How did Jesus read the Old Testament?

One of the most insightful things I read last year was Joseph Spencer’s book on Isaiah, and this part especially stood out to me:

What else needs to be said? Shall we tackle the most difficult bit of advice? Let’s do. Here it is, put far too strongly at first: Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah. We’ve been trained by a long Christian tradition to think that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently spoke in anticipation of Christ. And the result has been a Christological approach to understanding Isaiah. All too often, we read Isaiah, talking to ourselves in something like this way: “This doesn’t make sense. Nor does this. Oh, that sounds like Jesus! Okay, this doesn’t make sense again. Nor that. Oh, Jesus again! Now this doesn’t make sense. . . .” You see, the passages from Isaiah we’re most comfortable with are the ones we associate directly with Christ: “a virgin shall conceive,” “unto us a child is born,” “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all,” and so on. The rest of Isaiah we find too obscure to make much sense of. I think that’s in part because we’re wondering what the rest has to say about Christ. We read about the virgin conceiving, and we feel like we’re on solid ground. But the passage then goes on to talk about eating butter and honey, about foreign kings, about flies and bees, about hired razors, and so on, and we feel like everything stopped making sense. That whole text actually becomes relatively simple if you wait a bit before trying to find Christ in it, figuring out what Isaiah himself is saying first. You see, there’s a difficult political situation in Isaiah’s day, and Judah’s king is acting out of fear as it unfolds; Isaiah tells him not to fear because a soon-to-be-born baby won’t know how to speak before the enemy has been deposed; but then the real tough times will come beyond that, and largely because the king has acted faithlessly—and so on. This is a relatively clear story (we’ll be telling it in detail in a later lecture), but it’s clear only if we don’t try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ. It’ll do that in good time.

Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”

My wife and I began our reading of the Old Testament today. One of her goals, a noble one, is to learn something about how Jesus read the Old Testament. The passage I always go to is the scene from the Road to Emmaus: how the risen Christ listens to the two disciples expressing confusion, and he calls them fools for not understanding the scriptures (what we today call “the Old Testament,” the only scriptures they had at the time). “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

I think that the advice above is pertinent. Not everything in ancient scripture is about Christ, or at least, not at first. And it’d be good for me to slow down, and not “try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ.” Such a reading is Christocentric, which sounds good. But I can attest, it’s lead to a lot of confusion on my part. “How is any of this”—the weird stories in Judges, the temple blueprints in Exodus, the war chapters of Joshua, the angry Psalms, the downer Ecclesiastes, the parts of Job and Ezekiel we don’t read—”about Jesus?!”

And the frank answer, it’s not, at least not at first. But given that we know how the story ends with Jesus, we can look back, and read it in that light. I like this from Pete Enns:

As an analogy, it is helpful to think of the process of reading a good novel the first time and the second time. The two readings are not the same experience. Who of us has not said during that second reading, “I didn’t see that the last time,” or “So that’s how the pieces fit together.” That the Old Testament is not a novel should not diminish the value of the analogy: the first reading of the Old Testament leaves you with hints, suggestions, trajectories, and so on, of how things will play out in the end, but it is not until you get to the end that you begin to see how the pieces fit together. And in that second reading, you also begin to see how parts of the story that seemed wholly unrelated at first now take on a much richer, deeper significance…

The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is “christotelic.” I prefer this over “christological” or “christocentric” since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to “see Christ” in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passage. Telos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion.” To read the Old Testament “christotelically” is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading.

This occurred to me as my wife and I were talking about the Bible Project’s overview of the Old Testament. If we step back and understand the large story, we can see how even the Old Testament is built around hints and expectations of a Messiah, imperfect though that understanding was. And though not all of the Old Testament is about Christ, and I don’t need to force it all to fit—it all leads to Christ, and that’s amazing!

I think that’s what Christ was saying to the disciples. They were confused, trying desperately to understand how the story could have ended this way. And Christ is over there telling them: “My life, my death, my life again—it was a surprise! But not a total surprise. And now that you know how the story ends, go back and re-read it. Look it over again. And you’ll begin to see how parts that seemed insignificant take on a much, much greater significance now.”

