Thursday, December 19, 2013

Year End Odds & Ends

Previously: The Book of Mormon Bait & Switch

With December winding down, instead of posting one of my usual themed articles, I thought I'd just make a couple of general announcements, cover some updates and other scraps of information, and generally weigh in on the pressing matters of the day.

Announcements, Announcements, Annow-wounce-ments!
Many, MANY THANKS to those who offered up prayers and thoughts of spiritual energy for my lovely bride Connie as she underwent hip replacement surgery last month. As I've written previously, Connie has been defined as something of a medical anomaly, and in the past, surgeries were always followed by high fever and infections resulting in hospital stays of up to two months. (Her other hip had been replaced when she was 33 years old, and the experience was so horrific she postponed this other leg until X-rays taken a few weeks ago showed things were critical).

This time there were no such complications, and I was able to bring her home after four days. We credit your prayers for this smoother recovery. The hospital still sends nurses and a physical therapist to our home to monitor and work with her, and movement is difficult and painful; but she's making better progress than usual.

Here's an interesting story: Two weeks after surgery, Connie began to experience excruciating nerve pain all along that leg. The home nurse reported it to the doctor, and the doctor requested I bring her in immediately.  The doctor took some X-rays and felt around, and sent her home for the time being. Connie was in such pain as we left the doctor's office that she really didn't know how she was going to make it home.

Next thing we know, a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties approached out of nowhere, told Connie he noticed her there in the wheelchair and asked if he could pray over her. We said of course.

So right there outside in the hallway he took Connie's hand and said a simple, straightforward prayer for her bone to completely heal and she be relieved of her pain. After the prayer, we chatted for a minute and the guy told us had witnessed occasions where God had caused metal to grow back into bone. I wondered where he saw that happen?  "That's small potatoes for Jesus," he confidently asserted. After I thanked him and gave him a hug, he turned and walked away. I bent down for a moment to adjust Connie's legs in the wheelchair footholds, and she asked me "Where did he go?"

I looked up and turned around. "Gee, I don't know." It didn't seem to me like he had time to get very far away, but the guy had disappeared down that hall like some kind of ninja.

Now, I don't know if this guy was an angel from heaven or just one of those ordinary earthly angels we encounter now and then who always seem to show up at the right time. But I'll tell you this: that prayer worked its magic. As I was assisting Connie with getting out of her wheelchair and back into the car, she said, "look how easy it is for me to get in the car! I really can't feel much pain right now at all." She described it as a surge of pleasing energy.

Getting her from our door at home and out to the car previously had been a major undertaking, and now she said she could hardly feel any pain. I repeated what our new friend had just said to us. "That's small potatoes for Jesus."

The relief didn't last forever, but the temporary reprieve gave her much needed encouragement. The experience renewed her hope.

This guy had seemed curiously confident for his age. I was sorry to see him go, but whoever he was we credit all your prayers for his appearance. I recall Betty Eadie, in describing her visit to the afterlife, seeing shafts of light shoot up into heaven, and angels scrambling around responding to them.

Betty was informed that those shafts of light represented prayers from people down on earth, and the thicker ones were multiple prayers said by groups of people on behalf of someone in special need. That image has always stayed with me. I visualize all of your prayers for Connie as individual strands of cable meeting in the sky and being woven together to become one mighty column of light. I like that picture: the more prayers, the more power; mighty columns of light so big that heaven can't miss 'em.

The Aussies Have Landed
Andrew and Eva Gore, our friends from Australia discussed in this segment in August, arrived with their children in Utah the day before Thanksgiving, and many of their expenses were covered by readers of this blog. I can't tell you how much that pleases me.

Eva had been disfellowshiped from her ward in Australia after she bore testimony of having given a blessing to her sick baby one night at home. Of course, in Nauvoo, the Mormon women gave each other blessings of healing all the time, so there is certainly nothing wrong with Eva blessing her own child to get better. But in some parts of the world this is a different church than it was in the Nauvoo days, and when Eva's husband sided with his wife over this, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from him as well. Then Andrew lost his job. A short time later, God made it known to these two that he wanted them in Utah for some reason, so the readers of this and a couple of other blogs decided to make it happen.

I have become online friends with several people who have gotten to know this couple, and they tell me the witness of the spirit about them both is phenomenal.  I have had phone and Skype communications with the Gores, and I can confirm there is certainly something special about these two.

So they are here. Many of you donated clothes, blankets, household goods, money, airfare, and even use of a car. A family in Roy, Utah has provided a basement apartment for the family to stay in until they get themselves situated. It was simply amazing how quickly all this fell into place. I, for one, am very interested in seeing what the Lord has in store for them.

The Recent Announcement On Race
The official Church website has posted what amounts to a repudiation of past teachings regarding racial inferiority, and several people have asked for my take on this news.

Well, of course I'm pleased to see it. Although these doctrines have not been taught from the pulpit for decades, the absence of any kind of renunciation has left many members believing the assumptions underlying those teachings remain doctrinal, even if not openly taught. Included among these teachings was that the black African race is descended from Cain, that they were cursed by God, and that they had somehow been less valiant than the rest of us in the pre-existence.

The big question, of course, is what took LDS, Inc so long to issue this clarification? Well, the answer should be obvious. For decades those in authority have assured the members that the Church is true. That assertion painted them into a corner. How can any organization that positions itself as "true" ever admit to being wrong?

