Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ringing in the new year, Mormon style

The church’s current policies are weird about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

First of all, fast Sundays are never to be held on New Year’s Day—the stake president is supposed to reschedule fast days for a different day when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday (as it does this weekend). I mean, even Easter doesn’t get that treatment when it falls on the first Sunday of a month—so what’s so special about the first day of the year? I mean, one would think that church policy wouldn’t be assuming we need good hydration due to fighting off hangovers, you know?

Also, when new Year’s Eve falls on a Monday, New Year’s Eve parties can be held in church buildings. This is, as far as i can tell, the only exception to the rule that church activities are never to be held on a Monday night. I mean, we don’t even get to have a church activity on Monday night when Christmas Eve falls on a Monday, and you’d think you’d want to have some church-based observance of that day before you’d have one for New Year’s Eve, you know?

So what’s the big (religious) deal about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? I mean, really, i don’t get it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tattoos, again

I’ve said similar before, but i’m saying it again ’cause i still don’t get it: If putting tattoos to decorate your body is a defacement precisely parallel to slapping paint on one of our temples (i.e., graffiti, it’s a Bad Thing), then why do so many of our temples (not least the one in the middle of Salt Lake City, arguably our flagship temple) have decorations and carvings and stuff? Kind of goes against the whole idea, you know?

Unless the idea is actually that it’s carvings and not paint, so tattoos are out but scarification is okay? I don’t think that’s what they’re after, but it’s the only way i can think of to keep the image consistent.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Breaking from my usual practice of posting in the late afternoon or early evening to pause in the near-dark of a pre-sunrise Alaskan morning and enjoy the effect of the light coat of freshly fallen snow as it reflects the faint blue of the sunrise to wish you all a Merry Christmas—and, since the seasons overlap this year, to wish any Jewish readers a Happy Channukkah. Also, for any Muslim or Pagan readers, belated Eid al-Adha and Solstice greetings—and if you simply don’t care about any of those things, i offer my sincere hopes that this is one of the best Sundays you’ve ever had.

My nature is snark, but there are some days that i’m happy to put it aside.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What (and why) is truth?

So i spoke in church not this past Sunday, but the one before. Just ’cause i have a blog and therefore i can, i’m including the text of it here. (In writing this thing, i actually cribbed some of the lines from a sacrament meeting speech i gave about six years ago, also at Xmastime, but they seemed to fit nicely in this setting.)

Good morning. I was given an address from the latest general conference of the church to use as the basis for what I’m presenting today: Dallin H. Oaks’s address, which was titled “Teachings of Jesus”. I’d recommend giving it a read—it’s a good reminder of things we ought to already know, but sometimes forget. It discusses the importance of Jesus to not just our beliefs, but our lives—and it also, as the title suggests, discusses some of Jesus’s teachings and their importance.

This got me thinking: What has Jesus taught us, through his words and his examples? Well, thinking about this led me to a particular saying of Jesus, and since I’m old-fashioned enough that I use scriptural texts as springboards for my religious speechmaking, I decided to use this particular saying as my text: “…for this cause came I into the world…” This text is taken from the middle of the good news according to John, chapter 18 verse 37, and it’s from the middle of one of Jesus’s responses to Pontius Pilate at his final trial before being shown to the crowd. Introducing this as the text for my speech today, though, leads to a fairly obvious question: What exactly is the “cause”? Jesus says that he came into the world for “this cause”, but what might that cause be? To answer this, we need to look at the surrounding context.

In verse 33, staying with the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Pilate asks Jesus directly about criminal charges, trying to find out whether Jesus is actually guilty of treason, or at least fomenting rebellion: “Art thou the king of the Jews?” After a bit of back and forth, in verse 36, Jesus says, fairly famously, “My kingdom is not of this world”. He goes further and provides some evidence for this, explaining that his servants didn’t fight for him, which is of course what servants of an earthly king would do. Pilate repeats his question (we’ve come back to verse 37 now): “Art thou a king, then?”—though the text seems ambiguous, since some translations have Pilate questioning, saying “So You are a king?” and in some he’s shocked, not even questioning: “You are a king, then!”

Jesus answers, in part: “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

This is a simple yet dense statement—a set of statements, actually. First, Jesus announces his kingship: “You say rightly that I am a king”, as several translators have rendered the sentence. Having done that, though, Jesus announces something that is at first glance less impressive than kingship, but that I would say is at least as amazing: His purpose in coming to earth was, put simply, truth. “I was born into this world to tell about truth”.

Think about that for a second—and if you’ve been sleeping through the exegesis to this point, if you’ve been zoning out, if you’ve been analyzing the pattern on the shirt worn by the person in front of you, this is the time to come back. As Robert Young rendered it literally, yet poetically, “…A king I am, I for this have been born, and for this I have come to the world, that I may testify to the truth…” Jesus came to testify of truth. And he did testify! As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews points out, Jesus the Christ was not just a good example for our lives, he was not just a religious figure—he was the testator of the new testament, the new agreement, the new covenant between mortals and God the Father. And as the testator, he died so that the new covenant could be put into effect, just as—according to the author of Hebrews—just as the maker of a will must die for it to be put into effect. Jesus’s supreme testimony was fulfilled by his death, his death which allowed—this is a quote—“that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”.

But death! Why in the world am I up here talking about death? We’re in the middle of the season of Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, not Palm Sunday or Easter, when it might seem more natural to look forward or backward, as the case may be, to Jesus’s death, as celebrated on Good Friday. Sure, Jesus testified, and he testified most consummately through his death, but isn’t there something happier to talk about here?

You want happiness? There is happiness here, but I’m gonna warn you that we’ll have to stick with sadness for a while before we get to the joy. This is because I’ve talked about the supreme method, the incomparable manner of Jesus’s testifying, but I’ve pretty much ignored what he told us he was testifying of: truth. But “what is truth?” we must ask—along with Pilate, I would note, who asked the question before leaving the judgment hall. We, however, unlike Pilate, can be willing to remain and learn what this truth thing is, and why it was so important for Jesus to give everything for it.

The ninety-third section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants contains some spectacular teachings on the glory of God, and on our relationship to God. However, one of the most quoted verses in that section deals with something perhaps more foundational, and that is what I will quote here—the twenty-fourth verse, which says that “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…” Now, it’s easy to let your mind wander when people read verses of scripture that many in the audience have heard and even read themselves many times before, so let me read this again, slowly, with emphasis, and with the complete attention of everyone out there: “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…”

Rhetorical, but still very important, question: Can you feel the audacity in this claim? We have the answer to Pilate’s question right in front of us! What is truth? Truth is huge, that’s what it is! It would be big enough if it were just everything that is, was, and will be, but it’s much more personal than that. It’s not simply an abstraction hanging out there, something untouchable, something unreachable, it’s the knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. The knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. It’s something that each of us can experience personally—something that, as it says later in that same section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants, something that we can receive through communion with God.

Now hopefully, if my rhetorical skills are as good as I hope they are today, at least some of you are recognizing—or recognizing anew—the enormity of what Jesus was saying when he said his purpose for coming to earth was to testify of truth. He was testifying of everything—and not just an unreachable everything, but: everything and we can know it.

But everything’s a lot to deal with. If you try to take on knowledge of everything, if you try to take on truth all at once, it could potentially be overwhelming—or at least I know it would likely be so for me. So, a reasonable question: Where should I start?

Well, we can start by going full circle. Joseph Smith said that—quote—“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven…” (end of quote). What are the fundamental principles of our religion? That the apostles and prophets were telling the truth about Jesus, basically—that Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected. And how central is this? Well, it’s so central—let me give you the complete sentence the quote I just gave was taken from: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” It’s that important.

This brings us back to death, though—but it also brings us to truth. And although Jesus came into this world to be killed, his death testified of truth, and if we receive the knowledge that comes with receiving that truth, we will have no need to be saddened, no need to despair—we can rejoice in the birth of Jesus with Simeon, who, even though he prophesied of the death of Jesus, he had received of truth enough to rejoice at the birth of the Son of God, blessing God and saying what are to my mind the most joyous words in the Bible: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

For Jesus is a light to all nations, the Son of God revealed in the flesh. As we celebrate Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, let us remember that although Jesus was born to die, even though he was born to give his life as an offering, the covenant he sealed with his death allows us access to that truth that will allow us to rejoice. And this is open to all of us! As Nephi tells us in the Book of Mormon, God invites all of us, “black and white, bond and free, male and female…Jew and Gentile”—and I’d add to that list any of the other lines we might separate ourselves along these days: rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Mormon and non-Mormon, even believer and non-believer. God invites all of us, no matter how we may label ourselves, no matter how others may label us.

I offer my hopes that I, that you, that all of us in this room, that all of us in this world may receive of the truth that Jesus has offered us, and I offer this in the name of Jesus the Christ, the savior of the world. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Once there was a gadget

Has anybody else noticed that if you hum the tune to the Primary song “Once There Was a Snowman”,* it sounds really very much like the Inspector Gadget theme song?

