“Judaism as a native language” — lessons for Mormons?

Thanks to a link from a Jewish friend (whose wife published an article there), I have become a devotee of the on-line version of Tablet Magazine (subtitle: “A New Read on Jewish Life”). The level of writing (and journalism) is excellent, and there are at least a few articles every week or so that I end up reading.

I was struck by one today, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year” by Mark Oppenheimer. He starts:

It’s the High Holiday season, the time of year when synagogues double or triple or quadruple in attendance, as barely affiliated Jews stream back through the sanctuary doors, looking for their yearly connection. Some are scared, others disdainful, many bored. And confused—lots of confusion. As someone who writes about religion for a living, I have conversations throughout the year with these “High Holiday Jews,” but also with other Jews, some of them regular worshippers, others infrequent, who are trying to figure out why Judaism is so hard for them. I’m not a rabbi and I don’t have any good answers, but I do have some reflections, which I hope will put some people’s minds at ease, maybe even help them.

His answer: practice:

Religious practice, like musical or athletic practice, is easier for some than for others. For some people, it is so difficult that they probably should not even bother. I have no ear for music, and if I wanted to learn guitar even reasonably well it would take so many hours, at the cost of so much frustration, that I should probably just skip it. For some people, religion is like that: They don’t get it, they don’t see why it is meaningful, their not-getting-it makes them angry or resentful or sad or bored, and they would always rather be doing something else. Such people should, I think, stop trying. Don’t worry that your bubbe is looking down from heaven ashamed of you; after all, you don’t believe in heaven anyway. On Yom Kippur this year, do something that brings you joy, that takes you out of yourself, that helps you reflect, but don’t come to synagogue.

For everyone else, however, those of you who feel that maybe religion holds something for you, some mystery you just haven’t unlocked yet, or connection to a tradition you value, think about those things you have mastered, maybe in arts or sports, that came in time, with some regular practice. Think how rewarding those things are now. Maybe religion is like that. And maybe the next time you go to synagogue, you should take a bucket of balls, and not worry if you double-fault.

I think this touches on the reason why so many Latter-day Saints, having stopped attending church for a period of time, find it hard to start up again even when they want to.

My own brush with inactivity happened, of all places, at BYU, during my senior year of college. My (former) wife and I were head residents at Heritage Halls (back when it was all-girls); I had the responsibility of going around every Saturday night starting at 1:30 am to (a) kick all guys out of the dorms and (b) make sure all the outside doors were locked. Since we’re talking about 48 apartments in two halls (Snow and Smith), it meant that I usually didn’t get to bed until 2:30 am or later, while the student ward we attended (I was executive secretary) met relatively early on Sunday morning. We had a year-old toddler, and it was easy to decide to sleep in instead of getting up and getting ourselves ready.

Then one Saturday night, we realized it had been several weeks since we had been to church. And here’s the interesting part: my first reaction was, “We need to get up in the morning and go to church”, while my second reaction was a fear of embarrassment — that when we walked in, everyone was going to ask us where we had been or make other related comments. The impulse not to go at all startled me, since I had always been and still considered myself a staunch, faithful member. We did get up, we did go, and I’ve never gone through a period of inactivity again, but since then, I have always had sympathy for those who would like to start going to church again, but find it hard to do so.

I think Oppenheimer summed up that challenge with this passage:

But the religion is not native to you anymore, so if you do want a greater ease with it, it will take some time. Just as with guitar, or basketball. Or French or Swahili. If they aren’t native, they take a little work.

Food for thought; go read the whole thing.  ..bruce w..

Time enough for love

(I originally posted this over three years ago over at Mormon Mentality. A friend asked me recently about thoughts on grace; I sent him a link to this post. I decided to move it over here, unedited.)

I’m still not sure what triggered this thought (and associated mental images), but I’m pretty sure it happened while listening to random (audio) chapters from the Book of Mormon on my iPhone (that’s the bulk of my scripture study these days — that and random audio chapters from the New Testament).

Let me start with a story I’ve told before (so if you’ve heard it before, apologies). A bit less than 30 years ago, I was visiting Utah from out of state and attended church with an acquaintance of mine. Said acquaintance had a PhD from the Ivy League, of which he was quite proud, and was at that time teaching at BYU; we attended his ward in Orem. Though I was not at that time a high priest, I attended high priest group meeting with him. When it was over, and we were walking back to his home from the chapel (this is Orem, after all), he said something to the effect of: “You know, I look around the high priest group, and I see men such as myself and [named a few others], all with PhDs and academic positions; and I also see 3rd- and 4th-generation farmers who never got beyond high school; and I marvel that the same church and gospel can encompass both.” To which I replied, “Maybe from where God sits, there isn’t any real difference.” He was not amused.