The commonly held assumption that those in administrative office within the church actually constitute "The Church" itself, has also resulted in an unfortunate dynamic. It forces those holding high office at Church headquarters to feel a responsibility to protect the testimonies of the members below them, for if a Church leader were found to have erred in doctrine, it could hurt people's testimonies and suggest to some that the Church is less than true.

This problem only exists because for decades the Brethren have stressed two false teachings as essential to our salvation:

1. We must cultivate a testimony of the Church
2. We must follow and obey our priesthood leaders.

Neither of these heavily emphasized dogmas was ever revealed to us by God. In fact, God's word contradicts them. They are the teachings of men, and by constantly repeating them, the Brethren have painted themselves into the embarrassing corner they are now awkwardly trying to extricate themselves from.

The statement itself is problematic for Church leadership. It is a tacit admission that prophets can indeed lead the church astray, because this is an admission at long last that Brigham Young and his long line of successors did indeed commit that very sin. They led the Church astray, preaching and expounding on racial inferiority on countless occasions, and they adamantly affirmed it was all officially doctrinal in two fairly recent Statements of the First Presidency issued in 1949 and 1969.

As Daymon Smith points out over at Mormonism Uncorrelated, this is what comes of allowing others to spoon feed us their own opinions when we should be relying instead on the word of God:
"The statement could’ve pointed out the obvious: that using racial features to discriminate who can and cannot be “given” the priesthood is an absurd, totally unscriptural practice.  But I suppose that would mean pointing out that for 126 years very few leaders apparently taught their scriptures to others content on having someone tell them what their scriptures mean."
In his post, Daymon suggests that maybe when some of the scriptures speak of "white" and "black" or "darkness," we have been all wrong in assuming that had anything to do with skin tone. Maybe it meant something else entirely.

As refreshing as it is to find this statement on the Church's official website, it still falls short. For one thing, as Corbin Volluz reminds us in his excellent analysis over at Rational Faiths, the statement does not include an apology. There is a lot of equivocating as to who might be to blame for these demonstrably harmful practices, but the piece carefully avoids indicting any actual Church authorities. I guess that is to be expected.

But it also fails because it is not an official reversal. We can assume that it was cleared for publication at the very highest levels, since it is on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, it is an unsigned editorial that appears to have been written by a committee of Church scholars, not general authorities.

Most disconcertingly, the statement is not signed by the First Presidency. As we have been reminded through official channels, only statements issued by the First Presidency are to be considered doctrinal and therefore binding on the whole Church. It's a wonderful thing that this editorial can be found on the official Church website, but that's just the internet. Until a statement is issued by the First Presidency repudiating those doctrines, officially the statements issued in 1949 and 1969 still stand.

Also a bit problematic is the fact that this statement was not disseminated through the proper channels, which is why you may have not heard this wonderful news actually discussed where you would expect it to be: in church. There was not the usual letter sent to bishops and stake presidents with instructions that it be read from the pulpit, so as far as Mike and Molly Mormon are aware, this didn't happen.  Church headquarters didn't even issue a press release. This unprecedented announcement was not even on the front page at LDS.org. That prime spot was taken up by a feature about the lights on Temple Square and instructions on how to download Christmas wallpaper for your screensaver.

It was not announced from the pulpit as you would expect of an official change in policy of this magnitude. Rank and file members who don't follow this stuff on the internet are not likely to have heard anything about it.

I think our Dear Leaders put this thing off for as long as they could, and this statement was a timid attempt at saving face.

Hopefully though, this editorial will have the effect of awakening more of our brothers and sisters in the faith whose allegiance has been to the Church and its leaders more than to Christ and His gospel. But I'm not holding my breath. Most members are unable to grasp the difference between the Church and the gospel, and the Magisterium has been caught quashing attempts by those who dared suggest the Church leadership may not be that necessary to our salvation. As Denver Snuffer recently opined, we can expect the doublespeak to continue:
"The LDS position is that the church leaders can never lead its members astray, except in the past - and then it can correct it - in the here and now. When corrected, the LDS church can then consign its past leaders to condemnation for their sins. Sort of ex post facto 'we’re still not going to lead you astray' as long as you are living when we fix it... or something like that. It’s really hard to keep up with the 'we’re not going to lead you astray' component of modern Mormonism with all the dramatic changes and strong denouncements of past errors and sins and mistakes by racist, sexist, polygamous church presidents. But, trust them, they’re somehow not going to lead you astray."
Tithing Unsettlement
If you google the words "Mormon" and "tithing," the third result that comes up is the piece I wrote last year on the law of tithing. That would explain why suddenly this month that post is getting a lot of traffic -upwards of 500-600 hits every day since the first of the month.

That amount of traffic, along with an increasing number of private communications I've been receiving, suggests that there is a desire among many in the church to understand their actual obligation.  I'm also hearing rumblings (I guess I should say "grumblings") of dissatisfaction over the newly aggressive methods some stakes have resorted to in getting members to show up for tithing settlement.

Until quite recently, the way tithing settlement usually worked was like this: around the first of December the bishop would make an announcement in sacrament meeting that there would be a sheet of paper on his door so that all those who desired to meet with him for tithing settlement could make an appointment to do so.  That was it.

This tradition of tithing settlement, as I wrote in my piece, is an anachronism today. Since not many members pay their tithing using crops and farm animals anymore, the procedure for meeting with the bishop to settle up by paying their tithing "in kind" is not really necessary.

