On Cruises, Cash, and BYU Religious Education

Guest post from a friend of the blog. I should also point out that the behavior criticized by the author is not illegal nor even necessarily disingenuous:

It is no secret that a remunerative relationship exists between BYU Religious Education faculty and various LDS publishing houses, most notably Deseret Book. This is categorically different than your average professor writing a textbook and trade book. The physics prof doesn’t make the rounds speaking at EFY, Women’s Conference, Education Week, Time Out for Women, etc. They are not invited to speak at various local church functions (ward, stake, seminary, institute). I doubt many of these Rel Ed profs are openly hawking their publications at the latter venues, but you can see how opportunity presents itself to mention one’s latest book during one’s talk. It’s a bit of a gray area when it comes to Mormon concepts of priestcraft (see 2 Ne 26:29).

This brings me to something I have only recently noticed: BYU Religious Education faculty and cruises. There is a Utah County business called Cruise Lady that offers LDS themed cruises and tours (e.g. Alaska, Europe, “The Book of Mormon Lands”) headlined by local LDS celebrities (e.g. Michael Ballam, Michael McLean, some Osmonds). But a little under half of the sixty or so headlining celebrities are or have been professors or have taught in BYU’s College of Religious Education. This feels unseemly. If it does not to you, consider this standard Headliner Bio:

“Alonzo L. Gaskill is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, where his primary teaching focus is World Religions. Brother Gaskill converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–from Greek Orthodoxy–in November of 1984. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the temple, symbolism, and world religions. He and his wife, Lori, are the parents of five children.”

It’s all there. BYU Religious Education cred? Check. Appearance of legit academic chops? Check. Interesting back story? Check. LDS cred (i.e. large family)? Check. But Gaskill is not the most egregious case of trading on one’s official and unofficial standing in the LDS community for free cruises and extra income. There are current and former deans of BYU Religious Education headlining these junkets. Current Dean Brent Top, former Dean Terry Ball, and former Dean Robert Millet all offer tours. Associate Deans (Kent Jackson), department chairs (Camille Fronk Olson), and directors of BYU’s Ancient Near Eastern Studies program (Eric Huntsman) are also featured. It is one thing to write and profit from books for the Rel Ed/Deseret Book/Ed Week nexus. At least that has some sheen of respectability for egalitarian spreading of the good news. But cruises and cash? I’m sure they figure it’s no different than business profs doing some consulting on the side. But of course, rather than advice on strategic planning or marketing, the Rel Ed Deans and profs are providing gospel tidbits for the entertainment of wealthy Latter-day Saints. This is no longer a gray area.

But maybe you still feel OK about this. What do you say to former BYU Rel Ed professor George Durrant? Here is his Headliner Bio in full:

“Current sealer at the Mt. Timpanogos Temple; author of more than 50 books including the popular Love at Home—Starring Father and Don’t Forget the Star; has taught religion at BYU; worked in many capacities for the Church Education System; and also served as director of Priesthood Genealogy. He served as president of the Kentucky Tennessee Mission, president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT and recently in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.”

If that does not strike you as disagreeable or well past the gray area, you can reserve an Ocean View room for you and your spouse to hear Prof Durrant and Prof Susan Easton Black co-headline a cruise to Hawaii this September for $2,878.50, not including airfare, excursions, gratuities, and, of course, drinks. The Junior Suite will run you a hair under $5,000.00.

To the Editors of the Deseret News

Dear Sir / Ma’am:

I was interested to read in your edition of Thursday, January 21st an article by Dr. Daniel C. Peterson about a book by James R. Hutchinson engaging various aspects of so-called Historical Jesus research.

I was also interested to see that Peterson does not go much beyond the description of the book as found on Amazon; following it so closely that a link to Amazon would have saved column-inches and allowed Peterson to engage more robustly with the work itself.  For instance, rather than superficially discrediting some aspects of Historical Jesus research as Peterson suggests, readers would have learned more of Hutchinson’s primary purposes.

