Sunday, December 30, 2012

WWE - A Not-So-Novel Way to Read the Book of Mormon

 And I don't understand why I sleep all day
And I start to complain that there's no rain
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake
And it rips my life away, but it's a great escape

- Blind Melon, "No Rain," Blind Melon (Capitol, 1992)

My second post at Worlds Without End is entitled "A Not-So-Novel Way to Read the Book of Mormon." I was inspired by one of my dad's stories from his missionary lessons (he is a convert) in which he called the Book of Mormon "a good novel." After I came across a couple posts at the Harvard Business Review blog on reading and leadership, the post basically wrote itself. Give it a read. 

And just for good measure, since The Lord of the Rings is briefly mentioned in the post, let's provide some Aragorn awesomeness.

Update: My friend Allen Hansen has a related post called "Isaac Luria and the Spiritual Benefits of Reading" at his blog Calba Savua's Orchard that is well worth the read.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Peace on Earth

This is the narration I wrote for the ward Christmas program a couple years ago. I've included some of the music from the program and updated it with references:

The apostle John famously penned, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The power of these words is sometimes lost on 21st century Christians, who often quote them as a kind of religious catch-phrase. Contrary to the modern, heavily romanticized emotion that is associated with the word “love,” the ancient readers of the New Testament would have understood the term within the context of the covenant. To these early Christians, covenant-love brought to mind loyalty, kinship, and an obligation to one’s duties and promises.[1] The love of God, in this case, implied His loyalty and promises to His creation as a whole; a creation described by Samuel the Lamanite as being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” and desperately in need of redemption (see Hel. 14:15-19). The Lord promised “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17) by means of atonement as well as deliverance from bondage through the chosen Messiah. The Messiah was to be the priestly king “after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4), the one of whom God would declare, as the Psalmist did, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). This was to be the royal child called “Wonderful-Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). It was this child that would ultimately fulfill Isaiah’s dualistic prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).[2]

The 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the temple veil as the boundary between the heavenly and earthly realms, with its colors representing the elements of the material world. The elaborate clothing of the ancient high priest bore these very same colors, being made of the same material (see Ex. 26:31, cf. Ex. 28:6, 8, 15). Before entering the Holy of Holies (i.e. the heavenly realm), the high priest would instead wear only white. By symbolically putting off the things of this world, he was eligible to enter into God’s presence as a purified, divine son. Upon returning, the robes and colors of the earthly realm were donned once more. Descending from his heavenly home, the Great High Priest was thus ritually incarnated.[3] “And [Mary] brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). In Luke’s words we find the literal fulfillment of that which Nephi saw centuries prior: “I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white…And [the angel] said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? …And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Everlasting Father!” (1 Ne. 11:13, 16, 20-21).[4] As Mary clothed the Great High Priest in His earthly garments, heavenly messengers were declaring to shepherds in the field that the Lamb of God, the Shepherd-King, was born.[5] It was this which led Matthew to write, “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us...And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (Matt. 1:22-23, 25).

After centuries of oppression, Israel was delivered out from under Egyptian rule. The final plague that led to the end of Israel’s slavery and bondage was the death of the firstborn throughout the land of Egypt, with those of the Israelites being protected by the blood of an unblemished lamb. As a token of remembrance, the firstborn of Israel were to be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed (see Ex. 13:2, 13, 15). Thus, Luke records that Mary and Joseph “brought [Jesus] to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord)…And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel…And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ…Then took he [Jesus] up in his arms…and said, Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace…For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel…And Simeon…said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel…(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also)…And there was one Anna, a prophetess…And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:22-23, 25-26, 28-30, 32, 34-36, 38). The Spirit revealed in the temple that day that the child Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, the Firstborn, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer and Savior of Israel. The piercing sorrow prophesied by Simeon must have weighed heavily on Mary as Joseph’s dream warned them of Herod’s upcoming massacre and commanded them to flee unto Egypt. Following Herod’s death, the family returned, prompting Matthew to recall the words of Hosea regarding Israel: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1). Hosea’s prophecies of the restoration of Israel would carry great significance for the Christ child’s own future and the means by which He would bring salvation to Israel: “For [the Lord] hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight” (Hos. 6:1-2).[6]

In his famous essay "On Fairy Stories," The Lord of the Rings author and Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe.” The word was meant to portray the opposite of tragedy and embody the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” Being a devout Catholic and key figure in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, Tolkien concluded his essay by saying, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy…There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits…[T]his story is supreme, and it is true” (pgs. 23-24).[7] And so it is. The Gospels contain the witness accounts of the Savior’s miraculous conception, birth, and childhood; from Mary and Joseph to Simeon and Anna to the wise men and shepherds to Elizabeth and Zacharias. The Book of Mormon adds its witness to those of the Gospels with numerous prophecies and testimonies regarding the coming of the Savior. Samuel the Lamanite prophesied of signs in the New World that would appear at Christ’s birth. It was the fulfillment of these signs that delivered a remnant of faithful followers from certain death at the hands of the wicked. In this sense, the very birth of Christ had saving power. The restoration and revelations through Joseph Smith and other modern-day prophets continue to testify of the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ. These testimonies, along with the personal conviction given by the Holy Ghost, are what bring us hope. Christ’s mission is not yet over and the work is not yet complete. But we can partake of His Atonement here and now. By so doing, we can gain a beautiful glimpse at what the future holds in store. Christ has been here before. And He is coming back. “Pray always, that ye may not faint, until I come. Behold, and lo, I will come quickly, and receive you unto myself” (D&C 88:126).[8]

1. See Frank Moore Cross, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel" in his From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7-11; William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25:1 (1963); J.A. Thompson, "The Significance of the Verb Love in the David-Jonathan Narratives in 1 Samuel," Vetus Testamentum 24:3 (1974); Gail O'Day, "I Have Called You Friends," Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics - Friendship 27 (Spring 2008).

