Articles by

Steve Fleming

Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 3: Theological Considerations

By May 16, 2018


Parts 1 and 2.

In Kevin Christensen’s review of Revelatory Events, he refers to a person who said on a board “that Revelatory Events gave her a way to explain away the claims of Joseph Smith and all other religious claims in purely secular terms and let her walk away from the community, assured she was leaving behind nothing valid or of value” (70-71). For a whole lot of LDS, accepting Taves’s conclusions would simply mean the church isn’t true.

Taves actually attempts to address this issue by the way she framed the book as a study of “paths.” Taves looks at Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles to determine how experiences of the founders turned into spiritual paths, or the way of life that these groups encourage their adherents to follow. Taves suggests that having such paths is generally beneficial. Says Taves,

Although I think—and will argue—that the sense of a guiding presence emerges through a complex interaction between individuals with unusual mental abilities and an initial set of collaborators, an explanation of this sort says little about the content of what is revealed or the value of the spiritual path that emerges. If—as I believe—presences that articulate and guide a group toward collective goals can be understood as creative products of human social interactions rather than actual suprahuman agents, this does not undercut the human need to work out answers to the larger questions these paths seek to address. It just requires us to generate other methods for evaluating the value of the goals and the merits of the paths as means of obtaining them. (xii).

Though Taves doesn’t propose what those methods might be, she does conclude the book by declaring that while people will debate the merits of following Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles, “the power of the paths to transform is—in my view—quite apparent” (295).

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Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 2: Translation

By May 14, 2018


See part one here. 

Again, Taves uses very little cognitive science until she turns to the question of the translation. To do so she compares the Book of Mormon translation to Helen Schucman’s writing of A Course in Miracles. Schucman’s case is particularly useful because in a private interview she described the process. Schucman said she, “didn’t hear anything,” the process was “strickly mental,” but still “it wasn’t my voice” (247). Schucman said the process wasn’t automatic writing and that she could “stop and start the flow at will” (247-50).

Taves then looks at research on “highly hypnotizable individuals” (HHs) for insight into how this process might have worked for Schucman and Smith. Such individuals can easily go in and out of such a state and may even learn to control the process. In such a state HHs can tell very vivid narratives as though they are experiencing a complete different place (254). Taves gives the example of a student of researcher Ernest Hilgard for how vivid these experiences can be. At a party, the student had been hypnotized, during which he described a setting in Victorian England so vividly that he believed he was recounting a past life. Despite this belief, the student went to Hilgard for analysis of the events to get a further perspective. Under hypnosis, Hilgard had the student enter other settings, including the Old West, where the student gave equally vivid descriptions and felt like he was there (250-51).  

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Reflections on Taves’s Revelatory Events, pt. 1: The Plates

By April 30, 2018


Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Taves was my dissertation adviser at UCSB

Ann Taves, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made some waves in the Mormon academic community with her paper 2013 MHA paper that argued that Joseph Smith made the golden plates himself but did so under religious sincerity. Taves published her argument in Numen in 2014 and then placed the argument in a larger context in Revelatory Events, which not only looks at more of Smith’s supernatural claims (the First Vision and the Book of Mormon translation) but also compares those events to other revelatory individuals: Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Helen Schucman, founder of A Course in Miracles.

Taves divides Revelatory Events into two parts: she starts with a historical examination of the founding of each religion and then she compares them to each other in part two. Since the book is a rather novel and somewhat complex approach to Mormon origins, I’ll break my review into two parts, following Taves’s division.

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Book Review: William Smith, The Plural Marriage Revelation

By April 13, 2018


William Victor Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018).

William Smith turns his considerable knowledge of Mormon history and Joseph Smith?s thought to the study of Doctrine and Covenants 132, the plural-marriage revelation. Smith proceeds sequentially, dividing the book into eight chapters that each cover a portion of the text. At each stage, Smith delves into the topic that the different portions raise, and gives context both in terms of Smith?s theology and later Mormon debates on those topics.

Overall the book succeeds in contextualizing the revelation, but at times Smith either seems to wander to seemingly unrelated topics, or just touch on topics superficially. For instance, in the introduction, Smith gives an overview of what he calls ?the high priesthood cycle? and the ?apostolic cycle? but doesn?t discuss these issues much in the book (6-7). When he does mention them in chapter four, they seemed off topic as if they were part of another project (51-55). In another instance, Smith tells of John Taylor applying the ?destroyed in the flesh” clause to an adulterous woman, but Smith doesn?t explain what Taylor meant exactly (121). Smith later says the phrase probably meant excommunication, but that context (if it were correct) would have been useful for the Taylor story.

