Sunday, August 19, 2007

CoC on Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage

I really liked the following statement on the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) website. I think it is an excellent articulation of how any religious person should approach religious history.

What position does Community of Christ take on Joseph Smith Jr.’s alleged involvement in polygamy?

Our faith is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ and not in the actions of any particular person. The Community of Christ affirms its long history of vigorous opposition to polygamy as a doctrine or practice, regardless of what historical research may ultimately conclude about its origins in the early Latter Day Saint movement. The church has consistently taught monogamy as the basic principle of Christian marriage (Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 111 and 150).

As a policy, the Community of Christ does not legislate or mandate positions on issues of history. We place confidence in sound historical methodology as it relates to our church story. We believe that historians and other researchers should be free to come to whatever conclusions they feel are appropriate after careful consideration of documents and artifacts to which they have access. We benefit greatly from the significant contributions of the historical discipline.

This is part of a much longer answer to the question which you might find interesting. They acknowledge their historical denial of Joseph's polygamy and say that even if he practiced it, it was wrong.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

FAIR: Friday Afternoon

With four presentations on Friday afternoon, it was a packed ending to a great conference. Blake Ostler spoke about spiritual experiences. He noted that logic and reason must take a back seat to revelation when there is a controversy. He derided the argument that spiritual experiences are the result of a "frenzied mind" and asserted that spiritual experiences are the best form of evidence that we have. He asserts that if he could make a logical argument for the primacy of spiritual revelations, that would be a concession that these is a more fundamental form of information and persuasion than revelation--namely logic.

Ostler recounted some really striking personal experience from his own youth where he learned to listen to the Spirit, in one instance saving a girl's life. He joked that as a lawyer he knows how "rational" arguments can be twisted and manipulated because the foundational assumptions of any argument must ultimately be taken on faith. This would be a sweet talk for anyone to read when the transcript becomes available. Blake is a great speaker.

John Hall's presentation was more of a mixed bag for me. I really disliked the first half of his presentation and then I really enjoyed the second half. In the first half, he was engaging in the lamest sort of one-sided debate where he marshalled his best arguments against his opponents' worst arguments. He was talking about how much better attested the New Testament is than any of the other great ancient works. This is all well and good, but it left some really important pieces of the counter-argument out that were blaring obviously, even to a lay person like me. I know I'm not being very specific, partly as a function of the fact that I failed to take good notes during this section, instead spending my time being annoyed.

After a while, though, Hall turned to actual examples of places where better translations of specific passages were available. A complete address could have been made of those points while skipping over the earlier stuff and it would have been a much more satisfactory presentation. There is a forthcoming 15-volume New Testament commentary being produced at BYU with significant direction from Hall. It will be interesting to see what that looks like given the wide variety of opinions held by the faculty that will probably be involved in creating such a commentary.

William Hamblin and David Seely teamed up to give a sales pitch for their just-published book of Solomon's temple. The lecture was packed with great pictures and I'm certainly going to be buying the book when I get an opportunity. Seely got extra credit in his presentation for giving a light-hearted jab at Hugh Nibley while still obviously loving him. Hamblin got extra credit for starting his part of the address with a jab at Daniel Peterson. A conference like this is so much more fun to watch when you get to see the sense of community that undergirds the scholarship. We must be able to laugh at ourselves without degrading ourselves and these two do it well.

The photos were an integral part of the talk, and I doubt I could provide a very good summary, so I'll just make a point or two. I was very interested to see how much the concept of "temple" has remained a powerful thread in Christianity. In art, the temple has taken on a variety of forms to suit the sensibilities of the artist, without regard to the actual historical appearance of the temple. Thus, we see temples that look like chapels or cathedrals or even the Dome of the Rock.

