A Prayer in the Face of Anxiety

This has been an anxious week for me. A lot of changes have happened with the move to New York City: new questions, new opportunities, new worries and doubts; a new ward, new faces, new roles (or lack thereof). And I’ve read too much news, as well; let too much of distant dramas and vast abstractions of great burdens affect me.

When anxiety becomes strong like this, I like to turn to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, often in different translations to keep it fresh and lively. Today, I turned to this passage in The Message translation, and I was struck by this part:

Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Matthew 6:27-34 (MSG), “A Life of God-worship”

I love this. The New Testament scholar Walter Breugemann, referring to this passage, described it this way: “Jesus invited his disciples out of the anxiety system.” The world I’m wrapped in fosters anxiety for so many things: position, reputation, status. And this week, I’ve forgotten to “steep my life in God-reality”: to remember that God will take care of me, and help me “deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” I’ve forgotten what Christ said shortly after the Sermon on the Mount:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

That’s my prayer, as the Sabbath and sacrament draw near once again: to always remember Christ and these particular words; to keep the commandment not to worry, but to find peace in God’s provision; to find rest through my Redeemer and solace in my Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23 (ESV)

Critical Race Theory, Injustice, and a Gospel of Life

“Critical Race Theory”, a legal theory focused on the intersection of race and the law, is quite popular in the news. The bloggernacle, too. Sam Brunson has a good post at ByCommonConsent on critical race theory, tax law, and the Church. (It’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise.) I don’t have a lot to add—an expert in critical race theory I am not—but I wanted to draw attention to one aspect that is personally important to me as an LDS Christian: how discussions of “critical race theory” and “wokeness” can often drive Latter-day Saints away from caring about the marginalized and poor at all. Let me explain.

In his post, Sam makes a good point that we often talk past each other when discussing Critical Race Theory because we mean very different things by it. In a short Twitter thread, Conor Friedersdorf says there are at least three things we mean by “critical race theory” today.

  1. CRT1 – the decades long, scholarly debate with some consensus but also much internal disagreement and debate
  2. CRT2 – the version of this debate that’s simplified and often internally inconsistent, filtered down into Tumblr posts, Medium essays, and discussions about K-12 education
  3. CRT3 – the version as portrayed by opponents (i.e. Fox News), that gets at versions 1 and 2 in some ways, but also exaggerates and distorts to make it an easier and scarier target

In his post, Sam is talking about CRT1 when he says that it’s “worth noting that critical race theory doesn’t present a particular set of answers to the problems of systemic and legal racism. Rather, critical race theorists present many and varied potential solutions, and sometimes, I imagine, no solutions at all.” This is the scholarly work with some consensus and many disagreements. It’s this rigorous version that I have little actual knowledge of and won’t try to evaluate here. But I will say that when most people hear about and debate critical race theory, they have CRT2 or CRT3 in mind: the simplistic version with clear and confident answers to injustice, or clear and obvious evils (depending on your tribe).

It’s easy to pit these versions of CRT against them each other, and in the process talk past each other. But here’s my point: that can be deadly to the spiritual health of our community.

Let me elaborate. The conservative author David French wrote a moving piece about a transracial adoption called “Don’t Let Fear of ‘Wokeness’ Close Hearts and Minds”. He begins by talking about how the accusation of wokeness can shut off discourse: “Call something ‘woke,’ and too many Americans wall themselves off from engagement and reflexively oppose ideas that should be carefully considered.” He uses the example of a debate over transracial adoption to highlight his point. And he ends with this concern for his own faith community, evangelical Christianity:

In fact, in white Evangelicalism the true challenge of “wokeness” isn’t that congregations will embrace critical race theory, it’s that fear of critical race theory will drive congregations away from thoughtful, necessary engagements with the world as it is—a world that is still too far removed from the hope of King’s dream. 

David French

This is my concern too, but for my faith community: Latter-day Saints. I hear too many of my brothers and sisters write off laws or politicians or causes as beholden to wokeness, and certainly “wokeness” has its issues. But it’s also the case that many of the people who engage in Critical Race Theory or are “woke” are more attuned to certain injustices than we are, and are speaking from a place of genuine concern and hurt and feeling. They are perhaps more attuned to the call of the Hebrew prophets “to do justice and to love kindness”, and to care for the vulnerable and marginalized around us.

If nothing else came from this kind of insane year, it was a realization that racism is a real problem in America (as Phil Vischer eloquently summarizes in this video). The solutions are non-obvious, but we should care or at least give credence to those who are trying to address it, even if the solutions they propose are flawed. Whatever answers we give, they should probably go beyond a simplistic reply of “the government should have nothing to do with it” or “I have no responsibility for these injustices”—for even as someone with a very conservative temperament, I see problems with those views in that they evade real engagement, just as David French warned. They evade facing the world as it is for people who are not like ourselves, and of evading the collective responsibility to care for each other.

