December 29, 2008

Kevin Christensen in "Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries"

Terryl Givens and Reid L. Nielson's new book Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries, contains a two-part piece called "Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition" by Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen. (I received the book for Christmas but have yet to delve in.)

Barker is a Methodist preacher who read theology at the University of Cambridge, England. She went on to pursue her research independently and was elected President of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1998.1 Reappraisals isn't the first collection of papers on Joseph Smith in which Barker has been included. For instance, in 2005 she presented a paper for "The Worlds of Joseph Smith," an international academic conference at the Library of  Congress which was subsequently published in a volume by BYU Studies.2

Christensen earned his B.A. at San Jose State University and is a freelance technical writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has published in Dialogue and the FARMS Review among other places.3 He wrote a chapter regarding Barker's scholarship for Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem4 in addition to a FARMS Occasional Papers series called "Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker's Scholarship and its Significance for Mormon Studies."5 He has discussed her scholarship on various LDS blogs and websites as well.6

Recently on the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion board Christensen made his thousandth post. He spoke briefly of his paper in Reappraisals then expressed some personal views of faith and scholarship. After some "congratulations" for having his paper included in the new book Christensen responded:


Many thanks. It's definitely an interesting experience, more than a little intimidating, being among such company. When Terryl asked me if I'd do it, I immediately leaned upon 1 Nephi 3:7. I could think of many others with far better credentials, but... they had asked me.

The Margaret Barker/Kevin Christensen piece is a two-parter called "Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition." Margaret's part delves deeply into the tensions in the Hebrew Bible regarding whether anyone can see the Face of the the Lord, and is very like the "Transformation and Transfiguration" chapter in her book Temple Themes in Christian Worship. She shows not only some conspicuous passages that illustrate the tension, but identifies many passages where the Hebrew has been pointed to obscure places where the text should explicitly refer to seeing the face of the Lord. The reforms of Deuteronomists make their appearance, and she brings in a lot about the temple as the proper setting for such theophanies.

My eleven page bit simply points out the relevance to Joseph Smith personal experience, to the D&C, to the LDS temple experiences at Kirtland and Nauvoo, and the stories of Lehi and Nephi in the Book of Mormon, as well as the 3 Nephi temple account. My own contribution came together when I thought of Carol Zaleski's observation in Otherworld Journeys that visions don't stand on their own, but require "a community and a context" to make them meaningful.7 Joseph Smith drew upon a Biblical context to interpret his own experiences, and spent his life trying to build a community in which such experiences could be shared.

At one point, one of the peer reviewers commented that our piece read like two separate essays. Margaret's reaction was that that was the point. It's a demonstration of independent witnesses. I think that the notion of independent witnesses agreeing together drives her fascination with Mormonism.

This is my 1000th post. Perhaps a good time for a bit of self-reflection.

While visiting my parents last week, my father printed out a list of all the descendents of Harry and Myrtle Mortenson. Grandpa Harry died of cancer before I was born. Grandma Mortenson lived in Cleveland, in Emery county Utah, a little farming community out in the desert. A little bit of sidewalk, a couple of little stores, a church, a post office, some poplar trees, some open irrigation ditches, and old fences. The print-out is small print, and seven pages. Grandma, from that little tiny town way out in the middle of nowhere had an effect for good that quite literally touched every corner of the world. Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and now even great-great grandchildren include missionaries who traveled literally all over the world, missionaries to every continent. And all it took was that she loved her 5 children, her many grandchildren, and the great grandchildren that she knew. She loved the gospel. We knew that, and it meant something to us. She did it without office, position, internet, or any other media than birthday cards, and her presence at family gatherings, especially mission farewells and temple marriages.

There is a passage in the D&C 123:15 that I have reflected upon more and more over the years. "Let no one count these as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity which depends upon these things."

