Joseph didn’t, he was either insane (based on the evidence, this isn’t a viable conclusion), evil (which isn’t the feeling I get at all), or telling the truth.

I like Joseph. Was he perfect? Absolutely not. But he was a very, very good man, which comes through in his life and his works. Besides, my testimony isn’t of the mortal perfection of Joseph Smith or of any of the prophets. What I do have is a conviction that they were called of God in spite of their weakness, to be a trustworthy conduit for divine knowledge and commandments. That’s a beautiful thing — God uses us even though we’re far from perfect. And if God says I can trust someone (which he does, to me, via the Spirit, about Joseph Smith as well as President Monson), then I have no problem trusting that person.

The Book of Mormon

I’m a Mormon because mmm, I love the Book of Mormon. It’s faithful, utterly loyal to Christ. It’s a beckoning call to become more righteous, more good, by coming unto Christ. And despite the archaic language, it’s clear and understandable, like fresh mountain water. It makes sense. It feels right and good.

As a sometime fiction writer, I’m absolutely certain there is no way Joseph could have made it up. It doesn’t feel like fiction, and the level of complexity and internal consistency in the text would be impossible for Joseph Smith or Martin Harris or Sidney Rigdon or Solomon Spaulding or anyone alive in the 1800s (or now, for that matter) to concoct on their own.

Besides, the Book of Mormon would feel more like an icky MLM pamphlet if Joseph were spinning a tall tale. And it doesn’t. It’s a beautiful, poignant testimony of Christ as our Savior. I’ve read the Book of Mormon around thirty times now and with each reading I feel closer to God, more renewed in my dedication to be a good man, husband, and father. Evil and dishonest books don’t do that.

Temples

I really, really love the temple. The temples are full of light, and not just literally. I feel closer to God when I go to the temple, and I leave feeling more motivated to be better, with inspiration as to what I need to do to change. (Grammatical tangent: I just realized we always say “go to the temple” even though there’s more than one temple, which means we’re referring to it in a more general sense, like “go to church.” But the “the” slips in there somehow. I wonder when that started — maybe when there was only one temple? I also wonder if British Saints say “go to temple.” Ahem.)

I love family history work. It’s hard — sometimes really, really, really hard — but the more I learn about my ancestors, the more I love them. The gospel’s promise that I’ll meet them someday (and that this temple work I’m doing for them can have actual meaning in their lives, can be the gateway to their salvation and exaltation) is beautiful.

That’s one of the witnesses to me of the truthfulness of the gospel, by the way — we’re meant to love and serve all of God’s children, regardless of whether they’re currently on the earth or not. (And since we believe life continues after death, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t love them.)

Arts and industry

I love that one of the principles of the gospel is work. God expects us to be industrious, to make things, to improve the world. Not to be unrealistically busy, but to be proactive and productive. We are to follow in our Creator’s footsteps. I also love the gospel’s endorsement of the arts as a way to help us become more like God. (Thus Mormon Artist.)

Faith

I think it was Terryl Givens who said that there have to be evidences against the truthfulness of the gospel to make it a valid test. Otherwise there’s no need to have faith.

And the test is about learning to choose good for its own sake, learning to obey and stay loyal to God even when it sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense. Do we still remain faithful to God and his prophets even when there seem to be contradictions? Or when they ask us to do really hard things? Or when they ask us not to do things we really want to do?

Family

I’m Mormon because family is core to the gospel, and because I’ve found that having solid, healthy family relationships is the path to happiness in this life. Family really is essential, regardless of the world’s attempts to demolish it. This has become even more clear to me now that I’m married with kids of my own. Family is where it’s at. We as a societies need to be building and healing families, not neglecting them or prying them apart or trying to replace them with fakes.

Christ and the atonement

Finally, I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he is my Savior, my Redeemer, and my Lord. I feel strongly that this church gets me closer to the real Christ than any other church. The Book of Mormon brings me closer to Christ. The prophets bring me closer to Christ. The principles of the gospel bring me closer to Christ. Everything in the church is Christ-centered. Everything. And that’s how it should be, because Christ is our only hope. He is the only way for us to get back to Heavenly Father, and, really, the only way for us to be truly happy and at peace in this life.

