Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ustick Baptist's

I went to a Baptist service this past Sunday. It was the Ustick Baptist Church, a big building that’s near my house so I see it every day and wanted to go in there. Interestingly the Ustick Baptist Church is not located on Ustick Road, the remnant of a small town by that name that was absorbed by the city of Boise probably close to a century ago. Anyway there old building in Ustick they sold a number of a years ago and that structure now houses a congregation of Russian emigrant Evangelicals, whose own English language Christmas reach out service I attended back in 2002 with Chad and the tragically passed Megan Thomas. Anyway a lot of singing at the Baptists service on Sunday, I’d say I even had a limited spiritual experience there. I even got to be the bell ringer for my pew. But this holiday has really been made the presence of visiting friends and the fact that there is actually snow on the ground in the Boise valley for a change.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Two Christmas Services

Though decedent from the New England puritans, the Congregationalist’s as represented by the United Church of Christ, have now become one of the nations most notably liberal Christian denominations, perhaps passed only by the far left faction of the divided Episcopal Church in America. Boasting the likes of Barack Obama and Howard Dean among its membership, I had certain expectations, but the service I attended this morning was not overtly political, though peace was a major theme. It was the children’s Christmas pageant, a nativity play the aimed for the slightly quirky and focused on a former member of king Herod’s guard, turned shoe shiner, who encounters various players from the well known tale over the course of about a night (in this case around 40 minutes), with John the Baptists appearance being highly un-chronological. The kid who played Joseph was the only one who really attempted characterization, though he went for the unusual by playing Mary’s husband as if he where Martian Star, or perhaps a Muppet. Traditional Christmas songs were mixed with a few I hadn’t recalled hearing, such as "We Are Marching in the Light of God", a hand clapping number which I quite enjoyed. A pleasant pastor, brass instruments, and one of the more moving group recitations of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ that I have participated in, rounded out the service, immediately after words I made way to the 5th Ward.

The congregation a Mormon attends is generally dictated by a rather tightly held geographic jurisidictionalism. However right now I find myself in the odd position of having as many as four LDS Wards that I might technically be eligible to attend. One of these is the BUI 5th ward, a congregation with a healthy representation of young, single people who have started on there post-college careers, a class I have recently entered. I found them having there Christmas "pageant" as well, a week early do to the propensity of this demographic to go visit there parents for the actual holiday. It was a well done service, quite satisfying, and had an unusually diverse (by Mormon standards) collection of musical numbers, one possibly in Latin. Memorable where songs sung from the perspectives of Mary and Joseph (the latter a male solo with harp accompaniment taken from the Mormon Christmas musical ‘The Forgotten Carols’). Also performded was a Book of Mormon themed Christmas song, perhaps the only I’ve ever heard, from the perspective of Samuel the Lamanite Prophet who foretold the birth of Jesus to the people of the New World five years before the advent. Sunday School and Priesthood services broke from the Christmas theme for lessons on Revelations and the Prophet Joseph Smith respectively.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunstone 2002: The Church and Its Scholars: Ten Years After

I have started to re-listen to cassettes of sessions from the 2002 Sunstone Symposium, and thought I’d offer some brief comments and observations about them. The first session I re-listened to concerned the 10 year anniversary of the 1992 Sunstone Symposium where Laviana Fielding Anderson presented her 20 year sketch on the ‘deteriorating’ relationship between the Church and its scholars. The events of that session in 92' appear to have had some effect on the eventual excommunication of Anderson, something I’ve never fully understood, along with the cases of some of her contemporaries. Anderson is obviously very attached to the Church, even loyal, certainly a believer, but one who finds plenty to be concerned about in the world of contemporary Mormonism, especially in regards to the relationship between the institutional Church and the individual member. The cases of Anderson and the dozen or so prominent LDS intellectuals to have been excommunicate between 1993 and 1995 are worthy of perusal, and you should be able to find much information there on at the Sunstone website and elsewhere.

In this session Anderson reviews what she said ten years prior and reiterates her continued agreement with, and the perhaps disturbing continuing relevance of, the conclusions she presented originally. Anderson’s basic material was pretty familiar to me still, but I got a lot out of hearing the respondent Armand L. Mauss, author of ‘The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation’, put forth his somewhat folksily styled perspective. Mauss believes that the escalation of these issues into media circuses and out-and-out conflict with the Church leadership does nothing to better the situation at hand. While sympathetic to the experiences of many of those who feel hurt by the Church in regards to a perceived backhand to there concerns and ideas, Mauss feels that one must remember that grassroots change is not likely to be imposed on the leadership of our hierarchal Church, least not in any short period of time. He advises members to remember that the Church is not a democracy and that continued affiliation means one has to live with the flaws and occasional short sidedness that comes with that. However he also says that the cultivation of good relationships with Church leaders both local and general can help get ones opinions heard, and is the most likely and least potentially destructive way to have an influence on the ecclesiastical body. I sympathize with Anderson’s idealism, but Mauss’s pragmatism better reflects the current state of the Church, and the mostly likely avenue to change in official tolerance of divergent conceptions of what it means to be a Mormon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Extreme Mormons. Knowing satire on LDS cinema. For those not familiar with the Richard Dutcher reference click here.
Oddly fascinating video. 'Early Mormonism and the Magic World View', meets Scientology by way of the Sunday's on the E! network.
The 'Straight and Narrow blog' reviews the new Joseph Smith manual for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons.

Mormons, Catholics, and Lineal Authority

Here is a link to a little video that puts forward a common theological argument shared by Catholics and Mormons, namely lineal authority. Both faiths trace the authority of their priesthoods back to Christ, the Catholics through St. Peter and the various Bishops of Rome, Mormons through a restoration of divine authority through Joseph Smith. In both traditions this lineal authority is considered paramount to their respective claims for validity. The model here embraced being Christ's ordination of his apostles, which follows in the path of the priestly ordinations (Aaron and his son's), or divine commissionings (Moses and the burning bush) of ancient Israel. Protestant faiths (with the possible rare exception) don't make these lineal claims, of course most of there theologies accept a amorphous 'priesthood of all believers', which is helpful when ones attempts to latch on to a lineal line would prove problematic (i.e., forced recognition of at least some degree of Catholic priesthood legitimacy).
Norman Mailer Died

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

David Byrne and Temples

I am a fan of the music of David Byrne, formerly of 'The Talking Heads', and was surprised to learn he knows so much about Mormon temples. His focus of interest in temples seems to be centred on the architecture, something I gather is a hobby from his song 'Don't you worry about the Government': "I pick the building that I want to live in; it's over there, it's over there!" Thanks Ken Jennings blog for bringing this to my attention.

Mormons and Presidents: Polk- Taylor

# 11 James K. Polk (1845-1849)

Polk is a president of greater historical significance then his current relative obscurity might indicate. This is mainly in regards to the role he played in expanding the boarders of the United States through the Mexican-American War, a conflict into which the Latter-day Saints would become mildly involved, but which would have a great impact on, by bringing what would become Utah territory under U.S. control.

As mentioned before Joseph Smith was a candidate for the Presidency in 1844, having decided to run for the office after finding none of the early anticipated candidates to be sufficiently aligned with the Church’s intrests. Smith died in June of 1844 after the emergence of Polk as a ‘dark horse’ candidate at the Democratic National Convention. Interestingly Polk embraced several of the same political positions that had been central to the late prophets platform, including annexation of Texas and Oregon, and support for a strong national bank. This might explain why LDS voters favored Polk that November, helping him to win Illinois nine electoral votes by a 54% margin to Henry Clay’s 42%. Before Smith’s death there had been rumors that he would be willing to withdraw from the race and support Polk in exchange for a position of political patronage.

In office the president resisted the entireties of several prominent Illinois politicians to exert federal pressure in speeding the Mormons departure from the state. He must have felt some sympathy for the persecuted people as he is recorded to have given a $10 donation to there aid, and his wife attended a benefit dinner for the beleaguered pioneers in the summer of 1847. But Polk’s concern for the Mormons was tied not just to a sense of compassion and his recorded firm support for the exercise of religious freedom. The president was also concerned that the Mormons could complicate his plans for western expansion by either attempting to form their own independent state, or aligning with a forging power such as England. As a consequence of this the president authorized the enlistment of a ‘Mormon Battalion’ to serve in the war with Mexico, hoping to ensure loyalty through government service. This idea appears to have originated in full or in part from a Colonel Thomas L. Kane, a prominent Missourian and friend of the Mormons, who had the ear of the president. Kane felt this action would foster a sense of joint interest with the Saints and U.S. government, as well as providing the Mormons with some much needed funds from the solders wages. Ultimately the Mormon battalion saw no combat (save an encounter with a bull), but did complete the longest overland march in U.S. military history. After their discharge in California several of the solders found temporary work at Sutters Mill, and were present for the discovery of gold in 1848.

# 12 Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Mexican War hero General Zachary Taylor, a political novice, was elected President of the United States in 1848. One of Taylor’s main political concerns was in halting the spread of slavery into the western territories, this despite his being a Virginian and slaveholder himself. The president worried that the recently admitted slave state of Texas, owing to its incredible size, might in time be divided into multiple slave states. To counter-act this possibility Taylor hopped to admit to the union a huge non-slave state encompassing California and most of the other territory gained from Mexico, all with the intent of then splitting the new state in two as a greater counter-wight to Texan power. This plain however was not to be, owing first to a lack of support among California’s emerging political establishment, who didn’t want to be yoked, even temporarily, with the Mormons of Deseret (1). Secondly, by 1850 Taylor had become unfavorably disposed towards the Mormons, owing to the negative reports he had received concerning the Church’s practice of polygamy, as well as charges of disloyalty. The Church’s representatives in D.C., John M. Bernhisel and Almon W. Babbitt, confirmed Taylor’s hostel views of the Mormons after a meeting with the President, not to long before his death from food poisoning (2).

1. The names the Mormons gave their unofficial state, from a Book of Mormon word meaning ‘honeybee’ and signifying thrift and industry.

