Tag Archives: Christianity

What part of the brain is agency located?

A massive foundation of Mormon thought and theology rests on the firm rejection of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will and who will not go to heaven before the end of someone’s mortal life. Rather, we espouse the idea that we are free agents unto ourselves, and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling on an individual level. God cannot force anyone to heaven, and He coaxes us through love and kindness.

This idea of agency permeates our theology more than many Mormons might realize. It is our solution to the Problem of Evil (and a better one than most Christian theologies can offer). It’s also the basis of our rejection of Original Sin, a very important Christian concept (and also the basis of our rejection of infant baptism). It’s really quite the game changer.

Which then makes cases like Phineas Gage hard to, well, process and understand.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who lived in the 1860s. During work, he was struck by, ironically, a large iron rod, and by struck I mean it went clean through his head, destroying his left frontal lobe. Whereas before he was a most conscientious worker, a kind person, and a devoted family man, he became erratic, irresponsible, and seemingly incapable of making any kind of good decision. His professional life suffered greatly, as well as his personal life. In essence, though Phineas Gage the biological organism survived, it’s arguable that Phineas Gage the personality had long been destroyed.

Phineas Gage is used often in psychology textbooks around the world as the  classic example of how personality, as well as the ability to make decisions, is often rooted in biological causes.[1] This also raises some very profound theological questions for Mormons, specifically, (1) did Phineas Gage lose his agency?, (2) how easy is it to hamper the use of agency?, and (3) how much is agency connected to biological constraints outside of our personal control?

To address the first question, I believe most Mormons would say that severe brain damage certainly leads to a loss of agency, especially when it’s accompanied with such drastic personality changes. This falls into line with the idea that mentally handicapped children, for example, cannot exercise full agency and so fall under the category of “without the law” and are automatically covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ (per Jacob and Moroni).

The second question falls into more chilling territory. Situations such as children dying at an early age (before the age of eight) and children born with mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are what some might call “extreme” cases. Outside of these unusual circumstances, the Mormon standpoint argues that the vast majority of people in the world still can and do exercise their agency. But can someone else take it away? Gage’s condition came about by an accident, but what if it was intentional? The thought certainly seems frightening.

Of course, there are less extreme implications. What about age, such as dementia? As people get older, and some develop signs of dementia, does their agency diminish? As our understanding of psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to manic depressive disorder to psychopathy to just plain old neurosis, and their connection to real deficiencies in the body rooted in the physical realm (and not just an attack of a spiritual or more ethereal emotional nature) increases, how do we judge their effects on agency? Is someone truly free if they suffer from dangerous mood swings? And if psychotropic drugs solve the problem, it brings up a new problem, which comes to port full steam with the third question.

As Mormons, we acknowledge that agency can be taken away for biological reasons. We’ve already mentioned early childhood death and mental disabilities. We also acknowledge that substances which alter our brain chemistry can rob us of our agency, which is where a big defense for the Word of Wisdom comes from. Addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and most illegal drugs will steal away our ability to make decisions, be our own masters, and also to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.[2]

From here, it’s really not a large leap of faith (or logic) that there are reasons we lose agency that might not necessarily be our fault. We’ve already discussed psychological disorders, such as depression, dementia, manic depressive disorder, and psychopathy, which all often have deep biological causes.[3] But we have not yet discussed the plasticity of the brain in reaction to not just other chemicals (via nicotine, caffeine, or Percocet) but also to emotional events. For example, we acknowledge that children (and adults) who undergo traumatic, stressful events suffer some kind of psychic, emotional damage. How in control (or, in other words, how much agency) does a Vietnam veteran suffering from terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really have? And if a teenager who has had a troubled past suffering consistent abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual, or a combination) falls into trouble, or has a difficult time trusting authority figures or making good decisions, how much really lies in the fault of the teenager?[4]

People will accuse me of trying to absolve blame from guilty parties, but that is not the point (though that is a good question to consider — if we acknowledge that agency must be present for true guilt to also be present, how much guilt should we assign to those who may lack some grade of agency?). There is a more fundamental, troublesome consequence of what we’ve observed to be true as far as the human brain is concerned: If agency is such a fundamental part of God’s plan, why did God make agency such an incredibly fragile thing? A person’s ability to choose can be stolen away by a freak accident on a railroad, and, in some cases, people are not born with the capability for agency at all.[5] What are we to conclude when God presents a plan where agency is paramount, and yet creates conditions in which so quickly it can slip out of our grasp without any fault of our own?

