December 10, 2010

Review: Hedges and Holzapfel, "Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897"

Title: Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897
Editors: Andrew H. Hedges, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
Publisher: Provo: Religious Studies Center/Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Genre: History
Year: 2010
Pages: 152
ISBN13: 9780842527620
Binding: Hardcover
Price: 21.99

Lorenzo Snow, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was sent on an unusual mission to the Utah Territorial Penitentiary in 1886. He wasn't sent in the capacity of a prison chaplain or spiritual advisor and his mission call didn't come from the President of the LDS Church. A grand jury called Snow to serve as an inmate under the conviction of "unlawful cohabitation." Judge Orlando W. Powers rejected Snow's appeal to the Utah Territorial Supreme Court, arguing:
The American idea of government is founded on the Christian idea of home,—where one father and one mother, each equal of the other, happy in the consequences of mutual and eternal affections, rear about the hearthstone an intelligent and God-fearing family (xxxv). 
In addition to keeping busy by organizing "classes among the inmates in reading, writing, math, and bookkeeping," Snow corresponded with friends, family, and fellow inmates, copying some of his prison writings into a small black record book of 224 lined pages (xliv, liii). The contents of this book have been meticulously transcribed and published in Within These Prison Walls: Lorenzo Snow's Record Book, 1886-1897.

Although Snow was imprisoned, the editors note, his "words escaped from within the prison walls to be shared with the outside world" (lvi). They give three reasons why the record book merits publication. First, making the record book available helps illuminate Snow's "thoughts, personality, and personal life" by giving access to his humor, compassion, and poetry style. Second, the poems and letters contain items of doctrinal significance on matters like premortality, the afterlife, the origin of plural marriage, and the potential godhood of humankind. Third, the book is "an important primary source for students of the federal antipolygamy crusade" (lvi-lviii).

Most surprising to me was the amount of poetry included; by far the majority of the record book consists of poems written to friends and family, or written from family to Snow. 79 pages of the transcribed pages are poetry, compared to 7 pages of letter prose and 8 pages of a table including names, ages, sentences, fines, and convictions of Snow's fellow "cohabs." In addition, 25 color images of pages from the original record book are spread throughout the transcription. The book is rounded out with a lengthy and detailed introduction, a list of the record book entries, an appendix with details about the people mentioned throughout the book and a short index.

Snow's poems were typically written to buoy up other inmates or to console family members on the outside. He frequently invoked the premortal life as a time when Latter-day Saints accepted their future trials and made covenants not to deny one another, as in this poem to Elder Stanley Taylor:

Fierce, cruel hands have torn from thee
That sacred boon, sweet liberty
And forced thee here Earth's lowest hell
To dwell forlorn in murders' cell.

     But list O, list, to what is told
     That 'fore this Globe from chaos rolled
     What there occurred—forgotten now,
     Yet still those facts we should allow

Aloft beyond high ether blue
There Spirits dwelt, and also you
Were there amid that mighty host
Of noble souls each true and just.

     Thy name there stood in letters bold
     In sacred Book of life enrolled,
     By reason this 'cause thou hadst hailed
     With joyful heart what God unvailed:—

This purpose grand, those Spirits raise
Like Gods to be—explained that way;
And hence arose this promise thine
To come to Earth this stormy time:—

     Fierce trials meet devoid of fear,
     Thy Priesthood too, thy calling here
     With heart and soul to magnify
     In doing which thy gory lies.

When forced within these prison walls
Thy heart thereby t'would never pall
But show to man and Gods on high
Thy wives thou never would'st deny. (46-49)

The book is well edited and well bound. The record book's contents are not entirely unique, nor the poetry especially stunning. (For instance, Snow used the same meter in practically every poem he wrote and sometimes made use of the same rhymes and lines. Readers will recognize "as man now is, our God once was," 113). The introduction of the volume excellently places Snow's record book within the larger context of Latter-day Saint prison writings. Alongside a few bright flashes of intimate exchanges, such as that between Lorenzo and his sister Eliza R. Snow, Snow's record gives an interesting glimpse into how Latter-day Saints employed  LDS beliefs to make sense of an extremely trying time in the history of the LDS Church.

December 1, 2010

Review: Holzapfel and Wayment, "Making Sense of the New Testament"

Title: Making Sense of the New Testament: Timely Insights and Timeless Messages
Authors: Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Bible Criticism/Interpretation
Year: 2010
Pages: 582, includes bibliographical references and index
ISBN13: 9781606416686
Binding: Hardcover
Price: 34.99

Deseret Book tends to publish books like this each year when the Sunday School focus switches to a new part of the LDS canon. I was previously impressed by Steven Harper's Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants so I expected a lot from this new incarnation on the same theme for the NT.  My excitement increased when I discovered the authors were Thomas Wayment and Richard Holzapfel. A few years ago these same authors (plus Eric Huntsman) helped produce the most excellent Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints. That book is probably the best book on the NT from an LDS perspective that Deseret Book has ever published. Unfortunately, this book feels like a step back from that volume.

Other authors have written books on the NT geared to "help Saints apply the scriptures to their lives by making the [New Testament] relevant and meaningful." In contrast, the authors of this book want to focus "our Restoration perspective on the New Testament" by using different tools and resources to uncover interesting "historical, cultural, and linguistic insights" (4-5). This is a welcome approach and the book contains many insights which will undoubtedly be interesting and new to many Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, I believe the negatives in the volume outweigh the positives. It reads like an extended commentary of vaguely-chronologically organized stories from the NT. At times it reads more like a terse rephrasing of the text without any interpretation or exploration (this increases toward the end of the book; by the time they get to the Revelation of St. John they seem to spend more time rephrasing than explaining). For Latter-day Saints who don't wish to wade through this plodding review I can recommend an alternate book on the NT for LDS readers by the same authors (plus Eric Huntsman): Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints.


The authors use creative means to introduce Latter-day Saints to some potentially difficult aspects of New Testament scholarship. For instance, they compare some of the historical/didactic aspects of John's gospel to the depiction of the editing of the Book of Mormon. "Like Mormon, when he edited the stories and sermons...and then interjected himself into the story (for example, Helaman 12:1), our author has likely pulled together some primary sources about the event recorded here, but has also taken an opportunity to make an observation about the significance of the story" (43). This helps prepare readers for alternate authorship possibilities, although they often side with the authorship as currently understood in the LDS KJV.

Their occasional soft debunkings are interesting, as when they discuss Golgotha: "The visual image of a 'green hill' is not based on the text. Rather, it is a notion popularized in a beautiful and reverential hymn written in the nineteenth century by Cecil Frances Alexander: the terrain surrounding the city of Jerusalem is in fact stony and hard" (247). Some readers may be surprised at the suggestion that the issue of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 may have been prompted by "assumptions regarding the marital status of Jesus or his disciples" (351), and when they remain silent about the identity of the bridegroom at the wedding at Cana in John 2 (35-37). In many cases the authors seem to uncritically use the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible to resolve contradictions, as when two differing accounts of the death of Judas in the NT are "harmonized" by the JST (241), implying that the harmonization fits best. In another instance, however, the authors distinguish Joseph Smith's unusual use of Paul's "terrestrial" and "celestial" bodies. Whereas Joseph Smith revealed new doctrinal insights using these verses, Paul only revealed "as much as he knew." Rather than discussing post-mortal degrees of glory, he was distinguishing between earthly bodies (terrestrial) and glorious resurrected (celestial) bodies (365). 

