Thursday, September 5, 2013

Melchizedek's Seal and Scroll - Mitchell

I have recently discovered that some of my writings on the Seal of Melchizedek (in which I have written five posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have been utilized in a recently self-published work entitled Melchizedek's Seal & Scroll, by Alan Rex Mitchell. The author provides the following summarization of his book:
Multiple Melchizedek associations are brought together in this illuminating book; originating with the popular Seal of Melchizedek as a symbol for rebirth, resurrection, and righteousness, and culminating in the Dead Sea Scroll named Melchizedek. Using ancient sources from Coptic Christianity, 2nd Enoch, Joseph Smith, and the prophets Alma and Daniel, the narrative leads to the Scroll's prophecy of the King of Righteousness in the last days.
The book is broader in scope then the necessarily limited nature of my posts that he cites, nevertheless, I appreciate that the author has taken notice of my writings and incorporated some of this material into his discussion of the Seal of Melchizedek. It appears that the majority of the book focuses on DSS 11Q13, frequently referred to as the Melchizedek Document of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some other canonical and non-canonical writings. The link to Amazon above will allow any interested parties to preview the book's contents.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A "Mormon Studies" Discussion

Blair Hodges from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship added a link on Facebook to his post on "A Mormon Studies Blogliography" on the Maxwell Institute's blog. I felt that the post was pretty good overall, but felt it was also problematic in how it portrayed John Gee's discussion of the matter. I certainly do not speak for John Gee; nonetheless, I took the liberty to comment on what I felt was a misconstrued portrayal of Gee's salient points, and offered my own inarticulate interpretation of what John Gee said and what I believe he meant.
I should clarify that I believe my blog's namesake, LDS Studies, to be largely in the same vein as Mormon Studies, in that it comprehends all things 'Mormon.' The distinguishing difference, however, includes the approach as well as the scope of the subject. Mormon Studies is being approached in terms of academic studies, whereas my blog represents a written portion of my personal studies on Mormonism. My scope is limited to whatever I feel is relevant to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the 'only true and living church' with which the Lord is well pleased. Mormon Studies has a scope that seems to be in the process of being defined and seems to be continually evolving. I personally believe that an academic approach from any scientific field that adds knowledge and value to understanding the subject, which is any and all things 'Mormon,' is entirely relevant and appropriate, but this also includes a religiously engaged approach. Some might feel otherwise. I believe this disparity exists because they differentiate between science and religion as though they were opposites, or at least incompatible. I see the two as being somewhat synonymous. Both involve the same processes, just with different tools to measure the results. However, an academic study of religion that excludes attempting to understand the religion consistent with how its adherents understand it, is irresponsible in my opinion.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

President Hinckley - The Keys of the Kingdom

When the Mark Hofmann drama took place I was too young to appreciate how the church handled the situation and responded to his confrontational documents. While I had heard of the counterfeit artist in my youth, it wasn't until the mission field when I first encountered issues surrounding his forgeries. A friend from home had actually written me a letter wanting to know about the "white salamander" that Joseph Smith allegedly saw. This supposed vision was based on a letter from Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps that Mark Hofmann had forged in 1984, intimating Joseph's occult practices (money digging, etc.), and included a replacement of Moroni with a white salamander. Of course the letter was fraudulent with no basis in history or reality and should have been buried years previous, but of course these types of absurdities occasionally rear their ugly heads. The letter was the forger's attempt to tie Joseph Smith more closely with the occult, since a salamander in the 1820's could refer to a "mythical being thought to be able to live in fire." This was one of a number of documents that Hofmann concocted.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Margaret Barker on Temple Theology and Mormonism

Following Margaret Barker's lecture, "Our Great High Priest: The Church Is the New Temple," given at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary as the Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture on January 31, 2012, she addressed a few questions relevant to her discourse and scholarly studies. The second question is of particular interest for Latter-day Saints and is quite complimentary:
Q. "One of the other questions which came about prior to your visit to St. Vladimir's, is a curiosity about why people of the Mormon faith are interested in your work. Maybe, again you could explain their attraction to understanding of temple worship?"
A. "Well, you never know who is going to read your books. And many years ago now, I was contacted by a leading scholar of the Latter-day Saints, and he came to see me when he was in England, and he said, when he read this particular book, The Great Angel, he couldn't believe it hadn't been written by one of their community. And he was intrigued how somebody working outside their community, just using the conventional tools of scholarship, could come up with something very, very similar, unusually identical to their teachings. And we explored this, and I have developed a very happy relationship with many top Mormon scholars, really good Biblical scholars, who know their temple stuff. And what they've come up with, and what I've come up with, is just about identical. So, I work with Mormons because in terms of temple scholarship, they are the best available."
My thanks to Kevin Christensen for referencing this discourse.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Direction of the Maxwell Institute