2. Taylor died from spoiled food consumed at a Independence Day picnic. Tests conducted on the exhumed corpse several years ago found no indication that the poisoning was intentional.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Christian Science Testimony Meeting

This last Wednesday night I stopped in at the local First Church of Christ, Scientist, for their weekly testimony meeting. It was my first visit to a Christian Science Church and I brought with me only my knowledge of the basics, Mary Baker Eddy, the unreality of matter, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and a demographic over representation among the who’s who of 1930's Hollywood.

The service was begun with an introduction, followed by a hymn, then extensive readings from both the Holy Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Like the LDS Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christian Scientists operate largely with a lay clergy, at least at the congregational level. The women conducting the evenings service was probably British, though maybe she had one over those overly formal Boston accents, which would make sense as the "Mother Church" is based there. Anyway she had what I might call a ‘book on tape’ voice, which worked during the readings, but later on her combination‘weakest link’/NPR speaking style did get a little tiresome.

The readings were followed by a few minutes of silent prayer, then a vocal recitation of ‘The Lords Prayer’, which was given so slowly I kept vocally tripping on myself. Then the time was open for members testimony’s. It took a while for someone to raise their hand, after which an usher brought a microphone around (ala Quaker services, which a congregation member pointed out to me later). Several others offered to bear their testimonies afterwards, most of which focused on things brought up in the meetings, and how the various speakers had been ‘healed’(a key word in the faiths parlance) of aliments, be they physical, spiritual, or other (all of which according to the theology are illusional in nature) .

I found several parallels to Mormon belief and practice, though arguably superficial ones, in the lay congregational structure, veneration of the Church founder (which arguably they do even more then the LDS), bearing of member testimony’s as a regular part of worship, and even a little bit in chapel design (both Mormons and Christian Scientists have distinctive styles of rostrum). I did find the ‘now on sale at the reading room’ section of the service (between the Lords Prayer and testimony’s) to be rather odd though, I’m uncomfortable with even vaguely commercial announcements in a church setting. On the whole I’m glade I went, I enjoyed the experience, though more on an intellectual then spiritual level.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Inis Hunter Passes

Inis Hunter, the widow of the late LDS Church president Howard W. Hunter, has passed away at the age of 93. Inis was Presidents Hunter’s 2nd wife, a divorcee whom he had first met while serving as the Bishop of a California ward in the 1950’s. The couple married in 1990 while Howard was serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, seven years after the death of his wife Clair Jeffs, who had passed away following a prolonged illness. Inis Hunter traveled widely with her husband during the first few years of their marriage, and tended to him during his brief nine-month presidency, the shortest in Church history, and one in which he was mostly ill. Sense President Hunter’s passing sister Hunter has been known to make the occasional appearance at General Conference. She was the last living widow of a Church president.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mormons and Presidents: Quincy Adams - Tyler

#6 John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

The "Mormon" Church did not yet exist during the time of the second Adams presidency, but it was during the course of that four years that Joseph Smith married his first (and only legally recognized) wife, Emma Hale, and received the Golden Plats (1). Former President Adams did however interact with the Latter-day Saints in 1844, when in his capacity as a member of the House of Representatives, he twice meet with Apostles Orson Pratt and John E. Page, to discus their entirety for federal government intervention in the deteriorating situation in Illinois. He was apparently at least somewhat sympathetic, but unable to provide any real assistance. Joseph Smith was per portably a fan of the former president, and had instructed Elder Pratt to make a point of seeing him when in Washington as an envoy for the Church.

#7 Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson was the President of the United States at the time of the organization of the Church, first printing of the Book of Mormon, and many other important events in the history of the Latter-day Saint movement. A Church owned newspaper in Ohio endorsed Jackson’s re-election in 1832, and most Mormons were Jackson supporters. When Church members where driven out of Jackson County, Missouri (2), by their enemies in 1834, they sent an appeal to the President as instructed by divine revelation (3). The president, in accordance with the "States Rights" legal thinking of the time, was unable to intervene without a direct request to do so by the state government, though apparently he felt such exclusions were an undue limitation on his power. Some of President Jackson’s economic policy’s may have been indirectly at fault for the later failure of the Kirtland Savings Society in 1837.

#8 Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

President Van Buren holds a place of particular disrepute in the Mormon consciousness. In the fall of 1839 Joseph Smith and a small party traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with as many influential politicians as they could to seek redress for the Mormons being driven from the state of Missouri. The President meet with Smith twice, and on his second visit gave this famous replay to the Saint’s request: "Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you... If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri."

Ironically Van Buren lost the Missouri vote, and the national vote, in his attempt at re-election in 1840. Joseph Smith purportedly cast a curse on Van Buren that he never again be elected to public office, which he never was, despite an attempted run again for the presidency in 1844. Most of Van Buren’s temple work was intentionally delayed for decades on account of his treatment to the Latter-day Saints. Though in all fairness, had Van Buren attempted to interfere with the state of Missouri in the matter of Mormon redress, it would likely have erupted into a big political mess on account of the "States Rights" political philosophy then so tightly held to, especially by slave states.

#9 William Henry Harrison (1841)

Do to frustration with the Van Buren administration, Joseph Smith led the Latter-day Saints in supporting Harrison’s 1840 candidacy for the presidency, this despite the fact that Mormons had voted against him in large numbers during his 1836 run for that office. Section 124 of the Doctrine and Covenants consists of a "solemn proclamation directed towards various leaders including ‘the honorable President-Elect’"(4), and entreats them to come to the aid of the Saints as they prepare for the Second Coming of Christ. Joseph Smith’s campaign literature for his quixotic and short lived 1844 run for the presidency (5), contains great praise for the late President, implying that had he lived much good would have come from his administration.

#10 John Tyler (1841-1845)

Tyler was the President of the United States at the time of Joseph Smiths martyrdom in June of 1844. The president had a number of interactions with the Latter-day Saints both in letters and in person, and some interesting anecdotes about these are contained in Winder’s book, my favorite of which is that Karl G. Masser (6) taught piano lessons to two of (then ex-president) Tayler’s daughters to help finance his mission. Tyler, like his predecessors, did not intervene to help the Latter-day Saints despite several entireties to do so. Joseph Smith predicted in may of 1844 that Tyler would not win the presidency that year, in June of 1844 the President was denied the Democratic nomination and mounted a third-party bid to retain his office, this ultimately failed.

1. Both events occurring in 1827.

2. Named for the siting president.

3. D&C 101: 86-89

4. Winder, Michael K.; ‘Presidents and Prophets’, Covenant Communications Inc.; American Fork, Utah; 2007. Page 56.

5. It would be easy to see Joseph Smith’s attempted run for the presidency as evidence of delusion or megalomania. However it can be viewed as something akin to similar "hopeless" efforts by candidates like Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan, designed more to bring attention to a certain cause or set of issues, then to really win the office. The campaign was cut short by Joseph’s martyrdom in June of that year.

6. Karl G. Masser was an educator and the first German convert to Mormonism. He later served as the first president of Brigham Young Academy, later Brigham Young University.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mormons and Presidents: Washington - Monroe

Having a strong interest in both Mormon history and American Political history, as well as a vague aspiration to being a writer, I have long had among my list of potential future projects a tome on the relationship between the nations chief executive and the LDS Church. Well that book has been written for me. It’s called ‘Presidents and Prophets’ and was authored by one Michael K. Winder (1), a man with a strong background in both Mormon history and the study of the Presidency. Now that such a formal work is not ‘required’ by my hands, I’ve decided to embark on an informal crash course on Prophets and Presidents for my blog. I will use information taken from Winder’s book, as well as much else I have learned over the years in satisfying my interest on this subject. Anyone interested in perusing this topic further should really get the afformentioned book, which would look nice on one’s coffee table, especially if one never actually uses it for coffee.

The first few Presidents covered (2) are a bit of a stretch in that they held office prior to the organization of the Church in 1830. However LDS conceptions of the men might be of some interest.

#1 George Washington (1789-1797)

Given the much remarked upon "Americanus" of the Mormon faith and the patriotism of its people, it should come as no surprise that George Washington is venerated by the Latter-day Saints. Our nations first president has long been cited in LDS discourse as a man to be emulated, and as a spirit "foreordained"(3) to his great work.

In 1877 Apostle and future Church President Wilford Woodruff recorded that he was visited by the spirt of George Washington and other founding fathers in the then newly completed St George Temple (where he was serving as Temple President). According to Woodruff, Washington and the forty-nine other signers of the Deceleration of Independence, demanded that their vicarious ordinance work be done, and kind of gave him a guilt trip for having not done so already. Elder Woodruff promptly had ordinance work done for all those men, as well as for fifty other prominent historical figures (4). George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were also vicariously ordained to the office of High Priest, where as typically deceased males are ordained to the office of Elder (5).

#2 John Adams (1797-1801)

As Adams died four years before the organization of the Church, the chapter on him in ‘Presidents and Prophets’ is comprised mostly of a brief discussion of the 2nd presidents religious views, which I will not get into here.

#3 Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Jefferson was the President of the United States when Mormonisms founding Prophet Joseph Smith was born in late 1805. He is venerated for his support of religious liberty, and his role in writing the U. S. Constitution, which Mormons believe to have been divinely inspired.

#4 James Madison (1809-1817)

James Madison would, like Jefferson, be chiefly appreciated by Latter-day Saints (theologically at least) for his role in the crafting of the Constitution.

#5 James Monroe (1817-1825)

Monroe was the sitting President when Joseph Smith has his ‘First Vision’ in 1820, and was first visited by the Angel Moroni in the fall of 1823. Some Church leaders have stated their belief that the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ was divinely inspired, included among this group was First Presidency Councilor J. Reuben Clark Jr., who was something of an isolationist (6).

1. Winder is a decedent of LDS First Presidency member John R. Winder, who was the subject of his first book.

2. Meaning the first few Presidents period.

3. Mormon theology holds that the spirits of all people existed with God before they where born, and at least some of these people were selected to accomplish certain tasks in life.