The authors make use of their knowledge of Greek to clarify some passages in interesting ways. The "many mansions" in Jesus's Father's house are better translated as "many rooms," "(Greek, monai, or 'rooms'), indicating close dwelling conditions and not separate dwellings" (215). They even occasionally, though not often enough for my taste, cite other Bible translations (RSV, NRSV, NIV, TNIV, and NJB, see 216). 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is found at the end of the discussion about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as depicted by Luke:
"Interestingly, the Gospels do not emphasize the weight of sin in the garden or the weight of fallen humanity bearing down on Jesus. They do not name the angel who appeared in Gethsemane or give his presence any cosmic significance. Rather, they teach of a more personal struggle filled with anguishing decisions" (230).
The book lacks a quality scholarly apparatus. A few in-text references are given, all but one (298) refer to LDS General Authorities (135, 225). Several places cry out for a footnote or reference ("One study demonstrates that the Father is the subject of less than .02 percent of Mark's Gospel," 126-127; "It has been observed that this statement is one of the best-documented sayings of Jesus," 184, etc.). I assume Deseret Book prefers the footnote-less style to reach a broad range of readers, but it seems to me there are better ways to make a book accessible, by including endnotes rather than footnotes for instance. Besides, what's wrong with a book that requires readers to reach a little further? This becomes more problematic in considering that the book has a few pretty questionable interpretations and a few puzzling errors. I have divided the negatives into three categories which I'll discuss in turn: Redaction, Likening, and Editing. 

1. Redaction: 
I am not a New Testament or biblical scholar, but I have read enough enjoyable books on the subject to get a feel for the sort of approach I most enjoy. A close reading of the NT reveals interesting seams, gaps and contradictions which, under close scrutiny, can reveal fascinating insights. The contradicting genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke respectively provide the authors with a great "pressing textual difficulty"right out of the gate (10). Matthew's seems more "stylized," and geared to establish royalty and to contrast the prestigious ancestors with the humble circumstances of Jesus's birth. Luke, they note, seems more literal, attempting to trace Jesus's line through Joseph back to Adam, "the father of all mankind, including Gentiles" (11). Implications these differences might hold for the overall accuracy of the accounts are not addressed, however, and in many cases such implications are unfortunately overlooked (see for example 94, 116, 97, 118).

When Latter-day Saints encounter such discrepancies they might fall back on the Article of Faith which states that the Bible should be believed "as far as it is translated correctly." The authors try to account for variants in the texts (discrepancies among NT manuscripts, etc.) without damning those who may have caused such variants; indeed: "Only a few of the variants that survive can be ascribed to malicious scribal intent" (10). But which ones and on what grounds? The authors are clearly familiar with various criteria employed by many NT scholars in weighing the accuracy or meaning of the text (such as evidence of borrowing, 116, embarrassment, 207, emphasis on issues of interest to later Christians, 137, oral tradition, 159, etc.) but they do not give the reader a sustained explanation of how to best discern or handle variants or discrepancies in a sustained way. They more often tell what to see rather than how to look; they do not teach readers to read.

In terms of Gospel authorship they follow the overwhelming conclusion of other NT scholars that Matthew and Luke borrowed from or relied heavily upon Mark's gospel. "It is possible," they add, "that both Matthew and Luke used an external source when writing their Gospels." They seem to hint at a source NT scholars refer to as "Q," but Q does not appear in the text, glossary, or index. This is a missed opportunity to better prepare LDS readers to understand non-LDS scholarship on the NT. They might argue that such was not the main intent of their book, but in other cases they admirably try to make readers aware of terminology they likely have not encountered (agrapha, Benedictus, Essenes, Mishna, Eschaton, etc.). I don't understand why they included some such explanations and excluded others.  

In terms of the authorship of various Pauline epistles, the authors are quite conservative. Their presumptions are evident in the prose, my responses in brackets:
"Many scholars have questioned the authenticity of these three epistles [1, 2 Timothy; Titus], and indeed Paul does discuss matters in them that are not dealt with in his previous epistles ["his previous" already assumes Paul wrote them]. As with many academic theories [!] there is no way to either prove or disprove the authenticity of the epistles [this statement assumes that in matters of textual criticism "proof" is the key. I believe responsible approaches to the text aren't after "proof." Instead, scholars seek to build a case based on specific evidence and plausibility. Such writers would attempt to provide stated criteria and include a bit of epistemic humility in their conclusions, building a most plausible case.]. Following the tradition of the Church [which Church?] from earliest times, there is no compelling reason to dismiss these epistles as forgeries [are there "plausible" reasons?], while at the same time it is wise to recognize that they do address matters that are not found in the other Pauline letters" (427). 

Here the authors miss another opportunity to teach us how to approach different views of the text. What reasons are given for disputing Pauline authorship? Why are they rejected? What are the methods and presuppositions which lead to such conclusions?

Overall, the speed and scope of the book virtually require the authors to quickly slice through some of the most hotly contested issues in New Testament higher criticism including the relationship between Jesus and the Law of Moses, the foreknowledge of God and biblical prophecy, the acceptability of chronologizing or harmonizing the NT, Jesus's views on end times, the meaning of "the Rock" (Peter, revelation?), early Church structure and priesthood governance, women in the church, Sabbath laws and healing, the identity of the beloved disciple, the identity of author of Rev. and the epistles attributed to John, the apostasy, and many other topics.

2. Likening:
Latter-day Saints can justifiably read the Bible through an LDS lens. I've argued elsewhere that care should be taken when quoting proof-texts from the Bible to authenticate current Latter-day Saint doctrines. While believers can reasonably liken scriptures unto themselves (as per 1 Nephi 19:23), I believe it is also important to understand texts in their own context, which is not always the same as what LDS today believe. At times the authors of the book slip into LDS terminology which might give the impression that the early Church was more "Mormon" than was likely the case. The apostle Peter is referred to as the "president" of the Church, for instance (275). The early Church is said to have practiced the "law of consecration" (76, 280), priesthood "offices" like the Seventy are described (140), words like "excommunication," "sacrament meeting," "the word of wisdom," "Zion," and "family unit" are used in reference to early parallels (37, 98, 350, 399-400, 405). Rather than reading current practices back onto the NT text, Latter-day Saints might profit more from discovering some of the interesting and culturally-bound distinctions. Overall, I believe Latter-day Saints would do well to become better acquainted with how fellow Christians use the Bible.

3. Editing:
Structurally, the book lists stories from the New Testament in a vague chronological order. The authors do not openly attempt to harmonize or give an exact chronology of the NT, but the order of the book implies a chronology. This is problematic in light of current views that the Gospels are not intended as a chronological account. (Nor are the epistles in chronological order, which the authors do make explicit.) An "Index of Stories in the Gospels" is provided. It lists the order of the stories as discussed in the text in chart form and includes the relevant NT passages. The chart lacks page numbers, however, making it difficult to quickly locate isolated stories, or to work from the NT back to the book. (Similarly, one section instructs readers to "See Matthew 9:27-31 for commentary," but provides no page number (176).

There are a few editing issues where it seems an extended discussion was excised, leaving vestigial remnants. Consider this cryptic excerpt from a section titled “The Rich Young Ruler”:
"[Following Jesus's exchange with the rich young ruler] Jesus remarks to his disciples, “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Contextually, from the disciples’ reaction, it appears that they found the statement shocking and not easily understood because they knew of no such gate in the city wall…If salvation were as difficult (or seemingly impossible) to achieve as the act of literally pressing a camel through the eye of a needle, is salvation even possible?” (169).

The authors appear to be trying to debunk the idea that Jesus was referring to a gate in the wall of Jerusalem where camels would have to unload their cargo in order to pass through; something I recall hearing in various Sunday School lessons or perhaps in seminary. But here the idea of a gate appears from nowhere and then goes nowhere. "No such gate" hangs in the breeze.

Smaller editing problems crop up every now and then: "The puzzle that confronts anyone who is interested in dealing with composition issues is challenging. Unless the original letter(s) is found we will most likely never be unable to answer these questions with any kind of certainty" (emphasis added, 369).


In short: there was probably more I disliked than liked in the book, although I recognize that many matters of interpretation are quite subjective. But that is precisely why my biggest complaint about the book is that it offers no clear way for readers to understand how its particular conclusions were reached, nor does it contain any discussion on how to personally become a more discerning reader of the NT text.