I've seen remarkable goodness spreading through the world because of a little old lady living much of her life out in a small desert community. I have also seen the contrast elsewhere, in families broken, and the links between generations broken, testimonies not so much lost, as simply abandoned, and with it, the potential for a continuation of spreading goodness. A decade ago, at a crossroads of my own, I could have turned one way, but instead, turned another. It was nine years ago that I first ran across The Great Angel8 in a Half-Price books in Dallas. As a result I have experienced a great many things that I would not like to have missed, despite the difficult patches I had to get through to come this way. I appreciate the help I have had getting through the difficult bits. From my wife, my parents, my two children, my brothers and sisters, and those who have written the best books, and thought the best thoughts, and listened to the best promptings. Thanks for sharing encouragement, faith, hope, and light.

For those who lurk, who may feel small and voiceless, and without influence at times... think of my Grandma. Or, say, this story.

I think it was on ZLMB9 a few years back, or perhaps here, someone asked Dan Vogel if he and Brent Metcalfe were disappointed in the response to their New Approaches to the Book of Mormon.10 Dan responded that "We had no illusions about the impact of a single book."

At this point I posted a one line comment that "The Book of Mormon was a single book."11

Dan responded that it wasn't the same thing at all, since the church is a massive organization with media and thousands of missionaries. What was their book to that?

To which I noted that in 1830 the missionary program was Samuel Smith and a knapsack, and it was just one of the books in that knapsack that made the difference.

Don't count yourself as a small thing, for there is much in futurity that could depend on you. From some perspectives, we are nothing, as Mosiah and Moses point out with such clarity, re-enforcing a lot of the messages we may get from life. But from another perspective, we are the sons and daughters of God, disciples of Christ. And if we hang around, repent when we need to, and keep our eyes open, we may sometimes get glimpses of why we are here, taking up a little space, on this little planet in an immense speck of a galaxy, for a meaningful moment or two in the vastness of time.

Kevin Christensen
Bethel Park, PA


Barker has published several books including The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God and Temple Themes in Christian Worship. Some of Barker's research can be found on her website, Conversations between William J. Hamblin and Barker can be seen on YouTube.

The two-day academic event (May 6–7, 2005) was cosponsored by the Library of Congress and Brigham Young University. The purpose of the conference was stated as examining Joseph Smith's historical, religious, social, and theological contributions. MP3 are available here. The papers were subsequently published.

See some of Christensen's articles here.

See Christensen, "The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi's World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker," David R. Seely, JoAnn H. Seely, and John W. Welch, Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem.

Kevin Christensen, "Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker's Scholarship and its Significance for Mormon Studies," FARMS Occasional Papers.

See, for example, "Plain and Precious Things Restored: Why Margaret Barker Matters," Meridian Magazine.

See Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, Oxford University Press (1988), p. 204.

Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God, Westminster John Knox Press (1992).

ZLMB is an acronym for the now defunct Zion's Lighthouse Message Board, "A Forum Sounding Board for Academicians, Apologists, and Skeptics Interested in things LDS."

Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, Signature Books (1993). Christensen took special interest in the book, publishing several reviews and responses. 

This exchange occurred on May 16-17, 2005. See the thread here.


sarah said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


BHodges said...

Sarah: It means a lot to hear a positive word from people. It makes blogging more of a joy, so I appreciate your kind words. I do wonder, though, what treadmills have to do with these things. ;)

Ben Clarke said...

May I note something despite being new to reading your blog. I certainly have appreciated Kevin's scholarship over the years. In defense of Metcalfe's New Approaches . . . it was a courageous effort to publish a more scholarly (didn't quite make it, I might add) critique. And, frankly, it changed my life. Although it was one of many factors that eventually led me out of Mormonism, it also helped me begin to assess my own conflicted beliefs and find a decision which would not have been possible without reasonable arguments to support my spiritual reasons for leaving. I know that sounds odd. But Metcalfe's book will not ultimately be measured by the number of sales it makes. Great post, and great thoughts.
Ben Clarke

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