Continue reading “To the Editors of the Deseret News”

To the General Presidents of the Women’s Auxiliaries

Dear Sisters,

As a Relief Society president in a small unit outside of Utah I have watched with interest the roll-out of the Church’s policy on gay marriage, cohabitation, and the children of gay parents who live or have lived in stable relationships. I would like to ask one question and make one request. My question is this:

Were the three of you consulted about these policies?

Continue reading “To the General Presidents of the Women’s Auxiliaries”

Polygamy and Same-Sex Marriage: The Contagion Theory

The recent policy changes in the LDS church treat polygamy and same-sex marriage as analogous in two ways. First, they are explicitly defined as “apostasy,” resulting in automatic church discipline. Second, the children of such relationships receive the highest level of scrutiny before they are allowed to join the church. Why are these two kinds of relationships, and the children of such relationships, subject to such treatment? We might note that other sexual and relationship sins will result in church discipline, including fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts. However, this does not explain why the children of polygamous and same-sex relationships are also subject to scrutiny. Children of fornicating or adulterous parents are not excluded from church membership or put under ecclesiastical monitoring.

Continue reading “Polygamy and Same-Sex Marriage: The Contagion Theory”

The Future of Mormonism

As has frequently been noted by a variety of commentators, modern Mormonism seems to be entering what will be a very difficult cultural transition during the 21 century, where one of the defining issues will be whether the church will allow for greater cultural, social, and intellectual diversity among its ranks and still be able to maintain a sense of traditional communal identity or whether conservative forces will enact further retrenchment, thus leading to greater social fragmentation and disaffection at the margins.

So far it’s been a pretty rocky road. The church has lacked any kind of coordinated plan or definite vision about how to handle the democratizing Internet era and the relatively new empowerment of lay individuals to think, question, and doubt. Responses have been ad hoc, allowing for reactionary and authoritarian views to fill the void at various institutional levels.

So what do you think the future holds? For example, will there come a time when members of the church will not be marginalized for not believing that the BoM is historical? or to openly affirm different perspectives on God, history, the nature of spirituality, etc? Will the LDS church take more of an interest in so-called liberal causes, so as to appear less entangled in American cultural politics, or more positively stated, to show that it cares about the full gamut of human morality and social justice at the heart of both ancient and modern scriptural theologies? How do you see the church evolving this century?

Our Dirty Hands

In 1973 Michael Walzer wrote an article entitled “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” In the article, Walzer argued that involvement in politics entails confronting difficult situations where values conflict. Adjudicating between values requires making compromises; and while most compromises can be understood in terms of mutual concessions interested parties make in order to further some common good, other situations are more extreme. These situations call for compromise in the sense of harming or demeaning something valuable. Walzer explains these “dirty hands” situations, using the example of a politician making a backroom deal with a dishonest ward boss:  Continue reading “Our Dirty Hands”

Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood

I’m sure all these things have been said before and better, but in order to satisfy my need to respond to some of the assertions presented as self-evident arguments against opening the LDS priesthood to women, I collect my responses here. Here are my top five non-arguments [with a sixth I couldn’t resist]:

1. Men and women are not the same.

2. Women have moral authority.

3. There is no scriptural precedent for ordaining women.

4. There is scriptural precedent for the denial of equal treatment of women.

5. Women have had the priesthood since 1844.

BONUS: Protests and complaints have never resulted in change or revelation.

Continue reading “Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood”

The Problem of Gendered Voice in the Church Memo to leaders of Ordain Women

The non-accidental choice of the Church to issue the recent press release through a female spokesperson struck me as particularly problematic, but it may also be indicative of positive change on the horizon. For me the main issue relates to the deployment of the gendered voice of the author as a strategy in crafting the message, a strategy that might reveal itself under present circumstances as a logical quandary. Continue reading “The Problem of Gendered Voice in the Church Memo to leaders of Ordain Women”

Doubt and the Dangers of Reading Alone

A lot has already been said about the Hans Mattsson article in the NYT. One issue, however, that I feel needs further exploration is how crises of faith might be approached from a more therapeutic or pastoral angle. Below are some excerpts from a sacrament talk I delivered at the beginning of this year. I hope it might contribute to the recent discussions of doubt and faith crises in Mormonism.

