Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Much Revelation Do You Really Need?

Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants has got to be one of the most well-known passages in Mormon scripture. In it, the Lord chastens Oliver Cowdery for failing to exert himself intellectually in attempting translation of the Book of Mormon. He explains to Oliver that, when seeking revelation, you have to study the question out in your mind, decide what you think, then ask the Lord. If you are right, he will cause your bosom to burn as a confirmation. If you are wrong, you will have a stupor of thought and forget what you had decided.

This pattern for personal revelation is completely ingrained in Mormon culture. Ask any Mormon how revelation works, and they will probably describe this process. But here is the rub, for me. I am pretty familiar with the burning bosom phenomenon, but I really don't think I have ever experienced a stupor of thought. What does that mean for me and Section 9? Well, maybe a couple of things.

First and foremost, I believe Section 9 was delivered to Oliver Cowdery in response to a very specific situation. He was attempting to translate the Book of Mormon, and he had not done the spiritual groundwork. God could not allow Oliver to bumble through on this project. It was too important. So at that time, under those circumstances, a stupor of thought was a critical way to let Oliver know he was on the wrong track. More importantly, it prevented Oliver from including any of his own thoughts in the Book of Mormon. I think the Lord rarely needs to stop us in our tracks like that.

In addition, I think relying on a strict formula for revelation comes dangerously close to seeking for a sign. If I think, ponder, read my scriptures and pray, I get a burning in the bosom or a stupor of thought. It just sounds a little too simple, doesn't it?

One of my favorite talks on personal revelation in Elder Scott's talk, "Recognizing Answers to Prayer" (which I had not remembered discusses sections 6, 8and 9!). In the talk, he discusses when and why the Lord might answer prayers in a certain way. Elder Scott says,

"When He withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth. We are expected to assume accountability by acting on a decision that is consistent with His teachings without prior confirmation. We are not to sit passively waiting or to murmur because the Lord has not spoken. We are to act. Most often what we have chosen to do is right. He will confirm the correctness of our choices His way."

This statement is much more consistent with my experience with personal revelation. Sometimes I get a feeling that something is right or wrong. Mostly, I feel like I need to try and figure out what to do based upon what I already know, then move ahead. Generally speaking, if I am keeping the commandments, trying to be humble, studying the scriptures and seeking to build Zion (see D&C 6:5-7), how much more revelation do a I really need?

This is not to say that I don't think section 9 is useful, or that the formula does not work. It can and does. But I think the Lord uses the right tool for the situation; and for me, revelation is usually a pretty subtle thing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Poll: Have you Ever Experienced a D&C Section 9 Stupor of Thought?

I know this appears to be a blatant attempt to generate traffic. It is that. But I am also kicking around a post idea (and a SS class discussion) on Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants and personal revelation. So, take the poll and leave your comments.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teaching Helps

I ran across these suggestions for teaching Sunday School at "Thinking in a Marrow Bone." I think they are very practical and helpful ideas about preparing and presenting a Sunday School lesson. I particularly agree with the suggestions to really think about questions that generate discussion, and to focus on what interests you as a teacher. It is hard to be interesting if you are not interested.

Marrow Bone plans to post a "Part Two" later. Watch for it (I will try to link to it, if I remember!)

Oliver Cowdery was Punked!

When you hear the name Oliver Cowdery, you probably think of the story that culminates in the revelation that became Section 9 of the Doctrine & Covenants. This section uses Oliver as a (bad) example of how to seek and receive personal revelation.

But, the poor guy. I can't help but thinking that Oliver felt a bit like the rug was pulled out from under him. In sections 6 and 8, the Lord seems very encouraging of Oliver's desires to help with the work and even to actually translate. "If you ask of me, you will receive; if you knock it shall be opened unto you" the Lord says. (6:5). "Even as you desire of me, so it shall be done unto you" the Lord says (6:8). "If thou wilt enquire, thou shalt know mysteries," Oliver is promised. (6:8). Whatsoever you shall ask me . . ., that will I grant unto you," the Lord tells him. (8:9). Then, the Lord gets very specific. He tells Oliver that if he asks to translate, by his faith "it shall be done unto [him.]" (8:11).

