The Church in 2080, Part V: The End of Apologetics

Cowboy riding a tapir, from DALL-E In some fields scholars try to come up with novel takes on the same thing hundreds of their colleagues have studied. Non-genetic, physical anthropology only substantively moves forward now whenever a fluke well digger stumbles upon humanoid remains. Particle physics is kind of nipping at the edges until the next big collider comes online, after which there are thousands of people scrambling to analyze the exact same data. Macroeconomics has theorized and modeled all available macro-level data to death. Oh, and the poor Biblical scholars are trying to come up with novel takes on a relatively small amount of text that has been thoroughly analyzed for thousands of years by thousands of people. That’s not to say that these aren’t noble pursuits, just that it’s hard to see much novel and truly zeitgeist-shifting coming out of these fields in the next hundred years. This isn’t the scholars’ fault, it’s just the nature of the subject matter.  I think we’re at the same place with the old apologetics debates. The past 40 or so years have been foundation forming as new arguments and counter arguments have been proffered, but at some point, when the original material that all that is based off of is in stasis, you’ll eventually come up with every point that could possibly be made about a particular datum, and then it’s just a matter of whether you buy it or not. …

Herod the Great as the Messiah

A repeating theme in Second Temple Judaism is the expectation for a political messiah that would rule Judea. While Christians are aware of this primarily through the expectations that Jesus of Nazareth encountered during his ministry, there are many other people who tried to fulfill that role. Herod the Great may have been one of these people who claimed messiahship. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jodi Magness discussed Herod the Great. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). First, it is important to note who Herod the Great was. As Jodi Magness explained: King Herod ruled Judea as client king on behalf of Rome from 40 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. He was the son of an Idumaean Jew named Antipater and a Nabataean woman named Cypros. … For most people, Herod is probably most known for the massacre of the innocents described in Matthew 2:16, according to which he ordered all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem put to death after being informed that the Messiah had just been born. … Among archaeologists who work in Israel, Herod is known as the greatest builder in the country’s history. So, Herod the Great has a few things for which he is known, even today. And his descendants are also found throughout the New Testament time—such…

The Spencer W. Kimball Journals

President Spencer W. Kimball is well-known for encouraging members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to keep journals. He set an example of doing this, and produced a large journal that was recently made available through the Church History Library digital collections. Recently, Latter-day Saint archivists Jeffrey Anderson and Brandon Metcalf discuss the journals of President Spencer W. Kimball in an interview at the Church history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Wilford Woodruff is probably the other president of the Church who is best known for his prolific journal keeping, and his records provide the major backbone for Church history in the mid-to-late 1800s. It’s possible that Spencer W. Kimball’s could come to serve a similar function for Church history in the mid-1900s. As the interviewees explained, President Kimball’s journals are notable because: First, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as President of the Church, he witnessed and captured key information about the development of the Church as it was happening. Second, he kept a journal. Not everyone does. During his time as a member of the Twelve, he wrote nearly every day. Third, his entries are lengthy, rich, and insightful. His writing style is delightful, and at times, those of us familiar with his conference talks can hear that same unique personal style in his…

The Church in 2080, Part IV: The Future of Porn and Opportunity Costs

With the advent of on-demand, free porn virtually everybody has access to a level of sexual novelty, variety, and frequency that an ancient emperor could have only dreamed of. The invention of the VCR allowed for people to view pornographic material without having to go to a seedy inner-city theater; the invention of fast Internet and streaming allowed for even more on-demand accessibility and choices for anyone with an Internet connection; and the advent of Youtube-type services for pornography centralized the options and made them even more cheap and accessible. I believe that with the combination of AI and VR we are entering another stage, and that by 2080 (if not much sooner) it is likely that we’ll be at a place where anybody can have any photo-realistic scenario they could think of in front of them whenever they want. I suspect that each step towards availability has had serious implications for the men in society (and yes, women view porn too, but virtually every survey shows that this is disproportionately a male issue). During the early pornography debates conservatives feared that pornography would whet the sexual appetite of men and lead to all sorts of debauchery and violence, while pro-pornography liberals believed it would lead to liberation and more sex, but I think both sides turned out to be wrong: instead it appears to have muffled out partnered sexuality. People can now have at least a simulacra of sexuality…

Fully Divine and Fully Human

After the death of Jesus Christ, early Christians spent centuries grappling with understanding who he was. The early creeds developed largely as an effort to reach an official consensus on understanding Jesus’s divine and human natures. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the primitive church, early Christianity and the debates they had are still part of our heritage and history. At a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog, From the Desk, Jason Combs discussed some of these early debates and the resulting Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood

Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood by W. Paul Reeve is a thought-provoking and insightful book that explores some key aspects of the intersection of race and religion in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To me, this volume is up there with Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy as both the best and most important entries in a fantastic series. Reeve, a professor of history at the University of Utah, draws on his extensive research to provide a nuanced and detailed account of the Church’s racial policies and practices from its founding in the early 19th century to the present day.