4. These run the gamut from Lord Byron to "Stonewall" Jackson.

5.. The hierarchal arrangement of priesthood offices in the LDS Church (excluding atypical offices such as Apostle or Church President) progress as so: Deacon, Teacher, Priest, Elder, Seventy (now defunct), and High Priest. Though it should be noted that LDS Apostles are usually referred to as ‘Elder’ despite there all being ordained High Priests, this is because Elder (in Mormon thinking) has the connotation of ‘one who preaches’.

6. Clark served in various diplomatic posts, mostly under the Republican presidents of the 1920's. While early in his political career he was involved in the planning of various American intrusions into the affairs of Latin American nations, he later grew to oppose such practice, and took an isolationist position during World War II.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Newsweek Cover Story on Romney

I’d like to say a few things about the recent Newsweek article entitled: ‘A Mormon’s Journey: The Making of Mitt Romney’. The selection of Mitt Romney for a cover story at this time seems a bit odd in light of his placing fourth among the Republicans in most national poll’s, however he is leading in both Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping a strong performance there will give him the boast he needs to carry other states and get the nomination. At the outset I want to remind readers about two things: 1) I like Mitt Romney, I think he’s a good man, and 2) I am not however (at least currently, and probably never) supporting him for the Republican nomination (I’m a Giuliani man right now), despite my being an active Mormon and sometimes Republican.

A major aspect of the story (written by Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller) regards what role Mitt’s Mormonism is to play in the framing of the campaign. Mormonism is of course an issue with the party’s evangelical base, many of whom regard the LDS faith as heretical or even a cult. However Mormonism still occupies a place of suspicion in the broader American mind set, due to its history, doctrines, and a widely held perception, that there’s something just not quite right going on underneath the faith’s clean-cut image. This is frustrating in that we’ve kind of gone through this ‘alien faith’ thing before already, nearly fifty years ago with John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. Regardless of theological differences with its denominational peers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s is the 4th biggest church in this country, and its members very much part of the fabric of American life, not to different from their neighbors, and a long way of from the ‘threat to civil society’ their forbears were widely perceived to be in the 19th century. Mitt Romney’s not Warren Jeff’s or Brigham Young, he’s a blueblood establishment businessman whose done some position flopping, and that’s were the criticism and analysis would be most relevantly directed by the public and media.

That being said I still must express a certain fascination with the only tangentially important father son dynamic going on with Mitt and the late George Romney. Now Mitt’s father’s a man I’d have been happy to vote for. He switched his opinion on the Vietnam War when he encountered the facts on the ground, it was a principled not expedient change, and he was eviscerated for it in the media. He was a believing Mormon, very pious in many ways, yet he was not prone to impose his religious values on others, stocking alcohol in his house for non-member visitors, and insisting that an Italian exchange student who stayed with the family attend meetings of his Catholic faith on Sundays. I like Mitt Romney, but I really like George Romney.

Anyway as the article states, George’s telling it as he saw it approach, and how it subsequently hurt him politically, may have been a major factor in his son’s development of a hyper-conscious phraseology and presentation in his rhetoric and campaigning. Here we have a mirror with the Bush’s, son’s not wanting to repeat father’s political mistakes, and in both cases sacrificing some of their parents principled practicality in exchange for a certain base courting shallowness. I really don’t think we as a country want to go through that again just now.

Some Thoughts on General Conference

So the October conference has ended, and turns out I was wrong in my predictions regarding the new appointee’s to the First Presidency and the Twelve. Elder Bednar was not named Second Councilor despite where he was sitting at Women’s Conference. Instead another Hinckley appointee to the Twelve was chosen to fill the position opened by Presidents Faust’s recent passing. Apostle Henry B. Eyring, a Fmr. President of Rick’s college and two time Church Commissionaire of Education, was called to that post. Eyring had been President Hinckley’s first appointment to the Twelve following the latter’s ascendancy to the Church presidency in 1995, and filling the vacancy occasioned by the death of Church President Howard W. Hunter, following a mear nine months in that office. Eyring is the son of famed Chemist Henry Eyring, who wrote the book ‘Faith of a Scientist’. President Eyring’s formative years where spent in Princeton, New Jersey where his father taught, and where a small branch of Mormons meet in his family’s home.

The vacancy in the Twelve was filled by Quentin L. Cook of the Seventy, who is not to be confused with the more well known (until yesterday) Gene R. Cook. The appointment of Elder Cook took me by surprise because I don’t know anything about him, I mean I’d heard the name but that was about all. In fact Elder Cook was obscure enough not to have had a Wikipedia entry on Saturday morning, by Saturday evening however he had one. It turns out Elder Cook was born in Logan Utah in 1940, served a mission to England during the early 1960's, and his business career was spent as a corporate attorney in California, where he also served 14 years as a volunteer city attorney in the San Francisco area. Elder Cook doesn’t have an overwhelming presence and thus his initial address didn’t leave me with any strong impressions, other then that he seems like a throughly decent man. He’ll doubtless grow in the office.

As far as other themes go this conference a number of the talks seemed address perhaps more to the media and non-Mormons then to the membership at large. This was alluded to several times when speakers in their remarks made statements along the lines of: ‘There has been a recent increase in media interest in the Church do to the presence of prominent members on the national stage’ (read Mitt Romney, and maybe Harry Reid), or ‘It is important that we define ourselves and not allow others to do so’ (alluding to common mis-characterizations about the faith by non-believers). Elder M. Russell Ballerd gave a talk concerning some basic information about the Church non-members frequently want to know. Elder Jeffery R. Holland defended the Christianity of the Church’s non Trinitarian conception of the Godhead. While Elder Russell M. Nelson gave a sermon on the Biblical justification for some distinctive Mormon doctrines.
In fact Elder Nelson was also involved in one of the more memorable events to occur at this conference. Ninety year old Apostle Joseph B. Wurthlin started to have a spastic shaking fit about five minutes into his sermon, this kind of thing sometimes happens when very elderly people stand for atypically long periods of time. In response Elder Nelson got up from his seat and steaded Elder Wurthlin so he could complete his talk. It was very sweet, and reminded me of a few other incidents from earlier conferences, including Howard W. Hunter’s famed stumble at the pulpit, and the time Elder David. B. Haight couldn’t think of the term ‘mustered seed’ until President Hinckley prompted him from behind (Elder Haights memorably good humored response to this aid was: "Thank you President. I keep the President around for occasions such as these."). I mean the top councils of the Church may seem to many like just a lot of old men administering a large bureaucracy (which they in fact largely are), but there’s a great sense of brotherhood about them that is inescapable if you watch there interaction for any protracted period of time. They really love one another.

Finally there were several talks that included stories about members of the Church who helped non-members in some important way, but that aid did not result in the conversion of the persons helped (or at least such a conversion was not explicitly mentioned). One was a talk by President Monson, the First Councilar in the First Presidency, who told the story of a non-Mormon childhood friend of his who was killed in World War II. Shortly after learning of his friends death Bro. Monson went to visit the deceased mother to offer some comfort, he assured her that her son continued to live on in the next world. Years later at the April 1969 General Conference, Elder Monson (by that time an Apostle) gave a sermon entitled "Mrs. Patten, Arthur Lives", in which he addressed the dear women, whom he hadn’t seen in decades, and reiterated what he had said before. Through a perhaps unlikely series of events, the non-Mormon Mrs. Patten heard the broadcast at the home of some LDS neighbors in California where she then lived. Shortly there after she wrote Elder Monson a letter expressing her gratitude for the talk, and how his words had brought her some real comfort and peace about the issue of her son’s eternal state. Had she joined the Church President Monson would most likely have mentioned this in his story, but he did not. Likewise another sermon contained a story of how Church founder Joseph Smith had once taken a poor boy into his home and helped him to find the lost brother he was seeking. Again no ‘conversion ending’ is given to this story, just a Church member doing good for someone regardless of faith, and that being a virtue in an of its self. Of course that should all be simple Christian logic, but with the emphasis on conversion in the outreach efforts of Church members, its important that we be reminded that doing good is its own reward, the recipients of our good deeds don’t need to join our Church for our efforts to have been worthwhile. I’m thankful that important message was relayed to us through this recent conference.

I quite enjoyed Conference this year, it was the first time since my mission that I have been able to catch all five sessions (I’ve typically worked on Saturday’s). I felt a real positive energy and tried to keep some rudimentary notes. I actually look forward for the Conference issue of the ‘Ensign’ (official Church magazine) and a chance to examine some of these sermons in more detail. I may include greater analysis of some of these sermons in future blog posts.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pumped for General Confrence

Well I am particularly pumped for this weekend's LDS General Conference. Unlike a lot of denominations regular conferences, the LDS General Conference is for the 'general' membership, and consists largely of sermons (in the LDS parlance referd to by the more mundane term "talk") from upper echelon members of the Church leadership. These sessions are broadcast on regular television through much of the western United States, on the Church owned cable channel BYU-TV, and by satellite directly into LDS chapels around the world (you can also stream it online at the Church website or in some cases find it on radio).

However like the conferences of some other church's, it is also the occasion on which important matters of denominational business are attended to. Vital statistics are given, the deaths of prominent members are acknowledged, ecclesiastical training classes are held, and new policies and appointments are announced. It is in relation to this last matter that the coming conference holds the most potential interest, as it will be the first time in more the 12 years that the First Presidency is to be reorganized.

A little background for those not familiar with the hierarchical construction of the mainline branch of the Mormon faith. The LDS First Presidency is the highest governing body of the Church, it consists of the Church President and his two councilors. This summer second councilor James E. Faust passed away (some one on another Mormon blog stated that the best words of praise they could think of for the man was that he was a "Class act all the way", I echo this statement). This has created a vacancy in the First Presidency that the Church President will have to feel. Traditionally such a replacement is taken from among the membership of the current Quarm of the Twelve Apostles, though this is not always the case, for example in the 1930's Church pres. Heber J. Grant appointed Fmr. U. S. Ambassador to Mexico J. Reuben Clark Jr. as his second councilor, he would later go on to serve as first councilor under two subsequent Church presidents.

