Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 3: Inclusive Monotheism and Fabula

By December 22, 2015


This final post on Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism explores the boundaries between theology, fantasy, and literature, particularly in the context of inclusive monotheism. Barbara Newman points out that many theologians who embraced Plato’s Timaeus and its inclusive monotheism in the 12th century were condemned while writers who embraced the Timaeus through fabula, or literature, were not. “Poets, through much of the Middle Ages, had license to proclaim with impunity ideas, however radical, that if voiced as formal theology could have provoked swift, hostile response. Because of it unofficial status, mere literature might well be denounced (as Ovid so often was), but it was hardly worth the trouble repressing.”[1]

Tolkien mixed Platonist and Christian themes in his creation narrative in The Silmarillion and W. W. Phelps began his “Paracletes,” which also mixed these themes, with “Once upon a time.” Yet for Phelps, “Paracletes” was a higher form a literature: “And let me say that I have began this story of the ‘Paracletes,’ or Holy Ones to counterbalance the foolish novel reading of the present generation. My story is not revelation, but the innuendoes relate to holy transactions, which may lead good people to search after truth and find it.”[2] Andrew Michael Ramsay had a similar intent in writing his Travels of Cyrus, which also mixed Christian and Platonic creation ideas: “We have here a fruitful source of luminous ideas, beautiful images and sublime expressions, such as we find in the holy scriptures, and in Milton, who has copied them.”[3]

What Tolkien meant by the Ainulindalë I’m not sure, but like many others he used fabula to give expression to inclusive monotheistic ideas held by some of the West’s most notable thinkers.

[1] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 65.

[2] [W.W. Phelps] “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (May 1, 1845): 892.

[3] Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus: To Which is Annexed, A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Pagans (1727, reprint; Albany: Pratt and Doubleday, 1814), xxi.  See also Ronan’s series at BCC, which discusses similar themes (1, 2, 3).

 


The People Who Stir America: BackStory on Revivals and Prophets

By December 21, 2015


The December 11, 2015 episode of the impeccably crafted history podcast BackStory is worth a listen, on the topic of “American Prophets.” In many ways, it’s a sequel to their “Born Again” episode on the history of American religious revival back in April, continuing the story of charismatic leaders and religious movements forging transformation and innovation in an intense cultural pressure cooker. In “American Prophets,” the hosts explore Neolin (Delaware / pan-Indian), William Seymour (Asuza Street, Pentecostalism), Brigham Young (Mormonism), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology) and Elijah Muhammed (Nation of Islam). When added to the earlier episode’s portrayal of the First and Second Great Awakenings, Handsome Lake, Sam Jones, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Billy Graham, we now have a nice two-hour audio documentary on diverse American new religious movements featuring a stellar cast of religious scholars. [1]

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Religious Liberty, Mormons, and Muslims

By December 16, 2015


The Founding Era of the United States witnessed dramatic changes in regards to the relationship between the government and religious bodies. Previously, state churches had either suppressed dissent or heavily regulated it through taxes and other penalties. Based on the ideas of John Locke, however, Thomas Jefferson and other founders promoted the idea of having no state church and providing expansive religious liberties to all citizens. Some Americans opposed these proposals on the grounds that religious liberty should be limited to Protestants or, more broadly, to Christians. These opponents raised the specter of the Catholic Pope running for President, or, pushing this argument to its extreme limits, that “Mohammadans” (Muslims) might come to the United States and, claiming the rights of religious liberty, somehow undermine the nation. As Denise A. Spellberg has shown in her excellent book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, there were likely tens of thousands of Muslims in America by this time, but they were African slaves with no public presence. Those invoking Muslims in the debates usually only knew about Islam from inherited cultural prejudices and popular media that cast Muhammad and his followers in an unfavorable light. Against these arguments, Jefferson and others contended that for religious liberty to be an effective principle, its protections needed to extend to all people and all religions, including Islam.

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Deacons anointing

By December 14, 2015


I’m currently working on a chapter for my book on Mormon liturgy and cosmology that focuses on healing as lens to look at shifts in authority throughout Mormon history. A while back, I picked up a 1941 edition (fourth printing) of the Aaronic Priesthood Handbook, and recently read through. Page 45 has this fascinating bit in the section for deacons under “Caring for the Poor”:

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Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 2: W. W. Phelps’s “Paracletes”

By December 14, 2015


In my previous post, I discussed how many of Tolkien’s creation and fall themes fit within various aspects of Christian Platonism.