In the concluding talk of the conference, Daniel Peterson eviscerated Christopher Hitchens' best-selling book on why religion is bad. Hitchens spends a few pages in his book picking on the Mormons and gets a whole bunch of trivial facts wrong. If someone can't get the small things right (Nephi, son of Lephi) (a revelation giving the priesthood to blacks conveniently coincides with the 1965 Civil Rights Act), you naturally question any larger points he makes as well.

After shredding the portion of the book that talked about Mormons, Peterson turned his attention to bogus claims about religions throughout the world, most especially Islam. Peterson, as you may know, is no slouch on that subject. Sounds like Peterson's book-length critique (which he co-wrote with Hamblin) of Hitchens' book might be fun to flip through on the bus sometime.

And with that, the conference was over. Thanks to everyone at FAIR for putting on a great show. Perhaps I'll see you all again next year.

FAIR: Friday Morning

Friday started off again with another hot topic: the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Richard Turley, who is working on a book on the subject, spent his time with us talking mostly about the psychology of mass killings. He drew heavily on the research of of someone named Staub(sp?) on mass killings and then applied those principles to Mountain Meadows.

Monolithic societies, like frontier Utah, are much more prone to this sort of problem. (That really gives interesting legs to popular political arguments for "diversity" in our own day.) The Mormons had exaggerated fears about a lot of stuff that was going on at the time. When the wagon train showed up, it provided a tangible entity upon with to pin all their fears. One fear led to another and suddenly people were willing to do something they would never consider under normal circumstances. This doesn't excuse in any way what was done, but it helps us to understand how it could happen.

Turley argues that Brigham Young was not responsible for the massacre. He makes the point about "proximate causes" to note that the local leaders are the only ones that can really bear the ultimate responsibility for what was done. We can't blame Haun's Mill, or fiery sermons, or anything else.

I'm betting that Turley's forthcoming book will be quite a read.

Craig Foster and Steve Mayfield put together a highly entertaining presentation filled with photos of protesters throughout the years at General Conference and other venues. The most recent photos were the most entertaining and I hope they put up a lot of the photos with the transcript of their talk. The crowd really cracked up seeing the signs held by the people protesting against the protesters. One guy came up to General Conference dressed as the devil and held up a big sign that said, "Hi, my name is Satan, and these street preachers are my missionaries."

Oddly enough, the street preachers became so cartoonish in their protests (with correspondingly silly counter-protests) that they became their own worst enemy because nobody took them seriously--including the city leaders. The preachers wanted so badly to have the right to protest on the Main Street Plaza, for example, but when they started screaming at brides through the fence, everyone lost sympathy for the preachers. Now I think they are banned from that area.

Just before lunch we heard from David Bokovoy. He shared some interesting research and ideas about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. Bokovoy believes the prevailing scholarly opinion of multiple authors for the book of Isaiah. Latter-day Saints have traditionally rejected this notion because the Book of Mormon quotes liberally from all over the place in Isaiah. If Lehi left Jerusalem in 600 B.C., he would have left before the later Isaiahs has written.

Bokovoy postulates that Joseph may have been inspired to insert additional chapters of Isaiah into the Book of Mormon than those which were actually engraved on the plates. This is an interesting theory and I'll be interested to see how it plays out with other Mormon scholars.

We also get a glimpse of some of the words that Nephi liked to use which were also commonly used throughout the book of Isaiah. David used the word "delight" as an example. Nephi repeatedly claims that he delights in the words of Isaiah. It turns out the the root word of delight appears 7.7 times for every 100 verses of Isaiah--second only in frequency to the book of Psalms.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

FAIR: Thursday Afternoon

I've heard of Darius Gray several times over the years. I learned that I'd been mispronouncing his name. It is duh-RIE-us rather than DARE-e-us as I had previously guessed. He has played an important role in helping African Americans integrate into the modern church. We watched an "extended trailer" of the upcoming documentary on the experience on present day black Mormons. Afterwards, we heard some comments from Gray and from Margaret Young who is working on it with him.