If President Hinckley appoints a member of the 12 to the fill the opening in the First Presidency then a new Apostle will also have to be ordained. If this is to be the case then Marline K. Jensen would be a well received possibility, has got a lot of grassroots support on the net that I've noticed, also he's a registered Democrat like Elder Faust was, so there would be some value in keeping a member of that party in a predominate position in this largely Republican Church, as Mormon Democrats sometimes complain of feeling a little marginalized (and not without reason). Also a Latin American Apostle would be well received, given the Church's astonishing growth in that region over the last 40-t0-50 years.

But it is the new First Presidency that will be the center of attention, as the the Hinckley/Monson/Faust combo was the longest serving FP in the Church's 177 year history. Though there has been much speculation as to who would be appointed, that answer may have already been telegraphed to the Church at last weekends General Relief Society (Mormon women's organization) meeting. According to some women I know who attended, Elder David A. Bednar, the most junior member of the Council of the Twelve, was seen sitting in Elder Faust's old seat at the meeting. While it is true that more senior Apostle Russel M. Nelson was also in attendance at the meeting, he was not seated in Elder Faust's chair. If Elder Bednar is in fact to be the newest member of the First Presidency, he would likely be the youngest man to occupy a position in that body since the 19th Century (Elder Bednar is in his mid-50's). It would be a bold choice to bring such young blood into that geriatric body. However the choice would also seem kind of natural because Bednar has had a rather rapid rise as something of a Hinckley protege.

It was under President Hinckely that Elder Bednar was called to be a General Authority, and the Church President kept him in his position as President of Church owned Rick's college, as that institution transitioned from a two year junior college, into the four year Brigham Young University- Idaho. President Hinckley also called Bednar into his current position as an Apostle in 2004, following the death of the aged Elder David B. Haight (born 1906). So that Bednar may be appointed to Second Councilor doesn't seem so surprising in context. Plus with President Hinckley now 97 years old, and President Monson suffering from Diabetes and other ailments, it seems wise to have someone (relatively) young added to that body at this time. I'm excited to find out for sure tomorrow.

Three Speakers

Even though I graduated from Boise State back in May, I've been on campus a fair bit in the last ten days or so, because there's been a concentrated influx of guest speakers I've wanted to see. Boise State actually does a good job of bringing in interesting guest speakers, and during my years at the school I got to hear some notable people speak, ranging from Feminist Gloria Steinem, to Polish Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa.

On Monday the 24th of September Fmr. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano, now a radio personality and legal analyst for Fox News, as well as an author on Constitutional issues, came to speak. Judge Napolitano was brought in as part of the Brandt Foundation Lectures, a libertarian leaning organization that has endowed Boise State with its lone named professorship, that of Brandt Professor of Free Enterprise Capitalism, currently occupied by Dr. Charlotte Twight. Judge Napolitano offered a few amusing anecdotes about his days as a judge, followed by a lecture on how the vast majority of elected officials have little or no respect for the limitations placed upon them by the Constitution. However the Judge pointed out that one notable exception to that rule is Idaho's own philosophically libertarian governor C. L. "Butch" Otter, who in fact showed up to introduce him. The Brandt Foundation brought reporter John Stossel in to speak as there featured lecturer last year.

Factoid: BSU President Robert Kustra is himself a former Lt. Governor of Illinois.

On Saturday the 29th of September, Boise State and the Idaho Human Rights Educational Center sponsored a visit by John Bul Dau, one of the "lost boys" who survived Sudan's decades long civil war (this was a separate conflict from the current Genocide going on in Darfur), and whose story has been told in his book "God Grew Tired of Us" and a National Geographic documentary of the same name. At 14 John fled the killing in his home country and walked for three months to Ethiopia, where he lived in a refuge camp for four years. At the end of that period a cue had brought a new regime to power in Ethiopia and he was forced to flee again, ending up in the car of a humanitarian organizations that arranged his transfer to a home in upstate New York. John is now a United States citizen and I believe is finishing up a Master's degree, he's also founded several charitable organizations and was here in the west helping to organize the visit of a group of Utah doctors to perform vital surgery's in his native land.

Yesterday was the 24th Annual Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs at BSU. The conference is named for the late Idaho Senator Frank Church, whose famed "Church Committee" helped rain in the intelligence abuses that where brought to such prominence during the Nixon years. Being that the Senator was from Idaho its perhaps surprising that he ever got a chance to be such a liberal icon (Idaho hasn't cast its electoral votes for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964), but such left-of center figures as Ralph Nader and George McGovern have been known to sing his praises.

Anyway the key note speaker was Fmr. Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Hart almost won his party's presidential nomination in 1984, and seemed a potential front runner in 88' until he was brought low by a sex scandal involving pictures of the Senator with a young blond on a boat. Hart resigned from the Senate and has sense been a teacher and author of 17 books. One of these books I actually bought a copy of last night, it's called "God and Caesar in America" and addresses issues of the appropriate boundaries between Church and State in American Politics. At first thought one might not think that Hart would be the best candidate to address such issues, but I was surprised to learn that the Senator has a Doctorate of Divinity from Yale, and his family has been involved with the Nazarene Church since its beginnings.

Senator Hart's lecture its self was about national security and he had some good points, however I won't spend time going over them. Perhaps the highlight of all Church conference is the keynote speakers introduction by Frank's widow Bethine Church. Wheelchair bound but still feisty, Bethine is herself the daughter of a fmr. Idaho Governor, and has enough accumulated respect and pull that she can pretty much get any Democratic Senate veteran to come and speak, she was even responsible for Al Gore's visit to campus earlier this year, an event that broke previous records for attendance at a speaking event. Frank and Bethine's son Forrest is a prominent minister and theologian in the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hell House (2001)

Documentary on a Texas “Hell House”, a kind of Evangelical take on the traditional haunted house, only designed to scare visitors into salvation. While these events are generally taken to be in bad taste, the movie attempts to show the motivation of those who put these things on. Mostly they are good people, there intentions are to help, and if they feel they have to be exploitive to save a soul, they’ll be exploitive. One of the more interesting figures in the film is a single father of four (including one child with cerebral palsy) whose ex-wife had cheated on him with someone she meet online, well this gentlemen mines his own experience for one of the scenes in ‘hell house’, and to watch him watch that scene, is really quite surreal. Ironically though, the folks in ‘Hell House” seem decidedly less scary then those in ‘Jesus Camp’.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Visiting A Seventh-day Adventist Service

This week, as part of my continuing quest to visit as many different types of Church services as I can, I thought it might be fun to attend a Seventh-day Adventist meeting. As Saturday approached I almost decided not to go, until visiting the website of the Cloverdale Seventh-day Adventist Church (whose nearby building I’d long wanted to go into because it looks like something out of “Logan‘s Run”) , I learned that this Sabbath’s service would be on “How The World Will End”, which at least sounded interesting.

I found most of the early service rather boring to be honest, the “Children’s Story” really slowed things down, and the pastor was just a little too ‘game show personality’ for my taste. Also what’s the deal with the handshaking period? Most church’s have them, even Catholics, but it just seems awkward and a little forced to me. Us Mormons do our social fellowshipping informally before and after Sacrament meetings, which seems a lot more natural. Also Mormons don’t pass the plate, something I’m also not particularly fond of in other church’s. The music here however was okay, kind of ‘Gospel Homecoming Special’.

In fact much of the service wasn’t that different from those of your average Evangelical. Distinctively Seventh-day Adventist doctrines seemed almost absent from the proceedings, with church founder Ellen G. White referenced only once, during a prayer, and then indirectly: “Your servant, in her writings said….” The primary sermon, was delivered by a visiting pastor from Portland, who was in Boise doing preparations for an upcoming outreach/educational program called “God So Loved”. His “end of the world” talk was well presented, incorporating power-point style presentation, a few good stories, and an explanation of how the Adventist’s “Secret Rapture” differs from the popularized Evangelical rapture of the “Left Behind” series. On the whole though its seems (from my highly limited perspective) that Adventist theology differs only slightly from that of mainstream Evangelicalism, which might account for the uncertain statues it holds in the eyes of many of the latter’s faithful, meaning they don’t always know wither or not to group it with the Mormon’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses in ‘Cult’ statues.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Best Two Years (2003)

(Holland; contemporary)

Based on the stage play by writer/director Scott S. Anderson, ‘The Best Two Years’ retains a certain staginess, yet manages to be an affective film portrayal of the life of LDS missionaries. Now I must inform you that I am generally pretty critical of Mormon movies, especially when I suspect there going to be preachy, but ‘The Best Two Years’ surprised me. At first it was just hollow cliché’, the new missionary Elder Hezekiah Calhoun (played by the ubiquities (in Mormon movies) Kirby Heyborne) was stereotypically ‘greenie’, a Oklahoma country boy only two years converted out of Roman Catholicism, and like most of Kirby’s performances seeming more like an impression than actual acting*. Though the film never really abandons its cliché’s, it’s the same old ‘cynical missionary turned around by earnest missionary’ plot Mormons have seen before, it taps close enough to the lived experiences of an RM like me to reignite that mindset and evoke oth nostalgia and genuine spiritual feeling. The scene where Elder Rogers (K.C. Clyde) gives his ‘First Vision’ testimony to American expatriate Kyle Harrison, did evoke a little burning in my bosom, and took a bit of the edge off the cynicism that has grown in me since my mission, which is something of an accomplishment for a movie.

In fact the film has a number of parallels to both of Richards Dutcher’s missionary movies, ‘Gods Army’ and ‘States of Grace’, though in contrast to those films, Anderson’s lacks the same world weariness that turns so many Mormons off from the priors work. I would conjecture to say that which directors depiction of missionary life resonates most with any given R.M. says a lot about where that person is spiritually, though I would never-the-less say that both creators works are worth while. I didn’t expect to like ‘The Best Two Years’, I was poised to find it corny and skin deep, yet it penetrated spiritually and surprised and reminded me how sometimes we all need a “annoying greenie” to set things into perspective when we’re feeling a little worn down.

*I’ve long said of Kirby’s portrayal of a British officer in the otherwise above par ‘Saints and Solders’, that he seemed to be doing more of a David Niven impression then actually becoming a rounded character.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Mormon Hymns

One thing us Latter-day Saints are pretty good at is the composition of Hymns. Hymns have an important place in the LDS worship experience, and in fact section 25 of our Doctrine and Covenants contains a revelation from the Lord to Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet Joseph, commanding her to, among other things, compile a hymnal for the Church, which of course she did.