That’s why I’m a Mormon.

Brandon Flowers vs. Richard Dawkins

Brandon Flowers was on Norwegian-Swedish television recently and got ambushed by a surprise appearance from Richard Dawkins (link via Times & Seasons):

I hope Dawkins’ work in biology is more sound than his anti-Mormon rhetoric. Granted, this was a relatively short segment on television, but still, I expected arguments that held up a little bit better. I mean, he’s one of the most prominent atheists alive. Kind of disappointing.

For example, Dawkins’ main argument against the Church is this: Joseph Smith is apparently a charlatan because the Book of Mormon is written in sixteenth-century English, which somehow makes it an obvious fake. Um, what? Is there some rule somewhere that translators are only allowed to translate into the contemporary idiom at the time of translation?

It also doesn’t help that Dawkins seems to be in favor of sexual harassment toward women. (Cf. last year’s Rebecca Watson incident.)

But Brandon did well. It’s a pity they made him leave before he could say more.

Sundry items of Mormon interest

This is a couple years old, but Jamie Huston posted a condensed Book of Mormon in 15 verses (using one representative verse per book, riffing off Sarah Wilson’s Bible in 66 verses). It’s a cool idea and would be a worthwhile project for personal scripture study. Someone should do it for the Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, too.

William J. Hamblin posted on the Interpreter blog about Stefan Wimmer’s recent presentation on Palestinian hieratic. Basically, there’s a lot of evidence of Hebrew scribes using Egyptian signs at the time and place where Lehi and Nephi lived. Fascinating.

In the latest issue of SquareTwo, V.H. Cassler has a great piece called Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: “A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology”?, a response to Taylor Petrey’s Dialogue article showing that his reworking of doctrine to allow for homosexual marriage also happens to eliminate the need for women in the plan of salvation. Which is problematic, to put it lightly. Cassler also gave a brilliant, must-read talk at the 2010 FAIR conference entitled The Two Trees. Good stuff.

Another great rebuttal. William J. Hamblin responds to Ben Witherington’s recent Patheos essay which regurgitated the overused claim that Mormons aren’t Christian. Which is getting so old.

Looks like today’s links are mostly responses and rebuttals. Over at Interpreter, John Sorenson (the person probably most associated with Book of Mormon geography) posted an open letter to Michael Coe in response to Coe’s Mormon Stories interview last year with John Dehlin. (Coe made several unsubstantiated claims about the archaeological and linguistic veracity of the Book of Mormon.)

J. Kirk Richards wrote a good, thoughtful post last night, and I think his title says it all: WHY ARE YOU PAINTING THOSE NAKED LADIES? Or, What makes me think I can go to a nude drawing session on Saturday and then go to church on Sunday?

Finally, two more posts from Jamie Huston (perhaps I should have structured this post more chiasmically). These are more of a wake-up call. Read them. The first is A Homily on Helaman: Choosing Faithfulness in a Changing Church Culture, and the second (a repost of an earlier 2009 post) is On America’s Future. I think he’s right — it’s not hard at all to envision that kind of a future, and his interpretation of the prophecies in 3 Nephi seems spot on to me. Chillingly so.

2012 FAIR conference, part one

The annual FAIR conference was last week, and almost all of the presentation transcripts are now up. Here are the ones I’ve read so far with thoughts on each (with more to come later).

Rosemary Avance, Seeing the Light: Parallels in Mormon Conversion and De-conversion Stories. An interesting look by a non-Mormon at similarities between people coming into the Church and people going out. She has some good points, including her last line: “It is only by seriously considering the concerns of those who may seem to be on the fringes of Mormonism that they can be brought into the fold and embraced as legitimate and valuable members of the community.”