* I would link to the tune here, but the entire domain seems to be down at the moment, so i can’t.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Who should count?

Can we stop calling the Relief Society “the largest women’s organization in the world”? It strikes me as a bit of a dishonest label, actually—i mean, just because you happen to be female, have been baptized into the Mormon church at some point, and have survived to your eighteenth birthday (or gotten married, whichever comes first), well, that makes you a part of the Relief Society.

Sorry, folks, that’s not an organization, that’s a convenient label for a group of people. If women actually consciously chose whether to be affiliated with the Relief Society,* like used to be the case, well, then i could see that being a meaningful claim. But how many of the women whose “membership” in the Relief Society supposedly makes it such a large organization are actually involved in it? If someone’s so far outside of it as many of those women are, why in the world do we count them?

* Which was one of Joseph Smith’s quite emphatic bars to entry into the Relief Society. (Actually living according to gospel principles was another, and i’ll note in passing that that’s not a part of the requirements nowadays, either.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prioritizing needs

Here's a meme i’d like to see us lose: “What people need most is a knowledge of the gospel.”

No, what people need most is oxygen. Once they’ve got that, well, that’s when we can start preaching the gospel to them, i figure.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Putting 5:8 odds on getting a firm answer on this

So the Mormon church has held a position against gambling for longer than any of us have been alive—and this is a radically consistent position against gambling in all of its forms, even for things like charity fundraiser raffles.

What i wonder: Is this position an outgrowth of canonical doctrine, or is this an outgrowth of Mormon cultural norms of somewhat over a century ago? If it’s the former, then i’d like to know the basis for it, since i haven’t been able to find it; if it’s the latter, then does that make it a position that’s subject to change at any point in time, should church leadership opt to do so? (And if not, why not?)

(Also, gambling isn’t part of the temple recommend questions, which makes for an interesting gap in its catalogue of orthopraxy.)

Anyway, just wondering about this particular one, and wondering if anyone out there has any insight on the subject.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In which David B reveals a pet peeve

Okay—sometimes Mormons just annoy me. Today’s issue? Mormons who get all superior by comparing fasting practices in Mormonism with fasting practices in other religions—or, even worse, saying that what folks in other religions do isn’t “real fasting”. You know the meme—saying followers of Islam aren’t really fasting ’cause the Ramadan fast lasts sunrise to sunset rather than twenty-four hours (while ignoring that these are people who are doing this for weeks at a time!), or that the Roman Catholic (among others) Lenten fast doesn’t count ’cause they’re not giving up all food and drink.

I mean, this is just wrong on many levels, not least because there’s no set definition of what would count as “real fasting”, anyway—there’s nothing magic about it involving food (let along food and drink), or about it being twenty-four hours at a go. And this is a meme i’ve heard multiple times in multiple places over the course of many years. Unfortunately, it’s considered impolite to throw an eraser at someone for saying idiotic things, or there’d be a lot of Mormons out there with chalk dust upside their heads.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Temptation as food processor

You know, the scriptures often talk about “stirring the hearts of men up to anger”. Is this as opposed to “pureeing the hearts of men up to anger”?

Monday, November 28, 2011

What happens when the world isn’t as bad as we say?

One thing that y’all may have missed in the excitement of Thanksgiving weekend and Xmas shopping was the news that the teen pregnancy rate in the United States declined last year. And when i say it declined, i mean it declined—it dropped to a record low rate for the entire time records have been kept (70 years!), and this isn’t just a little blip downwards, but a continuation of a long-term trend.*

And yes, some of this is due to an increased use of contraception, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s analysis (which is only available in PDF format, and i don’t like linking to PDFs, so no link here, but it’s googlable) finds that a lot of it is also due to teens simply choosing not to have sex.** Kind of runs counter to the common Mormon meme that the world is busily going to hell in a handbasket, and that we need to aggressively shelter our kids from whatever the rest of the world is doing, since everybody else is getting more and more evil.***

So i’ll just say that what i became very thankful for this past Thanksgiving weekend was that my children are growing up in a world that seems to be getting more and more moral in some very important ways, whether we care to notice that or not.

* I recognize that the unwed teen pregnancy rate is a more interesting statistic for this entry than simply the teen pregnancy rate, but those statistics turn out to be really hard to come by—or, at least, reliable ones are hard to find. Part of the problem is that the best numbers for my purposes would be teen pregnancies in which conception (not just birth) occurred outside of marriage, and that doesn’t seem to be well-tracked by anybody.

**And before anybody decides to pull out the abortion card, i’ll simply note that the teen abortion rate has been steadily falling over the past several decades, and that the stats i’m talking about are pregnancy rates, anyway, not birth rates.

*** As does the fact that the peak year for the teen pregnancy rate (in the United States) was 1957. You mean teen pregnancies have been lower than that for more than 50 years, and we still haven’t realized that maybe the world isn’t all that more evil a place for our kids to grow up than it was when we were kids?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Truth from the lips of a child

Thanksgiving is widely described as a “family holiday”, and so in honor of the day i give you a quote from a member of my family (my 10-year-old daughter) earlier today:

Hot chocolate is the Mormon coffee.

Wisdom and insight, straight from a child.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Translation theory in action

Has anybody else noticed a trend away from the idea that English is a perfect object language for expressing religious items coming from the church’s translation department over the past half-century?

Consider German: Full-time missionaries used to (up until sometime after the mid-twentieth century) be referred to as Älteste+[last name], because Älteste is the usual translation of the English word Elder. This was even sillier than the English Elder+[nineteen-year-old’s last name], though, since "Älteste literally means oldest. Now, though, the church in Germany uses Elder+[last name] for full-time missionaries, which in my opinion works much better, since Elder doesn’t have a preexisting meaning in German. (And this change wasn’t just a change in general use—it even extended to the nametags.)

Also, starting sometime in the eighties or so, Endowment started slipping out of use as the German word for the temple endowment, replaced by the much more descriptive-in-German word Begabung.

Maybe there’s some hope for the higher-ups someday recognizing that English might need some translations of its own, or at least a move away from certain archaic-but-found-in-the-King-James-Version terms…

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Utah in Alaska

So our family took in a basketball game last night hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage, one of our local universities.* It was unremarkable as college sporting events go, except when we looked at the program, only to find that the University of Alaska Anchorage—yes, Anchorage, Alaska—has a pretty sizable number of transfer students on the roster from Utah junior colleges (plus one player from Utah who came to Anchorage straight out of high school). Not only that, but they’re good—three of them started the game.**

Now, just ’cause these players are from Utah, it doesn’t mean that they’re Mormon†—but the odds are that most of them are.†† So, the question: What’s up with a recruiting pipeline from majority-Mormon Utah to majority-irreligious Alaska? It seems rather far away. I’m guessing there’s a story behind this, but i don’t know where to look for it.

* They currently have a nationally-ranked NCAA Division II women’s basketball team, and their early-season tune-up sacrificial lambopponent was the Dominican University of California Penguins—and if “Penguins” is an oblique reference to the school having been originally founded by nuns, they now have one of my very, very favorite school mascots ever.

** The other two starters were from other countries. We realized, as we looked at the roster, that the university could fill the floor with Utahns, and they could also fill the floor with non-North Americans. Yes, Alaska.

† Well, except for the one who Jeanne and i both agreed had the perfect look for a singles ward relief society president—ponytail don’t lie.

†† Only one of them is from Mormon-minority Salt Lake City, after all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Whither the (sorta-)unbelievers?

Participating in temple worship is a necessary thing if one wishes to be a full participant in the Mormon religion. However, receiving a recommend requires not just adhering to accepted Mormon practice, but also believing in it.

This poses a problem for those amongst us who are affiliated with Mormonism, and self-identify as Mormons, but for whatever reason have not received a spiritual witness of some part of the faith—some, in fact, of as basic a thing as whether God actually exists.

So those who don’t have a testimony (as generally defined within Mormonism) of such things are stuck with something approaching a Morton’s choice: either participating fully as a result of lying by saying they believe when they don’t, or telling the truth and not participating fully. It seems to me that this is a problematic position to place those people in, and the sort of thing that might well drive them away rather than bringing them closer to the faith. I don’t know how to resolve this problem, but that doesn’t stop me from perceiving it as a problem, you know?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ignoring the wrong book

Can we finally admit that the Song of Solomon is really pretty poetry, and that we don’t actually have a good excuse for ignoring it in gospel doctrine classes—well, or at least that we have no good reason for ignoring it as long as we continue to read bits from the clinically-depressed bit of scripture that is Ecclesiastes?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The evils of not having money

I was going through some old notes from church meetings, and i discovered a reference to a speaker saying that the early (as in late 1830s) Mormons were “evicted from Missouri”.

Evicted? Wow. I’d never known that the early Mormons had been that far behind on their rent, but Jeanne and i have been reading through the Documentary History of the Church, and the church and its leaders certainly had their share of cashflow problems, so i guess that makes sense as the reason all the unpleasantness of the time happened. Right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Speculation! (the sequel)

So in my last post i said that there was a lot of speculation about what would be announced in the out-of-cycle stake conference that our stake had this past Sunday.

