Author: James Olsen

James is the husband of Erin Fairlight Olsen. Together they have conspired to doom their four children to a lifetime of mispronounced names: Gaebriel Joseph, Magdeleine Ysabelle, Myriam Reevkahleh, and Ewa Nuhr. Raised where the buffalo still roam in northeastern Wyoming, James learned how to Anglicize French while serving in the Missouri, St. Louis Mission. Afterward he thought so long and indecisively and with such passionately committed existential anguish about what to do with his life that finally BYU simply granted him a degree in philosophy. He then received a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. Unable to subsequently handle the pressures of looming heteronormativity, however, he once again took up philosophy, this time at Georgetown. Currently he is in Doha, Qatar, hiding out from Georgetown, which, much like his wife, would really appreciate it if he just graduated.

My morning with McBaine and Wiman

As happens every now and then, I had a furious, fortuitous conjoining that so filled the boughs with fruit that they now creak and threaten to break. And language—especially quick language—isn’t likely to succeed in conveying the experience. What follows is a quick, momentary set of notes. But I don’t want to let it pass or hold back; I want to attempt to capture and share a moment of clear resonation. Riding in to work I was reading two books: Christian Wiman’s utterly unparalleled My Bright Abyss (review forthcoming) and Neylan McBaine’s desperately needed Women at Church. The one prepared me for the other, but I’ll share them in reverse order. At the end of Chapter One Sister McBaine seems to strike right at the heart of our paradox with women’s issues: “How do we protect the traditions, practices, and truths of our earliest progenitors while holding sacred the rebel explosion of the Restoration?” I’ve no desire to dilute or dismiss the vital, wrenching particularity of her focus. It’s a question that any reader of my posts at Times and Seasons knows I wrestle with almost obsessively. But clearly this question expands beyond women’s issues and is really a complicated paradox for the Restoration and it’s disciples generally.[1]  Wiman’s writings this morning were focused on the difficulties and necessities of language in religious experience. Exploring and drawing on the wealth of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics and the ways in…

Faithful priesthood narratives?

some of those who speak in opposition to women’s ecclesiastical enfranchisement do so because they can’t imagine what a faithful, coherent narrative of our dispensation could possibly look like if women’s priesthood role were restored and developed or if they did receive the Melchizedek Priesthood

Knocking With My Sisters

One of my most recent posts was an attempt to honestly explore (or at least ask) the question: “How do faithful members collectively petition our prophets to petition the heavens?” The scriptures and the early days of our church are replete with faith-inspiring examples. How do we do it now that we’re millions strong? The answer – as the events of the last two weeks have thrown in dramatic relief – is that we don’t have one.[1] Many others have noted the fact of Kate Kelly’s disciplinary council arising from (as many think) her aggressive tactics courting media and engaging non-Mormons on this issue. She has done so (many think) because it’s the only way she was able to actually engage Church leadership. Again, if staying quiet or staying local is not a practically effective means of knocking (and it’s not), and if going public is effective but off-limits (as tonight’s council seems to say), then how do we collectively knock and gain further light on these huge issues? We do not have an institutional answer. I don’t know if tonight’s vigil was an answer, or if it will ultimately become a kind of solution to our current institutional lack, but it was beautiful. And it was beautifully Mormon. We collectively gathered – an incredibly diverse mix of folks, a poster event of “Big Tent” Mormonism – on the lawn outside of the stake center where Kate Kelly’s membership was being reviewed. Like…

Mourning with those that mourn

Job 1: 20 Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, 21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly. Job 2: 11 ¶Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.  12 And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.  13 So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.   I do not have or expect answers. I acknowledge and feel the tragedy and sit in silence – for the grief is very great.

Awkward Discourse, Awkward Practice

Let me say up front that I’m a big fan of the Church’s new Gospel Topics section. And the most recent entry “Becoming Like God” is perhaps my favorite. I thought the author contextualized the topic well, and I especially liked the section entitled “How do Latter-day Saints envision exaltation?” In part because of the nature of the topic, and in part because the author courageously included two full paragraphs on our Heavenly Parents, however, this article manifests our incongruent, sometimes incoherent, and at the least wholly awkward way of discussing all things women in the Church. There’s nothing special about this awkwardness showing up in this particular article – as I just mentioned, the author was courageous in candidly discussing Heavenly Mother. Unfortunately, this awkwardness seems to show up in nearly everything we say as a Church. To be specific: I find directly analogous the way we talk about and treat women generally and the way “Becoming Like God” conspicuously switches back and forth from noting how significant it is that “we have heavenly parents” to speaking only of Heavenly Father, referring to Him as if a single parent involved in our eternal progression. It’s certainly enough to make reason stare. We awkwardly go from heralding the RS and how active and worthwhile our sisters are to upholding patently unequal governance and practices of ritual participation. Just as we go awkwardly from exalting the critical importance of the priesthood…

Everyday Redemption

Strutting down the driveway, whistling with a snow shovel over my shoulder I had a moment where I was struck by the absurdity of the scene. I smiled. Then I wondered at it and how it came to be. Late morning, and gloriously the DC area shuts down at the mention of snow. So I’m still in my pajamas, hanging the picture frames I’ve been meaning to get at for some time. “James, quick, there’s a car stuck out there. Get your shovel and go help.” “Oh. Sure.” That was it in terms of words and thought. But even if the proximate cause, it didn’t really explain much. Why hadn’t we thought or discussed it some more? Why no hesitation? Why was I whistling like a Disney dwarf? Growing up in northern Wyoming surely has a lot to do with it. Boy did I have a lot of opportunities to shovel snow and freeze my hands pushing on car bumpers. But I remember a lot more talk and thought going on then – most of it dark and grumbling. I remember scowling when my Dad would wake me early to go shovel neighbors’ driveways, or when my teacher’s quorum adviser would call late Sat night asking me to be to the church an hour early, and then hand us shovels right after sacrament meeting. Our cul-de-sac was never plowed, which meant I often enjoyed cursing the dissonant sensation of sweating…

Reasoning Together – Zion

We talk about Zion in a lot of different senses, but I think most of these share the general idea of communally gathering, developing, sharing, and partaking in everything that is lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy or of good report. How do we do this, both collectively and individually, on both a theological and political level? Once again (obviously) I can’t adequately answer that question here. But once again I’m bothered by a lot of the discussions I see flying around our virtual and ward-level worlds. I don’t like the divisive,  polemical way in which these discussions are framed – especially when the discussion revolves around whether all is well in Zion or whether Zion is in need of some serious, often non-contiguous reform. In what follows, this question is my main target and what I want you to consider. Is the good ship Zion sinking while the crew and passengers obliviously bask in what they take to be the sunlight? Or ought we to simply ignore the wind and the waves, utterly unconcerned and with naive faith that the Master is well aware of and in fact has set limits on the tempest that rages? My discomfort is not because I’m opposed to strong positions, but because the framework in which these discussions are taking place make the valid insights of the “opposing” positions show up as mutually exclusive. I want to affirm both poles, and more importantly, I think…

Responding as Mandela

Driving [1] to work Friday morning the news reports were of course all about Nelson Mandela who had passed away the night before. Mandela was unquestionably a savior on Mt. Zion in the Mormon sense


I have family members who have died recently, others who are dying, and some who tell me confidently every time we talk, “You know, I won’t be around much longer…”