Monday, December 29, 2014

While We Are At It

For those of you who do not know the books that have come out of the NSYR, they are:
All were published by Oxford University Press. They really are worth the read.

Why Do They Leave?

I have previously used statistics from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) to highlight that: (1) we do a better job at keeping our youth than other religions, though we still lose just over a third; (2) we lose about three-quarters of the youth we lose to secularism though there are also some losses to various sects. A third key ingredient in understanding the situation is to know why youth are leaving. In this case raw statistics do not help answer the question. Simple surveys rarely help elucidate those sorts of issues.

Fortunately, not only did the NSYR track thousands of youth for a decade but they also engaged in in-depth interviews with a significant number of the youth at various stages. These interviews let the youth explain themselves and their reasoning behind the decisions they make and why they answered some of the questions the way they did. This provides richer data than otherwise might have been the case.

Unfortunately, the data published by the NSYR does not directly address the issue of why some Latter-day Saint youth become atheist, agnostic, or apathetic. It does, however, delve into the reasons why youth in general choose that path. For the sake of discussion, we here assume that reasons why Latter-day Saint youth choose that path are similar to reasons that youth in general choose that path. The NSYR cataloged a number of different reasons why youth lose their religion. These are worth listing:
  1. Disruptions to routine
  2. "Many life transitions and disturbances of diverse sorts--divorce, death of a family member, leaving home, job loss" make people "less likely to attend religious services" (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 75.)
  3. Distractions
  4. Emerging adults engage in a number of other issues and activities that often distract them from possible religious and spiritual interests and involvements. To begin with, the central task of emerging adult life itself--learning to stand on one's own two feet--is in some sense one big, macro distraction from religious devotion. . . . Outside of work and possibly school, emerging adults spend a good amount of time attending to various errands associated with living on their own. . . . Fun-related distractions in many emerging adults' lives include . . . any other number of recreational and social activities that take time, energy, and sometimes money and planning. On top of all that is time spent on gadgets. . . . Social life can be distracting and draining in other ways as well. . . . More generally, there is simply too much else going on at the time to go to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 76-77.)
  5. Differentiation
  6. Part of emerging adults' central life task of standing on their own is establishing identity differentiation. . . . Religion, particularly public religious practice, is one arena that effectively offers emerging adults an opportunity to achieve clear identity differentiation. . . . Religion also seems to many to be of less consequence than matters of education, finances, love interests, childbearing, and other more pressing areas, as a possible place to slack off, drop out, or otherwise become quite different from one's parents (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 78.)
  7. Postponed Family Formation and Childbearing
  8. The postponement of "settling down" that is associated with emerging adulthood unintentionally produces, as a causal mechanism, the tendency for Americans to reduce religious involvements during this phase of life. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 79.)
  9. Keeping Options Open
  10. Emerging adults are generally loath to close doors or burn bridges. Instead, they want to keep as many options open as possible. . . . If religion means being sober, settled, and steadfast, and if emerging adulthood means postponing those things, then it means not being particularly concerned about religion. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 80.)
    Some youth (about 30%) want to have more of a cafeteria approach to religion, picking and choosing the beliefs that they want. They are picky
    about what they are willing to adopt of their religious tradition's beliefs and practices, some of which they think are "outdated." They often hold certain "different opinions" and desires from what their religion allows, so they pick and choose what they want to accept. [They] disagree, neglect, or ignore the official teachings of their faiths most often on the following religious issues: sex before marriage, the need for regular religious service attendance, belief in the existence of hell, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and use of birth control. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 167.)
  11. Honoring Diversity
  12. For most of their lives, from preschool on, most emerging adults have been taught by multiple institutions to celebrate diversity, to be inclusive of difference, to overcome racial divides, to embrace multiculturalism, to avoid being narrowly judgmental towards others who are out of the ordinary. . . . Despite the value of such inclusiveness and acceptance generally . . . this general orientation when brought to questions of religious life tends to undermine the effectiveness of particularities of faith traditions and practices. . . . As a result, most emerging adults are happy with religion so long as it is general and accepting of diversity but are uncomfortable if it is anything else. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 80-81.)
  13. Self-confident Self-Sufficiency
  14. They were authorized as individuals to know and choose what is right, at least for themselves. It was difficult for them to imagine an objective reference point beyond their own individual selves by which to evaluate themselves, their lives, and those of others. They could decide what to believe about ultimate reality based on what feels right to them, whatever fits their personal experience. . . . Why would an emerging adult want or need religious faith? (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 82.)
  15. Self-evident Morality
  16. "They believe . . . religion plays an optional role in morally good living. The single thing in which it specializes--helping people to be good--is actually not needed in order for people to achieve that outcome. Religion thus serves a nonobligatory, noncrucial function in life. It does not have a corner on anything unique. Nobody has to believe in or practice it to live morally. As a result, its status becomes that of a lifestyle accessory. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition 83.)
  17. Partying
  18. One of the other reasons why many, though not all, emerging adults may want to distance themselves from religion is that religion in their minds conflicts with certain other lifestyle options that are higher priorities. Most of them want to party, to hook up, to have sex in relationships, and to cohabit; or if they do not do these things now, many at least want to keep them as options for the future. . . . Many want to have sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or to at least be free to do so if the occasion arises, and many want to be able to hook up with someone they meet to whom they may feel attracted. Many also want to cohabit with current or future serious partners or fiancés before getting married. And all of this, emerging adults are aware, contradicts the teachings of most religions. So they simply avoid religion and thereby resolve the conflict. . . . Framed as a social-psychological causal mechanism: most emerging adults reduce a certain cognitive dissonance they feel—arising from the conflict of religious teachings against partying and sex before marriage versus their wanting to engage in those behaviors—by mentally discounting the religious teachings and socially distancing themselves from the source of those teachings. In this simple way, the role of sex, drinking, and sometimes drugs is often important in forming emerging adults’ frequent lack of interest in religious faith and practice. (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 83-84.)
What is interesting about this list is that for the most part, intellectual reasons play a secondary role in conversion to secularism. This is not to say that intellectual reasons play no role, or that certain actions have no intellectual ramifications. The list is mainly behavioral or event driven rather than philosophically driven. Doubts in religiously held beliefs do not show up on the list.

Unfortunately, the NSYR gave no approximate weight to the frequency of the various reasons. One can hunt around the data and get some indications (and I provided one of these in point number 5 above). Among emerging adults (18- to 23-year-olds) in America, 84% have engaged in sexual relations and 66% have done so with more than one partner (Regnerus and Uecker, Premarital Sex in America, 25). Thus about five-sixths of emerging adults may potentially fall under those whose sex lives conflicts with their religion and, if they give it much thought, will fall under the temptation to make their beliefs conform to their practice. For teenagers we have better separated data published. Among Americans 37.2% or teenagers have been sexually active and another 24.5% wish they were. Among Latter-day Saints 12.6% of teenagers have been sexually active and another 14.9% wish they were. (Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, 132-33.)

