My month with the Book of Mormon – May 2017

TO read the entire article, download it as a pdf: Shogren_My month with the Book of Mormon – May 2017

The Bible is really, incredibly old! The Old and New Testaments were copied by hand for centuries, if not millennia! And to interpret the Bible correctly, an expert ought to be well aware of the original languages! At least, that’s how it is with my Bible.

All the more striking, then, that the Book of Mormon (BofM) was the first scripture I have read that were originally composed in – or, according to Joseph Smith, miraculously and infallibly translated into – my own language. That is, it is the English text of the BofM that is considered divinely authoritative, beyond which version there is no further appeal.[1]

The BofM is one of the principal books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) popularly known as the Mormons, and other related groups.[2] It is not the only one considered as new revelation; the LDS later added “Doctrine and Covenants” and “Pearl of Great Price” to their canon.

We live in an age of people giving reviews of books they have never read. The Bible is probably the most-reviewed and least-read book of our age. The Koran too, belongs on the list. Moby Dick is really long, and so seldom read that someone could actually get away with saying, “The point of Moby Dick is, ‘Be yourself.’” As I see it, if I am going to offer comments about books from other faiths, I had better read them at least once before doing so! And it isn’t just an ethical issue: this reflects the Renaissance ideal of going ad fontes, “to the [original] courses,” and not just reading derivative opinions of opinions of opinions.

And so, my 2017 reading list included The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The official Mormon site has a searchable text.[3] My first glimpse of the book was as a kid; as in many instances, I ran into this faith at the Rhode Island State Fair, where the LDS had a booth and a featured a print of the painting, “Jesus Descending in America.”

“Jesus descending in America”

This is a case of how a picture is worth a thousand words: the Book of Mormon (first published 1830) is a long epic, which purports to tell the story of how the Israelite groups the Nephites and the Lamanites fled before the Babylonian Exile and settled in North America. The Nephites were good (more…)

Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem

Last week I visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to the more than 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. I invite the reader to visit their website yadvashem.org, and to study indepth the enormity of the Holocaust, which I cannot begin to describe in this short space.

Our wonderful guide, Dani, told about how his maternal grandmother, Dora, singlehandedly arranged for her whole family to flee the Nazis to Palestine; only one sister remained behind, and she perished in the death camps.

Dani also reminded us that it’s easy to fantasize that we would have done right by the Jews, “if only we had been in Europe in the ’40s.”

The main hall at Yad Vashem

Not so, apparently! Out of the millions of Europeans living, only a relatively handful are on Yad Vashem’s roll of honor (The Righteous Among the Nations, which includes Oskar Schindler, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom) for those who protected Jews. Then as now, the vast majority of people don’t want to get involved, especially at the expense of their own careers, families, and even lives.

We also don’t remember that many Christians abhorred the Jews back in the day, even before the Nazi propaganda came along. So defending Jews was thought by many to be shielding God’s particular enemies from their just deserts, just as some assert today.

Beware the “moral equivalence fallacy” of ranking every inconvenience or difficulty we face as “just like the Holocaust.” Still, one of several takeaways for me, one way to live out the lesson of Yad Vashem is to stand by groups that are unpopular today. Jews, to be sure – especially with rising antisemitism in the US, and the new popularity of Holocaust Denial and the naive acceptance of that old forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion – but also other marginalized groups. Just this past week in Portland, decent people defended two young Muslim women; two of those heroes were knifed to death, and the third nearly died. Some Muslims in Oslo have stood up for Jews; some Christians try to defend gays against violence; some atheists, although in a very backhanded way, defend the Christian Asia Bibi, as have a libertarian senator and a Democratic one; etc. I bring up these specific examples, since my readers are Christians, and thus atheists, gays, Democrats, and Muslims are typically part of the “Other” – just as Jews were the Other in 20th century Europe and often are today.

Jesus was probably referencing this well-known inn in his parable of the Good Samaritan

On my trip to Jerusalem, we also passed by the inn that is thought to be the inspiration for the parable of the Good Samaritan, who took the mugging victim to the way station between Jericho and Jerusalem – “Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34). According to the Lord’s teaching, the story is about giving justice and mercy to those who we feel lie outside of God’s people. By showing mercy, the Samaritan was not rejecting Samaritanism nor affirming the superiority of Judaism; he was simply trying to embody God’s loving care.

If we risk ourselves only for those we recognize as God’s people,

we may be good guys,

but we are not Good Samaritans.

PS. Well, I guess I should have seen it coming: someone just wrote in, anonymously, to inform me that the Holocaust is a “myth” concocted by those awful lying Jews, so that people would feel sorry for them. The evidence: the uber-crackpot preacher Stephen Anderson has a YouTube video that says so! (Btw, in my experience, it’s never a good sign when someone begins a video by saying, “Now, I’m not a racist! I swear I don’t have a racist bone in my body! However…”)

Look up the Yad Vashem website. Six million Jewish dead is not some phony number that people invented. There is an actual list, containing millions of names of Jews who were annihilated, often with their ages, relatives, home towns, etc. Facts, people, lets deal in facts, not the “it-seems-to-me-ism” and sub-amateur sleuthing that is so fashionable in our age of social media.

“Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem,” by Gary S. Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Christians and “Coincidences” or Is There a Hex in the Patternicity?

This article has many images and footnotes; I encourage the reader to download it as a pdf here: Shogren_Christians and Coincidences

It happened just the other day: I had been thinking about James Bond, and later when I pulled out a form of identification for the bank teller, I noticed that my ID number began with 007! Was I a secret agent? Perhaps one suffering from amnesia?

Or, let’s say a man “has a system” for beating the Vegas roulette table. He has noticed that black has come up eight times in a row. So he bets everything on black, because “there’s clearly a pattern to the wheel tonight.” Meanwhile, a man across from him is thinking to himself, “I’d better put everything on red, since it looks like it’s due to come up.”

A child and her companion lie on their backs, looking up at the clouds. “That one looks like a giraffe!” she says. “And that one a camel!” “No, not a camel, look at it upside-down, it looks just like an octopus.” One child says, “An angel!”; another says, “Actually, it looks quite like Charles Darwin!”

We have all played this game without realizing that we were doing pattern recognition. As Paul Simon wrote many years back, in the song “Patterns”:

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves,
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees,
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall,
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child’s uneven scrawl.

Leaves, shadows, trees, indecipherable scrawling – these can all seem like messages because of our human tendency for patternicity. So can tortillas and numbers and corporate logos, as we shall see.

This is why astronomers speak of the Horsehead Nebula, which was not modeled after a terrestrial animal, but just sort of looks like a horse!

From ages past, people have imagined patterns in the stars and constructed “constellations” of animals, gods, heroes. And we can get a cross-check on patternicity by seeing how different cultures “read” the same stars –  it’s Orion in European legend, but the same stars are a hunter and his dogs chasing a deer in India. Mr. Rorschach invented his famous ink blots on the basis of human pattern recognition (“Ummm…is it, maybe, two ducks kissing?” “Okay, Mr. Anderson, we’d better make it three sessions per week!”)

We are wired to quickly detect patterns in the data we see and hear. This is a huge help to get us through the day: when our alarm clock goes off, we don’t have to puzzle over, “Now, what could that buzzer possibly mean?”

But for some people, that recognition faculty goes beyond what is useful (more…)

How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans]

Certeza Unida and Kairos will publish my Romans commentary as part of their Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bible Commentary). More than 160 scholars participated in the project.

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What follows is adapted from the section “How to Read Romans,” in which I show its particular application for Latin America.

The epistle to the Romans meets the Christian on two levels: (1) as a treasure house of beloved gospel texts; (2) as an ancient missionary letter, written for a specific moment in Paul’s work among the nations.

Both levels are valid, since the disciple today first comes to know Romans because of its neat formulations of, for example, the deadliness of sin (3:23), the free gift of eternal life (6:23), the transformation of the new person in Christ (12:1-2). Then beyond that, we must enter into the mind of Paul and appreciate his plan for the final years of the AD 50s – a missionary journey that would take the gospel farther west from Jerusalem than it had ever gone, across several of what we know as time zones. We then see that Romans, when first delivered, was a clear call to action for the believers in the capital to receive Paul for a time, and later to sponsor his trip to evangelize Spain.

In Latin America too we are arming ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, in particular, unreached ones. We too will benefit from knowing, not just what Paul said about salvation, but why he said it to these Christians in Rome, and by extension how it is God’s summons to us to show forth the gospel.

Romans is the largest extant letter by Paul. It is also the most systematic in its structure, touching on many facets of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but saying little about other themes, for example, the Last Days. Paul begins with the lostness of the world, then God’s solution in the death of Christ, the power of the new life in the Spirit, and later, details about how to live the Christian life. He also introduces a long section in chapters 9-11 to answer the questions Why don’t Jews believe in their own Messiah? Will Israel come to God eventually?

The best way to enjoy this letter is to read it; one can read Romans aloud at an unhurried pace in about one hour.

“How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What I read in 2016, the short list

I have always been a big reader, but never anything close to my list for 2016. That’s when I began to use the wonderful online group, Goodreads.com, to log the books that I have read, am reading, and want to read. I am up over 1900 books that I have logged as “read” in my lifetime, so far, but I know there are hundreds I cannot remember; I imagine the number should be more like 2500.

“Do you want that reading list Super-Sized?”

Over Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016, and set a (as it turns out, too ambitious!) personal goal of 150 books/plays this year, including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Koran, and others, let alone material for class prep. Typically I am reading eight books at a clip; some short documents, some long tomes, some Audible recorded books from Amazon.

Overall, I read a lot more non-fiction this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Russian themed. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) was excellent. I am about a third of the way through the fictionalized biography of Trotsky by Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1868-69) is a Christ-allegory. All are available on Kindle.

George Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I have read 1984 a dozen times since Junior High, and decided I should branch out. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel (more…)

Your politics is not Christianity

No matter what you think; no matter what your favorite pundit tells you; no matter what the majority of your friends believe; no matter if you are Right, Left, Center, or Other:
Any word you can tack “ism” to the end of is a potential idol. Anytime you add a hyphen to the word “Christian” (Christian-hyphen-whatever, or Christian-slash-Whatever) you nibble away from the significance of “Christian.”

Whether election season or not, this wonderful insight from Thomas Merton remains relevant:

…on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the “opium of the people.” And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system – when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate…his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith in his own nation, class or race. His ethic ceases to be the law of God and of love, and becomes the law that might-makes-right: established privilege justifies everything, [his] God is the status quo.

Taken from Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, available cheap, used or on Kindle. Merton was, by the way, strongly in favor of political activism, as am I; but not religion as the appendage of a political ideology.

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Bible study – a work of prayer!

This is a prayer of the great church father Augustine, which he was accustomed to use after his sermons and lectures. I have updated the version found in NPNF 1,8, p. 683.

We now turn to the Lord God, the Father Almighty, and with pure hearts we offer to him, so far as we can with the little we have, great and sincere thanks.

With all our hearts we pray for his exceeding kindness:
– that of his good pleasure he would condescend to hear our prayers,
– that by his power he would drive out the Enemy from our deeds and thoughts,
– that he would increase our faith, guide our understanding, give us spiritual thoughts, and lead us to his bliss,
through Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Gary again: I don’t care how well you know the original languages, or what study method you use, or how many commentaries, and what preaching method – and I affirm them, one and all! – without prayer, there is no authentic Bible study or teaching.

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“Bible study – a work of prayer!” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Your Body, God’s Temple

The devil has a Weapon of Mass Destruction, and it is called online pornography. Of help is the following article is by Jason DeRouchie of Bethlehem Bible College and Seminary. It is one of the best explorations of the topics of masturbation and sexual fantasy that I have read, and I repost it, knowing I could not write one this good.

Blessings!

“If Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin,” by Jason DeRouchie

The Golden Rule and Political Discussion

This has been the most difficult election season, at least since 1948, perhaps since 1860.

For that reason, may I request that, when someone didn’t vote the way you or I did, that we not automatically respond:

  • “Oh, that means you don’t care at all about ____.”
  • “Oh, you’re ignoring the sins of your candidate, and damning the sins of mine.”
  • “Oh, you’re deluded by your choice of news outlet.”
  • “Oh, you only look at information that backs your candidate.”
  • “Oh, only imbeciles and morons vote for ____ (not my terms, I’m quoting).”
  • “Oh, only people with zero education vote for____.” When I tell people I have a college education, some reply, “Well, there are plenty of stupid people with degrees, they don’t mean anything!”
  • “Oh, you must be brainwashed or a ‘useful idiot’ or politically-correct or anti-politically-correct.”
  • “Oh, you must be a lemming (or some other slow-witted mammal).”
  • “Oh, why would you vote for the devil” or “the antichrist?”
  • “Oh, you must be morally corrupt.”
  • “Oh, you have an agenda! (And I sure don’t).”
  • “Oh, you can’t possible be a Christian if you voted like that!”
  • “Oh, God told me how to vote, so if you voted differently, you must not love the Lord!”
  • “Oh, prayed about my vote, and if you did not vote the same, you must not have prayed.”
  • “Oh, that means you are a (communist, fascist, Nazi, etc.).”
  • “Oh, you just threw your vote away (maybe on a Third-Party Candidate).”

These are all more or less quotes from things I’ve seen the last few days. From Christians and non-Christians.

Personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who found this election easy. Maybe you didn’t have to think hard about whom to choose, I certainly did. This isn’t a math problem, where 2 + 2 = 4 every time, there are hundreds of variables, and I know thoughtful people who have come up with different answers. That’s not “moral relativism,” it’s a nod to the difficulty of the problem we are trying to solve.

The Golden Rule would suggest that I should do unto others (I should assume they had wrestle through this) as I would have them do unto me (I want people to assume that I had to wrestle through this).

May we please – for the nation’s sake – assume until we hear otherwise, that perhaps, just perhaps, the person who voted for the other team really does care, really did look into things, and really did have to struggle about how to vote.

Yes, it works in politics, too

Yes, it works in politics, too

“The Golden Rule and Political Discussion,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Spirituality and intellect

Wish I had said this, but in no way can I improve on this quote:

…there are two common, but misguided, sentiments in some quarters of the Christian church regarding the relationship between spirituality and the academic or intellectual life. One is the belief that intellectual pursuits do not benefit the spiritual life and may even be dangerous to it. The other is the belief that spirituality is somehow ‘beneath’ those who are intellectually serious about Christianity and specifically about the literary and historical study of the Bible.

Taken from: Patricia D. Fosarelli and Michael J. Gorman, “The Bible and Spiritual Growth,” in Scripture: An Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation, ed. Michael J. Gorman (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 229.

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Dr. Patricia D. Fosarelli is an MD, a theologian, and a pastoral associate in a Catholic parish in Baltimore. Dr. Michael Gorman is a Protestant (Methodist) theologian. Two highly educated people, with whom I would probably have many theological differences – but not in this area!