Our Hymnals contain many works common to other Christian denominations such as Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, and the ubiquities ‘Onward Christian Solders’, as well many of the traditional Christmas Hymns (the most famous LDS composed Christmas Hymn is probably ’Far, Far Away on Judah’s Plans’ which also appears in some protestant Hymnals). Mormonism boasts its share of prolific Hymn writers, many of them church leaders, including in the early days Parly P. Pratt (’The Morning Breaks’) and W. W. Phelps (’The Spirit of God'), and in more modern times the likes of Bruce R. McConkie (‘I Believe in Christ‘). Jancie Kapp Perry is one of our more prominent modern Hymn writers, who has also collaborated on several albums with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, and had her work recorded by artists such as Gladys Knight.

Despite some powerful recent compositions like ’Faith in Every Footstep’ written for 1997’s 150th anniversary commemoration of the great Mormon pioneer trek, it is older Mormon hymns that get most of the attention. I am particularly fond of ’Redeemer of Israel’ and ’Carry On’ with their spirited 19th century of sense of religious triumphalism against great obstacles. That is a sentiment they share with what is probably Mormonism best known distinctive hymn ’All is Well’, written as a poem in the middle of the Iowa wilderness in 1846 by William Clayton, shortly after learning of the safe delivery of his son by a wife still in Nauvoo. This song expresses Clayton's spirit of triumph in adversity practically relevant to the mass Mormon migration then in progress, as he states in the 4th verse:

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! all is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
O how we'll make this chorus swel
-- All is well! all is well!

In this glorious hymn Clayton expresses his joy at just being involved in the work of the Lord, and that nothing will stop that work from progressing, so that even if one were to die for the cause, he or she would still have had the honor of being a part of it.

Other Hymns of great religious/cultural importance to the Latter-day Saints include ‘In Our Lovely Deseret’ which is set to the Civil War marching tune ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.’ The Hymn is an idyllic odd to life in the Mormons desert kingdom then called Deseret (from a Book of Mormon term meaning ‘Beehive‘, and symbolizing thrift and unity):

In our lovely Deseret, Where the Saints of God have met, There's a multitude of children all around.
They are generous and brave; They have precious souls to save; They must listen and obey the gospel's sound.
Hark! hark! hark! 'tis children's music-- Children's voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love, Like the angels up above, They will happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.

That the children may live long And be beautiful and strong,Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise,
Drink no liquor, and they eatBut a very little meat, They are seeking to be great and good and wise.
Hark! hark! hark! 'tis children's music-- Children's voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love, Like the angels up above, They will happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.

Also worth note is Phelps ‘The Spirit of God’ composed for the 1836 dedication of the Kirtland Temple and sung at the dedications of all subsequent LDS Temples, as well as other significant occasions such as the 2000 dedication of the Conference Center in Salt Lake. This work might rightly be called the Mormon national anthem, and in fact serves as the anthem for a renewed ‘State of Deseret’ in author Orson Scott Cards book ‘The Folk of the Fringe’, which concerns the inhabitants of a Mormon state established after a nuclear war. The first verse and chorus:

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies of heaven:
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given
Henceforth and forever, amen and amen!

As a close tie in to the ‘Mormon national anthem’ the LDS Church has its own version of ‘Hail to the Chief’, which is sung at nearly all formal occasions when the Church president is present, its called ‘We Thank Thee Oh, God for a Prophet’:

We thank thee Oh God for a Prophet;
To guide us in these Latter-days.
We thank they for sending the gospel;
To Brighten our lives with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing;
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee;
And love to obey they command.

However if I had to pick out just one Hymn that I thought was the greatest LDS hymn, in terms of its sentiment, musicality, and doctrine conveyed, I would have to chose Eliza R. Snow’s ‘Oh, My Father’. Next to Emma Smith, Snow was probably the most widely known and celebrated Mormon of the 19th Century. At the time of her conversion to the Church she was already a poet of some renown, and continued to write throughout a busy life that would see her serve as the second president of the Church’s women’s organization The Relief Society, and be a very vocal exponent for both women’s suffrage, and the cause of polygamy (Snow was a plural wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, not to mention the sister of Lorenzo Snow, the 5th President of the LDS Church).

‘Oh, My Father’ beautifully conveys one of Mormonism’s most distinctive, controversial, and least talked about beliefs, that of the existence of a ‘Heavenly Mother’, from verse three:

I had learned to call thee Father,
Through thy Spirit from on high;
But until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?
No; the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.

Here the doctrine is logically presented as a rightful compliment to the existence of a ‘Heavenly Father’, and yet in conjunction with the music it’s spiritual import is also conveyed. The longing for the divine feminine so consistently suppressed or distorted in the patriarchal religions is reconciled with much of traditional Christian cosmology, from verse four:

When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I've completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.

The late Church president Ezra Taft Benson told a story of being a missionary in England in the 1920’s and being given the chance to convey but one aspect of his faith to a discerning women, he chose to play this song and spoke of the great spiritual understanding it brought between the two of them.

While I could go on for some time writing about the Hymns of the Latter-day Saint movement (and may actually do this at a later time), I hope that I have left the reader with something of a appreciation for the contributions of music to Mormonism.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A Mormon Larry Craig?

I recently came across this information and thought it might be interesting in light of the recent goings on with Idaho's senior senator.

Joseph Fielding Smith (30 January 1899—29 August 1964) was Presiding Patriarch and a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1942 until 1946.

Smith should not be confused with his grandfather, Joseph F. Smith, nor his uncle, Joseph Fielding Smith, both of whom served as Apostles and later as Presidents of the Church.Smith was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of LDS Apostle Hyrum M. Smith and Ida Elizabeth Bowman. He went to school at the University of Utah, where he majored in Theater. In 1929, he married Ruth Pingree.[1] Together they had 7 children, Ruth, Lynne, Ida, Joe, Denis, Hyrum and Pauline.[2].

At the age of 43, Smith was ordained a High Priest and Patriarch to the Church on 8 October 1942 by Church President Heber J. Grant. He served but four years before it was reported by the Church that he had requested to be released from his position. His request was granted by Church President George Albert Smith on 6 October 1946, with the Church announcing that Smith was released for reasons of "ill health."[3] After Smith's death it was discovered that the patriarch had been involved in a homosexual affair with a 21-year-old U.S. Navy sailor, who was also a Latter-day Saint.[4] Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in the USA until 1974,[5] which may explain why "ill health" was given as the reason for the release.

After being released, Smith took his family to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he continued to raise his family. For a time, Smith was not allowed to hold any position in the church, but reportedly was "treated with compassion."[6] In 1957, Smith was again allowed to serve in the church after he had forsaken his homosexual behavior.[7] Shortly thereafter, Smith's wife Ruth wrote a letter to Church President David O. McKay expressing her gratitude for the church's help, stating, "I know, better than anyone else, the trial our family has been to you and to the authorities."[8] In 1957 and after, Smith served as a member of his stake's high council.

Smith died and was buried in Salt Lake City, Utah.

To follow up on this I was in the library today and looked for the entry on Joseph Fielding Smith II in a book on the history of the office of Presiding Patriarch. It included some quotations from the journals of George Albert Smith, the Church President at the time and a relative of Patriarch Smith. President Smith records very briefly that he dealt with the patriarchs 'situation' that day in council, and that the whole thing was 'heartbreaking'. I love that President Smith never submits Patriarch Smiths embarrassing situation to paper by name. The more I read about George Albert Smith the more I become convinced that he was quite the empathetic compassionate soul, as witnessed by his handling of the 'Conventionista's' and struggling Saints in Post-war Europe ect. I really need to read a biography on that man.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Denied a Voice- administrative reluctance to "ruffle feathers" in the LDS Church.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Seer

One of the favorite sources to site for many critics of the 'Mormon' Church is The Seer a mid 19th century collection of writings by LDS Apostle Orson Pratt. The Seer (which I have not read) reportedly contains some of the odder statements ever made by a high ranking Church leader. It is important to note when encountering material from The Seer, its official statues, even at the time, as not of authoritative doctrine for the LDS Church. Brigham Young and all members of the Church's two highest governing bodies (save maybe Pratt himself) issued this statement in regards to the text under consideration:

"Proclamation of the First Presidency and Twelve, October 21, 1865

But the Seer, The Great First Cause, the article in the Millennial Star of October 15th, and November 1, 1850, on the Holy Spirit, and the first half of the tract, also on the Holy Spirit, contain doctrines which we cannot sanction, and which we have felt impressed to disown, so that the Saints who now live, and who may live hereafter, may not be misled by our silence, or be left to misinterpret it. Where these objectionable works, or parts of works, are bound in volumes, or otherwise, they should be cut out and destroyed; with proper care this can be done without much, if any, injury to the volumes."

Even the texts author would record his almost instantaneous acquiesce to the Church's decision (he was apparently even in London at the time):

"DEAR BRETHREN, -Permit me to draw your attention to the proclamation of the First Presidency and Twelve, published in the DESERT NEWS, and copied into the MILLENNIAL STAR of the 21st inst., in which several publications that have issued from my pen are considered objectionable. I, therefore, embrace the present opportunity of publicly expressing my most sincere regret, that I have ever published the least thing which meets with the disapprobation of the highest authorities of the Church; and I do most cordially join with them in the request, that you should make such dispositions of the publications alluded to, as counselled in their proclamation.
London, Oct. 25, 1865"

As pointed out by others some material in The Seer may be sound, as only those aspects associated with the Holy Spirit were specifically cited by the Church for disapproval. Never-the-less it is important to remember that there has always been and likely will always continue to be varying degrees of disagreement between the many leaders in the LDS Church, there for, don't believe everything you read about the Mormons, even if Mormons are the ones saying it.

