Knowledge For the Strong and the Weak

In 1 Cor 8, Paul give some advice to the “strong” who know something that the “weak” do not know.  He argues that even though the strong are in the right, and that what they know is fully true, they should keep such knowledge to themselves.  The reason is that, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died might be destroyed” (1 Cor 8:11).  Paul suggests that one’s primary duty is to good of the community as a whole, not to the truth.  It even seems that Paul is saying that the liberal, more open minded people should cede ground to the more close minded precisely because they are more capable of handling the disparity.

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Apologetics Into Doctrine: Romney’s Impact

It appears that Andrew Sullivan published something on Mormons yesterday.  How do I know this without reading Sullivan?  Because there’s a zillion Mormons responding to his comments at sites far removed.  In fact, there’s a bumper crop of Mormon apologetics springing up all over the place and I’m detecting a bit of a common theme.  It is, I think, something of a South Park approach.

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“Every wo/man that striveth for mastery”: Thinking About LDS Scripture Mastery (A New Series of Posts)

**I wish I could say that my recent lack of posts at FPR has been due to the fact that I’ve been following the newest reincarnation “Further” (Bobby and Phil, minus Mickey, Billy) around the country in a VW Microbus, but other events have been the culprits. In any case, I am excited to be here with FPR at Patheos and look forward to being more involved again and “not fade away.”**

For quite some time now I have been pondering a long-term series of posts that look at the 100 Scripture Mastery (SM) verses (25 for each year’s course of study: Old Testament [along with the Pearl of Great Price], New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants) that high school age Latter-day Saints are encouraged to memorize during their (ideally) 4-year religious education as part of the LDS Church Educational System’s (CES) Seminary program. In particular, I am interested in examining the re-contextualization of these particular verses in the context of the CES and SM program. Similar hermenuetical issues have interested me in the past as can be seen, for example, in my past post: ”Levels of Understanding in Isaiah(?).”

In the first (forthcoming) post in the series, I will provide somewhat of an introduction (I’m not sure if that makes this an “Introduction before the Introduction”) by briefly attempting to trace the beginnings of both the CES organization as a whole, as well as the pedagogical approach of committing scriptural verses to memory that has been (more or less) formalized in the SM program.

In subsequent posts, I will look at individual SM verses and attempt to see not only how CES, for the most part via manuals and teacher development training meetings [1], have re-contextualized these verses, but also how this compares to how various biblical scholars have re-contextualized these verses. While I won’t pretend that my biases always view both (or any) of these re-contextualizations as equally valid, responsible, useful, and/or beneficial, I do want to stress that those that are trained (or are in the process of being trained) as biblical scholars also take part in the practice of re-contextualization or re-construction—when we’re not busy deconstructing :) . Scholars’ hard work and commitment should in no way be overlooked and/or underestimated, and yet it is important to remember as one such scholar has pointed out, that “[h]istorians are text readers and have to deal with the hermeneutic problem that no text (i.e. historical source) can be understood the way it was “originally” meant.” [2] So while I view the process of contextualizing biblical verses as far more complex than providing background, in Ranke’s words, “wie es eigentlich gewesen [ist]” [3], I work from a perspective that realizes scholarship (as well as myself!) also has biases and tendencies.

All that to say that in beginning this series of posts, I do not wish to convey the idea that I am necessarily seeking to systematically “debunk” the SM verses one-by-one (though to be sure, some critique will occur at times)—the hermeneutical issues are more complex than that. Rather, I hope to see what happens when these two (thus far) strange interlocutors are put into dialogue.

Hope you enjoy the posts!



1. I think it important to point out that for a number of reasons, much [most?] of the interpretive force behind how scripture is viewed in SS and CES settings lies not with the instructors (who by all means deserve recognition and praise [especially the early morning Seminary teachers out there....zzzz...] for the volunteered time they freely give), but with the manuals provided to the respective instructors.

2. Hans M. Barstad, “History and the Hebrew Bible,” in Lester L. Grabbe (ed.), Can a History of ‘Ancient Israel’ Be Written? (European Seminar in Historical Methodology 1; JSOTSup 245; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 41. Also representative of this view is Davies statement that, “[m]odern ‘biblical historians’ do not merely parrot the biblical framework in their own historiography.” Philip R. Davies, “Biblical Histories, Ancient and Modern,” in Can a History of ‘Ancient Israel’ Be Written?, 116.