Joshua Johanson, Navigating the Labyrinth Surrounding Homosexual Desire. Quite fascinating. It’s very refreshing to hear these kinds of posts from faithful members with SSA who reject their homosexual desires. Insightful analogies. I felt edified having read it.

John Sorenson, Reading Mormon’s Codex. A summary of Sorenson’s arguments for a Mesoamerican geography of the Book of Mormon. There seem to be a striking number of correspondences which would be hard to explain away as mere coincidence. The Mesoamerican theory doesn’t necessarily explain everything, though — how the plates ended up in another hill Cumorah in upstate New York, Zelph and the Nephite altars Joseph Smith pointed out in Illinois, etc.

Neylan McBaine, To Do the Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gendered Participation Within Church Organizational Structure. I have to admit that titles like this scare me away, because very boring material almost always lies behind them. But I know Neylan, so I gave her presentation a shot. I’m glad I did. I’m still piecing together my thoughts on the matter, though.

Dan Peterson, Of ‘Mormon Studies’ and Apologetics. A great defense of apologetics in the Church (including scriptural sanction for said apologetics). He also covers the recent Maxwell Institute happenings and announces the launch of Interpreter. Good stuff.

By the way, it boggles my mind that people actually think we don’t need to defend the Church. Dan’s talk includes a good C.S. Lewis quote that I rather like:

To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.

So apologetics are an act of love, really. There is real truth and real error, and there are plenty of snakes in the grass lying in wait to deceive, trying to ensnare us and our brothers and sisters in the coils of whatever falsehoods we’ll believe. It’s war.

If you don’t believe in good and evil, though, then yes, there’s no point in defending good. But since we as disciples of Christ do believe that there is a God and a devil, then we have to take sides. We must stand for truth and defend the kingdom, rallying together with every honorable tool at our disposal. And that includes rational thought and argument.

Interpreter: the new FARMS

Remember the Maxwell Institute debacle a few weeks ago? Things are looking better, because a new journal — unaffiliated with BYU or the Church and run by Dan Peterson and company — launched last night. You could call it the true heir to FARMS.

It’s entitled Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. Their mission statement:

Our goal is to increase understanding of scripture through careful scholarly investigation and analysis of the insights provided by a wide range of ancillary disciplines, including language, history, archaeology, literature, culture, ethnohistory, art, geography, law, politics, philosophy, etc. We hope to illuminate, by study and faith, the eternal spiritual message of the scriptures—that Jesus is the Christ.

Mmm. This is a wonderful thing. Not to mention everything will be freely available online in a plethora of formats (HTML, EPUB, Kindle, PDF, etc.).

Bryce Haymond has some more behind-the-scenes info on TempleStudy.com, and Dan Peterson also has a post about it on his blog.

The Maxwell Institute debacle

So, crazy stuff has been happening at the Maxwell Institute. The Institute was going to publish a piece in the Mormon Studies Review about John Dehlin and the Mormon Stories podcast, but Dehlin complained (apparently to a General Authority) and then Gerald Bradford (director of the Institute) pulled the piece and fired the editors of the Review via email while many (most?) of them were out of country. And now the Institute isn’t doing apologetics anymore. Whew.

I found out about it via Jamie Huston’s blog, and you can get caught up on the details over at Temple Study or Times and Seasons (both have lots of links to posts about the incident). And Bill Hamblin’s blog is a good source for recent updates, too.

It’s sad. I like Dan Peterson — he’s our C.S. Lewis, in a way — and wish Bradford hadn’t handled it so badly. But we’re all human and make mistakes.

I’m also not thrilled with the Institute’s change in direction — the apologetics were always the most interesting part to me by far (Nibley, etc.) — but I have to agree with Hamblin that FARMS never should have been part of BYU. Quality and quantity have gone downhill since then (see Bryce Haymond’s chart on the aforelinked Temple Study post for the decline in publication output), and it’s really better off not being any kind of official Church organization. Luckily there’s still FAIR, and the Restore FARMS movement looks promising as well.