So the desire to sin in ways that fundamentally conflicts with their religion affects about 30% of LDS teenagers. We lose 13% of our teenagers to secularism. So the desire to sin does not automatically lead to an abandonment of religion, but the NSYR found a statistical correlation on keeping religion and obeying the law of chastity (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 218, 271-75). On the other hand, having doubts about religious beliefs was only weakly correlated with retaining or losing faith to the point that the NSYR deemed it not significant (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 216). Doubts play a role in loss of belief and commitment but only in combination with other factors.  (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 229-31). For instance doubts play a role in the loss of faith of emerging adults only when faith did not play a big role in the teen's parents' lives, and the parents were lax in their church attendance, and faith already played less of a role in the teen's life, and is usually accompanied by the youth's less frequent religious devotion, i.e. prayer, church attendance and scripture reading (Smith and Snell, Souls in Transition, 229-30). In other words, doubt usually needs to be combined with other factors to come into play.

The list of issues should not be thought of as necessarily mutually exclusive reasons for abandoning faith. If 84% of youth have potential issues with sex lives incompatible with their faith and 30% want to pick and choose their beliefs, there has to be some overlap. We are looking at a list of prominent factors not a list of separate causes.

Only three of the nine reasons deal with intellectual issues (6, 7, and 8). One of these (number 6) is an uncritical commitment to diversity. Diversity can be a good thing. Society needs a variety of occupations to function well: it needs farmers and pharmacists, engineers and educators. But that occupational diversity does not mean that criminals are either necessary or desirable. Diversity, in and of itself, is not an unalloyed good. A simplistic example is that diversity of answers to 2 + 2 is not a good thing. Answers of 3, 5, -87, and 2,000,003 are not equally valid answers to the question 2+2 (they are all invalid answers). Diversity can be a good thing or a bad thing and thus one needs to exercise discernment about whether diversity is desirable in any given instance. Diversity can be a cover term for disguising that "they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).

Discernment requires some external criteria for deciding right and wrong. Latter-day Saints can become susceptible to point 7 if they confuse two points of view. The Latter-day Saint point of view is that each individual can know for him- or herself what is right; he or she is then a moral agent who can choose whether or not to do what is right; he or she is then accountable for his or her actions and must accept the consequences for choices made. This should not be confused (although it sometimes is) with the position that each individual can choose for him- or herself what is right and that God will automatically ratify that choice without accountability or consequences because God loves us or Jesus's atonement somehow nullifies all the adverse consequences of our actions.

The best data available to me indicates that we are not primarily losing youth to doubts that spring up in their minds as a result of something that they read on the internet (which is not to say that such a thing does not ever occur). The losses seem to be the result of a combination of factors (in which doubt sometimes might play a role). Loss of faith seems to be a complex play of factors rather than some simplistic story. Other factors weigh more heavily including sin or the desire to sin. Far more detrimental to loss of faith than doubts are notions of relativism, or the uncritical commitment to politically correct notions of diversity, and misunderstandings of moral agency and accountability.

Instead of indiscriminately accepting diversity or declaring that all points of view are equally valid, we ought to be discussing when diversity is good and when is it bad, what sorts of diversity are beneficial and which types are not, and what are the long-term consequences of various points of view. We ought to be clarifying the consequences of moral agency and stressing accountability. We ought to be paying attention to the consequences of choices and teaching those consequences.

Now, I am willing to consider that there might exist better data for Latter-day Saints than the NSYR data. The NSYR has the advantage of being publicly available and addresses the issue being discussed. I am also open to the possibility that the NSYR data is focusing on the general picture of youth in the United States and that a different story might be playing out among Latter-day Saints (which is demonstrably the case on a number of issues that the NSYR looked at but not all of them). A better analysis of the data focusing on the particular problem could help but if such an analysis has been done it is not publicly available. Those interested in the problem really owe it to themselves to work through the seven books comprising nearly two-thousand pages of analysis that the NSYR has generated. The narrative that Latter-day Saint youth are leaving the Church in droves because of something they learned from the internet that raises doubts in their minds is not supported by the available data.

Haven't I Heard This Somewhere Before?

Last night, I ran across the following autobiographical note in a recent book by Craig Blomberg:
In college, from 1973 to 1977, I majored in religion at a private liberal arts college that in many respects was running from its Christian heritage as fast as it could.
(Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2014], 5.)
In an endnote Blomberg helpfully supplies some details:
Augustana College, Rock Island, IL., 1973-1977. Until 1962 the college had housed a Lutheran seminary. A long-tenured and highly-beloved president, Conrad Bergendorff, had been a masterful champion of the highest levels of academic achievement within a framework of informed but devout Christian faith. Under Thomas Tredway, the president inaugurated during my student days, attention was given almost exclusively to the academic goals. The religion department (no longer the department of Christianity as under Bergendorff) was most eager to expose students to virtually every perspective except the historic, pietistic Lutheranism (or its equivalent in other denominations) that had characterized the school before the mid-1960s.
(Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? 229 n. 23.)
I sense a pattern here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Unintended Consequence

Christian Smith, no stranger to astute observations, has yet another one:
Many Catholic educational institutions have found that efforts to become more mainstream, to open up to the larger world of higher education, and to increase the quality of their instruction have had the unintended consequence of sidelining or diluting their Catholic character and identity.
(Christian Smith and John C. Cavadini, Building Catholic Higher Education: Unofficial Reflections from the University of Notre Dame [Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014], ix.) 
Smith is merely observing in Catholic terms the experience of Congregationalist Harvard, Congregationalist Yale, Baptist Brown, Presbyterian Princeton and many other originally sectarian institutions of higher education. Though the specifics may differ, this general experiment has been conducted many times with the same general result. Insanity, it has been said, is to repeat the same experiment over and over and expect different results.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Where Are They Going?

In a previous post, I addressed the issue of how many youth the Church is losing using data from the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR). The NSYR provides data on how many we keep but also what happens to those we lose.

I will present the data in chart form. The first column (A) is the percentage of LDS who change to that religion in their high school years (from Christian Smith et al., Soul Searching, 36). The second column (B) is the percentage of those who were LDS in high school who changed religion as young adults (from Christian Smith et al., Souls in Transition, 109). The third column (C) is the calculated percentage of those who were raised LDS and then changed by the time that they finished being college aged.

                                            A       B      C
LDS                                    86%  72%  62%
No Religion                       13    17      28
Conservative Protestant  1       3        4
Mainline Protestant          0       4        3
Black Protestant               0        3       3
Indeterminate                    0       1        1
Roman Catholic                0       0        0
Jewish                                0       0        0
Other Religions                 0       0        0

(Note that because of rounding errors the percentages in the last column add to 101%.)

