October 3, 2008

Why General Conference talks sometimes seem general

Or "The Saints, the Mortar, and the Clay ."  
Brigham Young  
August 17, 1856
If prophets are puppets, if the word of God came (or comes) through them undiluted and pure, why the variation in style? Revelation through Isaiah sounds different than it did through the apostles in Acts. Compare Gordon B. Hinckley to Brigham Young. Much of what I've read from Brigham Young's discourses- the vast majority- carries a strong pragmatic, authoritative, but also prophetic spirit, occasionally indulging in concepts that seem very foreign to today's Latter-day Saints. One characteristic of Brigham is that he rarely minced words. In this particular discourse (Aug. 17, 1856) he talked about why he was more apt to preach improvement rather than praise, giving some sermons an air of condemnation rather than congratulation. Brigham seemed as concerned here (if not more so) with orthopraxy (correct practice of religion) as he did with orthodoxy (a correct understanding of doctrine).1 Brigham wasn't one to give "smooth things"; he preferred to speak hard things and allow the Spirit to provide any needed consolation:

When I rise before you, brethren and sisters, I often speak of the faults of the people and try to correct them; I strive to put the Saints in a right course and plead with them to live their religion, to become better and to purify themselves before the Lord; to sanctify themselves, to be prepared for the days that are fast approaching. I do this oftener than I speak of the good qualities of this people, and I have reasons for this which, perhaps you would like to hear.
The froward and disobedient need chastisement, the humble and faithful are sealed by the Spirit of the Gospel that we have received. I have not time nor opportunity to caress the people, nor flatter them to do right; nor often to speak well of them, portraying their good qualities.
There are times when prophets must speak forthrightly, bluntly, in condemning wicked acts. In the contemporary Church, physical and sexual abuse, pornography and other less-than-comfortable subjects are approached in General Conference.2 These leaders must feel to sorrow, like Jacob, because their words may pierce hearts with deep wounds (Jacob 2:35). It is these weightier talks that sometimes receive the sharpest criticism. The speakers must know they will likely offend someone, no matter what subject they speak about. Are there people in the Church today, who as the Israelites condemned by Isaiah, are like
children that will not hear the law of the Lord:

Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits...(Isaiah 30:9-10).
Brigham believed despite his harsh style that the Holy Ghost would give his words power not to simply convict, but to comfort:
The consolations of the Holy Spirit of our Gospel comfort the hearts of men and women, old and young, in every condition of this mortal life. The humble, the meek, and faithful are all the time consoled and comforted by the Spirit of the Gospel that we preach; consequently, their comfort, happiness, joy, and peace must be received from the fountainhead.
As Jesus says, “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye have peace,” so we say to ourselves, so we say to the Saints; in the Lord ye have joy and comfort, and the light of truth which shines upon your path. The Holy Ghost reveals unto you things past, present, and to come; it makes your minds quick and vivid to understand the handiwork of the Lord. Your joy is made full in beholding the footsteps of our Father going forth among the inhabitants of the earth; this is invisible to the world, but it is made visible to the Saints, and they behold the Lord in His providences, bringing forth the work of the last days.3
In his often employed rhetorical style of question and answer, Brigham said he was sometimes led by the Spirit to comfort:
The hearts of the meek and humble are full of joy and comfort continually; do such need comfort from me?
Yes, if any mourn, perhaps a few encouraging words from me would give them consolation and do them good. I am always ready to impart what I have to this people, that which will cheer and comfort their hearts, and if the Lord will lead me by His Spirit into that train of reflections and teaching, I am more willing and ready to speak comforting words to this people, than I am to chastise them.
Even then he worried about flattering the congregation "in iniquity"; something he found abhorrent:
But I hope and trust in the Lord my God that I shall never be left to praise this people, to speak well of them, for the purpose of cheering and comforting them by the art of flattery; to lead them on by smooth speeches day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, and let them roll sin as a sweet morsel under their tongues, and be guilty of transgressing the law of God. I hope I shall never be left to flatter this people, or any people on the earth, in their iniquity, but far rather chasten them for their wickedness and praise them for their goodness.
The Lord would praise and comfort the Saints if they would keep His commandments, and Brigham took a moment to express his love for the Saints:
The Lord praises you and comforts you, if you live as you are directed; if you live with your life hid with Christ in God, you do receive, from the fountainhead, life, joy, peace, truth, and every good and wholesome principle that the Lord bestows upon this people, and your hearts exult in it, and your joy is made full. This people are the best people upon the face of the earth, that we have any knowledge of.
He, like current LDS prophets, sought to walk a fine line between admonishing the Saints to "shake off the chains with which [they] are bound" (2 Nephi 1:23); not simply saying that "all is well in Zion" (2 Nephi 28:25) while still remembering to "succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees" (D&C 81:5). The difficulty today is compounded by realizing that Church leaders are addressing a much more global audience, rather than a concentrated body of Saints in the Great Basin. The variety of dispositions, superstitions, cultural mores, levels of gospel knowledge, and many other factors may encourage leaders to give relatively "general" council in General Conference.