And so, you may ask, what was the big announcement? Well, the answer is [drum roll, please]…

Absolutely nothing.

Yes, that’s right, much to my surprise the big announcement matched precisely what i was hoping for, if only to teach people that speculation doesn’t work. There had been a number of general authorities in town to do some training for the stake presidencies, and the stake presidencies asked for them to preside at specially-called stake conferences. That is all.

I will, though, say that there was a bit of a bait-and-switch. A member of the quorum of apostles was in town, but he spoke at the next stake over—we got a member of the quorums of seventy (and the next stake over got a member of the presiding bishopric, and i think there was another stake with another member of the quorums of seventy present, but i kind of lost track). Of course, i was out of town the previous Sunday, so it may have been announced then—i don’t know for sure.

But the general authority who was present at our stake had a good sense of humor about so many people expecting some big announcement—he got up and told us he had one: “Keep the commandments.” It was delivered quite nicely as a laugh line, but i think the more serious point underlying it was both well delivered and well taken.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


So our stake* has an extra-special out-of-cycle stake conference tomorrow, with the featured speaker being a member of the quorum of apostles.** Given this, there’s all manner of speculation about what this might mean, what’s going to happen tomorrow, and so on.

Therefore, i know that i’m wishing will happen: That he gets up and says something like, “I’ve heard that there’s a lot of speculation about what’s going to happen today. Really, i just wanted to see what Alaska looks like in snowy weather, and folks figured it would be good if i spoke to everyone while i was here. Have a nice day.”

Who knows—maybe it is some sort of big-deal event. But it’s always fun to see people’s speculations get punctured, and a boy can wish for that, can’t he?

* Actually, as it turns out, it appears that this is actually going to be a multi-stake thing.

** Yeah, i know, it’s bizarre that i always write quorum of apostles instead of the more usual (and church-approved) quorum of the twelve or quorum of the twelve apostles. I just feel like my phrasing is more transparent, given the way we generally refer to other priesthood quorums—i mean, not only do we not call elders quorums quorums of the ninety-six, technically a deacons quorum is also a quorum of (up to) twelve, and the ambiguity vaguely bothers me.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, um, really annoying

While reading scriptures the other night, my family decided that Proverbs 27:14* is our favorite verse in all of the scriptures, and one that we intend to use the next time somebody tells any of us that the “right” time to do something holy is always the morning.

* Reproduced here in its entirety, so that you don’t have to click through: He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Things to be happy about

Can i just say how happy it makes me that our church is cool with Halloween, and lets us dress up as devils and witches (or even angels and teachers) if we want to?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Choosing to debate, or not

So i’m at a research conference right now, and it’s being hosted this year by Georgetown University. Georgetown University is a Roman Catholic university (specifically, a Jesuit one).

So while i was wandering around campus i saw tables set up by some student groups, and one of them was by Hoyas* for Choice. This is, as you might expect from the name, a group of Georgetown University students who favor the continued legality of abortion.** Of course, this goes against Roman Catholic dogma, which is firmly and completely against abortion under any circumstances. (Oh—and they were giving out free condoms, another practice against Roman Catholic dogma.)

This got me thinking that i can’t imagine the administration at Brigham Young University accepting the existence of a “Cougars for Choice” group, and particularly not tolerating such a group having a table on campus, or giving out free condoms. I’ve heard some Mormons say that this is a good thing, and a sign that Brigham Young University is something approaching perfection in higher education, because dissent from religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy simply doesn’t happen there.

It leads me to wonder whether such a lack of debate is actually healthy, though. I mean, how does someone really learn to defend (or even argue for) their religious perspective if they’re sheltered from alternative points of view? Relatedly, i know that there’s a diversity of opinions on a lot of really intense issues among Mormons—but does it actually serve us well to reinforce the idea held by a lot of non-Mormons that we’re a bunch of groupthink types, when we’re actually not?


* Georgetown’s sports teams and students are called Hoyas. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

** And any comments on this post that even begin to hint at arguing about abortion rather than the main topic i’m getting at here will be summarily deleted—i find abortion flamewars tiresome.

*** That is, discuss while keeping footnote ** in mind.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

People who died

I’m tired of the frequently repeated claim that only a (relatively) few people are going to make it to the celestial kingdom—i mean, it doesn’t even pass the logic test, since such a huge proportion of the humans born throughout history have died before reaching the age of eight, which means that (according to canon) they make it into the celestial kingdom automatically.

And four internets for whoever got the semi-obscure eighties reference in the title without reading this line first.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Getting it right

True story: My oldest is twelve years old, and so attends young women classes at church. One recent Sunday, the topic of abortion came up, and there was a bit of a pile-on about how it was a horrible, sinful thing, no exceptions. My daughter eventually pointed out that the church’s official position on abortion is actually a bit more nuanced than that (and she then got backed up on that by one of the adults present).

It led me to wonder how often that happens—that is, how often discussions of hot-button issues that start going beyond the church’s actual teachings get reoriented to what the church’s position actually is, and how often things go completely off the rails (which, of course, would lay the foundation for further off-rail-going in the future).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On honoring and sustaining the law

Can we give up on the meme that one of the things that marks Mormonism as the true church of God is that we as a church always obey the law?

I mean, i guess it might be the case that Mormons always obey the law, except that i didn't realize that John Taylor was saying to obey the laws on polygyny when he died while in hiding from the federal government...

(Similarly, yeah, the people of Alma didn't pray out loud when it was illegal for them to do so—but Daniel did pray, and vocally, when it was illegal.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Telling on myself

One time a list of blessings you get from attending the temple was included in the printed program for sacrament meeting, and one of them said “You will be thin.” I was rather surprised, since i figured that was a promise only God could make, and then only individually, until i realized that i had misread it. What it really said? “The veil will be thin.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011


So Blogger has been telling me that my blog is popular,* and that i’m missing out on making money by not placing ads on my blog (or, in their focus-group-tested language, i haven’t “monetized” my blog). Surely they’re only looking out for my best interests, and they want me to have some extra pocket change, right?

Actually, what i suspect is that Blogger knows it is missing out on the pocket change that they would get if i and a few thousand more like me were to allow ads to be placed on my site.

But i would like to publicly state my position: I will not place ads on my blog. Ever. I do this thing for fun, and advertising just doesn’t seem to fit in my ethos of fun, you know?

Anyway, just wanted to say that out loud for some reason. Back to the regularly scheduled snark in a couple days.

* I suspect that that means they’ve discovered that more than two people read it, which certainly is an achievement for a blog, but i’ve seen the numbers—with the possible exception of my twice-a-year general conference notes, this blog is not what i would call “popular”.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Some interesting stats

I was reading the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2008 U.S.  Religious Landscape Survey results for a linguistics research project,* and i ran across some interesting statistics that had nothing to do with my research, but i thought they were worth repeating here (but note that these stats reflect patterns only among U.S. adults):

Of all the adults who said that they grew up Mormon, 70% have stayed in the faith—and comparatively, that’s a pretty good rate.** Of those who left Mormonism, effectively half joined another church and half are now unaffiliated with any religion (which is pretty much normal for those who leave non-Protestant religions).

On the other side of things, 26% of all adult Mormons have converted from another faith, with fully half of those coming from Protestant faiths. Not necessarily surprising, that, given that pretty much half of all adults in the United States are Protestant—what surprised me was that only 1% of our adult membership grew up in churches that are neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, even though those groups make up better than 7% of the nation’s population. (5% of our members were initially unaffiliated, though.)

* There’s actually a tangential Mormon connection to it—i’ll have to post something about it here sometime.

** Higher than us: Hindus at 84% retention, Jews at 76%, and members of Orthodox faiths at 73%. Roman Catholics are close at 68%. Interestingly, the majority of those raised unaffiliated with any religion have ended up affiliated with a religion, which actually surprised me.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Songs you get wrong

Two things you probably didn’t know about church songs, or at least wouldn’t know if you listened to most Mormons sing them:
  • The end of the chorus of “The Lord Is My Light” is not “He leads me, he leads me along”—there's only one instance of me in that line.
  • In the primary song “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream”, it is not the case that wherever the stream goes “the grass grows greener still”—rather, the fields grow greener.
That last one is so surprising, there’s even been some scholarly research on it—I was at a Deseret Language and Linguistics Society Symposium one year (2000? 2001?—sometime around then) where there was a presentation on that lyric and people’s misperception of it, even when they saw it printed in front of them.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Songs as you never expected them

Back when i was a full-time missionary, i lived in an apartment that held two companionships. One of the members of the other pair could sing the chorus of “Behold! A Royal Army” sounding just like a late eighties/early nineties highly filtered dance/house/techno singer.

