In Tents #80 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 5

This Sunday, August 6, would be my mother’s 98th birthday, but she died in January of last year. Fifty-one years ago her birthday was on a Saturday. That morning our family went to the south Relief Society room of our double chapel on 9th East in Provo across the street from Deseret Towers. The south Relief Society room was the one with the font, and as we sat there in our white clothes some priests (which will have an entirely different connotation to someone unfamiliar with Mormon culture) gave us a demonstration, standing in the middle of the room, of how the baptisms would proceed, how to hold our fathers’ hands, how to lean back under the water.

People born in June were normally baptized the first Saturday in July, but we had been on vacation that day. (That may have been the day we climbed Boot Hill. Disappointing. First, not much of a hill. Second, only six men had been gunned down and buried there. Six was the first 30 minutes of a John Wayne film, not a legendary event in the American imagination.)

Sometime during that first week of August I walked across the street to Beverly Broadbent’s, the Primary president, to pass off the Articles of Faith, including this one,

 We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Or maybe it was four years later, when I graduated from Primary, that I memorized and recited the Articles of Faith. At any rate, for half a century now I have associated the word translate with words like BibleBook of Mormon, and scripture. In that time I’ve read a fair number of translators’ prefaces, a fair amount about the problems of taking words from one language and setting them down in another. (And I did some work on the manual for Book of Mormon translators.)

I’m comfortable with the idea that translations are incomplete, that things can be lost and gained in translation, and that translation can have a wider meaning than simply finding word equivalences between languages, such as transforming from a lower state to a higher state.

No piece of writing, my father had said, is perfect.

What if you got a perfect essay from a student?

I guess it would be translated.

Into what language? Continue Reading →

In Tents #79 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 4

What did Stewart Glutmeyer name his boat?
Stewardship.

Bless our Seminary teachers for giving us silly sayings to help remember complicated concepts. The multiple choice answers to a test question like “What is stewardship?” don’t really define the concept as much as they highlight its importance.

The concept of Stewardship has become much more important to me in the last few years, particularly since I read Steven C. Harper’s Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants  in 2008. Harper’s discussion of agency in the Doctrine & Covenants, of what it means to act as an agent for the Lord, gave me something to carry in Bro. Glutmeyer’s boat.

(A lot of the value I got from Seminary I got in spite of the political rhetoric it was couched in, rhetoric that might lead one to think the gospel resided in a political party or one wing of the national bird–which Ben Franklin thought would better have been a turkey. One of the valuable lessons I learned was from a comment that Jephthah should not have sacrificed his daughter, but should have fallen down before the Lord and asked forgiveness for making a rash vow. (See #33 for a fuller discussion.) That comment, together with a dramatic monologue of Pontius Pilate in Hell–Spirit Prison?–taught me that I didn’t have to accept what characters in scripture say about themselves or others as the Lord’s viewpoint, that I could question their motives and assumptions. A great gift.)

My historian cousin Joe Soderborg has also talked with me about the concept of being agents or stewards, particularly about the parable of the man traveling into a far country as a parable about leadership as stewardship: Continue Reading →

In Tents #78 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 3

June is a month to celebrate–give thanks for–prophetic religion.  And not just because June is the month when Spencer W. Kimball chose to mark the U.S. Bison Ten Eel not with a patriotic panegyric about the joys of living in a free country, but with a stern warning about “The False Gods We Worship“:

We train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)

Two years later, the second Friday in June, I spent the morning with some other missionaries out at the Martin Harris Farm, cutting grass and getting it ready for the horde of Pageant visitors next month. When we came back to the Hill Cumorah for lunch, Jennie (foreman Ralph’s 9-year-old daughter) ran out of the quonset hut behind the hill, excited, Continue Reading →

In Tents #77 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 2

Last month we talked about the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s baptism narratives. Matthew and Luke record a brief sermon from John beginning, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But they introduce the words differently.