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is a well-known figure in the New Testament whose life has been the subject of speculation and storytelling for much of Christian History. One of the more recent instances of this is The Chosen. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, Bruce Chilton discussed Mary Magdalene, offering insight into who she was, who she isn’t, and how she has been portrayed over time. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

The Church in 2080, Part III: Scandals and Extinction Threats

One of the more interesting non-profits in the US today is the “Long Now” foundation. Funded by the Silicon Valley types that want to find a more interesting use for their money than library naming privileges, it is concerned with a more long-term approach to thinking about human problems and threats to civilization, and by long they mean long. While concerns about nuclear exchanges or climate change operate on a scale of decades or centuries at the most, what are the biggest threats to our species in, say, the next 100,000 years? Many of their concerns deal with low probability, highly catastrophic events. Even if we get the chance of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange down to very small percentages, given enough time it will eventually happen, same thing with an asteroid strike.  What would an analogous, extinction-level event be for the Church as an institution? Every now and then there’s something that happens that triggers some of the more histrionic corners of the Internet into saying that the Church is doomed; however, as long as you have a critical mass of true believers, established religions tend to be quite robust. For example, if you look at the growth rates for Jehovah’s Witnesses around the time of the failed second coming prophecy of 1975, when Witness leadership was strongly promoting the idea that the Second Coming was going to happen in 1975, they plateaued for a bit, but then kept on…

“In the celestial glory there was three heavens”

Doctrine and Covenants 131

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 131 has had a huge impact on how we understand the afterlife. There is, however, some debate about a few key aspects of the text mean that also have implications for our fate in the afterlife, especially when it comes to marital status. Given the debates, it is probably best to observe a degree of humility about our knowledge of how the afterlife works.

The Church in 2080, Part II: The Kids Are Not All Right, or the Post-Post-Gen Zers

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the mental health crisis facing the liberal kids these days. I don’t know if I have much to add in terms of generalities that hasn’t already been said, so here I’ll discuss its relevance for the Church long-term.  If youth were leaving organized religion in droves and they were thriving, having children, communities, and general happiness that would be one thing, but they’re not.  My responses to the concerns about liberal youth leaving the Church, and how the Church must adjust or die, are several: they’re not as uniformly activist left as supposed, that view is American-centric, there’s no evidence that liberal youth go to either liberal or conservative churches anyway, and in terms of fruits this brave new cohort of youth isn’t exactly inspiring confidence. Each of these points could easily be a post in itself, but here I’ll focus on the last one.  The numbers basically track with the anecdotal observations I and others have been accumulating for some time: for example, in the last class I taught about a third of my students had mental health requests from the disability accommodation office, hardly anyone could get basic assignments in, and I’ve heard similar stories across a wide variety of domains.  Admittedly much of this started around COVID, but things haven’t gotten better post-COVID. The fact is that Gen Z just isn’t super functional. They’re not all bad, and in…

Zerah Pulsipher and the Angel

Was the angel that Zerah Pulsipher saw Moroni

The other day, I came across an interesting talk from Glen L. Rudd about Moroni and his postmortal adventures. While interesting, however, it is unfortunately inaccurate on a few points. In particular, listing Zerah Pulsipher as someone who saw the Angel Moroni is inaccurate to the statements that Pulsipher recorded about his conversion.

Carol Madsen on Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline B. Wells is a powerful figure in Latter-day Saint history. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Carol Cornwall Madsen discussed some of why that is so. What follows here is a copost to the interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). To set the stage, though, let’s look at an earlier interview about the Emmeline B. Wells diaries where Cherry Silver described who Emmeline B. Wells was: Emmeline B. Wells was the most renowned Latter-day Saint woman of her generation. She was celebrated as an editor, public speaker, community activist, and defender of her faith. Born in Massachusetts in 1828, she emigrated first to Nauvoo and then from Winter Quarters to Utah in 1848. She edited the Woman’s Exponent from 1877 to 1914, was involved in local politics, and served on the boards of national women’s organizations. She led the Relief Society as its fifth general president between 1910 and 1921 and died in Salt Lake City in April 1921. Emmeline was married three times and had six children. A son with James Harris died in infancy in Nauvoo. Two daughters with Newel K. Whitney were born in Salt Lake City and became civic leaders. Of her three daughters with Daniel H. Wells, two died of illness as young adults. The third, Annie Wells Cannon, had twelve children and became a state legislator, stake Relief Society president, and member of…

