Starting book reviews: Perspective on Mormon Theology

I love to read a wide variety of books, but I was debating whether to include them up on the blog here.  I thought that I would try it and see how it goes from here.  I know a ton of people don’t read my book reviews wherever I post them, and the blog doesn’t get a lot of traffic, but hey.  This is an ecletic mischung of thoughts, responses, and the like.  This fits.  Be warned, these aren’t in detail analyses, but more my initial impressesions.  And, well, lots of quotes.  Lots and lots of quotes.  I’m a wannabe lit major, OK?

Today, I will be reviewing Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Scriptural Theology, from Greg Kofford Books.  The series just released a new one on Apologetics here that I look forward to reading, and this one has a free eBook offer at the time I am writing this, so check it out here!

A masterful selection of essays!  They are challenging, because they ask you to look at things in a new perspective, but in that way are faith-building as well.  Faith requires moving out of your comfort zone into areas of unpredictability.  Three essays in particular add a lot to my idea of faith (“Climate Change” looks at the faith that your actions impact others, “The Way toward the Garden” looks the relationship between faith and nostalgia, and “Seek Ye Earnestly” looks at the key role of uncertainty in faith).

When reading these essays, I had the distinct impression that this is a living Church, and that we can use the scriptures to answer current problems.  This is the only way that we can be active disciples of Christ.

I look forward to more great essays from this series!  I have included a few thoughts/summaries on the essays here, with quotes as well.

A Mormon Reading of Job 19:23-25a.

Interesting Mormon interpretation of the story of Job revolving around the verse “still he [Job] holdeth fast his integrity, although thou [Satan] movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.”  The author looks at “without cause”, alternately translating it as “freely” or “gracefully.”  Just as grace from God is unearned, so are our sufferings from God unearned, something key that we must recognize in our lives if we are truly to understand grace.

“It is too much, then, to suggest that what it means to translate the Bible correctly– what it means to read the Bible through the truth-establishing lens of the Book of Mormon– is to restore to the Bible its covenantal center?”

“Theological speculation, contrary to what is often said about it among Latter-Day Saints, is anything but so much spinning in the void, anything but asking pointless or unanswerable questions, anything but sensational attention to so-called mysteries.  Theological speculation is, rather, an attempt, undertaken in the name of charity, to see what scriptural texts have to teach us and to see what scripture can do in addition to providing grist for the historical mill and confirming doctrine we already know to be true.  To speculate is to hold a mirror up to the scriptures, to allow them to reflect on themselves, to give them something to say to us about their meaning and significance.”

“Job must come to see his suffering as unearned if he is to begin to get a sense for the nature of grace, but his friends are constantly telling him that all he is going through is something he himself has brought about.”

“Without Money”: Equality and the Transformative Power of Money

Examines what Couch calls “consequentialist logic” in the scriptures surrounding money and politics, the basic question being, is it OK to live life in the pursuit of money?  We model our lives, businesses, and economies around this principle, despite the scriptural injunction not to do so.  The Book of Mormon is constantly disrupting consequentialist thinking, including King Benjamin’s condemnation of connecting the poor with being lazy.

“King Benjamin says, “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand… for his punishments are just.”  These rationalizing words echo a version of an argument used by consequentialists to criticize programs and practices that help the poor.  The argument asserts that since the poor are often poor as a result of their own laziness, and giving to the poor effectively subsidizes laziness, aid should not be given to the poor.”

“The subjective, relative nature of art gives those who seek objective truths intellectual vertigo.  Progress becomes hard to determine and measure.  This is the weakness of the humanities.  The flip-side strength is skill in language that has creative and transformative potency lacking in other disciplines.  Although technology and the social sciences may have a greater effect on the economy, culture is dominated by those proficient in the subject matter of the humanities.  Prophets, in this sense, seem to have more in common with the ability of artists and writers to inspire and motivate than with the ability to engineers to build gadgets and structures with an aim to control and satisfy.”