The song works surprisingly well that way.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An attempt at crowdsourcing

So i’m looking for old (i.e., 1940 through 1970) general conference transcripts for research purposes. I used to be able to find them for free through (don’t bother clicking on it, it hasn’t worked any time i’ve tried it during the past couple months), and’s general conference archive only goes back to 1974.

So, a question for anyone who reads this: Do you know of a free online source for still-in-copyright pre-1974 general conference transcripts (like there used to be), or do i have to break down and shell out some cash? (I mean, for all i know, was violating copyright, but it looked legit at the time.)

And a secondary question: Why does the church make it relatively difficult to access old general conference proceedings?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sorta-liveblogging general conference: Sunday afternoon session

And now it’s time to chill with Saturday afternoon, the session that all the slackers members of the church with very harried lives tend to skip out on, so the speakers tend to be a little bit more mellow, or at least toned down.

I like that.

Anyway, as with others, the entries for the session are arranged bottom-up, with the first speaker at the end of the post and the final speaker at the top of the post, but with each individual speaker’s entries given in the order i write them. This means that the start of the session is down by the bottom of this post.

Thomas S. Monson (president of the high priesthood)
  • Lots of thankage.
  • We all have a part to play, and with the help of God we can play our part well. My part, i’m thinking, is court jester—though one day i hope to be promoted to Shakespearean fool.
  • And that’s it, closing us off (after what was easily my favorite session of this running of general conference) with a really, really mellow pep talk—so ’til April, folks!

Quentin L. Cook (of the quorum of apostles)
  • Do i sense a problem of evil sermon? Oh, i do think so!
  • A passing reference to September 11, 2001—you don’t get those very often in general conference.
  • A reference to the sinking of the Titanic. Do i get to bear a grudge against Elder Cook for pushing that horrible, horrible Celine Dion song into my head?
  • And a second September 11 reference!
  • I wonder when general authorities stopped interviewing prospective full-time missionaries.
  • This address is doing a good job of softening some of the rough edges of the preceding one.
  • This seriously is one of the best problem of evil general conference addresses i’ve ever heard. (And i’ve listened to a number of them, going back to 1936.)
  • So Harper’s magazine relatively recently made the claim that Mormonism preaches a prosperity-type gospel. I think Elder Cook is having fun sticking a fork in that one, you know?
  • I think i still like Brother Richardson’s address better, but this one’s a really, really close second.

J. Devn Cornish (of the seventy)
  • Okay, this guy gets my vote for best general authority middle name.
  • I have to admit that “God answers little prayers, and that proves he loves us” arguments bother me, when people don’t always get prayers answered (even for big things, like say “Please don’t let me get stabbed right now”). Is a prayer not being answered evidence of God not loving us? I don’t think so—so why do we preach the opposite?
  • That said, i have to say i like his exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer, both because it as pretty well done and because you don’t hear nearly enough exegesis in Mormon sermons.
  • He included a quote from yesterday in his address. So much for the Mormon urban legend that states that the content of every general conference address has to be approved weeks in advance.

Randall K. Bennett (of the seventy)
  • Things i already knew that this address has reminded me of: Remember, if caught by a rip current, don’t try to swim directly toward shore, but rather on a diagonal relative to the current. (Of course, “swim only sort of against dangerous currents” isn’t probably what he wanted us to remember from this.)
  • And another: Small children don’t react well to clear logic.

Kazuhiko Yamashita (of the seventy)
  • Some family traditions i just don’t understand. Yeah, it was a sweet story, but i wore out my mission coats pretty thoroughly—and i wore out the last one i had during the year or two following my return. I can’t imagine having stored a coat for long enough to have one of my children wear it, in any event.
  • I don’t remember my own baptism. In a way i sort of feel some jealousy for people who can tell stories of their baptismal experiences like this.
  • Proud parenting moment: He says he wants to speak to all of the future missionaries, and my daughters shush each other and start listening. (The six-year-old even says “I am a missionary in training!”)

Matthew O. Richardson (of the Sunday school general presidency)
  • A male non-general authority speaking in conference!
  • You know, watching this guy, i’m suddenly struck by how few of the speakers in general conference wear glasses.
  • “We may need to change our way of teaching to emulate the way the Holy Ghost teaches.” (I may have a couple words wrong, but the content is right.) The Holy Ghost is non-corporeal, and can dwell within us—i’m not sure i get what he’s asking us to do.
  • As he’s going through the address, i think i’m starting to get what he meant (and i think i like it), but it’s going by so fast that i don’t have time to really figure it out. Part of me feels like he figures this is his one general conference speaking chance, so he’s going to pack as much as possible on his topic into the address and let people digest it from the written report.
  • Now that it’s done and i’m catching my breath, i have to say: Quite possibly the best address of conference so far—and there’s not a lot of chances left for people to top it.

Dallin H. Oaks (of the quorum of apostles)
  • Interesting opening swipe at a decent-sized (though, i expect, not majority) chunk of mainstream Xianity.
  • This is an interesting rhetorical method—he’s framing it as directed in part (largely, even) to those who don’t agree with him, but the claims he’s making assume more shared assumptions than you’d expect from such disagreement.
  • ”We return to the Father by doing his will.” Nicely succinct, that.
  • He notes that we should have no more disputes concerning points of doctrine. I can only assume that this means that, from this point on, nobody will argue about caffeine ever again.
  • Absolutely true story: My four-year-old goes up close to the computer screen, stares at Elder Oaks, and asks, “Daddy, is he mad?” I had to answer, “No, he just usually has that expression.”
  • ”We should not use a visa to visit Babylon.” That’s because they only take American Express. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Russell M. Nelson (of the quorum of apostles)
  • Wait a minute—a description of a religious concept in legal terms? You’re stealing Elder Oaks’s fire, dude!
  • Is the usual Mormon definition of a covenant as a contract actually accurate? Are covenants actually usually binding quid pro quo agreements in the same way that Mormons tend to describe them?
  • Serious thought: If someone can’t (by canon, even!) be punished because of the actions of their ancestors, why can blessings from covenants with God be inherited? There’s something deeper going on here, i think.
  • Children of the covenant have a right to the fullness of the gospel. That’s a pretty heavy claim, really.

Opening thoughts
  • I see that the MoTab women are still rockin’ with the pinkaliciousness! (Sorry, but that shade really isn’t doing it for me.)

Sorta-liveblogging general conference: Sunday morning session

So we’ve arrived at Sunday morning, the big leagues of general conference—the one that people actually watch, if they’re going to watch a session of conference.

As with all of these that i do, the entries for the session are arranged bottom-up, with the first speaker at the end of the post and the final speaker at the top of the post—but with each speaker’s entries given in the order i write them. This means that the start of the session is down by the bottom of this post.

Thomas S. Monson (president of the high priesthood)
  • So he’ll conclude this session and (if tradition holds) the next session? Interesting.
  • A reference to Elder Hales as “Bob”. Always nice to see humanizing language.
  • You know, ancient warfare techniques involved the regular killing of absolutely everyone in a defeated city, or at least the (often sexual) enslavement of the population. I’m not convinced the world is more immoral (or even amoral) nowadays—the locus of the immorality may have changed, but has the degree of it?
  • Now this, though, i can fully get behind—that we can each do our individual part to create moral character in our own selves.
  • A five dollar bill when he was ten? I just checked, and that’s $75.10 in 2010 dollars—a serious amount of money to lose, especially amidst the Great Depression.
  • ”I’m always humbled and grateful when Heavenly Father communicates with me”—not a surprising line, but a memorable one.
  • “Elder Hawkes, who was known to drive rather rapidly…” I continue to like moments of humanity in general conferences.

M. Russell Ballard (of the quorum of apostles)
  • It sounded at first like he was going to call it evil to use the word “Mormon” to mean anything other than the father of Moroni, but it seems like it’s settled more into a discussion of why the full name of the church is a good thing—much better.
  • So it’s okay to use “Mormons” to refer to members of the church, but not “the Mormon church” to refer to the church as a corporate entity? Is this an attempt to strike a middle ground as they recognize that nobody’s really listening to general conference addresses about the word “Mormon”? (Sidebar: As a professional linguist, i feel the need to point out that top-down directions on language use are almost never successful.)
  • Let’s see if i’ve got this right: Mormon church is a problem because it creates confusion with fundamentalist Mormons, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t because there’s no possible confusion with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (I think my head hurts.)
  • My opinion: Just because the name of a church has “Jesus Christ” in it isn’t going to convince anyone that that church is a Xian religion.

Elaine S. Dalton (young women general president)
  • As a father of daughters, no sons, i have to say that i like mentions of fathers and daughters—it’s a relationship that in my experience gets short shrift in church addresses, both general and local.
  • I have to admit that i never had a “How do i raise a daughter?” reaction. If i’d had any sons, on the other hand, that’s what would have freaked me out.
  • So wait a minute—it’s my job to make sure my daughters are righteous, not their own job? I don’t think i agree, actually—my job is to make sure my daughters can make decisions, not to make decisions for them.
  • Why do general conference speakers get visual aids to buttress points of cuteness, but sacrament meeting speakers don’t?
  • I don’t entirely follow the logic—she said the best way to raise (good) daughters is to love their mother, then went on a whole long thing about guarding daughters’ virtue, and then summarized it by saying the best way to raise daughters is to love their mother. Huh?

