Sunday, February 21, 2016

Here a little and there a little

I used to wonder about why our prophets and apostles haven't written or translated more scripture of the canonized variety. We had a big burst of stuff with Jospeh Smith, but since then it's sort of trailed off. If our dispensation is the "fullness of times", doesn't that mean we get all the goodies?

Then one day I noticed something while reading Omni:

Heading, Omni Chapter 1

Omni, Amaron, Chemish, Abinadom, and Amaleki, each in turn, keep the records—Mosiah discovers the people of Zarahemla, who came from Jerusalem in the days of Zedekiah—Mosiah is made king over them—The descendants of Mulek at Zarahemla had discovered Coriantumr, the last of the Jaredites—King Benjamin succeeds Mosiah—Men should offer their souls as an offering to Christ. About 323–130 B.C. [emphasis mine]


I've found a lot to love about the book of Omni (the subject of a future post), but for this topic I find the highlighted dates most compelling. And, in 4th Nephi:

Heading, 4 Nephi Chapter 1

The Nephites and the Lamanites are all converted unto the Lord—They have all things in common, work miracles, and prosper in the land—After two centuries, divisions, evils, false churches, and persecutions arise—After three hundred years, both the Nephites and the Lamanites are wicked—Ammaron hides up the sacred records. About A.D. 35–321. [emphasis mine]


These vast expanses of time, in total about 500 years, span the whole spectrum of "righteousness", from warring Nephites who had to be continually reminded to keep the commandments, to the post-advent Nephites and Lamanites who lived together in harmony for well over 200 years. In both instances, the amount of scripture generated (or edited, as in the case of 4 Nephi 1) for posterity amounts to approximately two pages.

I doubt that the people during either period were so wicked as to preclude the reception of stuff that was worth writing down. In the previous instance (Omni), we have some indications about the thoughts of the authors (more on that later), but 4 Nephi 1 has nary a word about why the scriptures are pretty much silent for 200 years.

Writing scripture is hard. I'd like to think I could fake it myself, and perhaps others can, but in the end it takes a fair amount of time and effort to even presume to know what the Lord is thinking. I've read various other attempts and, generally speaking, they lack a few of the hallmarks of people grappling with putting divine things into human language. My list of reasons why they fail includes:

1.) A sense of inaccuracy of language. I talked about "transmission" in my previous post, and this is often where most attempts fail. They either a.) are too sloppy (as if the Lord didn't care about language or attempting to clearly state His point), or b.) are too grounded in human thought, generally restricted by binary logical reasoning or other fingerprints of human thinking.

2.) Too much "purity". Similar to point b above, most attempts I've read are too set on communicating a particular point. The scriptures I feel are "true", on the other hand, have all sorts of human bits to them. This is why I love Omni, but I'll go into that in more detail later.

3.) A constricted sense of "god". Consider all the various aspects of the divine one can find in the scriptures: The divine gives commandments, reprimands people, destroys cities, talks about divine love and a single lost sheep, blesses children and heals the sick, struggles with the imperfections of people, often sticks to certain themes and images, and still has a sense of mystery (not the kind that is "unknown" but of something "higher" than humans or human abilities (mentally, physically, etc)).

And, so, I've instead become grateful for those who have actually had divine experiences and written about them. It doesn't happen very often, and when it does it seems to follow its own internal logic, generally the logic of the situation mixed with that of various larger concepts. I hesitate to use the word "logic" here because of what that implies, as I definitely don't mean it in the scientific sense. For whatever reason, for instance, Mormon (who transcribed 4 Nephi) felt that a page would suffice to describe the most peaceful time in the history of the people of the Book of Mormon. Maybe he was constrained by time and circumstances -- he may have been writing those things while embroiled in various losing wars with the Lamanites. His mood probably wasn't the greatest at the time either, so we may have a truncated record because reflecting on a glorious recent past was too painful for him in his present circumstances. Certainly his writing on the period contains a fair amount of "nots", as in a litany of bad things that the people were not doing:

4 Nephi 1:15-17

15 And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.

16 And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.

17 There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.


So thanks, Mormon, for writing that. Considering the circumstance, I couldn't have done any better. Hopefully one day I can express my gratitude in person.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Transmission of Understanding

Note: I an indebted for a decent amount of the following to my father who, because of the semi-anonymous nature of this blog, shall also remain anonymous. His ability to think clearly about life continues to inspire me, as it has here.