This invitation to speak coincided with a presentation I attended on Islam. The presenter studied Muslims who had experienced what we might call a crisis of faith within their community. Some Muslims found ways of remaining within Islam and others decided to leave. One of the interesting things the presenter noted is that many of the Muslims he encountered had their initial crisis of faith when they were “reading alone.” In other words, these Muslims explained that their doubts about Islam began when they came across information that challenged their faith. They felt that they encountered, or at least, studied this information alone. While in this context, “alone” could be taken literally, to mean that they confronted this information by themselves—reading it in the privacy of their own homes, perhaps, either in a book or on a computer—but instead we can take it more broadly to mean that they felt alone when going through some crisis of faith. They were alone in the sense of feeling that no one within their community could sympathize with their struggles.  Continue reading “Doubt and the Dangers of Reading Alone”

The Evolution of Faith: or is God Creating a Better Mormonism?

Not long after the Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity was published, I happened to encounter it on the shelf for new releases in my local library. I had been struggling for some time with feeling alienated from my religion of birth, having come to the realization that there was much in it that I could no longer accept as having a divine basis and aspects of its theology, culture, and spiritual practices that I believed were ultimately unproductive and harmful.

This was a difficult time for me, and in some sense the hurt still lingers. But I feel that my encounter with this book was somewhat providential, for it gave me a resource with which to work through my feelings. In Philip Gulley I found a kindred spirit, someone who saw in traditional Christianity many of the same problems that I had begun to recognize in Mormonism. He spoke with refreshing honesty and compassion, and in ways that resonated with the parts of my Mormon identity and belief system that I still held on to and valued.

For those unfamiliar with Gulley, he is a Quaker pastor living in Danville Ohio who has recently become well known as an advocate for a more progressive Christianity. As a former Catholic and then evangelical Quaker, his own religious beliefs have evolved over time, to the chagrin of some (he even admits to keeping a Book of Mormon on his shelf next to his Bibles and other religious texts). The life experiences that have propelled him on this spiritual journey are described at various points in the Evolution of Faith as exemplifications of the theological points he is trying to make. As a deeply personal and yet theologically vigorous narrative, he weaves his autobiographical storytelling with discussions of the major topics dealt with in traditional Christian theologies (Revelation, God, Jesus, Spirit etc).

Gulley begins in the first chapter by noting that Christianity has changed immensely since its origin two thousand years ago, that it has constantly evolved and is likely to continue to do so. And recently certain social, scientific, and technological developments have expedited the necessity for change. He mentions religious diversity (more people than ever are living with others of different religious or non-religious persuasions), scientific advancement, the expansion of communication possibilities, and the diminished role of the institutional church as the sole religious authority for interpreting spiritual matters. More people than ever are questioning prior orthodoxies, “making the next stage of Christianity not only possible, but inevitable” (5)

The rest of the book is his proposal for how Christianity could evolve to meet the challenges of our time. To summarize, his vision is not that of “a radical and unilateral overhaul of the faith,” but “a possible way forward that not only honors the ethos of Jesus but is conversant with our time and culture” (3).

I think that we as LDS members could learn much from Philp Gulley’s creative and brave exploration of the future of Christianity. It is not difficult to see that the LDS church faces many of the same challenges as other organized Christian religions. The information cocoon that so many of us were raised in has now started to crack, in some cases wide open, and an intellectual and religious ferment is now in full swing. Many are leaving the church because of this, while others are making direct requests for the church to change attitudes or policies. Still others have created alternative online communities to find support and to work out cognitive dissonance, communities which, as far as I can tell, often have a religious and cultural ethos distinctly different from what is regularly encountered in the institutional church and its local wards.

What struck me as I read through Evolution of Faith is how often I felt that I could replace his discussion of Christianity with Mormonism as the subject and that the sense of the passage would retain its relevance and applicability. In my own little world, it felt as though he were speaking prophetic words to the LDS tradition (ironic, I know), words that could help it better embody many of the humanistic principles it already claims to believe in.

Instead of reviewing the rest of the book, I thought that I would simply pull out a few highlight quotes and give readers a taste of his writing. They are some of my favorite from the first quarter of the book. But please, if you feel a temptation to dismiss the ideas contained in them as so much liberal nonsense, go read the Evolution of Faith itself and get the personal context to the quotes.