In all of this debate, I am trying to find what Alan Jacobs (a Christian author) eloquently called a gospel of life: “a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories.” He writes that too often, we see different policies—like helping the unborn, and helping the marginalized poor—in opposition, a view that is tragic. He writes that

… the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.

Alan Jacobs, “The Gospel of Life”

I see in this debate about Critical Race Theory a very real challenge for me, as a Latter-day Saint Christian, to draw less from the categories of American politics and more from scripture and my own tradition. In these debates, I am called to charitably discern the contours of real injustice, to feel deeply for the cause of those affected, to respond with conviction (and charity for my political opponents), and to witness genuine concern for the marginalized and vulnerable of all varieties; to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [I] may be in” (Mosiah 18:9).

In the time of the Hebrew Prophets—and in the foundational scripture for Jews, Christians, and Latter-day Saints—there was always an overt concern to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause”, to protect the poor (Isaiah 1:17, ESV); this was the triad of vulnerable populations in the ancient world, always on the mind of the prophets and those closest to God.

In our time, these same populations are present, but we have other vulnerable populations to protect, too. We are called today to protect the racially marginalized, the unborn, the domestically abused, the poor who cannot escape a life of constant and oppressive toil, the victims of anti-semitism, the lonely and alienated and lost. All of these populations are those who need our witness and care and concern. And even as the most vulnerable shift and change, the call is the same: to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV). If we believe that the terms of the debate are flawed, then fine: but we must not let “wokeness” or “critical race theory” turn us away from our duty to protect those who God has charged to protect, and to witness to His everlasting love for the weak and oppressed.

UPDATE: In the comments to Sam Brunson’s post, Michael Austin left a good overview of what Critical Race Theory is and the debate around it. I’ll be referring to this in the future.

The Christian Mood

Following-up on yesterday’s post on emotion and discipleship: I’ve been dwelling on this lengthy-but-imporant quote by Adam Miller:

I take it for granted that moods, emotions, and affects are not just existential window dressing. They don’t just add a little subjective “color” to what would otherwise be an accurate, dispassionate, objective experience of the world. Rather, I take it for granted that moods and emotions are crucial neurological mechanisms for focusing human perceptions and driving human actions. As a result, I understand moods and emotions to be fundamental to any human experience of truth and meaning. Human experiences of any kind—including those we describe as objective—are all impossible without moods and emotions. (p. 34)

Moods and emotions are modes of perception. They make truth possible. They disclose the world. They are fundamental forms of attunement and orientation that operate a notch lower than conscious thoughts and decisions. Like the dial on an analog radio, moods tune the mind to certain stations of perception. They select relevant slices of sensation and information from the pressing static and chaos of the wider world.

Moods and emotions are a body’s initial, gut-level read on what, in that moment, is relevant. They function as filters and, thus, make meaning possible. Meaning depends on having some criteria for screening what information is currently relevant and what is not. Moods and emotions sort and prioritize information, they bring a particular profile of experience into meaningful focus and they motivate us to act on that information.

It’s clear that someone who feels angry, someone who feels fear, and someone who feels compassion will experience the same situation in profoundly different ways. The elements of the situation that stand out as relevant will vary widely and, in turn, the sorts of motivated actions that seem appropriate will vary widely. Though the situation may be otherwise identical, anger will filter perceptions and shape actions in one way, fear will filter perceptions and shape actions in a second way, and compassion will filter perceptions and shape actions in a third.

Given how crucial moods, emotions, and feelings are to experiences of any kind, it should come as no surprise that they are also crucial to religious experience. Moreover, if discipleship turns on reshaping and reordering human experience at the deepest levels, then moods and emotions ought to be doubly crucial to religious experiences. It should also come as no surprise, then, that recognizing the baseline persistence of a certain mood in Mormon’s own life is crucial to recognizing how his life brings key elements of Christian discipleship into sharp focus.

Understood in these terms, discipleship doesn’t just depend on a certain way of acting. It depends on a certain mood or bearing. It depends on a certain way of holding time as it passes, on a certain tendency of thought to circle back to the same bare and quiet space, on a certain unclenching of the mental fist. It depends on a continual tilting of the soul, regardless of what thoughts and feelings play across the surface of the mind, toward a certain primal mood. Sobriety is a good name for this baseline Christian mood, for the disciple’s default inclination of heart and orientation of mind. Divine melancholy is another. Mormon embodies this melancholic sobriety and his attunement to the Spirit—to life and light and suffering and loss—is, as a practical matter, grounded in this bearing.

Adam Miller, Mormon: A Brief Theological Introduction, pp. 34-36; emphasis added

I’m not 100% certain that the “baseline Christian mood” is sobriety or divine melancholy. I think there’s scriptural support for arguing that it’s more… upbeat? A sober hope, perhaps, or a serious praise. But I recognize that a seriousness is required, especially in times of real loss around us. (Paul Kingsnorth’s Substack captures this sobriety well, especially given that his life’s question and his writing’s work has revolved around the same question Adam Miller is circling around: “How do we abide losing what we love, when we can’t stop the loss?”)