In the years since then, I have continued to dwell on that concept: that in most areas that we discern differences, the Lord sees few, if any. That’s why I smile when I hear the common dismissal of Abrahamic religion as “the local god of some wandering nomads.” We tend to be snobs of space, time, culture, education and wealth — what could we have in common with pre-literate Semitic tribes in 1000 BC? Again, from where God sits, I think the differences between our civilization and theirs are trivial and unimportant, much like two small kids arguing who has the nicer t-shirt. We tout our sophistication, as if sophistication ever led someone towards Christ-like service and love rather than away from it.

What struck me the other day is that we may well be just as myopic when it comes to duration (and circumstances) of mortal life. We see tragedy and inequality in lives “cut short” — while from where God sits, they’re all cut short, they are all cut infinitesimally short, and the major difference between dying at 5 and dying at 50 is that we have a touch more rope to hang ourselves with in the latter case. From an eternal perspective, we’re like 100 billion popcorn kernels popping within the space of a minute or so; the fact that some kernels took a bit longer than others to pop is a fine distinction and one irrelevant to the overall event.

Anne, bless her heart, worries about swearing, while God’s mind and love encompasses her, a tribal chief in Indonesia thousands of years ago, a baby girl put out to starve to death in 12th century AD India, and someone of uncertain gender walking around here on Earth 50 years from now and sees them all equal in His sight. One of the things that rang true in my heart as I learned and converted to the gospel some 43 years ago, and that has continued to ring true for those 43 years, is how encompassing God’s grace and love is.

None of this denies agency, sin, accountability, or evil. But for those of us who stick around in this life long enough to become accountable — and that’s probably less than half of everyone ever born on this planet — He gives us every break and opportunity to make things right and come back to Him.

His grace is not only greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine. And however long or short our lives, God always has enough time to love us home. ..bruce..

Administrative facepalm

facepalm

A little while ago, I was checking traffic to another one of my blogs and saw that for one visit coming in,  the referring page was from this blog. Curious, I dug into the details and saw that the referring post was one of the oldest on this blog, and that it was attempting to find another post on this blog. The problem was that when I first set up this blog, it used a subdomain of brucefwebster.com/aim rather than its own domain. Apparently, when I set up the separate adventures-in-mormonism.com domain and moved the blog over, I failed up modify any of the links among AIM posts that already existed. So for, oh, five years or so, they’ve been sending people to non-existent pages over at brucefwebster.com. Not sure how I missed that before now. I just went through and manually edited all the posts with the outdated links.

UPDATE [1810 MDT] — Further searching found that there are some external websites that link to the old brucefwebster.com/aim pages. I tried doing some .htaccess rule writing of my own, but couldn’t get it to work. So I found a WordPress plugin (Safe Redirect Manager) that worked with my first attempt.  This means that if there are any outdated links still lurking in my own posts as well, they’ll get automatically redirected.  ..bruce..

 

A few more thoughts on Sun Tzu, the Book of Mormon, and translation

About a year ago, I wrote a post on how my work with differing English translations of the same source text — Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (Suntzu pingfa) — led to some thoughts about the Book of Mormon and its translation process:

So, the underlying question is: how many different (valid) ways could there have been of translating the urtext on the plates — not just in particular word choices, but in order and connection of thoughts? By all historical accounts, Joseph was clearly receiving the translation by inspiration — leaving aside the fact that he didn’t read the Nephites’ language, his translation appears to have been entirely via the interpreters and the seer stone.