Tad R. Callister (of the presidency of the seventy)
  • A repetition of the meme that there is no middle ground between good and evil. I have to admit that i remain unconvinced, but he’s giving some interesting evidence.
  • We really ought to be careful of saying that the using Bible and the Book of Mormon together means you only get one interpretation. His claim conveniently ignores the existence of, say, the Community of Christ, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a. the Strangite church), or others—not to mention doctrinal disagreements (caffeine, anyone?) among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints themselves.

Robert D. Hales (of the quorum of apostles)
  • Elder Hales is seatbound, like President Packer? Is this new, or had i just missed or forgotten about it?
  • This all brings to mind a thought i’ve had before: Jesus was convicted of treason and sedition, and we revere him as the Son of God; Joseph Smith was in prison awaiting trial on similar charges when he was assassinated. We of all people really need to be careful about rushing to judgment based on human concepts of justice (including, to the point of this address, when we see divine-punishment-looking things happen to people), you know?
  • It always gets me a bit when the more elderly of the general conference speakers get emotional talking about the deaths of family and close friends—you know they’ve experienced it, and it’s rather brave, i think, to talk about it in public, even briefly.
  • Good reminder that one of Job’s trials was a loss of personal reputation—we tend to forget that one when we talk about that story.

Henry B. Eyring (of the first presidency)
  • His description of the ward “day of service” project transforming the grounds of a church makes it sound like it wasn’t a Mormon church. (He mentioned the “ministers” of the church.) I’m hoping we had a good number of those, where we helped out or worked with other denominations—the perception people (including a number of Mormons, like me) have that we’re hyper-ourselves-directed can’t be healthy.
  • What kind of university invites a religious leader to speak at its graduation without thinking ahead of time that said religious leader might talk about religion a little bit?
  • Just letting everyone know: If I’m a terminal case, don’t bother to buy new shoes for me. Go ahead and polish the ones i already have, but i wouldn’t be able to take the shoes with me—save the money for a party for the living, i figure.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf (of the first presidency), opening remarks
  • He called this the “fourth session” of conference, which is interesting—usually this is called the “fourth general session”, which has led me to wonder what non-general sessions there are during the week previous. I figure that what he used is simply a shorthand for the longer form, but it’d be interesting to know what the actual full general conference schedule is.
  • We get a song, then opening remarks, then another song, then a prayer, then a song. This is kind of a normal opening, but couldn’t we do with fewer songs? I mean, the people who are twisted enough to really like MoTab just got a half hour of that all to themselves with the “Music and the Spoken Word” program. If the purpose of general conference is actually for the membership of the church to learn from the general authorities and general officers of the church, then you’d think they’d cut a couple of the songs and squeeze another of the shorter speeches in, you know?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sorta-liveblogging general conference: Priesthood session

Yes, priesthood session, the general session that’s only sort of general.

As with the rest of these, entries for the session are arranged from the bottom up, with the first speaker at the end of the post and the final speaker at the top of the post—so now you should scroll to the bottom of this post and start reading upwards.

Thomas S. Monson (president of the high priesthood)
  • The major theme for the whole thing: We need to have the courage to stand for our beliefs, even if it means standing alone.
  • With that, he told an interesting story with him having the courage to stand alone for his beliefs—only to find out that he wasn’t actually alone.
  • He also noted that if we stand alone on the side of good, God still stands with us, so we’re not actually alone.

Henry B. Eyring (of the first presidency)
  • If we ask whether we’re prepared for a priesthood assignment, the answer is always: Yes.
  • Interesting idea: Part of our preparation process in this life is to re-learn our premortal preparation.
  • Another interesting thing: He reminded everyone (leaders, particularly, i think) that God trusted Joseph Smith when Smith was an inexperienced (and, to all appearances, unprepared) teenage boy.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf (of the first presidency)
  • Our personal, family, and church actions should spring from the two great commandments—or, in other words, welfare principles.
  • If you focus on spiritual commandments while ignoring temporal commandments, you’re not doing it right.
  • What he said, essentially, was that “I got mine” isn’t just feckless, it’s a gateway to hell.
  • This may be evil of me, but when he started saying that if someone is in need then helping out is the responsibility of each one of us individually, well, i started thinking about old speeches by Eugene V. Debs.
  • Anybody cheering with me for his statement that exactly how welfare principles are put into action will differ depending on where you are?

W. Christopher Waddell (of the quorums of the seventy)
  • One of his claims: Sacrifice is made in vain if there isn’t an application of it. I don’t think that the example he used to illustrate the point was valid, but i suspect that he’s right anyway.
  • Lots of stuff about how serving as a full-time missionary is important, including that God has specific experiences, contacts, companions, &c. set up for us. I have to ask whether that means that God sets up mission companionships for full-time missionaries where one half of the companionship has decided they’ve done enough, and they’re too tired to go out and preach any more—’cause if so, i’m still trying to figure out why that was an important experience.

Keith B. McMullin (of the presiding bishopric)
  • Interesting description of what it means to be “born again” in the Mormon scheme of things.
  • He told the young men (this is priesthood session, remember) that if they’re born again and do good, the young women will adore them and strive to be better themselves. I think i’m going to have to ask my daughters what they think of that before i accept that claim…

Jeffrey R. Holland (of the quorum of apostles)
  • When an apostle starts out with “I wish to speak rather candidly tonight”, you sit up and take notice. I don’t know that i heard anything that quite merited that preface, though.
  • He pointed out that we often gloss over Joseph Smith’s confrontation with Satan immediately before the first vision, but it’s useful to remember it, and that it tells us that Satan is real.
  • Not groundbreaking, but interesting nonetheless: Satan knows he’ll be defeated, but but is determined to take down as many as possible with him when he loses.
  • His claim: A missionary can’t be unrepentant of sins and then expect to be able to successfully call others to repentance for those same sins. Is that true, though? I’m not sure, given the Holy Spirit’s propensity to back up truth in whatever context.
  • An explicit salute to those who have wished to serve as full-time missionaries and have been worthy to do so, but were unable to do so due to health or other reasons beyond their control.
  • And the church certainly has lowered some of the barriers to older couples serving as full-time missionaries, hasn’t it? They can even fly home (albeit at their own expense) for big family events like weddings and such now—nice to see a recognition that people can have a personal life even if they’ve devoted a time in their life to God, you know?

Sorta-liveblogging general conference: Saturday afternoon session

Second general session! (Speaking of which, i wonder how many non-general sessions there are? Priesthood session is technically a general session, since Sunday morning is the fourth general session, but the relief society and young women’s sessions aren’t included in the general session count. There used to be welfare sessions, but they’re gone now, unless attendance at them is a lot more restricted than it used to be.)

Anyway, a reminder: The entries for the session are arranged from the bottom up, with the first speaker at the end of the post, preceded by the second speaker, and so on, with the final speaker at the top of the post—but each speaker’s entries are given in the order i write them. This means that this is where you scroll to the bottom of this post and start reading upwards.

Closing prayer (i didn’t catch who said it)
  • I caught direct references to at least three, maybe four of the addresses this session. Nothing like proving your were listening, eh?

L. Tom Perry (of the quorum of apostles)
  • Four apostles (not counting the first presidency member) speaking in one session—seems a bit of an overload. This plus the temple announcements this morning feel like an attempt to reward the people who are actually watching today.
  • Lots of discussion of the church’s place as a topic for discussion and comment in the public sphere.
  • Okay, i’m an academic linguist, and i’ve published a number of articles on the card-cord merger—that is, the ability of speakers of certain dialects of English to pronounce the or in words like cord as an ar, like in card. L. Tom Perry exhibits that merger a lot—and it’s distracting me, on a professional level.
  • I’ve heard other Mormons characterize this blog as evil and a horrible public face for a member of the church to present, and i’ve also heard other Mormons characterize this blog as a quite positive and humanizing public face for a member of the church to represent. I’m curious how L. Tom Perry would categorize it.
  • Good to hear a general authority explicitly say that it’s good to have a two-way conversation about religion with non-Mormons, contra the occasional Mormon meme that our job is to teach others, not to be taught by others.
  • We need to be civil in our discussions of religion, no matter the tone others adopt when engaging us or discussing our religion. I think we tend to do that anyway, but it’s good to hear such direction from high levels occasionally.
  • Interesting statement: When talking about the church, we shouldn’t try to make it sound “better than it is”. Very nice indirect acknowledgment that even though we believe that we have the truth, we can’t claim to be using that truth perfectly. (And so maybe L. Tom Perry wouldn’t mind this blog, after all.)

