Monday, March 20, 2006

The Spinozist Has Moved

The Spinozist is now hosted here. Please update your links and bookmarks!

In the end, the allure of WordPress proved irresistible.


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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Aaron Eckhart on BYU and Mormonism

Required to be in the car around midday, I had the good fortune to notice two Mormon connections on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. Audio available here.

(Image: Katie Holmes as a reporter, left, and Aaron Eckhart as super-lobbyist Nick Naylor in the upcoming Thank You for Smoking.)

The first half hour was an interview BYU alumnus Aaron Eckhart, who has been in a number of films, including four directed and/or written by fellow BYU alumnus Neil LaBute. LaBute was a graduate student in, what, I guess Theater and Film or whatever they would call it, and Eckhart was an undergrad in the same department. I’m a fan of Eckhart’s; his relatively brief performance in LaBute’s Nurse Betty was particularly riotous.

(I also like LaBute’s work, though I’m not sure how to read his In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, both of which he wrote as well as directed. The two films explore similar dark and twisted emotional territory, with the emotional sociopath ending up with the sweet girl in both cases. What I can’t tell is whether these are intended as tragedies/dark comedies, intended as cathartic depictions of unusual pathological cases; or as realistic depictions of the typical state of human relations. The title Your Friends and Neighbors seems to suggest the latter, but if so I have a bit of a hard time relating to it. But then, I often find depictions of human interactions in literature or movies unrealistic or unconvincing—“What is this? People aren’t that petty and mean in real life,” I often find myself thinking. Perhaps I have simply lived a sheltered existence.)

Anyway, in today’s interview (occasioned by his new film Thank You for Smoking), there is some discussion of how LaBute’s work didn’t fit in well at BYU, how they were locked out of the theater and had performances cancelled, how they did single unauthorized performances at like 8am, how he took a film ethics class from LaBute, how neither he nor LaBute—the department’s two most famous alumni, at least before Napoleon Dynamite came along—have ever been invited back. He did express warm feelings towards his Mormon upbringing, saying that it taught him certain values he appreciates, and something along the lines of ‘once a Mormon, always a Mormon, something that’s always a part of you that you can’t get away from’ and so on. Oh, and sisters, he said he’s 38 and childless, and joked about not getting too old to have children (whether or not he’s single did not come up).

The second half hour had an interview with journalist Elizabeth Weil, who recently wrote about the issue of ‘wrongful birth’ in The New York Times Magazine. Weil spoke of spontaneously answering her daughter’s question about where she was before birth with an answer like, ‘floating up in the sky,’ together with her sister—which seemed to be a great comfort to her daughter, but it was also an answer that distressed Weil in connection with her abortion of a fetus expected to have severe disabilities. Anyway, I found it interesting that the notion that a pre-mortal life may be as naturally imagined and desired as a post-mortal life, and I wondered why it doesn’t come up more often.


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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Do the prophets deny they lead by revelation, or encourage dissent?

[UPDATE: In response to RoastedTomatoes’ charge of unfairness, I changed the original title (The prophets speak: ‘We have no revelation, so we encourage dissent’), and made modifications marked with strikethroughs (old) and boldface (new) to the first and fourth paragraphs.]

In a couple of interesting posts (here and here), RoastedTomatoes uses responses of President Joseph F. Smith to a Senate committee, and of President Hinckley to the media, to argue two conclusions float for thought and discussion two propositions that many believing Saints would find startling. While I am interested in the relationship of such sources to doctrine, the particular arguments are interesting in their own right, and here I recycle and extend my own take on how the prophets understand these two points.

One startling proposition is that
Judging on the basis of President Joseph F. Smith’s sworn testimony from the beginning of the twentieth century, it would seem that the church has in fact survived through periods of years without revelation to its president. Furthermore, if President Hinckley’s statements at the end of the twentieth century may be taken seriously, it would seem that the church currently survives for significant stretches without revelation or inspiration.
I agree with RoastedTomatoes that there aren’t any indications that spectacular manifestations occur frequently, but I don’t think the prophets understand this as an absence of revelation.