I present not these questions to argue against the Plan of Salvation (I am a huge fan of the Plan of Salvation), but rather I point out these questions to perhaps fill in gaps that we have left unfilled, or to re-examine what we believe to know about the plan in order to truly account for who is accountable. Justice and mercy cannot be fully exercised otherwise, and we may unwittingly be condemning too many of our brothers and sisters for actions that may possibly be out of control. In fact, it’s arguable whether we really have much control at all.[6]

[1] Whenever I mention to people in church that I enjoy studying psychology, I often get suspicious looks. One member asked if it was possible to be a good, believing Mormon and a psychologist at the same time. I believe that it is potentially world-turned-upside-down, status-quo-challenging questions like these that makes psychology unpopular amongst a church with a strong, rigid, hierarchical structure and obsession of eternal doctrine consistency.

[2] This seems to suggest that an ability to commune with God could be based in a biological component (if biological substances can hamper Spirit reception, certainly that means Spirit reception is based somehow biologically). This would explain how many of my friends who suffer from depression mention that they have never had a prayer answered in their entire lives, despite (very) desperate attempts to do so.

[3] I say “often” because of depression. I understand that it is common for people to feel depressed, especially after the death of a loved one, or some other similar traumatic experience. This depression definitely has a biological component, but often goes away on its own. This is very different from the deep-seated, extremely debilitating depression that has strong biological components that simply cannot be “prayed” away.

[4] I have often had people tell me free will does exist; otherwise, how could you have two different people in the same situation but grow up to be so different? For example, some people who come from abusive families vow to break the cycle of violence (and succeed) while others try to break the cycle of violence (and don’t succeed) and others simply (sadly) continue the cycle of violence unhampered. Certainly, free will plays into the occasion. Well, perhaps not entirely. There is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) which regulates the breakdown of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In The Personality Puzzle by David Funder, “A gene that promotes the action of MAO in breaking down these neurotransmitters seem to help prevent the development of delinquency among children who have been maltreated (Caspi et al., 2002; Moffit, 2005).” While this doesn’t mean everything is determined by genetics, it does suggest that even those success stories who overcame difficult origins against all odds may have had help from their biological makeup, something outside of their immediate control, and the inverse should be true — some people’s genes seem to simply stack the odds against them even more.

[5] The trickier problem occurs not in people whom we readily acknowledge to have no agency, but people who may have only been born with (to put it crudely) 50%, 40%, 30%, or even just 15% agency than the average person. Where do we draw the line between accountable and unaccountable? While judging is strictly for the Lord and we are told to refrain from such activity, the cold, hard truth is that the ecclesiastical church must judge, specifically for disciplinary reasons (though also for activities like temple recommend interviews). And when someone is disciplined or denied blessings, rumors start and harsh, hurtful judging begins, even if the fault may lie in “faulty” genes, such as someone born with Down Syndrome.

[6] There’s a fascinating cognitive experiment which recording the typing speed of professional typists. A most surprising result was that the typist would actually hesitate (albeit, for only milliseconds) before typing a typo (that is, hitting the wrong key). However, the typist would still make the typo. This suggests that the brain understands for those split milliseconds it’s about to make a mistake, but for some reason (momentum, perhaps?) makes the mistake anyway. Theologically, the results mirror Jesus’ charitable observation on his overzealous apostles that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. This also resembles (in an exaggerated way) the one instance where no person has any choice in the matter — we will all sin. It’s a decree from God; it’s what makes the Atonement necessary in Christianity. In this one area, we must all abdicate our agency, or at the very least, understand that there may be more powerful biological (fleshy?) forces at work here that override any pitiful attempts on our part to exercise our agency.



Filed under philosophy, religion

Semantic slavery

My friend recently wrote a blog post about his uneasy tension between what he feels is legally right and what he feels is morally right about gay marriage (synopsis: He thinks it’s morally wrong, but legally speaking the government should make it available for everyone, regardless of his feelings). The common thread among the against-gay-marriage comments is that we should allow civil unions for gay people, but just leave marriage for the religious people.