One way of visualizing this data is to think of the deacon's quorum and Beehive class in a ward that comprises 25 youth. By the time that they have graduated from college we would expect that 15 would still be LDS, 1 would be, say, a Southern Baptist, 1 would be an Episcopalian, 1 would be a United Baptist, and 7 will have no religion.

The big threat to the youth in the Church is not Evangelicals but secularists. They account for more than twice as many losses as those to all other religions combined. We lose more youth to secularism during the college years (and the statistics include those who do not go to college) than we do in the high school years. Signs of secularization during the time when youth are attending the university should be of particular concern to church leaders.

Latter-day Saints are not the only religion losing youth to the secularists and so it is worth putting our statistics in context. Here are the calculated statistics (column C) for the Church compared to other religions:

Percentage of youth lost to secularism:
Indeterminate 53%
Other Religions 52%
Jewish 46%
Mainline Protestant 33%
Roman Catholic 29%
LDS 28%
Black Protestant 26%
Conservative Protestant 23%

So various denominations tend to lose a quarter, a third, or half of their youth to secularism. We are closer to losing a quarter but are on the high end of that.

These statistics need to be considered with those of my previous discussion about the comparative loss of youth generally. We lose more than twice as many to secularism as to all other religions combined. Sectarian losses are a lesser concern. While we do not want to be in the position of saying "not one soul will be lost" because we remember who made that boast, any individual loss will be keenly felt especially by those closest to the individual lost. Still, we need to realize whence the greater threat is coming. We also need to arm our youth against that threat.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Udo Jürgens (1934-2014)

I just saw the news that Udo Jürgens died today of a heart attack while out for a walk.

I am very sorry to hear about it.

He was a very talented and witty man, though not especially moral.

I am reminded of one of some lines from one of his more famous works:

Und das Ende vom Lied hat wohl jeder geahnt
Der Tod hat reium sie dort abgesahnt.

(For those of you who don't know: No, that is not a typo; it's a pun.)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Archaeological Silliness in the News

'Tis the season to be silly, at least when it comes to reporting about archaeology. No, I am not talking about the wildly inaccurate reporting of the BYU archaeological excavations in Egypt (such as is found here and here). The prize for the silliest archaeological headline comes from the Independent:
Archaeologists find vast medieval palace buried under prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum
Now, just think about what is being claimed here. Archaeology proceeds from the assumption that material is deposited chronologically. The further down you go, the earlier the material. Whenever find a building below another building, the earlier one is under the later one.

If the building at Old Sarum was really built by Henry I in the twelfth century then it is certainly medieval. It is not prehistoric. Prehistoric England is earlier than medieval England. By the time of Henry I, England had definitely entered its historical period.

If archaeologists actually had found a medieval palace under a prehistoric fortress, then we might seriously think about space aliens being involved. If you read the story, you will find that such is not the case.

To his credit, David Keys, who wrote the story, did not make the mistake; whoever wrote the headline did. By writing "under" instead of "inside" the editor wins the prize for the silliest archaeological story of the season.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Quote from Elder Oaks

This quotation from Elder Dallin H. Oaks is worth pondering:
Sadly, some Latter-day Saints ridicule others for their reliance on revelation. Such ridicule tends to come from those whose scholarly credentials are high and whose spiritual credentials are low.

The Book of Mormon's major significance is its witness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God the Eternal Father who redeems and saves us from death and sin. If an account stands as a preeminent witness of Jesus Christ, how can it possibly make no difference whether the account is fact or fable—whether the persons really lived who prophesied of Christ and gave eye witnesses of his appearances to them?
This is part of a response to the following position:
Some who term themselves believing Latter-day Saints are advocating that Latter-day Saints should "abandon claims that [the Book of Mormon] is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas." They are promoting the feasibility of reading and using the Book of Mormon as nothing more than a pious fiction with some valuable contents. These practitioners of so-called higher criticism raise the question of whether the Book of Mormon, which our prophets have put forward as the preeminent scripture of this dispensation, is fact or fable—history or just a story.
Among his conclusions, Elder Oaks lists the following:
5.  Those scholars who rely on faith and revelation as well as scholarship, and who assume the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, must endure ridicule from those who disdain these things of God.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Many Youth are We Losing?

I have heard for some time reports about the Church losing young people in droves. None of these reports have any sort of statistics attached to them. What percentage of the young people is a drove? There is actually a literature on this subject. The National Survey of Youth and Religion actually has statistical data on the subject. (This data was discussed in the Mormon Studies Review before it took its change in direction.)

Here are the statistics from the National Survey of Youth and Religion on retention for various types of religion in the United States (From Christian Smith, et al., Soul Searching, 36; and Christian Smith, et al,, Souls in Transition, 109, 304). These numbers are basically the percentage of the youth whose parents are a religion that have their parent's religion in high school. The second number seems to be those who were a particular religion in high school that are still that religion in their college years. The third number is a multiplication of those two percentages that should give the number of young adults who were raised in that religion that are still that religion in college years. The fourth number is the number of those belonging to a particular religion that are in the devoted category in their college years. The fifth number is those in their college years that are either  attenders or devoted. The first, second and fourth numbers are from the NYSR and the third and fifth numbers are calculated from NYSR data.

                                          HS       college     total     devoted     + regular
Latter-day Saint                86%     72%         62%     56%           71%
Conservative Protestant    86        64             55        15              34
Roman Catholic                83        66             53        2                21
Jewish                               75        61             46        7                11
Black Protestant                81        55             43        6                19
Non-Religious                   63        68            43         0                1
Other Religion                   57        72            41         15              25
Mainline Protestant           68         50            34        7                 25
Indeterminate                    45         10            5          5                 21

The bad news is that Latter-day Saints lose one of seven of their youth in high school and about twice as many in college. So all told, we lose just over one third of the youth by the time they are through with college. Almost half of those who are left are potentially in trouble.

The good news is that of those that stay, over half are in the devoted category and almost three quarters are regular attenders. We have almost four times as many devoted young adults as the next closest religious category, and over twice as many regular attenders. We keep more of our young people than any other religion. Fewer of our college age youth are vulnerable than those in other religions.

One of the interesting things is that the NSYR defines the devoted category as those who are consistently engaged in the only behaviors that the NSYR has found to be statistically significant to retaining faith. The regular category is those who are engaged in those behaviors, but not as consistently.

The behaviors that the NSYR found statistically significant for retention of faith are (1) regular prayer (defined as at least a few times a week), (2) weekly church attendance, and (3) regular scripture reading (defined as at least once a month(!)). The NSYR also found a link between keeping the law of chastity and retaining faith.

Any assessment of how the Church is doing on retaining our young people needs to acknowledge the fact that we have been doing some things right; perhaps many things. It is not a matter of things not working--they clearly are; our retention statistics are the envy of all the other religions--but of things not working as well as they might.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mormon Studies at the 2014 AAR

The 2014 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion convenes in San Diego. What are the Mormon Studies topics that will be covered in this meeting?

