Friday, July 30, 2010

The Thesis Statement of the Book of Mormon

At least twice recently I have referred here to my concept of the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon, an admittedly geeky approach to scripture that, nevertheless I find valuable in my study of this particular volume of sacred text, and that informs much of my current understanding (such as it is) of divinity.

But first, the background. Toward the end of my time as a full-time missionary, I decided to major in English at college, and during my first semester back I started taking classes. At the same time, I found myself reading the Book of Mormon for the first time in a while in English.

In so doing, I looked for a way to continue to make scripture study meaningful, so I decided to read the Book of Mormon as I would read literature or academic writing. As a whole, the exercise was a failure, but as I began 1 Nephi chapter 1 I chose to look at this opening chapter as the introduction to the record.

As I read this way, I became convinced of two things: first, that good writing abides by some of the principles I had learned in writing classes my freshman year, particularly the idea of a thesis statement that controls the text and indicates its main ideas, and second, that if I found the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon I would better understand and appreciate what I was reading.

(Side note: I have backed off the first conviction since them, recognizing that not all good writing looks like scholarly prose--and vice versa. But, as will be seen, I stand by the second claim.)

I thought for a while about what a possible main idea for the Book of Mormon might be. The idea of obedience and prosperity is repeated throughout the text, but that sounded too capitalistic for me, and it's not something you encounter in the text until later on. Continuing revelation is a key theme of the book, but that seemed too broad. Even the statement of the book's purpose on the title page felt off, especially as that was penned by Moroni, which seemed like cheating. I needed to see Nephi (or Lehi) saying something early on that set the tone for the rest of the book.

And I found it at the close of the first chapter of the book. Now, 1 Nephi chapter 1 is probably the most commonly read piece of scripture among Latter-day Saints, as we tend to start the Book of Mormon five times before we really commit to finishing a cover-to-cover read. "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents" is familiar to millions of people.

And, to be honest, I had never found much in this chapter. Lehi has a pretty powerful vision, but we don't hear his own words, so it feels a bit removed. And throughout the early chapters, Nephi seems a bit of a braggart (I never liked guys who made a big deal of being big tough guys, so Nephi sounded like the obnoxious jocks from high school at times).

But then I found it. Verse 20, which explains that, after he began preaching, Lehi was threatened with death, ends thusly: ", I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance."

There it is, the theme of the Book of Mormon, and the central tenet of my faith. Like Lehi, we have the choice to testify of the witness of the Spirit that we have received, and, like Lehi, we might not find it going well (this was sort of the theme of my mission). But we find that, as we exercise faith, God's promises of deliverance are fulfilled.

Here's a more deliberate analysis. First, the idea of God's mercy is central to the story of Lehi's descendants, from leaving Jerusalem to crossing the sea to the war chapters to the promise of the restoration of Lehi's descendants to the gospel. We don't deserve ay of the great mercies we encounter in this life, save for the fact that we are on the receiving end of God's great love for us.

The second point that Nephi makes is that God chooses us according to our faith. Throughout the Book of Mormon, the only difference between the righteous and the wicked, the blessed and the cursed, is the exercise of faith. Even the seemingly stable distinction according to bloodlines (Nephi's descendents vs. Laman's) breaks down repeatedly, as one group repents and is converted and the other falls into sin and disobedience. So it is with us. The only thing that makes one person different from another in any significant way is the extent to which he or she acts on faith.

Finally, we find in this verse the outcome, the promise that Nephi finds is true, and which every one of us can find, that God will deliver us. The trope pf Moses and the Exodus recurs several times in the pages of the book, and it serves as a model for what happens to the children of Lehi. Nephi and his followers are able to escape from the violence of their foes. Alma and his converts are freed from their captors. The righteous Nephites are spared from death when the sign of the Savior's birth appears.

But the deliverance is not just physical. Escaping the world, overcoming the natural man, is a key theme throughout the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, I believe the message of the Book of Mormon is that God's mercy is sufficient to deliver us from wickedness (our own tendencies toward the base and low) as we develop and act on faith in Christ.

Sounds like a book worth reading.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More Moroni 10

Today we will visit one last time Moroni chapter 10, this time focusing on three verses and two themes. Following the promise that Moroni gives to those who read, pray about, and reflect on the Book of Mormon, we find Moroni listed the various gifts of God, a section that I have to admit I have always found a bit pedantic and repetitive (the difference between teaching the word of wisdom and teaching the word of knowledge, for example, seems a bit opaque).