The Church in 2080, Part I: Race, Ethnicity, and Languages

Projecting out on a very long horizon is a bit of a fool’s errand because of unknown unknowns, which is why most formal demographic, political, or economic projections have time horizons measured in the decades at the most. Still, occasionally it’s fun to project out farther (For example, the UN came out with a report that projected country populations out to 2300).  Additionally, most projections are limited to a few indicators, but it’s also fun sometimes to take a step back and think about how changing indicators integrate into a whole picture. So with that, this series is my throwing-caution-to-the-wind conjecture for what the Church will look like in 2080. At this point I will be 93, so this will be the Church that my great-grandchildren will be baptized into. All of these predictions are tentative, but for ease of flow I will dispense with “I suspect,” “I think,” or “probably,” and will just state them as predictions. That will make me sound very sure of myself, but that’s not the intent.  Perhaps the most slam-dunk prognostication is that Church meetings in the US in the year 2080 will be much less “white,” but that’s easy because society in general will be less white. Additionally, as proselytizing is more effective in lower income communities (haven’t seen any studies on this but it’s one of those received wisdoms that I’m pretty sure is true), eventually the turnover from the white, elite,…

About that FEC fine

It’s true: In March 2022, the FEC fined the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign for incorrectly declaring payments to an oppo research firm involved with the Steele dossier. As a Democratic voter in 2016, I must say that news of the fine means…absolutely nothing to me. The stakes in the 2016 election were a lot higher than whether the FEC agreed with every point of the Clinton campaign’s interpretation of campaign finance law.

Sacrament Meeting Hymns

Latter-day Saint sacrament hymns

Choosing music for sacrament meetings is an interesting responsibility sometimes. One of a few different challenges is that there are only 27 hymns specifically selected as sacrament meeting hymns, so there is a lot of potential for repetition.

Memory, Inevitable Futility, and Temple Work

Banksy said that “everybody dies twice, One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” For much of humanity that second moment happens in a Latter-day Saint temple.  –My brother Carl.  I have a morbid interest in old graveyards. The weather-chipped stone is often all that is left of the passions, struggles, upheavals, deep fights, and deep loves of lost worlds of these people’s lived experience. In many cases the only direct evidence the universe has that the person ever existed is a fading name on a tombstone and maybe a few bytes in a genealogy program.  Obviously this can get quite depressing when thinking of our own mortality. Maybe the words I’m now typing will technically be stored somewhere on the Internet Archive for a few hundred years, but I’m not under any illusions that with the torrent of new data and information moving in that they’ll be taken off the dusty digital shelf, as it were, and leafed through (if everybody who ever read a piece is dead, was it ever written?).  George Elliot wrote “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs,” but the fact is that many who lived a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs probably…

We Humans Had a Good Run, Part II

Last night I was given access to Bing Search’s GPT-4 A couple months ago, when Chat-GPT3 first came out I posted about how it might change the Church landscape, and presented a sacrament meeting talk that GPT-3 had written. Several months before that I speculated about how natural language processing would lead to researchers in essence having their own on-hand research assistant. With Chat-GPT4 it looks like we’re kind-of-sort-of there, if your research assistant is a sloppy undergraduate. I asked it to “Create a table of primary sources during Joseph Smith-era Nauvoo that were authored by women. Show 1) the author, 2) what the primary source is, 3) example text from the primary source, and 4) something interesting about the source.” This is what it gave me (it’s hard to get the footnotes to play nice with the T&S website, so those are omitted and you’ll have to trust what I have to say about them): Here is a table of some primary sources during Joseph Smith-era Nauvoo that were authored by women: Author Source Example Text Interesting Fact Emma Smith Minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society12 “We are going to do something extraordinary. . . . We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”2 She was the first president of the Relief Society and Joseph Smith’s wife. Eliza R. Snow Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political12 “The voice of innocence is hush’d / The sobs of sorrow dim; / And martyrd virtue…

Is BYU Mostly Republican or Democrat?