“The Blood and Sins of This Generation” and Cultural Critique

In James Goldberg’s evocative new collection of poems, there is one early set of lines that really arrested me, from a poem called “Upon the Sand.” Here’s an excerpt:

We’d imagined God’s wrath
would jolt us—pyrotechnic,
show-stopping apocalypse
commanding our attention.
So we missed the subtle
cease-striving, the slow
rotting away of root and
branch. We slept through
days of should-have-been
decision, opting out
of a greater vision
and into the rhythm, pounding
like the waves, of the sins
of each generation.

The Book of Lamentations,
by James Goldberg (p. 9)

Goldberg is lyrical in his description of “God’s wrath”, and makes an arresting, poetical point: will God’s wrath come like firework? Or will it be like the slow boil of our souls? A passive immersion in society’s sins, where we sleepwalk “into the rhythm, pounding / like the waves, of the sins / of each generation”?

It’s an evocative image. And it stand out all the more because of the allusion Goldberg makes to a repeated call in the Doctrine and Covenants: being clean from the blood and sins of this generation. Joseph taught the need to preach the gospel to “a crooked and perverse generation” (D&C 33:2; 34:6). The Olive Leaf revelation, given in Kirtland two years later, enjoined the early Latter-day Saints to be “clean from the blood of this wicked generation” (D&C 88:75), with blood here implying either sin or impurity, a symbolism that has its origins early in the Hebrew Bible. The formulation “blood and sins” is stated by Elder Holland in his magnificent 2012 talk “The First Great Commandment”, and is spoken, too, in the temple. It seems, in other words, that there are sins characteristic of one’s generation and time.

In notes on the poem, Goldberg makes an additional step about these sins: they’re not obvious. Indeed:

The idea of sins of a generation echoes a repeated call in the Doctrine & Covenants for people to separate and cleanse themselves from the sins of the generation. I’ve long felt like there are sins so pervasive and acceptable in a given era they’re almost impossible for people to see.

The Book of Lamentations,
by James Goldberg (p. 109)

This phrase has been on my mind for awhile. Not least because it begs the question: what are these sins and impurities peculiar to my time? How covered and stained in this blood am I?

And if these include sins and wounds “so pervasive and acceptable in a given era they’re almost impossible for people to see”—well, what are these things? What are these sins, moral deformations, disordered, wounds, idols? And how do we gain sight to see them? And how do we gain strength to resist?

These are weighty, but important, questions. The worst sins are those we cannot see, the proverbial “Fish in Water” problems. But once we can see the water we swim in, and culture we’ve absorbed, and no doubt the sins of that culture we’ve unwittingly absorbed—only then can we resist. As Marshall McLuhan said once in an interview:

… the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can.  I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.  Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it.  The exact opposite is true in my case.  Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.

Marshall McLuhan, cited in “Understanding as a mode of Resistance”

The sins of this generation are the juggernaut. And I fear a lot of us, myself very much included, let this juggernaut roll on over.

All of this is to say is that “becoming clean from the blood and sins of this generation” amounts to a call for cultural critique. It amounts to a declaration that we will try “not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2, ESV)—or as another translation has it, not to “copy the behavior and customs of this world”.

At least, not uncritically. The world isn’t all bad. But it has its problems. And our call is to witness “a better world” (Ether 12:4), and one way we can do that is to see, understand, and resist those aspects of culture that miss the mark.

All of this might be very abstract. Cultural critique is limp without grasping for precision, without trying to identify the specific sins of our time, the “ones almost impossible for people to see.” A project for future posts.

Consecration and Community, or Living “As for Years”

Last month, I was asked to give a talk in my new ward in New York City. I was given freedom to choose the topic, and so I went with this question: how does one live in a place, when one is uncertain how long they will stay? Can I live superficially, or do I have an obligation to participate deeply? And if the latter is required, just how can I participate? Given how much we’ve moved for the past few years, and our fresh relocation to New York, this question was poignant: and I had found a powerful answer in the Doctrine & Covenants that week. Here is the talk, only lightly modified; I hope it speaks to you.