Brigham used two homespun parables to describe the difficulty of teaching the Saints. First, he compares the Church to a batch of mortar which a mason is preparing for use. A glance at Wikipedia explains:
Mortar is a material used in masonry to bind construction blocks together and fill the gaps between them. The blocks may be stone, brick, breeze blocks (cinder blocks), etc. Mortar is a mixture of sand, a binder such as cement or lime, and water and is applied as a paste which then sets hard. Mortar can also be used to fix, or point masonry when the original mortar has washed away.
New converts and differing dispositions among the Saints represent the ingredients of the mortar which require the whole batch to be mixed and remixed:
You who understand the process of preparing mortar know that it ought to lay a certain time before it is in the best condition for use. Now, suppose that our workmen should work over a portion and prepare it for use, and when it is rightly tempered, suppose someone should throw into the mixture a large quantity of unslacked lime, this would at once destroy its cementing quality, and you would have to work it all over and over again.
This is precisely like what we have to do with this people; when a new batch is mixed with the lime and sand which were prepared ten days ago, before it is fit for use it has to be worked all over with the ingredients and proportions that were used to make the first. Some think this rather hard, but they have to be worked over because they are in the batch.4
The second parable, more familiar and often employed by Heber C. Kimball, was of the clay and the potter's wheel. New converts and differing dispositions among the Saints make up a lump of clay which needs to be worked and reworked:
Again, they are in the mill, and like the potter's clay which brother Kimball uses for a figure, they have got to be ground over and worked on the table, until they are made perfectly pliable and in readiness to be put on the wheel, to be turned into vessels of honor.
Now, suppose, when it is in this good state, that somebody should throw in a batch of unworked clay, it would spoil the lot, and the potter would have to work it all over; the clay that was prepared has to be worked over with the unprepared.
This principle makes many feet sore, and some are starting for the States, and some for California, because they will not be worked over so much, and we cannot set a guard over the mill to keep the new clay from being thrown in. You may say that that is my business; no, it is my business to throw in the new clay, and work it over and over, and to use the wire to draw from the lump any material that would obstruct the potter from preparing a vessel unto honor.
Brigham viewed some of his harsh preaching as separating the wheat from the chaff, to use another figure.
I do not wish you to think that I chastise good men and good women; chastisements do not belong to them, but we have some unruly people here, those who know the law of God, but will not abide it. They have to be talked to; and we have to keep talking to them, and talking to them, until by and by they will forsake their evils, and turn round and become good people, or take up their line of march and leave us (JD 4:22-23).
Those who desire only smooth things are likely to be disappointed or offended.5 To those who feel that Conference is a repeat of general moral platitudes and wish for new developments and exciting new doctrine from the pulpit at each General Conference, consider the words of Eugene England:
Conference is a time for feeling more than for ideas...Those who go looking for dramatic new doctrine or new policy are apt to continue to be disappointed (I too have gone yearning, hoping to hear that announcement about the priesthood being extended to all). [This essay was written in 1973, five years before the priesthood was extended to all men regardless of race.] Those things will come in statements from the First Presidency day by day as the revelations come.
Conference will continue to be a kind of rite, a shoring up of faith and confidence, of feelings of unity and achievement... Going to conference made it possible for me to feel more strongly than ever that the great soul-satisfying truths of the gospel and my experiences of love and growth in the Church are much more important than the things that give me trouble.6
Bear in mind the speakers are addressing the whole lump, with the new rougher bits as well as the older.  

