Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Traditio: W. Paul Reeve

Mormonism has had a very uncomfortable relationship with race, especially with African-Americans. They are not unique in this regard; most religions in America have had some sore of problem with a race, sex, or nationality. Religion may (sometimes) come from heaven, but its adherents will deal with the same problems as its non-adherents.

We may sometimes think that we know all about an issue, but then come to find that what we thought we knew was just a small portion of the information that was available. On the issue of race and the priesthood, no one is more knowledgeable on the issue than my friend W. Paul Reeve, professor at history at the University of Utah and author of the landmark book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. In this video he shares his findings, and you are in for more than a few surprises.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

John, really?

I have long ceased to be impressed with John Dehlin, if I was ever impressed in the first place. Why so many people follow him and support him is beyond me. But, who am I to tell John or his followers what to do with their time? Moving on.

John looking like he is doing something

Yesterday, John wrote a new post on his blog discussing how certain core doctrines have been abandoned in the modern LDS Church. I will respond to each.

First, John mentions that the gift of tongues is no longer practiced in the LDS Church. It is true to say that certain aspects of the gift are not openly practiced (I would not go so far to say it is not practiced at all, beyond my observational scope), but to say it is not practiced at all is silly. Part of the gift of tongues is the ability to comprehend and speak other languages; thousands of missionaries show every day that this gift is still alive and well.

Next, John mentions that the Church does not talk about the Second Coming and the millennium and both are not emphasized as much as they were in the early days. However, this is not really as new as John makes it out to be. In the early days, Saints lived in a millenialist culture where most Christians believed the end was near. But, after that generation passed the emphasis calmed down. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, according to his son Joseph F. McConkie, often said the Second Coming would not happen in his lifetime. No one knows when the Lord's return will happen, and it is not wise to be focused solely on it when God wants us to live for the future.

The concept "Zion" means multiple things in the scriptures, but John wants to redact it simply to mean living the law of consecration here and now. Had John taken his temple covenants seriously, he would know that in some ways we still live the law of consecration (although not fully). Also, John seems to think that the Church has renounced the belief that Zion will be built on this continent (that would be news to me). Zion will be built when we are ready, sadly we are not yet. Hugh Nibley reminded us vividly of that.

John goes on to attack the Book of Mormon, stating that the early Saints thought it talked about the Indians, and the Church recently changed its stance on that. Problem is, the text does not say the book is written to Indians; that was an interpretation that Saints of the time gave of the text, a metatext as anthropologist, Daymon Smith, writes in his first volume of A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. The cover page of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the book is written to all people, not just the remnant of the house of Israel:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ. (Book of Mormon Title Page)
The topic of becoming like God has not been abandoned at all; the Church recently released an essay on the topic and the concept is also taught in the temple. So, this claim is patently false.

Dehlin concludes by saying that prophet, seers, and revealtors, do not manifest any of the gifts. How he knows that, he doesn't say. True, the church has not canonized a revelation since 1978 (Dehlin says 1918, 60 years out of date), but John is guilty of equivocation to assume that because a revelation is not canonized that revelation does not exist.

Many of these claims are made in anti-Mormon tracts that you find on street corners when you attend General Conference. With a PhD in psychology, you would think Dehlin would be better than a street preacher. But, as always, Dehlin disappoints and shows that in the third year of being an excommunicant he still has not grown up. Get over yourself John.

Review of "More than the Tattooed Mormon"

I had been interested in the story of Al Carraway ever since I saw her on the cover of LDS Living ( a magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). She stood out because of her many tattoos (although after reading her book she would not care to hear that), and I knew that something was different about her. So, when I saw her book More than the Tattooed Mormon on Amazon, I jumped at the chance to read it, and I am glad that I did.

The book is divided into two sections and starts off with Al telling her story, which outlines her childhood and growing up in upstate New York, meeting LDS missionaries, her journey to the state of Utah, trying to fit in as a new convert, and her marriage to her husband Ben. The second section is a quasi-coaching section, one that is focused more on the reader than on Al's story, though her story is mixed into showing how a principle works.

Several things stand out about this book. First, Al is a thorough-going optimist, and that comes through every page of the book. Even when she describes some of her darker moments, such as being rejected by her family and friends after her conversion to the LDS Church (thankfully not forever), you can still tell that she is smiling through the tears.

While Al is an optimist, she is still a very real person, admitting her weaknesses and fears to her readers. For example, she mentions that she often yelled at God when she was frustrated with how things were going in her life (she is much braver than I am, I couldn't yell at God). Also, she talks openly about being a sort of social outcast after coming to Utah due to her tattoos. As a black member of the LDS Church, I too know that some members (luckily not most) can be insensitive and make you question whether joining the Church or moving to Utah were big mistakes. Luckily, she knew what she wanted and was able to push through it.