How could Oliver not feel like it was done deal? Oliver Cowdery was no slouch in the personal revelation department. He learned of the Prophet Joseph and the translation of the Book of Mormon while living with the Smith Family. He prayed for his own confirmation of the truth and saw the plates in a vision, before he ever met Joseph. Clearly, he was a very faithful, believing person. Why else would he essentially abandon his life to go help translate the Book of Mormon?

But we know the rest of the story. Oliver tries to translate, and fails. The Lord famously tells Oliver that he did not get it; it was not just going to be given to him. Oliver had to work for it. He needed to study it out and seek confirmation. (9:7-9). "Behold, you have not understood; you have have supposed that I would give it to you when you took no thought save it was to ask me." (9:7).

Huh? What is going on here? Despite my ironic title, I do not think God fooled Oliver Cowdery. God is by definition just and fair. But, I can tell you this: I am not as faithful a person as Oliver Cowdery. And, I have already mentioned that I am pretty lazy. If Sections 6 and 8 had been directed to me, I would have assumed that I was going to get what I wanted if I asked. Why did the Lord put Oliver in this situation?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Getting Started on Lesson 5

I am just starting to read and think about lesson 5 and will try to post soon. In the mean time, here is really good list of questions, scripture-by-scripture, of the material for this lesson by Jim F. at Times & Seasons. I also ran across this post at an LDS history website I really like called Keepapitchinin, which contains lesson material from the past on similar subjects. It has some interesting ideas.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book of Mormon as Prophetic Boot Camp

I mentioned that I would share some thoughts about the importance of the Book of Mormon. I am kind of intrigued by what a demonstrably powerful force, despite few obvious doctrinal deviations for the bible and Christianity in general. For me, there is something pure and powerful about its teachings on the gospel of repentance and Christ’s mission and atonement.

I wonder, though if in addition to its more universal purpose and appeal, it had a very personal and particular purpose for Joseph Smith. In some of the reading material for lesson 4, the Lord tells him that translating the Book of Mormon is the gift he should be focusing on. In Section 5, verse 4, Joseph is told that translation is “the first gift I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this.” Later, the Lord instructs Joseph Smith to stop translating for a time, and makes this interesting statement: “Stop, and stand still until I command thee, and I will provide the means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.” Sec. 5, v. 34.

I get the feeling that the translation of the Book of Mormon was the critical, initial training Joseph received to prepare him to be a prophet. He had to learn to be obedient to God, to be humble, to ignore the voices of the powerful and influential and listen to the voice of the Spirit. When Joseph made mistakes in connection with his assignment to translate the Book of Mormon, the Lord reprimanded him and gave him a “time out.” Because Joseph was humble and repentant, the Lord forgave him and helped him. What would Joseph Smith have been without the Book of Mormon? Interesting to think about.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Do We Need the Book of Mormon?

The focus of Lesson 4 is the importance of the Book of Mormon. But, the Book of Mormon does not discuss critical doctrines like baptism for the dead or eternal marriage. It does not provide any specificity about the Plan of Salvation (i.e., no premortality, no three degrees of glory, etc.) or priesthood organization. Many of its teachings about the Godhead are ambiguous and confusing, without the benefit of further inspired interpretation. All of this information is provided, or greatly fleshed out, by the Doctrine & Covenants and other modern revelation. it teaches much about Christ and the atonement, but so do the Bible, the Doctrine & Covenants and modern revelation.

So do we really need the Book of Mormon? Why? Why isn’t the Doctrine & Covenants, along with modern prophets, enough? What does the Lord mean when he tells us to “remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon,” when it contains no information about the mother-of-all-covenants, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage?

I have some thoughts about this, but am interested to hear yours, first. I am also interested to hear other notable doctrines or ideas absent in the Book of Mormon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How Dumb Did He Think She Was?

We all know the story of Marin Harris and the lost 116 pages. Martin Harris believed in Joseph Smith as a prophet and that the translation of the Book of Mormon was an important and inspired project. He believed so much that he lent Joseph Smith financial assistance and acted as a scribe. Martin's wife, Lucy, did not believe, and it sounds like she made Martin's life kind of difficult. In fact, Steven Harper (Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants) says that once, to make a point, she moved her furniture out of their house just so Martin would not sell it to finance Joseph Smith's crazy schemes.