There was a BYU faculty member in my ward growing up that mentioned that he had to downplay his being a Democrat at work because, well, BYU.  I had no reason to doubt it at the time, but a few years later when I enrolled at BYU I came to the realization that by far the majority of faculty that had any discernible political preference were actually Democrats. I started rolling my eyes whenever I came across the narrative that Democrats there were an independent thinking, besieged minority on campus because, snicker snicker, BYU.  Now, I’m completely fine with a faculty member being a Democrat (or a Republican for that matter). BYU Democrats, for the purposes of this post, may be in the right. However, what they are not is unique or particularly edgy. Like a lot of us they are lemmings in their own way, and they don’t get renegade iconoclast points.  The FEC website allows people to search political donations to federal PACs by place of employment.   There are a lot of different PACs, and it would take way too much time for me to categorize even a sampling of them, so here I’m going to look at BYU employee contributions to ActBlue, an organization that facilitates small grassroots donations to Democrat causes and candidates. I will also look at WinRed, its analogue on the right for donations to Republican causes.  Over the past two years BYU employees…

The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints, Revised Edition

Thomas Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints, Revised Edition is an exceptional resource for anyone, and particularly a Latter-day Saint, interested in studying the New Testament from a fresh and modern perspective through its clear and readable translation, insightful commentary, and expanded introductory material. One of the standout features of this book is its readability. The translation is clear, easy to understand, and faithful to the original text. The text flows well and is not bogged down by archaic language or convoluted syntax, making it more accessible than, say, a 400-year old translation. In many ways, I also found it more accessible than the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (my usual go-to translation). Additionally, the commentary in the footnotes is insightful and enriching. Wayment provides helpful background information on cultural and historical contexts, as well as offering his own interpretations of certain passages. The footnotes are well-researched and thought-provoking, providing a deeper understanding of the text without being overly wordy or academic. The revised edition differs from the original in several ways. First, the revised edition includes upwards of two hundred updates and corrections to both the translation and the footnotes, taking into account recent scholarship to improve the accuracy of the translation. Second, the revised edition features expanded introductory material that includes discussions of the Joseph Smith Translation and on reading scripture, which were both interesting and helpful. Finally, the appendices detailing the instances in which…

The Prison Journal of Belle Harris

I remember a somewhat funny story about the anti-polygamy raid in Utah that I was told once. In the story, a marshall responds to an anonymous tip that a man is a polygamist and goes to his home. When the marshall knocks on the door, no one answers, but he catches a child in the yard and demands that he take him to the polygamist that lives there. The boy says, “okay, he’s just hiding in the barn over there!” When the boy and the marshall arrive at the barn, the boy points at a rooster inside and said, “there’s your polygamist! Go get him!” before running off.

Do People Believe in Hell?

God it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who send tiny babies to eternal flames… It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far indeed from mere common sense, in that you think that your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. -Julian of Eclanum in response to Augustine.  If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men…. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine, neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the…

Sketches in the Wilford Woodruff Journals

A page from the Wilford Woodruff Journal with sketches or doodles on it

One of the fun things about reading journals and other handwritten documents from the past is that there are sometimes nuances that are missed when reading a cleaned-up typescript of the same document.  I’ve been reminded of this a couple times recently as part of my work on revamping a site about Zerah Pulsipher. Perhaps the one that brought the biggest smile to my face had to do with the journals of Wilford Woodruff. One unique aspect of Woodruff’s journals is the inclusion of sketches that he drew to help illustrate his experiences and observations. These sketches provide a visual component to his written accounts and offer a deeper understanding of the people, places, and events that he documented. I knew that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote about these sketches in A House Full of Females, noting that “as a substitute for words, he added new doodles and boarders to his pages”, but was only able to see what was available in her book.[1]  With the online sharing of images of his journal through the Wilford Woodruff Papers project, however, it is easier than ever before to see those sketches scattered throughout the journals. Here are a few of the images I came across while exploring the journals of Wilford Woodruff:   This image was a figure Woodruff sketched while talking about doing baptisms for the dead on March 27, 1842.  As Ulrich explained about this figure: “To mark a day…

Thomas Wayment on New Testament Canonization

An interesting point made by the late Eastern Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware is that the books that were selected to be contained in the Bible are a tradition that developed within and passed on by the Proto-Orthodox Church.  The process by which that tradition solidified into official canon was a gradual (and messy) one.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, biblical scholar and BYU professor Thomas Wayment discussed that process of canonization of the New Testament (in connection with a chapter in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints).  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).   Now, a big part of the discussion revolves around the fact that it took several centuries to formally establish the Christian canon. As he states in the interview: One of the key points of conversation about the canon is the idea that it took several centuries for the church to firmly establish its own textual canon. The process was messy in many ways, and as one might expect, problematic statements were made about specific scriptural texts. It seems to me that much of the interest in this topic is to destabilize the notion of a binding scriptural canon because the process itself was not direct. Another problem in the conversation is that the duration of the conversation seems to give the impression that Christians were widely…