There is one flaw in her book, and that flaw is ironically the strength of the book. As I mentioned, Al is an optimist, and we can see why through reading her book; while she had many struggles, in the end it all worked out. Her family has become friendly with her, people began to accept her, she got married, and she is now somewhat of a celebrity. I am glad that this happened, but I would remind her that this does not happen for everyone. Some families turn their backs forever, some are eternal outcasts, and some die alone. While optimism has a place and is a virtue, so are skepticism and pessimism, because reality lies there most of the time. However, Al does point this out in the end, but it is done very briefly and it could have been discussed more.

Overall, Al's book is worth the read and your spirit will be uplifted. You will find yourself laughing, crying, smiling, and having more hope in the future by the time you finish the book. I look forward to Al's next book which will be released in the fall, Cheers to Eternity.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of "Ethics: A Very Short Introduction"

Ethics is one of the five main branches of philosophy, with logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and aesthetics being the others. However, whether one is interested in philosophy or not, most people are interested in ethics because it is something they think about in there everyday lives (one could argue that the other four branches are used daily as well).

Simon Blackburn, former Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, takes the casual reader into the deep waters of ethics in his book Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. As the subtitle implies, the book is merely an introduction, and a brief one at that. However, it fulfills its role well and gets the reader to ponder the deeper meaning of how we should treat each other and how we ought to live.

At the beginning, Blackburn presents what he thinks are seven of the greatest challenges to having a productive conversation about ethics : The death of God, relativism, egoism, evolutionary theory, determinism and futility, unreasonable demands, and false consciousness. Each of these challenges could result in a book-length text itself, so Blackburn is able to go over them only summarily. However, I would point out that from time to time Blackburn only shares one side of the argument rather than presenting both sides, so he violates the principle of charity. For example, he uses the Euthyphro dilemma to show that morality cannot proceed from God. However, he does not give any of the counter-examples to the Euthyphro dilemma, such as that God by his very nature is good, so the dilemma would be rendered irrelevant. Having said that, Blackburn for the most part is fair and balanced when talking about these issues.

After dealing with these seven problems, Blackburn moves on to meta-ethics, which is asking the question of what the foundation of ethics is. Here Blackburn covers sentimentalism (the belief that the foundation of the ethics is feelings), deontology (the belief that foundation of ethics is duty to others) and utilitarianism (the belief that utility or happiness is the foundation of ethics). Blackburn shows how some of the greatest philosophers (Hume, Kant, Mill) have held to these views, but just presents them with their problems without saying which of the three is preferable (although those familiar with Blackburn's work will know he is a Neo-Humean).

Overall, this book is a satisfactory introduction to ethics, but not a perfect one. Blackburn could do a better job at defining terms and being more objective by keeping his own opinion out of it. But, since there is no such thing as a perfect introduction, this one is more than satisfactory. Blackburn is also a wonderful writer, so even if one disagrees with his conclusions you will still be hooked to his beautiful prose.

Review of "Islam and the Future of Tolerance"

Anyone familiar with Sam Harris will know that his claim to fame has been in his criticism of religion and in his indirect founding of the New Atheism which came on the scene after his first book The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason. Harris has been particularly critical of Islam, saying that its doctrines are incompatible with the modern world. So,when he sat down with Maajid Nawaz and co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance, those familiar with his work had good reason to be skeptical that there would be much tolerance in the book since his other books have been particularly intolerant.

Maajid Nawaz is a completely different guy than Harris. A former Islamist, Nawaz spent several years in Egypt as a prisoner where he had an awakening, both politically and spiritually. After being released from prison, he renounced Islamism and became a secular Muslim (a Muslim who does not want Sharia law imposed on the world, but still a believer in the religion). He wrote a memoir, Radical, and established a think-tank to counter terrorism known as Quilliam. In short, Nawaz began his life in intolerance, but is now an outspoken proponent of tolerance. Knowing that he would be a more than adequate intellectual opponent for Harris, I thought this had the makings of a good bout, and I was not disappointed.

The book begins, and it is in dialogue format throughout, with Harris recalling that he first encountered Nawaz when Nawaz was debating former Muslim and critic of religion Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In the debate, Ali took the side that Islam was a religion of violence, while Nawaz took the side that Islam was a religion of peace. After the debate at a dinner, Harris asked Nawaz if he was being honest when he said he believed that Islam was a religion of peace. Nawaz answered that he was and that he would be happy to discuss the matter with Harris further at a later time.

