Author Archives: handle

Barlow going to USU

It’s official: Philip Barlow will fill the new Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University (see Salt Lake Tribune story here). This will likely disappoint some prospective students of Claremont Graduate University. However, it’s great news for USU students. Barlow is an excellent scholar by all standards. So what are your initial thoughts on the appointment?

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On Watchin’ the Game


The health risks of American football have been getting a lot of attention in the press lately, no doubt in anticipation of the Super Bowl. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran articles on the frequency of head injuries in professional football. The articles highlighted former Patriots linebacker, Ted Johnson, who received several concussions during his career. Johnson’s head injuries resulted in severe depression and drug addiction.

Like many other professional and amateur football players, Johnson felt trapped by expectations that he should play through the pain. American football inspires a culture of toughness. Encouraged by fans, coaches and other players, many continue playing even after sustaining major injuries. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that N.F.L. players faced a 37% higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Yet the kind of press that portrays the dangers of football is not commensurate with the overwhelmingly positive depiction of star athletes. The Super Bowl regularly draws audiences of between 75 and 95 million television viewers. Professional athletes are idolized.

Even successful coaches receive vast amounts of attention (and wealth). It is telling that at least 23 college football coaches are paid salaries in excess of $1 million. In several cases these coaches’ salaries far outweigh the university presidents’ annual income, let alone the professors’ and administrators’ pay. Clearly the United States has a fascination with what can at times be a very violent sport.

Are there inherit problems with this country’s massive consumption of professional football? This is an important question for Mormons. We have several members on N.F.L. teams who sometimes function as unofficial spokesmen for the church, including Ty Detmer (and his little brother Koy), Chad Lewis, and, of course, Steve Young. The LDS church has tacitly endorsed football. For example, Elder Wirthlin, who never made it into the professional leagues, was nevertheless awarded for being a “lifelong supporter” of college football.

There may be arguments both for and against the idealization of football stars (be they LDS or not). On the one hand, football is a dangerous sport. By idealizing the athletes of aggressive sports like football, don’t we become party to the inevitable injuries players sustain? On the other hand, audiences of football tend to also play football; and participation in any sport – even dangerous ones – seems preferable to inactivity. Obesity, after all, will kill a lot more people than concussions from flag football.

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What does architecture say about doctrine?

It was recently announced that Frank Gehry, an icon of postmodern architecture, will be designing a mixed-use development in Lehi, Utah. Gehry is famous for his radically shaped buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His plans for Lehi will surely break the mold of conventional Utah urbanism. Postmodern architecture is rare in the Beehive State. However, this announcement is not altogether surprising given the success of other recent developments such as the Gateway in Salt Lake City and the New Urbanist community in South Jordan (Daybreak). It seems that the predominantly LDS population of Utah is finally generating a demand for alternatives to the ‘cookie cutter’ homes which have, unfortunately, prevailed in Utah’s sprawling neighborhoods.

It is ironic that just as Utahans are embracing the aesthetic appeal of New Urbanism and postmodern architecture, the LDS church is in the middle of an ambitious building program with ‘cookie cutter’ temples as its focus.

The church has good reasons for building recent temples from a single model. By using identical architectural plans for each new temple, the church keeps building costs low and maintains a sort of equality among its members. However, there are also drawbacks to these matching temples, not the least of which is their drab uniformity.

There is a general fascination with the church’s earlier temples that would be difficult to generate for its new ones. People recognize the Salt Lake Temple, even if they don’t always understand its significance. For example, one vendor in London sells the oddest belts – they are blue with small images of European architectural icons, including the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, and … yup… the Salt Lake Temple. Earlier temples have a “spooky charisma,” in the words of Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic with the Los Angeles Times.

While it is not practical for the church to use the famous castellated gothic style in its new temples (and neither is it economically sage to build ornate buildings in remote places) there is a sort of vibrancy that the new temples lack. A temple does not have to be large or even follow a particular design theory to generate excitement; and, of course, God can be worshiped anywhere. But why not allow for more variety in the temples’ design?

Does the church’s architectural development over the years represent an increased drive for standardization? Perhaps there is something significant in the fact that leaders of the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose a postmodern design for their temple, whereas the LDS church has consistently used classic modern designs for recent temples.

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Of Saints and Schemes

I apologize in advance if this post is mostly anecdotal, but I have been concerned for a while about the business practices of some Mormon run companies specializing in door-to-door sales. I have several friends who have taken positions in companies selling a range of things, from pest control services and alarm systems, to knives. For the most part, their experiences have been terrible.

The companies of which I am aware tend to recruit male returned missionaries as their sales force. When they get enough people to sign employment contracts, everyone relocates somewhere for the summer (except for the knife salesmen who are encouraged to sell among family and friends). Then they begin selling. The work days can run anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending on the salesperson. There is no direct supervision; however the salesmen are usually in competition with one another. Those who make more sales often receive random prizes like Plasma TVs and Ipods in addition to the extra money they make from commission.