2. See Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story (London: SPCK, 2008). Kindle edition. "The World of the Temple" and "The Virgin Birth."

3. See Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), "Beyond the Veil of the Temple: The High Priestly Origin of the Apocalypses"; Barker, 2008, "The World of the Temple."

4. See Daniel C. Peterson, "Nephi and His Asherah," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9:2 (2000). For Barker's take on Peterson's work, see her "Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion," BYU Studies - The Worlds of Joseph Smith 44:4 (2005). For the conflation of Mary with the heavenly Mother of God, see Barker, "The Images of Mary in the Litany of Loreto," Usus Antiquior 1:2 (July 2010) and April D. DeConick, Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (London: Continuum, 2011), Ch. 1-2.

5. Barker, 2008, "The Birth of Jesus" and "The Annunciation to the Shepherds."

6. See J. Wijngaards, "Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2)," Vetus Testamentum 17:2 (April 1967).

7. See Colin Duriez, "Tollers & Jack," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); Chris Armstrong, "J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, A Legendary Friendship," Christianity Today (Aug. 2003). For more on Catholicism's influence on Tolkien, see Thomas Howard, "Sacramental Imagination," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); Bradley J. Birzer, "Tolkien: Man Behind the Myth," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); C.N. Sue Abromaitis, "The Distant Mirror of Middle-Earth," Touchstone 15:1 (Jan/Feb 2002); Stratford Caldecott, "The Lord & Lady of the Rings," Touchstone 15:1 (Jan/Feb 2002); David Lord Alton, "The Fellowship of the Ring: J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholicism and the Use of Allegory," Lecture given at the Catholic Society of Bath University and Bath Spa University College on 20 February 2003.

8. See David Tayman, "180 Years Ago: Joy to the World, The Lord Will Come!" Worlds Without End (Dec. 5, 2012) for the millennial aspects of W.W. Phelps' revision of Watts' classic. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Night of the Living Dead

Today's the Macy's Day Parade
The night of the living dead is on its way
With a credit report for duty call
It's a lifetime guarantee
Stuffed in a coffin 10% more free
Red light special at the mausoleum
Give me something that I need

Satisfaction guaranteed to you
What's the consolation prize?
Economy sized dreams of hope

- Green Day, "Macy's Day Parade," Warning (Reprise, 2000)

With the "night of the living dead" having officially come to a close, it is worth reflecting on what just took place. Many (including some LDS) have and will question the morality of such an excessive display of consumerism. Having just written a piece on gratitude, am I of the view that Black Friday negates everything Thanksgiving stands for?

Not entirely.

To be clear: I am not supporting materialism, which evidence shows to have a negative impact on people's well-being. Materialism and consumerism, however, are not one and the same (though they can often reinforce one another). Materialism has to do with a person's values, while consumerism refers to the practice of greater consumption and economic order as a whole. Oddly enough, the trend of consumerism seems to be moving in a less materialistic, more collaborative and community-based direction.

Even with the fights that ensue, it seems that an increasing amount of people are making Black Friday a family affair. Not only that, but it is hard to miss the social phenomenon Black Friday has become. As Reason's Greg Beato points out,

Think, for a moment, about Black Friday’s ascension. According to the National Retail Federation, at least 71 million U.S. citizens are planning to shop this weekend.  Even with the premature openings, many shoppers simply can’t wait and are already staking out their places in line. When was the last time you heard of anyone who was so eager for Easter to arrive they spent seven days sleeping in a church parking lot just so they could commandeer the first pew? How many people design propriety t-shirts to celebrate their love for the Fourth of July? Black Friday has no federal sanction. It draws upon no centuries-old tradition. The Hallmark Channel has yet to sentimentalize its virtues in dozens of made-for-TV movies about the way the pursuit of deeply discounted toaster ovens can mend old family wounds. And yet millions of people celebrate Black Friday now, some casually, others with great ardor, because it stirs them in some way.

This near-religious "stirring" can occur especially when one has a better grasp of the fundamentals of choice; a knowledge that Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University sees as leading to "informed intuition" by which we "create music where there might otherwise be only noise" in the choosing process.[1] With shoppers becoming more and more informed, the consumer experience is bound to increase in quality. This supermarket spiritualism is captured in the words of Dan DeLillo's narrator in the novel White Noise:

...[I]n the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those bags suggested, the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls--it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less...[2] 

"Like Thanksgiving and Christmas," explains Beato, "Black Friday celebrates bounty and benevolence...In addition, Black Friday’s not just a highly inclusive holiday that draws participants from all creeds, colors, classes, and political persuasions—it’s a holiday that does so in shared public spaces...Thanksgiving and Christmas are largely private affairs, celebrated at home with only select invitees in attendance. Black Friday is for anyone who wants to show up." While it may lack "the nobler pretenses of its forebears," it nonetheless is a "way we show gratitude that we live in a country where we have heated mattress toppers." Of course, Beato recognizes that "it’s natural to focus on [Black Friday's] most negative aspects." I am often humored by those who disdain the upfront honesty of Black Friday's consumerist intentions. These same individuals often have no problem overindulging themselves with turkey, stuffing, and much more on a holiday ironically known as Thanksgiving. Furthermore, the Christian aspect of Christmas (the true meaning) often fades into the background in favor of Black Friday-like consumerism, Christmas trees, and a gift-giving Santa Claus whose American image was largely shaped by Coca-Cola. Now, I personally have no real problem with any of the above. I like eating turkey with my family and often feel thankful during and afterwards. I like Coca-Cola Santa and other Americanized Christmas traditions that have nothing to do with the holiday's original meaning (A Christmas Story is one of my all-time favorite films and it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus). Perhaps we should cease moralizing trivial things that make us sound good in conversation, yet mean little in substance.