So somehow tithing settlement has morphed into a sort of "meet the Principal and go over your report card together" kind of meeting. Which is fine for those who enjoy that sort of grilling.

But the thing that is rubbing some people the wrong way is this recent trend to push everyone into this year-end financial confab, because some folks would rather not. Bishops have been assigning their counselors to corner members in the foyer or call them at home to commit to an appointment. In some cases I'm hearing about, if a family can't be nailed down to a committed time, the bishop has come to their home uninvited and conducted tithing settlement at the kitchen table.

All this is done under the guise that one's devotion to the gospel is measurable only by how diligently one pays his dues to the organization.  In ancient Jerusalem the high priests colluded with the money changers to guilt people into buying their way in to Lord's House. Today your local bishop serves that function.

In the meantime, there is no requirement regarding the paying of fast offerings or directly assisting the needy on your own. Whether you were diligent in giving your alms to the poor is not a question on the quiz.

If you want the honest truth, this is the most recent book I've read.
Christmas Gift Books!
I've received a handful of requests from readers wanting to know what books I read. Okay, it wasn't quite a handful. It was really only three. Three people want to know what books I read.

Quite often when I post a piece here,  I'll include links to whatever books I'm citing from, but I'm learning some folks don't
bother clicking on those links. One of these days I'll compile a list of what I think are some essential sources for getting a more accurate picture of LDS history and theology than most of us were raised on. But for now I want to mention some books I came across this year that I think most folks probably haven't heard about, but which I think readers of this blog might like. So in the spirit of the major publications, I hereby present my Year End Roundup of Christmas Gift Books (and yes, I realize this is posting just days before Christmas. So buy them for yourself.)

First let's talk about the best dang book bargain of the year:  The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations -Facsimile Edition.  I guess the folks at Deseret Book figured out that most Mormons can't afford to pay a hundred dollars for a book. So they finally got wise and are now issuing this masterpiece for $80 off the original price! Pardon me if I am unable to contain my excitement, but I really wanted this book and for what they were originally asking for it, I knew I'd never own one. Now I do.

This beauty is a must-have, and for the price you really should get one before they're all gone. If you don't live close to a Deseret Book store, you can buy it online, but this volume is so big and heavy they charge an additional $7 on top of the basic $4 fee for shipping. But it's still a bargain at that price. This is an essential reference, as it contains photo reproductions of Joseph Smith's original manuscripts, with commentary and color coding so you can tell if a revelation was written in the hand of the prophet or someone else. Buy it for someone you love, and they'll think you just spent a hundred bucks on them.

Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo by Michael G. Reed(John Whitmer Books).
Two classes of people are known for having an adverse reaction to the cross of Jesus Christ: vampires
and Mormons. But for Mormons, it wasn't always so. Author Michael Reed gives a fascinating account of how ubiquitous the cross once was within Mormon culture, and the reason its use eventually became anathema to Saints in the 20th century.

Other Christian denominations have been known to berate us for our reluctance to display the universal symbol of Christianity, but the reality is that Mormons adopted the cross at a time when protestants rejected the symbol as a papist representation of Satanism. (Reed relates a fascinating incident at Nauvoo where a mob of non-Mormon “Christians” rioted and threatened to burn down a building simply because a young Mormon boy had hung a banner from a window with a cross drawn on it.)

In 19th century Utah, the cross could be found virtually everywhere. A large wooden cross was the original marker at the “This Is The Place” monument. Brigham Young admonished missionaries to keep their hearts “riveted to the cross of Christ,” the kind of counsel you will rarely hear from the pulpit today. This is one of those books that took me completely by surprise. I had no idea that our people once prominently and proudly displayed the cross on their persons and in their chapels. It's chock full of photographs of crosses on LDS chapels and in stained glass windows, prominent Mormons wearing crosses as jewelry, crosses displayed on the walls of Mormon homes, sewn into fabrics, and etched onto gravestones. This book is an eye-opener and a reminder that once upon a time we were Christians.

There Are Save Two Churches Only, by D. Christian Markham (TwoChurchesOnly.com).
This is a very well laid out history and analysis of secret societies aimed at the latter-day Saint reader. Tracing the roots of secret societies beginning with Cain, the author takes us through Mystery Babylon and ancient Egypt up to the present time. There is substantial discussion of Freemasonry and Joseph Smith's involvement in it, along with an analysis of Mystic Christianity and much more.

Because it was once commonly believed by members of the LDS church that the great and abominable church of the devil referred to in the first book of Nephi was in fact the Roman Catholic Church, a significant amount of space is devoted to that controversy. Included is an interview I had not been aware of, featuring Bruce McConkie's son describing in great detail his father's Mormon Doctrine entry and the flap that resulted from it.

Some readers may take issue with one or two of the author's conclusions, but the book is an undeniably rich resource of materials and a deep well of source documents. Every time I pick this book up just to skim through its pages, I am impressed by its reach.

The Source (Part One: The Seed) by Norlan Jacobs (Amazon, Barnes &Noble)
Joseph Smith's friend and confidante, Benjamin F. Johnson wrote in his autobiography of the time he asked the prophet if he knew the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel. According to Johnson, the prophet told him they were living inside the north pole, in a concave similar to the big potash kettle Johnson used to boil maple sap. He further told Johnson that John the Revelator was with them at that time preparing them for their return.