Suffice it to say that I very strongly recommend their earlier book, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An Illustrated Reference for Latter-day Saints, and their Old Testament volume on the same theme, instead of this one, which seems like a missed opportunity. Two steps forward, one step back. (We still end up ahead!)

November 24, 2010

FAIR Podcast, Episode 6: John Durham Peters (p.2)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, here's part two of my interview with John Durham Peters, the A. Craig Baird Professor in communication studies at the University of Iowa. Peters joined me through Skype from his home in Iowa for this two-part episode on Mormonism and Communication (see part 1 here). A bibliography of Peters’s works directly relating to Mormonism is available at Articles and mp3s are available for free download.

We cover a lot of ground in part two, beginning with a discussion about John's book Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. Peters talks about Paul's milk and meat distinction and the liberal tradition of truth grappling with error. Other topics range from the idea of civility in political discourse to the "guts" of the atonement. Peters also explains why he situates mercy at the very heart of his theory of communication. All this and more, in the final part of my interview with John Durham Peters. Email questions, comments, and suggestions to "podcast (at)"


To download, right click this link and select “Save link as…” or download in iTunes here.

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November 22, 2010

Review: James Calvin Davis, "In Defense of Civility"

Title: In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us 
Author: James Calvin Davis
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Genre: Religion/Politics
Year: 2010
Pages: 198
ISBN13: 9780664235444
Binding: Paperback
Price: 19.95

The subtitle of James Calvin Davis's new book In Defense of Civility describes an audacious pipe dream. If the book aims to tell readers "How Religion can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us" I would be satisfied with a book that resolves a single divisive issue! Nevertheless, given the recently heated political climate I thought it might be well to think about a less-discussed virtue of civic engagement: civility.

As it turns out, Davis is not offering simple resolutions for divisive issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and environmentalism. To the contrary, he bluntly states that "civility cannot guarantee consensus on any issue" (160). Instead, Davis seeks first to describe and justify an ethic of civil public dialog and second, to embody the ethic by describing seven particularly sticky moral/political issues. Above all Davis underscores not merely the legitimacy, but also the potential benefits of recognizing religious perspectives in the public sphere. My review of his book comes too late to assist in the recent political hullabaloo; things tend to get especially rancorous during election season. However, the book provides crucial food for thought for those reflecting on the tone of political dialog generally, those who aren't waiting for another election year to care about the political process, and those who think religion deserves either a stronger or weaker presence in political discussions.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one, "Public Religion and the American Moral Tradition," lays the historical groundwork by discussing the roots of religion's role in American politics. With all due respect to the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Davis challenges the claim that America is a "Christian nation" by pointing out that "many of the most prominent men responsible for the new government professed beliefs that hardly resembled traditional Christianity" (25). After describing what Jon Meacham has elsewhere called the "American Gospel,"1 Davis warns against misapplying "the designs of eighteenth-century patriots (however we understand them) to our very different twenty-first-century political culture" (31).

Davis also cautions against invoking the "wall of separation" argument in attempts to exclude religion from political discussion. Historically speaking, the wall has been somewhat "porous" (37), Davis explains, citing many examples which "involve regular Americans contributing" to crucial debates on issues like slavery "from explicitly religious perspectives and in intentionally religious language" (47).

In the final chapter of part one Davis admits that arguing to include religion in public debate "is a harder sell in the highly diverse society we live in today." Some seek to exile religion on the grounds that it is a "conversation stopper" (54). Religious perspectives are too divisive or too stupid to make any positive impact, they argue. Many issues being debated, Davis counters, are morally grounded, and religious discussion can rightfully be brought to bear on them as much as any other world-view. In a particularly relevant section of the book, Davis outlines the type of religious argument which is guaranteed to be a "conversation stopper."

Party A Claim: Bald assertion: Abortion is wrong because the Bible says so.
Party B Response: "So what? The Bible holds no authority over me."
End of discussion.

Davis concludes:
The mistake that secular liberals [and, I would argue, some religiously inclined folk] often make, however, is assuming that this is the only form a religious argument can take...If they are not open to reason, they cannot contribute meaningfully to conversation among a religiously and philosophically diverse public (60).
Davis again provides examples of religious thinkers who were capable of making "reasonable" and "accessible" arguments in the public sphere. Faith and reason need not exclude each other. Davis hopes to foster an attitude of mutual respect by distinguishing between being persuaded versus understanding an argument, and between understanding and accepting an argument. "If mutual respect simply requires that we work to make ourselves understood by others—and struggle to understand their points of view—then a religious argument can convey respect just as successfully as a nonreligious one" (61). Davis doesn't stop at simply arguing for the propriety of religious arguments, but lists seven positive advantages in "a political environment that is open to religious reasoning" (63). Such advantages include an increased ability to critique moral conventions and a more open discussion of morals generally. (Morals are more often snuck in the back door of political conversation anyway through unstated assumptions.)

In sum: part one dissects myths on the right (America is a Christian nation, etc.) and left (Separation of church and state, etc.) and then examines what religious thinkers can offer in style and argument.2

In part two Davis attempts to exemplify the way religion can increase the quality of political discussion. He begins by "Rethinking the Big Four." These chapters embody the tone of interchange described in part one while discussing abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, and gay marriage (interestingly, Mormonism doesn't come up in his same-sex marriage discussion).

In part three Davis takes readers "Beyond the Big Four" with discussions on war, environmentalism, and the economy. Perhaps the most fascinating should-have-been-obvious-why-didn't-I-already-think-of-that point of the book is the strange classification system Americans seem to embrace regarding "moral" issues. He cites a 2004 National Election Poll in which voters were asked to name the "most important issue facing the country." Davis explains:

The poll pitted "moral values" against war, terrorism, the environment, and the economy. Doing so implied that those other issues had nothing to do with "moral values"; they were topics of political or social importance, but they were not matters of ethics....But war is a profoundly moral issue, just as how we treat the natural world and how we deal with one another in our economic relationships are matters of great moral significance (117-118). 

This section works well together with Davis's earlier admonition to resist the myth that moral arguments exist only one side of any given debate, whether regarding abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, or capitalism (7).

Davis's stirring concluding chapter is written "In Defense of Civility" (155). Here he defines "civility" as "the exercise of patience, integrity, humility, and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree" (159). Noting the tendency of radio and TV political coverage to favor "sexier news" over compromise and reasoned discussion, Davis still believes there are many who desire "a public dialogue that is patient, substantive, and subtle" (157). He carefully notes that he isn't calling for "simple passivity, nicety, or acquiescence," or that all conflict must be avoided. Pretending differences don't exist is as fruitless as shouting about differences. More importantly, civility is not a magic ingredient: "civility cannot guarantee consensus on any issue" (160). But Davis, citing Os Guinness, believes it promises progress: "What we are looking for [in civility] is not so much truths that can unite us as terms on which we can negotiate and by which we can live with the differences that divide us" (161). Davis again invokes history for examples of of civility as a "consistent aspiration" of American leaders, albeit with imperfect execution (161). Davis encourages readers to encourage civility in the politicians to whom we write or interact with, the TV and radio programs we pay attention to, and the discussions we have with others in person, online, or anywhere else. 

Rather than sounding like a whiny diatribe or a preachy soapbox sermon, Davis's book is a reasoned description and example of the sort of civil discussion which can serve to enrich public discourse. There are a few blind spots (I would have liked a discussion of an organized religion's right to promote political platforms, for example, or a description of tax exempt implications). Davis himself seems to lean slightly left of center on some issues and right of center on others. I hope this does not distract readers from the central purpose of the book, which isn't to resolve policy issues, but to exemplify a civil and religiously inclusive discussion on them.


PS- Davis's book was barely off the press when new controversies regarding religion and politics erupted. Jana Reiss of "Flunking Sainthood" recently posted a piece by Davis called "Muslims, Puritans, and the Elusive Art of Civility." It's hard to tell if some of the more rancorous commenters following the article were trying to be ironic. 

