The Bridal Chamber

The Gospel of Philip from the Nag Hammadi corpus contains some important passages about a kind of celestial marriage in the “bridal chamber.” It is not uncommon for Latter-day Saints to appeal to this text as evidence for a kind of parallel to Mormon notions of eternal marriage found in ancient Christianity. I hope to show that such a reading of this text is mistaken, and that appeals to the Gospel of Philip to butress Mormon apologetic aims are an example of the problem that much apologetic work faces, that of decontextualizing ancient material to produce systematic misreadings. Rather than an approval of a particular kind of ritual marriage that unites a mortal husband and wife together for eternity, the bridal chamber is best understood as BYU Prof. Gaye Strathern’s dissertation, “The Valentinian Bridal Chamber,” argues, “within the context of an ascetic lifestyle where the body and its passions were renounced in favor of a higher spiritual lifestyle” (i).
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Spiritual Twinkies and Acceptable Criticism

In the 1990’s, I recall a strong movement against a pernicious offense in church education. The spiritual twinkie was soundly criticized as a useless item of spiritual nourishment, bringing only temporary satisfaction, but failing to build a solid diet. (It is likely that such discourse persists today, but I am not in those circles, so I speak here in the past tense). Like the the milk before meat metaphor, the twinkie came to occupy a particular kind of spiritual nourishment that was seen as neither preparatory, nor advanced, but somehow negative. This kind of spiritual junk food described, well, faith-promoting rumors, false stories, non-scripturally based teachings, etc.
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This weekend Bill Maher’s movie Religulous will be released. I plan to see it. The title is a neologism combining “religious” and “ridiculous,” and gives you some sense of the tone the film will take. The trailer’s soundtrack is “Crazy” by Knarles Barkley. Of course, I haven’t seen it yet since no one has, but I’ve seen him appear on the talk show circuit promoting the movie. I have also seen the trailer, as well as years of Bill Maher on HBO and his appearances on other talk shows. (His website features the South Park episode about Mormons, incorrectly labeled “John Smith.”)

Maher has been a voice with the New Atheists long before they were new, and his fiery brand of anti-religious sentiment literally is the fulfillment of the concerns of right-leaning and moderate people about the indignant anti-religiousness of certain aspects of the Left. He is the worst nightmare of the Right as Sarah Palin is the worst nightmare of the Left. The film’s agenda is not really that subtle, and with the clips that I have seen I feel comfortable making some preliminary assessments of the quality of the work. I am unimpressed.
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Is Mormonism Euhemerism?

The ancient Greek thinker Euhemerus was a mythographer whose reputation has lived on until today as an influential theory for explaining religion. He argued that mythological accounts were records of actual events that developed and were embellished in their retelling. The practice of divinizing ancient leaders in Hellenic cultures (a practice shared by the Egyptians and later Hellenistic rulers, including the emperor cult of the Roman era) served for Euhemerus as an interpretive tool to unlock the significance of the myths. He suggested that they were all based on historical tribal leaders whose subsequent memory transformed them into the gods.
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Smells and Bells

“Smells and bells” is a short-hand, colloquial way of speaking about high church liturgy, especially Orthodox and Catholic. It is sometimes contrasted with “Happy Clappy” low-church liturgy of Pentecostals, Baptists, and many “non-denominational” churches. I’d like to consider LDS liturgical life in contrast to the smells and bells form to uncover a bit about what sorts of knowledge and experience these rituals are meant to convey.
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African American Spirituals and the Mormon Pioneers

In honor of the 161st anniversary of the Saints entering the Salt Lake Valley, I would like to explore the relationship between two of the most profound spiritual movements of the 19th century: ante-bellum African American spirituals and the rise of Mormonism. While the vast majority of work with regard to African Americans and early Mormonism has focused on the explicit role that African Americans played in Mormonism, and LDS attitudes to African Americans, I would like to examine some shared themes, narratives, and assumptions, especially in the period between Mormon migration and the beginning of the Civil War. At the outset, I acknowledge that such a comparison does not in any way entail an equality of suffering between Mormons and slaves, only some shared circumstances and themes expressed lyrically.
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A Modicum of Modernism