Nevertheless, Smith?s study is extremely useful for all those interested in the topics of polygamy and Mormon thought. Not much is new in terms of these topics, but having all these ideas and sources brought together is extremely helpful to any readers.

If the book has a thesis, it seems to be a point that Smith makes in chapter 11: ?As discussed through the volume, the plural marriage revelation seems to have been dictated for a limited audience?particularly Emma Smith?and was never meant for public consumption.? Smith notes some of the revelation?s troubling language and then declares, ?This raises the question of what such a revelation might have looked like if it were meant from the beginning to be public, out-in-the-open, Divine Counsel? (178). This leads Smith to the unusual move of presenting an edited and cleaned up version of the text minus all the talk about destroying Emma, in addition to other changes.

Such is a peculiar move and highlights the unusual relationship that Mormonism has between its theology and its history, and the role that historian play in that relationship. Can such a revision be made? That?s up to other people, but Smith raises convicting and interesting questions in that direction.


Thoughts on PBS’S Wolf Hall

By October 5, 2017


Yes, I?m very late to the party, but I recently saw a few episodes of PBS?s Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell and wanted to comment. Though I did a reading exam on the English Reformation, my focus was more societal than on individuals, so my knowledge of the main characters in the story are somewhat impressionistic. I did see a few problems though.

First, I?ll say that the production is very good, and Cromwell?s character is very likeable as a salt-of-the-earth, humble servant, caught up in difficult times. Clearly the intent is to overturn Man for All Seasons (1966) that makes Thomas More the hero of the story.

More?s character in Wolf Hall is an interesting one, and while many say he?s the villain, Wolf Hall?s More is much more three-dimensional than Man for All Seasons? Cromwell. Things seem to go off the rails, however, in the lead up to More?s trial and execution, as the dialogue becomes all about justifying More?s execution, and Cromwell seems to shoot down all the great lines from Man for All Seasons. Ultimately, More?s prosecution, torture, and burning of Protestants justify Cromwell?s prosecution of More for his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance. 

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JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 3

By June 18, 2017


Having set the stage of the nature of early Mormon sociality in the first two chapters, in chapter three Ulrich first broaches the topic of plural marriage. But as the title of the chapter suggests, ?I now turn the key to you,? the focus of the chapter is the founding of the Relief Society.

With her imposed stricture of not to ?merge? reminiscences with diaries, (xx) Ulrich sets up a number of challenges, most notably the fact that very few contemporary early Mormon journals mention it. The focus of the chapter, Eliza R. Snow, said nothing about it in her Nauvoo journal and Ulrich turns to Snow?s much later affidavit to determine that Snow married Smith on June 29, 1842. Ulrich states this fact on page 61, the book?s first mention of plural marriage after the introduction. On that date, Snow wrote, ?This is a day of peculiar interest to my feelings? (71).

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A Possible Source of the Word Telestial, Part 2

By May 2, 2017


Seven years ago when I was starting this project, I came across the three-tiered system of the Neoplatonist Hierocles, who called the first step the telestic, or purifying mystery rites. Thinking that was a remarkable similarity among many other similarities between Neoplatonism and Mormonism, I wrote this post giving an overview of those similarities and proposing Hierocles?s system as the possible source of that unusual word.

Many expressed understandable skepticism, and as I was brainstorming, I said the following in comment 17:

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Plato?s Allegory of the Cave and D&C sections 88 and 93

By April 24, 2017


In this previous post, I noted the similarities between DC 88:6-13 and a passage from Thomas Taylor?s translation of Plato?s Republic 571b-c. That passage happens to be right in the middle of Plato?s allegory of the cave, and upon further reflection, major elements from the cave seem to show up not only in section 88 but also 93.

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 10: Joseph Smith

By December 22, 2016


So in sum, if Platonism shows up in Joseph Smith’s scriptures and revelations (some examples), there may have been biblical precedence for it.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 9: Platonism for the Masses?

By December 18, 2016


Nietzsche?s famously made this claim in the introduction to his Beyond Good and Evil, but Origen said something similar in his response to the Celsus. Among Celsus?s numerous critiques was that Christianity appealed to the lower classes and that its ethics were derivative of philosophy. Celsus quoted the passage from the Timaeus??It is a hard matter to find out the Maker and Father of this universe; and after having found Him, it is impossible to make Him known to all??before declaring, ?You perceive, then, how divine men seek after the way of truth, and how well Plato knew that it was impossible for all men to walk in it? (Against Celsus 7.42).

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