Category: Latter-day Saint Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part I

Depiction of an LDS temple/library combination. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day.  I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message.  The Plague, by Albert Camus  The famous French absurdist’s landmark work is interlaced with religious and existential themes as a town struggles against a deadly plague. Unlike many secular or secular-adjacent authors, Camus is rather bold in confronting the implications of naturalistic, non-religious worldview, and my personal experience with this book was powerful enough that I actually published an article in the Journal of Camus Studies on religious symbolism in The Plague.  The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky This was the book that inspired my wife to go on her mission (in particular, Alyosha’s and the monks’ examples of dedicated holiness). It’s quite long (as Russian novels are), but (IMHO) you can get a lot of the spiritual benefit by reading certain sections. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter is of…

“I Am” Statements of Jesus in the Book of Mormon

When Moses was called by YHWH, he asked the Lord, “when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” In response, YHWH said, “I Am That I Am” (Exodus 14:13–14). This type of “I am” statement is significant and has echoes throughout the Bible. A recent interview with Joshua Matson at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk highlighted the types of “I am” statements that are also found in the Book of Mormon. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

The Doomsday Equation and the Second Coming

The Book of Zachariah has a prophecy about the Lord splitting the Mount of Olives in two in the last days to save Israel at the last battle. I don’t know if that is how it is going to go down, but I like the symbolism of Christ as the second Moses dividing the land to save Israel from its enemies like Moses divided the water to save Israel of old from its enemies.  The Second Coming and the nastiness preceding it is a somewhat passe topic for more intellectual types (although certainly not for the proverbial high priests in conservative small-town branches), I suspect largely because there has been a long history of crying wolf on the subject. Ever since the early Christians people believed that the Second Coming was nigh (although, if we really appreciate deep history of our species and planet and how incredibly long it is, “coming quickly” could be a relatively long time when measured against our lifespans). We certainly have not been immune to this in our own tradition, including with Joseph Smith, who I have the sense personally thought that the Second Coming was coming sooner rather than later (although others who know more can probably chapter and verse that belief in a primary source somewhere). Outside our tradition, it seems like every couple of years somebody figures out a clever, unique way to recalculate the numbers in Revelations that shows that the…

What do Members and Former Members Believe About God? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

A guest post from Josh Coates and Stephen Cranney This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here.  In the 2023 CFLDSS we asked the standard question about belief in God that is also asked in the General Social Survey, an omnibus survey of Americans asked just about every year that has asked a question about belief in God since the late 1980s. “Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God.” I don’t believe in God I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind  I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it The graph below has the result for our three current member samples, the two former member samples, the 2022 General Social Survey sample of respondents who are “Nones,” and indicated no religious affiliation, and the 2022 General Social Surveys sample of respondents who indicated a religious faith. (And yes, we know that there are agnostics that don’t fit into…

“Tened en Dios Confianza”

I have not been able to find out much about “Tened en dios confianza,” nor about its author, José V. Estrada G. On a more personal note, however, this was the first hymn that I worked with when I started contemplating the Mexican Mission Hymns Project around six years ago. The original music for the hymn that I wrote was even one of the five I submitted for consideration with the new hymnbook.

No Division Among You: A Review

No Division Among You: Creating Unity in a Diverse Church, ed. Richard Eyre (Deseret Book, 2023) is a beautiful book in its intentions and efforts. The book is a collection of 14 essays that discuss ways to view the need for unity while embracing diversity. Each essay is by a different author, bringing in diverse perspectives of members who identify across the spectrum—Black and White, homosexual and heterosexual, male and female. Each shared experiences and perspectives that help build frameworks for how to approach unity as a diverse church.

In Defense of Missionary Numbers

There’s a fun thing people do with Dalle where they have it create an image with a certain descriptor, then continually ask it to make it “even more X.” In this case I asked it to create a righteous-looking missionary, then asked it to be even more righteous, then even more righteous, etc. After six iterations “The image now portrays the ultimate embodiment of righteousness in a Mormon missionary, reaching a celestial level of virtue and spiritual enlightenment.” It has become fashionable to deride the use of missionary numbers, ministering metrics, or other quantitative indicators in Church work. An overemphasis on numeric indicators bothered me as much as the next missionary, and nobody can accuse me of being a “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” type member who thinks that Zion will be achieved with some second-coming-of-Mitt Romney MBA clone to whom is revealed God’s chosen seven step program for managerial success. Still, there are people who swing too far the other way, and think that if nothing but a burning testimony of the Savior was good enough for Paul it should be good enough for our missionaries.  Except it’s really not. Our missionaries are essentially late-teenagers, and as annoying as it is to admit it, it was clear in the mission that having some kind of quantitative standard that we were expected to hit did in fact lead to more proselytizing overall. Were the motives absolutely pure? No, but…

“Placentero nos es trabajar”