I enjoy reading about how the Lord works with people, and through people, to do stuff. Often this requires imparting some sort of new understanding. Take, for instance, these two stories about boats (warning: long excerpts ahead):

Ether 2:16-25

16 And the Lord said: Go to work and build, after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did go to work, and also his brethren, and built barges after the manner which they had built, according to the instructions of the Lord. And they were small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water.

17 And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish.

18 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me.

19 And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.

20 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.

21 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did so, according as the Lord had commanded.

22 And he cried again unto the Lord saying: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?

23 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire.

24 For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth.

25 And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?


Ether 3:1-6

1 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared, (now the number of the vessels which had been prepared was eight) went forth unto the mount, which they called the mount Shelem, because of its exceeding height, and did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass; and he did carry them in his hands upon the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord, saying:

2 O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.

3 Behold, O Lord, thou hast smitten us because of our iniquity, and hast driven us forth, and for these many years we have been in the wilderness; nevertheless, thou hast been merciful unto us. O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, and suffer not that they shall go forth across this raging deep in darkness; but behold these things which I have molten out of the rock.

4 And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea.

5 Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men.

6 And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.

Ether 2
Ether 3

1 Nephi 17:7-11

7 And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord.

8 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.

9 And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?

10 And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.

11 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts; and after I had made a bellows, that I might have wherewith to blow the fire, I did smite two stones together that I might make fire.


1 Nephi 18:1-4

1 And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship.

2 Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.

3 And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.

4 And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord.

Nephi 17
Nephi 18

Here are some of the things that stand out to me from these excerpts:

1.) The brother of Jared (from the Ether excerpt) already had some technological ability to build boats and that seemed fine with the Lord (who modified the weather instead of, say, inspiring them to create sails). Nephi, however, had a whole new method for building a boat shown to him via revelation.

2.) The Lord immediately solves Nephi's problems (where to find ore and how to build a boat). While He provides an immediate response to the brother of Jared regarding obtaining oxygen, He requests a solution to the light problem from the brother of Jared.

3.) Nephi has, at this point, already experienced seeing the form the Lord would take in the flesh. The brother of Jared, however, hasn't had that experience yet.

These stories illustrate, for me at least, various issues involved with the "transmission" of "understanding".

There are several hundred references to the word "understanding" in the scriptures (source). I've cherry-picked a couple here that show different aspects of the interplay between various people and the Lord when it comes to how this process works:

D&C 1:24

24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.


One thing that strikes me about D&C Section 1 is how often the Lord describes the Saints (i.e. me) as "weak". In the past I've viewed the commandments as a sort of end unto themselves, namely that we keep them because they represent the larger truth. Here, however, I believe that the Lord is saying the purpose of the commandments is to help us ("my servants") evolve beyond our current weak state. Or, more specifically, to help us develop "understanding" through experience about what it means to be a force for good in the universe, despite what we might otherwise be inclined to do. Thus the commandments (or at least the relatively current stuff in the D&C) are more of a preparatory thing, much like the quest undertake by the brother of Jared to light the vessels prepared him (along with his previous experiences) to see and "understand" God.

Another aspect of this verse is "after the manner of their language". We are limited in what we can comprehend because the Lord has to speak to us using human language. For instance, after giving something akin to a meta/astro/physics lesson in D&C 88, the Lord says:

D&C 88:46-48

46 Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?

47 Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.

48 I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.


The Lord, when talking to people on earth, does a fair amount of "transmission" of concepts that may or may not translate well into human languages. Which leads me to another excerpt (and a larger point):

D&C 50:12

12 Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man, because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand.