As for Mormon Stories, I know that it’s ostensibly about having an open place to talk about people’s struggles with the faith, but it really, really seems like its “faith transitions” are almost entirely a one-way street heading out of the Church. Maybe I’ve somehow missed all the faith-strengthening episodes, but yeah, really not interested. The sickly scent of apostasy there is too much for me. (If John Dehlin himself doesn’t believe the Church is true, what motivation would he have to help people stay in the Church?)

Anyway, that’s the state of things. (Also, what’s with the Maxwell Institute mole leaking things to anti-Mormon forums? Sheesh. I think that person has been fired, though.)

Boundless mercies

When I’m feeling discouraged and imperfect, worlds apart from the holy, unswerving disciple I want to be, I like to remember this quote from Joseph Smith:

Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. (In Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith)

That’s not a license to sin, of course. But when we’re honestly striving to be good followers of Christ, man, it feels good to know that God is more merciful than I expect him to be.

Hearts Far from Me

My wife and I have been reading the New Testament together. The other day we read Matthew 15:8 and this visual immediately came to mind.

Painted in Photoshop.

On Mormon fiction

A week or two ago I finally got around to reading Jettboy’s “Why I Don’t Read Mormon Fiction” post and the dozens of comments accompanying it.

I don’t read much Mormon fiction — fiction about the Mormon experience, that is. I want to, but I don’t, and I didn’t pick up on the real reason until now: it’s the physical production values. (Newsflash: I’m kind of shallow.)

More specifically, 6×9″ books set in Adobe Garamond on bright white paper just don’t do it for me.

I realize that the paper and the size probably have to do with what’s cost effective for small presses, but still, I’ve more than once picked up some Mormon fiction from the library shelves (working at the BYU library has its advantages) determined to read it, and then have to put it down after a few pages because it’s the same book design. It’s discouraging. I want to read more, but the form of the book repels me. (Yes, yes, I know that not all Mormon fiction is this way. It just feels like it.)

If you count Mormon fiction as books written by Mormon authors, then I do read quite a bit more, but it’s almost all science fiction and fantasy published nationally — Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Robison Wells, Shannon Hale, etc. And few if any of their books are 6×9″ or have bright white paper or are set in Adobe Garamond. Especially not all three together.

That said, I’m a nitpicky book designer who’s cursed with the inability to read poorly made books (in my opinion, anyway). For most people I don’t think it makes much of a difference. (But it should. Oh, it should.) (At the same time, however, I’m a little jealous of people who don’t automatically have to put a book down because the typeface is dreadful.) And yes, ebooks may render this point moot. I hope they do.

Book of Mormon translation stories

This week the Mormon Times is running short articles on translations of the Book of Mormon. They have eleven up so far — Chinese, Danish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Pacific Island languages (Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, Fijian), Portuguese, Spanish, and Tagalog — and hopefully they’ll have more. Very cool.

Journal of Discourses formatting

FYI, I’ve finished updating the formatting on the Journal of Discourses. They’re still pre-release editions, but they look better now, for what that’s worth. (And someday I’ll be able to say that they’re typo-free. I’m seriously looking forward to that day.)

On a related note, I threw together an experimental Complete Journal of Discourses edition to see if iBooks and the Kindle could handle something that massive. Twenty-six volumes at around 375 pages each comes to roughly 9,750 pages. Gargantuan.

iBooks loaded the EPUB just fine and had no problems loading chapters quickly from the table of contents, but the list of chapters was so long that it really wasn’t practical. Far better to just load the separate volumes individually.

And my Kindle Touch choked. It died a horrible death, completely freezing before it ever displayed a single word, and the only way I could unfreeze it was a hard reset (holding the power button for thirty seconds). Sad.

Proofing the Journal of Discourses

I’ve been updating the formatting on the Journal of Discourses, and in so doing I’ve realized that there are a bucketloads of typos in these books. (I originally got the text from Wikisource, and apparently they didn’t proof things very thoroughly.) Now that the initial pre-release editions are out, it’s time to proofread the whole thing in minute detail and get the text cleaned up and nigh perfect.