5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan,

6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Matthew 3:5-7

What do we make of the conjunction in verse 7? But typically denotes an exception in English, an exception to what has just been said, but every time I listen to the King James Bible I notice a lot of passages where speakers 400 years after 1611 would use and instead of but. So I wanted to find out what the Greek conjunction connotes. My search for an online version of Strong’s Concordance and a lexicon led me to Bible Study Tools, which has lexicons, translations and commentaries.  (It’s a useful site, but I had to play around with it for about an hour before I could figure out how to find what I wanted. See my comment on last month’s post  for an account of my visit–though an easier way to get to the interlinear Bible is through the Read menu.)

Continue Reading →

In Tents #76 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives

The Friday before I post I usually get a note from Jonathan Langford: “You’re up for Tuesday.” Instead, Friday after work I opened up my email and saw a whole bunch of letters with the ominous subject line “Jonathan Langford.” My phone shows the first few words of each letter below the subject line, so I saw the word heartbroken in Margaret Young’s letter, which confirmed the omen. (I wondered if anyone had told my brother Dennis, then found out from my sister that Dennis was in the hospital after back surgery.) So I’ve been thinking about Jonathan off and on all weekend. On the bus Monday morning I realized I’ve probably also been waiting for someone to say, “April Fools.”

This column was a gift from Jonathan. Continue Reading →

In Tents #75 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 4

Birth is a universal experience. All living things have received or given birth, or planted seed, or witnessed birth, or helped. So if you want to write about a birth what details will you include, besides things like name, height, weight, date and time? What details will make this birth worth reading about?

To My Blossom‑Headed Boy

Andrew Jeremy née Clark
Born December 22, 1984, 9:16 a.m.
7 lbs 9 1/2 oz  20 1/4″

“One deft stroke and the head appeared,” I’d written of your birth.
“How’s that?”  I asked her.
“It’s three a.m.,” she said,
“And it’s not true; I had to push like hell
before it came.”
Continue Reading →

In Tents #74 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 3

Sometimes it can be useful to read things in a new form, format, or translation. For some reason my MP3 player treats anything after the first digit as a decimal, following the order 1, 10, 100, 101, 102, . . . 11, 110, 111, 112 . . . 2, 20, 21, und so weiter. So last year year I decided to listen to the Doctrine & Covenants in that order, and it was interesting to hear the early and late sections juxtaposed.

Later, when I got to the Tanakh I decided to listen in the Jewish order rather than the Christian. Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim:

  • Torah (Instruction): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
  • Nevi’im (Prophets):
    • (Former) Joshua, Judges Samuel, Kings
    • (Latter) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel
    • (The Twelve) Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
  • Ketuvim (Writings):
    • (Poetical Books) Psalms, Proverbs, Job
    • (Five Rolls–Hamesh Megillot) Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes
    • (Historical Books) Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

According to Wikipedia the order of the Ketuvim has never been quite set, but this is the most common. Harold Bloom says in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine  that the Ketuvim ends with Chronicles because Chronicles ends with the rebuilding of the temple and the invitation to return to the temple. Christians changed the order, elevating Daniel to a major prophet and giving Malachi the last word, because Daniel was so important to Christian eschatology and Malachi prophesied about their Lord’s forerunner. Continue Reading →

In Tents #73, How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, part 2

Happy New Year, everyone.

To start the new year out on a cheery note about new beginnings, consider the following scenario. A king finds out there are other pretenders to the throne. To clear the title and quit their claims he has them killed.

An occurrence not unknown in the ancient world (or the modern). The example that comes to mind first for me is Abimelech killing his three-score and ten brothers in Judges 9:1-5  (mirrored by Jehu killing the 70 sons of Ahab in II Kings 10),  but you may think of the central section of Ether with its “apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions.”