Unfortunately, no one else was around at the time to corroborate Johnson's story, so we have only Johnson's word that Joseph Smith actually said it. But if Joseph Smith was the first to advance what later came to be known as the Hollow Earth theory, he surely wasn't the last. There have been enough scientific anomalies in the waters close to the magnetic pole to raise substantial questions about that area in the minds of many. And though no one other than Norwegian sailor Olaf Jansen claims to have been there and back, several novelists, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, have written adventure tales of expeditions to the hollow earth and the civilizations within.

Comes now LDS novelist Norlan Jacobs with his ripping thriller about an expedition to the real Middle Earth. Though not a book directed specifically at a Mormon audience, Latter-day Saints will recognize the theocratic civilization his adventurers encounter. The book is filled with other subtle references Mormon audiences will likely get. A compelling plot propelled by convincing science makes this hefty novel a satisfying read.

Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the LDS Church, by Michael K. Winder (Covenant Communications).
This coffee table book contains a description of every single interaction any president of the Church or other prominent Mormon has ever had with any president of the United States. And I mean ever. Each U.S. president gets his own chapter, beginning with George Washington, and since there were U.S. Presidents long before there were Mormons, in those instances the author provides us with statements famous Mormons have made about those presidents who came before them.

Of course, our nefarious run-ins with Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan are well documented here, but so is every possible bit of trivia you can imagine about every other president vis-a-vis Mormons and Mormonism. I don't know how the author managed to collect all this minutiae, but he didn't miss a thing as far as I can tell.

Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln attended Joseph Smith's extradition hearing in 1843? Or that Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president mention in a temple dedicatory prayer?

Want to know the Mormon reaction to the Kennedy assassination? Or read about LBJ's blatant kissing up to David O. McKay? All here, and much, much more.

The only thing missing from these accounts of a latter-day prophet coming into contact with the political class is that none of them (with the exception of Joseph Smith) ever took the opportunity to act like a true prophet and speak truth to power. Why don't modern prophets do what the ancient ones did: rebuke civil rulers and call them to repentance?

It sure would have been something if, that time Gordon Hinckley shared the stage at BYU with Dick Cheney, instead of shaking hands and chatting amiably with the Vice President afterward, Hinckley had walked up to Cheney and gone all Abinadi on his ass. A definite missed opportunity, if you ask me.

When Hollywood Came To Town: A History of Moviemaking In Utah, by James V. D'arc (Gibbs Smith)
This is a perfect gift book. A person can spend hours pouring over just the photographs alone.
Organized by the various counties where film companies set up on location, this book documents every single film ever made in Utah from the silent days until now. Every movie ever made in the Beehive State is included here, from silent era westerns to the more recent Back to the Future III and Galaxy Quest. The 1940 feature film "Brigham Young" was a very big deal, and seemingly all of Salt Lake City filled the streets for the premiere complete with red carpet for the stars. A short chapter is dedicated to sorting out the conflicting tales of how John Ford discovered Monument Valley, the Utah location so iconic that moviegoers the world over still hold the image of that landscape as embodying the old west.

James D'arc is the curator of the BYU film archives and was instrumental in acquiring the entire collections of some of the greatest directors of the golden age of Hollywood, so the book contains many candid stills from those collections that have not previously been published elsewhere. All the greats are here: John Ford, Cecil B. Demille, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda; as well as Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.

What gives this book a unique flavor is the fascinating insights from locals who were alive in those days. D'arc tracked down and interviewed many of the people who lived in the mostly rural areas of Utah where many of these movies were shot. Some locals were hired on as extras or helped with catering, while others relate the excitement of meeting big stars stopping into their tiny stores to pick up a few groceries. These interviews provide a quaint and charming era of how exciting it was to live in Utah during the golden age of movies when Hollywood came to town.

Other Super-Essential Reading
Elsewhere on these pages I have strongly recommended the recent works of Daymon Smith and
Denver Snuffer on history and theology; and Anthony Larson's explication of prophecy. So I won't repeat myself here other than to issue a reminder that volumes II and III of Smith's A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon are now available.

Well, that was fun. I think I'll do more book reviews in future posts, because there's a lot of great stuff out there and some of the most interesting and important books don't always get shelf space at Deseret Book. Maybe I should make book reviews a regular feature of this blog. Anybody interested?

The Last Announcement Of The Year
I'm scheduled to be a guest on the Paul Duane radio show on Monday December 30th from 1-3 pm. That's on Salt Lake City's K-TKK 630 a.m. K-Talk, to you natives.

The show is also streamed live and available as a podcast, so for those not living on the Wasatch Front, take heart. I am always as close as your earbuds.You should be able access the show hereabouts, or on Paul Duane's Facebook page.

Okay, THIS Is The Last Announcement Of The Year
Connie and I would both like to thank you all for the incredible kindness many of you have shown us this past year. We have made some lasting friendships with amazing people, most of whom we have never met in person. Your love has buoyed us up and given us hope when the seas got a little rough.

Also, for those of you who have shared this blog with friends, a very special thank you. I receive private communications almost daily from people whose spirits have been lifted and outlooks changed after discovering some of the things that have been written here. But invariably it has not been my words that affected them the most. They tell me it was discovering the things written by the rest of you in the various comment sections that have convinced them they are not alone in their struggle to sort truth from error.

I'm happy to have had a part in facilitating the discussions in this community, but it has been largely your conversations that have helped others to understand that our happiness lies not in having a testimony of "The Church," but in learning to believe -really believe- in Christ and His saving gospel. Sometimes all it takes to break through the confusion is to realize that the two are not necessarily connected.

Merry Christmas To All!
See you in January.

