Bring all of the Good, just not Mary, Buddha, the Rebbe, the Koran…

President Hinckley’s message that potential converts from different religions should “bring all of the good” they have learned to Mormonism so that “we may add to it” is an interesting paradox in religious pluralism. It assumes that there is good to be found in other religions (an idea which may have been absurd to some General Authorities in the past), but it also implies that Mormonism contains a fuller collection of truth. Moreover, the challenge to “bring” makes it sound as though the potential converts will continue their religious practices; but is that be possible in a Mormon framework?

Perhaps President Hinckley did not intend for anyone to continue their old religious traditions. In that case, “good” is just a euphemism for “morals” or “ethics” – behavior that we can all agree on. But let’s assume the Prophet actually meant religious practice alongside ethics.

Could we ever envision a Mormon Buddhist? Since there are all kinds of Mormons, I should rephrase the question: could there ever be a Mormon Buddhist Bishop? If converts were to follow President Hinckley’s statement to its logical conclusion, what would motivate them to come to church after adding to their truth? Finally, what would church be like if converts kept all of their good traditions? Unitarian Universalism on crack? A religion salad bar?

Interesting Conflicts

In this month’s Friend, my wife and I were intrigued by a section toward the end recommending reading for youngsters. It included a nice range of books for children, classified by age groups, such as Eight Cousins and The Royal Bee. We also found two that made us raise our eyebrows (and not because of the footnote stating that “Occasionally, characters who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will drink coffee or tea.”). One, Hip, Hip, Hooray for Annie MacRae!, is authored by BYU faculty member Brad Wilcox, though it’s published by a non-church publisher, as far as I can tell. The other was more troubling: Sister Eternal, by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, published by Deseret Book.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems that there’s potential for conflicted interests here, when an official church publication recommends a book authored by a faculty member at its university, and another authored by an Apostle and published by its (for profit) publisher. I’m not saying that there’s a legal issue here (I’m no lawyer, did I say that already?). I’m only questioning whether they should have steered clear of these recommendations to avoid the very appearance of advertising.

It’s true, there is a disclaimer: “These reviews do not constitute official Church endorsement of these books, but the books have been carefully reviewed to ensure that Church standards are observed.” This seems weak to me, coming from an official, vetted church publication (especially since there’s the “but” clause). Where is the line?

The Documentary Hypothesis: Do you Believe?

Mormon scholars tend to be ambivalent towards the Documentary Hypothesis, the model of current biblical scholarship. The basic idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis – that the Bible is a composition of several sources which were developed over many years and then redacted into a single work – has definite implications for the way we view the Bible. Moreover, the Documentary Hypothesis poses a challenge to traditional claims about LDS scripture.

For example, the cosmogony (explanation of how the world was formed) from the Book of Abraham treats two literary sources as though they were originally paired together. That is the opposite of what we would expect if, A) the two sources were first distinct narrations and only later redacted into one work, as the Documentary Hypothesis claims, and B) Joseph Smith restored the ancient and original text of Genesis 1-3.

Anthony Hutchinson deals with these issues by recasting the Book of Abraham as “Mormon Midrash.” The Book of Abraham is Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Bible; it is not historically true, but is nonetheless valid in some sense. Kevin Barney wisely avoided taking a specific stance, although he admits that the Documentary Hypothesis rules out the possibility that Smith translated from a source dating to the time of Abraham. These are just two examples of the kinds of reactions LDS scholars give to the Documentary Hypothesis.

There are inconsistencies between the Documentary Hypothesis and a literal view of the Book of Abraham just as there are inconsistencies between the Genesis’ cosmogony and science. This post is just scratching the surface. I hope that other bloggers will continue to treat the problems that arise from our knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis. What I would like to see right now is your opinions of the theory’s overall conclusions. Is it a valid representation of the formation of the Bible? Do you accept the major conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis? And, if so, how have you had to reformulate your beliefs to keep in line with the DH? Or, put another way, how have you had to reformulate your views of the DH in order to keep them in line with your faith?