Kristen Tobey of the University of Pittsburgh will discuss "Not Non-Mormons": Belonging without Believing in the LDS Church:
This paper will treat three groups that simultaneously affiliate and disaffiliate from the LDS church: New Order Mormon, StayLDS, and the Society for Humanistic Mormonism. These groups offer resources for individuals who identify culturally but (to varying degrees) not doctrinally with Mormonism; they complicate the binary model of religious affiliation versus non-affiliation, offerings options for hybrid religious identities that include elements of both. This paper will explore the dynamics of these hybrid religious identities, and the variety of discourses and practices that go into their construction and communication. Each group proclaims a slightly different position with respect to matters of belief and unbelief, but I will argue that participants, many of whom sample more than one of these groups, find them useful for the concrete practices they advise and teach as participants construct, inhabit, and communicate new, hybrid religious identities, which are more nuanced than static conceptions of the religiously unaffiliated allow.
Courtney Wilder of Midland University will discuss The Mormon Mommy Blogger: Analyzing the Writing of Contemporary LDS Women:
This paper examines the presentation of gendered activity, including mothering and depictions of women’s bodies in both image and narrative, in a wide array of Mormon mommy blogs, and argues that this genre of writing is religiously and socially significant. The blogs range from the lucrative and widely-known to the small and more private; all are written by Mormon or formerly Mormon women with children, who are depicting themselves publicly as religious women engaging in their roles as wives and mothers. The women’s depiction of and commentary about their own lives is analogous to the public and private writing of earlier eras, and it is more religiously and socially diverse than the stereotypes about Mormon mommy bloggers suggest. These bloggers offers valuable insight into the religious lives of contemporary Mormon women.
J. Spencer Fluhman of Brigham Young University will lead a panel of Ann Taves of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven C. Harper of the LDS Church History Library in a discussion of Joseph Smith’s First Vision: New Methods for the Analysis of Experience-Related Texts:
In a fresh approach to the founding story of Mormonism, two scholars (one LDS and one not) who are currently writing on early Mormonism will present the results of their collaborative analysis of each of the known sources of Joseph Smith’s first vision, including newly discovered sources, using a method that teases apart events (what ostensibly happened) and explanations (the subject’s understanding of why it happened). When aligned chronologically by event and explanation, the method provides a more rigorous basis for examining the historical development of the narrative over time, including changes in structure and content, in the context of social interactions and the role of experience narratives in the emergence of new social movements. Using this highly debated event as a case study, the presenters will demonstrate the way in which a clear distinction between the subject’s explanation of events and scholarly meta-explanations allows scholars to work toward agreement on the former and more carefully account for their differences with respect to the latter. Two respondents will then address both the case study and the broader implications of the method for the field of religious studies.
Respondents will be Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia and Gustavo Benavides of Villanova University.

Daniel Wyche of the University of Chicago will discuss Ender as Parrhesiastes: Truth-telling as Spiritual Exercise in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead:
In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, we see the development of the fictional practice of ritualized mourning called “speaking for the dead,” created by the titular protagonist in the final chapter of Ender’s Game. This practice bears a certain resemblance to those ancient practices of parrhesia analyzed by Foucault in his late work. The crucial distinction being that we have a practice not of what Foucault calls “speaking the truth of oneself,” but rather of speaking the truth of the Other. This paper approaches “speaking for the dead” through the lens of Foucault’s analyses of parrhesiastic practice—and vice versa. Special attention will be paid to the relationship of the speaker to the other in both the fictional and historical cases, in order to draw out a richer analysis of the place of the necessary concepts of inter-subjectivity, empathy and difference in “practices of truth-telling” in general.

Meredith Ross of Florida State University will discuss House of Card: Ender’s Game and Speculative Fiction as Vehicle for Religio-Political Values:
Speculative fiction, through its explicit engagement with possible futures of the present world, represents a unique opportunity for writers and readers to connect present-day cultural concerns to possible futures. Speculative fiction allows authors to set characters in worlds created by misguided values present in the world of the reader, providing a platform to “break” and remake that world through critique. By examining not just the world that an author has created, but the trajectory of its creation, we can gain insight into the author’s understanding of how religion and politics interact and impact history. Using works from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game canon as a case study, this paper illustrates the capacity of speculative fiction as a vehicle for cultural values, and argues for speculative fiction's usefulness to historians of American religion.
Speculative fiction is useful to historians. Who knew?

Christopher Ashley of Union Theological Seminary will discuss The Hand of God: Secularism and Mormonism in Battlestar Galactica (2003 and 1978):
Prestige serialized television drama can depict religious characters, but its presumptive secularism usually frames their faith. One exception is the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Glen Larson’s incorporation of elements from Mormon Scripture and practice into the mythology of the 1978 original is fairly well-known and generally understood as a matter of the creator’s expression of his own faith. The 2003 series is not usually read as a personal religious statement by its creators. Its story, however, develops not only in-universe theologies and atheologies, but at least one in-universe god—considerably more religion than did Larson’s original. Moreover, that material, centered on the tropes of angelic revelation and theocratic violence, displays considerable resonance with American perceptions of Mormonism. I speculate that in the predominantly secular form of prestige television drama, religious themes will tend to emerge as revelation and genre disruption, often from NRM or other “outsider” sources.
I remember Battlestar Galactica as cheesy. I have never thought of it as "prestige television drama."

The University of Utah's Margaret Toscano will respond to Wyche, Ross, and Ashley.

Stanley Thayne of the University of North Carolina will discuss The Blood of Father Lehi: Indigeneity and the Book of Mormon:
The Book of Mormon, published in New York in 1830, purports to narrate the history and origins of Indigenous Americans. It identifies the ancestors of Indigenous American peoples as “Lamanites,” a group whom God cursed with a “skin of blackness” because of their unbelief. But it also prophesies that they will become a mighty people in the last days. This paper explores intersections between American Indian tribal-national identities and this racialized religious identity. My driving research questions include: How do American Indian individuals who convert to or affiliate with Mormonism read and interpret this text and these passages? How do they negotiate this ambiguous identity? How does it gel or conflict with Indigenous narratives? To answer these questions this paper, drawn from my dissertation, will develop contextualized ethnographic portraits focused on the textual interpretations of individuals from American Indian Mormon communities.
Will this paper discuss the understandings of Latter-day Saints who reside in Mexico, Central America or South America? Or has the author assumed a Nineteenth Century background for the Book of Mormon and assumed that the Lamanites must be the American Indians in the areas where Joseph Smith lived?