But right before this, we find Moroni wrapping up the discussion of how we can know truth my means of the power of the Holy Ghost. Then, as verse 7 comes to a close, we find this statement: "deny not the power of God; for he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men, the same today and tomorrow, and forever."

The idea that God work by power is clear to anyone who has been raised to believe in an omnipotent deity (a devoutly theist friend in high school would regularly argue this point with the tired bit of sophistry that goes thus: If God is all-powerful, can He create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?). But I think we often misunderstand what God's power means, much as my friend was mistaken in his supposed cleverness.

And I think this passage gets at this idea. God works by His power, but that power is conditional on our faith. This relationship between our faith and God's ability to work miracles in our lives is at first one of tension and apparent contradiction. But as we look deeper into Moroni 10, we see more clearly what this means.

In verse 23 we read that Christ has taught that "if ye have faith ye can do all things which are expedient unto me." The link between faith and our own ability to do things is clear here. If we understand faith the way Joseph Smith taught, as a principle of action, we understand how this works: if we have enough confidence in something to believe that acting will lead to a result, we are likely to act. If we have faith enough to repent--that is, change--we will in fact change. If we have faith to in relationships with others, we will form those relationships.

Taking this one step further, we find that our exercise of faith is what allows the effects of our acting on that faith to emerge. This, then, is what Moroni is getting at in verse 32: "if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God."

If we have enough faith to act on what we believe, we admit (in both senses of the word) God's power, and thereby invite miraculous things to happen in our lives. The greatest of these miracles being the change that occurs within ourselves as we turn from pessimism, selfishness, violence, and the worldview that sees others as a treat, toward a life of hope, joy, charity, and opennness to all good things.

Ultimately, this concept will take us back to where Nephi begins the Book of Mormon, but I'll save my discussion of the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon for another day.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Differences in 1 Nephi 8 & 11

Guest contributor Stewart here. I'm the one that's got Roy on this uber-religious posting kick of late. I'm sorry or you're welcome depending on what you think of it. In any case I was mulling over the visions of Lehi and Nephi in the beginning of the Book of Mormon and came to a few conclusions.

First off the Tree of Life is an important symbol, but it is most important within the context of First Temple period worship. Archaeologically we know this motif of the Tree was common throughout the Hebrew lands. Many scholars have put forward that it represented the female consort of God, often attributed to Wisdom.

Now we know that the Tree was used in both kingdoms and that in the southern kingdom the tree was present in the temple prior to Josiah. The canonical text makes quite clear that during the Josiatic reform, a reform which centralized worship away from ancient centers like Shechem or Shiloh to Jerusalem, that the tree was purged from the Temple. While this event is antecedent to Lehi's time it is an important event in understanding the significance of the Tree of Life from Lehi's perspective.

The internal evidence of the Book of Mormon indicates that Lehi was already an exile from the Northern Kingdom. Two items seem to indicate this. First his tribal affiliation with Manasseh. One of the tribes scattered when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, while undoubtedly not unique in Judah, this would indicate that Lehi was at the least part of a minority population. When coupled with his prophetic ministry in a society dominated by a tribal priestly class to which he was not affiliated, I would submit that there can be little doubt that Lehi would have been hostile to the reforms that centralized worship, removed the Tree of Life from the temple, and consolidated ecclesiastical authority within one group. We can see Lehi's opposition to this last in the sacrifices he offers in the wilderness, in defiance of constraints within the law relegating this responsibility to the tribe of Levi and the descendants of Aaron.

Now if you take the above for granted than we must look at Lehi's vision in a new light. If this is all true, then the Tree of Life in Lehi's vision was not only the Tree of Life known from the Garden of Eden, but also the Tree removed from the temple under Josiah. Representing the Garden, the fruit of this tree must represent eternal life and salvation. This being of course why its way is guarded, in Eden and following the judgement, by cherubim and a flaming sword.

Now here is where we get to the difference for Lehi and Nephi. Lehi is fixated on the fruit of the Tree of Life, whereas Nephi focuses on the Tree itself, never mentioning the fruit. When given the opportunity to experience the vision of Lehi's vision, Nephi asks instead of the Spirit to know the meaning of the vision. This single choice is vitally important for Nephi. Instead of feeling the joy that Lehi experiences in partaking of the fruit, Nephi sees in vision the Crucifixion, the destruction of his posterity, and the ultimate destruction of all mankind.