However, could we all learn to live a lifestyle of enough? Of course. Less than half of American adults participate in the post-Thanksgiving shopping festivities, perhaps demonstrating an overreaction by the critics of consumerism. But it is worth noting who actually shops on Black Friday: the young and lower income. While one could see this as evil corporations "exploiting" the poor, it probably makes more sense to see it as an end-of-the-year boost in living standards for those who are, out of necessity, cost conscious. If increasing the quantity and quality of one's material well-being was inherently wrong, then caring for the poor would be unnecessary and even immoral (one could just dismiss them with "be thankful for what you have"). Next time you are tempted to refer to Black Friday shoppers as mindless zombies, you might want to realize who you're talking about lest you invite the same condemnation as Romney's 47% remark.

In hopes of inspiring a healthy and responsible consumer habit coupled with an ever-present sense of gratitude, I will leave you with a simple prayer uttered by Joseph Smith over a rather humble cornbread dinner:

Lord, we thank Thee for this Johnny cake, and ask Thee to send us something better. Amen.[3]

1. Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (New York: Twelve, 2010), 214-215.

2. Quoted in Iyengar, 2010, 190-191. It should be pointed out that DeLillo is ultimately not presenting consumerism in a positive light.

3. As recalled by Elder John Lyman Smith, brother of President George Albert Smith, and recorded in The Juvenile Instructor (1892).

WWE - Count Your Blessings: New Testament Studies and Positive Psychology

It's so free this kind of feeling
It's like life it's so appealing
When you got so much to say
It's called gratitude

- Beastie Boys, "Gratitude," Check Your Head (Capitol, 1992) 

I was recently invited to contribute to the excellent Worlds Without End: A Mormon Studies Roundtable. My first post is entitled "Count Your Blessings: New Testament Studies and Positive Psychology." I attempt to combine a Thanksgiving theme with insights from the Greco-Roman world and positive psychology. (Some readers may recognize material from my interfaith dialogue.) Give it a read. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hell in a Handbasket

In another sense...the critics are right: in many notable respects, pagan religious culture was immeasurably more "tolerant" than Christianity ever was--indeed, it could tolerate just about anything...[I]t was always the case that the sacred order of Roman society was nourished and sustained by certain acceptable forms of human sacrifice. The execution of a criminal, for example, was often quite explicitly an offering made to the god against whose laws the criminal had offended (hence Julius Caesar, in 46 B.C., could understand his execution of two mutinous soldiers as a sacrifice to Mars). And surely there was no grander sacrificial spectacle, and no more satisfying celebration of sacred order, than the entertainments provided during lunch on game days in the arena, between the morning's slaughter of wild beasts and the afternoon's gladiatorial matches, when condemned criminals of the lower classes, slaves, or foreign prisoners were executed by crucifixion, torture, or burning, or were committed to the mercy of wild animals.

- David Bentley Hart*

A couple years ago, I had a discussion with my wife regarding the famous question, "Is the world getting worse?" She apparently posed the question to several acquaintances, who all seemed to agree that the world was in moral decay. When pressed by my wife as to why they held this view, something about those in the 19th-century being "true to their word" was the answer (inspired, surely, by their recent reading of These Is My Words). My own answer was the king of all dodges: it depends. Are we talking worldwide? Western civilization? American culture? Are we talking about sexual purity or concern over poverty (the two are often linked)?

I can hear the moralists now: When the "damn" at the end of Gone With the Wind stirs controversy, but the language of Pulp Fiction does no such thing, does this not demonstrate laxed values? My verdict: It is easy to cite a decline in morality by pointing to, say, the increase of sex, violence, and vulgar language in media entertainment (though even pre-code Hollywood shows this narrative to be flawed). Yet, I think a violent film like Gladiator (which features a moral hero at its core) is a moral step forward compared to an actual gladiatorial match. 

I mention this because many are still disoriented and disappointed with the election results, leading to predictions of the Antichrist and petitions to secede from the Union. Given that Thanksgiving is next week, maybe we should take time to reflect on the fact that many things are getting better. Global poverty has seen considerable decline over the past three decades. The World Bank reports that 52% of the world's population lived on $1.25 or less a day in 1981. By 2008, it had dropped to 22 percent. Between 2005 and 2008, every region of the developing world saw a decline in their poverty rates. "Today, we estimate that there are approximately 820 million people living on less than $1.25 a day," writes the Brooking Institution's Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz. "This means that the prime target of the Millennium Development Goals – to halve the rate of global poverty by 2015 from its 1990 level – was probably achieved around three years ago. Whereas it took 25 years to reduce poverty by half a billion people up to 2005, the same feat was likely achieved in the six years between then and now. Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time." According to Chandy and Gertz, the "broader trends" that led to this rise out of poverty are "the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance." Whenever poverty is discussed, rarely do I hear this research mentioned. 