Aaron Ghiloni of Trinity College Queensland will discuss Towards a Comparative Missiology:
Given the historical influence of mission on the development of religious studies coupled with the pervasiveness religious diversity in the West, one might expect to find a plethora of comparative scholarship on missionizing tendencies. However, such research is rare. Skreslet’s 2012 textbook on the methodology of mission studies notes that “relatively few missiologists have applied themselves to the problem of comparative missiology…”(1). Furthermore, “comparative investigations of mission have not been particularly numerous and, when they appear, tend not to make reference to each other. The result…is a scattered, uncoordinated discourse related to comparative missiology, begun from multiple starting points” (2).
To fill this research gap, the author has initiated a research project on the mission concepts of atheism, the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Mormonism. Drawing on forthcoming systematic research into the particular concepts of each of these seven traditions, the author will speak to his research program in “comparative missiology.” Moving beyond Müller’s either/or concept of Missionary and Non-Missionary religions, the research has located four themes common to mission movements: duty and leadership, movement across borders, communication of a progressive but universalistic logic, and the adaption of truth to create communal identity.

David Golding of Claremont Graduate University will discuss From Dusting Feet to Saving Souls: Mormon Missions in Thought and Practice:
Mormon mission preceded Mormonism itself. Months before Joseph Smith made headway on the Book of Mormon translation and over a year before he organized the Church, he composed a revelation commissioning supporters to “embark in the service of God.” This paper examines the theological imperative of mission within Mormonism.
Mormon mission history reveals an ambitious and highly systematized mission enterprise often passed over in the larger Christian literature. At the heart of this mission resides an enthusiasm for historical and scriptural literalism, a uniquely Mormon riposte to the classic questions of Western religion. Its missionaries once audaciously imagined from their agrarian cabins that their missionary force would one day reach the whole world and they fashioned a complex organizational hierarchy worthy of such an aspiration. Perhaps the greatest irony of their missiology is how, in all their religious creativity and openness to rustic theology, they actually succeeded in setting themselves up for impossible ambitions. A cursory glance at the mission history of their Euro-American neighbors would certainly uncover some of these same tendencies. In zealously striving to evangelize the world “in a generation,” neighboring Protestant missionaries couldn’t help but be deprovincialized by the encounter. It remains to be seen how the recent surge in Mormon mission activity will similarly come back to shape the future Mormon worldview, but if the trends of the larger Christian context are any indication, Mormons have probably passed a point of no return. They once celebrated the isolation of their mountain home in the American West only to see it give way to their expanding vision of colonizing in the name of Zion; today’s exuberance for a more global mission effort portends another reflexive turn, this time toward humanitarian service and greater interreligious awareness.
Elisa Pulido of Claremont Graduate University will discuss Integrating Utopia: A Mormon Attempt at Nahua Assimilation in the Mexican Borderlands (1887):
This paper argues that despite the existence of sacred narratives detailing the success of an ancient, racially integrated utopia in the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century were culturally blind to any application of their own sacred texts might have had in their bi-racial Mexican colonies in Juárez. White Mormons privileged establishing a haven for polygamists over improving race relations. Indigenous (Nahua) converts, who had relocated to the colony, grew discouraged by the rigors of settlement building in an alien geography among an alien culture, and trekked 1,000 miles back to Central Mexico.
Booker Alston of the University of Cape Town will discuss Gobo Fango: Latter-day Saint, South African Slave, or African American Hero?
Perspective and legend are two fundamental complications of writing biographies. This paper examines the legend of Gobo Fango from three different perspectives in an effort to highlight how these obstacles must be analysed by those producing definitive Mormon biographies. Jonathan Z. Smith’s theories of construction are combined with David Chidester’s practices of tracking the circulation of knowledge in order to methodologically justify the central argument that there is there is not one, but many Gobos in existence today and that only a study which investigates all of these Gobos can be considered a definitive biography of Gobo Fango.
Marie-Therese Maeder of the University of Zurich will discuss Unity in Diversity: Self-representation Strategies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Commercial Series "I Am a Mormon":
Drawn from the field of audiovisual media and religion, this paper interrogates strategies of self-representation in the series of commercials entitled "I am a Mormon". This series consist of 132 episodes between about two and four minutes in length produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2010 down to the present day. The approach is threefold, asking (1) What discourse does the series generate about Mormons and Mormonism, and how? (2) For what communication space(s), constructed and shared by all participants, from makers to audience, is the series intended? (3) What values are linked to the statements made in and by the commercials? In analyzing audio-visual self-representation strategies of the Mormon Church, the paper considers how both social actors – their conversations, appearance, and behavior, for example – and stylistic forms communicate attitudes and values. The conclusion of the paper seeks to elaborate the Mormon worldview generated in this audio-visual discourse in light of the evident tension between unity and diversity.
Michael Hamilton of Principia College will discuss School Lunches, Fundamentalist Mormons, and Community Ecology:
This paper compares the contexts around the preparation and consumption of student lunches in two schools whose pupils are drawn from plural marriage communities. Community A and Community B make implicit statements about their ecological and political values and practices through the varied ways in which they provide nourishment to students during the school day.
Community A does not serve lunch at school, sending students home to eat. While portrayed as a cost-savings, the school administrator also explained the practice as consistent with community values. I explore the historical arguments that may have contributed to the policy.
Community B operates a large cafeteria with a menu including no added sugar and many organic ingredients. I argue that the cafeteria’s operations are, in part, a response to negative public perceptions of the sect, designed to reposition it as an accepted and positive presence in the larger community.
Ann Duncan of Goucher College will discuss Childbirth as Religious Performance: Quaker and Mormon Women and Paradigms of Faith and Motherhood:
Childbirth, one of the most corporeal of human experiences, has the potential to test a woman’s strength of body and character and to testify to the miraculous power of the body. Yet, motherhood is always socially constructed. In an era when advice about pregnancy and childbirth abound, religion can serve to mediate or even complicate this social maze by giving childbirth theological importance and by empowering and directing women to discern the of proper path through the maze. Engaging with past and contemporary scholarship on the complicated relationship between motherhood and feminism as well as personal interviews, this paper examines two Christian denominations on the margins of the mainstream -- the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) – and the ways in which childbirth within these traditions represents a performance of theology, motherhood and womanhood.
 So does motherhood have a biological basis or is it always only a social construct?

Matthew Bowman of Georgetown University will discuss A Vast Infiltration: Mormons, the FBI, Religion, and Politics in Late Twentieth Century America:
The close connection between Mormons and the Federal Bureau of Investigation became a pop culture trope in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. This paper will argue that this connection was most celebrated by an oddly dissonant collection of Americans. The first were Mormons themselves, who believed that the very real presence of FBI recruiters at Brigham Young University indicated that American culture had finally accepted them. The second group, however, were artists, conspiracy theorists, and evangelicals suspicious of Mormons who used the presence of Mormons in the FBI to validate broader narratives of government conspiracy, smooth, faceless bureaucracy, and lack of accountability that became popular in post-Vietnam America. The conflict between these two narratives has relevance for the cultural between left and right as the culture wars heated up, but also illustrates the ways in which Americans talked about legitimate and illegitimate religion in the late twentieth century.