But I am 100% on-board with a recognition that emotion plays an important role in our lives, and in our path towards God. We cannot be indifferent. We cannot feel less than we should if we want to progress the Kingdom, and within it.

Feeling What One Ought to Feel

Is emotion important to discipleship? I’ve increasingly come across great authors who argue that yes, emotion is vital–to both a proper human life and to discipleship. To begin with, Alan Jacobs (discussing the thought of John Stuart Mill) says this about the role emotions play in our lives:

When your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really like. To have your feelings moved by the beauty of a landscape is to respond to that landscape in the way that it deserves; to have your feelings moved in a very different direction by the sight of people living in abject poverty is to respond to that situation in the way that it deserves. The latter example is especially relevant to someone like Mill who wishes to be a social reformer: if your analysis leads you to the conclusion that is it unjust that people suffer in poverty in a wealthy country, but your feelings do not match your analysis, then something has gone awry with you. And it may very well happen that if the proper feelings are not present and imaginatively active, then you will not even bother to do the analysis that would reveal unmistakable injustice. If the feelings are not cultivated the analytical faculties might not function at all…

Alan Jacobs, How to Think, p. 44

To put it concisely, I should respond to situations in proportion to what they deserve. If there is injustice, I need to be moved to sadness, grief, or anger. If there is beauty, I should be moved to awe, wonder, and praise. If there is love, I should be moved to gratitude and love in return. If there is loss and pain, I should be moved to mourn and weep.

So far as discipleship goes: I have never done a study of scripture looking for emotions in particular. But a few things come to mind: The sheer anger of Psalm 137, the despair of Psalm 88, the grateful majesty of Psalm 104. Paul, master of tone, angry in Galatians, sad in 2 Corinthians, joyful in Philippians. Alma’s joy. Jesus weeping for his friend and Jesus angry in the temple. The remarkable vision of Enoch, where the earth mourns and God weeps and Enoch, in turn, feels “his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41).

What is most remarkable to me is the idea that God is so capable of this kind of emotion that we ourselves need: an emotion proportionate in response to human suffering or willful rebellion. The Jewish author Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that:

In the prophets, God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world… He is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate manner, being moved, affected, grieved or gladdened by what people do. This notion, basically defines the [biblical] consciousness of God.. This is because the prophets had no theory or ‘idea’ of God. What they had was an understanding, not the result of theoretical inquiry about God. Rather, to them God was overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present…..

Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, “The Theology of Pathos,” pp. 285-86.

Regarding anger specifically, Heschel writes that God is capable of anger, though never a capricious anger. No—going back to the point Alan Jacobs made at the beginning, God’s anger is always a proportionate anger.

Few [divine] passions have been denounced so vehemently by teachers of morality as the passion of anger. It is pictured as sinister, malignant passion, an evil force, which must under all circumstances be suppressed. The truth, however, is that these features…are not the essence of anger… Like fire, it may be a blessing as well as fatal—reprehensible when associated with malice, but morally necessary as resistance to malice…

The prophets never [portray] God’s anger as something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of humans… and motivated by concern for right and wrong

Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, “The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath,” pp. 360, 365

I came across these quotes by Heschel listening to the Bible Project podcast’s episode on “God’s Hot Nose” (in Hebrew, the word for anger is tied to “heat” and “nose”). One of the hosts in that episode walks through a thought experiment: would we prefer a God who never got angry? They linked this to another question: would we prefer a spouse who never, under any circumstances, got angry? And the answer became apparent very quickly: no. If a child hits their mother, or runs into the street; if a spouse cheats and is found out; if someone threatens a family: all of these moments call for a natural response, an emotional response. And to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Going back to the initial quote, Alan Jacobs links this idea of emotion-as-proportional-response back to John Stuart Mill and what it means to have character:

It is, then, for John Stuart Mill, looking back from the end of his life on his youthful sufferings, impossible to draw a line that separates analysis on the one side from feeling on the other and to conclude that only the first side is relevant to thinking. The whole person must be engaged, all the faculties present and accounted for, in order for real thinking to take place. Indeed, this for Mill is what it means to have character: to be fully alive in all your parts and therefore ready to perceive the world as it is—and to act responsibly toward it.

Alan Jacobs, how to think, p. 44

When I think of examples of this, I think of several people. I think of Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest who said that “to the extent that we are not drawn into lament, we cannot be drawn into the future.” I think of Michael Austin, an LDS scholar whose Advent reflection on peace continues to come to mind when I face injustice in the world.

I think of my friend, Risa. She has a wonderful blog titled Again, But With Feeling with a subtitle “A Personal Theology.” Her blog is an attempt to form a personal theology, grounded both in careful thought (hence “theology”) but also in cultivated feeling (hence the title). And she does a marvelous job. She is a personal example to me of someone trying to engage the “whole person.”

I think of my wife, Ashley. She’s great at noticing things that I do not, whether it be a flower in bloom or a person in need. And she feels deeply. When we moved to the city, away from where most of our loves ones were, she wept at the loss. When she’s been hurt by coworkers, she’s felt anger. When she’s seen her sisters or family members need love, she’s wept with them and comforted them.