The Direction of the Maxwell Institute
My posts are generally intended to be somewhat formal, so this post will be a bit of a departure for me. I suppose my commentary on this subject is a bit late, but I wanted to comment on the direction that the Maxwell Institute seems to be heading in with the benefit of hindsight. It has now been just over a year since Dan Peterson and others were unprofessionally dismissed. Numerous online blogs and other venues have commented on this drama. I, like many others, was disappointed in the decision made by Bradford; however, I was also gratified to see Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture formed and the prolificacy that has resulted in connection with that formation.
So, what is the direction that the Maxwell Institute is heading in? According to Blair Hodges, who currently seems to be the only active voice at MI,1 the organization's mission statement declares that their objective is to "deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints and to promote mutual respect and goodwill among people of all faiths through the scholarly study of religious texts." The organization is further identified as an academic unit at Brigham Young University. I'm not sure how mutual respect and goodwill among people of other faiths will be achieved through academic publications, nevertheless, I'm not opposed to a good cause such as this.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Chptr 3

Shortly after the publication of Richard Bushman's monumental tome Rough Stone Rolling, he began recording his candid observations of the publication's aftermath in his personal journal. Included in his entries he discussed some of the reviews of his book, and the following entry addresses one of his primary concerns with some of the critical reviews received:
I am annoyed by what the reviewers choose to emphasize in Joseph's life. Most of them pick up a few fragments and present them as if they were the key elements. There is something so cavalier about the implicit assertion that they have delivered the essence of the man.1
The opposite has been true thus far in this biography. Rather than reviewers inappropriately highlighting fragmentary information, the biographer has actually provided us with morsels of Brigham Young's life and character. In fact, in the first ten pages (of 25 within this chapter), Brigham is virtually all but missing from the content. There are some passing references to him with surface-level attention given to some of his actions, but minimal insight is gained in capturing his character development. Brief reference to Brigham's contributions during the Missouri period in church history are overshadowed with the narrative of general church history. Professor Turner intermingles LDS and non-Mormon perspectives, providing somewhat of a balanced summary of this historical period, but he distances the narrative from biography and, I believe, underplays Brigham's role in this larger setting.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Chptr 2

I suppose my frustration with this book thus far, is based on a couple of issues that I see as significant shortcomings. First, I am bothered with the labeling of this book as a biography, especially as a definitive biography, because it has yet to provide adequate biographical information. John Turner has provided a contextual landscape, but neglected to sufficiently delineate Brigham Young's portrait within the book's canvas, at least through the first fifty-four pages. Second, Turner's hostile bias towards Joseph Smith distracts from Brigham as the primary focus in this chapter. The author's inability to appreciate Joseph for his leadership and ability to inspire and attract disciples fatally flaws his ability to comprehend, or at least articulate, why Brigham was so devoted and such a strong disciple of the restorational prophet. Additionally, on a side note, I am confused as to why LDS reviewers are treating this book as favorably as they have been. While Turner's in depth research is apparent, his selective inclusion of  information leaves the contents materially deficient and he has created an imbalanced portrayal hardly acceptable under scholarly standards. All that I can conclude thus far, is that propaganda evolves and becomes more elaborate. I will further address each of these issues in detail below.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Chptr 1

The late Peter G. Mode, formerly Assistant Professor of Church History in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, opened his encyclopedic entry on Mormonism by introducing the Prophet Joseph Smith as being "of neurotic, superstitious parentage..."1  John G. Turner's introduction of Brigham Young's heritage is a bit more subtly stated, but ultimately mirrors Dr. Mode when noting that the Prophet's ancestors, "bequeathed to their descendants a robust belief in supernatural phenomena" (pg 10). This assertion follows shortly after discussing Brigham's great-grandparent's house as being haunted. Leading up to this sensationalistic portrayal of his ancestor's basis underlying their religiosity, Turner focuses on the Young family's perpetual state of poverty. All of this is preliminary, however, to his focus on their membership and participation in Methodism.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Prologue

Continuing where we left off, we now move into the Prologue. I should preface my continuing critique of Turner's book by noting that I certainly do not intend to be critical of his entire book without highlighting the positive as well. However, thus far Turner is simply setting the stage for the biography itself. When interesting and unique information or insightful perspectives are shared, I will eagerly acknowledge these contributions. For the time being, we really are just covering preliminary background information, and thus my concern of atmosphere looms heavily over this segment of the story.