Sociologist and Latter-day Saint Armand Mauss discussed the distinction of orthodoxy/orthopraxy in an interview regarding his book The Angel and the Beehive:
Much that the LDS Church advocates for the behavior and “life-style” of its members is about boundary maintenance, which is very important for any people or community seeking to maintain a distinct identity. For Mormons, living in a certain way is more important than believing in a certain way. We can infer much more about what or who a person is from what he does than from what he believes (or claims to believe). Furthermore, beliefs can always be changed by teaching and by the promptings of the Holy Spirit (either in this world or in the next world, according to Mormonism). Certain kinds of behavior, however (such as sexual sin) can have consequences in this life that can never be entirely mitigated by later repentance. Ideally, people will learn both correct belief and correct behavior from membership in the LDS community, but it is the behavioral boundaries that really define the Mormon identity. I don’t know if that’s quite what your question was getting at, but that’s what first came to mind ("Armand Mauss on The Angel and the Beehive: Implications of Mormon Assimilation and Retrenchment," Morehead's Musings, Jan. 9, 2008).

See, for example, Richard G. Scott, "To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse," and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "A Matter of a Few Degrees" from the April 2008 General Conference.  

Because prophets aren't perfect, and can sometimes include opinion with doctrine and counsel, it becomes the opportunity of Latter-day Saints to listen to the prophets and also seek revelation regarding the teachings they receive. Take, for example, the words of President James E. Faust:
As a means of coming to truth, people in the Church are encouraged by their leaders to think and find out for themselves. They are encouraged to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to such knowledge of the truth as their own consciences, assisted by the Spirit of God, lead them to discover ("The Truth Shall Make You Free," Ensign, September, 1998).
I find this parable particularly apt, given that a Zion community is designed to operate with one heart and one mind (see Moses 7:18). The Saints themselves act as mortar to bind together the Church as a community, a family, a kingdom, a people, a house of faith, a temple.  

In October 1855 Heber C. Kimball talked about Brigham's tendency to chastise:
I am thankful that the time has come when brother Brigham is disposed to lift the veil and expose the iniquities of men, if they are not willing to expose them themselves. I know they were exposed in the days of Joseph, and brother Brigham, myself, and many others were with him and stood by him to the day of his death, and do still (JD 3:160).
We would be wise to avoid offending, but also must realize that the truth may "cut" to the very center. For an interesting discussion see Michael Ash, "The Sin Next to Murder: An Alternative Interpretation," Sunstone, November 2006. See also my blog post "Giving and Receiving Criticism." For more on Brigham's preaching style see "Preaching pitchforks from the pulpit." 

Eugene England, Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience, p. 111-112.

October 1, 2008

A quick discussion on "others" in the Book of Mormon

Likening With Care, Part 11
For some students of the Book of Mormon, questions still remain regarding the presence of "others" (non-Lehite inhabitants) in the land where the Lehites originally landed. In his paper "Interactions with Non-Israelite Populations in the Book of Mormon," Gardner explains:
Understanding the Book of Mormon as an historical document requires that it be understood in a particular place and time. While the text does not obviously delineate populations of non-Israelites, and it is certain that many LDS interpreters have historically attempted to make the Nephites and Lamanites the exclusive populations of the New World, it is also clear that neither the archaeology of the New World, nor the text of the Book of Mormon itself will allow that simplistic assumption. The text has its own reasons for not being clear about the role of non-Israelites in the development of its narratives, but the presence of such peoples is implicit in virtually all aspects of the development of the text, both in the descriptions of the population numbers and more difficult to find cultural markers.1
In this post Gardner answers some questions from one who is skeptical about the possibility of "others" in the Book of Mormon.2

1. Nephi catalogs the animals they find in the new world, but fails to mention the indigenous peoples (1 Nephi 18:25).

Gardner: This comment demonstrates the problem of making too many assumptions about what a text is saying and what it should be saying. It assumes that the catalog of animals has the purpose of describing history. It doesn't. 1 Nephi is a crafted document and this verse was clearly written long after the fact and therefore isn't a journalistic recitation of what was found. 1 Nephi 18:24-25 simply defines the promised land as one with the necessities of life; along with the catalog of animals is the notation that they planted seeds which grew, fertility, and "ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper." It isn't that surprising, therefore, that the very next verse says "...wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven..."3

2. The mass conversion of indigenous peoples (including quickly learning their language and integrating into their culture) would be a miracle to say the least, but it isn't mentioned.

Gardner: The confluence of peoples isn't all that remarkable. Lehi's family was quite familiar with other peoples, customs, and languages (though not those in the new world). As for "quickly learning" anything, I doubt that happened at anything other than a normal pace. 1 Nephi is written about 30 years after leaving Jerusalem, and that is long enough to learn lots of things and not consider them remarkable (particularly since it isn't the reason he is writing this).