I used to be a big fan of this compromise myself, since I saw two sides desperately unwilling to budge, and this was a compromise, some kind of middle ground. However, over time I’ve come to realize what this little bit of semantic juggling — calling it civil unions instead of civil marriage — is.

It’s semantic slavery.

“Is there a legal difference between a civil union and a civil marriage?” my author friend asked as we talked about this later in the day.

“Yes,” I responded. “A civil marriage is for a man and a woman. A civil union is for whatever with whatever. It’s the only legal difference, but it speaks volumes.”

Let’s be honest. If Christians (because it has been mostly Christians who have been incredibly vocal about this issue) really felt that this word change was an appropriate solution, then (a) it would have been hastily adopted ten plus years ago when it first came up, and (b) we could have easily solved the problem by having a Super Secret Christian Meeting and declaring we replace all instances of the word marriage and use the made-up word egairram instead. Ha, we would sneer admist the cigar smoke and dark lighting in the backroom of an Itallian restaurant in New York City. They can have their marriage, but they can’t have their gay egairrams!

No, this is a ridiculous idea, because we all know that Christians are not opposed to the vocabulary issue of gay marriage, but the very principle of gay marriage itself. Still, this has become an increasingly popular solution amongst Christians — civil unions, a half-way compromise, is the answer! But they are not.

First, why the increased popularity? Because of this:

Gay marriage is quickly becoming an acceptable thing, and opposition is dropping over time. In short, in our post-modern, enlightened society, people who oppose gay marriage are being labeled as bigoted, and honestly, even conservative, sometimes-fundamentalist Christians bristle at the idea of being labeled bigoted. The nerve.

Because of this, you can’t openly oppose gay marriage anymore. We saw what happened to the Mormons who supported Prop 8 — the death threats, the hit lists, the blacklisting and protests and vandalism. If this is what it means to stand up for what I believe, no thank you, sir. Thus, the civil union solution gaining traction in the Christian community. It’s the perfect solution! Gay people get all the legal rights of marriage, but we get to keep the word marriage all to ourselves (as if that was the problem in the first place). And we all go home happy!

Except this “solution” is intellectually dishonest.

To fully answer my friend’s question, why does the difference between civil marriage and civil unions speak volumes?

The same way that whites only and blacks only bathrooms speak volumes.

Suppose we have two public restrooms. Both are architecturally the same. Both are furnished exactly the same. Both are sanitized and functional exactly the same. For all intents and purposes, they are identical, cloned bathrooms.

Except one has a “whites only” sign and one has a “blacks only” sign.

Suddenly, the bathrooms are definitely not the same.

What the proposition of instituting civil unions over civil marriages does is institute the idea of “separate but equal” all over again, except this time it’s not blacks and whites, but the straight community versus the queer community. There is no such thing as separate and equal, especially in the Christian community. Let’s all be honest — in our minds, civil unions are not the same as civil marriages because civil unions are not as good. They’re not as legitimate. It’s the old issue all over again — we don’t think homosexual relationships are as real, as legitimate, as honest and right as heterosexual relationships, and we want to codify this in law. This isn’t a compromise — it is proposed capitulation for the other side disguised as semantic splitting hairs coupled with some good old fashioned Christian mercy and American compromise-making. Otherwise, we would not have a problem making the jump up from civil union to civil marriage, if they were really the same thing minus the fact that we used a thesaurus for one of them. In a religion where Christ urges us to be one, we understand all too well what separation really means.

So let us not engage in these sneaky semantic gymnastics. If you’re against gay marriage, say so. If civil union is really, for all intents and purposes, the same as civil marriage, then why not just call it civil marriage? What’s in a name?

Apparently, all the difference in the world.


Filed under politico, religion

Great Audiences

While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
– Walt Whitman

I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.

As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.

The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?

On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.

On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.

In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.

Enter artists, stage right.

The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.

Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.

Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.

And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.

But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!

In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.

The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of  God. These are our stories.”

I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”

In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.

In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?


Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

Stumbling over the scriptures

“To explain, nowadays we have mountains of scriptures by our side, both the text and the commentaries thereof. We study religious literature with weary and dewy eyes to such an extent that our heads are full of ready-made facts seen from various angles, say, from the viewpoint of religion, philosophy, literature, etc. And this manifold knowledge of ours, with reference to the scriptures, fails to enable us to effectively choose what suits us best and in which we can take refuge. The more we study the scriptures the less we know of the essence of religion. As a matter of fact the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone.”

– Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno, “Mutual Understanding of Each Other’s Religion”

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”

– Joseph Smith

I thought this was an incredible quote from a series of lectures given by Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno called Christianity and Buddhism. In it, Bhikku attempts to create a level playing field of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, as well as just between two different religions in general. In it, he makes this surprising assertion that perhaps scriptures only muddy the waters, rather than lead us to cool, pristine wells of knowledge and faith. He compares it to climbing a tree from the top to bottom — starting with the scriptures first before practice is, to him, simply the opposite way to explore a faith.

In a way, Bhikku has history on his side. Many religions schism because of, among other reasons, differences in scriptural interpretation. In Christianity, Martin Luther’s pronouncement of sola scriptura has led to some of the worst excesses of fetishistic Bible worship, creating an untouchable status with little actual knowledge of how the text came to be. Of course, us Mormons are not innocent either; many times over prominent Mormons would promote false, misleading, or ignorant interpretations of scripture in order to “prove” correlation between two completely different texts. Prooftexting is not just a Mormon phenomenon; I’ve had people try to drag the scriptures into any kind of discussion — biology, politics, economics, etc.

The funny thing is in the beginning of every religion, those scriptures didn’t exist. The early Saints didn’t have Doctrine and Covenants; they were writing it. The original Twelve Apostles didn’t have the New Testament; they were the New Testament — literally! In fact, in almost every religion, the act of writing scripture down usually didn’t happen for years until after the founder’s death — take the history of the Qur’an or Buddha’s teachings. The founding (and the usual explosion of growth) didn’t require the need for scriptures. It’s only after they’ve been written, and each successive generation groans under the ever growing body of scripture and commentary and interpretation, that people begin to drift away and the religion struggles to maintain the holy fire that once burned in their hearts.

But do you personally agree with this statement? On the one hand, prophets in the LDS Church have repeatedly told us that reading out scriptures is incredibly important. However, on the other hand, we also say that the Bible, and even our current open canon, is still a work in progress, and much more new information could be added to the ever-growing corpus of revelation, possibly even nullifying previous statements. Could we grasp onto the scriptures too tightly to cause a stumbling block for us? Obviously, anything done in excess is unhealthy, and surely the scriptures do provide worth when used for rich, meaningful study. But just how useful can they really be?

My mission president once addressed the complaints of some missionaries that studying Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual, every day for at least 30 minutes was too boring and repetitive. He responded by telling the mission that “If you read Preach My Gospel right, you will spend 90% of your time in the scriptures. If you read the scriptures right, you will spend 90% of your time in prayer. I would gladly take ten minutes of earnest prayer over an hour of reading the scriptures.” This statement floored me. As someone who has traditionally seen learning from books and study, the idea that you could learn more by “talking to yourself” in a closet caused me to reel.

In the course of my life, I have relied on the scriptures for a great many things, learning especially; however, recently I’ve found that earnest prayer, the heartfelt song of a psalm, the act of sitting meditation, or the performance of service has helped build my faith more than any scripture could. Like my mission president, I have found ten minutes of earnest prayer to be much more effective than reading the scriptures for knowledge, and I have learned more about God within one minute of genuine service than ten minutes of prayer or an hour of scripture study. As I’ve grown older, I love the scriptures even more than ever. They are beautiful pieces of literature, and both poetry and rhetoric can reach sublime heights. But maybe Bhikkhu is on to something. Maybe the scriptures sometimes get in the way. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re climbing the tree backwards.

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Filed under life stories, religion


When I was younger, more rash, more hot-headed, more impudent, I considered the book of Psalms inferior to some of the other scriptures. “It’s just a bunch of feel-good poems,” I would complain, and would instead delve into some extracurricular Isaiah speculation. I’m an apologist, I would say, puffing my chest out in pride. I’m a theologian. I don’t need this sissy poetry stuff.

How wrong I was.

Lately, my wife and I have taken to reciting psalms before bed and in place of the usual traditional singing we both experienced in our respective family home evening meetings. For one, we don’t really feel comfortable singing together (we feel kind of dumb), and two, the longer we’ve been Mormons, the more comfort we find in a lovely book such as Psalms.

