Saturday, January 31, 2009

Non-doctrinal singing

“In Humility, Our Saviour” is an absolutely heartrendingly beautiful musical setting, but the last couple lines are pretty astonishingly counter-doctrinal. I mean, “…when we have proven worthy of Thy sacrifice divine”?!? Isn’t part of the point that we can’t do that?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Straitening something out

Folks, “strait and narrow” != “straight and narrow”.* A strait and narrow path can be very nicely curvy and scenic. Thank you for your attention, and your future correct use of the phrase.

* For those who aren’t nerds enough to know, !=  means “does not equal”.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Word of Wisdom’s application

Here’s something i’ve seriously wondered about for a while:

Is the Word of Wisdom also applicable to non-Mormons?

That is, is it also wrong for non-Mormons to disobey the outlines of the Word of Wisdom? I tend to think that the Word of Wisdom applies only to those who have covenanted (through baptism) to follow it—so it’s not a sin (even a sin of ignorance) for non-Mormons to drink coffee or beer, or even to smoke. (It may be unhealthy for them, but not sinful.) For Mormons, on the other hand, doing so is sinful.

That’s simply my own speculation, though—i don’t know if i’m actually right.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The law of witnesses

Mormons* are often weird about the law of witnesses idea. (You know, the thing from Matthew 18:16, or Deuteronomy 19:15, saying that it takes two witnesses to testify of truth.) For example, to take one i heard recently, since Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all testified that Jesus is the Christ, that proves that he was.

Of course, there’s lots of witnesses to the transcendence of the Buddha, as well.

In a different direction, i’ve also heard (happily only once, so this is an outlier) the claim that since Jesus is the Christ, the fact that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon testify of such proves that the Book of Mormon is from God, since it and the Bible both testify of truth. That one’s so flawed and circular that i still haven’t figured out how to explain how wrong it is.

*I assume that people in some other denominations do this, too, but i have no experience there.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Are Mormons Protestant?

I’ve heard a number of people say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn’t a Protestant church, but it’s also not a Catholic church. However, this leaves us undefined,* and it’d be nice to have a label of some sort—so here’s my take:

I’d argue that it’s true that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but rather that we’re part of a third (and much smaller) branch of Xianity, the Restoration branch (as opposed to Restorationist, which is clearly Protestant). This branch includes not just the LDS Movement religions, but also such religions as the New Apostolic Church and possibly the Quakers—basically, those churches that rejected previous approaches in favor of a restoration directly from the divine (or authority or spirit or whatever one cares to call it), without arguing that what’s involved is a “priesthood of all believers” or a similar idea.**

* And saying “We’re not Protestant, we’re not Catholic, we’re true” isn’t a valid way of dealing with it—it ignores the possibility that the Protestants or the Catholics or another of the neither-of-those groups is right.

** The Worldwide Church of God has gone through an interesting shift in which it started out as a Restoration church, but has moved toward fitting in better with Protestantism. There are a number of LDS Movement churches that have done the same.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency

A few thoughts in honor of Inauguration Day here in the US…

Joseph Smith was actively campaigning for the presidency of the United States when he was killed. (Well, to be completely accurate, others were campaigning on his behalf at the time—he was in hiding and then prison for the last bit there.) He wasn’t a terribly viable candidate in the sense that he was pretty clearly not going to win the election, but there was some serious thought given at the time to the possibility that he could have won Illinois (after all, he commanded a bloc of votes that would have dominated Nauvoo, then easily the largest city in the state, and some other areas).*

As a sidebar, if Joseph Smith had won Illinois, James K. Polk would have still won the election—161 electoral votes to Henry Clay’s 105 to Joseph Smith’s 9—but the shift in votes may have killed Polk’s popular vote plurality (which was 49.54% to Clay’s 48.08%, a difference of only 39,494 votes), especially if a regionally viable third-party candidate like Smith boosted the Liberty Party candidacy of James Birney (who took 2.30%, with 62,103 votes) by eliminating a bit of the “wasted vote” hurdle. Makes for an interesting what-if, to imagine how a Jacksonian (Polk is generally considered the last of the bunch) would have reacted to being a representative of a clear minority.