Plato had two models. In the Phaedrus, pre-mortal souls fall: “By some accident [the soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrongdoing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to earth” (248c-d). In the Timaeus, God (or the demiurge) “showed [souls] the nature of the universe. He described to them the laws that had been foreordained,” that they would be placed in bodies, “and if a person lived a good life throughout the due course of time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness” (41e, 42b-c). As Alan Scott explains,

There was therefore a good deal of disagreement among the later Platonists about the character of the cosmos and the soul’s incorporation. Was the world and our life part of a divine plan? Those who adopted this understanding of Plato interpreted the soul’s incorporation as providential and the heavenly bodies as assistants to a kindly design. Another interpretation of Plato stressed that this life has come about because of sin and error, and so took a very different view of the cosmos.[1]

Scott explains further, “Philo interprets the Genesis account in terms of both of these myths so that the creation of the world is good and the result of divine plan (as in the Timaeus), but the story of Adam symbolizes the soul’s fall because of sin (as in the Phaedrus),” which sounds pretty similar to Mormonism.[2]

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Authority, Revelation, and Dissent: Managing Personal Revelation in a Revelatory Church

By December 10, 2015


Medieval Catholicism believed both in continuing revelation and in personal revelation, but such beliefs could be problematic: what about false prophets? The late Middle Ages were awash with revelatory figures, often women (like Joan of Arc) and thus the church put in place a number of procedures for how to regulate such people. Revelation could not be legitimate unless it was approved by a confessor, who also looked into the character of the revelator. One of the most important trait was humility: if the revelator was willing to submit to the confessor and have all of her revelations regulated then she showed proper humility was a true revelator. If she balked at those restrictions, that was a sign that she had excessive pride, which proved that she was a false prophet.[1]

Obviously the legitimacy of such figures was highly debated (no one more so than Joan of Arc) and the Protestants came up with an even simpler way to deal with prophets: there weren’t any. The Bible was complete so true revelation would be redundant (simply say the same thing) and anything that was new was automatically false.

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Compatability, Conflict, and Community – Review of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

By December 9, 2015


pants quilt

Nikki Hunter’s beautiful “Sunday Morning” quilt (“The Pants Quilt”) adorns the cover of the new Oxford Press Publication Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright. The quilt is accompanied by this note: “On December 16, 2012, Mormon feminists around the world took action to raise the visibility of feminist issues by wearing pants to local LDS Church Services….Although not officially prohibited, pants-wearing by women at Sunday services jarred with deeply held gendered dress customs in many Mormon communities around the globe.” (xi) Women who participated sent their trousers to Hunter, who created a material sign of their community. The front cover encourages us to begin to think about Mormon feminism in terms of female identity, activism, and the place of community on a global scale.

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2015 in Retrospect: An Overview of Noteworthy Books and Articles in Mormon History

By December 7, 2015


Once again, this is my attempt to recap the historiography of Mormonism from the past twelve months. This is the seventh such post, and previous installments are found herehere, here, here, here, and here. I do not list every single book and article from 2015, but I do highlight those I found most interesting and relevent. Therefore, a strong bias is obviously involved, so I hope you’ll add more in the comments.

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New Release: Joseph Smith Journals, Volume 3: May 1843-June 1844

By December 1, 2015


Historians have awaited the release of Journals, Volume 3: May 1843-June 1844 (hereafter J3) for many reasons. Joseph Smith’s last months were “turbulent and productive,” mired with controversy, well-known sermons, an expansion of temple liturgy, the beginnings of plural marriage, and Smith’s candidacy for President of the United States. Smith wore many hats in these years, including mayor, judge, and militia leader in addition to his religious roles as president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite the proliferation of documents that chronicle this time period, there are still many questions that arise from the study of the lats thirteen months of Joseph Smith’s life that have not been answered (or answered satisfactorily). J3, the final volume of the Journals series, will help historians answer new questions and expand upon older questions in Mormon and American Religious History.

