Jesus in the Modern World

whosayiamIn the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was praying alone with his Disciples when he asked what people thought of him. They answered according to Matt 16:14, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets,” with Luke 9:19 adding he might be, “one of the old prophets [who] is risen again.” He then asked what they thought, and one of his chief Apostles Peter answered boldly that he was the Christ of God (Luke 9:20) with Matt 16:16 adding “the Son of the living God.” Peter essentially was claiming that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah come down to save Israel. There was no rebuke, but an acknowledgement by Jesus that is exactly who he was, and praising his spiritual insight as coming from God. Considering the violent ending of those who claimed the Messianic mantle, Jesus warned them the same fate was coming. Peter rebuked him for saying such negative expectations, and Jesus rebuked back that Satan inspired rejecting the path he was destined to walk.

Who do men say that Jesus is? Today the question is no different than when Jesus and his Disciples walked the dusty road of Jerusalem. What might be surprising is the answers. They go from the mundane of lucky preacher who gained literate followers to the traditionally religious grandiose God and Savior of the world. Like the days of his life and death, he is both mocked and praised. It could even be said that while there is a sizable world wide number of believers in his Divinity, he is slowly becoming obscure or irrelevant. This is opposite the rival religion of Islam and some other Eastern faiths. The Western views that kept Jesus “alive” have changed over the last few centuries. He is in metaphorical fragments.

It wasn’t always like this. During the first great upheaval of arguments over his identity, the questions asked exactly how divine was Jesus in relation to God. The answer more than a millenium ago, that remains the cornerstone of most modern definitions of the Christian faith, proclaimed he was God in a different form. During his life, he was likewise both fully Man and fully God. The creed of Jesus was set and a catholic church dominated, until what came to be known as the reformation sprouted Protestantism. Despite serious disagreements, for the most part Protestants shared the same creed as the church they left. Whole countries developed around particular Christian identities and churches, defending and fighting among themselves for dominance. For centuries Jesus was a driving force for both good and evil actions of history.

That began to change a century after the “enlightenment” when people started to focus more on the mind than on the spirit. For the past two centuries views of who Jesus is and was began to be questioned in ways never before taken seriously. The answers have become so mixed and branching that one method employed actually used voting over a color scheme to decide the truth about Jesus. The colors represented the probability of what Jesus did or said, ultimately to determine who he was. Most likely these new questions and the modern views they inspire came from the relatively recent Western culture of skepticism. Answers have become less important than questions about history, authority, and existence itself. Science and academics, positive as they have been, is the new religion with scientists and professors the theologians; politicians the Priesthood authority. Jesus is quickly, to the ecstasy of many, becoming sidelined. Continue reading

An Insider’s Outside View of Mormon History

In the spirit of describing personal religious turning points, I am presenting this observational essay. At the same time it touches on a few posts with themes about intellectuals and faith.

The Discovery Years

While reading about the LDS history articles in the Ensign, I was reminded of my own studies. When I was young, interest in the subject started because my own personal faith had grown. My house was filled with history books both secular and religious. As a reader, I would try and find anything I could on whatever subject interested me the most.

My first full biography on Joseph Smith was by John Henry Evans, a rather unsophisticated treatment. What intrigued me about the book was less how definitive it was and more how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. Noticing more to the man and the Prophet than the author presented didn’t bother me — it fascinated me. Perhaps it had to do with my understanding of history as storytelling rather than a collection of facts that had to be accounted for to make things true.

My second encounter with Mormon history was brief, and I had already gotten a beginner’s start by reading a few chapters in Joseph Smith’s 6 Volume history. At this point my focus of LDS Church history set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I decided to find another one; and like so many other people picked up Fawn Brodie’s treatment. I read a few chapters at the start and a couple in the middle before reading the rest. Unlike so many people who apparently read her book and become disenchanted, I was unimpressed. As a teenager I could tell where history stopped and her own unfounded biases filled in the gaps. Where Evan’s book was sketchy, this one had been overproduced. Other than a few original for the time newspaper reports, “No Man Knows My History” mostly used the Joseph Smith HIstory volumes and Journal of Discourses. Much of what she writes was discussed in B.H. Roberts History of the LDS Church with a difference of opinion. Reading Hugh Nibley’s criticism about the book was not a discovery, but a realization I wasn’t the only one seeing the problems.