I take from all this—the principles and examples, of both God and people in my life—something imperative: I need to feel. Emotion is not just, as Adam Miller once wrote, “existential window dressing.” And so we need to avoid what Terryl Givens has called a “hypertrophy of the intellect,” wherein my “apprehension and engagement of the gospel is more a kind of intellectual apprehension and commitment of certain ideas and doctrines, rather than a feeling experience of the divine fire.” We need to be “fully alive in all [our] parts.”

Feeling is vital to discipleship. How to cultivate feeling, and ensure that what makes me most angry or sad is also what makes God most angry or sad: that’s another post.

Learn to Look

Related to yesterday’s post and D&C 88:78-80:

So acquire the habit of being present at this activity of the material and moral universe. Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery of a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.

Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, 74

God Wants Me to Learn because He Wants Me to See

When I arrived at Brigham Young University over a decade ago—bright eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to change the world—there was a big push about “disciple-scholars.” President Samuelson had written a wonderful article on Elder Maxwell that same year, titled “On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar,” that goes some way to explain the push. President Samuelson felt inspired to make sure we all knew about this idea of disciple-scholarship, and I was determined to follow along.

One of my favorite verses about the subject, even before my time at BYU, is from Joseph’s “Olive Leaf” revelation (D&C 88), given during the Saints’ time in Kirtland. While in the translating room, Joseph asked nine other elders to pray that the Lord would “reveal His will to us concerning the upbuilding of Zion and for the benefit of the Saints and for the duty . . . of the elders.” In turn, these verses were given:

Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms— that ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.

D&C 88:78-80

What a charge. I’ve always wondered why God wants his Saints to be so knowledgeable about so many things. Why astronomy? Why geology? Why history and politics? Why the breadth, the expansive curriculum? I think there’s a lot of reasons, but one occurred to me years later, as I was reading Alan Jacobs’ excellent book How to Think. There he introduces the idea of terministic screens.

Decades ago the idiosyncratic literary critic Kenneth Burke wrote a brilliant essay called “Terministic Screens,” in which he made this point. Whenever we use a particular vocabulary—political, say, or aesthetic, or moral, or religious, or sociological—to describe a person, or a thing, or an event, we call attention to certain aspects of what we’re describing. But we also, as long as we look through the screen of that language, inadvertently hide from ourselves, become blind to, other aspects. Burke doesn’t believe we have a choice about whether or not to employ terministic screens: “We can’t say anything without the use of terms.” But for that very reason we need to work hard to understand how our terms work, especially how they “direct the attention”: What does this language ask me to see? What does it prevent me from seeing? And—perhaps most important of all: Who benefits from my attention being directed this way rather than that?

Alan Jacobs, How to think, pp. 90-91

Burke is pointing out that concepts, like any technology, mediate our perception. It shapes what we see. If a geologist, a realtor, and an ecologist look at the same mountain, they’ll notice different things. A geologist might see the strata, fault lines, and be able to deduce something about the orogeny (the mountain building event) that created that mountain as well as its future fate, how erosion and uplift will continue to work on it. A realtor might look to see how the mountainside can be bought, sold, and commercialized, and what sort of liability they’ll be under. An ecologist will be looking to see what kind of climate this mountain exists in, what niches it offers to residents, and what kind of wildlife inhabit it.

All of these people–geologist, realtor, and ecologist–have a vocabulary and worldview, shaped by the terms and words they know to use. All of these have power to see what the others cannot; but all of these are also blind to what the others can see. (And in a world given over to the love of money, the realtor in particular may hold an earthly advantage deleterious to the health of mountainside and ecology.)

Bernard Williams once wrote, “We suffer from a poverty of concepts”—something the Lord Jesus Christ clearly knows too, hence D&C 88. And this is apparently the same as saying “We suffer from a poverty of seeing.” The more we remedy this poverty—the wider our vocabulary, the more expansive set of terms we have on-hand and available to use—the more prepared we’ll be to notice not only what is around us, but also see who benefits from the vocabulary we’ve inherited. I think God wants this discernment for us. Not only to appreciate the wider world, rich and inspiring awe, but to know when we’re being conned and exploited. He wants us to be wise as serpents, harmless as doves: shrewd, cunning, strategic, for our sake, for the world’s sake, and for the Kingdom’s sake.

I don’t think this means we all need to be erudite know-it-alls. No one can know everything. But it’s a blessing to expand one’s mind (Thy mind, O man!). I spend a lot of time learning about eclectic things: urban planning, geology, climate change, systems thinking, technology, ethics and philosophy, design, theology. Part of this stems from being a designer professionally, and designers have historically been “eclectic generalists”:

Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science, and religion in order to understand the basic workings of nature, and then applied what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increased specialization among designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of knowledge. This trend continues today. As designers become more specialized, awareness of advances and discoveries in other areas of specialization diminishes. This is inevitable and unfortunate, since much can be learned from progress in other design principles.