For the most part, I liked what I saw of the documentary. I think I got a better sense in the few short minutes we saw, of the genuine cultural challenges that existed in welcoming black members into full fellowship in the church. I realize that there are a few different black cultures in the United States and I felt a greater appreciation for the goodness of some of that culture.

There were a couple of things about the trailer that bothered me, but they may turn out to be non-issues in the real film. First, Gray and Young both made a big deal out of the appearance of "Pastor Chip" in the film. He is an L.A. pastor whom they claim is as prominent in his sphere as President Hinckley is in ours. I accept that this may be accurate, but he seemed to receive an inordinate amount of screen time in a documentary that is ostensibly about Latter-day Saints. He had some very nice things to say about the church, but toward the end of the trailer, they showed a clip where he said something negative about the priesthood ban. The camera then cuts to a video of President Hinckley at the pulpit, mute, in between thoughts, starting to mouth something. It was almost like slow motion footage and seemed calculated to convey the message that President Hinckley just didn't have any good response to what the pastor had just said. It really rubbed me the wrong way. But that is a small complaint in what looked like a great trailer. I am looking forward to the film.

Gray, during the question and answer period, implied strongly that the Brethren have a consensus opinion on the "why" of the priesthood ban. He claims they do not publish it, but have authorized him to share it. Frankly, that claim was downright bothersome. I wasn't bothered by the actual explanation that he provided, only with his claim to behind-the-scenes approval from the Brethren. They seem perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and I don't like people claiming to speak on their behalf. [UPDATE: see Margaret Young's response in the comments below for more information on this point.]

The explanation boiled down to saying that it was a test for black people, much like the test of being born blind. We can be mad at God because he allows such things to happen, or we can thrive anyway. God, according to this theory, didn't order the priesthood ban, but allowed it to happen. I suspect there is a lot of truth to this explanation, but I can't help but wonder why God didn't call it off the first time a prophet prayed about it if it was only an evil he was allowing to occur as long as we didn't correct it. Obviously, it is a difficult issue and I'm grateful that serious people like Gray and Young are tackling it.

Next, we heard from Larry Morris about the various controversies that have surround Oliver Cowdery over the years. This was an interesting talk, but I don't have much reaction to it other than to note that Morris isn't totally convinced that Oliver actually practiced polygamy; he tells us that other scholars are more convinced but he's just not sure.

Jeff Walker took us on a fun tour of the legal issues surrounding Joseph's imprisonment in Liberty jail in Missouri. He pointed out many of the absurd things that were allowed to happen in the "justice" system, including a grand jury which included three men who had participated in the Haun's Mill Massacre. There's more than I have space to include here, but I do want to share the most surprising tidbit that Walker revealed for us.

There has been a question about whether the sheriff released the Mormons after they finally secured a change in venue, or whether they escaped. A promissory note was discovered which was payment from the Mormons to one of the guards for the two horses they rode off on. I guess the guards realized what a raw deals the Mormons were getting and couldn't continue to be a party to it. Joseph later casually records in his history the day in Nauvoo where this same guard paid him a visit. Joseph didn't elaborate, but Joseph III clues us in that this was to collect on the promissory note. I assume Joseph paid him.

I pretty much tuned out Wendy Ulrich's talk because she started her presentation with a handout that invited us to think of 6-7 things that were wrong in our homes growing up, and 6-7 thing about our parents that annoyed us, and our greatest frustrations. Who wants to spend time trying to dredge up that kind of stuff if you're not in serious need of emotional repair? Not me. I had a fairly wonderful childhood and I consider myself very blessed on that account.

The day concluded with John Sorenson's remarks. I don't have anything to add here than what has already been published on other blogs. I really admire that man.

FAIR: Thursday Morning

I'm not actually a member or participant in FAIR, but I thought the lineup of speakers for their annual conference was good enough that I didn't want to miss it. I wasn't disappointed. I'd like to share my impressions of the conference with you. These are my perceptions of what was said rather than objective transcripts. You'll have to wait for FAIR to publish those transcripts if you want to follow exactly what was said.