* This is one of the reasons i nearly consistently refer to the circumstances surrounding Joseph Smith, Jr.’s death as an “assassination”. The political overtones fit for this reason (among others).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Church organization

Some people are bothered by the fact that the church’s current organization isn’t to be found anywhere in the early Xian church, whether in the records of the church in the Mediterranean basin or in the Book of Mormon. Some people say it’s because they didn’t have the fullness of the gospel that we have now, and therefore they didn’t have the organizational structure, but i think there’s an easier way of thinking about it.

After all, there’s nothing that says that we have a “fullness” of church organization right now, any more than any other group did. In fact, it may be like dietary codes—it appears that (at least most) every group of God’s covenant people has had a dietary code, but that they’ve all been different.*

Similarly, it may be that the organization of the church (or equivalent group) has been different at all points, and that’s okay. Or, even more intriguingly, it may be that there have been different titles and roles because they’re all different, with equivalences possible at different levels.

Since i’m an academic, a possible parallel that occurs to me is in academic degrees: The US system has an associates, which doesn’t really have parallels elsewhere, the Scottish and Canadian systems have bachelors degrees that are equivalent to each other but not the US bachelors, which is equivalent to the Scottish masters and the Canadian honors bachelors, while the US masters and Canadian masters degrees are equivalent. Then there’s doctoral degrees, which are thought to divide neatly into professional doctorates like those for law, medicine, dentistry, &c., versus research ones like the PhD, but what about the EdD, which stands somewhere in between? They are, however, all doctoral degrees. And then there’s the MFA, which is terminal but not doctoral, and the DLitt, which is doctoral but in many ways radically different from all the rest.

Maybe church organization throughout history is like all these different systems—due to different needs, there have been different titles used, and they haven’t always been the same, and there have even been completely different structures used. This doesn’t mean one of them reflects a “fullness” of organization, it just means that it’s what was used in that particular circumstance.

* Well, unless you’re one of those people who believes Jesus never drank fermented wine, like some Gospel Doctrine teachers i’ve had (and apparently most of the people i’ve been in Gospel Doctrine classes with, or at least most of the vocal ones). Odd, though, how nobody ever mentions pork when claiming that everybody’s always had the same dietary restrictions…

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Scriptural ambiguity

Chapter 1, verse 30 of the book of Doctrine and Covenants, particularly the last bit of it, is often taken as a simple confirmation by God that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s one true church:

And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—

[Emphasis added—db]

However, this statement is structurally ambiguous—it could mean any of a number of different things:

1) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church,* and God was pleased with it—the usual Mormon reading, i’d say.

(2) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one of more than one true churches, but that God was only pleased with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(3) At the time, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church in an active state, and God was pleased with it, but that there were other true churches in some other, perhaps then dormant, state.

(4) God was pleased with many churches, and out of those churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true one.

There are other readings, but these—especially (1) and (2)—seem to me to be the most basic.

Anyway, i think it’s worth pointing out that prooftexts like this can only go so far.

* With “true church” meaning what Mormons generally mean when they say “true church”.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Leading the church astray

Appended to Official Declaration 1 in the book of Doctrine and Covenants is the following statement by Wilford Woodruff (cited as coming from the October 1890 General Conference):

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.

I’ve thought about this statement a lot. It seems that most members of the church (at least, most of the ones who say anything about it in church meetings) read this as saying that a prophet can’t teach anything that’s false—if that happened, God would summarily kill the prophet (or, though this is mentioned less often as a possibility, the prophet would be removed from office by action of a disciplinary council).

I like to look at it a little differently. I think another possibility is that a prophet can teach any amount of falsehood—but that the body of the church won’t be led astray by it. (It it were about to be, then i suppose death or removal would be an option.) This allows some nice finessing of historical discomforts—consider Brigham Young’s teaching of the Adam-God theory. (And, despite what some Mormon apologists would like to believe, he most certainly did teach it, and publicly.) Well, it’s pretty clearly recognized as a false teaching—and notice that the prophet didn’t lead the church astray. It isn’t in the programme, after all, as Wilford Woodruff helpfully pointed out—the body of the church is able to be worked upon by the Spirit very nicely in such situations, it seems.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

O pioneers!