But there are twenty-six volumes with around seventy-five talks per volume, coming out to almost two thousand talks. That’s a lot of proofreading. A lot. And I can’t do it by myself, at least not in a reasonable timeframe.

So, if any of you out there would like to help me proofread the EPUB/Kindle editions of the Journal of Discourses, please let me know and I’ll get you started. We’ll be proofing the ebook editions line by line against the printed editions, noting down anything that’s wrong — misspellings, missing sentences and paragraphs, missing italics, etc. And last but not least, volunteers will get their names listed at the beginning of the volumes they help with.

NaNoWriMo 2011: Over and out

Short version: I dropped out of NaNoWriMo a few days ago because I realized that writing fiction is meant to be just a hobby/diversion for me.

Long version: For a while I’ve tried to convince myself that writing fiction needed to be one of my top priorities. I’d wanted to be a novelist since I was a kid (or so I told myself), and this was chasing the dream, for crying out loud. But all along I couldn’t quite justify it to myself — I want to spend my time on things that will help build the kingdom of God, but whenever I thought and prayed about what I could do to help, the Lord always directed me toward other things (Mormon Artist, the Mormon Texts Project, family history R&D and research, etc.). Writing fiction was never, ever the answer. (In fact, my interest in writing fiction always evaporated in those moments.)

And yet, being a creature with a short memory, I’d forget about it after a day or two, read novels, and get all excited again about writing fiction. A few days later I’d get back into kingdom-building mode and lose interest in writing fiction. This cycle has repeated itself over and over again for years now.

A few days ago it finally hit me: writing fiction is not one of the ways I’m supposed to help build the kingdom. Part of me wishes it were (since it clearly is for a lot of other people), but alas, it’s not. My kingdom-building path apparently involves publishing things and family history and other stuff (in addition to the core of keeping the commandments and being a good husband and father and magnifying my calling and all that, of course). Writing fiction is fun and relaxing for me, and that, I’ve learned, is its role in my life: to be something I do for fun to unwind. But I’m not supposed to be churning out novels and stories left and right.

So, since writing fiction isn’t what I’m supposed to be spending a lot of my time doing (and since I really only care about doing what God wants me to do), I’m dropping out of NaNoWriMo. Kudos to all those who stick with it, though.

Again, I still enjoy crafting tales and I’m sure I’ll keep doing it from time to time, but yeah, writing fiction is not and probably never will be a priority for me. (Ach, it kind of kills me to say that. Maybe later in life things will change. I hope they do.) I don’t know why writing fiction isn’t part of my life’s work the way I thought it would be, but now that I know it isn’t, I’d rather spend my time doing what the Lord wants me to do. And I’m okay with that. Heaven knows I’ve got plenty of other projects to keep me busy.

The Douglas prophecy

As I was working on the EPUB and Kindle editions of Life of Heber C. Kimball a few weeks ago, I came across this little bit of history I’d never heard before, about Joseph Smith’s visit to Stephen Douglas (the one who lost the presidential race to Lincoln):

On the return from Ramus, where the doctrine of the eternity of marriage was taught to a number of brethren, President Joseph Smith and his scribe, William Clayton, paid a visit to Judge Stephen A. Douglas, at Carthage, where he was holding court. On invitation they dined with Judge Douglas, and after dinner he requested President Smith to relate the history of the persecutions of the Saints while in Missouri. This he did in some detail, covering a period of about three hours. He also gave an account of his visit to Washington, with Judge Elias Higbee and Sidney Rigdon, in 1839, and their treatment by President Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and others. Judge Douglas listened with the closest attention and deprecated the conduct of Governor Boggs and his aids in Missouri. He said that any people who would do as the Missourians had done to the Latter-day Saints ought to be brought to judgment and punished.

President Smith, in concluding the conversation, uttered the following prophecy which was recorded in the journal of his secretary, William Clayton, under date of the event, May 18, 1843:

“Judge, you will aspire to the presidency of the United States; and if ever you turn your hand against me or the Latter-day Saints, you will feel the weight of the hand of the Almighty upon you; and you will live to see and know that I have testified the truth to you; for the conversation of this day will stick to you through life.”