J3 Cover

J3 Cover

HEIGHTENED ACCURACY IN TRANSCRIPTION

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Job Ad: Production Editor, The Joseph Smith Papers

By November 25, 2015



POSTING INFO

Posting Dates: 11/24/2015

Job Family: Editorial, Writing & Language

Department: Church History Department

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“For ye were strangers”: Four Short Vignettes on Mormon(s) (and) Refugees

By November 18, 2015


“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” -Leviticus 19:33-34

______________________

Quincy, Illinois. February 27, 1839[1]

Four months after Missouri Executive Order 44 was signed into law by governor Lilburn Boggs, the Democratic Association of Quincy, Illinois meets to consider the plight of the Mormons, now classified as “enemies” in neighboring Missouri. After deliberation, Quincy residents adopt the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the strangers recently arrived here from the state of Missouri, known by the name of the ‘Latter-day Saints,’ are entitled to our sympathy and kindest regard, and that we recommend to the citizens of Quincy to extend all the kindness in their power to bestow on the person who are in affliction.

Resolved, That a numerous committee be raised, composed of some individuals in every quarter of the town and its vicinity, whose duty it shall be to explain to our misguided fellow citizens, if any such there be, who are disposed to excite prejudices and circulate unfounded rumors; and particularly to explain to them that these people have no design to lower the wages of the laboring class, but to procure something to save them from starving.

Resolved, That a standing committee be raised and be composed of individuals who shall immediately inform Mr. Rigdon and others, as many as they may think proper, of their appointment, and who shall be authorized to obtain information from time to time; and should they [the committee] be of opinion that any individuals, either from destitution or sickness, or if they find them houseless, that they appeal directly and promptly to the citizens of Quincy to furnish them with the means to relieve all such cases.

Resolved, That the committee last aforesaid be instructed to use their utmost endeavors to obtain employment for all these people, who are able and willing to labor; and also to afford them all needful, suitable and proper encouragement.

Resolved, That we recommend to all the citizens of Quincy, that in all their intercourse with the strangers, they use and observe a becoming decorum and delicacy, and be particularly careful not to indulge in any conversation or expressions calculated to wound their feelings, or in any way to reflect upon those, who by every law of humanity, are entitled to our sympathy and commiseration.

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Interested in getting a free book? Consider reviewing for the Journal of Mormon History

By November 16, 2015


From Jessie Embry, the newly appointed editor of the Journal of Mormon History:

The Journal of Mormon History is looking for graduate students and young professionals who are willing to share their expertise in Mormon history. So if you like to read and would be willing to share your views on a book, please consider writing reviews for the Journal. You will receive a copy of the book as a thank you, but more importantly you will have another entry to add to your vita. If you are interested in adding your name to the review list, please email the journal editor, Jessie Embry at jessie_embry@byu.edu. Please list areas that you feel that you are qualified to review. When books come available, Ron Bartholomew will contact you and check on your availability. You will have two to three months to read the book and write a 600 to 1,200 word essay explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the book. When Dr. Bartholomew asks you to review a book, he will send additional guidelines.

The Journal is also looking for articles that explore Mormon history. If you have written an outstanding paper for a class or have a special chapter that you have been working on for your dissertation, please consider submitting it to the journal at journal@mormonhistoryassociation.org. By submitting an article, you will learn the process of peer review and hopefully when accepted you will have another entry to add to your vita. If you have questions on submitting an article, please contact Jessie Embry at one of the email addresses listed above.


Job Ad: Historian, The Joseph Smith Papers

By November 9, 2015


Historian/Documentary Editor, Joseph Smith Papers  

UNITED STATES |  UT-Salt Lake City

ID 135195, Type: Full-Time – Regular

POSTING INFO

Posting Dates: 11/06/2015

Job Family: Library, Research & Preservation

Department: Church History Department

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Book Review: We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics

By November 4, 2015


Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

This book might be described as an intellectual genealogy (in the Foucauldian sense) of the conservative religious coalition that has exerted so much gravitational pull in the last forty years of American history. Young argues, in a nutshell, that the electoral coalition often described as the Religious Right was no monolith: rather, it was the result of a thousand small give and takes among the three primary camps he explores: Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. Indeed, Young’s careful delineation of distinctions and disjunctures almost persuades me that there is no “Religious Right” at all, merely a series of shifting alliances pivoting, shifting, forming and reforming on issue after issue after issue.