Nawaz then briefly recaps his story of being an Islamist and then becoming a secular Muslim. He also distinguishes and defines Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism. According to Nawaz, Islam is a religion, and religions are a set of ideas so they are neither peaceful nor violent necessarily (though certain interpretations of them can be). Islamism is the desire to impose certain reading or teachings of Islam on society at large. Jihadism is the desire to impose Islamic teachings on society by force. So, all Jihadists are Islamists, but not all Islamists are Jihadists; Nawaz himself was a Islamist but because he never used force to accomplish his aims, he was not a Jihadist.

After clearing up the definitions, Nawaz states that there is no absolute way to interpret scripture, so no one can be absolute about their religion. Since there is no absolutely correct way to interpret scripture, this will lead to pluralism about scripture, which will in turn lead to secularism and humanistic values. If this happens, and it can according to Nawaz, then Islam can find its place as other religions have in a modern, secular world.

Harris, who does most of the listening, is not as optimistic as Nawaz about this. He reiterates things he said in other books by repeating that it is simply impossible or very unlikely to reform something as long as scripture is respected because while some may reform there will always be those who can say that it is fine for other people to interpret scripture as they choose. He states that some people will choose to interpret it in an Islamist or Jihadist way, so the problem will always be there. Nawaz agrees that this can be a problem, but recalls the Golden Age of Islam and points out that Islamism and Jihadism are modern phenomena and that the past shows that Muslims can in fact be tolerant. Harris retorts that Islam was imposed and spread from the start by violence, even by the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). Nawaz does not disagree with this, but points out that there have been eras where Islamism and Jihadism were not significant problems, so it is possible for Muslims to assimilate.

The book ends with Harris and Nawaz agreeing that the battle to save the world from Islamism and Jihadism must be fought on multiple fronts. For starters, we cannot be afraid to say, as former U.S. President Barack Obama was, radical Islam. If we are fighting against something, we need to be very clear what it is we are fighting against. Second, we cannot exclude Ex-Muslims and non-Muslims from the fray; we are all in this together. Third, we must all regard pluralism and secularism as the end goals. If everyone can share these values, then there is a chance we can win this fight. In the end, this is a war of ideas, and the secularists have better ideas than the Islamists and the Jihadists.

The book is well-written and shows thoughtful, informed conversation on both sides. In short, this book is itself a testament of what we are looking for; those of different faiths or no faith at all sharing a seat at the table and talking about their differences openly and clearly with no thought of violence, i.e pluralism and secularism.

I do have one criticism of the book, and it is aimed at Nawaz. He states several times that there is no correct reading of scripture, and this is not a view that many religious people will accept. While we may not always agree all the time about a given passage, that does not mean that the passage is therefore meaningless. This is an appeal to mysticism, and the Abrahamic religions in particular shun mysticism (though there Sufism does embrace mysticism). It would be better to say that there are things in religious texts that are not compatible with western society, but that these need to be taken in context of the times. We need to do careful exegesis in order to get to the bottom of what a text is saying. It is simply erroneous to say that there is no correct way to read texts, and believing that will not lead to pluralism, secularism, or tolerance. Good argument and a willingness to listen lead to those values.

We are going to be dealing with Islam, violence, and the conversation of how to be tolerant for the rest of our lives. Harris and Nawaz' book is a good start in talking about how to have that conversation and evidence that it can in fact be done. I recommend this book to Muslim and non-Muslim because we must solve this problem if the human race wants to live in a tolerant manner.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday Traditio: Stephen Smoot

When talking about the Book of Mormon, critics often say that there is no historical or archaeological evidence that the book is what it claims to be; a record of a fallen people on the American continent. John Dehlin said several years ago on his Facebook page that pointing out this "fact" did not make a person anti-Mormon, just pro-science. Very interesting considering that Dehlin has no training in Near Eastern Studies, linguistics, archaeology, or natural science. But, that is John Dehlin for you, opening his mouth and nothing interesting coming out of it.