Year End Odds & Ends

Previously: The Book of Mormon Bait & Switch

With December winding down, instead of posting one of my usual themed articles, I thought I'd just make a couple of general announcements, cover some updates and other scraps of information, and generally weigh in on the pressing matters of the day.

Announcements, Announcements, Annow-wounce-ments!
Many, MANY THANKS to those who offered up prayers and thoughts of spiritual energy for my lovely bride Connie as she underwent hip replacement surgery last month. As I've written previously, Connie has been defined as something of a medical anomaly, and in the past, surgeries were always followed by high fever and infections resulting in hospital stays of up to two months. (Her other hip had been replaced when she was 33 years old, and the experience was so horrific she postponed this other leg until X-rays taken a few weeks ago showed things were critical).

This time there were no such complications, and I was able to bring her home after four days. We credit your prayers for this smoother recovery. The hospital still sends nurses and a physical therapist to our home to monitor and work with her, and movement is difficult and painful; but she's making better progress than usual.

Here's an interesting story: Two weeks after surgery, Connie began to experience excruciating nerve pain all along that leg. The home nurse reported it to the doctor, and the doctor requested I bring her in immediately.  The doctor took some X-rays and felt around, and sent her home for the time being. Connie was in such pain as we left the doctor's office that she really didn't know how she was going to make it home.

Next thing we know, a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties approached out of nowhere, told Connie he noticed her there in the wheelchair and asked if he could pray over her. We said of course.

So right there outside in the hallway he took Connie's hand and said a simple, straightforward prayer for her bone to completely heal and she be relieved of her pain. After the prayer, we chatted for a minute and the guy told us had witnessed occasions where God had caused metal to grow back into bone. I wondered where he saw that happen?  "That's small potatoes for Jesus," he confidently asserted. After I thanked him and gave him a hug, he turned and walked away. I bent down for a moment to adjust Connie's legs in the wheelchair footholds, and she asked me "Where did he go?"

I looked up and turned around. "Gee, I don't know." It didn't seem to me like he had time to get very far away, but the guy had disappeared down that hall like some kind of ninja.

Now, I don't know if this guy was an angel from heaven or just one of those ordinary earthly angels we encounter now and then who always seem to show up at the right time. But I'll tell you this: that prayer worked its magic. As I was assisting Connie with getting out of her wheelchair and back into the car, she said, "look how easy it is for me to get in the car! I really can't feel much pain right now at all." She described it as a surge of pleasing energy.

Getting her from our door at home and out to the car previously had been a major undertaking, and now she said she could hardly feel any pain. I repeated what our new friend had just said to us. "That's small potatoes for Jesus."

The relief didn't last forever, but the temporary reprieve gave her much needed encouragement. The experience renewed her hope.

This guy had seemed curiously confident for his age. I was sorry to see him go, but whoever he was we credit all your prayers for his appearance. I recall Betty Eadie, in describing her visit to the afterlife, seeing shafts of light shoot up into heaven, and angels scrambling around responding to them.

Betty was informed that those shafts of light represented prayers from people down on earth, and the thicker ones were multiple prayers said by groups of people on behalf of someone in special need. That image has always stayed with me. I visualize all of your prayers for Connie as individual strands of cable meeting in the sky and being woven together to become one mighty column of light. I like that picture: the more prayers, the more power; mighty columns of light so big that heaven can't miss 'em.

The Aussies Have Landed
Andrew and Eva Gore, our friends from Australia discussed in this segment in August, arrived with their children in Utah the day before Thanksgiving, and many of their expenses were covered by readers of this blog. I can't tell you how much that pleases me.

Eva had been disfellowshiped from her ward in Australia after she bore testimony of having given a blessing to her sick baby one night at home. Of course, in Nauvoo, the Mormon women gave each other blessings of healing all the time, so there is certainly nothing wrong with Eva blessing her own child to get better. But in some parts of the world this is a different church than it was in the Nauvoo days, and when Eva's husband sided with his wife over this, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from him as well. Then Andrew lost his job. A short time later, God made it known to these two that he wanted them in Utah for some reason, so the readers of this and a couple of other blogs decided to make it happen.

I have become online friends with several people who have gotten to know this couple, and they tell me the witness of the spirit about them both is phenomenal.  I have had phone and Skype communications with the Gores, and I can confirm there is certainly something special about these two.

So they are here. Many of you donated clothes, blankets, household goods, money, airfare, and even use of a car. A family in Roy, Utah has provided a basement apartment for the family to stay in until they get themselves situated. It was simply amazing how quickly all this fell into place. I, for one, am very interested in seeing what the Lord has in store for them.

The Recent Announcement On Race
The official Church website has posted what amounts to a repudiation of past teachings regarding racial inferiority, and several people have asked for my take on this news.

Well, of course I'm pleased to see it. Although these doctrines have not been taught from the pulpit for decades, the absence of any kind of renunciation has left many members believing the assumptions underlying those teachings remain doctrinal, even if not openly taught. Included among these teachings was that the black African race is descended from Cain, that they were cursed by God, and that they had somehow been less valiant than the rest of us in the pre-existence.

The big question, of course, is what took LDS, Inc so long to issue this clarification? Well, the answer should be obvious. For decades those in authority have assured the members that the Church is true. That assertion painted them into a corner. How can any organization that positions itself as "true" ever admit to being wrong?