 This slate of papers is illustrative of Mormon Studies.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


One measure of a university's engagement in the larger scholarly world is its participation in scholarly conferences. The annual joint meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature are a massive endeavor with hundreds of presenters and thousands of attendees. After looking through the program books, I am aware of the following individuals employed at BYU participating this year and have noted which section they are participating in:

Ancient Scripture
Lincoln H. Blumell, Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds
Richard D. Draper, Latter-day Saints and the Bible
Amy Easton-Flake, Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible
Matthew Grey, Archaeology of the Byzantine Near East
Tyler Griffin, Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies
John Hilton III, Global Education and Research Technology
Shon D. Hopkin, Latter-day Saints and the Bible
Eric Huntsman, Latter-day Saints and the Bible
Frank F. Judd, Early Jewish Christian Relations
Jared W. Ludlow, Latter-day Saints and the Bible
George A. Pierce, Archaeology of the Southern Levant
Aaron Schade, Ugaritic Studies and Northwest Semitic Epigraphy
Catherine C. Taylor, Art and Religions of Antiquity

Cynthia Finlayson, Technology in Archaeology

Asian and Near Eastern Languages
Donald W. Parry, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible

Center for Teaching and Learning
Taylor Halverson, Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies

Church History and Doctrine
Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Archaeology of the Near East: Bronze and Iron Age, and Early Bronze Age III of the Southern Levant

Roger T. Macfarlane, Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds
Michael Pope, Greco-Roman Religions

Spencer J. Fluhman, Mormon Studies Group and Sociology of Religion Group
Edward Stratford, Archaeology of Anatolia
Grant Underwood, Latter-day Saints and the Bible

Law School
John Welch, Latter-day Saints and the Bible

Maxwell Institute
David Calabro, Egyptology and Ancient Israel
John Gee, Egyptology and Ancient Israel

Jillian Mather, Archaeology of the Near East: Bronze and Iron Age
Christina Nelson, Archaeology of the Near East: Bronze and Iron Age
Michael R. Trotter, Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds

Richard D. McBride II, Buddhism Section, and Korean Religions Group
Religious Education
Daniel B. Sharp, New Testament Textual Criticism

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Another Hoax?

The Washington Post is reporting that Barrie Wilson and Simcha Jacobovici are launching a new book that posits that Jesus was married and had two children.

I have not seen the book and so can only go off the reporter's summary which may or may not be accurate.

Apparently the two individuals claim to have discovered something in a neglected Syriac document by Zacharias the rhetor, who was bishop of Mitylene.

Scholars scrutinized the document and discarded it as insignificant.
The Sunday Times quoted Wilson describing it as an “ancient Syriac manuscript lurking in the British Museum…. Scholars have known about it for almost 200 years, but have not known what to make of it.”

There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand a neglected Syriac document is something of a tautology. Syriac studies are largely neglected. (For those who do not know Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that is used by Christians.) On the other hand, for Syriac scholars, Zacharias' Ecclesiastical History is comparatively well-known. There are at least three editions since 1800.

Reading the treatments of Wright, Brooks, and Baumstark it hardly seems as though scholars did not know what to make of this document.
They [Wilson and Jacobovici] claim the meaning of the text had been shrouded in code and “embedded meaning.” It speaks of a figure named Joseph, who apparently bore striking similarities to Jesus. He was depicted as “savior-figure,” the book said. “Joseph, like Jesus, was assumed dead and turned up alive; he too had humble beginnings and ended up a king of sorts.” So they contend Joseph was really Jesus in the text.
The sixth chapter of the first book of Zacharias is a translation of the pseudepigraphic work of Joseph and Asenath from Greek into Syriac. The copy or the translation is generally thought to be slightly garbled or corrupt. The general consensus is that the text refers to Joseph, not Jesus, and that this is a known work. Based on what I have read of the Syriac text, I would agree that it is about Joseph and not Jesus.

We will have to wait for the book, but the argument looks like typology run amok. In the meantime, I suspect that this is a bad argument sensationalized.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Well, I Did Try

I have heard from a number of sources that I have produced no significant or worthwhile work. So published expressions like this one are at least comforting:
I only wish I had read Gee’s review before working through the book myself! I would have saved myself a good twenty minutes of head-scratching.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How on Earth Did That Get Confused?

This notice of a correction came to my attention. I have not given much thought to either subject, much less considered them interchangeable.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Death of Ancient Studies, Part 2

This message came across my desk last week:
Yesterday the Swedish Government announced that they will end all state funding for the Swedish Institutes at Athens, Rome and Istanbul from 2017. Our research Institutes have no private funding and will therefore have to close down and terminate their work within two years.

The decision has been made without any prior consultation or investigation of the consequences: the Institutes will not be able to fulfill their responsibilities of taking care of archaeological material or sites in the Mediterranean and providing education with the fields of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Classics, Art History, Architecture, Turkish studies and Social sciences, nor to conduct and publish research, give conferences, host cultural activities, take part in heritage management or run our research libraries in the Mediterranean countries.
Apparently, the Swedish government either does not think the ancient world is relevant, or does not want it to be relevant. At least in this case, he who pays the piper actually calls the tune.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On Going to Hell

I have been thinking a lot over the past months about an incident that a friend told me about. A mutual acquaintance had harassed him to the point where he told the acquaintance to go to hell. A couple of minutes later he regretted his actions and sent a note of apology.

I agree with my friend that he should not have told this individual to go to hell. But the incident has had me pondering the expression a great deal. I understand the impulse, but it was the wrong thing to say, in part because it was pointless. It was the pointlessness that had me pondering. I can think of two cases when there is no point to using the expression.

1- One group of people to whom it is pointless to tell to go to hell is those who are already living in hell. These can include the molested, the abused, the persecuted, those suffering the consequences of others' poor choices. (For the moment I will set aside those suffering the consequences of their own poor choices). These individuals might be forgiven for wondering how much worse hell might be than what they are suffering at present. God might know but I do not.

2- There is another group of people on whom the phrase is wasted. These people make everywhere they go into hell, either for themselves or for others. They are like the devil; "he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself" (2 Nephi 2:27). One of these people could be sent to heaven and he (or she) would not be satisfied until he had turned it into hell and proudly point back to the good intentions lining his path. There are those, of course, who make a hell for others and then refuse to live in the hell that they have created or sometimes even visit; they may yet have their chance.

Of course, for us mortals, telling people to go to hell reflects only a wish on our part. We have not the power to compel or order people to go to hell for real even if we have the power to torture and torment others to the point where they think they are there.

There is one who can tell someone to go to hell, and that is God. Whomever God tells to go to hell will no longer have any choice in the matter.