We started the morning with Steven Olsen who helpfully explained that the Church Archives are something of a mixture between a private collection and a public library. Most of the material in the archives is available to all comers with exceptions for material that is sacred (such as the temple ceremonies), private (such as medical information on living persons), or confidential (such as material donated with the agreement that it not be made generally available).

Interestingly, there is no ideological test to get into the archives. If you can get into the Church Office Building, you can visit the archives. Of course, if you've made threats against people at the church and the church security guys recognize you, you won't get in. But beyond that obvious stuff, all comers are welcome. It wasn't so in the past. Steven showed us the sign that is now humorous that was once hung outside the archives saying something like, "Library: No Admittance." I'm glad we've entered a more open time.

Olsen claims that the First Presidency Vault doesn't actually contain the fabled items such as the Sword of Laban or the Liahona. My question is whether or not he's actually rummaged around inside. :) I didn't think so.

After each talk, we had a chance to stretch our legs for a couple of minutes. I noticed Kevin Barney running around, the only guy there in shorts. Just another reason I really like Kevin, even though I don't know him personally. He seems very comfortable in his own skin.

We heard next from Terryl Givens. My impression from the few times that I've heard Givens speak is that I think I prefer to read him rather than hear him. That said, Givens gave a great presentation. He joked about how quickly Latter-day Saints are to snatch up ancient items as proof of the authenticity of the restored church. Thus, Jesus's visit to Mary and Martha becomes the forerunner to the home teaching program and every hole in Mexico is an ancient baptismal font. That got a good chuckle from a crowd that is probably very susceptible to that tendency.

Givens topic was to trace the evidence for teachings about the preexistence through the Western world. He conceded that the Eastern world is also rich with this theological thread but that he didn't have time to examine it. Apparently, there have consistently been people popping up throughout the centuries that have championed the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence of the soul.

Givens told the memorable story about Edward Beecher (brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe) who was part of a famous preacher family. Edward knew that proclaiming a preexistence of the soul would be career suicide, but after a time he could resist no longer and published a 400 page manuscript that exposed his belief in the pre-mortal existence of our spirits. As you might have noticed, his beliefs never caught on in the wider Christian community.

When asked why the doctrine of preexistence didn't seem to gain any traction throughout the ages, Givens pointed out that the doctrine often appeared alongside heresies that the church wanted to stomp out. So, for example, the Gnostics believed in the preexistence, and so the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, in a sense, and preexistence was jettisoned along with the Gnostic heresies. Preexistence also showed up alongside reincarnation which the early church also emphatically denied.

Givens is publishing a book on this subject and it should be a worthy read when it comes out.

The third and final speaker of the morning was John Gee, who really displayed a fun sense of humor about the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith Papyri. Obviously, studying this is a passion of his, but he readily admits that most church members don't worry about it much. He pointed out that there are only a couple of verses in Abraham that ever get referenced in General Conference or in Sunday School materials.

Gee pointed out that maybe 0.05% of the people in the church believe that the Book of Abraham was translated from the papyrus fragments currently in possession of the church, and yet this is belief that anti-Mormons ascribe to us to discredit the book. Gee has been trying to figure out where the Book of Abraham might have come from. He points out some contemporary descriptions of the various scrolls in Joseph's possession and showed some really fun math to figure out how long the various scrolls might have been based on the size and tightness of the wrapping that we can see.

The upshot of Gee's presentation is that we can't use the current information to verify or refute the Book of Abraham. People have criticized Joseph's interpretation of symbols in the facsimiles, but Gee pointed out that the meaning of symbols, even important ones like deities, changed throughout the different dynasties. Since the majority of the Joseph Smith Papyri burned in the Great Chicago Fire, we'll never know exactly what was on them and how close Joseph's translation comes to what other scholars of today would produce.

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