William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, Universal Principles of Design

Being a generalist, someone with a variety of vocabularies and terministic “screens” on hand, has its advantages. It gives us new eyes to see the world truthfully—as it is, as it was, and as it will be (D&C 93:24). New terms and words, from a variety of disciplines, give us the power to be designers of our own lives, and to participate more powerfully in the design of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven. It gives us the power to resist the worst parts of the modern world, like surveillance capitalism and the worst effects of social media, since just understanding something can be a form of resistance. It grant us wisdom, Biblically understood as a kind of “skilled discernment.” And frankly, it’s exciting and invigorating to develop wisdom and see the world from all these new angles. It can, in short, prepare us for whatever God’s calling us to do (D&C 88:80).

Worship as Real-making

Is religion easy or hard? In How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, sociologist T.M. Luhrmann answers “hard” with a really compelling reason: real religion involves believing in beings that I can neither see nor sense in the typical way, and it isn’t easy to maintain that sense that there are invisible spirits or gods or angels that care about me or all people. (In our society, it can be hard enough to believe that visible people care.)

How does religion, which depends on this belief, make the hard work easier?

… prayer and ritual and worship help people to shift from knowing in the abstract that the invisible other is real to feeling that gods and spirits are present in the moment, aware and willing to respond. I will call this “real-making,” and I think that the satisfactions of its process explain—in part—why faiths endure.

And what is real-making? Luhrmann explains:

By “real-making,” I mean that the task for a person of faith is to believe not just that gods and spirits are there in some abstract way, like dark energy, but that these gods and spirits matter in the here and now. I mean not just that you know that they are real, the way you know that the floor is real (or would, if you paused to think about it), but that they feel real the way your mother’s love feels real. I mean that people of faith come to feel inwardly and intimately that gods or spirits are involved with them. For humans to sustain their involvement with entities who are invisible and matter in a good way to their lives, I suggest that a god must be made real again and again against the evident features of an obdurate world. Humans must somehow be brought to a point from which the altar becomes more than gilded wood, so that the icon’s eyes look back at them, ablaze… I call these acts of real-making “kindling,” because they are small events, like the twigs and tinder from which a great fire can be lit, that shape where and how the fire burns.

This seems right. When I think of all the answers to “Why is prayer important” or “Why should I read my scriptures” or “Why should I go to the temple a lot,” people often say, “This is how God speaks to you.” But I think the fascinating flip-side to that is, it can help me feel like there’s a God to speak to me. Especially in this world, I think it’s helpful to remember that feeling this invisible presence in concrete ways is hard. But prayer, scripture, the temple—not to mention song, other priesthood ordinances, gathering in church, and sacred time like the Sabbath—these are the small acts, the hard work, the kindling, that helps make the invisible divine presences real to me. They’re the tools that God has given me, in a world where he is bound by certain “rules of engagement” that require him to remain regularly invisible to the natural senses.

And knowing that He is in fact my Heavenly Father, I can’t help but think that he cherishes these real-making moments. He wants to feel real to us; but we must receive these gifts of worship from him, so He can. And when we do, I imagine it makes him incredibly happy.

I’m not great at this. My habits of prayer have been lacking lately, and aren’t as consistent as they should be. But the idea of “real-making” has given me strength when I’m tempted to skip an opportunity for prayer.

Links: Reimagining discipleship as craftsmanship, offering our best to God’s glory

I’m going to try a new post format, “Links,” where I share snippets of my favorite reading from the last while, along with a short note on what I liked (or didn’t). We’ll see how this develops!

Keepapitchinin, “Our Best for the Glory of God”
“I think that’s what hurts me, personally, about the announced destruction of elements of the Salt Lake and Manti Temple service and fabric. More than the loss of great beauty and a sense of where we have been as a people, more than the separation of form and function, it is the loss of the best gifts that our ancestors had to offer to the glory of God. It’s as if the workmanship of our hands is no longer good enough, and that the sterility of the assembly line, the uniformity of the Smith’s sheet cake, the passivity of consumerism, has overtaken and conquered what should be the crowning experience of a Latter-day Saint’s religious life.”

Ardis is a fantastic writer and historian, and reading her mourn the loss of the live endowment (as well as the hand-made murals and craftsmanship of the pioneers) was moving. It also moves me to think about the relationship between craftsmanship–production and creation–and faith, in a world filled with consumerism.

Rob Gardner, Lamb of God Concert Film
“this unique concert film brings composer Rob Gardner’s work to the big screen for the first time. join us for breathtaking performances from new soloists, a new orchestration, and a close-up view of this work that has been compared to Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem.”

My wife and I had the chance to see a production years ago, and it’s been a favorite since. The concert film was special and intimate: like Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, the cameras get close to the singers, creating a wonderful sense of intimacy. I highly recommend. Check out this story for the background.

Alan Jacobs, “The Gospel of Life”
“… the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.”

This essay talks uses the above point to describe a family in Christian history that is incredible. As he says, “one family; three generations; eight saints.” I’ve also wrestled with the idea in this main quote, which I think is right for Christians AND Latter-day Saints.