The American poor and middle-class have also drastically improved, despite political rhetoric otherwise. A recent post by economist Mark J. Perry provides an excellent (and appropriate with Black Friday next week) example of such improvements:

The 1984 portable computer had only 64K of memory, no hard disk, and sold for $1,800, which would be equivalent to $4,000 in today’s dollars. Also advertised in the same catalog was an external 11.6 megabyte hard disk for $3,000, which would be about $6,700 in 2012 dollars.  Together, the 1984 “portable” computer and hard disk drive sold for the equivalent of more than $10,000 in today’s dollars. Measured in time worked at the average hourly wage, it would have required almost 1,200 hours of work in 1984 at $8.50 per hour to earn enough income to purchase the two items.

Fast forward to 2012...The HP Sleekbook laptops sell today starting at $500, and they weigh less than 4 pounds and have 4 gigabytes of memory, which is 62,500 times greater than the 64K of memory in the 1984 model. Adjusting for both price and quality, today’s laptop is 500,000 times cheaper than the 1984 model (62,500 times more memory and 8 times cheaper). A 32 gigabyte flash drive today sells for only $30, and has almost 3,000 times more storage space than the 1984 external hard drive.  That would be about 670,000 times cheaper adjusting for price and quality – today’s flash drive is 223 times cheaper in price and is 3,000 better in terms of storage space. And of course today’s flash drive fits on a key chain, whereas the 1984 hard disk drive wasn’t portable.

Measured in time worked, the average American in 2012 would only have to work about 27 hours (about 3.5 days) at the average wage today of $19.79 to purchase the HP laptop and the SanDisk flash drive, compared to the five months of work in 1984 to purchase the “cutting edge” portable computer and external disk drive of that era.  And today’s laptop is 6 times lighter with 62,500 times more memory than the 1984 portable computer, while today’s flash drives store thousands of times more data than the external drives in 1984.

Today’s computers, cell phones, and electronic products are mind-blowingly cheap and powerful compared to past decades, and reflect the overall trend throughout the economy towards better and cheaper products over time, especially manufactured goods.  If the dramatic price reductions and quality/speed improvements of computers and other electronic products happened suddenly all at once, it would probably be declared to be a miracle. But when the price reductions and quality improvements happen continually, we become immune and either don’t even pay attention, or tend to take the improvements for granted without appreciating the incredible progress that has happened in our lifetime. A comparison of today’s computer prices to 1984 also helps us appreciate how technological improvements elevate the standard of living of average and low-income American to levels that previous generations and wealthy households couldn’t have even imagined.  The computers of the 1980s were expensive and generally only available to the upper-income groups, whereas today’s computers are now accessible by even low-income households.

There is a reason that science writer Matt Ridley considers himself a "rational optimist."[1] Perhaps we should follow his lead and realize that we are living in a prosperous, exciting time.

*Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 120-121.

1. See Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Ridley, "Humans: Why They Triumphed," The Wall Street Journal (May 22, 2010); Ridley's interview on Uncommon Knowledge.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Recreated in the Image of God

Death played a major role in the development of early Mormonism.[1] Nineteenth-century deathbed rituals would have helped establish a connection between early converts and some of the stories within the Book of Mormon. For example, Samuel Brown explains,

According to the narrative, a good-hearted but benighted Lamanite king named Lamoni heard the Gospel message and entered a deathlike conversion trance...Ammon promised that "on the morrow" Lamoni would "rise again" from his trance. His prediction came gloriously true on schedule. Not only did this account employ familiar tropes to describe the Christian conversion of an infidel king, it documented the power of God over death and the dramatic social power of the corpse. Ammon's ability to resolve the uncertainty of Lamoni's apparent deathbed, in the presence of malodorous evidence of decay, documented the prophet's power...The stricken king arose from apparent death. Lamoni's escape from premature burial became the exemplar for his people, who would thereby die and rise again: the entire kingdom converted, several others undergoing deathlike trances. Nineteenth-century readers would have found in the story of Lamoni scriptural confirmation of the power of the ambiguous status of the corpse. The possibility that some apparently dead bodies might in fact be alive also pushed toward the striking possibility, nourished by biblical narratives, that in the right setting the dead could actually rise long before the final resurrection.[2]

A people's king "dying and rising" again would have provided a powerful representation for the new Christian converts as well as strike the already Christian reader with unmissable symbolism. Similarly, the conversion of Alma the Younger was brought on by another deathlike trance (itself caused by an angelic visitation), for "the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father." (Mosiah 27:19) Noting an ancient parallel, one researcher writes,

Not only does Alma declare himself as near death, but the formal response of those around him resembles the "Opening of the Mouth" rite for initiation and rebirth that was intended to "reverse the blows of death." A religious leader called a multitude of people to gather to witness the event ritually (Mosiah 27:21). The priests assembled and fasted and prayed for two days and nights that "God would open the mouth of Alma, that he might speak, and also that his limbs might receive their strength" (Mosiah 27:22). Notice the word pairs in Mosiah 27:22–23, which collectively reinforce the notion of a ritual context: open the mouth—speak, limbs—strength, eyes—see and know.[3]

The priests' fasting and prayers for God to "open the mouth of Alma" could involve a hands-on ritual without contradiction. In the Babylonian Akitu festival, it was understood that Marduk himself (along with the other gods) had purified the temple, with the "exorcist and slaughterer merely act[ing] on behalf of Marduk, or...function[ing] as Marduk (i.e., they show what Marduk once did and is doing again)."[4] In the Mesopotamian mīs pǐ ("mouth-washing") ritual, "the arms of the human artisans who formed the idol are symbolically amputated...The human limb connected with the fashioning of the idol is removed to emphasize that in reality the idol was created by the gods. Similarly, the human agents are removed in the Akitu, when the exorcist and slaughterer are banished from the city."[5] After "the limbs of Alma received their strength," he "stood up and began to speak unto them" about how he had "been redeemed of the Lord" and "born of the Spirit." (Mosiah 27:23-24)