The commonly held assumption that those in administrative office within the church actually constitute "The Church" itself, has also resulted in an unfortunate dynamic. It forces those holding high office at Church headquarters to feel a responsibility to protect the testimonies of the members below them, for if a Church leader were found to have erred in doctrine, it could hurt people's testimonies and suggest to some that the Church is less than true.

This problem only exists because for decades the Brethren have stressed two false teachings as essential to our salvation:

1. We must cultivate a testimony of the Church
2. We must follow and obey our priesthood leaders.

Neither of these heavily emphasized dogmas was ever revealed to us by God. In fact, God's word contradicts them. They are the teachings of men, and by constantly repeating them, the Brethren have painted themselves into the embarrassing corner they are now awkwardly trying to extricate themselves from.

The statement itself is problematic for Church leadership. It is a tacit admission that prophets can indeed lead the church astray, because this is an admission at long last that Brigham Young and his long line of successors did indeed commit that very sin. They led the Church astray, preaching and expounding on racial inferiority on countless occasions, and they adamantly affirmed it was all officially doctrinal in two fairly recent Statements of the First Presidency issued in 1949 and 1969.

As Daymon Smith points out over at Mormonism Uncorrelated, this is what comes of allowing others to spoon feed us their own opinions when we should be relying instead on the word of God:
"The statement could’ve pointed out the obvious: that using racial features to discriminate who can and cannot be “given” the priesthood is an absurd, totally unscriptural practice.  But I suppose that would mean pointing out that for 126 years very few leaders apparently taught their scriptures to others content on having someone tell them what their scriptures mean."
In his post, Daymon suggests that maybe when some of the scriptures speak of "white" and "black" or "darkness," we have been all wrong in assuming that had anything to do with skin tone. Maybe it meant something else entirely.

As refreshing as it is to find this statement on the Church's official website, it still falls short. For one thing, as Corbin Volluz reminds us in his excellent analysis over at Rational Faiths, the statement does not include an apology. There is a lot of equivocating as to who might be to blame for these demonstrably harmful practices, but the piece carefully avoids indicting any actual Church authorities. I guess that is to be expected.

But it also fails because it is not an official reversal. We can assume that it was cleared for publication at the very highest levels, since it is on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, it is an unsigned editorial that appears to have been written by a committee of Church scholars, not general authorities.

Most disconcertingly, the statement is not signed by the First Presidency. As we have been reminded through official channels, only statements issued by the First Presidency are to be considered doctrinal and therefore binding on the whole Church. It's a wonderful thing that this editorial can be found on the official Church website, but that's just the internet. Until a statement is issued by the First Presidency repudiating those doctrines, officially the statements issued in 1949 and 1969 still stand.

Also a bit problematic is the fact that this statement was not disseminated through the proper channels, which is why you may have not heard this wonderful news actually discussed where you would expect it to be: in church. There was not the usual letter sent to bishops and stake presidents with instructions that it be read from the pulpit, so as far as Mike and Molly Mormon are aware, this didn't happen.  Church headquarters didn't even issue a press release. This unprecedented announcement was not even on the front page at LDS.org. That prime spot was taken up by a feature about the lights on Temple Square and instructions on how to download Christmas wallpaper for your screensaver.

It was not announced from the pulpit as you would expect of an official change in policy of this magnitude. Rank and file members who don't follow this stuff on the internet are not likely to have heard anything about it.

I think our Dear Leaders put this thing off for as long as they could, and this statement was a timid attempt at saving face.

Hopefully though, this editorial will have the effect of awakening more of our brothers and sisters in the faith whose allegiance has been to the Church and its leaders more than to Christ and His gospel. But I'm not holding my breath. Most members are unable to grasp the difference between the Church and the gospel, and the Magisterium has been caught quashing attempts by those who dared suggest the Church leadership may not be that necessary to our salvation. As Denver Snuffer recently opined, we can expect the doublespeak to continue:
"The LDS position is that the church leaders can never lead its members astray, except in the past - and then it can correct it - in the here and now. When corrected, the LDS church can then consign its past leaders to condemnation for their sins. Sort of ex post facto 'we’re still not going to lead you astray' as long as you are living when we fix it... or something like that. It’s really hard to keep up with the 'we’re not going to lead you astray' component of modern Mormonism with all the dramatic changes and strong denouncements of past errors and sins and mistakes by racist, sexist, polygamous church presidents. But, trust them, they’re somehow not going to lead you astray."
Tithing Unsettlement
If you google the words "Mormon" and "tithing," the third result that comes up is the piece I wrote last year on the law of tithing. That would explain why suddenly this month that post is getting a lot of traffic -upwards of 500-600 hits every day since the first of the month.

That amount of traffic, along with an increasing number of private communications I've been receiving, suggests that there is a desire among many in the church to understand their actual obligation.  I'm also hearing rumblings (I guess I should say "grumblings") of dissatisfaction over the newly aggressive methods some stakes have resorted to in getting members to show up for tithing settlement.

Until quite recently, the way tithing settlement usually worked was like this: around the first of December the bishop would make an announcement in sacrament meeting that there would be a sheet of paper on his door so that all those who desired to meet with him for tithing settlement could make an appointment to do so.  That was it.

This tradition of tithing settlement, as I wrote in my piece, is an anachronism today. Since not many members pay their tithing using crops and farm animals anymore, the procedure for meeting with the bishop to settle up by paying their tithing "in kind" is not really necessary.

So somehow tithing settlement has morphed into a sort of "meet the Principal and go over your report card together" kind of meeting. Which is fine for those who enjoy that sort of grilling.