In December 1830, sixty-seven Latter-day saints in Colesville, New York were commanded to leave their farms and their friends, and gather in Ohio. Gather they did, believing that they were gathering to Zion. Under the leadership of Newel Knight, they left in wagon train. They traveled north to Cayuga Lake, and then west to the canals by Lake Erie. They braved persecution, injuries, and sickness. Only one turned back. For two weeks, they were detained by river ice in Buffalo, New York; but that didn’t stop them. After a “rather disagreeable voyage,” they arrived in Ohio.

But for the Saints already in Ohio, this posed a problem. Edward Partridge, Bishop at the time, had the responsibility to organize and find homes for these immigrants saints; but how? A potential solution arrived, in the form of a recent convert who pledged some of his farm—750 acres—in Thompson, Ohio, just twenty miles outside of Kirtland. The Saints began to settle; in the words of their leader, they “commenced work in all good faith thinking to obtain a living by the sweat of the brow.” But they were unsure how long their stay would be. They had questions: is this where God intended them to stay? Should they spend what money they had to build houses, and take time to learn the land? Should they imagine themselves growing old in Ohio?

And aren’t these questions we’ve asked ourselves, too? Will this place be permanent or a passing-by? Is this new job a long-term thing, or a stepping stone? Can we see ourselves settling in, or will we move on in months or years? It is easy, in times of uncertainty or when we’re certain our stay will be short, to skim the surface of community; to refrain from making an investment without any guarantee of a return; to keep from giving of ourselves. Should I invest myself? Should I give my time or my money to this thing or place? Or do I live provisionally, without giving much to the land or community, ready to move at a moment’s notice?

These are weighty questions for a disciple. And they were weighty for the Colesville saints, who had left so much. In reply to their questions, God gave a revelation. We call it section 51. Nestled in a discussion about consecration, the Lord Jesus Christ said this:

I consecrate unto them this land for a little season, until I, the Lord, shall provide for them otherwise, and command them to go hence; And the hour and the day is not given unto them, wherefore let them act upon this land as for years, and this shall turn unto them for their good.

D&C 51:16-17

The first thing to notice is that Lord does not answer with a timeline. “The hour and the day” is not given them. Our first sacrament meeting in this ward, a speaker introduced herself, saying “We’re on year 10 of our 2-year stint in New York.” This is how it goes. We do not know how long our stay will be, or what will occasion our departure.

And in this uncertainty, God gives a principle: he commands them to “go hence” and “act upon this land as for years.” What does this mean? It means to act in the present, in the place where you are, with the future in mind, even when you are uncertain of how long you will stay; and even when you are certain your stay won’t be long. A former teacher of mine called this “a D&C carpe diem. It invites us to seize the day, but with an eye toward the future.”

This would prove to be a pattern for the Lord’s people. In the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young later told them:

Were I residing in a gathering place where I knew I could remain for two years, and had fifty thousand dollars to spare, I would expend it in the best improvements I could, and labor to improve until the last day of my remaining.

Brigham young, Journal of Discourses (8:278a)

And on another occasion, he said:

If you had the spirit of your calling, you would be anxious to build the best houses you could, and make the best gardens, fields, and vineyards, though you knew that you would not enjoy them one day after they were completed.

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (8:295b)

Brigham Young had learned this precedent in Kirtland, and Jackson County, and Nauvoo. He knew the pattern, and the potential pain, of giving ourselves to a place they would not stay long. But this was God’s command: to live as his disciples, in every place and land they would be in. If they would, God would provide for them, and “turn unto them for their good.”

This “as for years” principle has an even earlier precedent. Go back with me 2500 years: the monarchy of Judah had been destroyed. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been leveled. And many Jewish families had been deported to Babylon, among them Ezekiel and Daniel. As the Psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” What were they to do now, besides weeping? Should they revolt against Babylon? Make plots? Would God come to save them? And should they have their bags packed and ready? To them, Jeremiah gave the word:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29, ESV

For Jeremiah and for the Lord, “as for years” meant this: make homes, settle in. Plant and harvest. Start families. Make an Eden wherever you are. Further, they were to seek the shalom of the Babylon: its peace, safety, security, welfare, and prosperity; “for if it prospers”, they too would prosper. Even in Babylon, they were to be Ahraham’s seed, “blessing the nations.” As with the saints in Colesville, God gave the Israelites a promise: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.”