[1] An accessible overview is Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House: 2006).

[2] Davis recognizes that each argument is not necessarily confined to the right or the left; this right/left construction favors more recent trends.

November 17, 2010

Review: John F. Haught, "God and the New Atheism"

Title: God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
Author: John F. Haught
Publisher: Westminster John Knox
Genre: Religion
Year: 2008
Pages: 124
ISBN13: 9780664233044
Binding: Paperback
Price: 16.95

Responses to the claims of the so-called "new atheism" vary according to the interests of each particular respondent. John F. Haught, Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University is touted as "one of the world's leading thinkers in the field of theology and science", and his book reflects that focus. Specifically, he calls his book a "theological response" to the underlying assumptions of the "science-inspired atheism" promulgated by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others (xi). To Haught, the intellectual undergirding of atheism has seen better days, he confesses his "disappointment in witnessing the recent surge of interest in atheism" because he finds it "so theologically unchallenging" (xi). Nevertheless, he took up the pen to help not only "specialists, teachers, and students, but also...the general reading public" become better acquainted with the way faith informs reason and vice versa (xi).

Haught tackles the "new atheist" criticisms from the approach of theological studies. He feels writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have slighted a great deal of theology by focusing their attack solely on fundamentalist or strawman descriptions of religion. He does a fine job outlining new atheist assumptions and discussing why theology should be brought to bear on them. The book is brief (barely over a hundred pages) and doesn't delve into many specifics from the books it critiques. Instead, Haught explores the presuppositions of theology versus new atheism broadly speaking. This view comes through the lens of a theologian, which must be taken into account when considering the power and relevance of its arguments. People looking for a point-for-point analysis of new atheists should look elsewhere. (Haught repeatedly concedes, for example, that religious people have committed atrocious acts throughout history, but does not get into the specific charges leveled by new atheists. Not all such charges are fair or accurate, so conceding ground seems to be more of a tactical acknowledgement that problems have occurred while avoiding the grimy details along with the inaccurate accusations.)

Nevertheless, it is an engaging account which refers interested readers to more academic treatments if desired, specifically several books Haught wrote before this one. Thus this book seems to be more of a way to tie his previous work to the claims of new atheists. The lighter tone and minimal footnotes should be less intimidating to the average reader.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapters 1-7 could well resonate with many different theists, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Chapter 8 is a "specifically Christian" response to new atheists (xv). In the remainder of this review I will give an overview of the first chapter, then point to some of the other questions Haught addresses in the rest of the book.

In chapter one, "How new is the new atheism?", Haught describes Sam Harris's post-9/11 response to worldwide terrorism as a sort of neo-Buddhism. Rather than Four Noble Truths, Harris posits Four Evident Truths geared to rid the world of faith and superstition, thus nipping terrorism in the bud. The first evident truth is that "many people in the word are living needlessly miserable lives" (2). The second evident truth is that faith, or "belief without evidence," is the cause of untold "unnecessary distress" (3). Buddha pins the problem on greed and desire, but Harris shifts this over to a human craving for "insane ideas to satisfy the seemingly bottomless appetite so many humans have for delusion" (3). For Harris, belief must be grounded on empirical evidence, although Haught points out this commitment itself is rooted in faith, that is, a "declaration of trust, in a 'will to believe'" (6). The third evident truth is that most unnecessary human suffering will be avoided if we "abolish faith from the face of the earth" (6). It is at this point that Haught sees new atheists departing from older critiques of religion. "It is not just faith, [the new atheists] say, but our polite and civil tolerance of faith that must be uprooted if progress toward true happiness is to be made" (8). As Harris notes, "As long as we respect the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers" (9). Thus, "Intolerance of tolerance seems to be a truly novel feature of the new atheists' solution to the problem of human misery" (10). They challenge faith on both cognitional and moral grounds. The fourth evident truth is that we can rid the world of suffering by following "the hallowed path of the scientific method" (11). For Haught, the diagnosis and prescription are too simplistic; the new atheists invite humans to "squeeze their lives, minds, and hearts into the comparatively minuscule world of scientific objectification" (13).

Throughout the rest of the book Haught explores theological questions he believes new atheists have botched. Does theology matter? Is God a scientific hypothesis? Is God a personal being? Why do people believe? Can we be good without God? This last question raises particularly interesting observations. "In spite of the new atheism's scholarly narrowness, its one-sidedness, and its many exaggerations," Haught notes, "it is not altogether without truth and value. Its importance consists primarily in reminding readers of what happens when religions take themselves too seriously, enthroning themselves in the place of the infinite mystery into which they are supposed to initiate us" (76). In other words, new atheism acts as a check against idolatry, of all things. But the antidote to idolatry isn't atheism, Haught argues, but faith.

Perhaps the part of the book I found most interesting in relation to my own Latter-day Saint faith is the section on "the tolerance of ambiguity" (99). Fundamentalists, whether theistic or atheistic, struggle with what Haught sees as one of the main messages of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: the "original and adventurous belief that God is not to be sought apart from the material world, human embodiedness, and the ambiguities of historical existence" (103). Such a belief is messy. "Rather than dwelling in a Platonic sanctuary above the terrors of history, the God of Christianity becomes embodied in events that are historically and culturally contingent" (102). In a striking passage Haught concludes:

Only a still-unfinished universe--such as the one that geology, cosmology, and biology have been revealing to us over the past two centuries--could provide the setting for human freedom and creativity. Of course, to say that the universe is "unfinished" is to imply that it is imperfect, ambiguous, and open to tragic as well as marvelous outcomes. Even the fact that religions themselves are so imperfect, and sometimes horrifically evil, is completely consistent with the fact that they too are part of an unfinished universe. It is important to face up to the evils associated with religious faiths, and on this score the new atheists are right to point them out. At the same time it is hard to imagine how a Creator who truly loves freedom, diversity, and novelty could ever have rounded everything off presto into a closed and static circle of eternal sameness....The Christian hope is for a universe in which evil will be conquered and all tears will be wiped away. Such a hope, by setting forth the possibility of a new future, is a great incentive to moral action" (106-107). 

While Latter-day Saints would likely nuance Haught's calling God the "ultimate ground of all being" (91-92), his description of the implications of Christ's incarnation and God's ongoing work in the world should strike a responsive cord in Latter-day Saints, who believe God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life" of humanity and the world (Moses 1:39). Latter-day Saints will likewise benefit from Haught's discussion of "social justice" (68, 94-95). I'm still looking for a book that more directly responds to individual claims of various new atheist authors but still found this book well-worth reading. By taking a theological look at the undergirding assumptions of new atheists, Haught makes a compelling case that theology has a legitimate place at the 21st century table of discussion on science, faith, and religion.

November 14, 2010

FAIR Podcast, Episode 5: John Durham Peters (p.1)

John Durham Peters is one of America’s leading thinkers in the subject of communications. He has been called “a master wordsmith and a wonderful brain” and his work has been described as “witty, irreverent and intellectually daring.” Peters is currently the A. Craig Baird Professor in communication studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of two books: Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication and Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. 

Peters joined me through Skype from his home in Iowa for this two-part episode on Mormonism and Communication. Media technology can be understood as issuing a call to action in the world, and Peters discusses the some of the ethical questions media can raise. We talk about the role media has played thus far in the restoration of the Church, through print, radio, and television. Peters also brings a unique perspective to the possibilities and problems of witnesses.

Also, see here for a bibliography I put together on Peters's articles and interviews directly related to Mormonism. (With links to all of them!)




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Bibliography of articles and presentations related to Mormonism by John Durham Peters

John Durham Peters is one of America's leading thinkers in the subject of communications. He has been called "a master wordsmith and a wonderful brain" and his work has been described as "witty, irreverent and intellectually daring." He's one of my favorite authors and thinkers. 