But the thing that is rubbing some people the wrong way is this recent trend to push everyone into this year-end financial confab, because some folks would rather not. Bishops have been assigning their counselors to corner members in the foyer or call them at home to commit to an appointment. In some cases I'm hearing about, if a family can't be nailed down to a committed time, the bishop has come to their home uninvited and conducted tithing settlement at the kitchen table.

All this is done under the guise that one's devotion to the gospel is measurable only by how diligently one pays his dues to the organization.  In ancient Jerusalem the high priests colluded with the money changers to guilt people into buying their way in to Lord's House. Today your local bishop serves that function.

In the meantime, there is no requirement regarding the paying of fast offerings or directly assisting the needy on your own. Whether you were diligent in giving your alms to the poor is not a question on the quiz.

If you want the honest truth, this is the most recent book I've read.
Christmas Gift Books!
I've received a handful of requests from readers wanting to know what books I read. Okay, it wasn't quite a handful. It was really only three. Three people want to know what books I read.

Quite often when I post a piece here,  I'll include links to whatever books I'm citing from, but I'm learning some folks don't
bother clicking on those links. One of these days I'll compile a list of what I think are some essential sources for getting a more accurate picture of LDS history and theology than most of us were raised on. But for now I want to mention some books I came across this year that I think most folks probably haven't heard about, but which I think readers of this blog might like. So in the spirit of the major publications, I hereby present my Year End Roundup of Christmas Gift Books (and yes, I realize this is posting just days before Christmas. So buy them for yourself.)

First let's talk about the best dang book bargain of the year:  The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations -Facsimile Edition.  I guess the folks at Deseret Book figured out that most Mormons can't afford to pay a hundred dollars for a book. So they finally got wise and are now issuing this masterpiece for $80 off the original price! Pardon me if I am unable to contain my excitement, but I really wanted this book and for what they were originally asking for it, I knew I'd never own one. Now I do.

This beauty is a must-have, and for the price you really should get one before they're all gone. If you don't live close to a Deseret Book store, you can buy it online, but this volume is so big and heavy they charge an additional $7 on top of the basic $4 fee for shipping. But it's still a bargain at that price. This is an essential reference, as it contains photo reproductions of Joseph Smith's original manuscripts, with commentary and color coding so you can tell if a revelation was written in the hand of the prophet or someone else. Buy it for someone you love, and they'll think you just spent a hundred bucks on them.

Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo by Michael G. Reed (John Whitmer Books).
Two classes of people are known for having an adverse reaction to the cross of Jesus Christ: vampires
and Mormons. But for Mormons, it wasn't always so. Author Michael Reed gives a fascinating account of how ubiquitous the cross once was within Mormon culture, and the reason its use eventually became anathema to Saints in the 20th century.

Other Christian denominations have been known to berate us for our reluctance to display the universal symbol of Christianity, but the reality is that Mormons adopted the cross at a time when protestants rejected the symbol as a papist representation of Satanism. (Reed relates a fascinating incident at Nauvoo where a mob of non-Mormon “Christians” rioted and threatened to burn down a building simply because a young Mormon boy had hung a banner from a window with a cross drawn on it.)

In 19th century Utah, the cross could be found virtually everywhere. A large wooden cross was the original marker at the “This Is The Place” monument. Brigham Young admonished missionaries to keep their hearts “riveted to the cross of Christ,” the kind of counsel you will rarely hear from the pulpit today. This is one of those books that took me completely by surprise. I had no idea that our people once prominently and proudly displayed the cross on their persons and in their chapels. It's chock full of photographs of crosses on LDS chapels and in stained glass windows, prominent Mormons wearing crosses as jewelry, crosses displayed on the walls of Mormon homes, sewn into fabrics, and etched onto gravestones. This book is an eye-opener and a reminder that once upon a time we were Christians.

There Are Save Two Churches Only, by D. Christian Markham (TwoChurchesOnly.com).
This is a very well laid out history and analysis of secret societies aimed at the latter-day Saint reader. Tracing the roots of secret societies beginning with Cain, the author takes us through Mystery Babylon and ancient Egypt up to the present time. There is substantial discussion of Freemasonry and Joseph Smith's involvement in it, along with an analysis of Mystic Christianity and much more.

Because it was once commonly believed by members of the LDS church that the great and abominable church of the devil referred to in the first book of Nephi was in fact the Roman Catholic Church, a significant amount of space is devoted to that controversy. Included is an interview I had not been aware of, featuring Bruce McConkie's son describing in great detail his father's Mormon Doctrine entry and the flap that resulted from it.

Some readers may take issue with one or two of the author's conclusions, but the book is an undeniably rich resource of materials and a deep well of source documents. Every time I pick this book up just to skim through its pages, I am impressed by its reach.

The Source (Part One: The Seed) by Norlan Jacobs (Amazon, Barnes &Noble)
Joseph Smith's friend and confidante, Benjamin F. Johnson wrote in his autobiography of the time he asked the prophet if he knew the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel. According to Johnson, the prophet told him they were living inside the north pole, in a concave similar to the big potash kettle Johnson used to boil maple sap. He further told Johnson that John the Revelator was with them at that time preparing them for their return.