Can we be any more concrete about what this principle means? One way to think about this is by analogy of the roots that plants set in their soil. In asking the Colesville saints and the exiled Israelites to settle in, he was asking them to set down roots: to tether themselves to a place. Of this, Simone Weil said:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

Simone Weil, cited by LM Sacasas, “Refugeees that never left home”

Weil is saying, in effect, that it is participation that brings about roots: participation in community, in place, in our profession, and social surroundings. Wallace Stegner, the American novelist, gives us another useful distinction: that between boomers and stickers. Boomers, he says, are those who come to a place and only take. Stickers are those who settle, who love the life they have made and the place they made it in. This can help us clarify what it means to act as for years: to be a sticker, not a boomer; to lay down roots by participating in a place, in a community; by being a perennial wherever we are.

How then, can we live “as for years” where we are? How can be stickers, perennials, participants in place? Jeremiah already gave us some advice: seeking the shalom, the peace, of our place. For us, living in the Upper West Side of New York City, this can mean subscribing to the West Side Rag or West Side Spirit. It can mean getting involved politically, patronizing local businesses, saying hello to those who pass us, and even just the simple act of taking a walk. Consider this counsel from Jeffrey Bilbro:

There are any number of practices that help us… belong more faithfully to our places: attend and serve a church, volunteer at community organizations, even hang out in the local McDonald’s. But the simplest way to begin may be walking out your own front door. We live in a time when most trips through our neighborhoods begin by stepping into our cars, and even those trips can often be replaced by an order via Amazon or DoorDash. In this milieu, it can be a radical act to stroll through your neighborhood. More fundamentally, walking can be an antidote to the telescopic morality and disembodied communities forged through our screens. As Wendell Berry has it, “If you want to see where you are, you will have to get . . . out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.” Many people discovered the joys of walking through their neighborhoods in the wake of the Covid-19 shutdowns; perhaps that disruption will serve to revive the art of walking.

Jeffrey Bilrbo, “Reading the times: a literary and theological inquiry into the news”

The writer Liam Heneghan calls this heightened attention to a place “allokataplixis”: wonder at the place we live in, “the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveler offers to the places they visit.” Walking in a place can be one practice that can help us attend to a place, a prerequisite to living “as for years” wherever we are.

it is easy, whether our future is uncertain or “certainly short”, to refrain from giving ourselves fully to the place, and time, and role where we are. Whether we are talking about our stay in a home, in a city, in a job, in a calling, in a ward, or in a community, the temptation is always there—and it’s often the default—to rid ourselves of the responsibility to “improve the shining moments”; to be a tourist in our own city. This is especially important because we live in a uniquely transient time. It is no longer as common to be in one place for long. And even in our short stays, our attention is often seized by virtual realities: our phone, the internet, streaming services, and far too much news of “distant dramas”. If we are constantly being uprooted, even uprooting ourselves, we may never give ourselves fully to where we are. The writer Wendell Berry once wrote that “All of us, I think, are in some manner torn between caring and not caring, staying and going.”

Let me end where I began: with the Colesville saints. How long were they in Ohio? it was a mere six weeks before the owner of the land reneged on his promise, and sent them packing. They sought further revelation, and continued their trek as a group all the way to Missouri. Led ably by Newel Knight, they became the nucleus of the Church in Jackson County and gave their lives to build Zion there, and ever after. In every place and time and role they were given, the Lord wanted them to invest themselves. As one Latter-day Saint has written: “The Lord seems to want his people to be prepared, with equal grace, to build and leave temples, to accept both callings and releases, to live in the moment and for eternity. In this life the disciple must learn ‘to love that well which thou must leave ere long’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73).”

Let us act “as for years” wherever we are. Let us set down roots. Let us consecrate our time and talents, even when the stay is short. This is how we can show love to God, and participate in His great plan for us and the nations. And let us remember we cannot do so on our own. By God’s grace, we are strengthened. By His hand, we have power. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

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 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.

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