“We humans have a desperate need to bring our diverse environment under control, both intellectually, through organization and data, and actually, through manipulation of the environmental elements.  What we do not want are surprises.  Thus, if God fulfilled prophecy in the past, he must fulfill it in exactly the same way now.  But Isaiah has been saying that this kind of limitation is characteristic of the false gods, not of God… Do not expect to box God into some system that you have devised by observing him in the past; that is for idols.”

“This subjective involvement is itself the catalyst for change since the act of subjective reading fores readers to exercise their agency and actively engage in the interpretive process linking the text, the world, and the subjectivity of the reader.”

“Take No Thought”

On of my favorite essays in the entire book, it explores Christ’s statement “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon” as a condemnation of multi-tasking.  Any sin is a form of multi-tasking, trying to focus on one thing when you should be focusing on another.

“All sins are just variations on that same desire to do something else when you’re already doing something.  Multitaskers are children of the devil.  You can’t serve two masters.  Divided attention is just dressed up inattention.”

“Multi-tasking, you fit yourself for distraction.  You train yourself to never quite commit, to never quite settle in, to keep at least one eye on what you’re not doing, on the people you’re not with, on the things you don’t have.  With every email update, push notification, and status change– ding!– you prime your mind to wait on diversion.  You train yourself to be displeased with the given and to hold on for whatever has not yet come.”

“Attention, by nature, is a matter of selective focus.  But when you multitask, focus is never won because no selection is ever made.  Instead, your mind spends itself in a buzz of anxious reservation.  Your days oscillate between stress and boredom, two poles equally far from the poise of mindfulness.  By turns lost or fretful, you brownout.”

“It is impossible, then to serve both God and mammom because it is impossible to serve mammon.  Mammon names that bifurcation of attention that follows from your failing to serve and attend.  To serve is, by definition, to serve God.”

“Jesus on Jesus; John 5 and 7”

I didn’t get as much out of this one.  A little more scholarly, examines a few chapters in the Book of John, noting that John’s Christ talks more about himself than the other gospels, where it focuses more on Christ’s deeds than his own words.

“I, Nephi”

Speculates about what Nephi wrote in his previous lost account “The Book of Lehi.”  It asserts that Nephi, in his old age, re-wrote his story in kind of a more negative way, condemning Laman and Lemuel, leaving out bad parts about himself, and painting his father as a weak and ineffective leader.  Not a typical reading, but I always have felt a little unease reading Nephi’s account because he always seems so perfect.  It is interesting to think about the authors in the scriptures, and I really appreciated the light this essay shed on Nephi’s narrative.

“Alma’s Wisdom-Poem to Helaman”

My least favorite in the book, it has very little application, mostly doing a poetical analysis of Alma 37:35-37 (“Learn wisdom in thy youth”).

“Seek Ye Earnestly the Best Gifts”

An analysis of D&C 46, with a few personal insights from an author who has a gay son that caused her faith to fracture.  This essay is beautiful, perhaps a little more serious than the song “God Loves Broken Things”, but a similar message.  It examines the idea of community, and that as a Church we are commanded to not exclude anyone from our meetings, something we aren’t very good at.  Also looks at the relationship of faith and uncertainty, and that true faith requires uncertainty– both religion and science can try to use certainties to bad results.  Religion calcifies into faith-killing dogmas, and science, which in its true nature is skeptical, tries to “prove” things to others, and becoming a weapon.

“Records, Reading, and Writing in D&C 128”

D&C 128, on its surface, is about baptisms for the dead.  But the author posits that it has many more levels of meaning.  One that he explores here is connection between records and covenants.  Recording baptisms and other ordinances is more than paperwork, but rather a key part in participating in the plan of salvation.  Also explores the idea that baptisms for the dead are the rule and not the exception (we as members of the Church often think of baptisms for the dead as a backup plan for those who weren’t able to be baptized on earth).  But what if the plan was that a statistically small number of members were to recieve the gospel, and then perform the ordinances for everyone else?