Plainly speaking, I read this as strongly implying that the way the Lord thinks is quite a bit different than how we think. When I read "reasoneth as a man", I immediately consider binary/axiomatic logic as one huge aspect of that. Namely, we like to think in terms of black and white, and the Lord doesn't think that way. We do proofs from first principles, but the Lord doesn't (or at least not always). Logic is very important in this world, even important enough within the context of religion that the Lord will use it when necessary. It lies at the foundation of many of the greatest achievements in human thought, and is very necessary in our day to day life. However, and especially in the context of religion, it is not the be-all and end-all of how to think. Or, at least, that's what I believe the Lord is getting at here and elsewhere in the scriptures. Hence not only is language a potential barrier, but even how we're wired to think is different enough from God that we need a host of experiences to help us "understand" Him.

God isn't the only one who has to deal with these issues, I think it is a common plight we all deal with when attempting to transmit some bit of knowledge to another person. Namely, the way I experience something is possibly (even probably) completely different from how another person experiences the same thing. Thus, to assume that they will extract the same lesson or meaning or whatever from the experience is to assume both erroneously and arrogantly. Similarly, if I'm attempting to "teach" something in a religious setting, I have to remind myself that I can't actually "teach" anything. Instead, the way forward is:

Alma 4:19

19 And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.


To me, "pure testimony" means my actual experience. In other words, all I can hope to do as a participant in a gospel discussion is to honestly share my experience with whatever we happen to be discussing about the Gospel, good or bad. The hope is that the Spirit will be there (I feel like honesty is one of the best ways to invite the spirit into a situation), and those who are participating will feel it and get what they need out of our shared experience.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Conversion of Nephi

Of all the books of scripture in the LDS canon, the Book of Mormon has the largest number of "conversion" stories. I kind of think of it like an extended version of the book of Acts from the New Testament. The breadth and scope of how various people come to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ within the Book of Mormon is breathtaking, with many "unusual" paths to discipleship represented. One of my current favorites is the conversion of Nephi.

Nephi, like his brothers, had anger issues and felt a certain amount of entitlement. At least that's how I read his character based on what's written (I admire Nephi's humility -- he's willing to talk about his weaknesses in a book that he believes will be read by lots of people in the future). For instance, in the central passage of what some people refer to as his "psalm" he says:

2 Nephi 4:27-29

27 And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?

28 Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.

29 Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.


Nephi's journey down the path to conversion began with this same internal struggle, shortly after Lehi was inspired to leave Jerusalem:

1 Nephi 2:16

16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.


I've always wondered why Nephi includes the bit at the beginning of this verse about being young yet large in stature. My pondering leads me to think that Nephi basically is saying that he didn't have to follow his father into the wilderness. He could have stayed at Jerusalem if he so chose and would have fared well enough. Or, at least, that was his thinking at the time. I feel that makes sense in context with "wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers".

I don't think Nephi's character was much different from his brothers. The thing that changed Nephi is how he dealt with his desire to rebel against his father. Nephi prayed for grace, and he received it -- "I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart [emphasis mine] that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father". I personally find quite a bit of hope in this passage, because a.) Nephi recognized he had a problem (he didn't believe his father's words), b.) he prayed for help with his problem, and c.) the Lord, through grace, changed Nephi's heart.

When I am inclined to think that I can perfect myself, Nephi's example serves as a useful corrective. Nephi could not change his own heart (echoes of Matthew 5:36 -- "Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black."), the Lord had to do that for him. This is the embodiment of humility within the context of the Atonement for me. As I am a beggar before God, His grace is one of the main things for which I beg.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hello, Internet. And, How I Think the Book of Mormon is True

Greetings, internet, my name is Andrew. How are you today?

I'm a pretty normal-ish person who happens to love studying the LDS (i.e. those books held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to be scripture) scriptures. I don't pretend to have any "special" insight into anything, but I do like to write and think about scripture stuff, so here we are. My goal is to simply share what I think about what I'm reading, or what I'm thinking about, when it comes to the Scriptures and the Church today. No politics, no Mormon "culture" (I love the Gospel, but the culture is... Interesting) or any other things. Just scripture talk, from the perspective of a person who believes that the LDS canon is the word of God (or as close as we can get at this time). So, if that bores you or you don't care, then cool. Thanks for reading this far! Stay if you like, but I understand if you click off somewhere else because this isn't your thing.