Before graduating High School and leaving my home for college, I read all the historical Ensign articles I could. They contained the most detail on specific topics I had access to at the time. The articles were impressive for someone who didn’t have other treatments to rely on for more information. I lament that such writings in the magazine stopped during the 90s, although one or two good articles came out later. Still, it got me reading more than the outdated books written by a small group of believers. Continue reading

Peter, Oliver Cowdery, and the Melchezidek Priesthood

How many of you remember this post where I talked about “the problem of history“? In that post I gave a fake example of how in history, especially religious history, we often build informationless narrative fallacies that, due to the way human beings think, seem like rational arguments but in fact are not.

Now compare that to this post from John Nilsson back from my Mormon Matters days. I found it an interesting example of how difficult it is for us to remove our biases when dealing with religious history. (Or probably with any sort of history we care about.)

When I turned this rudimentary training [in history] on the sources describing the stories above [about angelic ordination of the priesthood], I found the records to be vague and contradictory, more so than in the case of Joseph’s different accounts of the First Vision. This is partly because Joseph had a co-participant, Oliver Cowdery, who left his own account of these experiences, and that many other early Church members wrote as if they did not hear of these ordinations until 1834 or 1835. Cowdery’s account is especially interesting, as he mentions only one occasion of priesthood bestowal, only one priesthood, only one angel visiting, and declines to name the angel as either John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John. (Note that the Church has added an “s” to “holy angel(s) in the link to the Oliver Cowdery account above to soften the ambiguity, under the guise of correcting “spelling, grammar, and punctuation”.

Continue reading

The Faith Convictions of Muslims

Before the tragic attack on the World Trade Center, I had a grudging respect for the Muslim faithful. They seemed the most spiritual and religiously conservative group on the planet, untouched by the Western immorality and atheism. There was the accusation that was only because of the lack of educational opportunities, but even those who went to Western and U.S. schools went back home without losing religious convictions. There was something about Islam that a person who had their own strong faith convictions had to admire.

When the infamous 9-11 attack happened, there was hope that citizens of the United States could learn something about themselves out of the deadly chaos. Perhaps the Christian nation as a whole would re-evaluate the moral direction it had taken. They would take notice of Muslims and look within to question how they had lost their spiritual way. Certainly they could contrast the strength of conviction and moral cohesion of such a large group of people and come away determined to change. For one brief week it seemed possible.

That illusion was quickly shattered. It didn’t take very long for people to continue going about their business like always. Each generation seeming more intent than the next to rid themselves of religious and moral guidance. Meanwhile, the extremist Islamist leaders ended up sharing the anti-Christian, anti-Israel, and anti-United States stances of Western liberals. That wasn’t a surprise, but how they played off each other was. They ended up doing the your enemy is my enemy dance. The terrorists came off not as moral crusaders, but political despots eager for attention with the blood of the dead. Still, the question stands how Muslims remain faithful stalwarts in such large numbers while Christianity, and Mormonism included, continues to stumble. Continue reading

The Problem of History – First a Fake Example

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I never did finish this series on history and narrative fallacy.

In my past posts I discussed the impossibility of knowing what really happened in history as well as the problem that, believe or disbelieve, we all have much riding on how Mormon history is interpreted. Either way, it’s your personal religion at stake. 

The problem with me saying that is that, well, we all know it’s true — for other people. But due to the narrative fallacy, we think we’re the exception not the rule.

To prove that, at times, we’re all the rule, I am forced to start with a fake example because it is the only way to not derail the conversation immediately. Continue reading