3. The promised land was supposed to be kept hidden from other nations, but scholars are theorizing there were many diverse pagan populations living around and among the Lehites. (2 Nephi 1:8)

Gardner: This is purely a case of interpretation, relying upon an understanding of what the extent of the promised land was, and what it means to be kept from other nations. Clearly, I interpret all of those quite differently.4

4. When contrasted with the Israelite mandate in entering their "promised land," the Lord's attitude seems wildly inconsistent when compared with the Lehite entry into their promised land. Issues such as intermarriage, tolerance for co-existing pagan religions, adoption of the culture, and general courtesy towards their neighbors seem to be addressed in totally different ways.

Gardner: And with some very significant reasons. For example, when Moses shows up with hundreds of thousands of people, there were some very different conditions than when Lehi shows up with perhaps 40 (probably less).

5. The Book of Mormon prophets are eerily silent regarding the other religions and cultures and their effect on the Christian Nephites. The only concern seems to be for those non-Nephite people who are always related to the Lamanites.

Gardner: The prophets are not eerily silent in this regard in the way I read the text. I see direct references in Benjamin's discourse among other places.5 It begs the question to say that the Lamanites are "always related" to the Lamanites. They are Lamanites, but Lamanites defined politically as the generic others and outsiders. This is the function they acquire through Nephi's ethnogenetic construction of his text.

6. When listing the existing groups of people, there is never an "other" category for the many people who don't descend from a Lehite or Jaredite lineage, or who live around and among the Lamanites and Nephites but just don't care about them either way (Jacob 1:13).

Gardner: Actually, Jacob 1:13 is the very reason that we can't read "Lamanite" as a lineage (and the rest of the text supports the generic/political usage).

7. Some skeptics of the idea of "others" in the Book of Mormon may agree there are some interesting and persuasive arguments for this view, but remain unconvinced because they do not see the idea as an "open and shut case."

Gardner: Nothing in history is really an open and shut case. It all requires argument, particularly when we have so little comparative data. However, the conclusions behind the existence of "others" are really quite solid.


Gardner thus argues that expecting Book of Mormon writers to record "history" as it is understood today  forces an anachronistic reading onto the text. Part of "likening with care" includes a willingness to attempt to understand the Book of Mormon from the perspective of those who presumably wrote it, rather than forcing one's own expectations or beliefs onto the text. Doing so might run counter to prevailing views, but can also provide a more solid understanding of the Book of Mormon.

Gardner, "Interactions with Non-Israelite Populations in the Book of Mormon," 2001, found here. In this paper Gardner observes, "the obvious initial issue that should be addressed is the clear conflict between the inevitability of finding 'others' and the equally clear lack of specific mention of 'others' in the Book of Mormon narrative. They must have met them, but do not seem to mention them. How is that possible?" See his more polished version from a 2001 FAIR presentation, "A Social History of the Early Nephites."

These questions are adapted from a poster named "cinepro" on MormonApologetics.org.

Gardner, personal email in my possession, Sept. 19, 2008.

Matthew Roper's article "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations" discusses the promises of the Lord about the promised land being preserved for certain peoples, arguing that it does not preclude others from living in the land as is evidenced by the former Jaredites, and the statements that God would "lead" others to the land. See his article in FARMS Review 15:2, 91-128.

King Benjamin's sermon found in Mosiah 1-5 pleads for unity among a people of two different backgrounds. Throughout Gardner's Second Witness commentary he sheds interesting light on the influence of "outsiders" on the political, social, and religious aspects of Nephite society. See my review of his series here. The image is "America Septentrionalis Novissima / America Meridionalis Accuratissima," Pieter Schenk, ca. 1700. From Garwood & Voight Fine & Rare Books, Maps, & Prints.

September 29, 2008

Method and Skepticism (and Quetzalcoatl...)

Likening With Care, Part 10
In a recent online discussion an inquirer called "JeffM" questioned the reliability of LDS scholars:

When a Mormon scholar does his work, does he set his testimony (i.e. witness from God) aside so as to be able to consider evidence both for and against the position he wants to support? If so, fine. If not, then the search for evidence actually becomes a search only to confirm what is already "known".1
Mormon scholar Brant Gardner responded with his views on this question, noting his discoveries regarding Quetzalcoatl as illustrative of how his beliefs affect his approach:
I can't answer for anyone else, but I can answer for myself. When I began working on Quetzalcoatl mythology, I started with the assumption that I would confirm the standard LDS interpretation. I soon found that the evidence was quite complicated and that in the end it did not confirm the standard LDS interpretation of Quetzalcoatl. That required me to restructure the way I saw the Book of Mormon relative to that particular issue (and to understand that it has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, so it was a restructuring of folklore more than scripture). I never laid aside my testimony, never picked it up again. Nevertheless, I doubt that there are any secular Mesoamericanists who would disagree with my analysis.