Now change the scenario a little. The king learns about his rival through a prophecy, and orders the rival killed, but the rival survives. Clearly we’re in mythic territory now, Oedipus, MacBeth, Snow White, Harry Potter. And yet, one of Abimelech’s brothers did indeed survive, and the author of Judges surely hadn’t read The Trojan Women or Oedipus Rex, or even The Aeneid.

george_washington_greenough_statue_300So here’s the question. Does an archetypal element in a historic account render the account archetypal rather than historical? Consider that painting of George Warshington in a toga that the Duckduck can’t find for me, but brings back instead a bunch of busts and Horatio Greenough’s statue of Washington as Cincinnatus

Now, some future critic who objects that Greenough’s statue can’t possibly date from 1840 because that was long before the age of toga parties would be missing the point. Greenough wasn’t claiming that Washington actually wore a toga (or even visited Cincinnati). Continue Reading →

In Tents #72, How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, part 1

Here’s the beginning of a story. It takes place at Halloween, but think of All Hallows Eve as a prelude to la Nochebuena.

The Wanderer

If you chart the course of the planets through the stars there’s a point during the year when they start to move backwards. You can look at the whole history of physics as an attempt to solve this riddle, the retrograde motion of the wanderers. That’s what planet means, wanderer. That was what the branch president told me not long after we met.

But he wasn’t an astronomer. He was a retired English teacher and he had come down to the care center to help the residents write poems, to listen to the way people talked and write their words down as poems. Then he was called as branch president.

Now, if you’re not from Utah you probably think the branch president is the guy who sits in the corner office over at Wells Fargo. I got out one time. Went down to the corner, crossed State St and went a couple of blocks down Main street, past the city park, and Smith Brothers grocery, and then I stopped because it stopped looking familiar. The branch president across the street at Wells Fargo happened to see me, saw me standing there, saw me unable to go forward or back, and brought me back.

But our branch president wasn’t a banker, he was a poet who used to come down and help people write their memories as poems. One woman would listen to people’s sacrament meeting talks and turn them into poems. Sacrament meeting, now there’s another Utah term. It’s our worship service. We have two wings in the building, but just one meeting–in the locked wing–so the wanderers can’t get out. There’s a dining room for each wing, but we have our sacrament meetings in the alzheimers ward so the wanderers won’t wander away.

Hey, what a great title for a book. Now I just have to write the stories to go with it. So, a couple of years ago at the branch leadership Christmas social Continue Reading →

In Tents 71 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part XI

Imagine receiving a generous prize from a Jewish organization on condition you spend three weeks in Israel. What would you do? Stephen Mitchell took it as a sign that now was the time to write the book on Jesus he had long wanted to write. That book became The Gospel According to Jesus, but he didn’t find what he need at first, he says in a young adult version called Jesus, What He Really Said and Did.

Until, that is, he went into Egypt with his Israeli guide-like Joseph, I think-and met this Bedouin man, their guide, a true patriarch from the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And when the Bedouin man stopped to pray, praying with his whole body, his prayer was so pure, so whole, Mitchell wanted to bow with him, but he didn’t know how his Muslim guide and his Israeli guide would understand “a Jew bowing to Allah,” (xviii) so he bowed in his mind.

Meeting Musa and feeling the purity of his prayer was what Mitchell needed to feel he was ready to translate. But how to proceed? From his introduction to the Gospels in a Protestant grade school he had recognized that some of their words seemed full of light, and others full of anger. He decided to follow Thomas Jefferson’s example and pick out the words of light.

(The Church quoted Jefferson in two pamphlets, a tri-fold called something like “Apostasy and Restoration of the Gospel Foretold by Ancient and Modern Prophets,” and a 1983 piece called “Apostasy and Restoration”:

The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers. . . . Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger persons to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages. (Jefferson’s Complete Works, vol 7, pp 210, 257 quoted here)

Of course neither pamphlet said that Jefferson included all that nonsense about Jesus being the son of God in the deformities and caricatures. I wonder if the pamphleteer wasn’t exercising a bit of postmodern irony in standing Jefferson on his head.) Continue Reading →

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