3. This oft-quoted phrase from the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) can be translated, “as it actually [or essentially] was.” Much debate has ensued about what the particularities of this statement mean/t; however, I use it here as a symbol to represent any idea, hope, and/or perception that historians do indeed have (even if in part) access to the “the past.”

Canon and Culture: The Scriptures Made Me Do It!

Fundamentalism is the belief that all that the scriptures and revelation say are to be taken as factually accurate. This view is clearly problematic, but I’d like to address its cousin, foundationalism. Foundationalism admits that the scriptures are not factually accurate in all things (though they may be in some), yet argues that they still give us clear moral, ethical, or doctrinal guidance. The scriptures, when properly interpreted, are the secure foundation for our doctrines about the “important” things, like the nature of God, human beings, gender relations, sin, etc, if not science and history. This modernist notion is deeply problematic.

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On Biblical Scripture

The Problem

What makes Biblical Scripture, Scripture for LDS Christians?*

Historically one prominent model for the authority of Biblical Scripture in Christian history (including for some Latter-day Saint thinkers) is the Prophetic-Inspiration Model: the person who writes the text is divinely inspired by God to write the very words that are recorded.  This model entails that the human being is a puppet of sorts for the divine will, a tool that can be used for the divine purpose, namely composing Sacred Scripture.  In this view, any text so authored is worthy of the category Scripture because, in the end, its wording is really determined by God (even while still partaking in human language).  This model therefore equates the words of the prophet figure with Revelation. However, although the prophet figure ultimately cannot be held responsible for the final text, the fact that it is composed, even if only instrumentally, by a prominent religious leader otherwise considered to have been commissioned of God, gives credence to the view that the text’s authority rests in the divine. [Read more...]

I Know The Church Is True

As I have reflected from time to time on this oft-repeated phrase I must admit that it has puzzled me.  What does it mean for the “church” to be “true”?

I usually think of the word church in the sense of the Greek word ekklesia, or Hebrew qahal, the “assembly.”  That is, the church is us, its members collectively, in all our imperfect glory.  What does it mean to call a community of believers, each of whom is sinful and weak, true?

Others, however, may think of the LDS church in terms of a divinely inspired organizational pattern.  Yet clearly both anciently and modernly the organizational schema of the church has changed at times due to (from a believer’s perspective) divine revelation and/or human choices.  If one adopts this position, is the phrase that is the topic of this post just another way of saying, “I know the church is guided by God/revelation”?

Others yet may see the LDS church primarily as God’s kingdom on earth. However, I would argue for scriptural and theological reasons (e.g., 1 Nephi 11-14) that there others who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that too are a part of God’s kingdom/church on earth (not to mention that there are members of the LDS faith who are no doubt opposed to this kingdom/church).  Is one affirming, then, by the phrase in question God’s support for this larger body of believers?  I would say in most cases the answer is probably “no”; the testifiers usually mean the LDS Church specifically.

I think the answer that has most satisfied me is more sociological in nature: By saying, “I know the Church is true,” one is self-identifying with a specific community of believers and affirming one’s solidarity with that community.  It is a way of saying, “my loyalties ultimately lay here.” I also think that it may be another way of saying that one believes, for non-empirical or purely rational reasons, that God is purposefully active in the world in unique ways through the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  If that is the case though, then it does seem that the phrase, as mentioned above, may just be another (perhaps less clear) way of declaring one’s belief that the LDS Church is guided by God/revelation. Could not someone who is not a member of the LDS Church affirm this though too?  And what about the inverse question?  I, for instance, think that God is active in unique ways in many other churches and organizations.  Is it ever proper to declare that they are “true”?

Finally, there is the question of the usage of the word “know.” Faith, hope, and belief to me often seem more impressive than knowledge, so I am not entirely sure why the word “believe” has come to be used less frequently in testimonies or looked on by some as less meaningful or powerful than the verb “know.” Moreover, using the word “know” can be confusing for outsiders who use this word rather differently than the way most Mormons seem to mean it in a confessional religious context.  Again, then, it seems that this word is a way of declaring that one is an insider, that one belongs to the community, as well as that one’s belief in the LDS Church is grounded in divine revelation and not empirical data or rational proofs.

What do you think?

Were Eve and Adam Created Immortal?