The Occult, Science, and Joseph Smith

Just finished a rather interesting little article by David Grandy a philosophy professor at BYU. The article is entitled Science and the Occult: Where the Twain Meet, and appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Historically Speaking magazine. In the piece professor Grandy talks about the seemingly contradictory beliefs held by many great scientists, that reflect the cultural Zeitgeist of their times. For example, while Sir. Isaac Newton was the founding father of our modern understanding of physics, he was also involved in a protracted search for ‘the philosophers stone’, which was said to hold the secret of eternal life (see: Harry Potter book 1). Arthur Russell Wallace co-formulator along with Darwin of the theory of evolution believed in Spiritualism (seances and such), as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the supremely logical Sherlock Holmes. The point is that highly capable and intelligent men who helped bring about some of the great discovers of all time, could also hold beliefs now considered anathema to reason. Therefore the logical extension, which I’m sure professor Grandy was more then mindful of when formulating his thoughts on this subject, is that Joseph Smith could easily have believed in finding treasure through seer stones and the like, and have that be historically consistent with being a great bearer of world challenging truth, or at least competent theory. Any thoughts?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Immaculate Body of Saint Bernadette

Several months ago, while flipping through the channels on a Sunday morning, I came across a program on the Travel Channel that made known me to the ‘miracle’ or the Immaculate Body of Saint Bernadette. Of course I had long been familiar with the earthly story of Bernadette of Lourdes, both through the classic 1943 film The Song of Bernadette staring Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price, and late 80’s early 90’s commercials for her collectible plate. What I did not know however was the story of what happened to her body after her death. Because this story is somewhat involved I’ll simply reproduce it from the entry there-on at CatholicPilgrams.com:

“After thirty years undisturbed in the tomb, Sister Marie Bernard's body was exhumed for examination. The cause for sainthood had begun. When the stone was lifted from the vault, the coffin was immediately seen. It was carried to the room prepared for it and placed on two trestles covered with a cloth. On one side was a table covered with a white cloth. The remains of Bernadette were to be placed on this table. The wooden coffin was unscrewed and the lead coffin cut open to reveal the body in a state of perfect preservation. There was not the slightest trace of an unpleasant smell. The Sisters who had buried her thirty years earlier noted only that her hands had fallen slightly to the left. The words of the surgeon and the doctor, who were under oath, speak for themselves:

"The coffin was opened in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the mayor of the town, his principal deputy, several canons and ourselves. We noticed no smell. The body was clothed in the habit of Bernadette's order. The habit was damp. Only the face, hands and forearms were uncovered."

"The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white. The skin clung to the muscles and the muscles adhered to the bones. The eye sockets were covered by the eyelids. The brows were flat on the skin and stuck to the arches above the eyes. The lashes of the right eyelid were stuck to the skin. The nose was dilated and shrunken. The mouth was open slightly and it could be seen that the teeth were still in place. The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary. The veins on the forearms stood out."

"Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact (one of them was torn off when the corpse was washed). When the habits had been removed and the veil lifted from the head, the whole of the shriveled body could be seen, rigid and taut in every limb. It was found that the hair, which had been cut short, was stuck to the head and still attached to the skull, that the ears were in a state of perfect preservation, that the left side of the body was slightly higher than the right from the hip up. The stomach had caved in and was taut like the rest of the body. It sounded like cardboard when struck. The left knee was not as large as the right. The ribs protruded as did the muscles in the limbs."

"So rigid was the body that it could be rolled over and back for washing. The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black. This seems to have been the result of the carbon of which quite large quantities were found in the coffin."

In witness of which we have duly drawn up this present statement in which all is truthfully recorded. Nevers, September 22, 1909, Drs. Ch. David, A. Jourdan.

The nuns washed the body, and placed it in a new coffin that was lined with zinc and padded with white silk. In the few hours in which it had been exposed to the air, the body had started turning black. The double coffin was closed, soldered, screwed down and sealed with seven seals. The workmen again returned Bernadette's body to the vault. It was 5.30 p.m. by the time the examination had been completed.The fact that Bernadette's body was perfectly preserved is not necessarily miraculous. It is well known that corpses decompose to varying degrees in certain kinds of soil and may gradually mummify. However, in the case of Bernadette this mummification is quite astounding. Her illnesses and the state of her body at the time of death, and the humidity in the vault in the chapel of Saint–Joseph (the habit was damp, the rosary rusty and the crucifix had turned green), would all seem to be conducive to the decay of the flesh.

Ten years later, on April 3, 1919, another identification of the body of the venerable Bernadette was mandated. Doctor Talon and Doctor Comte conducted the examination in the presence of the Bishop of Nevers, the police commissioner, and representatives of the municipalities and church tribunal. Everything was just the same as at the first exhumation. Oaths were sworn, the vault was opened, the body transferred to a new coffin and reburied, all in accordance with canon and civil law. After the doctors had examined the body, they retired alone to separate rooms to write their personal reports without being able to consult each other.The two reports coincided perfectly with each other and also with Doctors Jourdan and David's report of 1909. There was one new element concerning the state of the body. This was the existence of "patches of mildew and a layer of salt which seems to be calcium salt," and which were probably the result of the body having been washed during the first exhumation.

"When the coffin was opened the body appeared to be absolutely intact and odorless." (Dr. Talon was more specific: "There was no smell of putrefaction and none of those present experienced any discomfort.") The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. The skeleton is complete, and it was possible to carry the body to a table without any trouble. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body. Some of the veins are still visible."
At 5 p.m. that evening the body was reburied in the chapel of Saint–Joseph in the presence of the Bishop, Mother Forestier and the police commissioner. Here are some passages from Doctor Comte's report :

"At the request of the Bishop of Nevers I detached and removed the rear section of the fifth and sixth right ribs as relics; I noted that there was a resistant, hard mass in the thorax, which was the liver covered by the diaphragm. I also took a piece of the diaphragm and the liver beneath it as relics, and can affirm that this organ was in a remarkable state of preservation. I also removed the two patella bones to which the skin clung and which were covered with more clinging calcium matter. Finally, I removed the muscle fragments right and left from the outsides of the thighs. These muscles were also in a very good state of preservation and did not seem to have putrefied at all."

"From this examination I conclude that the body of the Venerable Bernadette is intact, the skeleton is complete, the muscles have atrophied, but are well preserved; only the skin, which has shriveled, seems to have suffered from the effects of the damp in the coffin. It has taken on a grayish tinge and is covered with patches of mildew and quite a large number of crystals and calcium salts, but the body does not seem to have putrefied, nor has any decomposition of the cadaver set in, although this would be expected and normal after such a long period in a vault hollowed out of the earth."
-Nevers, April 3, 1919, Dr. Comte

In 1925, the third and final exhumation of the body was conducted. This was the occasion during which relics of the sacred body of Bernadette would be taken. Doctor Comte was again asked to conduct the procedure. Once the surgical part was over, he had the body swathed in bandages leaving only the face and hands free. Bernadette's body was then put back into the coffin, but left uncovered. At this point, a precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a light wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that although the body was mummified, the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public. Imprints of the hands were also taken for the presentation of the body. Three years later in 1928, Doctor Comte published a report on the exhumation of the Blessed Bernadette in the second issue of the Bulletin de I'Association medicale de Notre–Dame de Lourdes.

"I would have liked to open the left side of the thorax to take the ribs as relics and then remove the heart which I am certain must have survived. However, as the trunk was slightly supported on the left arm, it would have been rather difficult to try and get at the heart without doing too much noticeable damage. As the Mother Superior had expressed a desire for the Saint's heart to be kept together with the whole body, and as Monsignor the Bishop did not insist, I gave up the idea of opening the left-hand side of the thorax and contented myself with removing the two right ribs which were more accessible."

"What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon."

A crystal coffin was made for Saint Bernadette's body. She was placed in a chapel in the Church of St. Gildard at the convent in Nevers where she lived for thirteen years. She has remained undisturbed and on view in this chapel since August 3, 1925. The Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers are not secretive about the body of St. Bernadette. They welcome visitors, and encourage learning about the life example and messages of their sister saint.”

Here is a link to some pictures to demonstrate:


Anyway, this is pretty crazy stuff, weird but impressive. How does one account for this? Is it a miracle? In discussion with my friend Joe on this issue he informed me that his father had visited Lourdes years ago, seen the body, and was not impressed. The theory goes that St. Bernadette was chemically treated with advanced preservation techniques by Catholics attempting to fake a miracle. However I don’t think even modern preservation techniques are that good, and if you look at the body of Lenin, preserved in Russia some 45 years later, it's not as well perseved, and I doubt even the Sovits where then half a century behind the French in that regard. So what are we to make of St. Bernadette, I for one am just totally baffled.

The Creation Guild

A long time family friend of mine Steve A. Jacob passed away last week after a six month battle with Bile Duct Cancer, funeral services were held today. Mere weeks before his passing Steve put the finishing touches on his first book, a fantasy novel set in the pre-existence about the battle between Michael the Archangel and Lucifer. He had been trying for some time to get it published by a Mormon press, but they where reluctant, I suppose given the speculative nature of the thing. Now a national press has agreed to publish the book, which should be available in a couple of months. As a tribute to him I thought I’d provide the address for the books website. All curious are advised to check it out at: http://www.creationguild.org/index.html
Thank you

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Big Love: Season 1 (2006)

(Utah, contmporary)

A quirky/poignant drama ala HBO’s Six Feet Under, only dealing with polygamy rather then undertakers, Big Love is the type of program that just gives people at LDS Church public relations headaches. They fail to see a reason for it, as do many other Latter-day Saints, to them it just brings up awkward issues from the past they would rather be forgotten. In fact the official Church response to the program, issued March 6th 2006, goes so far as to say the following: “Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.” Ouch, that’s about as hostel as their likely to get in an official statement.

Yet I wonder if this is just another example of the tendency among mainline Mormons to avoid dealing with the tricky issues that abound in our tradition. We (as a whole) don’t like to think about them, we don’t like to have to address them, whether in Church, conversation with a non-member friend, or in popular entertainment. We can handle a brief joke or two on occasion, and once in a great while spend an evening pondering “The mystery’s of the Kingdom” with friends, yet to encounter something like polygamy in a modern context is discomforting for your average LDS, and here is where I think Big Love provides a potential service.