Peters is currently the A. Craig Baird Professor in communication studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of two books: Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication and Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition. This post is a bibliography of his works directly related to Mormonism. 

Articles and Interviews:

“Perfection: A Social Criticism and A Theological Alternative.” Sunstone 11.3 (1987): 20-4. [.pdf]

“'The Rhythms of Reflection': Review of Dennis Rasmussen, The Lord's Question," Sunstone 13.6 (1989): 49-51. [.pdf]

"Reflections on Mormon Materialism," Sunstone 16 (March 1993): 17-21. [.pdf]

“Bowels of Mercy,” BYU Studies 38 (1999): 27–41. [.pdf]

Ethan Yorgason, "The Gospel in Communication: A Conversation with Communication Theorist John Durham Peters." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40:4 (2007): 29-46. [.pdf]

Blair Dee Hodges, "FAIR Podcast, Episode 5: John Durham Peters, p.1." November 2010. [.mp3]

Blair Dee Hodges, "FAIR Podcast, Episode 6: John Durham Peters, p.2." November 2010. [.mp3]

Sunstone Symposium Presentations:

1980: "All or None Versus Sifting: Two Mormon Views of Truth,"  John Durham Peters, Thomas McAffee, (SL80026). [.mp3]

1981: "We Are All Enlisted: War As Metaphor in Mormon Thought & Ordinances As Metaphor," Stephen L Tanner, John Durham Peters, Mark D Thomas, (SL81022). [.mp3]

1985: "Perfection: An Analysis, Critique, and Alternative," John Durham Peters, Marybeth Raynes, (SL85026). [.mp3]

1991: "Community and the Atonement & Atonement As Compassion," John Peters, Blake Ostler, Arthur Bassett, (SL91161). [.mp3]

November 2, 2010

"All Find What They Truly Seek" (p.5): Lewis as a Virtuous Unbeliever

The fifth and final part of “'All Find What They Truly Seek': C.S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 3 [Fall 2010]: 21–62). This one discusses Lewis's salvatory possibilities according to LDS thought. See also parts one, two, three, and four.

From an LDS standpoint, Lewis himself is viewed as a virtuous unbeliever since he was not baptized by the authority of the LDS Church. At the same time, his labors in God’s vineyard of the world have been recognized and enjoyed by many Latter-day Saints who believe that inspired words can come from those of different faith traditions.89 Many Latter-day Saints would likely include Lewis in Oaks’s description of unbaptized workers who “are like the prepared dry mix to which it is only necessary to ‘add water’—the perfecting ordinance of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. With that addition—even in the eleventh hour—these workers are in the same state of development and qualified to receive the same reward as those who have labored long in the vineyard.”90

In the LDS view, exaltation is not out of reach for an individual like Lewis because the “eleventh hour” does not necessarily end at death.91 The “fulness of the gospel” is being preached to the dead in the spirit world (D&C 124:29–39) and required ordinances like baptism can be administered by living proxies (D&C 138) on behalf of the deceased.92 Latter-day Saints believe that individuals in the spirit world choose to accept or reject proxy ordinances performed on their behalf, thus preserving their agency.93 This doctrine mercifully expands possibilities for the virtuous unbeliever while keeping the Christian conditions ultimately the same.94 Latter-day Saints balance the necessity of Jesus Christ, the meaningful free will of humans, and the mercy and justice of God by recognizing that ultimately, in this life or after death, every person can choose to “become one” in Christ.

As described in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the actions and choices of virtuous unbelievers in their daily lives play a role in their ultimate destiny. God is teaching His children the lessons they need to learn even though they may not have heard specifically of Jesus Christ. For Latter-day Saints, as well as for Lewis, mortal life itself is structured to shape humans as God desires—providing opportunities to accept or reject the light. God is working with all of His children on their own levels and in various religious traditions to bring them back home. Christianity asserts that through God all men and women can be born again.

In the eternal scheme of things as understood in Mormonism, justice and mercy work together to provide all with an opportunity to receive “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” to use Paul’s words (Eph. 4:13). Or as Latter-day Saints might say, to receive a “celestial glory” in the hereafter, without leaving the necessary ordinances behind. But the ordinances themselves are only one part of the process of conversion in Latter-day Saint thought, and they can come at the very tail end of the process if need be. For Lewis and Latter-day Saints, conversion is a process that is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. It is not merely instantaneous, it might not appear on the outside to follow the same set path for everyone, but it is real. “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again,” Christ explained. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7–8).

Remarkably long footnotes:
[89] Blair Dee Hodges, “C. S. Lewis: Crypto-Mormon? Part I: Latter-day Saints on Lewis,” posted May 5, 2009.

[90] Oaks, “The Challenge to Become.”

[91] Latter-day Saints often differentiate between “salvation” and “exaltation,” the former being granted in certain degrees to all of God’s children, the latter being predicated on accepting and living the gospel. Exaltation is granted to those in the celestial kingdom. Margaret McConkie Pope, “Exaltation,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 2:479.

[92] Lorenzo Snow, fifth LDS Church president, said: “Missionary work is more successful in spirit prison than on earth. A wonderful work is being accomplished in our temples in favor of the spirits in prison. I believe strongly, too, that when the gospel is preached to the spirits in prison, the success attending that preaching will be far greater than that attending the preaching of our elders in this life.” Quoted in Lorenzo Snow, The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, edited by Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 98.

[93] Elma Fugal, “Salvation of the Dead,” Encyclopedia ofMormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 3:1257–59: “The performing of earthly ordinances by proxy for those who have died is as efficacious and vitalizing as if the deceased person had done them. That person, in turn, is free to accept or reject the ordinances in the spirit world.”

[941] Vatican II’s acceptance of the idea resulted in the defection of the Society of St. Paul Pius X, which called such inclusion “a very grave doctrinal error because it declares personal justification as being already realized for every man without any participation of his will or free choice and, so, without any need of his conversion, faith, baptism or works.” Society of St. Pius X, Australian District, “Errors of Vatican II,” Si Si No No, No. 52 (May 2003), (accessed March 30, 2010). The LDS view retains the necessity of ordinances and works coupled with Christ’s grace as requirements for all. Thus, the LDS position cuts through objections to Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christian concept.

October 28, 2010

"All Find What They Truly Seek" (p.4): The Fate of the Virtuous Unbeliever

Part four of “'All Find What They Truly Seek': C.S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 3 [Fall 2010]: 21–62). This one discusses the fate of the virtuous unbeliever, of course. See also parts onetwo, and three.

As Lewis saw it, God may utilize different belief systems to lead His children back to Him. But “even if there are a thousand orders of beneficent being [sic] above us, still, the universe is a cheat unless at the back of them all there is the one God of Christianity” (2:108). What did Lewis think about those who would not accept that one God? Moreover, what about Latter-day Saints who believe Lewis may have missed his own opportunity to accept the “fulness of the restored gospel”? Some Latter-day Saints might emphasize this selection from the Book of Mormon:

For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.. . . I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. (Alma 34:32–33)61
Similarly, Lewis did not necessarily think unbelievers would have an eternal opportunity to turn to God. His 1940s radio broadcasts (later published as Mere Christianity) included a sense of urgency: “Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.”62 Lewis explained this point elsewhere: “I mean that each individual only has [the chance] for a short time i.e. is only alive on this Earth for a short time” (2:776). Some LDS leaders have spoken against the possibility of a “second chance” at salvation. Elder Bruce R. McConkie listed the idea among his “Seven Deadly Heresies.” After paraphrasing from Alma 34, he declared: “For those who do not have an opportunity in this life, the first chance to gain salvation will come in the spirit world. . . . Those who reject the gospel in this life and then receive it in the spirit world go not to the celestial, but to the terrestrial kingdom.”63 McConkie did not address how mortals are to know what actually constitutes an honest and true “chance” or who has actually received one. Church president Joseph Fielding Smith, McConkie’s father-in-law, expressed a similar view in interesting terms: “All who have not had the privilege of repentance and acceptance of the plan of salvation in this life will have that opportunity in the world of spirits. Those who repent there and believe when the message is declared to them are heirs of salvation and exaltation.” Still, he concluded: “It is the duty of all men who hear the gospel to repent. If they reject the gospel when it is declared to them here, then they are damned. The Savior has said it. If they receive and endure to the end, they shall receive the blessings. Every man has his agency.”64