Turner's Prologue uses a New Year's Day speech given by Brigham Young in 1877 at the dedication of the St. George Temple to introduce his character. What is striking to me is how Turner interprets the text of this speech. His preconceived notions color the atmosphere through his choice of text that he quotes and the language he employs in describing how Brigham spoke to the people gathered at the temple. Turner starts by noting President Young's emphasis on the restoration of sacred temple ordinances not exercised in full since the days of Adam, so far as any knowledge had been given. "Then," Turner sets the stage, "Young's tone gradually changed." From this point forward Mr. Turner narrows his focus solely upon his perception of Brigham Young's escalating tone and scathing remarks to the gathered saints. He points out that Brigham accused Elders of choosing hell over heaven, of choosing a dollar over salvation, and calls attention to Brigham's mention of too many Mormons being "damned fools." He continues to bolster this paradigm by using phrases such as, "Young demanded...," and "Building to a crescendo, Young upbraided...," and "Young thundered as much as his aging lungs would permit...." Turner concludes by saying that President Young was "blunt spoken, pugnacious, and sometimes profane."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Preface

Why read the preface?

In my first post on this book review I suggested that Turner's preconceived notions and biases would inevitably present themselves throughout this biography. Since the preface introduces the outline and scope of the book, it is the appropriate place to assess the highlights and agenda of his work. My initial concerns with respect to how Turner would portray Brother Brigham is reflected to some degree in the preface and is further enhanced by what is said, as well as by what is left unsaid. A biographer may cast their subject in whatever light they so choose based on how their arguments and assertions are structured, even if the facts have been incorporated into the narrative. Hugh Nibley pointed this out years ago in a book he wrote that similarly addressed critiques of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. He cites Hugh Trevor-Roper as follows:
Nowadays, to carry conviction, a historian must document, or appear to document, his formal narrative, but his background, his generalisations [sic], allusions, comparisons remain happily free from this inconvenience. This freedom is very useful: against an imaginary background even correctly stated facts can be wonderfully transformed."1
What the author can successfully achieve is staging an atmosphere so that everything else is judged under the desired lighting. To argue that scholars are above this petty notion is simply naive. The extent to which a facade is presented of course will vary based on the integrity and objectivity employed by each author, and of course by the extent to which they recognize their own lack of objectivity. At any rate, I am still optimistic regarding this book, but share the following brow-raising statements.

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Intro

So I had been deliberating about whether to buy this book based on the available online reviews thus far. Some tout it as the definitive biography on Brigham Young, surpassing Leonard Arrington's masterpiece, or even as the companion volume to Rough Stone Rolling. It has been labeled as fair, balanced, and critical. John Turner is a respected scholar and is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University. After determining that I'm sufficiently open minded and acknowledging an appreciation for sophistication, I decided to buy it.

From the get go, I already have my reservations. Considering that the book is only 500 pages (413 pages of text), I can hardly imagine that this book will do Brigham Young the justice that he deserves. Rough Stone Rolling barely covered sufficient ground on Joseph Smith's short life of thirty-eight years in its 740 pages (561 pages of text). It is hard to imagine that Brigham Young's life of seventy-six years and his volume of accomplishments in mortality can be sufficiently captured in a book limited to this length; especially so when one considers the mountains of data that exist relative to his life. Any reasonable assessment must take into consideration the thousands of discourses he delivered, the volumes of notes, journals, and letters composed by himself and dictated to scribes, the personal actions he took as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, as well as Governor of Utah, colonizer, patriarch, temple builder, economist, and the cultural context of his character development, as well as personal assessments formed by his closest associates and character perception by his public audiences. I am certain that my short list vastly understates all of the dimensions which culminate in the man, Brigham Young. At any rate, based on my judging the book by its size (the cover seems good enough), I am apprehensive about Turner's alleged monumental accomplishment in condensing Young's life into such a little book.