No doubt the bulk of the audience for Big Love, like the other racy HBO family drama’s, is not going to be LDS. Though having now watched the entire first season, it would certainly help the viewer if they were. Distinct LDS references, along with those to the broader Mormon tradition are dropped with little or no elaboration, terms like “sealing” and “garment” and “temple recommend”, may not be fully understood by “gentile” viewers not immersed in our own unique jargon. Though despite this, Utah’s largely Latter-day Saint populace acts as a kind of stand-in for the viewers perspective, the ’regular people’ who encounter, to one degree or another, the polygamous Henrickson clan around whom the series centers. This ironically is something your average member could support, having the “Mormons” on the show be the ‘regular guy’s’, yet then they have to encounter the “Mormons” of a quasi-19th century variety, which brings the typical Saint back into uncomfortable territory. Before I go one I do need to stop and acknowledge the semi-explicate depictions of sex on the show, though adding that other then a cameo appearance by Bill Pullmans posterior, no real nudity is shown. This degree of sexual frankness will be anathema to many members, yet also provides a convent cover for them dismissing the show, and by extension, the things it may have to teach us.

I’m afraid I have to take some exception to the folks at PR, but my “great mind” found some nourishment in Big Love, it found a rare canvas on which is depicted the cognitive dissidence of Mormonism past and present, where big business achievement and mounting credit card debt come face to face with sister wives and communal orders. Here we have a character, a successful businessman by the last name of Kimball, who invites our major male protagonist Bill Henrickson, (the owner of a growing chain of Utah based home improvement stories) into a civic organization composed of Salt Lake area business owners.Kimball is the epitome of the modern successful Mormon, he even has a rather common Mormon last name, one shared with a dynasty of LDS Church leaders going back to the earliest days of the movement. Kimball see’s I think a bit of himself in Bill Henrickson, and is practically impressed by his compelling narrative, having been thrown out a polygamous group at the age of 14, and then building himself a life and successful career as a “true” Latter-day Saint. Bill used to tell this story on a kind of inspirational circuit, while a practicing member of the mainline Church, before circumstances thrust him back into the world of polygamy. That Kimball finds this all so compelling and heroic is ironic in term of his name and his heritage, he says he can’t get over the barbarism of the modern fundamentalist, yet they practice what in the 19th Century would have made him the definition of a successful Latter-day Saint. Heber C. Kimball by the way, was the only Mormon Church leader of his day to have more plural wives then Brigham Young.

The way all the mainline Mormon characters deal with polygamy is in fact fascinating. Hendrickson daughter Sarah’s (Amanda Seyfried) best friend Heather (Tina Majorino) is a “Molly Mormon” who has some “very strong views on polygamy”, yet keep’s the Henderson’s secret out loyalty to her friend. First wife Barbara’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) sister Cindy, likewise telegraphs a desire to get her nieces and nephew away from those practicing “The Principle”, but keeps mum to the authorities because she doesn’t want to inflict any destruction on her family. Even the Henrickson’s lawyer, played by former Clinton staffer Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., chooses to treat them simply as clients and friends, making no apparent judgment calls. In fact what was once called ’the Mormon Creed’, “Mind your own business”, seems to still be in effect among many of these Latter-day Saints, which perhaps explains why practice of ’the principle’ has remained such an open secret in stretches of the mountain west.

There are those among the LDS by-and-large who might have interest in exposing the Henrickson’s, but here they take the form of the sitcom staple ’nosey neighbors’ (who’d like to fellowship that ’single mother’ across the street into the Church) and a women of obsessive tendencies. By keeping mostly to themselves and taking a few other common sense precautions, the Hendrickson’s can functioning rather well in the modern world, where the biggest issue might be who runs who to their recital or baseball practice.

The Henrickson’s have those average, every-day problems, but there dramatic significance is heightened by having them played out among three wives and seven children. First wife Barb balances a career as a substitute teacher with family responsibilities and feels as though her husband has been “stolen away” from her by his other ’responsibilities’. Second wife Nikki (Chloe: Sevigny), who grow up on the polygamous compound of Juniper Creek, has succumbed to a shopping addiction now that she is out among the modern world, and tries desperately to keep the existence of her excessive debt from her husband, lashing out at others in the family in ac effort to deflect her mounting sense of personal guilt. Third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), only 23, is suffering the standard feelings of isolation and overwhelment that affect young mothers. All the while son Ben (Douglas Smith) struggles with puberty and a sexually aggressive girlfriend, and daughter Sarah copes with intense social unease. These are all typical modern problems, very 21st Century, very contemporary Mormon, save for the marital arrangements, they could be any Wasatch area family.

No the Mormon past comes more to the front in the form of Juniper Creek, the polygamist compound in which Bill grew up, and too which he reluctantly returned seven years prior, when his wife had cancer and he desperately needed a loan. Trips to visit relatives in the desert community, and visits from members of a vastly extensive family bring that place, and that life style, to the forefront. While 19th Century in its social arrangements and cultural conceptions (one polygamist wife viewing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on television mutters “uppity”), it to, like the Henrickson’s suburban homes, is also in dissonance to a modern reality. Cheaply constructed country homes whose residents drive Hummers, plural wives tending the field and polishing the private plane. It’s a world of both pot lucks, and corporate style board meetings. All presided over by a cowboy hat wearing prophet, a former accountant who enjoys folk songs and the poetry of Emily Dickinson (Harry Dean Stanton). He’s authoritarian, yet genial, ruthless, but sentimental. At 76 years of age the importance of sex has waned in his mind, yet he keeps 14 wives including a 15 year old he seems more interested in teaching diction to then sleeping with.

The modern and primitive join hands and show there not that different, which is perhaps more disconcerting then comforting to the modern Mormon mind, even if we’re not likely to tell you that. (When you talk to a young Mormon women about polygamy, their response will most likely boil down to, “I’m glade I don’t have to deal with it, we don’t practice that anymore“.) When some long time polygamous wives are told they are to be reassigned when their husband falls out of favor with the groups leader, Bill tell’s them they don’t have to listen to him. “But he’s the one true prophet of the Lord” one responds. When Bill’s brother Joey confesses to Barb that he is a closet monogamist, but won’t tell his wife Wanda that he doesn’t want another wife, because he knows she’ll be upset, fearing they then won’t be able to go to the Celestial Kingdom, I see the modern parallels, and wonder how many other Mormons can be brought to acknowledge them. The source of the greatest meaning in their lives is also the source of most of their pain, yet they cling to ‘the principle’ as many of us cling to the Church, because it has become or axis, and we’ll never be able to see our own spirituality through any other prism. This may be good, this may be bad, but its something were wedded to as Mormons, a light by which we both see and are blinded.

I am thankful for Big Love. Thankful for the odd kind of Mormon every-family that are the Henrickson’s. Their adventures in dissonance truly nourish my soul, and expand my mind.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What's your Theological Worldview- I guess I'm Emergent Postmodern.
The Death Clock. The second time I tried this, after adjusting my stats to better reflect my present state, it eerily gave me a date of death within six months of my long held fictional death date, May 28th 2058. Creepy.
The Book of Zelph. A Cynical satire on certain aspects of Mormonism, but I appreciate a certain exactness, and that you really have to know a fair bit about Mormonism to truly appreciate it.
"It's a Two Way Street"
Boise's Basque sister city
Predestination Vs. Calvinism. These to things are intemently associated with each other, yet there is a apparent difference, as I've heard an increasing number of Calvinists assert over say the past five years. I always found Predestination to be a particularly loathsome doctrine.
I remember hearing people talk about the World Wide Church of God on my mission. Apparently they were considered quite a scandal in the Protestant world, for daring to embrace some theological innovations pioneered by Mormons, Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
A New Direction for Sunstone, I remain dubious

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Lazy Faith- Couldn't have said it better myself.
Things to do in Boise.

James E. Faust: 1920-2007

Let’s pause a moment to morn the passing of James Edras Faust, a General Authority of the LDS Church for nearly 35 years, and since 1995 the second councilor in that institutions highest earthly governing body, The First Presidency. In effect Elder Faust was the 3rd highest ranking figure in the LDS Church, yet he always carried himself with such a great sense of humility, and of being a servant not a leader.

James Esdras Faust was born July 31, 1920 in the rural town of Delta Utah, though by the time he reached high school age his family had moved to south Salt Lake. At Granite High School he played football and ran track, the latter of which he would continue to do competitively at Utah State University. However before starting his University studies James served a three-year mission to Brazil (1939-1942). He would come to love that country, and in later positions as a General Authority, was often given assignments related to the affairs of the Church in that nation. In 1998 Elder Faust was given a rare honorary citizenship by the Brazilin government, in account for his decades of service on behalf of the citizens of that country.

Upon returning from his mission Elder Faust served in the United States Air Corp during the Second World War, he achieved the rank of First Lieutenant. In 1943 he married Ms. Ruth Wright, whom he had known in High School, in the Salt Lake Temple. The couple had five Children, and as of his death on Friday, had 25 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren.

After graduating from Law School Elder Faust got work at a Salt City law firm, he also became active in Democratic party politics. He served in the state legislator, and as Utah Chair for the party. He was appointed by President Kennedy to serve in the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and Racial Unrest. At the time of his passing Elder Faust was probably the second most visible Democrat (next to Senate majority leader Harry Reid) in a Church that is very Republican by reputation. Faust would also serve on the board of the Deseret News Publishing Co. from 1970 to 1996, as well as a trustee of Ballet West.

In Church service Elder Faust became a Bishop at the young age of 28, and later a Stake High Councilor and Stake President, before being called to the now defunct position of Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1972. When that position was eliminated by President Kimball in 1975, Elder Faust was transferred to the newly restored First Quorum of the Seventy, and put in charge of the Church in South America. He was involved in the construction of the Temple in Sao Paulo, but also loaned out to do legal work involving Church efforts to build a permanent extended studies facility in Israel, a feet that was eventually accomplished.