It could be that God's "opening" of Alma's mouth is meant to reflect his emergence as a messenger of the divine. When relaying his experience to his son Helaman years later, Alma says, "Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there. But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God." (Alma 36:22-23) Drawing on the prophetic call of Isaiah, David Bokovoy illustrates, 

The seraph's act of purifying the prophet's mouth in Isaiah 6 features important symbolic elements reflecting this insight. Through the act of a sacred mouth-cleansing ritual, Isaiah appears to have received a religious rite similar in purpose to the traditional Mesopotamian mīs pǐ, or "opening of the mouth," ritual. As Victor Hurowitz has noted, a comparative analysis between mīs pǐ and Isaiah 6 suggests a common motif. "A large portion of the [Mesopotamian] sources," writes Hurowitz, "raise the possibility that the washing of the mouth or the purity of the mouth has independent significance as a characteristic granting or symbolizing special divine or quasi-divine status to the person or object so designated. The pure mouth enables the person or object to stand before the gods or to enter the divine realm, or symbolizes a divine status." By analogy, through a mouth-cleansing ritual at the altar, Isaiah received a divine status as one fully capable of participating in God's council and eventually of speaking his message. This use of traditional Near Eastern imagery connected with the deification of an idol as a representation of Isaiah himself becoming a "god" in the assembly works well in the context of Isaiah's message regarding Israel's violation of sacred covenants by means of idolatry.[6]

While all of the above may play a part in the "opening" of Alma's prophetic mouth, it is worth noting that Alma describes those "born again; yea, born of God" as being "changed from their carnal and fallen state." They become God's "sons and daughters" and thus "new creatures." (Mosiah 27:25-26) The allusion to the Fall and the description as "new creatures" invokes a kind of creation imagery (similar to the "new creation" language of Paul). The major portions of the mīs pǐ pīt ritual took place "in a verdant and fruit-filled temple garden (kiru)."[7] The eyes, ears, mouth, and nose of the divine image are "opened" within the garden. Recitations are made by the priest that allude to the idol's ability to eat, drink, hear, and smell. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, Adam's animation "is summarized in Gen. 2:7: Yahweh Elohim breathed the breath of life (nismat hayyim) into the man and he became a living being (nepes hayyah)."[8] John Walton of Wheaton College has explained the Genesis creation story as a temple text, with God taking up His "rest" in the cosmic temple:[9]

Once "the creation and animation of the image was complete, it was installed in its temple home. This climatic moment was a distinct phase of the rite accompanied by its own incantations in which the priest entreated the god, manifest in its statue, to establish (kanu) itself in the sanctuary."[10] It is possible that the use of the second hiphil of nwh in Gen. 2:15 was "to indicate that Adam was not simply placed in the garden of Eden but that Yahweh installed them there in the office of royal caretaker and watchman, similar to the way a divine statue would have been installed in its own temple, as in the mīs pǐ pīt , or a statue or mummy would have been installed in its tomb, as in the wpt-r."[11] These statues begin naked, but are clothed and adorned by the priests. Various intertestamental and rabbinic writings describe the luminous garments originally worn by Adam and Eve and lost following their disobedience. The psalms state that God made man "a little lower than the elohim" and "crowned them with glory and honor." (Ps. 8:5) 

In the case of Alma's conversion, the possible "opening of the mouth" ceremony that accompanied it could have less to do with the deathlike experience and more to do with Alma being recreated in the image of God: "redeemed of the Lord" from his "carnal and fallen state" as a "new creature." (Mosiah 27:24-26) The Book of Mormon once more invokes creation imagery when talking about the redemption that comes through Christ.[12]


1. See Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Brown, "The "Beautiful Death" in the Smith Family," BYU Studies 45:4 (2006).

2. Brown, 2009, 41.

3. Kevin Christensen, "'Nigh Unto Death': NDE Research and the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2:1 (1993): 3.

4. Benjamin D. Sommer, "The Babylonian Akitu Festival: Rectifying the King or Renewing the Cosmos?" The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 27 (2000): 88.

5. Ibid., 88 (footnote 31).

6. David E. Bokovoy, "On Christ and Covenants: An LDS Reading of Isaiah's Prophetic Call," Studies in Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011): 34-35. Bokovoy also notes, "Reading the introductory chapter of the Book of Mormon through the lens of Old Testament tradition, Lehi appears, like Isaiah, as a messenger sent to represent the assembly that had convened in order to pass judgment upon Jerusalem for a violation of God's holy covenants. Nephi's account may represent this subtle biblical motif through a reference to Lehi assuming the traditional role of council member, praising the high god of the assembly." (pg. 37) See also Daniel C. Peterson, "'Ye Are Gods': Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind," The Disciple as a Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000). 

7. Catherine Leigh Beckerleg, "The "Image of God" in Eden: the Creation of Mankind in Genesis 2:5-3:24 in Light of the mīs pǐ pīt and wpt-r Rituals of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt" (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2009), 196. 