(Note: the answer “I see no problem at all” may help you sleep better at night, but it will make for a boring post).

Mormon Studies, Big Money and U.

At the risk of sending our blog off on a tangent, I think we should consider one other aspect of the Mormonism/religious studies/BYU issue: what about the redder, better, and more secular school slightly north of Provo? Why doesn’t the University of Utah have a religious studies department? Harris Lenowitz, professor of Hebrew and Judaism at the U of U, once answered this question. But what do you think?


Regardless of whether or not the Utah legislature is to blame, we can all be fairly sure that it’s not for lack of interest. Most people I know from the U of U would have loved to take more classes in religion (and not just at the institute). The interest is there, the resources could easily be brought in, so what is stopping the U of U from developing a program in religion? It seems to me that Lenowitz may be right. If that’s the case, perhaps we should be concerned about how the new Mormon studies chairs will be funded. I’ve heard arguments on both sides. Some professors I’ve spoken with say that funding is really a non-issue, while others are worried that academic freedomwill be limited on account of the donors.

NKOTB: Handle

We wish to extend the warmest welcome to our newest blogger, Handle. Handle is an experienced blogger and participant in interesting conversations relating to Mormonism. We are pleased that he has agreed to share his expertise and we look forward to his posts. Hooray!

Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU

On the advice of more experienced bloggers, I’m posting a (very slightly modified) comment I made on diahman’s post:

I’ve got to respond to (and disagree with) ben’s statement:

I would actually put up BYU’s new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.

I agree in nuce with ben’s other posts and the fruitful discussion regarding the creation of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. From all I can tell, it’s giving BYU religion professors whose ancient Near Eastern expertise has long lain dormant the chance to dust off the cobwebs and get back to their training. It’s great to see guys such as Kent Jackson, Dana Pike, and David Seely teaching things they were trained to do at world-class universities (UMich, UPenn, UMich, respectively) under the biggest names in the field (D.N. Freedman, Jeff Tigay).

What is more, this is not, as far as I can tell, a rehashing of the old degree, but contains some perhaps unexpected items, the most noteworthy being the innocuously named “ANES 363: Hebrew Bible Studies.” Its description promises to make some waves, however: “Current analytical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.” This will include, if there is truth in advertising, the various types of criticisms most pertinent to Biblical Studies: Source Crit, Rhetorical Crit, Text Crit, etc. I wait with baited breath to see how this goes over. I’m guessing Seely will do a great job, but I’m anxious to see what kind of oversight, if any, will arise.

My reasons for begging to differ from ben, however, are a result of the problem of the Religion Department itself. Were this major offered primarily by, say, a Near Eastern Studies Department, two or three profoundly weak points could be resolved:

1) The Hebrew instruction could be taught by other than grad students, and in a much more robust way than currently done. (This point does not carry over to the Classics department, which has a much more rigorous stance.)

2) The core text classes should be offered by other than religion faculty. A BYU OT or NT class, in my experience and judging from the range of professors allowed to teach these, tends not to teach the text of the OT or NT in the way normally done in “Biblical Studies” programs. (I know there are exceptions.) But the bottom line is that an ANES major can be instructed in OT or NT by those not trained in OT or NT and . This is a fundamental flaw in a degree that purports to be ANES and not “Religious Education”.

3) This major would begin to rank with others nationwide if its faculty participated in the (national and international) field. I’ve heard rumors that one or two BYU rel profs have begun to start publishing in other (non-LDS) venues, but BYU is not known in the least for its OT/NT scholarship. Two factors seem to contribute to this isolation:

a) the Religion Department, which houses most of the core ANES faculty (judging by the web site’s list of “interested” professors and by those that have actually taught ANES core courses) allows LDS publications to count for rank advancement, so Ensign articles count, Deseret Book publications count, etc. These are much easier to churn out, with the result that no one takes the time and effort to engage in the wider field. Plus, LDS pubs are much more lucrative than Biblical Studies monographs, making the choice even easier.

and b): There is no member of the (again, Religion) faculty that engages in the mainstream of Biblical Studies. Perhaps for obvious reasons, BYU is not producing scholarship on the fundamental aspects of Biblical research. The professors, as far as I can tell, are relegated to “safe” areas: Dead Sea Scrolls/II-temple texts, Moabite language, etc. Why is there no BYU prof, for example, writing on the Doc Hypothesis, from any perspective? Why do our only LDS treatments of this topic come from non-specialists and amateurs?