Unfortunately, no one else was around at the time to corroborate Johnson's story, so we have only Johnson's word that Joseph Smith actually said it. But if Joseph Smith was the first to advance what later came to be known as the Hollow Earth theory, he surely wasn't the last. There have been enough scientific anomalies in the waters close to the magnetic pole to raise substantial questions about that area in the minds of many. And though no one other than Norwegian sailor Olaf Jansen claims to have been there and back, several novelists, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, have written adventure tales of expeditions to the hollow earth and the civilizations within.

Comes now LDS novelist Norlan Jacobs with his ripping thriller about an expedition to the real Middle Earth. Though not a book directed specifically at a Mormon audience, Latter-day Saints will recognize the theocratic civilization his adventurers encounter. The book is filled with other subtle references Mormon audiences will likely get. A compelling plot propelled by convincing science makes this hefty novel a satisfying read.

Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the LDS Church, by Michael K. Winder (Covenant Communications).
This coffee table book contains a description of every single interaction any president of the Church or other prominent Mormon has ever had with any president of the United States. And I mean ever. Each U.S. president gets his own chapter, beginning with George Washington, and since there were U.S. Presidents long before there were Mormons, in those instances the author provides us with statements famous Mormons have made about those presidents who came before them.

Of course, our nefarious run-ins with Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan are well documented here, but so is every possible bit of trivia you can imagine about every other president vis-a-vis Mormons and Mormonism. I don't know how the author managed to collect all this minutiae, but he didn't miss a thing as far as I can tell.

Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln attended Joseph Smith's extradition hearing in 1843? Or that Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president mention in a temple dedicatory prayer?

Want to know the Mormon reaction to the Kennedy assassination? Or read about LBJ's blatant kissing up to David O. McKay? All here, and much, much more.

The only thing missing from these accounts of a latter-day prophet coming into contact with the political class is that none of them (with the exception of Joseph Smith) ever took the opportunity to act like a true prophet and speak truth to power. Why don't modern prophets do what the ancient ones did: rebuke civil rulers and call them to repentance?

It sure would have been something if, that time Gordon Hinckley shared the stage at BYU with Dick Cheney, instead of shaking hands and chatting amiably with the Vice President afterward, Hinckley had walked up to Cheney and gone all Abinadi on his ass. A definite missed opportunity, if you ask me.

When Hollywood Came To Town: A History of Moviemaking In Utah, by James V. D'arc (Gibbs Smith)
This is a perfect gift book. A person can spend hours pouring over just the photographs alone.
Organized by the various counties where film companies set up on location, this book documents every single film ever made in Utah from the silent days until now. Every movie ever made in the Beehive State is included here, from silent era westerns to the more recent Back to the Future III and Galaxy Quest. The 1940 feature film "Brigham Young" was a very big deal, and seemingly all of Salt Lake City filled the streets for the premiere complete with red carpet for the stars. A short chapter is dedicated to sorting out the conflicting tales of how John Ford discovered Monument Valley, the Utah location so iconic that moviegoers the world over still hold the image of that landscape as embodying the old west.

James D'arc is the curator of the BYU film archives and was instrumental in acquiring the entire collections of some of the greatest directors of the golden age of Hollywood, so the book contains many candid stills from those collections that have not previously been published elsewhere. All the greats are here: John Ford, Cecil B. Demille, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda; as well as Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.

What gives this book a unique flavor is the fascinating insights from locals who were alive in those days. D'arc tracked down and interviewed many of the people who lived in the mostly rural areas of Utah where many of these movies were shot. Some locals were hired on as extras or helped with catering, while others relate the excitement of meeting big stars stopping into their tiny stores to pick up a few groceries. These interviews provide a quaint and charming era of how exciting it was to live in Utah during the golden age of movies when Hollywood came to town.

Other Super-Essential Reading
Elsewhere on these pages I have strongly recommended the recent works of Daymon Smith and
Denver Snuffer on history and theology; and Anthony Larson's explication of prophecy. So I won't repeat myself here other than to issue a reminder that volumes II and III of Smith's A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon are now available.

Well, that was fun. I think I'll do more book reviews in future posts, because there's a lot of great stuff out there and some of the most interesting and important books don't always get shelf space at Deseret Book. Maybe I should make book reviews a regular feature of this blog. Anybody interested?

The Last Announcement Of The Year
I'm scheduled to be a guest on the Paul Duane radio show on Monday December 30th from 1-3 pm. That's on Salt Lake City's K-TKK 630 a.m. K-Talk, to you natives.

The show is also streamed live and available as a podcast, so for those not living on the Wasatch Front, take heart. I am always as close as your earbuds.You should be able access the show hereabouts, or on Paul Duane's Facebook page.

Okay, THIS Is The Last Announcement Of The Year
Connie and I would both like to thank you all for the incredible kindness many of you have shown us this past year. We have made some lasting friendships with amazing people, most of whom we have never met in person. Your love has buoyed us up and given us hope when the seas got a little rough.

Also, for those of you who have shared this blog with friends, a very special thank you. I receive private communications almost daily from people whose spirits have been lifted and outlooks changed after discovering some of the things that have been written here. But invariably it has not been my words that affected them the most. They tell me it was discovering the things written by the rest of you in the various comment sections that have convinced them they are not alone in their struggle to sort truth from error.

I'm happy to have had a part in facilitating the discussions in this community, but it has been largely your conversations that have helped others to understand that our happiness lies not in having a testimony of "The Church," but in learning to believe -really believe- in Christ and His saving gospel. Sometimes all it takes to break through the confusion is to realize that the two are not necessarily connected.

Merry Christmas To All!
See you in January.