Some people think that it would not be just for God to send people to hell. They "do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery" (Alma 42:1). The sinner's victims might disagree with that thought. Alma explains that God provides sinners a way to repent and time and opportunities to do so and thus his decisions are just (Alma 42). If they choose not to repent, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Others think that it would not be merciful for God to send people to hell. Moroni deals with this argument:
Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.

For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of God, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you. (Mormon 9:3–5)
God will send some people to hell precisely because he is merciful both to the perpetrators and the victims.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Death of Ancient Studies: Part 1

The following was sent to me this week:
Study Programmes at Copenhagen University in Danger of Closing

The Situation
The Minister for Higher Education and Science plans to lower the student intake at the Humanities in order to prevent future over-unemployment of highly qualified young people. This entails a 30% cut of students at the M.A. level. Danish law, however, insists that every B.A. graduate has the right to an M.A. course of study. Logically, then, cutting the M.A. intake will automatically mean a huge cut in the B.A. intake since the M.A, intake is generally (and understandably) only a small portion of the B.A. intake for the subjects below.

For large subjects such a cut is difficult but not life-threatening. For the subjects at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies the plans announced by the Ministry and to be implemented by the Faculty are a disaster.

The following table illustrates what will happen to the subjects at the Department from 2015:

                                            BA intake 2014    BA-intake 2015     Reduction

Middle Eastern Studies     50                          10                            80%         
Japanese Studies                25                          5                              80%         
China Studies                     50                          10                            80%         
Russian                                25                          5                              80%         
Religion                               70                          20                            70%         
(Thai and Indonesian)       15                          0                              100%         closure
Korean Studies                   15                          0                              100%         closure
Indology                              10                          0                              100%         closure
Tibetology                           10                          0                              100%         closure
Iranian Studies                   15                          0                              100%         closure
Turkish Studies                  15                          0                              100%         closure
Hebrew Studies                  10                          0                              100%         closure
ANE Studies
(Assyriology, Egyptology,
NE archaeology)                 30                          10                            67%         
Greek Studies                     10                          0                              100%         closure
Balkan Studies                    15                          0                              100%         closure
Polish                                   10                          0                              100%         closure
Arctic Studies                      10                          0                              100%         closure
American Indian Studies   10                          0                              100%         closure

                                            395                        60                            85%         
I treasure my contacts with both the people and the institutions of the University of Copenhagen and its Carsten Niebuhr Institute for Near Eastern Studies. They have done some impressive work in the past and have a tremendous amount of important work in progress. This is not encouraging news.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Mormon Version of Cheap Grace

An amateur theologian hiding behind the ironic pseudonym "Um, Not Quite the Truth" (in the comments here) is advocating a form of cheap grace for Mormons:
Dan [Peterson] wrote: "[C. S.] Lewis’s observation rings absolutely true for anybody who has ever been the surprised victim of scheming intrigue and betrayal by false friends."

Thank goodness this type of behavior is few and far between among LDS, thanks in large part to living the Gospel.

Also, on those rare occasions when this does happen, we've been taught to quickly forgive and move on. Just as the Savior has done with us and our trespasses to others.
A little later, this armchair theologian observed:
No one knows more about "double-dealing" and "betrayal" more than the Savior. That's why it's so fundamentally important to quickly forgive and move on. Just the Savior has commanded.
These are watered-down and potentially self-serving sentiments. They fall into the category of what Elder Jeffery R. Holland here called "a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories."

True, we are commanded to forgive. For example, God tells us:
I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men. (D&C 64:10)
But one will search the scriptures in vain to find the adverb quickly applied to the verb forgive. Neither the Savior nor anyone else in the scriptures commanded us to forgive quickly. I think God, who is wiser than we are and knows much more about repentance and forgiveness than we do, knows that some things are not easy to forgive and may not be possible for us to forgive without God specifically bestowing grace on us to forgive.

Let us take the specific example of betrayal. Jesus, whom we betray from day to day in our own petty way, suffered betrayals both large and small. Thus, it might be worth looking at what he had to say about betrayal:
And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.

And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?

And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.

The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.

Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, Master, is it I? He said unto him, Thou hast said. (Matthew 26:21–25)
The same sentiment is repeated in the other gospels:
woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! good were it for that man if he had never been born. (Mark 14:21)
And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed! (Luke 22:22)
Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve. (John 6:70–71)
In every one of the gospels, Jesus condemns his former friend who betrayed him. We are never told that he forgave him at all ("I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive"), much less that he forgave him quickly and moved on. Jesus explicitly said it would have been better for the betrayer never to have been born.

God tells us that for certain sins it is difficult to obtain forgiveness and for one or two it is not even possible. But he reserves those decisions for himself. He commands us to forgive, but knows that in some circumstances this can be a very difficult thing to do.

The Coptic expression for forgiving is kō ebol. One could translate it with the popular expression "Let it go!" but that makes it look easy. One could also translate it with the verb abandon as though we needed only leave others' sins by the wayside. But it is also the expression used in pre-Christian legal contracts for divorce, which even then were sometimes ugly, messy, difficult and protracted affairs. Forgiveness can be like trying to get a messy divorce from a forced marriage to someone we never liked or wanted to be married to in the first place.

To some individuals is granted the grace to be able to forgive even awful things like abuse, molestation, rape, betrayal, infidelity, murder, torture, or persecution quickly and easily. We stand in awe of those who can do so. Yet, for others forgiveness is a protracted and difficult process. Those of us who are untouched by their afflictions should not stand by unmoved by their afflictions and pat ourselves on the back about what better Christians we are for being unwilling or unable to shoulder their cross.

And now we come to where forgiveness can be like cheap grace. Some people want others (including God) to forgive them cheaply and easily for deep and grievous wounds without producing any fruits of repentance, without trying in the least to repair the wrong that they have done or even acknowledging that they have done it (see Alma 39:13 in the critical text). Expecting forgiveness without repentance denies repentance, one of the core elements of the gospel of Christ (3 Nephi 27:13-21). Cheap grace also denies repentance by claiming that God dispenses unmerited grace while we persist in our sin. Both cheap grace and telling others to forgive without repentance deny the gospel of Christ.

I suppose that the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan might have called out to the man on the side of the road that he needed to "quickly forgive and move on" but would that really have been practically different than passing by on the other side?

Just because forgiveness is essential does not mean that it is easy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

There are Still Tickets Left

There are still tickets left to BYU's superb production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

It runs from 22-25 October 2014. Tickets are only $18.

More information here. More information and tickets available here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Creating Distrust

The second edition of Shaye Cohen's important book, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, has a poignant postscript to the preface:
The first edition of this book was published by the Westminster Press in 1987 in the Library of Early Christianity series edited by Wayne Meeks. I was delighted then to be associated with a Presbyterian publishing house. It is one of the blessings of America that a Presbyterian publisher would commission a Jew to write a book on early Judaism for a series oriented to students of the New Testament. This never happened in the old country. Eighteen years later I am grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for publishing this second edition and remain grateful to the press for its courtesies to me over the years. I am no longer happy, however, to be associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the parent body of WJK, because I am deeply pained by the recent anti-Israel turn in its policies. The fact that WJK is editorially and fiscally independent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) afford small consolation; by publishing this book with WJK I am associating myself perforce with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an organization whose anti-Israel policies I condemn and distrust.
(Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd ed. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006], xiii-xiv.)
Cohen did not elaborate the specific Church policies, but they are not difficult to find.