Mormon veneration of the pioneers bothers me.

I’m not bothered by them being a part of the cultural and religious history of the church, and being discussed in that way, but i am bothered by two main parts of the way Mormon culture (at least in the US—i don’t know if this is the case elsewhere) deals with the concept of pioneers:

(1) A strong (but hopefully fading, at least in most geographic areas the church is in) cultural belief that the Mormon pioneers were super-fantastically righteous and most excellent people. Actually, i don’t see that in itself as a Bad Thing (though i’d argue it isn’t as true as some would like it to be) as long as it doesn’t get carried too far, but pretty much anything can get carried too far, and it seems to me that many Mormons do carry it too far—the most obvious case being the assumption that, since the Mormon pioneers were such most excellent and righteous (in both senses) dudes and dudines,* therefore their descendants have an inside track to excellentness and righteousness.

(2) The myopic lens through which Mormons view the concept of what a “pioneer” is. It scares me how few Mormons realize that the Mormon pioneers were actually a significant but still very small minority of the American pioneers. Remember, folks, it’s Nebraska that has Conestoga wagons on its state road signs, not Utah!

Actually, i’ll add a third one, which i think is actually related to (2), so i’ll call it

(2a) A need to extend the concept of “pioneer” beyond its usable scope. My parents, for example, weren’t pioneers—they were Southern Marylanders who happened to join the church back when it was still a really, really tiny presence there. There is nothing handcart about them, believe me. Trying to lump them in as “pioneers” is kind of insulting to both them and the mid-nineteenth century Mormon pioneers, i think.**

* Yes, according to the Oxford English Dictionary that’s the original feminine form.

**I guess what really bugs me most about my (2a) is that strikes me as an attempt to use a word to have it both ways—there are “The Pioneers”, and then there’s sort of a “oh, heck yeah, we’ll let you sit at our table, too”, but with what i see as a commonly-implied “if you really must intrude on our perfect Pioneer-descent society”. That’s overstating it, of course, but i really do think there’s some of that attitude around.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Props in sacrament meeting

I’m mostly happy with the church’s policy against the use of props in sacrament meeting addresses—but there’s some times it’d be fun, you know?

Like one person i know who (some years ago) used a fruit pie as a prop in speaking about how mass media can be attractive but harmful. I though it was a pity that it never actually got used as a prop—you know, something like

Brothers and sisters, this fruit pie is just like the mass media. It has its good uses—see how i’m eating a bite right now, and it tastes real good, let me tell you—but it also has its bad uses, as you’ll see as i whirl around in a moment and pop it straight into the bishop’s face.

If nothing else, i’d get out of speaking in sacrament meeting for a long, long time.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Why do we build meetinghouses?

Serous question. I mean, the early Xian church was a home church bunch, and we’re rather emphatically not. So why have we chosen that particular way to be different?

Might even save a few dollars in heating/air conditioning and maintenance costs.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Why Sunday School?

Can someone explain to me why we have Sunday School each Sunday? I mean, yeah, so that we can learn about gospel topics, i’ve got that—but while i can see the need for sacrament meeting attendance (by canon, in fact), and i can see a claim made for the necessity of priesthood meetings (since they’re supposed to sit in council together, as the book of Doctrine and Covenants puts it), why Sunday School?

In fact, i wonder whether the church leadership sees Sunday School as necessary. After all, the quarterly reports that go to the church don’t include how many attend Sunday School meetings, whereas pretty much every other of the Sunday meetings has attendance numbers reported. It simply makes me wonder whether Sunday School is as important to the central administration of the church as other parts of the Sunday meetings. (Especially since Sunday School attendance numbers did used to be reported.)

Of course, then we’d only be meeting for two hours each Sunday, and obviously that would mean we were on the high road to apostasy. Fewer meetings? Never!!