Author Archives: Secco

Deliberate textual ambiguities?

Substantial effort is expended to harmonize conflicting texts, such as the Harmony of the Gospels in our Bible Dictionary, Creation account harmonizations, investigations of whether Matthew or Luke got the ordering of the temptations “correct,” and so on. But what if the writers of scripture deliberately put in ambiguities? We have some evidence for this; Joseph Smith, in his revisions, seems to have left differing versions (e.g., Luke 3 versus Isaiah 40, creation accounts in Moses versus Abraham, incomplete harmonization of all events in the Gospels, and so on). Maybe some of these were just that he didn’t have time to finish, but there are passages that he seemed to be comfortable with explicit differing accounts.

It seems possible that these apparent contradictions and ambiguities might actually be there on purpose, and in fact may not even be meant to be resolved. If so, what might the message of such ambiguities be? 

Perhaps one message is that life is ambiguous, that in many cases there is not one definite answer, no one-size-fits-all explanation or even historically accurate account. But I’m not reveling in or embracing ambiguity per se; I’m not arguing directly for a Rashomon effect; but rather that the differences might be suggestions to us that we should be looking beyond the superficial. Certainly the differing Creation accounts each have rich symbolic interpretations that I benefit from and would not want to do without. Might Mormon culture, with its firm sense of certainty, be missing a key point of the scriptures?


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AAUP 10 years later

This bounced into my in-box this morning… 


The emails we have sent out to faculty across the country to date have all dealt with current issues in the academy. It has always been our intention, however, to provide occasional lessons about AAUP history, especially when the past is still with us.

This year is the tenth anniversary of one of the AAUP’s more remarkable cases–the 1998 censure of Brigham Young University. The full report is on our Web site. Let me give you a few highlights in the hope they will draw you there.

A young faculty member was up for tenure at BYU. Though there was some discomfort with her feminist interests, her department gave her a strong recommendation based on her teaching, research, and citizenship, and that view was endorsed by the college. At the next level up–the University Faculty Council–the tone changed. Objections were voiced that she had violated the tenets of the Mormon Church, most notably by publicly acknowledging that she prayed to “Heavenly Mother as well as Heavenly Father.” Hardly a confession that would earn you a newspaper headline in most American cities, but at BYU it led the Council to claim she had weakened the moral fiber of the university. They recommended against tenure and the BYU president concurred.

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Suppressed texts that bounce back

What is it about suppressing an idea that seems to draw attention to it? I’m not sure, but when a text goes from being suppressed to being championed, it perhaps suggests that the ideas it contains are all the more important.

Two cases in point:

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Anxiety and the Fall

Some years back for a course I was taking in psychiatry we were assigned to regularly visit a local mental hospital. The first and second floors were “day programs” and the third floor was the locked unit, for those not safe enough to be let out. I will never forget the intensity of the cigarette smoke: I’ve since learned that many schizophrenics self-medicate with nicotine. Also unforgettable was the look in the eyes of the many people wandering the bare rooms of the third floor. But for this post, I’d like to talk about what a psychiatrist had on a chalkboard in a side room for a group therapy session. It was a quote from Kierkegaard:

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Filed under Bible, Doctrine, Mormon Studies

Eve Deceived

There has been a fair amount of discussion on the question of whether Eve was deceived or not, as Paul says in 1 Tim 2:14. Books have been written, vociferous posts have gone back and forth, and apostles have been quoted. I’ve heard well-meaning Mormons dismiss the 1 Tim 2:14 verse as the only verse that supported the idea that Eve was misled, suggesting that in this case Paul was mistaken. Instead, the perspective is put forward that we should interpret Eve’s actions as courageous and done with foresight.

This is clearly a tricky topic, ripe for misogyny. I’m somewhat sympathetic to George Bernard Shaw’s claim that Paul is the “eternal enemy of women” (cited by Pagels, JAAR 42 [1974] 538) because Eve’s actions are so frequently interpreted as carrying implications for all women (a view I disagree with, btw). It will take another post to discuss the appropriateness of Eve’s actions; here, I want to show that (1) there is substantial textual support for what Paul says, based on the Old Testament account, and (2) other Standard Works confirm Paul’s assertion. Let me try and outline both points.

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Uzzah Killed For Blind Obedience

Let me start out by saying I’m a big, big fan of obedience. And I also see many instances where the scriptures teach we should not criticize our leaders. I’ve got no problem with that – IMHO our leaders deserve all the support we can give them.

However, I think that we have been badly misinterpreting a story that is commonly used to support these concepts. The traditional Mormon interpretation of the story of Uzzah and the ark in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chr 13 is familiar to most of us: Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark during its transport and is killed for touching it. The modern-day interpretation for us has been that we should not correct Church leaders or Church policy, for despite our good intentions, the leaders of the Church are in charge and it is not our place to correct them. To quote from the D&C Student Manual for Religion 324/325, p188:

“’Uzzah was therefore a type of all who with good intentions, humanly speaking, yet with unsanctified minds, interfere in the affairs of the kingdom of God, from the notion that they are in danger, and with the hope of saving them.’…In modern revelation the Lord referred to this incident to teach the principle that the Lord does not need the help of men to defend his kingdom (see D&C 85:8). Yet even today there are those who fear the ark is tottering and presume to steady its course. There are those who are sure that women are not being treated fairly in the Church, those who would extend some unauthorized blessing, or those who would change the established doctrines of the Church. These are ark-steadiers. The best intentions do not justify such interference with the Lord’s plan.”

Or, in the shorter Seminary version (p97 of the Seminary D&C study guide),

“The phrase ‘steady the ark’ has come to refer to those who lack faith in the Lord and His servants and instead do things based on their own wisdom.”

However, a close reading of the text supports just the opposite: Uzzah was likely killed for NOT correcting his priesthood leaders, who themselves were not following the scriptures. This conclusion is based on three items in the text:

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