D. Todd Christofferson (of the quorum of apostles)
  • What exactly is entailed in a “call to repentance”? He’s presenting it in a way that seems slightly different from what i expected, and i’m not entirely certain what exactly he means by that phrase.
  • His reference to the baptismal covenant didn’t really parallel Mosiah 18:8–10 (which i’m not certain is actually the baptismal covenant myself, no matter what lots of gospel doctrine teachers have taught me). I’m going to have to look for his description of it in the written report.

LeGrand R. Curtis, Jr. (of the quorums of seventy)
  • Cool—i thought for a minute he was going to talk about the importance of avoiding big sins and such. Yeah, that’s important, but he went in a more interesting direction—that it doesn’t matter whether our sins are big or little, since they’re all sins, and we all have them.
  • I really, really, really like his story of being told cascading stories about reactivation.

Carl B. Cook (of the quorums of seventy)
  • He’s doing a very good, focused job with his message (we need to remember to “look up”—that is, look toward Jesus), but there’s really nothing here i can hook into to comment on about it.

Ian S. Ardern (of the quorums of seventy)
  • This is some of the most measured, slow pacing of speech i’ve heard in a general conference address in a long time (aside from, occasionally, Richard G. Scott). There’s sort of an irony about having that in an address about the importance of using time wisely.
  • Contrasting prayer with things like texting very seriously popped my brain over into imagining what it might be like to text a prayer. (I then realized i don’t have any phone numbers of deities on my phone, so it wouldn’t work. At least for now.)
  • Angry Birds mention!

Neal A. Anderson (of the quorum of apostles)
  • He’s working at walking a really, really fine line here: Saying that married couples should make their own decisions on the timing and number of their children, and also saying that married couples should make sure to have children (if they’re physically able, as he mentioned in passing), while criticizing limiting the number of children a couple has. I’m not sure he’s doing it successfully.
  • Sidebar: What’s the birth rate among Mormons, and does it vary by region?
  • Serious question: What if God tells a couple to delay having children?
  • Another question: What does it actually mean to “multiply and replenish the earth”? He’s presenting it as meaning to have lots of children. Jeanne and i have lots of children (well, well above the national average, in any event), and i’m not certain that’s what it means.
  • He’s doing a much better job of highlighting the problems inherent in judging people who don’t have children.

David A. Bednar (of the quorum of apostles)
  • If he’s right that nobody on earth had the sealing authority from Elijah’s ascension until Elijah’s appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, does that mean the Nephites didn’t have the sealing authority (until, presumably, Jesus’s appearance to them)?
  • Genealogical research is a calling of children of God, and is not limited to those who have reached a particular age. (Nice point.)
  • Interesting job of drawing a line from skill in social uses of technology to potential skill in using technology for genealogical research.
  • Ah! An announcement (re-announcement?—i don’t know if it’s been previously mentioned) of a web site on family history directed toward the youth of the church.
  • On a related personal note, when Jeanne and i were in our late twenties, Jeanne was called as the ward family history consultant. We used to joke that she was the youngest family history consultant in the history of the church—rather certainly not true, but sometimes it felt like it was.

Henry B. Eyring (of the first presidency), presentation of general authorities and officers
  • A full set of sustainings in October? I thought this was an April thing, not an every conference thing. Am i just misremembering past practice?
  • So Gary J. Coleman’s address in the previous session was a valedictory.
  • Yoshihiko Kikuchi has been made an emeritus general authority. There’ll be a lot of people in the church who miss having him around, i think.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf (of the first presidency), opening remarks
  • A primary choir? Interesting—not something you see that often in meetings like this. (I do have to wonder—what sort of sedatives did they give them to keep them from fidgeting up there?)

Sorta-liveblogging general conference: Saturday morning session

Welcome, reader(s). As has become traditional for this blog, i’m going to be “sorta-liveblogging” (that is, jotting down notes during the session and then posting them in a chunk here, session by session) each session of general conference—it only seems like a sensible thing for a Mormon-oriented blogger to do, you know.

Those of you who have read these in the past probably remember the odd-but-it-works format i use for these, but here’s a reminder: Since blogs arrange things chronologically from bottom to top (contra millennia of tradition in Western writing), so if you visit this page after conference is over, the final session will show up first, followed by the Sunday morning session, then the priesthood session, and so on. Given that, i’ll be ordering things the same way within each post so that you don’t have to do quite so much scrolling. This means that each session’s post is written bottom-up (i.e., first speaker at the end of the post, preceded by the second speaker, and so on, with the final speaker at the top of the post). However, each speaker’s entries are given in the order i write them. This is probably confusing, but so are any of the other alternative i’ve come up with (and certainly less confusing than a true live-blogging format, especially if you read one of those during an event).

In any event, this means that this is where you scroll to the bottom of this post, and then start reading upwards.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf (of the first presidency)
  • I like that he’s highlighting the simultaneous nothingness and glory of human beings. It’s a common enough meme in some other branches of Xianity, but we don’t seem to focus on it nearly so much in Mormonism.
  • So the qualifications for exaltation are personality attributes, really—so why do we focus so often on checklists of our actions rather than our attributes?
  • He taught elders quorum and Sunday school in a small Texas branch back when he didn’t know English very well? Baptism by fire, i suppose—and a really, really good way for him to learn a second language, too.
  • Speaking of which , who would have thought that the person who would take Neal A. Maxwell’s place as the general conference speaker most prone to memorable bouts of alliteration and rhyming couplets (not to mention similarly intricate thematic structures) would be a non-native speaker of English?
  • I really like the looping topic structure of this address—it appeals to me more than the story-based structure that, in my observation, most Mormons seem to prefer.

Boyd K. Packer (president of the quorum of apostles)
  • He repeats the common (not just among Mormons) claim that “standards of morality” are lower now than they used to be. This is leading me to wonder how broadly that definition goes—given where he goes later, he’s using it to include sexual things, but does he also include things like, say, charity or willingness to share or issues like war or social justice?
  • Interesting—unless i’m seriously misreading his intent, his claims about the way the Holy Spirit inspires us seems to be directly going against what Barabara Thompson said earlier (that is, she said inspiration comes in any of a large number of ways, while he says it comes via feelings). I have to admit that i’m more on her side than his here, given my own experiences.
  • You know, i’ve met some of the apostles, and they’ve tended to have very strong personalities. That the first presidency and quorum of the twelve have to function in unanimity, and then actually make decisions, really boggles my mind.

José L. Alonso (of the quorums of the seventy)
  • To help people who are spiritually lost “it is not necessary to create any new programs”. This sort of thing has been repeated over and over in general conferences for some years now—i think the message may finally be getting through to local leadership, given my observation.

Thomas S. Monson (president of the high priesthood)
  • This seems an odd speaking slot for the president of the high priesthood, but maybe i’m just recalling wrong.
  • I suppose that the opening laugh line won’t make it into the printed record—rather a pity.
  • Ah! He’s going to be announcing temples this morning—fun.
  • They’re rebuilding the Provo tabernacle, with full restoration!—and doing it as a second Provo temple. I’m betting there’ll be a lot more wedding photos taken at that one than at the existing one…
  • Other new temples: Barranquilla, Colombia; Durban, South Africa (a friend of mine served here mission there—she’s probably smiling right now); Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Star Valley, Wyoming. The Kinshasa one is really interesting—the church is placing a bet on the ultimate stability of the country, it seems.
  • He said the church is “moving forward” on plans for a Paris, France temple, which is an intriguing way of phrasing things.
  • And a blurb for the general temple patron assistance fund—it’s existed for a good while, but it hasn’t really been well-publicized.
L. Whitney Clayton (of the presidency of the seventy)
  • Elder Clayton was here for stake meetings a while back, and this opening story? He was test-driving it then, apparently.
  • What does it actually mean for the church to “fill the earth”?
  • Interesting thought: Our primary job is to spread the message that there is a Savior throughout the world. Here in the United States you wouldn’t think that’s a big deal, but worldwide? Yeah, it bit more interesting.
Barbara Thompson (of the relief society general presidency)
  • Point of trivia: Barbara Thompson is only the second unmarried woman to serve in the relief society general presidency (after Sheri L. Dew).
  • It makes me happy every time i hear someone in general conference mention that revelation isn’t limited to low-level feelings and the like, but can include hearing a voice or somesuch.
  • Is she reading this from paper? Her eyes don’t look like she’s using the TelePrompTer.
Choir, “We Ever Pray for Thee”
  • I see that we’re back to the game of panning through the choir in ways to make sure to attract focus to the one or two non-pale faces singing. <sigh />
Richard G. Scott (of the quorum of apostles)
  • The scriptures are useful for backing up religious statements “when cited correctly”. Did i get that right, and he said cited, not quoted or interpreted? I’m going to want to see how the written record of this speech reads on that one.
  • I realize that i’m evil and all, but he’s advocating the usefulness of memorizing scriptural passages pretty intensely, and memorizing scriptures doesn’t really do anything for me—it just makes it so i know the words, but i focus on their form to the exclusion of their content.
  • ”Do you use all of the scriptures?…I love the Old Testament.” Folks who like reading the Hebrew scriptures, represent!
  • I’m curious what the ratio of quotes from canon to original text is in this address.
  • His late wife served as a young-adult full-time missionary? That’s what it sounded like, but i couldn’t be certain from the phrasing, and a quick round of googling doesn’t turn up anything unambiguous on it. Either way, i’m curious how many of the general authorities are married to returned full-time missionaries, and how that compares to the Mormon male population as a whole.
Gary J. Colman (of the quorums of the seventy), opening prayer
  • A fairly short prayer, but admit it: A lot of you got faked out and almost said “amen” a couple times before he actually got to the end.
Opening thoughts
  • Canned opening video of the Conference Center and Salt Lake Temple that includes dark clouds! Is that a first? It actually works quite well, in terms of visual aesthetics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Circular reasoning works because…

Whether it’s true or not, i’ve long been bothered by the circularity of the idea that low church attendance on the part of Mormons is consistently the result of not acting on or rejecting or ever even actually receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost*—it only works if you assume that the given cause(s) have the given result, and i’ve never seen any actual good evidence that doesn’t involve such presuppositions. It could be true, i suppose, but there’s got to be a better way of making the claim.