There’s a footnote attached to the story:

Stephen A. Douglas lived to see the fulfilment of this prophecy. He did aspire to the presidency of the United States. He did raise his voice against the Latter-day Saints in a speech delivered in Springfield, Illinois, June 12, 1857. The speech was published in the “Missouri Republican.” While Mr. Douglas had more reason to expect to be elected than any other candidate, he was overwhelmingly defeated, and Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.

Fascinating.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

One of my all-time favorite hymns is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and today I found out I’ve been singing it wrong. (By the way, anyone know why it got taken out of the 1985 LDS hymnal?)

You know that part in the second verse where it says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer”? We were rehearsing it today in ward choir practice (I’m the accompanist) and when we got to that part and everyone sang “eb-uh-neezer” (as in Scrooge), one of the basses pointed out that it’s actually pronounced “eb-uh-nezzer.” Which rhymes a heck of a lot better with pleasure later on in the verse, too. Turns out it’s a Hebrew word, Eben-ezer, meaning “stone of help” (it shows up in 1 Samuel 7:12).

Makes me wonder what other words I’ve been pronouncing wrong all my life without realizing it. Shudder.

Book of Mormon study edition preview

Update: I’ve finished and released this. Sorry it took so long.

This isn’t done yet, but it’s coming along nicely:

It’s a study edition of the Book of Mormon, with extra large outside margins and more line spacing so there’s plenty of room for taking notes. I’ve also moved the verse numbers out of the way so the text stands on its own.

When I finish it, I’ll release a free PDF on here as usual and make a paperback perfect bound hard copy available on Lulu at cost. (It’ll probably be around $20 plus shipping. I asked my local copy shop how much it’d cost to print and bind this — around 580 pages — and they said $60 for the printing costs alone, so it looks like Lulu is going to be much, much cheaper.)

Many miracles

I take a lot of things for granted. Take the sun, for instance. It’s 93 million miles away. Ninety-three million miles. Let’s say you hop in a car and start driving towards the sun at 60 mph (okay, we’ll make it a spacecar) — it’d take you 177 years to get there. And that’s if there aren’t any red lights along the way. So the sun is far, but the thing that blows my mind is this: it’s so bright to us here on earth that if we look straight at it, it temporarily blinds us. And it’s hot. You can burn ants with it (and a magnifying glass). That’s crazy. I mean, I understand the physics of it (the basics, anyway), but isn’t it bonkers that the whole thing actually works? Not to mention its huge role in life on earth and all of that.

Speaking of distance, instant messaging is another thing that’s crazy if you stop to think about it. I can type “lol” on my laptop and have it show up pretty much instantly for someone on the other side of the globe. Which is almost 13,000 miles away. Not as far away as the sun, but still pretty dang far. It’s like magic, except better because, like, it actually works.

There’s more. The stuff we build amazes me. Like cities. And buildings — cathedrals, skyscrapers, football stadiums, airports. Even just ordinary houses are incredible (meaning, hard to believe). The fact that we can stick pieces of wood together into something that (a) stands upright and (b) doesn’t blow down with the wind just blows my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I love animals (or at least I don’t hate them), but you don’t see anything like this in the animal kingdom. Sure, lots of species do some crazy intricate things, but nothing even comes close to what we humans build. Our cities are far more complex than any anthill.

And there’s things like plastics. We can mold plastic into almost any shape we want, which is why my shampoo bottle looks the way it does. And shampoo is amazing, too. To think that we somehow came up with the right types of things to mix together to make our hair (a) clean and (b) smell good (plus the other stuff shampoo does, most of which is beyond me) is a miracle.

And we have zippers and post-it notes and medicines that work (usually) and violins and pianos that actually sound beautiful and microwaves and street lights and the whole earth is chock-full of little miracles.