This post arises from one of the issues raised in Nitsav’s Apologia. (Since it’s now, like, 130 comments long, I am sure we’ll never need any other identifier for that post.) At some point in the middle of all those comments, we got on to a discussion of how others handle the problematic issues raised by close study of the Bible, and from there to the modern Catholic approach to scripture. Since I come out of the Catholic intellectual tradition with respect to scripture, I decided I’d venture some thoughts. So by the end of this we’ll be at Dei Verbum and so forth, but right now we’ll start with the Modernist Crisis.

Modernism is one of those terms whose definition sometimes depends on just who is speaking. For our purposes, we’ll start with the idea that modernism is a way of thinking about the world that holds that folks can shape and improve their situation with the help of science, technology, and experimentation. What follows from this is that pretty much everything is examined, with the aim of determining what might be holding back progress. When something is identified as impeding progress, changes are advocated in order to bring about the desired outcomes. Therefore, modernism is in tension with traditional forms of art, thinking, religion, literature, etc., etc., and especially with the authority that supports these traditions. Since religions are typically pretty traditional with vertical authority structures and all, I am sure you can already see the train wreck in the distance.

Although Protestants made the leap into modernism first, the movement and the crisis it generated was not limited to them. Among Catholics, modernism was a pejorative expression first used about 1905 to describe a very loose association of scholarly trends in Catholic thinking. After examining the current state of the Catholic world, the modernists became convinced that Catholicism was not inherently incompatible with modernity and a synthesis was possible. Progress, however, was being held up and Catholics were behind Protestants.
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Experience or Doctrine?

One of the recent debates in LDS intellectual circles has been whether or not Mormonism is about orthodoxy or orthopraxy. As far as I can remember, this debated heated up after Jim Faulconer’s 2002 Yale conference presentation on this topic. This debate has more or less died down, largely because people realized that it was a false dichotomy between the two options, and everyone recognized that it was a little bit of both. Today’s LDS Newsroom, however, seems to intervene in this debate with the following announcement:

SALT LAKE CITY | 6 Jun 2008 | The religious experience of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based on a spiritual witness from God that inspires both heart and mind, creating an interpersonal relationship directly with the divine. It does not require one to pass a rigorous theological test. Nor does it demand the extreme self-denial and seclusion of asceticism. Rather, this unique individual experience unfolds in the natural course of everyday living. Thus, the beliefs of Latter-day Saints are not rooted in concepts and principles, detached from the realities of life. They are grounded in a much deeper level of experience that motivates individuals to action.

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The Mormon God of Lost Objects

In many ways, the God of Mormonism is the patron saint of Lost Objects. Our relationship to this God is so close, to the point of calling him a “friend” at times, that he can help us retrace our steps to find some misplaced money, or most commonly, our keys. I admit that I have often utilized this particular service in my prayers.

God’s intimate involvement in our lives is one of the most central themes of Mormonism. Our testimony meetings are filled with accounts of God’s participation in the most mundane aspects of our existence. He can help us decide or know all sorts of things. For Mormons, the Spirit guides us to know the “truth” of all things; seriously, all things, especially the lame ones. Continue reading “The Mormon God of Lost Objects”

Mormon Literalism and the Body

Recently, Terryl Givens has celebrated one of the Mormon “heresies” (his term) of “literalism.” He argues that Mormonism has eschewed the modern movement towards metaphorical understandings of religion, insisting upon its “literal” relationship to certain “facts,” such as the First Vision, the materiality of the Book of Mormon, and even literalized heaven by making it material. This literalism, however, is distinct from fundamentalist Christianity which insists on a different kind of biblical literalism and historical accuracy, in which areas Mormons have been more flexible. What I think is important to note here is that literalism is always selective, always partial. Some things are always chosen to be taken literally, and others ignored. The question is never whether or not literalism is the operative paradigm, but what things are taken as literal and why.
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