Genesis 2–3 recounts the famous creation story, dubbed by modern scholars the J account, of the human (adam), his wife, and their interactions with the Israelite deity YHWH god.  To summarize: YHWH god forms the man from clay (adamah) and then places him in a garden that contains, apparently, two special trees, among others, one called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life.  He then fashions a woman.  The humans are commanded by the deity not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (actually, if you read the story carefully, only the man is given this command), although they are free to eat from the other trees in the garden.  If they should eat from the forbidden tree’s fruit, however, they will surely die, for reasons left unexplained.  However, the wise serpent is also resident in this divine garden sanctuary and he informs the woman that should she eat from the forbidden tree she will not die but become wise like the gods.  She eats some of the fruit and gives it to the man, her husband.  The serpent, as it turns out, was right–the fruit of said tree does bring divine wisdom.  However, YHWH god is none to pleased with the humans’ actions and banishes them from the garden.  The text then states that YHWH god put a heavenly guardian to block access to the tree of life so as to prevent the humans from eating of it and living forever.

This fascinating text has elicited numerous interpretations by readers over the centuries.  I briefly want to highlight one interpretational possibility, and then I invite your comments and your own personal views on the text.

It is commonly assumed that the man and the woman were created immortal or became so when they resided in the garden. However, the text never states that they are immortal.  Indeed, they can certainly die, as YHWH god informs them when he tells the man not to eat from the tree.  Additionally, it never says that they ate from the tree of life; in fact, it says just the opposite–YHWH god prevented them from doing so. Further, it is particularly striking that this account, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, connects the failure of humanity to obtain immortality by means of a life-giving plant with the actions of a serpent (serpents shed their skin and thus were considered by some in the ancient world to be a symbol for immortality; cf. the story of Moses raising a serpent image before the Israelites to heal any who should look upon it).  This parallel may suggest that the humans, like the mortal hero Gilgamesh, were never supposed to acquire immortality like the gods.  Further, the J source is very interested in maintaining strict boundaries between the divine and human worlds (cf. the Tower of Babel story).  It might make sense, therefore, that YHWH god doesn’t want them to have immortality via the tree of life, just as he did not want them to be wise by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Indeed, it was commonly understood in the ancient world, including among the ancient Israelites, that a primary difference between humans and gods was mortality versus eternal life.  According to Gen 2–3, then, the humans bridged one gap but could not close the other.  Finally, we know that these two characters do in fact die later on.  For more on this way of looking at the text, see John Day, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel,” in After the Exile, 1996, pgs. 236–237.

Although this story is clearly a myth (in the scholarly sense of the term, not in the popular sense that it is the opposite of what is “true”) and simply cannot be taken as an actual accounting of how God made the cosmos and humanity, I don’t believe that makes it a religiously or spiritually useless text.  Many insightful and creative spiritual and theological readings of the text have been produced by scholars, theologians, and religious persons since the text’s composition.  2 Nephi 2 is a particularly good example for the Mormon audience. Of course, there are views in the text that are scientifically, ethically, or historically wrong or incorrect.  However, I do think there is value in this text for Mormon theologizing and that it still has more “fruit” to yield in that endeavor if read with new eyes.  Hence I am not claiming that any one  particular reading of the text is the only “right” one.  Indeed, its ability to be read in a multitude of ways is at least one reason, in my opinion, that it is such an engaging and timeless story.

So do you see any benefits from reading the text in this manner?  How do you like to read this story, and why?



The Value of Mormon Liturgical Theology

Liturgy is prescribed or ritualized forms of public worship.  For instance, the LDS Sacrament (= the Eucharist) is a Mormon liturgical practice.  The question I pose is as follows: to what extent is Mormon liturgical practice appreciated in the development of Mormon theology?  That is, how does the Sacrament ritual, hymn singing, the standardized Sacrament Meeting routine, traditional baptismal services, normative forms of public prayer, etc., reflect and inform the creative efforts of (modern) Mormon theologians?  Since public worship of deity is of central religious importance to Mormonism, it would seem that such living communal practices among the body of believers could be as useful for theological creativity (as well as spiritual formation) as are, for instance, the Scriptures, the sermons or writings of modern General Authorities, or statements from Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But what are the limitations of Mormon liturgical practice for informing its theology, since, for example, Mormon liturgical practice has been, and still is, subject to modification, and much of it has not been “canonized” (if I may be allowed to borrow the term) like the Standard Works have been?  Further, the non-public rituals of the Temple cannot be fully incorporated. Nevertheless, it still seems strange to ignore this body of public religious practice in Mormon theologizing since it is so pervasive and seems so essential for individual spiritual formation, as well as for both individual and collective religious identity.  Moreover, an emphasis on Mormon liturgical practice in the creation of theology could be beneficial for clarifying LDS beliefs and attitudes on certain subjects vis-a-vis the teachings or doctrines of other social or religious groups when traditional methods of engagement (Scripture, philosophy, etc.) have proved inconclusive or fruitless. How, then, do you understand the value of liturgical practice in Mormon theologizing, and how do you think it could be incorporated more effectively into that project?