Ben Spackman, “Science as a Legitimate Contributor to our Knowledge of Creation and Earth History”
“We should all be interested in academic research. We must go out on the research front and continue to explore the vast unknown. We should be in the forefront of learning in all fields, for revelation does not come only through the prophet of God nor only directly from heaven in visions or dreams. Revelation may come in the laboratory, out of the test tube, out of the thinking mind and the inquiring soul, out of search and research and prayer and inspiration.” (Hugh B. Brown)

A great article by Ben on the science-and-faith debate. I love this expansive view of revelation: revelation—the uncovering of truth—can come from a variety of places. It’s one of my favorite aspects of our theology.

What does the Book of Alma mean?

I’ve been reflecting on the structure of the Book of Alma1 , as well as what the Book of Alma means. What is its message? What did Mormon intend us to learn from it? What did Mormon intend us to learn from its structure and narrative?

The Structure of Alma

First, structure. The Book of Alma might be described in 4 narrative cycles, framed with a prologue and epilogue. Here’s my working outline:

  • Prologue (Alma 1-3): The stage is set. We meet Nehor and Amlici–whose legacies will haunt the remainder of Alma’s record. The Amlicite Civil War is recounted.
  • Movement 1 (Alma 4-16): The Nephite Reformation: the story of Nephi’s efforts to reform the Church of God, ending with the terror at Ammonihah and their subsequent destruction at the hand of the Lamanites.
  • Movement 2 (Alma 17-26): The Lamanite Mission, led by Ammon and his brethren, and the eventual (though short-lived) war between Ammon’s converts and the other Lamanites.
  • Movement 3 (Alma 30-44): The Zoramite Mission and ensuing Zoramite war, with Alma’s counsel to his three sons sandwiched in between the two events.
  • Movement 4 (Alma 45-62): Helaman’s (unsuccessful) reform, the ensuing Amalackiahite wars, and the military leader’s constant reform efforts
  • Epilogue (Alma 63): The effects of the war on the Nephite people, including the passing of a generation.

Importantly, each of these cycles is a kind of repetition, a “variation on a theme,” that includes these similarities:

  1. Reform. Each section begins with an attempt to reform the people
  2. Preaching. Each reform effort involves preaching and sermons centered on Christ
  3. War. Each section ends with a war precipitated by the reform attempt, usually involving a secession or separation.
  4. Covenant Victory. Each war involves a victory by God’s covenant-keeping people

A couple of notes and nuancing.

First, the prologue sets up some major players: introducing the Amlicites (who will return later during the Zoramite war) and Nehor, who directly influenced the people of Ammoniah (and may have set precedent for the Zoramites’ conduct).

Second, the preaching and sermons that make up the reform effort are a dominant note in every cycle except for the final one, which is instead dominated by the war (flipping the emphasis of most sections)–possibly a long war because of Helaman’s initially unsuccessful reform, and Moroni’s repeated attempts to bring his people to obedience.

Third, most of the cycles–including the prologue and epilogue–involves separation and fragmentation: the Amlicites, Ammonihahites, Zoramites, and followers of Amalickiah separate themselves politically or spiritually from the Nephites, and (more importantly) from covenant faithfulness, while the Anti-Nephi-Lehites separate themselves from the Lamanites and join with the Nephites.

Fourth, all of the wars are won by God’s people, the one difference being the destruction of Ammonihah, which is accomplished by the Lamanites (fulfilling God’s promise in 1 Nephi 2:16, that the Lamanites will be a “scourge” unto Nephi’s children, and showcasing that God is the one fighting the battles).

In addition, there are original chapter breaks at each of the division markers.

If this outline is correct–at least in the broad strokes–what does this suggest? What meaning are we supposed to take from the Book of Alma?

The Meaning of the Book of Alma

As a preliminary note, I think two obvious themes emerge. The first is the more obvious one: the covenant, and specifically, the covenant God had made with Lehi (2 Nephi 1:20) that ties keeping God’s commandments to prospering in the land, with God’s protection denied those who disobey. This theme is obvious in the church’s efforts to humble and discipline the Church of God, and in the subsequent wars and consistent victories by the righteous. Commenting on Alma 50:17-23, Brant Gardner specifically links Mormon’s emphasis on war with demonstrating the covenant:2

Mormon is not narrating Nephite history in these verses, he is using it to demonstrate the fulfillment of Lehi’s promise for the land. He specifically invokes Lehi and then emphasizes the contrast between the prosperity of the Nephites and the conditions that “brought upon them their wars and their destructions.” While many readers of Captain Moroni’s exploits in Alma see in them a glorification of that military chief captain, Mormon saw him restoring proper Nephite obedience before the Lord, having removed the contrary elements. Thus, “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni.” Mormon was correct that many readers might miss this message, so he made it explicit.