Street lights remind me of something else that blows my mind: freeways. Streets in general, but freeways in particular. First, you have this crazy massive network of I don’t know how many millions of tons of asphalt laid all over the country (and world, but we’ll stick with the States for this paragraph), flattened out and relatively smooth. They’ve put roads through mountains and (with the help of bridges, which are also incredible) over bays and rivers and lakes. Second, and this is the bigger miracle for me, we have millions of imperfect humans driving at fairly high speeds in all sizes of vehicles on these freeways…and yet accidents are relatively rare. Consider all it takes for an accident to happen: someone’s attention leaves the road for four or five seconds. Or someone accidentally turns their steering wheel a few millimeters too far. It’s an insane miracle that there aren’t a lot more accidents on every road we’ve got. Which is why I believe in traffic angels.

And, actually, all of these miracles are a testimony to me that God loves us, because even as awesome as we are (being the children of God with all sorts of latent superpowers) (no, really), there’s no way we could have gotten as far as we have without his help. Without God inspiring all of these makers and builders and inventors, we’d still be living in caves. (Well, maybe not caves, but you get the point.) At least we’d still have that bright, hot, oh-so-far-away sun.

Mere information

I’ve been reading Arthur Henry King’s book The Abundance of the Heart, and something C. Terry Warner wrote in the introduction (pages 3–4) has stuck with me:

We can reflect again on our contemporary conception of the truth as mere information. This conception is not only false; it is dangerous. It leads us to suppose that we can pass bits of the truth conveniently to one another, as if they were coins. We are encouraged to regard the mind as a kind of purse in which we can collect and even hoard these coins. We believe we can buy, sell, and barter for them; we treat them as if they have exchange value. As far as we are concerned, evil people can get hold of them, as well as good people. Sinister men can control the world by acquiring these truths and withholding them from others. All of this is false. The idea that truth is information is, ultimately, a menacing economic metaphor.

Just how menacing this idea is can be seen in our approach to education. Because we have taken the economic metaphor seriously, we have come to think that learning is completely independent of morality. We have made it competitive rather than cooperative. We have turned our universities into vocational schools. Certain kinds of training have become not just occupationally but socially advantageous. We have made the most successful information-mongers among us into snobs. Learning, so called, has become a divisive social instrument that reinforces class distinctions. It is not possible to calculate the devastating effects of these disasters.

Teaching is not a form of commerce. It is more like the radiance or influence of a resonant soul as it is felt by other souls. The teacher of the truth does not convey to the student valuable bits of anything, but by his presence and commitment he points away from himself to something higher than himself, to which the student can have independent access. “And also trust no one to be your teacher…, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14).

Definitely food for thought.

Weaknesses

A couple weeks ago I came across a By Common Consent post that quoted this gem by Lorenzo Snow, taken from George Q. Cannon’s diary (via Leonard Arrington’s book Adventures of a Church Historian):

I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weakness and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfections.

Knowing that our prophets are human and imperfect is really comforting to me. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves and is very aware of our flaws, and yet miraculously, mercifully, he still sees our potential and gives us responsibilities and assignments that help us grow.

As for what our attitude towards these human prophets ought to be, Arrington’s book goes on to quote Brigham Young in the next paragraph:

Even Brigham Young, who loved Joseph Smith with a constancy that bordered on idolatry, admitted in a discourse on loving-kindness in the Salt Lake Bowery that he sometimes thought that the prophet was not always right in his management of affairs. “It gave me sorrow of heart [to see this],” he said, but “I clearly saw and understood, by the spirit of revelation manifested in me, that if I was to harbor a thought in my heart that Joseph could be wrong in anything, I would begin to lose confidence in him, and that feeling would grow…until at last I would have the same lack of confidence in his being the mouthpiece for the Almighty.” So Young decided to let the Lord deal with Joseph’s failings. “Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults…. He was called of God; God dictated [to] him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine…. Though he had his weaknesses,” Young continued, “he was all that any people could require a true prophet to be.”

Our Church leaders aren’t going to be perfect. They just aren’t. And that’s okay. Their imperfections don’t void the fact that it was God who called them and that they have real power and authority from the Almighty. God can use imperfect people to do his work. (And thank heavens for that.)