“Placentero nos es trabajar” or “Despedida” is one of the more popular hymns that is included in Latter-day Saint hymn books, written by a Latter-day Saint, but not in the English hymnal at this time. Hence, I’ve been consistent in pointing it out as a likely candidate for inclusion in the forthcoming hymnal. While I’ve talked about this hymn in the past, this post will serve two purposes—first, it is going to be where I pick up the Mexican Mission Hymns series. Second, it’s also a co-post for a recent interview with John A Gonzalez—the grandson of Andrés Carlos González, the author of the hymn—at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

Latter-day Saint Book Review: A Life of Jesus, by Shusaku Endo

A Life of Jesus is an introduction to the life of Christ by renowned Catholic Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, the author of Silence, a book set during the early persecutions of Christians in Japan. Much of Endo’s work revolves around the tensions of being a Catholic in a very non-Christian country, and this book was written as a guide to the life of Christ specifically for people with a Japanese religious disposition who are less receptive to harsh, jealous, father-figure Gods. 

The Curious Role of the Book of Mormon Witnesses in Evangelical Debates about the Resurrection

While we Latter-day Saints have our apologists and reason-based arguments for faith and defenses against attacks on the faith, those are, by our own admission, to help create a place for faith or respond to criticisms that attack that faith, we are careful to formally base our religious epistemology in the numinous, personal spiritual experience.  In contrast, there is a line of thinking in some Christian circles that the resurrection’s eyewitness accounts are compelling enough to force any reasonable person to accept the reality of the resurrection based on sound historical evidence alone. I’ve heard these arguments a number of times from a number of sources, and while I (rather conventionally and boringly) ultimately don’t find them compelling from a historiographical point of view, they are interesting.  Where Mormonism comes into these debates is that a common skeptical rejoinder has become “well, if we are forced into believing in the resurrection because of these eyewitness accounts, what about the Book of Mormon witnesses?” And then the response often tends to devolve into distorting what the witnesses were or did, because ultimately the point is a good one. (One of the Protestants making this argument is renowned apologist William Lane Craig, and Stephen Smoot has already done a more thorough analysis of Craig’s views on the Church.) Protestants aren’t the only ones whose truth claims have eyewitnesses, and once you step outside of their theological world there are other examples of…

“In his own tongue, and in his own language”: Or, all Church leaders now speak 27 languages

“Hearing the gospel in their own tongue” A January 2024 report on advances in AI and what they mean for the Church New Unicorn-startup-on-the-block Elevens Labs has rolled out a more refined dubbing/translation service. Now one can simply upload any video under 45 minutes long and hear it in one of 27 different languages in the voice of the speaker. (Somebody should “back translate” Elder Uchtdorf speaking in German back into English to see how close it gets). Word on the street is that it is pretty accurate.  Implications for the Church:  A lot of the more esoteric debates about things in the Church like Egyptian papyrology, how Elder so-and-so’s remark might be interpreted by this or that group, and ancient Mesoamerican population growth rates were the purview of the sociocultural elite in the Church in English-speaking countries. Google Translate solved some of this, but increasingly even more popular content such as podcasts or YouTube channels from Church and Church-adjacent (or anti-Church) influencers is going to be widely available to the international Church. I suspect Church influencer culture going international will be a net bad thing, but I might be wrong. Obviously, this could make General Conference translations much, much more efficient, although if it’s still not 100% equivalent I suspect the Church will continue with traditional translation (and even if it is institutional inertia and internal incentives will probably keep the translation department there for the time being). Still,…

Latter-day Saints and Biblical Theology

Interpreting the scriptures is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Joseph Spencer discussed a particular approach to interpreting the Bible—Biblical Theology. In particular, he focused on recent developments in Latter-day Saint Biblical Theology. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Why That New Communications Director Might Actually Be a Problem

In the latest hullabaloo about the new Communications Director for the whole Church, the UN-is-trying-to-take-over-the-government black helicopter types are being prominently platformed in the media, as if the only concerns with the new Director are coming from people in Northern Idaho with stockpiles of weaponry who are concerned with his past employment by the UN Foundation (which, incidentally, isn’t even run by the UN).   However, there are some real concerns with having upper-level management who are not “on-mission.” The fact is that for a variety of reasons the Church often finds itself in the maelstrom of hot-button, sexuality-related topics (although maybe that’s fading in the mirror? In the next few years there will be college students who weren’t even alive during Prop 8…), and it needs somebody in its corner on these issues that it can trust will actually promote its own interests, even if it might reflect poorly on him among the cocktail scene as he works for what is fundamentally, and will be for the foreseeable future, a heteronormative faith.   Of course I’m sure that he will say one thing when the brethren are in the room, but there are a thousand little decisions in strategy, hiring, promotions, and the like where there is enough plausible deniability where he could be running interference on those exact issues where the Church is in conflict with the conventional wisdom of the cocktail crowd (which are going to be the exact…

Pioneer Utah and Gender Inequality in Education

Back in the day, the census would record the literacy of respondents (in any language), so I used the IPUMS data (that I have used in several posts before) to access the complete censuses of pioneer Utah and look at literacy across time by gender. The complete US census data across all the years literacy was asked was big enough that it would have taken hours for my computer to crunch the numbers, so I selected Texas and Vermont (the two states on either side of Utah in terms of FIPS codes).The jump in illiteracy in 1870 is an artifact of the fact that that was the year when they began asking the question to anybody 10+ instead of 20+. As seen, Utah actually had relatively high literacy, higher than Vermont during the same time. Additionally, the gender gap in literacy was negligible, while in Vermont men were more literate, while in Texas women were more literate. Code is here.