I’m currently drafting some of the introductory material to my own book (an updated edition of The Art of ‘Ware) and called out a detailed example. Here are a few extracts from that introduction:

For example, consider the following relatively simple passage as found in Chapter 7 of Suntzu pingfa:

Original Chinese:

稤 郷 分 眾
luè xiāng fēn zhòng
(plunder/loot/pillage) (countryside/village) (divide/separate/distribute)  (crowd)
[from zhongwen.com/bingfa.htm, chapter 7, 3rd block, 5th line, characters 5-8 from the left]

Translations:

  • Divide your troops to plunder the villages. [Gagliardi]
  • When you plunder the countryside, divide the wealth among your troops. [Sonshi]
  • In plundering the countryside, divide up your numbers. [Ames]
  • Invade a countryside and rule the people. [Huang]
  • When plundering the countryside, divide the multitude. [Denma]
  • When you plunder a district, divide the wealth among your troops. [Sawyer]
  • When plundering villages, divide the troops. [Zieger]
  • When pillaging villages, divide the spoils among the masses. [Mair]

I go on in my introduction to note:

Eight translators came up with at least three different meanings for this single four-character maxim. The closest to a majority translation is the idea of dividing up your troops to plunder the countryside, presumably to accomplish it more quickly. But three of the authors believe the maxim talks about spreading the looted wealth among the troops (or, at least “the masses”), presumably to keep them happy.  The Denma Group tries to have it both ways; their actual translation (“divide the multitude”) is ambiguous, while their own commentary on the maxim says, “Disperse your troops and distribute the goods among them.” The immediate context where the maxim appears mostly favors the “divide the troops” translation, since it’s talking about terrain and positioning — but this same chapter has a lot of focus on supplies and logistics and the impact of a lack thereof, so there is a strong argument for the “share the wealth” translation.

This, I think, underscores the absolute necessity of direct and explicit divine inspiration in translating the Book of Mormon, especially if the language[1] on the plates was more logographic than alphabetic (which Mormon 9:33 seems to suggest). In other words, if someone were given the plates along with a multi-volume Nephite-English lexicon, it’s quite possible they would still come up with a translation that differed considerably from what Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others — and two such translators would come up with translations that differed from each other’s. I think the Lord gave Joseph the translation that He wanted printed (though, as always, with human influences and errors along the way), and not necessarily a translation that any given ‘Nephite language scholar’ might have come up with.

For what it’s worth.  ..bruce..

[1] Or languages. We tend to assume that Nephi and Mormon/Moroni wrote using the exact same language, but that’s a bit like assuming British authors from 1000 AD and Stephen King write using the same language; heck, they don’t even use the same exact alphabet (though one evolved from the other). It’s not at all clear that Nephi and his immediate descendants could have read, unassisted, what Mormon and Moroni wrote on the plates, or even understood what they might have spoken to them out loud. In that light, it is telling that the Book of Mormon talks specifically about literacy training among the ruling families to be able to read the older records.

===========================

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE FOR WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: early readers of this post saw that I had to use tone numbers for xiāng fēn (i.e., xiang1 fen1) because WordPress kept eating the Unicode pinyin characters for ā and ē. Searching on the web verified that the core problem was that the Fantastico installation of WordPress (by which I set up this blog) sets as its default character collation latin1_swedish_ci, whereas what I needed was utf8_unicode_ci. I used the pHpMyAdmin app available under CPanel to edit the WP databases and change the collation, but (a) they didn’t seem to be (all) changing, and (b) the pinyin characters kept getting eaten. What finally worked was the following:

  • Using phpMyAdmin, expand the list of database tables for this blog.
  • In that list, look for wp_posts; expand it, and expand Columns under it.
  • In Columns, look for post_content and click on it.
  • This brings up a set of fields for post_content, including one labeled Collation with a drop-down menu. Select utf8_unicode_ci (it was at the very end of my drop-down list) and click on the Save button on the far right.

That did the trick. I suspect it also allowed me to put in the Chinese characters I subsequently added.

Mormon “mega-projects”?

Matthew Crandall has a provocative column over at Real Clear Religion on what he terms “Mormon mega-projects”: the Church Conference Center, City Creek Mall, the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, and the like. I haven’t quite decided yet if it’s a serious column or tongue-in-cheek.

The analysis and exposition through the first part of the column appears straightforward, at which point he sets forth his three suggestions for future mega-projects:

  • BYU-England: a metropolitan-style university aimed at providing a BYU-type experience for LDS students from Europe.
  • A “Waters of Mormon” chain of water parks.
  • A “Grand Nephite” flagship hotel in Salt Lake City.

The first idea was intriguing, though given the free or near-free college education available throughout much of Europe, I’m not sure how it would work. Beyond that, if the Church were to invest in a project like that anywhere, it would be in Latin America — and there the Church is going in the opposite direction, having just closed down its venerable high school in Mexico to convert it into a missionary training center.