8. Ibid., 206. 

9. See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

10. Beckerleg, 2009, 216.

11. Ibid., 218. 

12. Beckerleg also discusses the kin relationship between God and mankind described in Genesis, which would fit well with Alma's claim about those converted becoming God's "sons and daughters." This is yet another example of Alma's creation imagery.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nobody Does It Better...Still

Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you're the best

- Carly Simon, "Nobody Does It Better" (Elektra, 1977)

*Minor spoilers ahead

With my heart still racing from the adrenaline rush of the midnight showing of Skyfall, I conclude my Bond Series with Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me. As readers may recall from my discussion of "The Goldfinger Effect," TSWLM was Roger Moore's third outing as Bond and essentially his Goldfinger. To recap:

[The Spy Who Loved Me] single-handedly revived the sagging Bond series in the mid-1970s. Lavishly produced and featuring a Roger Moore who had grown comfortable in the role, The Spy Who Loved Me was the best Bond film since Goldfinger...Returning to the elements that had contributed to Goldfinger's success, producer Albert R. Broccoli gave production designer Ken Adam a free hand...Like Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me introduced a sense of worldwide alarm...Broccoli had carefully updated hi saga of 007, and the huge success of The Spy Who Loved Me guaranteed the series's longevity.[1]

Carly Simon's ballad turned out to be quite fitting for Moore's revitalization. The song experienced enormous success (#2 in the U.S. at the time), received an Academy Award nomination for "Best Song," and has held considerable appeal over the years (#67 on AFI's "100 Years...100 Songs," sharing it with the list's only other Bond classic "Goldfinger" at #53). Radiohead's Thom Yorke once described the tune as "the sexiest song ever written" (so sexy, apparently, that they felt obliged to cover it brilliantly). Thus, her song deserves to be side-by-side with the biggest movie opening in UK box office history.

But the question remains: does Skyfall rank as Daniel Craig's Goldfinger or TSWLM? Quite confidently, I can answer with a definitive 'yes'. Director Sam Mendes has given audiences one of the best films in the now 50-year old series. Craig's three films have acted as a kind of The Dark Knight trilogy for Bond. Reviewers have drawn such comparisons and Mendes actually cited Christopher Nolan's (himself a huge Bond fan) Batman trilogy--particularly The Dark Knight--as a major influence on his approach to Skyfall. The Craig films have been an experimentation and a successful one at that. The producers attempted to ground Bond in reality and flesh him out more fully as a character, emotionally and psychologically. Skyfall portrays a slightly older, more experienced Bond who becomes emotionally and physically compromised by the outcome of a mission in Turkey.[2] Part of his uneasiness comes from his sentimental relationship with the quasi-motherly M, which has developed over the past couple films. As one reviewer puts it, "Skyfall is partly about Bond coming to terms with being Bond and what it means to be a person whose job it is to protect the rest of us." In the finale, we are given a brief glimpse into Bond's childhood and the grief associated with the loss of his parents at a young age (an experience he somewhat relives at his family estate Skyfall in a Straw Dogs-like scene). Just as Bond found redemption from Vesper's complicated betrayal and death at the end of Quantum of Solace, he emerges fully-grown at the end of Skyfall with the loss of the only other important woman in his life. The ending seems to indicate that the psychological probing has come to close, with Bond finally on sure footing. 

However, the film does more than potentially conclude an interesting character development.[3] It brings the entire series full circle. Various references and allusions are made to past films, including the Licence to Kill palm reader, the Goldfinger ejector seat, the GoldenEye exploding pen, and the Dr. No issuing of the Walther PPK. The James Bond Theme is used strategically throughout the film, which was lacking in Craig's first two. For example, while the gunbarrel sequence is placed at the end (similar to Quantum of Solace), the brief orchestral blast of the Bond theme in the opening shot nearly makes up for it.[4] Also, when Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, the Bond theme follows perfectly. More importantly, however, staple characters and elements return to the series. Q is a most welcome return. As mentioned before, this younger version reverses the roles of past films with Bond portraying the older, slightly crabby uncle to Q's hip nephew. Bond is officially introduced to Eve Moneypenny, the new secretary and former field agent who accompanied (and accidentally sniped) Bond in the opening Turkey assignment. The character Mallory brings back the traditional masculinity and hierarchical respect to M's briefings along with the classic environment associated with it (e.g. the hatstand, the leather door, the flirting with Miss Moneypenny). In other words, the traditional Bond has received a 21st-century makeover and is ready for action. The series can now begin to make stand-alone films within the context created by Craig's first three. The film provides a fresh start for 007; a turning point even. I mentioned before that this film could cement Craig as Bond and set the tone for the series' future. It positively has. As The Huffington Post humorously writes, "Skyfall takes everything we liked about Casino Royale -- the grittier and more realistic Bond -- and combines it with everything we missed about the older Bond movies, namely: humor, nostalgia, and a complete absence of scenes in which Daniel Craig has his scrotum smashed." And with screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) returning for two more films, we can hope for more of this fantastic and much needed blend. 

The artistic success that is Skyfall is important for one simple reason: it shows the world once more that nobody does it better than Bond. 

1. Steven Jay Rubin, The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia, Revised Edition (New York: Contemporary Books, 1995), 389-390.

2. The training and reassessment of Bond's abilities reminded me of Bond's stay at Shrublands health clinic in the novel Thunderball (most accurately portrayed in the film remake Never Say Never Again).

3. I say "potentially" because it is quite possible that future films may delve more into Bond's psyche.

4. Sam Mendes originally intended to place the gunbarrel at the beginning.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bond Is Forever

Diamonds are forever
Hold one up and then caress it
Touch it, stroke it, and undress it
I can see every part
Nothing hides in the heart 
To hurt me

- Shirley Bassey, "Diamonds Are Forever" (EMI, 1971)

George Lazenby's difficulty on set caused him to leave the Bond series after only one film, foolishly thinking that fortune and fame awaited him. All that came his way was handful of films, including some Hong Kong B-movies. With On Her Majesty's Secret Service being one of the best in the series, I am convinced that Lazenby would have been better suited for Diamond Are Forever and that the film itself would have been improved. Instead, Sean Connery was paid a then-record $1.25 million to return. The result is a weak attempt to return to the fun absurdity of Goldfinger. While it contains many staple Connery moments (e.g. the bikini choke scene or his introduction to Plenty O'Toole), the film overall disappoints. 