Neither of these works is considered “official doctrine” of the LDS Church. Other LDS leaders have presented slightly more lenient views.65 Joseph Smith’s own understanding adapted over time as he received further revelation. The Book of Mormon’s “night of darkness” (Alma 34:33)66 was somewhat brightened in 1832 by Smith’s vision of the “three degrees of glory,” presenting a significant departure from a strict heaven/hell dichotomy with graded degrees of celestial, terrestrial, and telestial. This revelation appears to depict virtuous unbelievers as being incapable of reaching the highest (“celestial”) degree of glory. “Terrestrial” inhabitants “are they who died without law; Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it. These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men. These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fulness” (D&C 76:72–76). This revelation may have caused consternation for the Prophet, whose older brother Alvin died before being baptized.67 However, in 1836 “the heavens were opened” again to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple. There he “beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof,” whose inhabitants included Adam and Eve, Abraham, Alvin, Joseph’s deceased father, and his still-living mother:

[I] marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. (D&C 137:5–7; emphasis mine)68

This doctrine seems foreshadowed in the Book of Mormon’s “plan of restoration,” whereby people would be judged by “intent of heart” and the “law” under which they lived (Alma 41; Moro. 7:6–11).

This doctrine was vividly described in one of Brigham Young’s discourses, which told of one well-meaning—though particularly impatient—missionary:

I recollect . . . sending an Elder to Bristol, to open a door there, and see if anybody would believe. He had a little more than thirty miles to walk; he starts off one morning, and arrives at Bristol; he preached the Gospel to them, and sealed them all up to damnation, and was back next morning. He was just as good a man, too, as we had. It was want of knowledge caused him to do so. I go and preach to the people, and tell them at the end of every sermon, “he that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; and he that believeth not, shall be damned.” I continue preaching there day after day . . . and yet nobody believes my testimony. . . .
“What shall I do in this case, if I am sent to preach there?” you may inquire. You must continue to preach there . . . [I would] continue to plead with them, until they bend their dispositions to the Gospel. Why?
Because I must be patient with them, as the Lord is patient with me; as the Lord is merciful to me, I will be merciful to others; as He continues to be merciful to me, consequently I must continue in long-suffering to be merciful to others—patiently waiting, with all diligence, until the people will believe, and until they are prepared to become heirs to a celestial kingdom, or angels to the devil.69
How can Young’s patient God be reconciled with scriptures describing the path to God’s kingdom as so “strait and narrow” that “few there be that find it”? (Matt. 7:14). This particular verse troubled Lewis enough that he brought it up during a weekly gathering of friends (the “Inklings”) to hash through its implications. It resulted in fireworks: “The occasion was a discussion of the most distressing text in the Bible (‘narrow is the way and few they be that find it’) and whether one really could believe in a universe where the majority were damned and also in the goodness of God. [Charles] Wrenn, of course, took the view that it mattered precisely nothing whether it conformed to your ideas of goodness or not” (2:283; see also 2:450–51, 1,008).

When Charles Williams disagreed, Wrenn was upset and “expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people” (2:283).70 However, Lewis concluded that “the general sense of the meeting was in favour of a view on the lines taken in Pastor Pastorum—that Our Lord’s replies are never straight answers and never gratify curiosity, and that whatever this one meant its purpose was certainly not statistical.” A decade later the verse still escaped Lewis’s grasp. He wondered: “Dare we gloss the text ‘Strait is the way and few there be that find it’ by adding ‘And that’s why most of you have to be bustled and badgered into it like sheep—and the sheep-dogs have to have pretty sharp teeth too!’ I hope so” (2:1,008).71

Lewis believed that all who are saved will be “saved by Christ whether His grace comes to us by way of the Natural Law” or through Christianity (3:23).72 Aquinas saw natural law as “nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what wemust do and what wemust avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation.”73 Latter-day Saints have a similar concept in the “Light of Christ” which is “given to every man, that he may know good from evil” (Moro. 7:16; see also Alma 12:9–11).74 In order to separate the true from the false manifestations, proper living will increase one’s perception and possession of “light.” Truth is measured on a scale from darkness to light which can grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24; Prov. 4:18) through obedience, regardless of initial denomination or belief, and regardless of where various truths originated, or, as Lewis wrote to a recent Christian convert: “One can begin to try to be a disciple before one is a professed theologian. In fact they tell us, don’t they, that in these matters to act on the light one has is almost the only way to more light” (3:1,540). The key for conversion is not simply arriving at a correct understanding of the nature of God or agreeing on various other theological points. The key for what Lewis called the “virtuous unbeliever”75 is virtue.

“Seriously,” Lewis wrote, “I don’t pretend to have any information on the fate of the virtuous unbeliever. I don’t suppose this question provided the solitary exception to the principle that actions on a false hypothesis lead to some less satisfactory result than actions on a true. That’s as far as I would go—beyond feeling that the believer is playing for higher stakes and incurring danger of something really nasty” (2:256).76 He had wondered what “Christ’s descending into Hell and preaching to the dead” indicated;77 and when directly asked if people could receive “another chance after death” to accept the gospel, he hedged by referring the questioner to the views of a friend (Charles Williams) on purgatory. “Of course,” he added, “our anxiety about unbelievers is most usefully employed when it leads us not to speculation but to earnest prayer for them and the attempt to be in our own lives such good advertisements for Christianity as will make it attractive” (3:245–46).78 Lewis did not believe the Bible was specific enough for him to take a definite stance on the issue: “I don’t think we know the details,” he wrote, “we must just stick to the view that (a.) All justice and mercy will be done, (b) But that nevertheless it is our duty to do all we can to convert unbelievers” (3:163).79

Borrowing from the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25), Lewis privileged orthopraxy over orthodoxy in his NARNIA series. At the end of The Last Battle, Emeth finds himself in the heavenly Narnia standing before Aslan. He feels out of place and ashamed, believing he had worshipped a false god, Tash, all his life:

“The Glorious One,” [Emeth] said, “bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me. . . . Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”80
Latter-day Saints similarly put more emphasis on what humans have become as a result of God’s grace, combined with the individual’s actions, more than what humans have intellectually assented to or believed in creedal declaration.81 Some Christians have labeled such beliefs “damnable heresies.”82 Others claim that such believers, including Latter-day Saints, merit eternal damnation because they disobey the first of Christ’s two great commandments by loving a “false” god. Claims by some countercult movements that Latter-day Saints worship a “different Jesus” are constructed largely on ontological foundations; that is, on LDS rejection of post-biblical creeds regarding the nature of God.83 However, there can be little doubt about the devotional direction of the second of the two great commandments: “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Bible seems to depict obedience to the second as necessarily ref lecting back on the first, a concept depicted in the parable of the sheep and the goats: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).84 Loving one’s neighbor is like loving God. Lewis believed this parable “suggests that [virtuous unbelievers] have a very pleasant surprise coming to them.”85 The way a person fulfills these two great commandments plays an important part in God’s final judgment of human souls, be they Latter-day Saint, Anglican, Buddhist, agnostic, or otherwise.