Mormon’s military descriptions have a specific purpose in his envisioned project; they carry a larger message about the literal fulfilment of Lehi’s promise… here was a promise given to Lehi that had two prongs. Nephi recorded the Lord’s promise to his father: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). At times, Mormon emphasizes the positive aspect of the promise. In this case, he emphasizes the negative side. In addition to pointing out that they invoked the curse through their rebellion, he emphasized that it was due to their own actions.

This seems right. The wars are a feature not because the Book of Mormon is obsessed with violence for its own sake, but because it demonstrates the covenant. (Additionally, our human author–Mormon–has fought a war himself. As Ben Spackman notes, the focus on these wars might be an “alternate history” for Mormon: “Imagine [Mormon] sitting there, surround by plates and destruction, thinking “this could have all been different, if we’d had a Moroni.”)

The second theme, I think, is found in the sermons. While the sermons vary, all of these are linked to the Nephite anticipation of a suffering Messiah, who would take upon Him the sins of all people, and covenant faithfulness to this Messiah. Alma explains this to the people of Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah; Amulek preaches to his native city of Ammonihah and later to the Zoramites; Ammon and Aaron both preach Christ and repentance to the Lamanite dynasty; and Alma’s counsel to his sons, especially to Corianton, is centered on this Messiah figure.

Christ and Covenant. Covenant and Christ. These are the two main themes of the Book of Mormon. Mormon’s son, Moroni, says as much in the title page:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever
And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.

With this lens in place, the Book of Alma begins to make some sense. Every movement involves reform and war. Each reform effort is initiated to bring the people–the Nephites, the Lamanites, the apostate Zoramites–back to their Lord, and observing the covenant that promises them the Lord’s protection. Those who do “prosper in the land,” and those who don’t are “cut off from my presence.” Blessedly, each movement includes some individual instruction as well, helping outline and illuminate the figure of the Lehite Messiah, Jesus the Christ–the very Lord who prospers them–so that the people can better trust God and His mercy.

  1. Inspired in part by watching the Bible Project videos, and my reading so far in the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions. Both resources are incredible. ↩︎
  2. I’ve long had this issue with the Book of Mormon: the book’s emphasis on war. This emphasis, that runs throughout the Book of Alma and culminates in “the war chapters,” has long bothered me: why would a God of mercy place so much about war in a book ostensibly about Christ? The idea in this quote has begun to help me answer that question, and I think it can sort-of generalize to the Hebrew Bible’s similar emphasis on violence (especially in Joshua). ↩︎

Interpreting Scripture, Unity, and Charity

I spent part of the morning reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, on Ben Spackman’s recommendation (here).

It’s a really, really good book about an issue near and dear to my heart: what is Genesis 1-11? This issue originally became near and dear to me because I love science, and I wanted desperately to know how I could accept the best parts of science, scholarship, and scripture. How do we bring together the best findings of “Biblical criticism” (which often consists of very good, Christian scholars trying to read scripture closely) and the amazing scientific findings of the last several hundred years, and make sense of them in light of the best parts of the Restoration? The Book of Moses and the JST, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple–God’s word to us in these Latter-days? For me, this has always felt essential: synthesizing all these approaches to truth–revelation, reason, authority, observation, and science–without letting one overwhelm the other.

As I’ve been trying to “get” Genesis 1-11 for myself, and synthesize these approaches, I’ve also been concerned with the pastoral side of things: how do I discuss this kind of thing with fellow church members? Is it even important? (I believe it is.) And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t diminish faith, or cause contention, or fracture our church? How do we discuss issues like this in a way that fosters unity? And how can we, if unity simply means–we all believe the same thing?

In the spirit of these questions, a particular section of this volume of “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?” really stuck out to me. In the conclusion, and after reviewing the positions of each of the volume contributors, Charles Halton (the editor) tries to describe the relationship between the debate about Genesis 1-11 and the church. He writes:

[In talking about these different viewpoints]… this is not to say that questions of genre and historicity are unimportant for the study of the book of Genesis. These are topics that concern many within the contemporary church and, accordingly, we should think deeply about them. In doing so, it is vitally important that we should take care to not let these issues become impediments to Christian unity. Christians have a very long and deeply troubling history of division, rancor, exclusion, and fratricide over a myriad of issues, including the ways in which Gen 1 – 11 is understood. The root of these conflicts–whether they split churches, get seminary professors fired, or even lead to bloodshed–is a lack of charity.

…Each of the contributors to this volume is a respected and senior scholar of biblical studies. Each of the contributors wrote their essays with deep insight and expertise that came from a lifetime of study. And all of the contributors share a concern that their work benefit the theological understanding and practice of the church. Nonetheless, each contributor offered different conclusions regarding the genre of Gen 1 – 11. This should give all of us who read their essays a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexities involved in this topic. If they cannot come to a consensus, this must be a thorny question indeed. Even more importantly, this fact should join Christian readers together even more deeply and make us all the more reticent to fracture the body of Christ when we have disagreements regarding issues such as this.