In the end Lehi's vision and Nephi's are totally different. Lehi's vision is a saluatory vision. It is the experience of the temple and its antecedent, the Garden of Eden. Nephi's vision is revelatory and has none of the joy that Lehi's does. Perhaps it has something to do with their ages at the time. Lehi, feeling his age, sees the ultimate consolation for his mortal ministry, his calling and election made sure. Nephi full of the piss and vinegar of youth, makes a different choice and wants only to know what his father's vision means. Devoid of the ineffable spiritual experience of the fruit, Nephi's vision becomes a burden that tinges much of his later writings with a sense of melancholy and causes him to end his writings with a statement of sorrow as he soaks his pillow at night with tears for his people.

Or I could be wrong on all fronts.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Pleasant Passage from the Old Testament

Today we're going to take a quick break from our exegesis of Moroni 10 to focus on three verse from the Old Testament. As with much of my scripture study, this comes from a passage I must have marked years ago, the context for which I no longer recall. But thumbing through, I read these words from chapter 6 of Numbers: “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”

I am touched by the words of this blessing, and find in them a sense of how I ought to interact with my wife and children and friends. To the people I love I should wish this kind of joy, that the Lord might be gracious to them. And in these words I find what I myself desire, that God will smile on me and give me peace.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

More Moroni 10

Continuing on with my reading of Moroni 10, today I want to turn my attention to the promise that Moroni gives to those who read the Book of Mormon. We'll begin with verse 2: “And I seal up these records, after I have spoken a few words by way of exhortation unto you.” The key verb in this section comes from this idea of exhorting, and I find it a great concept; it's not as strong as a commandment, but it's more forceful than a suggestion. It's essentially what we do in raising our children; we exhort them to do certain things, things that we know will bless their lives.

Now we get to the crux of the chapter, verses 3-5. One of the first things that stands out to be here is how Moroni sets up this challenge. The first thing we ought to do upon encountering the text of the Book of Mormon is to remember how merciful God has been to His children throughout human history.

My assertion is that the Book of Mormon is all about God's mercy (I'll blog about 1 Nephi 1:20—the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon—sometime, but note in that verse the emphasis on God's mercy in delivering those who exercise faith), so this is perfectly in keeping with that idea. The only reason we have revealed truth, in the form of scripture, living prophets, or the whisperings of the spirit, is because God loves us enough to give us guidance to help us live happily and return to Him.

Then we get to our role in this process. Once we have read and reflected on the text, we are to pray to know if what we have read is true. I find it important here the manner in which we are to pray: sincerely, with real intent, with faith. When we seek answers to prayers, we need these three elements. In fact, any time we want to accomplish something significant, we need these things.

Finally, the promise itself: if we remember God's mercy and pray well, we will receive a confirmation of what we have asked. I am impressed by the certainty of verse 4: God will manifest the truth. It's easy to hedge on this matter and say we can receive an answer to our prayers, but Moroni is more direct—we will receive a witness of the truth.

And, like all profound and meaningful knowledge, this comes through the power of the Holy Ghost. Anything worth learning in life contains in it an element of divine power. When a complicated scientific or mathematical concept has finally made sense to me, I have felt qualitatively the same feeling as when I have gained a testimony of the gospel; it's not as powerful, but it's the same process of knowing beyond the plane of my own understanding.

That, then, it what I think Moroni means in verse 5: “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” I take that very literally—we can, by following what Moroni tells us, know the truth of every gospel principle, every commandment and guideline we receive from God and prophets, and every other kind of truth—including what we would consider secular knowledge.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moroni 10, Part 1

For the past week or so I have been reading Moroni chapter 10 looking for patterns and themes that I have not seen before. I don't recall exactly how this project began, but it's been a very good experience, and I think that over the next few entries here I will highlight some of what I am noticing this time around.

To begin, I feel it important to mention my history with this chapter. I've been familiar with the promise of verses 3-5 for 20 years now, and I've put it to the test a good dozen times. One experience in particular stands out. While on my mission, I read the Book of Mormon front-to-back at least 6 times in Italian (the first time through took 4-5 months, and the shortest time was one month).

As I reached the end of my mission, I decided to pace my reading so that I would finish the final chapter on the last day of my mission. That day I knelt in prater one last time and asked for a confirmation of what I had know at some level for nearly 10 years, and what I had spent two years sharing with people. The sense of surety and peace that came was the most direct witness I have received of the truth of the gospel we preach, and a gift I will never forget.