Given the incentive to sell, many employees begin to lose their moral compass. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about these companies report that the salesmen are encouraged to lie. Sometimes, the ‘team leaders,’ themselves returned missionaries, will use gospel-oriented motivations, like explaining that more money from sales equals a larger tithe for the church.

What’s amazing is that it seems to work. One person I know makes between 35 and 40K – just selling over the summer! His brother, a partner in one of the companies, has made well over a million dollars over the last few summers. However, for every success story, I have heard of several people who quit or are forced to resign, either because they don’t make enough to pay their rent, or because they dislike having to mislead people in order to make sales.

I know that unethical behavior is practically ubiquitous in many sales based organizations and, therefore, it shouldn’t matter if some Mormon companies engage in the same dodgy practices. But I worry about what it will mean to the church if in ten to twenty years these salesmen begin to assume leadership positions.

Has anyone else had experience with Mormon run summer sales companies? What about multi-level marketing, pyramid and matrix schemes? Ever get a call from an ex mission companion asking you to meet for a “reunion” in Provo?

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The Fruits of the Spirit: Confusion, Honesty and Depression

Someone I know very well is prone to a religious form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, called “scrupulosity.” He worries obsessively over proper religious practice, especially the internal aspects such as prayer and thinking pure thoughts. He feels an unusual amount of anxiety over his thoughts and therefore engages in certain mental rituals to clear them of “sin.” Ironically, these rituals often compound the problem since they add to his anxiety, making it more difficult to control his thoughts instead of easier. Prayer is a very powerful healing technique, but as a compulsion it looses much of its transcendence. He is accustomed to spending hours praying and worrying.

Like many suffering from scrupulosity, he would never act on the odious thoughts that pop into his head. OCD is likely a biological disorder – it is certainly not a spiritual malfunction, even though it may seem that way to patients. This has me thinking: is there an unintentional bias against church members with mental illness?
We associate the Spirit with peaceful, happy, familiar feelings. As a result, we often focus our attention inwards to gauge our spiritual wellbeing, concluding that if our emotions do not match the “fruits of the Spirit,” something must be amiss in our behavior. This may be a normal and healthy part of religion, but for someone who is clinically depressed emotions are often poor indicators of God’s loving approval. Therefore, I think we should place less emphasis on “feeling” as part of our religious experience.

It seems to me that church members with all different forms of mental illness are seldom accommodated. For example, when speakers get up to give lessons on purity, happiness and other feel-good topics, they rarely consider the implications that their comments could have for members who are mentally ill. My friend is a convert to the church; and while he enjoyed the conversion process, it was extremely difficult for him to cope with all of the church teachings on thought control.

I have suggested that we focus less on feelings and thoughts in our discourse. What else could be done to help those who are struggling with mental illness feel at ease in church?

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The BoM’s "J" Source: Joseph Smith

I’m intrigued by Blake Ostler’s 1987 paper “the book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” Ostler explores a medley of methodological approaches to the Book of Mormon, including source-, motif-, and form-criticism. He argues that the Book of Mormon can neither be explained as a nineteenth-century invention, nor as an exact equivalent to some ancient document from the plates. He suggests instead that Joseph Smith did have an ancient manuscript which he was inspired to translate, be he freely added his own material to the text as part of a “creative co-participation” (109).

As Ostler put it: “if the expansion theory of the Book of Mormon is correct, then the vast majority of theories, both pro and con, have assumed far too much by simply pointing to parallels” (79). His paper does offer an alternative to the polarizing “parallelomania.” In effect, both sides win. However, each party has to suffer some capitulations in order to accommodate Ostler’s theory.

For example, I don’t know of many (any) critical scholars outside of the church who would accept the common LDS belief shared by Ostler that real plates actually existed containing an ancient Christian document. Yet I suspect that Ostler did not intend his theory to be primarily for non-LDS critical scholars. Rather, it seems to be an apologia for fundamental Mormon beliefs – one which also incorperates principles of modern critical scholarship.

Perhaps the more important questions, then, involve the loss suffered by faithful Mormons who espouse Ostler’s theory: what can be said of a text that is not uniformly translated from an ancient source? Is it really possible to differentiate between Joseph Smith and the ancient authors? Finally, why would God make the revelatory process of translation so vague as to allow Joseph Smith to add his own glosses to the “most correct book on earth?” Kevin Barney has elaborated a bit on Ostler’s theory (p. 142 f), as I’m sure others have. Nevertheless, I find myself questioning the theological implications of a document that was ostensibly preserved by prophets, recovered through the help of divine agents, accompanied by ancient instruments, only to be loosely translated.

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A Mormon Democrat for President in 3010 (we’re realistic)

A new poll found that 43% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times, also found that 53% of Evangelicals were against voting for a Mormon. This has not deterred Mit Romney. By all accounts, he is still planning on announcing his candidacy early next year.

Not all Evangelicals oppose Romney out of hand. Jerry Falwell, who recently met with Romney, had this to say: “We’re not trying to find a Sunday school teacher in chief; we’re trying to find a commander in chief. Where he goes to church will not be a factor; how he lives his life will be.”