And now, time for some first post goodness.

What do I mean when I say "I believe the Book of Mormon is true"

I believe that the Book of Mormon is true in that all the people who claimed to have written it actually did. So, when Mormon says he wrote something, I think he actually did. Same goes for all the other authors. Hurray for faith!

Some of the authors of the Book of Mormon, however, seemed concerned about their "imperfection". For instance:

Mormon 9:31

Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, neither them who have written before him;...

What does this mean? Reading further in that verse, we have:

...but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

The author here (Moroni, the son of Mormon after whom the book is named and its principle compiler) is probably not referring to grammar, spelling, or punctuation. For instance, Moroni writes a bit further along:

Mormon 9:34

But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.

This brings up all sorts of fun questions about how translation, and specifically Joseph Smith's version of it, works. Anyways, Moroni references that his grammar might not be the greatest (much like mine!) a verse before:

Mormon 9:33

...and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.

Thus Moroni already knows he's working against the odds by writing in an obscure language.

Therefore I believe that when Moroni says "ye may learn to be more wise than we have been", he's not talking about Hebrew language patterns written in "...reformed Egyptian..." (see Mormon 9:32). After all, there is no way I could possibly learn anything about the syntax and structure of Moroni's actual language by reading the Book of Mormon. It's worth noting that Moroni was also aware that the book would be translated by the power of God anyways, so perhaps he was less concerned about some of these language issues.

I believe that when Moroni is referring to "imperfection" and learning to be wise, he's talking about how the people of his time (and before) thought about the Gospel and the world. To quote from the Book of Mormon's title page (which was translated by Joseph Smith and written by this same Moroni):

...and now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement-seat of Christ.

What might these mistakes be? I want to strongly preface this -- I do not intend to try and poke "holes" in the Book of Mormon. For me, these things make the book more human, and to me testify that all the people who say they wrote in the Book of Mormon actually did. I will only share one example here that, to me, is meaningful in that regard.

I think this is a great example of where the thinking of certain authors is not consonant with how God views His children. Namely:

2 Nephi 5:21

And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

Now, lest I be burned at the stake for saying that a particular verse from the Book of Mormon isn't "true" in the doctrinal sense, I quote from the semi-recent Church essay on the subject of race and the priesthood:

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.

I may go a bit beyond the scope of this statement, but I personally believe that Nephi was simply parroting some sort of racism prevalent during his time when he wrote 2 Nephi 5:21 and other surrounding verses that refer to black skin color being an indication of wickedness. And, subsequently, I believe that we can be more wise than he was without denigrating all the other wonderful and awesome things he wrote about the Gospel.

We are all imperfect, and even when someone with authority says "thus sayeth the Lord" they can still be wrong. As I see it, this is in keeping with a.) people being human and having various irrational ideas about things, along with an imperfect ability to know when they're truly writing or speaking in the name of the Lord, and b.) Jacob 5, which I believe describes the Church and the world today:

Jacob 5:63-66

63 Graft in the branches; begin at the last that they may be first, and that the first may be last, and dig about the trees, both old and young, the first and the last; and the last and the first, that all may be nourished once again for the last time.

64 Wherefore, dig about them, and prune them, and dung them once more, for the last time, for the end draweth nigh. And if it be so that these last grafts shall grow, and bring forth the natural fruit, then shall ye prepare the way for them, that they may grow.

65 And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once, lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the trees of my vineyard.

66 For it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard; wherefore ye shall clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire, that they cumber not the ground of my vineyard; and thus will I sweep away the bad out of my vineyard.

The most important thing to the Lord is preserving the trees of the vineyard (see also Moses 1:39 in the Pearl of Great Price). That means us, and by "us" I mean the whole world. By accepting the humanity of the Book of Mormon's authors, I also accept my own humanity and the need for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It also requires humility on my part; both because I can't hide behind other people's faults (such as hiding my own racism behind Nephi's) and because I have to admit that I'm human just like everyone else.