Through the years that have followed, I have read this chapter several more times, and while the answers to my prayers have been less memorable, they have still been real. I remember the first time I spoke in sacrament meeting in our current ward; I talked about those three verses, bearing testimony of what Moroni says and how knowing that changes your life forever.

With that lengthy preface, let's start parsing the chapter. I expect that some entries will cover just one or two verses, while others will fly through much more. For today, let's just look at verse 1: “Now I, Moroni, write somewhat as seemeth me good; and I write unto my brethren, the Lamanites; and I would that they should know that more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ.”

What stands out to me immediately (and I can only blame my career teaching writing to college students for this) is that Moroni directly announces his intended audience, and it's not what we typically think. He's not writing to everyone, or, at least, not directly. He is very clearly addressing this chapter, his final words, to his enemies, the apostate descendents of Lehi, the Lamanites. By this point in history, the term “Lamanite” is less a pronouncement of genealogy than it is a self-identification, as the centuries between the birth of Christ and the end of the Book of Mormon are marked by first a widespread conversion to the truth of all of Lehi's descendants, followed by another widespread conversion away from the gospel. Among the Lamanties now they were surely many of Nephi's descendents.

But the fact is that Moroni is not thinking about me as much as I had always thought. I am much less central to Moroni's thinking than I would want to admit. This doesn't mean that what he goes on to say doesn't apply to me; it just means that I have to work harder to make it apply.

For example, in 1 Nephi 14 we read how the Gentiles can overcome the wickedness of apostasy and come to the truth of the gospel (this comes right after chapter 13, in which Nephi's use of the term “Gentiles” makes it clear that he is dealing Europeans and Euro-Americans, what we in New Mexico call Anglos, whose modern history has been marked by some pretty awful eras—think Middle Ages, colonial conquest of indigenous peoples across the globe, and imperialism). To be acceptable before God, we have to repent, which includes accepting the witness of Nephi's fmaily as found in the Book of Mormon, and joining the true church.

According to 1 Nephi 14:2, doing this numbers us among the seed of Lehi. So, I think it is not too much of a stretch to say that, by being humble enough to read, study, and pray about this book of scripture, we become eligible for the promise the Monroni goes on to give.

In my case, this realization is very humbling, because none of this was my own doing. I first read the Book of Mormon because of the example of my parents and grandparents. I was fortunate to be born in a family that had already begun the process of joining Lehi's seed, or being converted. Clearly the communal aspect of this process is balanced by the individual need for faithfulness, but I fear to think what my life would be like if the generations before me had not accepted and passed on the truths I now know for a surety.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"I Know Their Faith"

For the past several days I have been working on an entry related to my recent study of Moroni chapter 10, but while that is in process, here's something I noted as we read 2 Nephi chapter 3 last night with the kids. In this chapter, Lehi is talking to his son Joseph, and he soon begins recounting some of the prophecies made by Joseph in Egypt. These range over many eras of human history and include discussions of Moses, the family of Lehi, and Joseph Smith (interesting side conversation as we read: Summer asked if Joseph Smith realized as he was translating that the seer referred to in these verses was him, and, if so, what he thought of all that.).

But for me verse 19 is the most poignant. In discussing the latter-day restoration and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the Lord connects these promises to the covenants referred to early in the chapter. It is in the fulfilling of those covenants that we see God'smercy—even though mankind had repeatedly rejected the truth, fallen into apostasy, and wallowed in ignorance and lies, the covenants that God had made with ancient prophets were enough to make a restoration of the truth a sure thing.

And here's the kicker, at the end of verse 19: “I know their faith.” In English we use the verb “to know” in a lot of different ways (especially in the KJV of the Bible...), so the depth of this verse might be lost at first. But in many Romance languages, there are in fact two verbs for “to know,” one that applies to facts, and one that applies to people; it's the difference between knowing where the grocery store is and knowing your closest friends.

In this sense, God knows our faith as He knows us—fully, intimately, personally. Omniscience is less about seeing everything than it is about knowing each person, a fact that is possible because we are truly God's children. Just as I know my own children well enough to anticipate their behavior, the Lord knows each of us well enough to be familiar with our level of faith, our testimony, and our commitment to the covenants of the Lord.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The other day I picked up a new book at the library, and I'm finding some interesting connections to my recent emphasis on using Preach My Gospel in my scripture study. The book is called Happiness, and the author, Daniel Nettles, reviews and analyzes psychological research into what makes people happy. At times a bit dry, it is nevertheless an intriguing look into something about which Mormonism has a fair amount to say.