This ecumenical soteriology has carried through from Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants to more recent LDS general conference addresses from members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has urged Latter-day Saints to “never give up hope and loving associations with family members and friends whose fine qualities evidence their progress toward what a loving Father would have them become. . . . We should never give up on loved ones who now seem to be making many wrong choices.”86 Rather than “judging and condemning” others not of one’s own faith without mercy, as “one portion of the human race” does, Joseph Smith said “the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that inf luence the children of men.”87 Citing Christ’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), Oaks emphasized that all workers, those who worked all day, half the day, and part of the day, received the same wage. One lesson from this parable is “that the Master’s reward in the Final Judgment will not be based on how long we have labored in the vineyard,” which Oaks likened to belonging to and participating in the LDS Church:

We do not obtain our heavenly reward by punching a time clock. What is essential is that our labors in the workplace of the Lord have caused us to become something. For some of us, this requires a longer time than for others. What is important in the end is what we have become by our labors. Many who come in the eleventh hour have been refined and prepared by the Lord in ways other than formal employment in the vineyard. . . . [T]hese workers are in the same state of development and qualified to receive the same reward as those who have labored long in the vineyard.88
Again, as with Lewis, the emphasis is on orthopraxy.

Exhaustive-ing notes:
[61] See also 2 Nephi 2:21: “And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men.” If the “night of darkness” is seen as beginning at mortal death, those who heard about the restored gospel during mortality but did not accept it are in danger of not reaching the highest advancement God offers.

[62] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:Macmillan, 1977), 65–66.

[63] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” Brigham Young University Devotional Speeches of the Year (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1981), (accessed February 10, 2010).

[64] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, edited by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1955 (1954–56), 2:134; emphasis mine. Other LDS leaders have emphasized the difficulty of repenting after death—but “difficult” is not “impossible.” Elder Melvin J. Ballard, Three Degrees of Glory (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1922), 14–15, stated: “We are sentencing ourselves to long periods of bondage, separating our spirits from our bodies, or we are shortening that period, according to the way in which we overcome and master ourselves.” President Spencer W. Kimball quoted Ballard’s statement, then added, “Clearly it is difficult to repent in the spirit world of sins involving physical habits and actions. There one has spirit and mind but not the physical power to overcome a physical habit.” Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 168. These quotations typically refer directly to Alma 34:32–35. Matthew Roper and John A. Tvedtnes provide another interpretation of these verses in “Scripture Insight: ‘Do Not Procrastinate the Day of Your Repentance,’” Insights (FARMS newsletter) 20:10, n.d., (accessed March 29, 2010).

[65] A more current view from a more “official” source is “Chapter 35: Redemption for the Dead,” in the Relief Society/Priesthood instruction manual, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph  Smith (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2007), 401–11. Parsing official from unofficial LDS doctrine is difficult. The Church’s most recent statement is “Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” LDS Newsroom, May 4, 2007, (accessed February 10, 2010).

[66] This scripture demonstrates the difficulty of formulating a systematic theology using scriptural proof-texts. Because Latter-day Saints believe that God reveals His will “line upon line” in different dispensations and circumstances, taking a snapshot of any moment in scripture could mislead. This canonized f lexibility is described in Alma 29:8: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true” (emphasis mine). Alma 40 discusses his own uncertainty about certain aspects of the afterlife, thus canonizing some prophetic speculation and uncertainty. Quoting The Problem of Pain as though it were Lewis’s final view would be a mistake considering the greater fluidity of his views in his letters.

[67] Grant Underwood, “‘Saved or Damned’: Tracing a Persistent Protestantism in Early Mormon Thought,” BYU Studies 25, no. 3 (1985): 85–103, notes that Section 76 (“The Vision”) “was not initially appreciated for its revolutionary significance.” Even Joseph Smith seldom mentioned it. Early Mormon thought on the afterlife resembled Protestantism’s emphasis of salvation or damnation, heaven or hell. Brigham Young, June 21, 1874, Journal of Discourses, 18:247, recalled: “I was not prepared to say that I believed it, and I had to wait. What did I do? I handed this over to the Lord in my feelings, and said I, ‘I will wait until the Spirit of God manifests to me, for or against.’ I did not judge the matter, I did not argue against it, not in the least. I never argued the least against anything Joseph proposed, but if I could not see or understand it, I handed it over to the Lord.”

[68] This section and Section 138 regarding missionary work in the spirit world were added to the Doctrine in Covenants in 1981. Robert J. Woodford, “Doctrine and Covenants Editions,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1:426.

[69] Brigham Young, August 8, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 3:91. Early Mormons expected the Millennium to arrive quite soon. Underwood, “Saved or Damned,” 91.

[70] Lewis joked that he and Tolkien agreed: “[Just] as some people at school . . . are eminently kickable, so Williams is eminently combustible” (2:283).

[71] Over time LDS leaders have employed the same verse: (1) to justify few converts, (2) to underscore the “great apostasy” and consequent need for restored LDS authority, (3) to encourage missionaries discouraged by few converts, and (4) to create tension before explaining the doctrines of vicarious ordinances.

[72] Lewis is quoting Dom Bede Griffiths, “Catholicism To-day,” Pax: The Quarterly Review of the Benedictines of Prinknash. Though Lewis agreed with the sentiment, he thought Griffiths’s argument needed further clarification: “All are saved by Christ or not at all, I agree. But I wonder ought you to make clearer what you mean by His Grace coming ‘by way of the Natural Law’—or any other Law. We are absolutely at one about the universality of the Nat. Law, and its objectivity, and its Divine origin. But can one just leave out the whole endless Pauline reiteration of the doctrine that Law, as such, cannot be kept and serves in fact to make sin exceedingly sinful [Rom. 7:12–13]?” One could not be saved apart from Christ, in Lewis’s view, whether His grace is received through the “Natural Law” or otherwise. In Mere Christianity, chaps. 1–5, Lewis appeals to the very existence of the natural law as indicating that something is behind it—namely, God. All are convicted by the natural law because no one perfectly obeys its moral demands. Lewis believed that the New Testament preaches repentance and forgiveness which “assumes an audience who already believe in the Law of Nature and know they have disobeyed it.” He feared that “modern England” was quickly losing belief in natural law so most New Testament “apologetic begins a stage too far on. The first step is to create, or recover, the sense of guilt” (2:470).

[73] Thomas Aquinas, Collationes in Decem Praeceptis, 1. From Catechism of the Catholic Church (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 426; see also Rom. 2:14–15.

[74] D&C 93:31–32: “Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.”

[75] The virtuous unbeliever is similar to the “Anonymous Christian” idea articulated by Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian who played an important role in the concept’s becoming official Catholic doctrine during Vatican II. Karl Rahner, “Religious Inclusivism,” Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, edited by Michael Peterson et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Thus to the catechism was added: “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Burns & Oates, 2002), 196–97. Some view this addition as unbiblical and too inclusive while others see it as parochial and offensive to other faiths. See Stephen M. Clinton, “Peter, Paul and the Anonymous Christian: A Response to the Mission Theology of Karl Rahner and Vatican II,” Orlando Institute Leadership Forum, November 1998, Evangelical Theological Society, (accessed April 15, 2009).

[76] Bruce R. Reichenbach, “Inclusivism and the Atonement,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 16, no. 1 (January 1999): 43–54, succinctly phrased this approach: “One can appropriate something subjectively without knowing how it is achieved objectively. . . . Salvation or liberation is possible [for people], though they do not know or have a mistaken notion of the exact circumstances whereby the merits of Christ’s death are made available.” John Sanders distinguishes the ontological versus the epistemological necessity of Christ’s atonement in No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Fate of the Unevangelized (1992; rpt., Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 30. This book is an excellent overview of Christian thought on the fate of virtuous unbelievers from three main positions that he classifies as restrictivism, universalism, and “wider hope.” Lewis receives a detailed treatment on 251–57. Unfortunately, Sanders overlooks LDS thought in this book.

[77] Lewis added his own footnote to “Hell” in this letter, distinguishing “Hades, the land of the dead” from “Gehenna, the land of the lost” (3:163). D&C 19 describes hell as a place or condition that exists eternally but which will end for certain individuals.

[78] Lewis also stated: “If the Church is Christ’s body,—the thing he works through—then the more worried one is about the people outside, the more reason to get inside oneself where one can help—you are giving Him, as it were, a new finger” (2:499). Lewis had been working on the radio broadcasts at this time and uses the same example there. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 65.