I once was Lehi

In the scriptures, we find (among other things) stories we slip into in order to make sense of our lives. We are Adam and Eve, Joseph preparing for a famine, David facing Goliath, Alma the Younger looking back at his choices. We teach people to seek answers by earnestly praying like Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. I’ve never been the rich young man, but I’ve been a good Samaritan a time or two. And I was once Lehi, warned to take my family and flee. I mean that metaphorically, but not figuratively.

Moral Luck and Homosexuality in the Church

Most of us have at some point checked our phone while driving. However, for a small minority of cases somebody walks in front of us and gets killed. We then (somewhat rightfully) blame the distracted driver for the death, even though most of us have inadvisedly checked our phone while driving, and it’s just the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time that led to it being much more serious than a peccadillo of checking our phone when we know we shouldn’t. This principle is known in philosophy as “moral luck.” We often blame people for things that they do not in fact have control over. In this case, we have control over checking the phone, but not in somebody being in the wrong place and the wrong time and interacting with the phone checking leading to an accident. A while ago I had a conversation with a friend where the issue came up whether we would prefer if our child was “Actually Gay”™ or “Fashionably Queer”™. (As I’ve mentioned before here, this discussion is less theoretical for me, since given what we know about fraternal birth order effect on male homosexuality, and my own family structure, I have about an even chance that at least one of my sons will be gay.) After thinking it over, I decided the former. If I had a son that was biologically gay, I’d assume that the moral…

Misinterpreting “Large in Stature”

By Mike Winder   When Nephi says he is “large in stature” does that mean he is merely “tall and muscular” or something else? Sometimes in the Bible stature means height, such as “a man of great stature” in 2 Samuel 21:20 speaking of the man born to the giant of Gath.

“As the Gods”: Pre-Sapiens Hominids and God’s Plan

When it comes to human evolution or deep human history, there’s a sort of begrudging acceptance in Church culture of its possibility, or it’s used as some cudgel in a broader debate about biblical errancy or how symbolic Adam and Eve were, but very few have taken it any further and really sat down and thought through its theological implications and extensions on its own terms.  The fact is that for much if not most of our time on earth we lived alongside, and had children with, entire other species that looked like us and could have also been religious and spoken to God as well. One of the few attempts to really think through the implications of pre-Sapiens hominids is Hugh Nibley’s excellent “Before Adam” (note: saying that I think it’s excellent does not mean that I agree with everything in it), where he points out  Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation—for our scriptures allow them such. Of course, the first question that is typically raised is how these creatures relate to our own existence. At what point did we become “as the Gods”? As Nibley points out, for large swaths of humankind’s existence we only see the most rudimentary tools and very slow technological innovation and dispersion, on the order of thousands of years. He argues that…

On Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon was a notable, if complicated, woman in Utah history. Although somewhat forgotten (partly due to her son burning all her journals, at her request), she has become more widely remembered in recent years. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, biographer Constance L. Lieber shared some of her thoughts on this fascinating individual. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Notes on Revelation

[As I was going through my files, I found this draft that written four years ago. As it has about 24 hours of relevance left, I’m publishing it now. Happy New Year.] When I teach Revelation 1-11 to my youth Sunday School class, I’ll probably start off by saying something about gasoline.

The Vatican’s Same-Sex Blessings: Latter-day Saint Translations and Lessons

Catholic priest giving a blessing to Latter-day Saint/Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o (Source: Juvenile Instructor, who got it from the WSJ) The Catholic world has been abuzz about a recent directive from the Vatican condoning blessings (but not marriages, and not liturgical blessings, kind of) of same-sex couples. The document has engendered a lot of confusion, hair splitting, and myriad interpretations by people who are much more knowledgeable about Catholic thought than I, so I will refrain from claiming to know the One True interpretation of it, but a few high-level thoughts from a Latter-day Saint perspective.  The African bishops’ very negative responses to the Vatican, in clear defiance of the Pope, is another data point (the revolt against the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion and the tensions between United Methodist Church and its African contingent over gay ordination being others) for the argument that, erstwhile conventional wisdom to the contrary, moving in a more liberal direction in regards to LGBTQ issues comes at a significant cost, especially in regards to affiliated congregations in the Global South. In the Latter-day Saint context, any move towards same-sex sealings would almost certainly be very costly in terms of Church growth in Africa, which in all likelihood will become the primary engine of Church growth this century. I’ve made this point before, but when people talk about how a certain change in Church policy would make the Church more popular, they…