Lucy's skepticism about Joseph and the Book of Mormon led to one of the most dramatic chapters in LDS history. Martin begs to be able to take the manuscript of the Book of Mormon home to show Lucy and others. The Lord, through Joseph, tells Martin, "No" several times, but finally relents. Martin takes the 116-pages document home and, of course, loses it. Martin and Joseph suffer mental and spiritual anguish for their foolishness and disobedience, and are severely chastened by the Lord. Joseph loses the ability to translate fro a time, but is eventually forgiven.

But here is the part of the story that has never made sense to me: Did Martin really think that by showing his wife a manuscript of the Book of Mormon, she would believe that Joseph was a prophet? Why? I can imagine Lucy seeing the manuscript and saying, "Dear, I never doubted that your friend Joseph had a vivid imagination or that he was writing a book. It is the golden plates, the angels and the whole prophet thing that sounds a little far-fetched. Keep your hands off my sideboard."

Maybe I don't have much faith, but I have never really understood why Martin thought he was going to get anywhere just by showing his wife the manuscript. Maybe he thought Lucy would read it and gain her own testimony. But, Joseph was so early in the translation process that I am not sure he even fully understood how the text could be used or how it would effect people. Maybe showing her that they really were working on a book was going to be enough. I don't know. Lucy Harris just sounds like the kind of woman who was not going to be convinced of the restoration of the gospel because she saw several pages of handwritten manuscript.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Big Yawn About Religion

The Class Member Study Guide refers students to verses 5-10 and asks, “How was Joseph’s situation like that of people today who are searching to know the truth?” I am not sure what I think about this. Verse 5 talks about “an unusual excitement about religion”. It is hard for me to think about American society and “excitement about religion.” I guess there is some excitement between the evangelicals and the Mormons right now. Joseph Smith telling them that their creeds are an abomination haven't helped in that regard. And, there is certainly controversy between some religious and irreligious people. We can certainly hear echoes in these debates of the contention and controversy Joseph must have experienced.

Today, however, there seems to be more apathy about religion. No, apathy isn’t even the right word. There is just an overwhelming feeling of relativity. Not many people contend about whether their religious beliefs are the correct ones, because most operate from the premise that there is no absolute truth. What is true for you may not be true for me. No one is wrong. We all just have to choose our way.

It seems that there is a lot of tension and contention in the Joseph Smith story. Joseph expresses real discomfort with the battle that raged between the various religious groups in his community. The debate created a tension that got him asking questions. Who was right? How could he be saved? Which Church taught the correct way to God? Joseph fretted and struggled until he decided to ask God. I wonder if society today would have provided the tension Joseph needed to drive him the grove. Or would he have been comfortable thinking his way was good for him, and your way is nice, too?

It seems like the predominant question today is, “Is there a God or not?” Maybe that uncertainty would have led Joseph to seek God, but I have a hard time imaging a Joseph Smith in the USA in 2009 would ask which Church was true.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What Is It About The First Vision?

Most people who use (or will use) this site will agree with me that the 1838 account of the First Vision is a very compelling story. For almost all members of the Church, this story plays a significant role in our conversion to the Church and is a cornerstone of our personal testimony of the gospel. The story has become so familiar that many members of the Church can almost recite it from memory. The story binds together all members of the Church the world over.

But what is it that makes The First Vision so compelling? Joseph begins with a strong statement, prefacing his account almost like a legal brief and explaining that he wants to set the record straight about many false things that had been said about the Church. The story contains a lot of strong elements: the universal search for truth, the tension between conflict and peace, a battle between good and evil. Joseph tells a good story, using strong language and moving ideas.

But for me, there is one phrase that embodies why this story is so important and so powerful: "I was answered . . ." JS-Hist. 1:19. Joseph struggled with a question that was deeply troubling, but that he could not answer himself. He decided to do something he had never done before - - pose the question to God. He knelt to pray and asked his question. And he was answered. He did not have some metaphysical experience that he could not really explain or describe. He asked a question, and God answered it.

We see this pattern over and over in the D&C. Time and again, Joseph or one of his colleagues had a specific question, asked the Lord, and got an answer. And, I will venture that this pattern is an integral part of the belief system and personal testimony of almost all members of the Church. Think what it means to really know that you can verbalize a question to your Father in Heaven, and that he will answer you. Personally. Directly. You will not likely see a pillar of light or an angel. You will probably not have a face-to-face conversation with God. But if you ask, you will be answered.