Until such fundamental issues were addressed, I think I’d send my kid elsewhere for Biblical Studies. But there’s hope on the horizon.

BYU’s Dept. of Religious “Education”

I’m sure many of us have realized that BYU’s Religion Department uses the title “Religious Education” rather than “Religious Studies”. BYU-Hawaii even refers to their religion department as “The Department of Religious Education”.

There seems to be a distinction that Church schools are trying to make by differentiating themselves as religious “educators” rather than religious “studiers”. The home page of BYU’s religious department states that their mission is “to build the Kingdom of God by teaching and preserving the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” “Education” in this respect seems to be about fostering good members of the Church that are well versed in their tradition. Personally I can see the role for such a program; but are we losing something by “educating” in this manner? I would have to say that personally I left BYU not even knowing how much I really didn’t know. In other words, while I feel like I learned about Mormonism I was completely unaware that there was a world of “religious studies” going on outside of Mormonism; and that Mormonism in all actuality has so few voices taking place in the larger conversations.

The other issue I’d like to raise is, could (or should) BYU ever have a Religious Studies Department? If so how could such a thing ever come to pass? The background behind this question is that Utah State has started a BA in religious studies ( http://www.usu.edu/provost/forms/pdf/USU_religious_studies11_10_05.pdf); and in some regards I can’t help but feel that demand is abundant, and if BYU doesn’t develop a religious studies program they will continue to sit on the sidelines of the conversations about religion which ironically is also about themselves.

Pious Pumpkins


This time of year always gets me thinking about how I can express what I feel about the gospel on a pumpkin. I mean, what better way to show your testimony that through the medium of a pumpkin? I can’t think of any. The pumpkin is a symbol of Christ because it grows from a tiny seed. Fortunately, someone else shares my desire to make a Christ pumpkin, and even a Gordon B. Hinkley pumpkin. Thank goodness!

Comments Contest! Real Prizes!!


Dear Readers,
We have been having a good number of visitors to our site since our humble beginnings. We are grateful that people have continued to come and hopefully enjoy our musings. However, our comment/vistor ratio seems rather small. Our view is that we haven’t yet had the critical mass of comments to really get the conversation going, even though we have plenty of people visiting! So we have devised a solution: a contest. From now until Nov 12, we will be keeping track of the most and the best comments (judged from our secret, strict formula). All are eligible, including Mark Butler, DKL, and the snarkers.

The prize will be:
1) One movie ticket gift certificate to a theater near you.
2) The highest public praise.
3) A guest blogger spot at Urban Mormonism!

As part of our drive to increase the conversations at our site, we, the Urban Bloggers also plan to have a new post every 36 hours over the next two weeks. Start your comments now!

Is Every Nation the Gathering Place for its Own People?

The concept of gathering is a central feature of Mormonism. We often talk of the physical gathering of the early saints—a literal move together to establish a Zion-like society. And we talk of the shift, in later Mormon history, where “[e]very nation is the gathering place for its own people” (spoken by Bruce R. McConkie in 1972 and reiterated by Russell M. Nelson in Oct. Conference). But how literally are we to take this? Given recent global trends making “trans-nationalism” more possible, the Chinese Saint (for instance) could very well be born, raised, and die in America without even returning “home” to China. In this light is it still an injunction for the Mexican saint to gather to Mexico? The Nigerian saint to Nigeria? Etc.?

Should we still hold to the notion of “Every nation [as] the gathering place for its own people”? The larger question is how does globalization impact our conception of “gathering”?.]