For example, an interesting footnote during Christ’s crucifixion ties his famous utterance, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” to Psalm 22. Specifically, it starts out:

My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.

But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.

But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.

Be not far from me: for trouble is near; for there is none to help.

Psalm 22:1-11

This isn’t feel-good wishy-washy stuff. This is some serious religious existential angst. Why Jesus chose to cry out in psalm during His darkest hour I do not know, but for even the Savior to have felt like this, a feeling I can certainly relate to, makes me love Him all the more.

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Filed under life stories, music, religion

Judaism for Everyone – Book Review

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Judaism for Everyone.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Judaism for Everyone.

I recently finished Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith by Shmuley Boteach. The back of the book consisted of quotes from the book on various topics, and the following quote on suffering caught my eye:

Too many religions emasculate mankind, asking us to bow our heads and accept God’s justice in the face of suffering. But the word Israel means ‘he who wrestles with God.’ We have a right to shake the heavens and spar with God whenever the innocent suffer.

What an interesting statement! So I checked it out and began to read earnestly. I left the reading experience feeling conflicted and slightly disappointed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good book and if you’re interested in theology, especially Jewish philosophy, this book does a fantastic job getting into the mind and thinking process of an Orthodox Jew. But I had dived in, hoping for a treatise on philosophy and theology, when in reality Judaism for Everyone is less a handbook on how you can incorporate Jewish concepts into your life and more an apologetic text for Judaism.

On the one hand, it’s a book full of sweeping over-generalizations and platitudes, but it wouldn’t be apologetic, religious, devotional literature without them, right? But for every claim that made me raise an eyebrow, Boteach still walks down some interesting roads. he admits that religion is a crutch for many, but then moves onto how “real religion begins where human limitations end” (p. 42). He talks about Judaism’s purpose of bringing heaven down to earth, rather than forsaking earth to climb to heaven. The chapters on suffering, prayer, and the kosher laws especially bring out very different insights for my thoroughly Christianized mind. The book is a great apologetic text for orthodox Judaism, and along the way you can glean some pretty fascinating concepts:

In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive. It leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook on life. It scars our psyches and brings about a cynical consciousness, devoid of hope. Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of characters comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance (p. 197).

Or this gem on reciting prayers:

Many have complained that the rigidity of a set prayer book is stultifying and impedes individual concentration. They object to having to pray in a foreign language rather than their mother tongue, and they protest at having a fixed text composed of words that were consecrated and written thousands of years ago. My student tells me that they would rather take a banjo out into the fields and “sing a new song to the Lord” that is both personal and spontaneous. They feel stultified and uninspired in having to pray from a prepared text.

Their objects miss a crucial point. The great secret of Jewish prayer is that it is not about talking, but listening; not about beseeching, but imbibing. We awaken in the morning and pray to God, not so much to praise Him as to listen to the beautiful words that remind us of His omnipresence and that it is to Him that all terms of endearment should be offered (p. 131).

And another interesting quote of him defending the famous Mormon motto “modest is hottest”:

Modest dress is a good example. A woman who dresses modestly elicits great passion from her husband simply by undressing. The rule is simple: If a man does not wish to undress a woman in his mind first, he will not wish to undress her with his hands. Modest dress, a form of concealment, inspires lust and desire, in short, eroticism. Erotic obstacles are essential to the maintenance of seduction and passion.

Despite how much Mormons love to compare themselves to Judaism, much of his book is devoted to the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism and how those philosophies translate into cultural practice. Some of Boteach’s criticisms of Christianity will no doubt trouble many a Christian, even Mormons, and some of his writings, especially on suffering, will severely challenge the basic assumptions of Christian faith. Though you can tell he’s trying to be impartial, sometimes Boteach’s disdain for some of Christianity’s concepts show through the words. However, his criticisms against Christian culture hold merit, and a reader with an open mind can extract pertinent lessons from his sometimes scathing remarks, such as:

Judaism is best described as a celebration of life, no aspect of which is intrinsically un-Godly. And though Judaism condemns animalistic indulgence, the Talmud declares that in the world-to-come God will hold man accountable for refusing to partake of any pleasures that God has permitted, thinking that he would be more Godly as a result. Asceticism has a place only in a religion that imagines Satan behind every dollar bill and every sexual urge. But a religion that sees a spark of divine light hidden in every heart and hidden behind every tree teaches its adherents to bring this light to the fore. God wishes to be discovered within His world, and man is charged with this task (p. 49-50).