What do you think? What makes The First Vision compelling to you?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The First Vision

First question: Do you address the multiple accounts of the First Vision? If you are unclear on the various accounts, their history, etc., you can check out the Wikipedia entry on the First Vision (There is an entry with a similar title about a Mariah Carey album, but I think you will be able to tell the difference). The accounts were recorded at various times over a long period. They are not entirely consistent in specific detail. The Pearl of Great Price account is the latest version, and the one the LDS Church has canonized.

On the one hand, I do not want to introduce controversy unnecessarily, or just for controversy’s sake, by discussing the various accounts. On the other hand, I am a big believer in the inoculation theory - - it is better to be exposed to controversial ideas in a safe, controlled setting, so that you can develop your defenses. That way, we can have a discussion preempting some of the things critics of the Church say, and students are not surprised and disillusioned about that later. I am inclined to be prepared to address the issue if it comes up, but not to raise it myself, but I think there are good arguments for discussing the different accounts. I would be interested to hear what you all think.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why "Gospel Doctrine Underground"?

I never really wanted to start a blog. I like reading Mormon blogs, but I have never wanted to “blog” myself. This is true for at least a couple of reasons. First, I am not really an open person, and have had no desire to share my innermost thoughts with world. Second, I have always assumed that a blog is a lot of work and I am busy and, well, kind of lazy.

But, I was recently called to teach Sunday School in my ward. I was glad for this calling, because like to teach. I like putting together talks and lessons. I like discussing the gospel and the Church. I like talking about what the scriptures mean, and what Church leaders think and say. I like thinking about and talking about what it means to be a Latter-day Saint and how the gospel applies in our everyday lives. That is probably the main reason that I like the bloggernacle so much. In some ways, it is like an ongoing gospel doctrine class - the most interesting, participatory and wide-ranging gospel doctrine class that you have ever been to.

And that is sort of the problem - - or at least the reason I decided to start this blog. Gospel doctrine class is not always that interesting. Mine included. As I searched the web for blogs to help me prepare my lessons, I never found one that felt like home. There are some really great blogs out there, but not exactly what I was looking for. As much as I like a good discussion about the Church and its doctrine, I would not really call myself a scriptorian or gospel scholar. I am interested in and think I have a pretty good understanding of Church history - - the stuff that makes it through the correlation committee, and the stuff that doesn’t. But I am not really a historian. I guess what I am is someone who is pretty serious and informed about the gospel, but who enjoys discussion of diverse opinions on gospel topics. Opinions and topics that not everyone in your ward would always be comfortable with. The bloggernacle generally provides that for me. Gospel doctrine websites and gospel doctrine classes - - not so much.

I like to think I take my role as a Sunday School teacher pretty seriously. I have been called to teach the doctrine and (this year especially) the history of the LDS Church in an orthodox, official way. I focus on the text of the scriptures I am teaching. I rely, too, on other materials provided in the manual. That said, I rarely follow the lesson as outlined. Instead, I try to understand the concepts that the Church thinks are important. I try to understand what I think about them myself. I think about what interests me about those topics. How do they work for me in my life? What do I wonder about? What do I not understand? Although I generally try to follow the counsel not use non-official materials in my lesson, I am not rigid about it. I will occasionally sneak stuff in from other authors or sources if I think they are interesting. Some of the stuff I think about and ponder definitely would not make it through the correlation committee, and that stuff (almost) never makes it into my lesson. But I like thinking about it and batting it around. I spend a lot of time thinking about questions that will generate good comments. The comments, in my opinion, make the class.

So, this blog is a place for Gospel Doctrine teachers and students who want to think about their lessons a little more. I hope it will be a place for really good discussions about what the gospel means in the everyday lives of people. I don’t expect that every idea expressed here will be “Gospel Doctrine Appropriate” - - I hope that the ideas will be a lot more free-ranging than that. In fact, with few exceptions, I don’t think any thought or opinion about the scriptures or the gospel should be off limits. On the other hand, derogatory or disrespectful comments about the Church or its leaders are not welcome. This really is a site for people who are seriously studying and trying to live the gospel in a sincere (if not completely main stream) way. In that sense, the name “Gospel Doctrine Underground” is hyperbole. I anticipate that this blog will be a little unorthodox and free-thinking, but will be for those who believe. Along the same lines, comments that are unkind toward or disrespectful of other commenters are not appropriate.

So, I am going to try to get something up soon on lesson 3. Or maybe 4. Like I said, I am pretty busy and pretty lazy. I look forward to your thoughts.