* With exceptions for things like poor health and such, of course.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sometimes it’s just so easy

You know, i have to admit that i actually like the occasional fire-and-brimstone, one-moral-slip-and-you-lose sacrament (and conference) address—’cause it logically follows that since i’ve already slipped, i’ve already lost, and so i don’t need to try any more.

Thanks for the free pass, folks who think you’re trying to get me to be righteous!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Enjoying a song

How Gentle God’s Commands” is fun to sing—and both of the men’s parts move around in interesting ways, rather a rarity in Mormon hymnody.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dancing ties!

Can someone explain to me what the point of requiring “Sunday dress”* for selected youth dances might be?

* A ridiculously underdefined phrase, by the way.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Some useful advice

Stake conferences are tough on little kids, but i’ve noticed that there are some reliable tricks to get them to quiet down occasionally—like a stake children’s choir. For some reason, little kids pay attention when they hear little kids’ voices.

Therefore, my solution to the high ambient noise levels at conferences in stakes with a large number of children:

Every other speaker should be a six-year-old.

You should encourage your stake presidents to send donations to their least-favorite left-leaning charity of choice in lieu of sending me personal thanks.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Self-evident truths

You know, i can’t be the only one who gets amused by people bearing testimonies that include lines like “And i know that Thomas S. Monson is the president of this church.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hopes and dreams

One day—and i’m hoping it’s in my lifetime—someone will deliver a general conference address about how cultural traditions are good, but that they may need to be laid aside to conform with church principles.

Well, we actually already get those now and again. What i’m hoping to see, though, is one that goes just a little bit further and explicitly points out that some jello-belt traditions are among those that will need to be laid aside. That’s what we haven’t really gotten yet.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good timing

Today is the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001—or, in other words, it’s rather a big deal day to a lot of people.

We also had stake conference today (and yesterday).

And in none of the stake conference meetings i was at (that is, the general meeting this morning, the adult session* yesterday evening, or the leadership meeting yesterday afternoon) was there even an oblique reference to the anniversary.

I would just like to say that i’m happy that my religion was able to serve as a refuge from the incessant coverage of the date that national and local media has been throwing at me over the past week or so.

* I can’t be the only one evil enough that the term “adult session” instantly triggers the concept of an “adult movie”, can I?

Friday, September 9, 2011

So this is an interesting turn

There’s a presidential election coming up next year here in the United States, and as part of our (insanely) long election process, a few interesting things have come out. First of all, for the first time as far as i can tell, there are two serious candidates who are Mormon, both of them running for the Republican Party’s nomination. Now, the Republican Party is the United States’ mainstream conservative party, but as an example of how socially conservative that party has drifted, consider the following intriguing factoid:

Out of all the candidates for that party’s nomination (and there are quite a few right now), the only two who agree with the scientific consensus that Darwinian evolution is a real thing and with the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is the result of human activity are…the two Mormons.

Mormonism: The religion of modern science. Who’da thunk it?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finding the lines

So tattoos and body piercings are strongly—very strongly—discouraged by the church. However, there is no ecclesiastical sanction if you get one, nor does having one preclude you from participating in any ordinance. So i have to wonder: Are tattoos and body piercings really against church rules?

Monday, September 5, 2011


I was going through some old papers, and i discovered notes i took from a stake conference where we were told they’d had their best youth conference turnout ever for a three-day “trek”* event. This was presented as clear evidence that trek is a wonderful thing.**

Me, i just find it worth noting that they probably wouldn’t have gotten as high a turnout for, say, a three-day project helping build a Habitat for Humanity house, and that’s just sad.

* For those of you who have happy enough lives that you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is trek, imagine a bunch of teenagers risking heatstroke as they push two-wheeled wheelbarrows around, and you’ve pretty much got it.

** If the causality seems tenuous, congratulations! You are capable of basic logic.

Friday, September 2, 2011

David B gingerly touches the third rail, again

Same-sex marriage is a big issue for a lot of people, both within and without the Mormon church.* (In fact, it’s become a big issue for a lot of non-Mormons with regard to how they view the Mormon church itself. But that’s a side issue for today’s topic.)

In pretty much every opinion poll of the US population that i’ve seen on the topic of whether same-sex couples should be allowed to get legally married, there’s been a consistent age breakdown: Those younger than me generally think there’s no problem with the idea, while those older than me think that it should never be allowed—my age seems to be the swing point for this effect.**

I haven’t seen any such polls of Mormons, though. That is, there are plenty of opinion polls that show that Mormons† are generally not in favor of allowing legal same-sex marriages, but there don’t appear to be any easily allowable breakdowns that show whether there’s an age effect among Mormons that parallels that of the general population.††

Anyway, i’m curious whether younger Mormons have different views on the subject of legal recognition of same-sex marriage than older Mormons do. Anyone know if there are any reliable poll numbers on this issue?‡

* And, as i’ve written before, i really don’t get why it’s such a big deal to so many Mormons, but I recognize that it is.

** And it’s not that people tend to be less likely to approve of it as they get older—i’ve been watching the polls on this issue for some years, and it really is my birth year that seems to be the most reliable inflection point.

† Important caveat: I’m talking only about Mormons in the United States here. While i’d be interested to learn the attitudes of Mormons outside of the United States (particularly in jurisdictions where same-sex marriages are legally recognized) on this subject, it’s beyond the bounds of what i can deal with in a single blog post.

†† I did find a report of a poll that reports on the breakdown of recent opinion polling on the subject among Utahns, and it found sharp differences by both religion and age, but it didn’t provide any sort of cross-tabulation ability to figure out what the effect of religion and age was.

‡ And yeah, Gallup may have it, but i’m not going to shell out cash to get past their paywall just to look into this. Maybe i should clarify: Anyone know if there are any reliable poll numbers available for free on this issue?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More maids, still missing in action

Earlier this month i posted about the silliness of having one of the teenage girls’ church classes called the “MIA Maids”.

It turns out i misinformed y’all—the class isn’t called the MIA Maids, they’re actually called the Mia Maids.

So not only are they named after an obsolete acronym, they’re named after an obsolete acronym that you can’t even tell is an acronym any more.

Or maybe they’re actually named after Mia, from the ward in Florida where i used to live. I think she was a Mia Maid when i knew her, so that would make sense.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eternal blessings, sort of

I actually heard someone say that we’re blessed, because the Lord has given us “an eternal standard” governing how we should dress.

That eternal standard? That we should cover up those bits of our bodies that are covered up by the temple garment.

I think that some people need to learn their history before they say things like that.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Oh the time has come

True story: There was once a full-time missionary with the last name of Christen in my ward. Every time her name got mentioned as a speaker or as someone who’d be doing whatever else, i expected to hear a chorus start singing “Motorin’…”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

One of these stones is not like the other

So yesterday there was a strong-for-the-area earthquake in central Virginia, and tremors were felt throughout much of the US eastern seaboard. There wasn’t much serious damage, but one of the buildings damaged was the Kensington, Maryland* temple, which had the tips of four of its six spires shaken off.**

This didn’t get all that much play in the news—certainly not as much as the interestingly similar damage to the spires of the National Cathedral in Washington DC—but it did get mentioned on KSL TV’s web site. This makes sense—KSL is in Salt Lake City, Utah, and so news about Mormon temples is likely to appeal to a decent-sized chunk of its audience.

Unfortunately, they had some issues with editing.

Here’s a link to the story on their site. Since bits of it may well change with time, here’s a quote of the problem paragraph, exactly as it appears in the original:

The shaking damaged Latter-day Saint temple in Washington, D.C., causing it to lose the tips of four of its spires. They were knocked off, as were some pieces of granite on the temple facing.

Now, aside from the missing article (the should follow damaged) and the placement of the temple in the wrong city, there’s an interesting error of fact—the temple is faced with marble, not granite. This is particularly amusing given the immediately following paragraph (exactly as in the original, except for the bolding for emphasis, which i added):

“We started finding chunks of marble and spires laying on the ground. They are about four feet long; the base of them are probably 4 inches square, and it comes up to a point,” said Doug Wiggins, a North Carolina resident who was at the temple when the earthquake hit.

