Christianity 101, BoM Style

Tis the start of the New Year, and therefore the start of a new lesson cycle for those of us who serve as teachers in church.  What to do, what to do, we think.  A class participant who is 48 years old may have heard the lessons we are supposed to present some ten or so times!  And this year the Sunday School lesson cycle is the Book of Mormon, which most people can actually read if they try, so it’s not like we’re going to surprise anyone with some new verses about the theological insights of the mothers of the stripling warriors or whatever…

Fortunately, I don’t have that problem.  I’m teaching the oldest adolescents this year, so I seem to have four young gentlemen in their last two years of high school.  They’ve had these lessons perhaps only three times!  However, since they are teenagers it is quite possible that they do already know everything there is to know with that incorrigible certainty so characteristic of youth…

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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...]

The Flood: Global or Localized?

I would argue neither.

With the rising tide of modern science, historical criticism, and other scholarly disciplines, those committed to a strict literalist interpretation of the Flood stories in Gen 6-9 have had to retreat farther and farther up the metaphorical beach in order to maintain their belief in the historical reality of the Biblical tale.  For instance, basic problems with a literal reading of the narrative include the fact that there is no geological evidence for a global flood, and that the Biblical Flood narrative in large part is derivative of an older Mesopotamian Flood story from the myth Atrahasis (among many other reasons).  Sometimes, though, more liberal readers of the text suggest that the Flood was a historical event but that it was localized in a specific area, and that from the shortsighted view of the ancient author the whole land (including the mountains) indeed was covered with water. Thus we shouldn’t expect there to be evidence in the geological record for a global flood. However, there is, in my view, a more adequate understanding of the text, one that takes it on its own terms.

Israelite cosmology as it is reflected in the Bible basically consisted of a three-tiered world with the heavens/sky above, the earth below the sky, and the waters below the earth.  In the heavens (which, for some authors, had multiple levels) the gods resided, while humans lived on the earth. Moreover, Israelites believed that there was water above the earth, presumably because the sky, like the sea, is blue and, moreover, rain would often come down from the sky. In this pre-scientific worldview there was a solid, clear (perhaps ice or crystal?) dome-like structure that prevented the waters above the earth from crashing down onto the earth. This material object is translated as “firmament” in the KJV in Gen 1. The so-called “windows” of heaven were, in their view, sluices cut into the dome through which YHWH would send down rain according to his providence.  The sun and the stars were underneath this solid dome.  Furthermore, pillars were sunk into the subterranean waters to support the earth, and below the earth was also She’ol, the underworld.  Mountains, on the other hand, were thought by some to support the dome.  For more visual readers, see HERE for a basic representation of this cosmological worldview.

Gen 1 describes creation as a divine process of organizing the world from the chaotic primeval waters by separating different elements so as to provide order.  The Israelite God separates the waters using the dome in order to create the sky and then, within this “bubble,” proceeds to organize the rest of the world through separation and demarcation.  Just as, on the social level, God separated the Israelites from the other nations and gave them his covenant and its attendant laws in order to organize their lives and provide them with well-being, so too, on the cosmological level, proceeded the creation of the world.  The formation of the world, in a sense, mirrored the creation of Israel, and vice versa.

Thus it would seem somewhat unfair either to criticize or to validate – on scientific grounds – the author(s) of the Flood stories by measuring their texts against the ruler of modern scientific cosmology.  The Flood stories do not comment upon whether the Flood was local or global in scientific terms; indeed, their view was pre-scientific.  Rather, for the Israelites who authored these stories the Flood primarily represents “uncreation”: that is, the disorder and chaos that existed before God’s mastery over creation brought order. When sin filled the world the God of Israel unleashed the subterranean and heavenly waters to fill the bubble. So too if Israel transgressed its covenant and failed to keep the laws of YHWH their society would fall into chaos and ruin.

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?



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...]

Pharisees, Scribes, and Modern Disciples

In TYD’s post below, “A Prophet is Only a Prophet When…,” one of the commenters, identified as Jeremiah Rush, left the following thoughts:

If the Jesus as described in the new testament existed today, he would assert the mormons (and most of christianity) are like unto the ‘pharisees, scribes, and hypocrits.’ Monson as a “prophet?” A penthouse on temple square, wool suits (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), driving around in limos, having his picture in millions of people’s homes, etc–certainly not like Jesus. It all reminds me of this: ‘Those who love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (or chapel, or conference center)’ and further, ‘ they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ The mormon leadership are a bunch of geriatric, brainwashed and brainwashing men. If he is a prophet, then I’m a f@#$%*&% saint ;-) But of course you will now say, ‘he is fallen, and hath a devil.’

This interests me because it has some elements of what is an enduring appraisal of Christian leadership: that the leaders in whatever is the current age do not conduct themselves as did Jesus or the original disciples. And in fact, many books and articles have been written exploring precisely this point, and suggesting precisely what Mr. Rush suggests: Christ would disown or be disowned by Christianity.

What I wonder is this: Under what circumstances is this a legitimate evaluation?

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Would Jesus “Stick to the Manual”?

Recently I was asked to fill in as Gospel Doctrine teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity/challenge of helping people gain another lens through which to view the scriptures (ancient and/or modern) since everytime I see people have that moment of enlightenment when they gain new insight into the scriptures, gospel, etc. (something that I would argue is an observable phenomenon), I feel that I get to re-live the moments of enlightenment in my own life. This process of learning, teaching, learning, teaching, etc. is by far and away the place where I feel my strongest personal connection to the gospel, the church, and God and thus rarely pass on such an opportunity. My lesson went very well and a great majority of the class were thrilled to gain some insight into the context of verses that are so often repeated that they have nearly become proverbial:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
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Ten Tidbits about the Sermon on the Mount

1. The Sermon on the Mount only appears in Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, the sermon is given not on a mountain, but a “level place” (6:17), and is frequently referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. These two sermons share some material, but diverge greatly. Attempts at harmonization argue that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, but most believe that the authors are working from shared sayings that have been put together in different ways. Most of what is in Matthew’s Sermon is found scattered about in different narrative contexts in Luke. Mark and John contain almost none of what is in Matthew’s sermon.
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