In 1978 Elder Faust was called to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve occasion by the death of Elder Delbert L. Stapley. An unassuming man, he was plucked out of relative obscurity in that body in 1995, when incoming Church President Gordon B. Hinckley taped the 75 year old Faust to serve as his second councilor. In that position he became a much loved figure, whose distinct slightly warbly voice, made him a combination of Jimmy Stewart and sage. He suffered from a very visible shaking in later years, necessitating his delivering some of his General Conference and other addresses, from a high-backed red chair. Elder Faust made his last public appearance at festivities in honor of President Hinckley’s 97th Birthday in June. He died early Friday morning, surrounded by his family, from what is being described as causes incident to old age. Elder Faust will be missed by all who have had the honor to be affected by his extraordinary life.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Members of the Mormon church are not all united on every principle. Every man is entitled to his own opinion and his own views and his own conceptions of right and wrong so long as they do not come in conflict with the standard principles of the Church. If a man assumes to deny God and to become an infidel we withdraw fellowship from him. But so long as a man believes in God and has a little faith in the Church organization, we nurture and aid that person to continue faithfully as a member of the Church though he may not believe all that is revealed."- Joseph F. Smith.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)


Early Ken Burns film chronicles the history of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, other wise known as the Shakers, an off-shoot of the Quakers. The Shakers were founded by a former English factor worker named Ann Lee, who I have been lead to believe declared herself the second coming of Christ, thought that issue is never directly dealt with in the documentary. Now extinct, and at the time of the making of this documentary numbering only a dozen, the Shakers were certainly a unique group. Adherents were celibate and lived communally. Like their Quaker cousins they valued simplicity, they also became noted for the quality of there carpentry and produce. They were social progressives, decrying racial prejudice and again like the Quakers, letting women hold high positions of authority in there ecclesiastical body's. What I did not know about Shakers was that they where inventors, creating both the close pin and the circular saw, not to mention the modern broom. I also hold there most famous him, Simple Gifts, to be one of the greatest of American musical compositions. So suffice it so, they interesting enough to spend an hour with.

The Shaker community notably intersects with Mormon history in the story of Leman Copley. Copley was a former Shaker who had converted to Mormonism, but continued to hold to some of the distinctive beliefs of his former religious body. After being corrected by Joseph Smith and other leading brethren, Copley was dispatched with Sidney Ridgon and Parly P. Pratt to deliver a revelation to a local Shaker settlement 'correcting' them on there beliefs. I must admit I kind of marvel at the comic bravado of this action, but I'm sure it was sincere. Smith was also a critic of the Millarites, another movement that can be grouped with the Mormons and Shakers as radical Christian thinkers of the early 19th Century. The revelation delivered to the Shakers by Copley and the others comprises section 49 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Saved! (2004), Left Behind (2000)

(Unknown state, possibly Maryland, possibly California; contemporary)
(Jerusalem, London, Chicago, New York City; ’the near future’)

A miss match of ’religious’ films I’d been putting off seeing provided my entertainment for the night. They also provide a good jumping off point for a not as yet fully developed meditation on Christian beliefs, particularly those of Evangelicals.

Saved! director/writer Brian Dannelly clearly had a not-so-great Christian school experience, and while this may have been bad for him, its good for us as we get to see this unconventional film offering which was inspired there-by. The basic plot of Saved! Concerns Mary (Jena Malone) a young born-again women and the events surrounding her senior year at a Christian High School. Mary has been a Christian since she was about three years old, shortly after the death of her father. Raised by her committed, but not entirely free from earthly desires mother (played by the always welcome Mary-Louise Parker) Mary seems to have the perfect Christian life. She has her best friend the perky yet domineering Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) and ‘the perfect Christian boyfriend’ Dean (The 4400’s Chad Faust).Towards the end of summer Dean confides to Mary that he thinks he might be gay. Concerned to correct what to her understanding is an obvious defect, and acting on a perceived vision of Jesus (actually the result of being saved from drowning by a bearded pool worker after sustaining a bump on the head), Mary has sex with Dean. And of course, she gets pregnant.

The rest of the feature is a tribute to Christian hypocrisy, as the well-meaning and sincere Mary confronts the disillusioning hypocrisies of her fellow Christians, which while apparently also sincere and well-meaning (at least to a degree), are also mean. Obviously this central observation does not hold universal and is a trifle simplistic (there are some mean atheists out there as well), but Dannelly is trying to make a point with some humor and I’d say he largely succeeds. If fault can be found in the ideological focus of Dannelly’s dramatics, where all the character’s problems can be traced back to some aspect of Christian life and belief (though admittedly less so with the Cassandra character), room for praise can be found in a generally sympathetic treatment of all involved. Even the arch-hypocrite Hillary Fay, finds a kind of redemption in the end, in which we come to understand her unrealistic strivings for perfection in her self and others, come from misunderstood belief, and having once been a fat and (presumably ostracized) child. Speaking of Mandy Moore I do have to say that I find it rather neat that the actress/singer stared in both this critical spoof of Evangelical youth, and one of the favorite films of that same demographic, the syrupy but oddly effecting A Walk to Remember (Ask me and I’ll tell you how that movie is a sort of sex fantasy for libido repressed Christian teen).

There are sub-plots aplenty in Saved! The most interesting of which is probably the romance between Hillary Fay’s partly paralyzed brother Roland (Macauly Culkin) and the schools one Jew, and constant target of attempted conversions, Cassandra (Eva Amurri). Present throughout all storylines remains the damage done by Christianity in peoples lives. This critique, present through the whole film, is eventually preached directly at the audience during a confront between the very pregnant Mary (and an assortment of allies, including both her gay, and her straight boyfriends) and the schools principle (who incidentally is cheating on his wife with Mary’s mother). Here we learn that standards imposed by others are often difficult if not entirely unattainable for those on whom they are afflicted, and that we should all let everyone be who they are and not impose own interpretation of a collection of ancient texts upon them. One can still be a Christian we are informed, but it should only be in watered-down, vague, God loves everybody, get along kind of way (also a kind of forced interpretation of text).

This interpretation of the proper mode of Christianity holds considerably less water (pardon the pun) in the world of Left Behind. Don’t believe me, well just ask that poor pastor in the film, who was left behind because while he believed in the Christ’s truth, he didn’t know Christ’s truth, or was it the other way around? Anyway suffice it to say it really is a narrow road to salvation in the minds of author’s Jenkins and LaHaye, whose series of intrigue laden novels based on a particular evangelical interpretation of the Book of Revelation, have sold millions, and represent the beliefs of still millions more. In one scene a TV screen displays a number of estimated ’missing’ and its less then 200 million. Now while it is made plainly clear to us that the American children are lifted up to meet Jesus in the sky, along with what seemingly few adults who have managed to get themselves saved, the number given seems far from adequate to represent the worlds youth, I suppose many a Muslim child was just unlucky. Let’s hope that either they or I have got our numbers wrong on this one, or else this is a particularly disgusting belief.

Left Behind was made in a month for around 17 million dollars. Now it shows this a little in its look, but not overpoweringly so. The script is cliché ridden, from the media informant shoot before he can get important information to our hero reporter (notably born-again actor Kirk Cameron), to Brad Johnson and Chelsea Noble rehashing the Dean Martin/ Jean Seberg plot from Airport while on an international flight,… also Kirk‘s mentor is killed by a car bomb. However there is some genuine excitement to be had (not much but some), mostly in the form of the palpable tension in the days immediately following the rapture, and Gordon Currie’s Nicolae Carpathia showing he could prove to be a fun villain. In fact Currie’s performance really is the most fun to watch in the film, if a trifle hammy in conception.

The thing that really gets me about the movie though is the near total Biblical illiteracy of those left behind. Should such an event as the rapture here portrayed occur, and say I was left behind (my Mormonism and doubting proclivities having presumably bard me from the Evangelical Heaven), it would take me all of sixty-seconds to figure out what had happened and issue a pretty desperate prayer to Jesus. But then according to this movie I should have known better, and so should have the Jews, homosexuals and skeptics of Dannelly’s Saved!

I’m not completely immune to an understanding and even appreciation of certain aspects of an Evangelical world-view and theology, but I’m also quite libertarian in (and maybe only in) my approach to the exercise of free will. I believe God gave us free will, he also gave us a complicated world, and the deity of the New Testament (I’m gonna leave the Old Testament out of this) doesn’t strike my as a kind of sadist who really delights in torture. I include both the social torture that we can inflict on each other, as demonstrated by Dannelly, and also the apocalypticism on which all to many of the religiously minded seem to get off.Listen I’m a Mormon, and I try to be a believing one, but certain characterizations of God, common in all sorts of religions, strike me as unbecoming a supreme being. From all that I’ve been able to observe and try to understand, I’m pretty sure that homosexuality, at least in most cases, is not a choice of the individual so identifying. In fact it’s a ticket to a harder life then they might otherwise have, so in this I give sympathy. Should such matters need to be sorted out in the eternity’s, I’m sure they will be, but for us now in mortality, its incumbent upon we who identify as Christians (as well as all people) to be decent to our fellow human beings. Please go and preach, and exhort unto repentance if you feel so inclined, it may well be that I’ve become to lax in this, but don’t try and force others to behave to a certain code. Who was it who said that morality by force ceases to be morality at all? Well I believe him.

As for the ’end times’ or more broadly the role God plays on the inflection with which we are bereft in this life, I tend to favor the reading of Rabbi Harold Kushner: ‘God dose not send these things upon us, only helps us through them.’ I could be wrong about all these things, and very likely my religious outlook will continue to grow and develop over time. But the constant that I try to hold onto in faith is that of simple decency. A mankind who learns an oft overlooked lesson from the story of the Virgin Mary and doesn’t try to stigmatize the pregnant teen, and a God who doesn’t need a big light show of destruction to satisfy ego and welcome in a pre-ordained triumph through human suffering, but rather one who will tend us through all our storms, even if agency means some of use go through hell to make it to the other side. These are my convictions, admittedly expressed through the light haze of writing at 12:30 in the morning, but there they are non-the-less. In both Saved! And Left Behind we see examples of the best and worse of Christian thought and behavior, and lets hope that both can serve as modern texts containing something worth learning from. But don’t my word for it, you can study them yourself.