Even more amusing is that the first, shorter blurb about this that went up on their website yesterday originally said that the falling spire tips gouged out pieces of granite from the temple’s facing,*** but the reference to granite was corrected to marble after someone pointed it out in the comments. Odd, then, that the error came back when the story was edited into its current, slightly longer form.

* Or, for those who insist, Washington DC.
** Cue the anti-Mormon trolls in 3…2…
*** The damage to the facing isn’t attributed to the tips in the current version of the story, so that may not have actually been the cause of that part of the damage.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking the part

Absolutely true i-am-not-making-this-up story that happened to me earlier today:

So we had a new full-time missionary transferred into our ward this past week. I’d been talking to a few members of the ward in the foyer before church, and when he didn’t have anybody talking to him i went up and introduced myself: “Hi, i’m David B—, and i’m the ward clerk.”

He shook my hand and said, “Yeah, i’d guessed that”, to which i replied, “Ah! You saw me, thought ’He looks completely active, but he’s not wearing a white shirt and a tie,* so he must be the ward clerk!’”

He laughed, but he also let on that i’d guessed pretty much correctly.

* For the purposes of filling in the reader, i was wearing a black mandarin-collar shirt. No tie, of course, ’cause that would have been silly, and no suit jacket ’cause i don’t like to let on whether i own one or not.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Where would the neck be?

Am i the only one who gets a bizarrely literal image when someone mentions the “head of the house”?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Something seems a little twisted here

So who is it that decided that we’re going to stress out about whether little girls wear clothes with or without sleeves? I mean, seriously—the past few years i’ve been hearing people at church go on and on about how horrible it is that society is pushing little children, especially girls, to become sexualized earlier than they used to be,* and this is one reason we need to stand firm on our daughters wearing shirts and dresses with sleeves.

But what’s up with this whole meme? Even aside from the fact that pretty much everyone agrees that shoulders aren’t really a terribly sexual part of the body—not even as much as the lips, really, and we don’t demand that they get covered up—why are so many of us so apt to see something sexual where nothing sexual is intended? I mean, if i were a little less trustful of humanity generally,** i’d start to think that the people who are saying that if my six-year-old wears sleeveless dresses then she’s being sexualized early, well, i’d start to wonder about what it is that makes them so apt to see innocent children wearing innocent clothing as so intensely sexual.

You can get help for that sort of impulse, you know, and if you suffer from it you really should.

* I’ll note that whether this is true or not depends on your frame of reference, by the way. Earlier than 50 years ago? Almost certainly. Earlier than 500 years ago? That’s not quite so clear-cut.

** And i’m not to this point yet, but i’m getting closer.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The memes of my youth

One last thought from my trip to Oregon a few weeks ago:

So, upon finding out we were going to be singing the song “They, the Builders of the Nation”, what with being faced with the refrain “Blessed, honored Pioneer!” while being in Oregon, of all places—well, all i’m trying to say is that i couldn’t have been the only one whose brain kept looping the phrase “You have died of dysentery”.

That’s all.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ulterior motives

You know, if you’re an active member of the Mormon church, you always have to have a very specific ulterior motive in the back of your head every time you chat with a member of your own congregation: to figure out whether they’d make a good counselor or instructor if you’re ever called as an organizational president.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Just call me Brother David, then

You know, Mormons used to call each other by Brother or Sister + first name, even to the point of Brother Joseph and Brother Brigham for the people that the church’s style guide tells us should always be referred to as President Smith and President Young.

The shift seems rather a shame, to me at least.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

It depends on what the proximate, not ultimate, goal is

I once heard an interminable story in a sacrament meeting speech about how this one kid was just learning to drive and she hadn’t listened to her father telling her there was a hidden stop sign as she came around a particular curve, and so she ended up in an accident, hitting the stop sign and then a tree. Her father was pretty angry at her for not listening to his advice, which i can certainly understand, but i also have to think: Well, she did stop, didn’t she?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Missing in action maids?

True story: Earlier today, my ten-year-old daughter saw something about MIA Maids and asked, “What’s a me-ah-maid?”

Seriously, can we get rid of the now-meaningless name for that age group of girls? Beehives and Laurels may be a bit overly cutesy, but at least they mean something.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A simple request for advice

Midweek youth activities end around 8:30 pm (later if it’s an off-site thing), with the kids getting home rather later than that.

And early-morning seminary classes require the kids to get up around 5:00 am (if not earlier).

So, ward and stake leaders, please inform me, since i need advice for my ongoing efforts to make sure my children get enough sleep to keep them generally healthy: Which one of these do you advise i not send my oldest to once she hits high school?

Monday, August 1, 2011

One of these things is not like the other

Why do Mormon sacrament services tend to have oddly random choral exhibitions? Like, a service in which all the speakers talk about the covenants of the sacrament, but then we get a bunch of youth singing some modern fluff song with random scriptural quotes about bringing one soul to God? I mean, really.

Friday, July 29, 2011

No seat for you!

One more thought from the branch where i attended church last Sunday—we met in what appeared to be a recently-built building (for example, it had the current church logo on it, rather than any of the ones you see on older buildings), and it was clearly built for a small branch (not that many classrooms, a smallish chapel, and so on). There was one rather odd bit about the building’s design, though: There was no place for chapel overflow seating—the influx of visitors that Sunday meant that those who came in just a few minutes early (that’s right, not those who came late, but rather those who were only a couple minutes early) had nowhere to sit for sacrament meeting, but had to stand in the very small foyer.

Not exactly a welcoming design, really.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Truth is beauty, beauty truth

So a couple posts ago i mentioned that i was going to be traveling to family reunions, and as i more or less expected, that resulted in my complete radio silence over the past week and a half or so. However, stuff that happened over the time i was away gave me a couple things to write about.

For example, this past Sunday my family attended church (along with most of the rest of that mostly-Mormon branch of our family) at a smallish branch.* While i was there i saw something i haven’t seen in a Mormon church service in years:

Metal sacrament trays!

(Old-school represent!)

You know, i certainly understand that they can get dinged up, and they’re noisier than the plastic ones,** but the metal ones are so much prettier—and i hadn’t realized how much i’d missed that.

* Those of you who know how church unit budgets are calculated will understand why i kept imagining that the branch president was thinking to himself, “Why couldn’t their family reunion have been in June instead of July?”

** Unless you use the paper cups—but for whatever reason, the paper cups cost noticeably more than the plastic ones.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who teaches those who teach the teachers?

So (since i brought up church lesson manuals a couple posts ago) i was looking through the church’s Preach My Gospel manual.* This is an important manual—it’s the sourcebook for teaching the teachers of those entering the faith (i.e., the full-time missionaries).

Unfortunately, the teachers apparently aren’t always being taught things that are consonant with current church policy. For the specific case i noticed, a quote from p. 77 [emphasis added]:

Chastity requires faithfulness in thought and action. We must keep our thoughts clean and be modest in our dress, speech, and actions. We must avoid pornography in any form. We should treat the God-given procreative power and our bodies as sacred. Baptismal candidates are to live the law of chastity, which prohibits any sexual relations outside of a legal marriage between a man and a woman. They are not to participate in abortions or homosexual or lesbian relations. Those who have committed sexual sin can repent and be forgiven.

This paragraph summarizes church dogma nicely, except for the bit i bolded—the church’s policy on abortion is actually a bit more nuanced than that, holding that abortion (while always regrettable) is justifiable to the point of not being sinful in cases where the life or health of the mother is seriously jeopardized by the pregnancy, where the fetus will not survive birth, or where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.**

However, these exceptions†† aren’t mentioned anywhere in Preach My Gospel—and that’s important information for our missionaries to know! If someone asks a missionary what the Mormon church’s position on abortion is, and they base their understanding on the contents of the manual explaining what they’re to teach, our missionaries will be teaching something that doesn’t actually match our church’s policies.‡ This can’t be a good thing, can it?

* I can’t find an online version of it aside from a PDF file containing the whole thing, which seems a bit unwieldy to link to here.

** Such exceptions are one reason some of the more ardent† anti-abortion activist groups consider the Mormon church a pro-abortion group.

† Well, extreme would be a better word than ardent. Even most anti-abortion groups that think the Mormon church carves out too many exceptions generally find the church a worthwhile ally in their cause all in all, i think.

†† For one more exception, as far as i can tell (read: i may well be wrong in this, and would appreciate finding out—but i know of nothing about it either way in the church’s handbooks), a medical professional who is required to perform abortion procedures as a condition of employment has their church standing under no threat (assuming they don’t actively seek out opportunities to do so, presumably).

‡ Rather, the missionary would teach them how to be a good Roman Catholic. I’m happy that we’ve got Catholicism in our world—absolutely beautiful rites, especially if you can find a nice high mass, just nothing but beautiful—but it’s not us.