The basic question the book grapples with in the opening chapters is how happy people are, and how we can tell. The crux of the matter is this: people are horribly inaccurate and inconsistent in terms of rating their own happiness, and even worse at analyzing the causes of that happiness. So we are left to extrapolate from the data conclusions that are not grounded in much solid science.

In dissecting this issue, the author makes an interesting claim about the fact that most people rate their overall level of happiness higher than average, resulting in a pretty skewed bell curve. So, he comes to the conclusion that life is a messy mix of happiness and sorrow, and that things are generally better than they could be, but worse than could be hoped for. Here, then, is the part that gets me: “Far from being a disappointment, this conclusion is strangely liberating. It relieves us from the anxiety that someone else's life is a paradise and ours somehow is not” (64).

Compare this then with the doctrine we teach from Lehi: “men are, that they might have joy.” This is often oversimplified to mean something life “smile, and if you can't smile you're clearly being iniquitous.” No wonder anti-depressants are so widely-prescribed in Utah; if you feel bad about not feeling good, you get in a pretty vicious cycle pretty quickly.

But I parse this verse differently, in light of the introduction to PMG, which explains what we preach when we share the gospel: our potential as children of God to find joy in our relationships with each other and Deity. To me, the key word in the above verse is “might.” There's no guarantee implied, but happiness is possible. And, what's more, that potential happiness is an inherent part of the human condition; we're hard-wired to strive for happiness. Nettles makes a similar point in tracing the evolutionary value of a happiness gene, which gives us a way of seeking conditions that make us more likely to survive and reproduce.

Knowing this, we can--and, I think, should--be aware of what brings us happiness. With that awareness, we are more likely to make choices that lead to happiness. To that end, I have been conducting a brief experiment on my work blog, noting each day what brought me joy in my work from the previous day.

It's been quite enlightening. Most of what I have noted has related to the success my students have had; to me this is a good sign that I'm in the right line of work. And I can similarly note that in my personal life, the things that bring me joy are quality time with my children, good conversations with my wife, and chances to do things for others that are meaningful and use my skills.

Doing these things more frequently and deliberately then should result in more joy in my life. Interestingly, these same things build relationships and bless the lives of others, all things that, in the long run, with a lot of patience and faith, result in the godlike characteristics we ought to be focusing on in this life.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Duty to God

One week into this new use of the blog, I'm ready to deviate slightly from the explicit stated purpose of exploring my daily scripture study. This is partially a reaction to the practical issue: I'm not posting every day, so claiming to share my daily insights is inherently inaccurate. But reflecting on spiritual thoughts is a more natural approach, and this is what today's entry is meant to do.

During General Conference this past April, several speakers alluded to and discussed the Church's new Duty to God program for young men, and, as the father of three boys, I have been eagerly awaiting the new materials. I've spent some time speculating about how this new program might fit with the Church's Scouting program (I'm convinced that within my lifetime the Church will have to or choose to abandon Scouting, and the revised DtG program will serve as a basis for a post-BSA era), but more than that, I've been interested to see how these materials might correlate with the young women's new Personal Progress materials.

Last Wednesday our ward's shipment arrived, and I've spent this past week looking over the booklet each boy will have, and I am very impressed. First, I find the booklet to be simple, clear, well-organized, and attractive. Having the materials for Deacons, Teachers, and Priests all in one booklet is a marked improvement over the old program, and the basic structure for each age group (spiritual strength, administering ordinances, a project based on a principle from For the Strength of Youth, etc.) is excellent.

But the thing that interests me the most about the new materials, and that I find the most intriguing, is the basic model it presents for each endeavor. The approach is to first learn basic principles, then to act on that new understanding, and then to share the results of a project with family members and peers. There's nothing earth-shattering in this model, but I find in its simplicity some powerful truths.

As I reflect on this model, I realize that this is precisely what happens in any effective teaching setting, be it formal or ad hoc. When my students are learning well, it's because they are learning an idea, using that idea, and sharing their work with each other and with me. The same is true with my children; when they understand something and then act on it, they learn it, and when they teach each other something—whether it's math or the new game one of them has invented—they find joy and fulfillment.