The “Waters of Mormon” theme park is just too silly for words, whereas the “Grand Nephite” suggestion ignores the fact that the Church for nearly a century had a semi-luxury flagship hotel in downtown Salt Lake City — the Hotel Utah — which it closed and converted into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. As someone who travels to Salt Lake City several times a year, I don’t think that the city needs or could support another large semi-luxury hotel. It also ignores the fact that the Church has had a decades-long trend of divesting itself for-profit businesses.

Beyond that — and aside from the City Creek investment, which was done to halt the urban decay setting in around LDS Church Headquarters and Temple Square, not for revenue purposes — the LDS Church’s financial focus is primarily outside the United States. That is where the Church’s growth is taking place and where its infrastructure needs are.

I have a good friend who works full time for LDS Church property management on a regional basis here in the United States. He says that the Church has made it clear that infrastructure spending in the US and Canada — including upgrades to existing chapels and buildings, as well as construction of new buildings — will be held to a minimum in order to use that money elsewhere in the world.

In other words, if we see any future “mega-projects”, they are far more likely to be outside the US, and they will likely be tied closely to the Church’s mission statement: proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, redeem the dead, care for the poor and needy. No universities, no hotels, and certainly no water parks.

Mormons and hell, revisited

godandhell

Doug Gibson, the opinion editor at the [Ogden, UT] Standard Examiner, regularly touches on religious issues, usually dealing with the LDS Church. His latest post examines the concept of hell as found in much of mainstream Christianity; as usual, he pulls no punches:

The absoluteness of this doctrine is evil. If one does not accept Christ in the same manner of someone else, that individual is consigned to an eternal punishment in hell. Taken to its absurd conclusions, the vengeful God that hell-believers worship would consign to eternal torture an infinite amount of devout Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, and so on, who reject the entreaties of those who see only a narrow passage to heaven and a vengeful God punishing those who don’t “dot their i’s or cross their t’s.”

Doug has more to say, offering links to four films that actually depict the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” theology. Go read the whole thing.

As I wrote six years ago, back in the early days of this blog, Mormons actually believe in three types of hell, all successive, with almost everyone who somehow ends up there getting out after the first or second (and ending up in a kingdom of glory). The LDS doctrine of hell is both just and merciful, and it gets back to a point I made in another post over at Mormon Mentality:

[God's] grace is not only greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine. And however long or short our lives, God always has enough time to love us home.

The message of LDS doctrine is that it takes a very deliberate, determined effort to fend off God’s grace eternally; our salvation (after Christ’s atonement) results from informed choices we make, not upon chance, situation, or God’s arbitrary decisions. ..bruce..

I imagine a few heads will explode in certain corners

Dan Peterson, over at his excellent blog Sic et Non, reports the following:

A new two-volume Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics has just appeared from the venerable European publishing house E. J. Brill. It includes two articles requested by the editors from John A. Tvedtnes:

“Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon”

“Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon”

The web site for this publication appears to indicate that it is actually four volumes, not just two. And here’s a link to the online version showing that it does indeed have the two articles by Tvedtnes.  Well done, John.  ..bruce..

1 Nephi 22:7: “a mighty nation” = the Spanish Empire?

SpanishEmpire

Listening to the Book of Mormon on my iPhone while driving the other day, the following passage came up:

And it meaneth that the time cometh that after all the house of Israel have been scattered and confounded, that the Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles, yea, even upon the face of this land; and by them shall our seed be scattered. (1 Nephi 22:7)

Now, here in the States, we Mormons hear “a mighty nation among the Gentiles” and start chanting “USA! USA!” But I don’t think Nephi is referring to the US at all. I think in this particular passage he is referring instead to the Spanish Empire. Here’s why:

  • The US really didn’t become a “mighty nation” until the late 19th or early 20th Century. Spain, on the other hand, established a global empire pretty much coinciding with the discovery (by Spain) of North and South America at the end of the 15th Century, and it remained a mighty nation well into the 19th Century.
  • Spain conquered and claimed half of North America, all of Central America, and most of South America, in the process killing, enslaving, and scattering many of the native American inhabitants. The US, at the time of publication of the Book of Mormon, occupied less than half of its current extent and really hadn’t done much “scattering” of native Americans compared to what Spain had done for the previous 240 years.
  • For that matter, much of the “scattering” of native Americans that happened in the eastern half of the United States happened under British rule (see “British Territory” on the map above), before the US was founded.
  • And, somewhat redundantly, the US never occupied Mesoamerica, which is where Book of Mormon events most likely occurred.