Many Evangelicals are concerned because they perceive Mormonism as anything but Christian. This will be damaging to Romney’s campaign since Evangelicals and other conservative Christian voters are very effective at “get out the vote” campaigns.

Frankly, I would like to see Romney take the presidency. I think it would clear up a lot of misperceptions people have about Mormons. However, I’m afraid that if a Republican candidate, like Romney, cannot rally a base among Evangelical voters, his presidency does not stand much of a chance.

There is a great irony in all of this: if Utah is any indication, Mormons have inexorably supported President Bush, including the radically conservative political ideas of his Evangelical constituency. (There is a second irony that I have to point out: Evangelicals oppose Mormon candidates because we are members of a perceived cult, yet no one seems to mind the Bush family’s participation in Skull and Bones. This is doubly ironic for Mormons who are so concerned over “secret combinations.”)

Shouldn’t Mormons feel a little offended that after all of their loyalty to the GOP, more than half of Evangelicals are unwilling to return the favor? Let’s end this one sided relationship right now while we can still save face.

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Bring all of the Good, just not Mary, Buddha, the Rebbe, the Koran…

President Hinckley’s message that potential converts from different religions should “bring all of the good” they have learned to Mormonism so that “we may add to it” is an interesting paradox in religious pluralism. It assumes that there is good to be found in other religions (an idea which may have been absurd to some General Authorities in the past), but it also implies that Mormonism contains a fuller collection of truth. Moreover, the challenge to “bring” makes it sound as though the potential converts will continue their religious practices; but is that be possible in a Mormon framework?

Perhaps President Hinckley did not intend for anyone to continue their old religious traditions. In that case, “good” is just a euphemism for “morals” or “ethics” – behavior that we can all agree on. But let’s assume the Prophet actually meant religious practice alongside ethics.

Could we ever envision a Mormon Buddhist? Since there are all kinds of Mormons, I should rephrase the question: could there ever be a Mormon Buddhist Bishop? If converts were to follow President Hinckley’s statement to its logical conclusion, what would motivate them to come to church after adding to their truth? Finally, what would church be like if converts kept all of their good traditions? Unitarian Universalism on crack? A religion salad bar?

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The Documentary Hypothesis: Do you Believe?

Mormon scholars tend to be ambivalent towards the Documentary Hypothesis, the model of current biblical scholarship. The basic idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis – that the Bible is a composition of several sources which were developed over many years and then redacted into a single work – has definite implications for the way we view the Bible. Moreover, the Documentary Hypothesis poses a challenge to traditional claims about LDS scripture.

For example, the cosmogony (explanation of how the world was formed) from the Book of Abraham treats two literary sources as though they were originally paired together. That is the opposite of what we would expect if, A) the two sources were first distinct narrations and only later redacted into one work, as the Documentary Hypothesis claims, and B) Joseph Smith restored the ancient and original text of Genesis 1-3.

Anthony Hutchinson deals with these issues by recasting the Book of Abraham as “Mormon Midrash.” The Book of Abraham is Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Bible; it is not historically true, but is nonetheless valid in some sense. Kevin Barney wisely avoided taking a specific stance, although he admits that the Documentary Hypothesis rules out the possibility that Smith translated from a source dating to the time of Abraham. These are just two examples of the kinds of reactions LDS scholars give to the Documentary Hypothesis.

There are inconsistencies between the Documentary Hypothesis and a literal view of the Book of Abraham just as there are inconsistencies between the Genesis’ cosmogony and science. This post is just scratching the surface. I hope that other bloggers will continue to treat the problems that arise from our knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis. What I would like to see right now is your opinions of the theory’s overall conclusions. Is it a valid representation of the formation of the Bible? Do you accept the major conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis? And, if so, how have you had to reformulate your beliefs to keep in line with the DH? Or, put another way, how have you had to reformulate your views of the DH in order to keep them in line with your faith?

(Note: the answer “I see no problem at all” may help you sleep better at night, but it will make for a boring post).

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Mormon Studies, Big Money and U.

At the risk of sending our blog off on a tangent, I think we should consider one other aspect of the Mormonism/religious studies/BYU issue: what about the redder, better, and more secular school slightly north of Provo? Why doesn’t the University of Utah have a religious studies department? Harris Lenowitz, professor of Hebrew and Judaism at the U of U, once answered this question. But what do you think?


Regardless of whether or not the Utah legislature is to blame, we can all be fairly sure that it’s not for lack of interest. Most people I know from the U of U would have loved to take more classes in religion (and not just at the institute). The interest is there, the resources could easily be brought in, so what is stopping the U of U from developing a program in religion? It seems to me that Lenowitz may be right. If that’s the case, perhaps we should be concerned about how the new Mormon studies chairs will be funded. I’ve heard arguments on both sides. Some professors I’ve spoken with say that funding is really a non-issue, while others are worried that academic freedomwill be limited on account of the donors.

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