And I think this ought to be the way we approach anything we do—learn it, do it, and share it with others. The social networks we use are actually very conducive to this—I read an article or book or blog, I do something with that by reading or trying something out, and I post the link or blog about it. In fact, in a sort of meta-way, that's what this is, as I read and studies the new DtG materials, mulled it over and wrote, and then posted my musings here for you to read. Now get off the computer and do something. Then, tell me about it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ezekiel 47

Another riff based on our recent stake conference. But first, a peek into my youth. As a high school student, I lived in a rural area of south-central Pennsylvania, where our ward was a strange mix of diasporic Mormons from the mountain west and local converts, some with several generations of membership in the Church, and others being the first in their families to be baptized. There were other elements of diversity, including education (from college professors to high-school dropouts), profession (a lot of blue-collar workers and some doctors and lawyers). Somehow it all worked, and great things happened in that ward.

But, as is the case with any ward, there were issues, especially when it came to gospel instruction. To put it plainly, I was presented with a lot of false and outdated doctrine in Sunday School, seminary, and priesthood quorums. And it has taken much of my adult life to sort through that and determine both what is true and why good, well-meaning Latter-day Saints would so adamantly believe things that are patently untrue.

I say this because on the Saturday of stake conference, our temple president (who I'm still trying to figure out—he is clearly a spiritual man with a deep testimony of the Savior and His church, but his tendency to name-drop and seem rather self-centered rubs me the wrong way, especially when I contrast him with the exceptionally humble temple president who preceded him) clarified a chapter from the Old Testament that had long bothered me. This will likely seem a simple insight, but for nearly two decades the false interpretation I got as a youth has deeply affected me, and the correct version presented at conference has been enlightening.

The chapter is Ezekiel 47, in which the great Old Testament prophet is shown in vision the holy temple. The first few verses of the chapter are beautiful, as we see, as the temple president put it, the healing and life-giving power of the temple represented by the flowing water. And the symbolic meaning of verses 1-5, that the farther we go, the deeper that healing becomes, is especially encouraging for me as I look for motivation to attend the temple more frequently and consistently.

But it's verses 7-9, where Ezekiel tells of the river flowing to the sea and healing it that we get to the false doctrine. Or rather, the shallow and overly-literal interpretation of scripture that we tend to sometimes in the church. I distinctly remember a class setting as a teenager in which our teacher—a good, honest, decent person who, unfortunately for the youth in the class, always read scripture on a very literal, simplistic, and conservative level—explained that this clearly meant that at the Second Coming, Christ would set foot on the Mount of Olives, which would then break asunder and bring fresh water to the Dead Sea.

Ignoring for the moment the science of it all (a highly salty body of water is not caused by what comes in, but by the fact that nothing comes out—itself a wonderful analogy), there's something in this reading of these verses that I find very troubling. For lack of a better term I”ll call it the CNN Syndrome, and I saw a lot of it in my growing up years. It goes something like this: members of the church who are highly focused on the impending Millenium see it as the solution to all their woes, both real and imagined. Combining this with the habit of watching too much TV, especially cable news (in the early '90s this meant CNN), and you get a worldview in which the end of the world is right around the corner (a lot of these folks were the Y2K crowd who expected the Second Coming in 2000) and will be heralded with live TV coverage.

What I find most disturbing about this approach to Mormon theology is not the political aspect of it (how many Mormons saw Bill Clinton as the anti-Christ and a sure sign of the end of the world?), but rather the way in which it blinds us to the profound and life-changing truths of the gospel. The healing of Ezekiel's vision is not about a body of water half a world away; it's about my own soul and the need I have to be refreshed, renewed, and reborn on a regular basis. It's about how striving to worship in sincerity and commitment leads me to deeper happiness and spiritual fulfillment. It's about how the Second Coming is less about the dramatic and spectacular version imagined by pop culture Christianity than it is about how I can—if I am worthy and faithful—both feel Christ's presence in my life and see Him, in this life or the next. (I have more to say on this topic another time.)

And so I am left at the end of this rant with two emotions. First, a sense of sadness for the tendency we have to miss the boat in our exegesis and to read things—especiaally the writings of Old Testament prophets—on an overly-literal level, sometimes completely misleading others (this same teacher once explained that Isaiah clearly meant that the moon would fall to the earth, creating a land bridge between Hawaii and the continental US). And second, immense joy for the truths of the gospel and the power of temple worship in particular in mending our broken lives. In particular, I am impressed by the power of temple worship, and reflecting on Ezekiel's words, I am committed to further tapping into that power in my life and in the lives of my children.