“Wherever the priesthood power has been given, “whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven.”  The keeping of the record according to the order prescribed by God is as essential to a priesthood act as is the authority of the priesthood itself, as is acting in the name of the Lord, and as is proper form, order, intent, and faith.  And the result is an addition to both earthly and heavenly law.  In other words, a person authorized and acating accordingly can record law in heaven.”

“Faith and Ethics of Climate Change”

Wow.  A beautiful essay, using the Book of Moses and other scriptures to develop a Mormon theology supporting environmental responsibility.  Doesn’t just explore climate change, but also religious attitudes.  Religion should be something that helps us adapt to solve current problems rather than something that petrifies us into trying to preserve the status quo.  This is where faith operates.  Climate change, the idea that our actions can impact a global environment, links nicely in with faith– because like religion, you don’t see immediate consequences to your actions.  Beautiful and timely essay that I hope many will read!

“A test of the vitality of religious tradition is not only its ability to resist change that would be either unnecessary or even deletorious to human moral health but also its ability to be flexible, adaptive, and creative in response to emerging problems and concerns that demand innovative and proactive responses.  In other words, scripture reading as an act of searching for deeper understanding of revealed truth neither can nor should take place in a cultural vacuum.  We read from where and who we are, with the concerns of our day.  And yet any reading that is merely and only motivated by ideology and a desire to extract ideas to confirm a pre-established worldview can hardly be described as an honest search for truth.  I only mean to suggest that scripture reading requires a willingness to experiment with the word to see what fruit it bears in relation to our evolving understandings of the world.”

“History shows that human communities often fail to think in global terms because it brings unwanted responsibility, complexity, uncertainty, and responsibility.  In religious communities, such attitudes end up compromising religion’s universal and cosmological reach because believers forego the needed expansion of their imagined sphere of responsibility.”

“Despite these narrowing tendencies in our ethics, globalization and climate change present a unique opportunity to resist the spiritually deadening effects of modernity and restore our values and faith to their original potency.  If we are more capable of affecting large-scale damage to the planet, we are also called upon more than ever before to act collectively and on principle on behalf of the human family.”

“Environmental apathy is at its root caused by the fact that we “defer our capacities for moral and political deliberation to the autonomous procedures of the market” and to the promise of the next advance in technology.”

“As a society, we are no longer in the habit of learning about and responding to new empirical realities, since information is increasingly mediated and disseminated by partisan factions.  And if we have abdicated the responsibility to honestly investigate and deliberate about an issue by surrendering our thinking to packaged ideologies, we will be tempted to believe that we are already in possession of a complete picture, on one hand, or that we can never have enough information before we act, on the other.  The inevitable result is a morass of uninformed inaction and angry certitude that compromises the health of democracy.”

“The world appears to be asking us to act in faith, without foreknowledge or the assurance of predictability.”

“The Way toward the Garden: Moses 5:1-12”

A beautiful essay that contrasts comfortable nostalgia with ritual covenant keeping.  Adam and Eve yearned to return to the Garden of Eden where things were easy, but that way didn’t lead back to God.  Only by obeying God in a covenant relationship were they again able to have his presence.

“Adam and Eve have made a path to the Garden looking for what they can have only at home, though what they receive at home is not quite what they went looking for at the Garden.  It is a voice from afar rather than a presence.”

“Nostalgia for the Garden of Eden conflates being in the presence of God with bliss, plenty, and freedom from pain.  In spite of scriptureal and prophetic evidence to the contrary, our dreams of heaven are often formed from such nostalgia: we dream that in heaven there is no pain and that there is no labor.  Unfortunately, in such a heaven there would probably also be neither personal relationship nor even personal identity.  For the nostalgic, heaven is nothing but continual bliss and, so, probably nothing at all.”

“Nostalgic dreaming that fullness of life means bliss amounts to dreaming that we can escape our humanity rather than fulfill that humanity in the labor of family.”

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