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a policy of "selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." They ostensibly backed down in 2006, but apparently this was only a PR stunt. According to this official document, the apology never happened and they have continued with divestment. In 2010, the denomination called for political demands against the Israeli government and in 2012 called for a "boycott of all Israeli products produced in the occupied Palestinian Territories."

This year the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) distributed a pamphlet by Kyle Christofalo pushing the boycott. Christofalo sends people to this site for a full list of companies that they think should be boycotted. Christofalo is vague about what he considers to be "illegal Israeli settlement;" his map seems to indicate that it includes almost the entire state of Israel. Christofalo not only urges people not to buy products but to write "to urge them not to sell products made in the settlements." (Sorry, you'll have to wade through the document to see the English errors associated with this sentence.)

Given the actions of the Presbyterian Church, I can see how Professor Cohen can be deeply pained and regard the Presbyterians with distrust.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Math is Hard: Grade School Edition

This is an article explaining why parents should not be upset with the new common core making the math more complicated. The common core is just trying to help the children understand how math works in a better way.
It's reasonable that parents will be confused by the new way of doing things, says Meyer, the former math teacher and Ph.D. student. But he says that parents' education wasn't particularly effective, even if they're confident in their arithmetic.
But that is why the common core is largely not going to work. If the parents' math education wasn't particularly effective, it is the same math education that the teachers had. So if the parents are confused can we expect the teachers to do any better?

Those who understand and are good at math usually end up majoring in something like physics, math or engineering, not math education. Usually the math education majors are not the same caliber as the math majors. But from the examples I have seen of common core math problems, the math education majors should be able to handle them.

The problem is that math education majors are often shooting for jobs as high school math teachers and the common core has to be taught in grade school as well. Grade school math teachers teach everything else as well and they come from elementary education majors. Unfortunately education majors tend to come from the bottom half of college students and tend to score particularly poorly on math. The mean SAT scores in math for education majors are below the mean scores for those majoring in things like English, theology, acting, trucking, and journalism (none of which are noted for math ability).

Before the common core, I ran into otherwise good elementary school teachers who did not understand math well. Trying to get these teachers to teach tricky ways of dealing with math problems seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

I am in favor of better math education. I am in favor of children understanding math better. I am dubious that trying to get people who do not understand math well in the first place to teach unusual approaches to basic problems is the best way to do it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Faith and the OED

Usually in English a monosyllabic word has a good chance of being a native English word, but faith is not. Although many French and Latin words were imported into English during the Hundred Year's War (AD 1337-1453), faith is actually brought in earlier. Here are the definitions of faith listed in the Oxford English Dictionary according to first usage:

1250 the duty of fulfilling one's trust, fealty, the obligation of a promise or engagement
1250 faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty
1300 confidence, reliance, trust
1300 the Christian faith
1325 a system of religious belief
1380 what is required to be believed on a subject
1382 assurance given, formal declaration, pledge, promise
1382 belief in the truths of religion
1393 attestation, confirmation, assurance
1551 belief preceding from reliance on testimony or authority
1638 power to produce belief

When the term faith entered the English language it meant loyalty (which the editors of the OED listed last). Later, it came to mean trust. After that time it came to mean a system of religious belief, about the same time when it came to mean a pledge or promise. Only much later did it come to be a belief based on something someone else said. (Ironically, the last meaning developed is listed as obsolete.)

So at first faith in God meant loyalty to God. A little later it came to mean trust in God. Only later did it weaken to belief in God. Far from being merely an intellectual assenting to the existence of God, faith in God was originally a loyalty to Him.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Quote from William Gay

I just stumbled on this quote from William Gay that I rather like:
Godly responsibility always precedes individual opportunity. Ours is a choice to see if we will take the talents, the resources, and the blessings God has given us and blaze new paths to realize His purposes or sit on the sidelines content in our individual successes or failures. … In the world of faith, you always stand at this crossroad.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On Being Held an Offender for a Word

It is hardly a secret that I have persistently and publicly argued that the Book of Abraham is historically authentic.

Some people are spreading the gossip that I do not believe in the Book of Abraham. They are taking something I said out of context for their own malicious ends.

Here is what I actually said two years ago at the FAIR conference:
It will probably come as a surprise to many that I do not have a testimony of the Book of Abraham. That is, I have never received a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Book of Abraham. I do not need one. I have those for the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the gospel, the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the continuation of those keys and authority through the present day. If you have these things confirmed to you, you do not need to get a cold from every wind of doctrine that blows.
I have never had a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Book of Abraham. I do not know many Church members who have. I have never really heard a convincing case that one is necessary. No question on the subject shows up in the baptismal interview or the temple recommend interview. In the Church, we are urged to get a spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon, but not the Doctrine and Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price or the Bible.

Without a spiritual confirmation I rely on scholarship, that is on evidence and argument. Perhaps there are better means but that is what I have to work with and I have no other authority.

Based on the research I have done, I am convinced that the historical setting that most closely matches the Book of Abraham is: for the first chapter, an Ur located in the area of north-west Syria or southern Turkey during the end of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt (the reign of Sesostris III or more likely Amenemhet III); by the time the text has reached the end of the published account we have moved into the area of modern Israel during the Thirteenth/Fourteen Dynasty in Egypt. That setting is based on a careful reading of the text and current scholarship. Like everything based on scholarship, it is subject to refinement and revision as new evidence comes in.

Friday, August 1, 2014

We're #9

At least according to Money magazine's college list. The premise of this list is supposedly how long it takes to repay your tuition. Brigham Young University beat out both of my other alma maters, UC Berkeley (#13) and Yale (#15).

Saturday, July 12, 2014

An Important Book

I recently finished an excellent and important book:

Lois M. Farag, ed. The Coptic Christian Heritage: History, Faith, and Culture. London: Routledge, 2014. (It is available here and here.)

There are many books on Coptic Christianity but what makes this one interesting and important is that it was written by Coptic Christians about their own faith. Their insider perspective is missing from most works about Coptic Christianity. I, like most outsiders, might write differently about their faith than they do; and they certainly write differently than most outsiders do, and that is the point. That is what makes this book so special and important. It is an insider's account. They emphasize the sorts of things that are important to them, not the things that are important to outsiders. Although I am familiar with the Coptic faith, I learned a great deal from this book. Their account is to be preferred to the accounts of outsiders. If one is interested in Coptic Christianity, this is a good place to start.