Charles Halton, “Conclusion”; emphasis my own

He goes on, and I’ll quote this in full (because it’s do dang good):

Let me make what might strike you as a startling claim. Actually, I’m not the one making it — I am repeating what St. Augustine has said: avoiding errors is not the primary task of interpretation. In other words, when we are reading Scripture, our primary goal should not be to prevent ourselves from making a hermeneutical mistake. To put it differently, the thing we want most from our reading of the Bible should not be to attain its correct interpretation. Augustine was not saying that correctly understanding Scripture is unimportant. Arriving at proper interpretations was important for him but more paramount within the act of Christian reading is for the reader to interact with Scripture in a way that builds up charity. Augustine said: “[I]f he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.” For Augustine, charity is what God most wants to foster, not correctness of belief. In his understanding, charity was such an essential component of Christian devotion that he said this within a sermon on 1 John: “But there is nothing to distinguish the sons of God from the sons of the devil, save charity. They that have charity, are born of God: they that have not charity are not. There is the great token, the great dividing mark.”

One might rejoin Augustine with Paul’s desire that the church be united in “one mind” (Romans 15:6) and, accordingly, argue that uniformity of belief and correct interpretation are marks of the true church and are the goals for which we should aim. However, Ephraim Radner points out that in Romans 15 Paul links this one mindedness with “contributing to the needs of the saints,” being “hospitable,” “blessing one’s persecutors,” “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,” and not being “haughty” or “conceited.” In other words, Paul does not mean that Christians have one mind when they are united together in uniform doctrinal understanding and biblical interpretation. On the contrary, “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others.” Christians are united together in a way of life that points toward Christ. Of course, this implies that we share in common a few bedrock ideas (such as, who is Jesus?), but Paul sees this one-mindedness as an interconnected way of life and not as unitary belief structure. This way of life is centered around deference to others, or, as Augustine may have put it, charity.

Christians [and Latter-day Saints] are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1 – 11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another even as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith. In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1 – 11 ultimately points toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. This shared way of living with one another not only unites us together when we disagree over the genre of Gen 1 – 11 but it also unites us together with Christians of all times and places — Christians who had tremendously different outlooks on their faith than we do today. This way of life unites us with the likes of Augustine and Charles Wesley and Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Calcutta. But this way of life also unites us with Origen who, along with being one of the church’s greatest apologists and influencer of early trinitarian formulations, also denied the resurrection of the body and was denounced as a heretic by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. This way of life unites us to Martin Luther in spite of his, at times, virulently anti-semitic rants. And it unites us to the Anglican Church that profited from directly owning and managing slaves on the Codrington plantation where punishments for slaves in the West Indies included being pinned to the ground and slowly burned from heel to head for rebellious behavior and for lesser crimes, castration and feet chopped in half. Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origin, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1 – 11.

Let us discuss matters such as the genre of Gen 1 – 11 and debate them vigorously if we desire. But if Christians are united together with the people and organizations that committed moral atrocities and who believed twisted and aberrant theologies, then how we regard Gen 1 – 11 should not come between us. May our God forgive us if this topic and even this book spur division in place of unity and strife instead of love.


As the Lord’s people, we’re commanded to be united. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I’ve written about it before, but what does this mean? I’m inclined to say, with Charles, that it does involve some basic, shared beliefs. While we’re not a creed-loving people, but it does involve some basic ideas, perhaps best encapsulated in the temple recommend questions: do I believe in God, our Heavenly Father? In the resurrected Christ? In the reality of their appearance to Joseph Smith? But beyond this, we can believe many things.

I think sometimes those things can tend to distract us from what “unites us”: we get caught up in whether certain ideas are “conservative” or “progressive.” And we worry, with some reason, whether certain ideas will undermine the faith of the Church. But the Church is, and must be, a big tent: a collection of various people from various countries speaking various languages, all with various histories, but united by our covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” This unity does not emphasize orthodoxy, but “‘contributing to the needs of the saints,’ being ‘hospitable,’ ‘blessing one’s persecutors,’ ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,’ and not being ‘haughty’ or ‘conceited.'”

Further, in the Book of Moses, it says that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” The result was not that everyone believed the exact same things: no, it was instead “that there was no poor among them.” This lines up with the above quote’s summary of Paul’s teaching on unity: “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others”–or in other words, charity.

In light of Mormon’s emphasis on charity (which paraphrases Paul’s language), and the scriptures from the books of Moses and Mosiah, this certainly seems to align with our faith. Certainly, as a church, we can tend towards orthodoxy: and we have apostles to keep doctrine pure, and doctrine is the purview of prophets and apostles, and it is important. But as long as we’re aligned in the key things, then this unity-as-charity seems to make the most sense. We are not united in believing the exact same propositional statements about the nature of God (though a certain orthodoxy is necessary); and a quest like that is probably hopeless. No, we’re instead believers united in their allegiance to a loving Heavenly Father, and to His call to bless the nations. This unity leaves room to focus on what is most important, and leaves an allowable space for us to make the best sense of scripture, history, and science as we see fit.

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine. It looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day-Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

Joseph Smith (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton)
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