“Ironically, the more the church resists this evolution, the more it will hasten the change, for its efforts to preserve the status quo will only emphasize its more negative strategies of rigidity, control, and fear, thereby alienating the very people it wishes to influence” (5-6)


“The theology in which many of us were raised fit hand in glove with the prevailing understanding of the church. It was exclusive, rarely acknowledging the merits of other religions. It emphasized a God above and beyond us, mirroring the ecclesial structure of the day that elevated leadership and concentrated power in the hands of an exalted few. It was decidedly privileged in nature and view, reflecting the cultural mores of the richest nations. Its God took their side, blessed their priorities, and helped secure their wealth and status” (7)


“My hope is that an evolving Christianity will reflect the egalitarian spirit of Jesus, not the elitism of an entrenched church. It will no longer presume that having male genitalia uniquely equips someone for leadership. Nor will it assume heterosexuals are capable of ministry in a way homosexuals are not. It will listen carefully to its young people, letting their enthusiasm and yearning for authenticity inspire a passionate and relevant faith. It will console the brokenhearted, speak for the voiceless, befriend the weak, challenge the powerful, and call to leadership those who handle power well” (8)


“An evolving Christianity will not insist we believe the absurd, affirm the incredible, or support a theology that degrades humanity. It will be a friend of science, working joyfully alongside the best minds in the world on a common mission to embrace and enhance life. This Christianity will talk less and act more” (8)


“I’ve often thought revelations and insights about God ought to be handled [like a fragile and defenseless bird], loosely and softly so as not to smother or harm them. Unfortunately, this is usually the opposite of how divine truths are held. Our tendency is to grab them tightly, seizing them, squeezing out their vibrancy and vitality until life is gone from them. Indeed, one of the first things we do is codify and sanctify our encounters with the Divine… We freeze the moment, believe it represents the totality of the divine character, insist that our encounter is superior to our neighbor’s, and move quickly to define, and consequently limit, the manner in which God is encountered”  (21-22)


“For too long, the pastor’s function has been that of propagandist, perpetuating a party-line view of God that is not always helpful or sound. When the pastor is a mouthpiece for a settled view of God and rewarded for his or her adherence to that view, the incentive to expand our understanding of God is lost, the church becomes spiritually stagnant, and the cause of truth is not well served” (34)


“But what if exploration were the theme of one’s spiritual journey? What if “rightness” were of secondary importance and what was paramount was the freedom to investigate uncharted spiritual ground? What if God were not honored by our commitment to orthodoxy, but by our willingness to traverse the difficult terrain of wisdom and discernment? If that were the case, God would not be owed our fear and submission, but our most probing questions. True blasphemy would be ignoring our responsibility to engage the world and reality at the deepest level of which we are capable. It would be to meet creation with apathy, with no appetite for inquiry, knowledge, or enlightenment” (36)


“But when the chief aim of religion is indoctrination, then humility, enlightenment, and open-mindedness fall by the way. Instead, efforts are made to “cement” our thinking early in life, encouraging us to accept the settled doctrines of the church. Traditionally, this has been done by urging children to either confirm their faith in more mainstream churches or to “accept Jesus” in more evangelical churches. Though the method is different, the goal is the same — to establish early in one’s life a pattern of assent and obedience to religious beliefs the child can’t yet possibly know to be true” (39)


“Though I have rejected the salvific exclusivity of the Roman and evangelical churches, I do not dispute that there is but one way to follow God — the way of compassion, mercy, and love. Wherever those virtues are practiced, God is present, with no respect or regard for the religious boundaries we humans have devised. This is the sole test of godly religion: does this religion increase our capacity and ability to love? Whether God is called Elohim or Allah, whether the worship of God is centered in mosque, temple, shrine, or church, whether Jesus is honored as savior, prophet, or teacher, whether none or all of the religious dogma we value are met, if love is present, God is there” (46)


“If Christianity is to evolve, as it surely must if it is to thrive, we must first unchain ourselves from the weight of dead habit that has dulled our minds and stilled our spirits” (53)