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New Journal of Mormon History Issue, Featuring a Roundtable on John Brooke’s REFINER’S FIRE

By October 30, 2015


JMH CoverThe latest issue of Journal of Mormon History is hot off the press this week and is now available to download for those of you who are members of the Mormon History Association. (And if you’re not a member, you can fix that right now.) Below are the articles in the issue:

  • RoseAnn Benson, “Alexander Campbell: Another Restorationist”
  • Nancy S. Kader, “The Young Democrats and Hugh Nibley at BYU”
  • Gregory A. Prince, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Historical Context: How a Historical Narrative Became Theological”
  • Gary James Bergera, “Memory as Evidence: Dating Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages to Louisa Beaman, Zina Jacobs, and Presendia Buell”
  • Elise Boxer, “The Lamanites Shall Blossom as the Rose: The Indian Student Placement Program, Mormon Whiteness, and Indigenous Identity”

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Videos for Black, White, and Mormon Conference (October 2015)

By October 27, 2015


The Tanner Humanities Center has made the videos for the Black, White, and Mormon Conference available. The conference, held at the University of Utah on October 8-9, 2015, was an incredible experience for me as a participant. I would love to see more opportunities, funding, and venues dedicated to this type of public engagement. 

The McMurrin Lecture by Lester Bush:

A Commemoration for Those Who Have Died

Race and the Inner City

Race and Mormon Women

Race and the International Church

Race and Brigham Young University

Race at the Ward Level

VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO THE EVENT’S CO-SPONSORS

George S. & Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation | Greg Prince | Jess Hurtado | Smith-Pettit Foundation | Anonymous | DESB Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative (Utah) | Charles Redd Center (BYU) | College of Humanities (BYU) | Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich | Utah Valley University | Department of History (Utah) | University of Utah Press

#BWMormon2015


Job Ad: Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer

By October 26, 2015


We’d like to make our readers aware of an exciting new opportunity: the University of Virginia posted an ad for a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Mormon Studies.

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New Editor of the Journal of Mormon History: Jessie Embry

By October 21, 2015


We are thrilled to share this press release from the Mormon History Association. Please join us in congratulating Jessie Embry, whom many of JI’s perma-bloggers have worked with, taken classes from, or otherwise interacted with through the Charles Redd Center, on her appointment as the new editor of the Journal of Mormon History!

___________________________________________________________________

Embry recently retired as the Associate Director of the Redd Center for Western History at Brigham Young University.  She is the author or editor of twenty-one books, mostly in Mormon and western history. Among them are Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle, published by the University of Utah Press, in 1987 and reissused by Greg Kofford Books in 2009.  Most recently she completed Immigrants in the Far West: Historical Identities and Experiences, coedited with Brian Q. Cannon and published by the University of Utah Press.

Embry has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to recovering grassroots non-institutional voices and experiences, including extensive experience in oral history.  She believes strongly in comparative history and placing historical events in a larger context.  She desires making connections with wide-ranging conversations that will enrich both Mormon history and broader fields of historical inquiry.

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Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism: The Travels of Cyrus

By October 19, 2015


Ainulindale_by_Alassea_Earello

Ainulindale by Alassea Earello from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Ainur

To finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato’s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between Mormon pre-existence narratives and Tolkein’s.

Many have noted the similarities between Mormonism and Tolkien’s creation stories and others have pointed out Platonic elements in Tolkien. A ring of invisibility is mentioned in the Republic and the first phrase of The Silmarillion, “There was Eru the One,” is especially Platonic since “The One” was the highest deity to the Neoplatonists. Tolkien’s Eru or Iluvatar, though aloof like the One, is rather more like Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus: the God who plans and oversees the creation.

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Church History Department Job Ads

By October 14, 2015


Editorial Assistant—Joseph Smith Papers Project 

The Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is looking for an editorial assistant to assist with The Joseph Smith Papers. This is a unique opportunity to learn about early LDS history, work with primary documents, significantly contribute to the project’s research and production processes, and acquire a variety of new skills relating to both print and web publishing. This is a benefited, full-time position that is contingent for one year. The start date for this position is dependent upon employee availability, preferably between October and December 2015.

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