However, my good friend Stephen Smoot does have such training, especially in Near Eastern Studies and in Egyptology (he is currently pursuing a Masters in the latter subject) and in this brief video he talks about some of the evidences for the Book of Mormon. He does so so in classic Smoot fashion, clearly and with an air of humor. I hope you all enjoy it, you have not seen the last of Stephen Smoot.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Response to Salt Lake Tribune Article Concerning LDS Race Relations

Today, the Salt Lake Tribune released an article about race relations and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not surprising, given that the revelation on priesthood came 39 years ago. But rather than just reporting what happened on the day of the revelation, the history of blacks in the Church, or problems about the ban itself, the article gave a list of things that would improve race relations in the Church. They are as follows:

  • Cast a black Adam and Eve (or an interracial couple) in the film shown to faithful members in LDS temples.
  • Use more African-American faces in church art and manuals and display more artwork depicting Christ as he would appear: as a Middle Eastern Jewish man.
  • Pick more blacks for highly visible leadership positions — if not an apostle, at least in the general authority Seventy or in the general auxiliary presidencies.
  • Repudiate and apologize for the faith's past priesthood/temple ban on blacks, which the church lifted in 1978.
  • Show the documentary film "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons" to every all-male priesthood quorum, women's Relief Society class and Young Men and Young Women groups.
  • Quote from the church's Gospel Topics essay "Race and the Priesthood" regularly at LDS General Conference and translate it into all the languages that the church uses to communicate with its global membership.
  • Direct that the essay be read from the pulpit in every Mormon congregation and mission in the world.
  • Have the Book of Mormon scripture found in 2 Nephi 26:33 — "All are alike unto God" — be a yearlong Young Women or Primary theme and make it part of the curriculum to talk about the sin of racism.
  • Bring more blacks to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University as students and faculty, while providing sensitivity training for all students about racial issues and interactions with people of color.
  • Teach children about the heroic black Mormon lives, such as LDS pioneers Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel.
  • Invite the choir from the Genesis Group — a longtime Utah-based support organization for black Mormons and their families — to sing at General Conference.
  • Use the Genesis Group to assist in improving relationships with the African-American community.
  • Give the Genesis Group greater authority to exist in all states and to visit wards and assist lay bishoprics in how to avoid and overcome racism in their congregations.
  • Create a church-sponsored Mormon and black website akin to the one found at
  • Treat the members of the Genesis Group's presidency as an auxiliary, seating them on the stand with other high-ranking authorities during General Conference — and invite at least one of them to speak during the sessions.
  • Provide training on racial issues for newly called mission presidents.
  • Include a mandatory class at Missionary Training Centers that teach the "Race and the Priesthood" essay so missionaries are better prepared when they go out to preach.
Alex Boye, one of the most famous Black Mormons

I shared this article on Facebook and was asked about my thoughts on the particulars of what was said, so I agreed to do so. First, before getting to the suggestions, it needs to be remembered that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to its members (of which I am one), is run by divine revelation and certain changes can only come by revelation. In particular, this relates to general authorities and auxiliary leaders. It does not matter what the color of skin the person has, what matters is that they are the type of person the Lord wants in the leadership of his church. So that sort of change would require a divine revelation, and there is no guarantee such a revelation will occur. Nor should we advocate that one should occur. If it happens, good. If not, the Church will be no more true or less true.

As far as the third suggestion, to repudiate and apologize for the ban, that would only be necessary if the Church admitted that the ban was wrong. Since the Church has not said in the 39 years since the ban that the policy was wrong, it is unclear how Church leaders feel about it. As of now, there is no evidence that the policy was inspired of God (and I personally believe it was not), but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This too may require a revelation in order to occur. But, if it was revealed that the policy was wrong, then an apology would be in order. While some non-black members will say that an apology would be meaningless, I would remind them that they were not the ones who suffered under the policy for so many years and still suffer today. It would matter to us, so they will simply have to get over it.

Most of the other suggestions would not require revelation, just Church authorization. Casting an Adam and Eve who were non-white or mixed raced Adam and Eve would be good, as it would be a visual reminder that we do not know what the couple looked like. Pictures of Jesus that depict him as a first century Jew are more than appropriate since Jesus clearly was not European. 

The Church topics essays, of which many Church members are ignorant, should definitely all be read; how that should happen is open for debate. A website is unnecessary, the essay on this issue provides plenty of material in its footnotes that a person can research if they are interested. Since the Genesis Group is run by the Church, they can work on the suggestions together.

I am unaware what training mission presidents receive, but I am sure their awareness of this issue is sufficient that they would tell missionaries to present the Gospel Topics essay to investigators. Missionaries should definitely be taught about the Gospel Topics essays as part of their training since many of the questions they will encounter from investigators are represented in those essays.

When it comes to the priesthood issue, there is only an issue if a person believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has unique priesthood authority. If they do not, their restriction on blacks was sad but irrelevant because white members also did not have priesthood. If the Church does have priesthood, then we need to trust those with priesthood keys as we have covenanted to do.