Mormon Christology/ies?

The New Testament writings and other LDS Scriptural texts present a variety of Christologies (i.e., understandings about who Jesus was and the purpose of his life, teachings, and mission).  For instance, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as the pre-existent divine Word (logos) that was with the Father in the beginning and who created the world only to become flesh in it in order to redeem those who should believe on his name.  The Gospel of Matthew, however, presents Jesus as the inspired Law-Interpreter whose teachings reveal the true understanding of the Law of Moses and whose life and actions fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures.  In Matthew, Jesus is born of  virgin; he is half-human, half-god.  Likewise, Luke has an infancy narrative that attributes divine sonship to Jesus, but Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the greatest of the prophets ultimately destined for rejection. Interestingly, Luke does not seem to understand Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins. Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, like John’s, lacks an infancy narrative; yet, in contrast to the Gospel of John, there is no mystical reflection in this text regarding Jesus’ pre-existent divine state. Moreover, unlike Luke’s account, Mark does appear to understand Jesus’ death as substitutionary (Mark 10:45).  Suffice it to say, there are many other differences between the Gospels, and the other New Testament writings likewise portray Jesus’ life, teachings, and mission (if indeed they even directly touch on these issues) in different ways.  The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus was made perfect through his sufferings (Heb 2:10) and became in every respect like humanity (Heb 2:17), and therefore he is able to sympathize with humanity precisely because he suffered temptation/testing in the same manner, although he never capitulated to sin (Heb 4:15) (Hebrews does not refer to a birth narrative, although it does appear to understand Jesus as pre-existent in some sense; see Heb 1:1–6).  (These statements, in turn, ask us to consider what exactly “sin” and “testing/temptation” is/are.)  Finally, D&C 93:1–17 states that Jesus divested himself of the pre-existent divine glory which he shared with the Father and dwelt on earth as fully human (confer also, e.g., Jn 1:1–18; Jn 17:1–21; Phil 2:6–11). He received not a fullness at first in mortality but continued moving from “grace to grace” until he received a fullness. [Read more...]

I’m pitching the Whipple biography with all my might

Title: “Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maureen Whipple
Author: Veda Tebbs Hale
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Biography
Year: 2011
Pages: 456
ISBN13: 9781589581241
Binding: Paperback
Price: $31.95

Yes, I’m cross-posting this book review from, my old haunt, my book review depository. I’d like to add one comment in this version of the review. I failed to mention that this book has one pretty serious, in my view glaring, error. Basically it’s this: Whipple deserves a hardcover!!! Look, I understand some of the financial considerations, yes, and I love that Kofford Books is putting this puppy out there in any form. But it’s too good for a floppy paperback! Maybe they could work out a deal with Curt Bench and do another run, this time in hardcover, and package it with Whipple’s novel, The Giant Joshua. Get it done! And with that, my review.

One of the most significant conversations in the life of Mormon author Maurine Whipple took place between herself and a Bishop. It wasn’t a Mormon bishop, though, it was John Peale Bishop, a nationally-recognized poet and talent scout. During the 1937 Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference the two found themselves talking about life and literature on the steps of a Boulder, Colorado frat house. Maurine poured her heart out. “She had lost at least two jobs, created and lost two more, been married, divorced, suffered rape and an abortion, and plunged into six romantic relationships” (97, I wish Tebbs had explored the legal and medical ramifications of an abortion in this time period). This, in addition to other difficulties including resentment towards her father borne of a difficult childhood in St. George, Utah, led Bishop to exclaim: “My God! What swell suffering! Great literature is born from suffering like that!” (1).
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