What does not disappoint is Shirley Bassey's haunting, melancholy theme (borrowed by the likes of Kanye West). John Barry provided an ingenious blend of the main title theme and the James Bond Theme within the film (i.e. prior to Bond meeting Bambi and Thumper). Harry Saltzman apparently was not pleased with the "filthy lyrics" of the song Diamonds Are Forever. And filthy they were:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"You Used To Say 'Live and Let Live'"

When you were young
And your heart was an open book
You used to say, "Live and let live."
(You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)
But if this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die 

- Paul McCartney and Wings, "Live and Let Die" (Apple, 1972)

On August 19, 2009, I saw the legendary Paul McCartney in concert at the brand new Cowboys Stadium (the first official stadium event after Arlington declared the stadium open earlier that summer). The two best performances of the night were "Helter Skelter" and "Live and Let Die."[1] "Live and Let Die" was the greatest hit for any Bond song up to that point. "I remember what Paul told us," remembers Wings co-founder and original drummer Denny Seiwell

...they wanted him to write the theme to the next James Bond movie, and they sent him the book to read. And we were up at the house one day and he had just read the book the night before, and he sat down at the piano and said, 'James Bond... James Bond... da-da-dum!', and he started screwing around at the piano. Within 10 minutes, he had that song written. It was awesome, really. Just to watch him get in there and write the song was really something I'll remember the rest of my life.

McCartney had originally been hired to write the song for someone else, but only agreed to do it if the Wings could record it. According to Roger Moore, Bond producer Harry Saltzman was unconvinced by the demo and asked Beatles long-time producer George Martin about who should be hired to sing the final version. Martin reminded Saltzman that Paul McCartney was one of the biggest recording artists of all time. This was the genius behind songs like "Hey Jude," "Blackbird," "Yesterday," "Helter Skelter," "The Fool on the Hill," and "Eleanor Rigby." The answer should have been obvious.

Even though it wouldn't be until 1985's "A View to a Kill" that we would have another James Bond rock song (they missed their chance with Alice Cooper and The Man With the Golden Gun), the union between a Beatle and James Bond left us with a timeless rock classic.[2]

1. The video quality is poor, but the links are from the actual concert I attended. 

2. Guns N' Roses recorded an incredible version that is almost as intense as the original.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Aftermath

Back in October 1992, the following appeared in the Daily Herald: 

"BYU Students for Clinton" the sign blared at the Salt Lake airport at Clinton's departure. Excuse me! Is this the same pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, pro-excessive government, pro-immorality Clinton who has endeared himself to so many people with like values? Why would a BYU student support such a man for president? Bill Clinton stomps on every value that the LDS church and BYU stand for...If abortion, homosexuality, and immorality are on Clinton's agenda, why would a morally upright person want to support him? What also must a teacher or teachers supporting Clinton be teaching students at BYU? BYU should clean house. There are thousands of "liberal" arts colleges around to take the malcontents at BYU. Before Satan gets both feet in the door at BYU let those on the Lord's side stand up and be counted so that truth can prevail.[1] 

BYU Democrats responded to this and other such nonsense by publishing their favorite "theories on how imminent destruction will surely follow when Clinton takes office":

- The nation will be destroyed in a Rush Limbaugh led uprising of people who refuse to be ruled by femi-nazis.

- "The Lord will quicken His work for [Clinton's] sake."

- God will smite America for electing an atheistic adulterer.

- Clinton is the anti-Christ.

- The election of corrupt leaders is one of the signs of the times.

- The voice of the people chose evil over good in the recent election.

- The communist takeover is now complete.

- "My uncle's neighbor picked up a hitchhiker who said that he had to have his year supply ready before January 21. The hitchhiker got out of the car and when my uncle's neighbor looked back, the hitchhiker had disappeared!"[2]

To my fellow Mormon Republicans: Be disappointed. But if you sound like this, you're a bit silly.[3]

1. Quoted in Paul C. Richards, "Satan's Foot in the Door: Democrats at Brigham Young University," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28:2 (Summer 1995), 1-2.

2. Ibid., 2.

3. Update: See this fantastic post at Feminist Mormon Housewives and Ezra Klein's WP Wonkblog post.

Voting: How I Did and Why I Nearly Didn't

Having stood in line a mere 10 minutes at early voting this past Friday, I impatiently mentioned to my wife that we could leave and the state would still remain Red (as it has since 1980). While this Republican coloring may not always be the case due to the increasing Latino population (though they would have to increase their voter turnout), it is the case this time around. Why the sudden surge in pessimism? Boredom, for one, but also the growing realization that we do not live in a swing state. The Romney/Ryan ticket is going to carry Texas despite my vote, not because of it. After teasing my mother via text about this unavoidable fact (she's a bit more zealous about her Republican vote than I am), I finally made it to the voting booth. I sat there for a minute, staring at the names of the presidential candidates. I suddenly felt the urge to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, former Republican Governor of New Mexico, and founder of Big J Enterprises (one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico when he sold it in 1999). This made sense considering I am more libertarian in my views than Romney and that my vote would not really change the outcome of my state (The Onion got it right).[1] Nonetheless, having prepped myself to vote for Romney ever since he gained the Republican nomination, I followed through. Besides, a fair libertarian case can be made in support of Romney. I am also optimistic about his business and economic insight, though I worry over his "tough talk" on China and military spending.[2] As for the rest, I voted Libertarian, unless the Republican was a woman (since women tend to outperform men in leadership qualities).