[79] There is a period after the “a” but not after the “b”. Clinton, “Peter, Paul and the Anonymous Christian,” 13 note 126, ends his critique of Rahner by appealing to amore concerted Christianmissionary effort and declaring that the “anonymous Christian” idea is unbiblical and thus false.

[80] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Vol. 7 in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (London: HarperCollins, 2001 printing), 757. Applying a coherent theory of the Atonement to the inclusivist approaches of Lewis and Latter-day Saints is beyond the scope of this paper. Reichenbach, “Inclusivism and the Atonement,” discusses religious inclusivism’s relation to sin and atonement theory. How are the effects of Christ’s atonement actually available to someone who is ignorant of its occurrence? This problem exists for various atonement models (including the moral exemplar model); how can one follow an example or be encouraged or helped by something one never heard about? LDS thought posits a universal Light of Christ, posthumous missionary work, and proxy ordinances as part of the solution. Reichenbach concludes that if God truly discerns the hearts of His children, any person might employ functionally equivalent repentance techniques, though the concepts or language they employ may seem foreign to Christians. For Atonement theories in LDS thought, see Blake T. Ostler, The Problems with Theism and the Love of God, Vol. 2 in EXPLORING MORMON THOUGHT (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006).

[81] The “grace and works” debate is beyond the scope of this article. The role of “intelligence” (not “intelligences”) in LDS soteriology should be kept in mind. Joseph Smith emphasized: “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,” quoted by Wilford Woodruff, discourse, April 10, 1842, History of the Church, 4:588. This statement was canonized as: “And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19). This scripture emphasizes diligence and obedience as methods of gaining knowledge. Ultimately, correct belief on less than “weightier matters” can be acquired even beyond the veil. Joseph Smith taught: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them.” History of the Church, 6:306–7.

[82] See Harvest Mission Ministries, (accessed March 30, 2009). While discussing literary critics who have a similar narrow approach to anything that does not suit their fancy, Lewis quoted Alexander Pope: “Thus Wit, like Faith, by each man is applied / To one small sect, and all are damned beside” (2:734).

[83] For the most comprehensive response to the charge that Mormons worship a “different Jesus,” see Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, “Offenders for aWord”: How Anti-Mormons PlayWord Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).

[84] Mosiah 2:17: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

[85] He added: “But in the main we are not told God’s plans about them in any detail” (2:499). Latter-day Saints believe that they have received additional revelation concerning their fate. (See below.) Lewis referred to the parable of the sheep and goats several times. For instance, when asked about the scripture “He who has not the Son has not the father” (1 John 5:12), he responded: “[It]mustmean, I think, he who wholly lacks the Spirit of the Son. Those who do not recognizeHimas the Son of God may nevertheless ‘have’ Him in a saving sense—as the ‘Sheep’ had in the parable of the sheep and goats” (3:1447; see also 3:163).

[86] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, November 2000, 32–34,  (accessed March 30, 2010).

[87] Joseph Fielding Smith, comp. and ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1938; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1954 printing), 218.

[88] Oaks, “The Challenge to Become.”

October 24, 2010

FAIR Podcast, Episode 4: Richard L. Bushman (p.2)

In part two, Richard Bushman discusses challenges facing Mormon graduate students, his latest book Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, and other subjects including temples, the LDS sacraments, Mormon cosmology, and Zion. Bushman is an award-winning American historian, currently serving as the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. He is also a general editor of the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project. 

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Runtime: 47:51

October 20, 2010

Review: Reid L. Neilson, "Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924"

Title: Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924
Author: Reid L. Neilson
Publisher: University of Utah Press
Genre: Mormon Studies
Year: 2010
Pages: 214
ISBN13: 9780874809893
Binding: Paperback

Heber J. Grant, Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had disappointing news to share at the Church’s October 1903 General Conference. “I know that the Latter-day Saints have been greatly interested in the mission I was called to preside over, and I regret I am not able to tell you that we have done something wonderful over in Japan,” Grant lamented. The Japanese mission had opened with great excitement in 1901 but progress did not match expectations. “To be perfectly frank with you,” Grant added, “ I acknowledge I have accomplished very little indeed, as the president of that mission; and very little has been accomplished—so far as conversions are concerned” (120). Grant held out hope that “there will yet be a great and important labor accomplished in that land.” But it wouldn’t come in his lifetime, as Grant himself directed the “temporary closing of the mission and withdrawal of the missionaries” in 1924, shortly before World War II (120). Eighty-eight missionaries over twenty-three years claimed only 166 baptized converts, only around a dozen remaining active at the time the mission closed (146).  

Historian Reid L. Neilson’s Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a concise history of that seemingly-failed missionary effort. The book’s careful organization and openness—perhaps its very existence—is evidence of the author’s own love for the subject (Reid served an LDS mission to Sapporo, Japan in the early 90s) and love of history (Reid is the current managing director of the LDS Church History Department). Reid argues that the very LDS theology, practices, and traditions that led them to open the Japan mission “were paradoxically also responsible for its eventual demise in 1924” (xi).

Reid’s book situates Mormon missionary efforts within the broader and increasingly popular scholarship on Christian missiology. Reid notes that practically all prior treatments of Mormon missiology consist of hagiographic accounts which suffer from a crucial flaw:  “they usually lack historical perspective and a relationship with the larger Christian missionary community…As a result, the existing histories of the LDS experience in Asia continue to float outside of the larger historical and academic world” (x-xi). Focusing particularly on Japan, Reid’s hopes the book will help Mormon and non-Mormon religious scholars better understand the Mormon missionary experience in light of broader American religious history and missiology.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Nineteenth Century Explorations in Asia” describes how Mormons have “mapped” various cultures onto their conception of the world. Early Mormons were intensely focused on the House of Israel and the search for the “elect” whom they would gather into their fold before the millennial return of Jesus Christ. He discusses Mormon interactions with Asia during the nineteenth century and explains how Mormons accounted for aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture which resonated with their beliefs—the “spirit of Christ” which is thought to inspire people regardless of creed or culture, and “diffusionism,” which holds that the gospel of Christ was revealed to Adam, later to go through cycles of apostasy and restoration.

Reid describes what he calls the “Euro-American Mormon Missionary Model” and compares it with general American Protestant missionary models (35-58). The model describes how missionaries are trained, financed, and the methods they employ. In part two of the book, “Twentieth-Century Challenges in Japan,” Reid reasons that the Mormon model’s failure to adapt to circumstances on the ground in Japan account for its failure compared to the larger successes of other American Protestant faiths. Reid’s critique of Mormon missionary work is frank and forthright in grappling with the difficulties Mormon missionaries faced (or brought with them) in Japan before withdrawing before World War II. He argues against the hypothesis that President Grant received a revelation to bring missionaries out prior to the war. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is distinguishing an imposing versus an integrating approach of missionary work: “The Mormons, who basically imposed or translated their message, struggled to make headway in Japan, while the American Protestants converted tens of thousands of Japanese, due in large part to their greater willingness to adapt their missionary approach to the needs of East Asia” (119).  

Throughout the book Reid is conscious of a broad audience. For instance, he spends more ink on LDS details often glossed over in other works such as the practice of dedicatory prayers,  briefly touching on their origins and significance for Latter-day Saints (77-80).

Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a crucial contribution to Mormon Studies, broadening the scope from the typically-discussed western United States to the wider world of Mormonism. Broader missiology scholars will welcome its bringing Mormon missionary work into the fold. Former LDS missionaries, especially those who served in different cultures and learned new languages, will be interested in the inner-workings of an early twentieth-century mission. Reid discusses literature and translation, tracting and street meetings, convert baptism and retention problems, jingoism and nationalism, polygamy, magic lantern shows, sporting activities, finances, and many other aspects of missionary life. It is a well-documented and well-argued comparison of LDS missionary efforts to the broader Christian desire to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).