I’m certain this isn’t a novel thought, and I suspect that Latter-day Saints in Latin America have always assumed that 1 Nephi 22:7 referred to Spain; it would be obvious to them. Some might point to the phrase “raise up…upon the face of this land” as meaning the mighty nation has to originate in the Americas, but I don’t know that this carries a lot of weight. What made the Spanish Empire mighty was not the resources within the borders of Spain over in Europe, it was the tremendous wealth and resources that Spain extracted from the Americas. After all, if you saw the map below (Spanish Empire in 1800) without knowing any historical geography, would you assume that the Empire in red sprang from the small red area near the middle of the map, as opposed to the massive red areas near the left side of the map? Food for thought.

 

Shades of Zarahemla

Over the past several years, I have been struck by something each time I read King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 2-6 to the combined Mulekites[1] and Nephites. Benjamin begins his speech with a long list of negatives, that is, things that he has not done during his reign as king. These include (Mosiah 2:10-16):

  • causing the people to fear him
  • presenting himself as “more than a mortal man”
  • seeking gold, silver, or “any manner of riches” from the people
  • confining them in dungeons
  • allowing them to make slaves of one another
  • allowing them to murder, plunder, steal, and commit adultery
  • levying taxes upon them
  • boasting of his own accomplishments
  • accusing the people of their own alleged failings.

Let’s look at the context of these comments. Benjamin’s father, Mosiah1, led the Nephites who would follow him out of the land of Nephi and ultimately into the land of Zarahemla, which was already occupied by the Mulekites and ruled over by a man named Zarahemla. There were only about half as many Nephites as there were Mulekites, and the two groups did not share a common language, yet Mosiah1 was made ruler over the combined people, and we hear no more about Zarahemla (though one of his descendants, Ammon, leads the group that goes to the land of Lehi-Nephi to see what happened to Zeniff’s party).

I have come to wonder if Benjamin, in preparing to extend his family’s dynasty by proclaiming his son Mosiah2 as the third successive Nephite king over the combined factions (in which the Nephites were still a minority), was drawing a contrast between how he (and presumably his father) had ruled vs. how the Mulekite kings (or, at least, Zarahemla) had ruled. After all, if neither Benjamin nor Mosiah1 had done any of these things — the rule of these two kings covering a period of what appears to be at least a few decades — why would Benjamin have felt compelled to start off his address with these reminders? So I think that Benjamin was reminding the combined people, and the Mulekites in particular, how much better things were under the Nephite kings than their previous ruler(s).

One could reasonably argue that Benjamin was instead drawing a contrast between himself and whomever was ruling over the Nephites in the land of (Lehi-)Nephi up until the time when Mosiah1 led a faction of the Nephites away from there over to Zarahemla, and that could well be true. But that comparison would have no real meaning for the Mulekites, who made up roughly 2/3rds of the population, while the Nephite portion of the population were all individuals (or descendants thereof) who had chosen to follow Mosiah1 away from those rulers.

Instead, I believe that the contrast — if that was in fact what Benjamin was doing — was with the prior Mulekite regime. In other words, I think the list above was a not-so-subtle reminder from Benjamin of how things had been for the Mulekites prior to Mosiah1‘s arrival and how they might be again if Mosiah2‘s coronation is not accepted.

If this does reflect how things were under Mulekite rule, it helps explain why the Mulekites, or a sufficiently large segment thereof, were willing to have Mosiah1 — accompanied by a smaller group of foreign people speaking a foreign tongue and practicing a foreign religion — show up and rule over them, without any apparent military conquest.

It also explains, or at least provides context for, the subsequent problems and wars over the next 160 years. Most of those problems/wars are caused by “Nephite dissenters” (many of whom I suspect are Mulekites) who work and fight constantly to (re)establish an authoritarian and self-indulgent kingship, in contrast to the Christ-like reign of the Mosiah1 lineage, followed by the reign of the judges. In other words, Benjamin may well have been warning the people, Mulekites and Nephites combined, against the temptation of such a regime. And it will be his successor, Mosiah2, who will abolish the Nephite kingship entirely, in part I believe in reaction to Alma and Limhi leading their respective groups into Zarahemla and telling the tale of King Noah — but likely also due to the “king men” faction present in the Mulekite/Nephite population.

———————
[1] The term “Mulekites,” of course, never appears in the Book of Mormon text itself, but it is useful shorthand for “the people living in Zarahemla (and relevant outlying regions) at the time Mosiah and his Nephite followers happened upon them .”