If I hadn't voted, though, would I be shunning my duty as a citizen? With celebrities like Ellen Degeneres encouraging everyone (especially those undecided) to vote, does the conventional wisdom hold up? Should everyone vote?


As economist Bryan Caplan has shown, voters are far from rational. The public suffers from four major biases:

  1. Anti-market bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism.
  2. Anti-foreign bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners.
  3. Make-work bias - the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.
  4. Pessimistic bias - the tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.[3]

Your duty is not to vote, but to vote well. This does not mean voting for My Candidate vs. The Other Guy, but voting in a morally and epistemically justifiable way. I wish many would take the enthusiasm behind their "moral duty" every four years and put it behind everyday choices that have major consequences for society (avoiding out-of-wedlock births, for instance). Do not be swayed by the claim that you have a moral duty to vote, especially if you know you are not well informed. Informed voters often harm the collective with their votes, let alone uninformed voters. Steering clear of the ballot box when you know you are politically ignorant is the most moral thing you could do. Keeping your hands clean of future political sins brought about by the collective is always good when you are self-aware of your ignorance. As philosopher Jason Brennan puts it, "Bad voting occurs when a citizen votes without sufficient reason for harmful or unjust policies or for candidates that are likely to enact harmful or unjust policies." Your one vote won't sway the election anyhow.[4] What if everyone thought this way? They don't. So no worries. But I think a few less ignorant voters is a good thing. This is especially true when bad ideas lead to bad polices, which produce poor growth that in turn brings about more bad ideas (a cycle Caplan calls "the idea trap").

This is a call to inform yourself to the extent that you can justify your position, whatever it may be. If you are still undecided about the candidates and plan to not vote, I applaud you. I wish I had done this the first time I voted in 2004. You've probably made the most moral choice out of all of us, voters and non-voters combined. If you are still undecided about both candidates and voting these last couple hours, stay home and do the rest of us a favor.

1. For my swing-state libertarians, I suggest reading Randy Barnett, "The Mistake That Is the Libertarian Party," The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 5, 2012).

2. The final Gallup poll finds that people believe Romney would handle taxes, the federal budget deficit, and the economy as a whole better than the President. A CNNMoney poll found economists leaning in favor of Romney, while an admittedly mixed poll by The Economist found Obama favored among academics and Romney favored among the National Association for Business Economics. Others have found Romney's 12 million job target to be realistic, which is maybe why there is such an impressive list of economists (including six Nobel laureates) who support him. And while government spending is atrocious under both parties, there is some recent evidence that the economy fares better under Republican presidents.

3. See Bryan Caplan, "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies," Policy Analysis 594 (Cato Institute, 2007 May 29). Jason Brennan provides more biases that lead to poor decisions in voting.

4. To be clear, I'm not bashing the electoral college, which will not be eliminated anytime soon.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"And He Strikes..."

He knows the meaning of success.
His needs are more, so he gives less.
They call him the winner who takes all.
And he strikes, like Thunderball.

- Tom Jones, "Thunderball" (Capitol, 1965)

Both Thunderball the film and its theme song had a long and bumpy road to the big screen. Film producer Kevin McClory was introduced to Ian Fleming in 1959 and suggested to the Bond author that a new story should be written for Bond's first film. McClory collaborated with Fleming and screenwriter Jack Whittingham on a script entitled Latitude 78 West,[1] which laid the foundational story in which SPECTRE hijacks two atomic bombs from NATO. When funds could not be acquired, Fleming departed to his Jamaican home Goldeneye and used the script's plot for his novel Thunderball. McClory brought Fleming to court for infringement and eventually won the rights to the story. After the official version of Thunderball, McClory later attempted to remake the film in the 1970s as James Bond of the Secret Service. This eventually evolved into Never Say Never Again, featuring an older Sean Connery returning to the role (hence the name) and released the same year as Octopussy.[2] In late 1997, McClory announced another Bond project via Sony with the title Doomsday or Warhead 2000 A.D. (Bond candidates supposedly included Timothy Dalton, Liam Neeson, and Clive Owen).[3] MGM/UA took legal action and eventually settled with Sony.

The story of the theme song is just as complicated. The original song was "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," supposedly an Italian nickname for Bond. Once again, Goldfinger's Shirley Bassey recorded the song. Dionne Warwick later provided a version and plans were made to use it in the title credits. Even country superstar Johnny Cash submitted a theme song, which sounded like the opening to a John Ford film. Wanting to feature the film's title in the song, Tom "The Voice" Jones was hired on as the "male Shirley Bassey." When Jones asked about the lyrical content, John Barry apparently told him to simply go in and sing his heart out like Shirley Bassey. As for the final note, Barry told Jones to hold it as long as he could. Jones did and when he opened his eyes, he thought the room was spinning. The result was what you hear in the film. With that final note, Jones ushers in what it arguably Connery's best performance as Bond.

Of course, the only thing that comes close to equaling Tom Jones with James Bond is Tom Jones with Martians:

 1. I've read that it was originally Longitude 78 West. Steven Jay Rubin says it was Latitude. See Rubin, The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia, Revised Edition (New York: Contemporary Books, 1995), "McClory, Kevin."

2. Ibid. 

3. See the write-ups at Alternative 007 or Universal Exports.