In the end, if you’re up for a whole new experience that will challenge some of the basic underpinnings of Western Christian thought and philosophy, read this book. As far as apologetics go, this book does a fine job introducing some of the major differences between Jewish and Christian thought.

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Mormons and Christianity, or why we’re not really Christian and that’s okay, unless it totally bothers you, in which case, rethink what it means to be Christian

Disclaimer: I am a practicing, believing Mormon who believes my Church has incredible things to offer to the global community. However, I do not believe we can rightfully say that we are Christian unless we adjust some attitude problems that are prevalent in the Church. It does not bother me one whit whether Christians allow us or not allow us to be “Christian,” but if we as a group want our Christian brothers and sisters to acknowledge that title, then we need to change some of the attitudes we have of what it means to be “Mormon.” These views are in no way representative of the official organization known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

My friend David on his blog Catchy Title Goes Here recently wrote about the age-old argument of why Mormons are (or are not) Christians. David lies in the Mormons are Christian camp, and he has some excellent reasonings as to why we are, despite some cultural differences between us and our more mainstream Christian brothers and sisters.

However, I’ve of late have taken a completely different approach on the question which has led me to decide that we really aren’t that Christian, but not for doctrinal reasons. The differences between us and other Christian sects are not really that much more different than the differences between, say, Baptists and Methodists, or Protestants and Catholics. No, there’s more than just doctrinal reasons that cause fellow Christians to insist that we are not Christian, and I think it has a lot to do with our actions than our doctrines.

It’s no secret that animosity between Mormons and other Christians was common. We’ve always accused Christianity for falling into an irredeemable apostasy that warranted the need for God to restore truths, principles, and authorities back on the earth through divine intervention. And, as predictable human nature would say, it’s no surprise that Christianity hasn’t taken kindly to our accusations. And here lies the core of the problem.

Imagine if a kid makes fun of your social circle, spreads nasty rumors, tells other people that you are a horrible, immoral bunch of heathens and sinners. When the kid then starts saying that, oh yes, he’s a member of your social circle, wouldn’t you reel in shock as well? The nerve and gall of this punk! You would protest. No, absolutely not, this kid is not part of your social circle, and he never will be, as far as you’re concerned.

Mormonism is that kid – we declare unequivocally that Christianity is irredeemably corrupt, and then in the same breath, we claim to be part of Christianity. Of course, the Christians respond with, “No, you’re not one of us.” But then we have the gall to say, “No, we totally are!” This is also exactly why many Christians deny the title to Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other sect that declares the whole of Christianity as corrupt and apostate. And I can sympathize with this sentiment.

We are an incredibly selective group. While Nazarenes and Church of Christ members may not agree on the details, they would never honestly say that the other group is not Christian. But when the FLDS sect tries to assert their (in my opinion rightful) position under the Mormon umbrella, how quickly we as an organization and collective membership cast them out with little tolerance for their deviant views. And so when we howl that Christianity refuses to acknowledge us as “Christian,” it’s simply the pot calling the kettle black. If we can say that we are Christian despite fringe doctrinal disagreements, then will we be ready as a group to admit that the FLDS church, no matter how unsavory or embarrassing their position on polygamy, is most certainly also “Mormon”? The very thought causes the lay member (and authority) to shudder with distaste. And after all this, why would we expect others to extend charity to us when we try to muscle in under their umbrella of Christianity?

The concept of being a Christian is packed with all sorts of connotations and assumptions. One of these assumptions is that you do not bad mouth the other sects too badly when you talk about them. And if we insist on usurping the title of “Christian” from our brothers and sisters while belittling their doctrines, we should not be surprised if they resist our assertions and we end up with the comment “Does not play well with the other children” on our report cards.

Of course, this may not be what Mormons mean to imply when we say that we are Christian, but when words come out of your mouth, it doesn’t matter your intention, only how the audience perceives it. We may declare that we believe in Christ, but we will never be “Christian,” unless we stop saying that, you know, all of Christendom fell into a deep, dark, prolonged apostasy, which, last time I checked, is a pretty core teaching of our Church. Until this attitude towards mainstream Christianity is minimized or eliminated, we may never be fully reconciled with our Christian brothers.


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