On the other hand, I applied the same methodological rigor to placing the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican context. I did it with the same willingness to a conclusion that doesn't fit, but I found that while there were (as with Quetzalcoatl) some ideas that didn't fit, much did. However, I sincerely doubt that Mesoamericanists would agree with my analysis. The difference lies totally in the realm of their assumed approach to religion, and not in the data.2
Many Mormons are likely familiar with the concept of some Mesoamericans believing in a "white god" who appeared and promised to return. For some, this has been considered incidental confirmation of the Book of Mormon account of Christ visiting the New World. Gardner self-deprecatingly admits to having had a "fixation" on Quetzalcoatl and has spent years researching the myth. Expecting to find some ties to the Book of Mormon, and despite his belief that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, Gardner's studies resulted in his rejecting a connection between the Nephite record and Quetzalcoatl. His discoveries and analysis can be found on his website here.

JeffM's argument that a Mormon scholar's beliefs can influence the results of their findings is certainly true, but it overlooks the concept of all data being theory laden:
[JeffM] A genuine search for answers looks for both confirming and disconfirming evidence in an effort to determine if the hypothesis is valid.

[Gardner] Not quite. Almost all hypotheses have potentially disconfirming data. They cannot be ignored. However, a good historical hypothesis may stand against possible disconfirming data if (and only if) those data are explained inside a coherent and acceptable framework. Hard scientists are quite familiar with some conclusions that don't fit, but which may be explained by errors in the experiment, or other factors.
The point is that disconfirming data must be considered, but the fact that one person assumes that it is disconfirming does not make it so. The best theories account for the disconfirming data as well as the confirming data. What is dangerous is to ignore disconfirming data.
JeffM also assumes that Mormon studies are generally unreliable or dubious if written by Mormons:
[JeffM] Outsiders like myself are concerned about disconfirming evidence that Mormon scholars don't see because it "can't" exist.

[Gardner] Quite to the contrary. I don't know of any of the LDS scholars who fit that description. They are abundantly aware of all of the [currently available] data. The question you must ask yourself is why you assume the data to be disconfirming without doing the work that tells you whether or not it really is.
Non-LDS sociologist Rodney Stark commented on this subject in his 2005 book The Rise of Mormonism:
Mormon liberals often concern themselves with conflicts between the Book of Mormon and archaeological research. Claims that Lehi and his followers found wild cows and horses do not seem to square with the fossil record. Of course, Christian liberals have long been expressing similar concerns about the biblical account of the Creation and the flood. But if these things worry liberals, it must be noticed that tens of millions of evangelical Christians are not troubled about the flood, nor are millions of Latter-day Saints worried about Lehi's horses.
The problem for both Christian and Mormon liberals is that they inevitably project their inability to believe on everyone else. Mormon liberals worry about disconfirmations of the Book of Mormon because they don't really believe that it an ancient and inspired scripture but think that it is something Joseph Smith composed, consciously or otherwise. Orthodox Latter-day Saints, believing the book to the Word of God, are not only able to accommodate some discrepancies but also fully expect archaeologists to find evidence in support of scripture, which is why the church has supported a considerable amount of New World archeology.3
In the meantime, there are many LDS scholars who are not afraid to frankly admit conflicts or problematic aspects regarding the Book of Mormon in comparison to current archaeological data. This approach was embodied by early LDS scholar and Seventy B.H. Roberts, who produced a rigorous critique of the Book of Mormon. During his investigation he explained:
Let me say once for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a "study of Book of Mormon origins," for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it.
I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.4
Brant Gardner is a scholar intent on responsibly using the current data available in his study of the Book of Mormon from both LDS and non-LDS sources. As his findings on Quetzalcoatl demonstrate, he is not averse to following the data where it leads him as best he can despite his religious convictions; an attitude demonstrated throughout his new Book of Mormon commentary Second Witness.

JeffM, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars," MormonApologetics.org , Sept. 18, 2008.

Brant Gardner, "Concern about conclusions of Mormon scholars," MormonApologetics.org, Sept. 18, 2008.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Mormonism, Columbia University Press (2005), 120.

B. H. Roberts to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, March 1923. LDS scholar Kevin Christensen has written several papers discussing issues of skepticism, bias, and research methods in studies on the Book of Mormon. For example, see "Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel's Approach to the Book of Mormon ," FARMS Review 16:1, pp. 287-354.