Turning the hearts

This evening I came across this passage by Arthur Henry King in Arm the Children (page 123):

I believe that the more we know about our ancestors — the way they lived, the history of their times, their language and culture — the more chance we have that they will accept the gospel. I am sure that is so because if we turn our hearts towards them, they should turn their hearts toward us. That is one of the things that Malachi means.

Strikes true to me. (Also, Arthur Henry King was brilliant.)

Revelation every day

I’ve often wondered why we had a lot of “thus saith the Lord” revelations back in Joseph Smith’s day (just look at the Doctrine & Covenants) and don’t get many at all nowadays (“The Proclamation to the World on the Family” and “The Living Christ” are the only ones I can think of, and even then they’re not directly in the Lord’s voice).

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that the Church nowadays is led by God just as much as it was in 1830, and I likewise fully believe that our modern prophets receive revelation. I was just curious as to why the format seems to have changed over the years.

On Sunday I found my answer.

I was reading Melvin J. Petersen’s February 1985 Ensign article “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication” and came across this passage from John A. Widtsoe:

There is, in view of what has been said, need of continuous revelation. However, we must understand that there are two classes of revelation given by God to man. The first deals with the structure and content of the plan of salvation. Once given it does not need to be given again. Adam received it…. Christ gave the same revelation to man in His dispensation. So did Joseph Smith in his dispensation. The foundation, or platform, once given does not need to be given again unless men forget the truth.

Then there are revelations that fit the changes in our lives, meet our new needs, help us overcome unforeseen conditions—revelations for our daily guidance.

This great country, the United States of America, has found itself in a great depression. We have the Gospel. What did the Lord do? He spoke to his Prophet, and we have what is known as the Welfare Program. It is the application of the eternal principles of the Gospel to present day needs. It is as revelation. We have that type of revelation continuously.

So, when people say: ‘We ought to have revelation now as we did in the day of Joseph,’ we must answer, ‘Open your eyes; we do have revelation every day; such as we need from day to day.’

Revelations have been given to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith and President Heber J. Grant. Every one of them has had revelation whereby the Church has been guided.” (John A. Widtsoe, “Modern Revelation and Modern Questions,” The Deseret News, Church Section, 28 January 1939, p. 6.)

And there you have it.

Fractal scriptures

The more I read the scriptures, the more they reveal themselves to me. It’s almost like a fractal. From far out, it seems like there’s not that much detail, but the more you zoom into the fractal, the more you find. And there’s no limit to how far you can zoom in. Infinite beauty.

I’ve noticed, too, that when I’m not as diligent in reading and studying the scriptures, they seem to lose their color, becoming flat and boring and dry (at least in my mind). But as soon as I get back into them, they burst into vibrant color and three-dimensionality, vivid and electrifying enough to remind me that this earth is not my true home and that there’s a world even more real than this one waiting for me.

Put another way, the further I get from the scriptures, the darker and hazier things get, spiritually, but when I return to the word of God that I love so much, it’s like the world fills with light so piercing and clear that there’s no way I can deny that there is a God and that he’s full of love and joy and truth.

Degree of differences

From Hugh Nibley’s Temple and Cosmos:

Joseph Smith himself often disagreed with various of his brethren on different points, yet he never cracked down on them, saying they’d better change this or that, or else. He disagreed with Parley P. Pratt on a number of things, and also with Brigham Young on various things. Brigham said that Joseph didn’t know a thing about business.

Joseph rebuked Parley P. Pratt for things said in the newspaper Parley was editing, but he didn’t remove him from the editorship. “The paper is not interesting enough. You’re not putting the right things in it.” Still he left it entirely up to Parley what to do. This has always been the policy in the Church — a lot of degree of differences. It should not worry us.

Exactly.

Opposition in All Things

“Opposition in All Things,” a new illustration. Painted in Photoshop. Full-size is on Flickr.

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” —2 Nephi 2:11