RoastedTomatoes’ quotation of President Woodruff, cited the current Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual—published with the Church’s logo, copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc., and including an approval date (presumably by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve)—are a better indication of what the prophets think than pressured Senate testimony. President Woodruff’s reference to the necessity of daily revelation is closely related to the common view of having the ‘constant companionship’ commonly associated with the gift of the Holy Ghost, God’s fulfillment of his promise in the sacrament to “always have his Spirit to be with you.” In the context of the guidance of the Church by revelation, this means that the leading quorums have enormous faith in the process of unanimity in councils (D&C 107). In exercising their legitimate stewardship, when 15 people with the gift of the Holy Ghost start a discussion from 15 different points of view and come to unanimity, they understand this as the Lord having guided their decisions (or at least it not being grossly against his will).

The other unusual proposition, derived from using President Joseph F. Smith’s mention of hundreds who did not accept plural marriage while remaining in good fellowship as a specific example, an acquaintance who didn’t believe in plural marriage is that
…diverse systems of belief and even disbelief are compatible with full fellowship in our church. …even people who flatly reject important doctrines taught by church leadership are allowed to remain in full fellowship and good standing,
an assertion parlayed into putative prophetic endorsement of “legitimate dissent, which is apparently okay or even encouraged…,” based a media interview by President Hinckley.

However, the observed fact that people are not automatically kicked out of the Church for having some different beliefs than the authorities does not imply that the prophets have ever thought there was such a thing as “legitimate dissent” within the kingdom of God, outside of one’s stewardship. (Here, distinctions must be drawn between questions/doubts/criticisms, and the publication thereof.) Rather, their messages to the Church—as opposed to the outside media, including Joseph’s famous ‘they govern themselves’ quote—seem pretty consistent in considering dissent with the united voice of the leading quorums a shortcoming, and spiritually perilous. All Church members have all manner of ‘shortcomings’ (in the leaders’ view) for which they are not kicked out, but this does not mean the prophets think such things are “legitimate” or “encouraged.”

In the media exchange quoted in a comment to RoastedTomatoes’ post, President Hinckley acknowledges that “People think in a very critical way”—when?—“before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform” (emphasis added). The reporter then presses President Hinckley about questioning within the Church, at which point he makes an artful dodge by referring to all the thinking going on at ‘the largest private university in America’—BYU. But translating the homage he renders to ‘thinking for themselves’ into ‘encouraged dissent’ within the Church is an unjustified leap, given what we know about BYU: there are serious limitations on academic freedom and dissent on subjects related to the Church. There may be all kinds of questioning and thinking and dissent going on at BYU—of worldly philosophies! But the debates and dissent and questioning at BYU are not about, say, the First Vision, or Book of Mormon historicity.

While the specifics of these propositions are interesting, I hope to discuss an overarching issue in a separate post: whether Church members should make serious doctrinal conclusions based on statements made in the face of secular questioning that ranges from hostile, to unsympathetic, to shallowly curious.
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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Justin Butterfield, Mormon Wasp and Nauvoo Neighbor

Q: How does Justin Butterfield, proprietor and editor of Mormon Wasp, know so much about Mormon history? A: As anyone who has read Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling knows, he lived it firsthand as the U.S. Attorney for Illinois during the era of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo.

Butterfield, then and now, seems to be a straight-shooting, just-the-facts ma’am sort of guy, whose occasional presence on both ‘sides’ suggests an aversion to overtly ideological or partisan agendas. Back in the day, he could on the one hand relentlessly dissect Joseph’s opaquely byzantine financial arrangements in an attempt to recover a debt Joseph incurred in the purchase of a steamboat that wrecked only weeks after its purchase, while simultaneously saving Joseph’s hide in an unrelated case, by successfully convincing both governor Thomas Ford and the Illinois Supreme Court that the extradition of Joseph to Missouri was unconstitutional. In the modern era, Butterfield holds the Church’s feet to the fire with contexts and differentials highlighted by juxtapositions with original documents, while also calling demagogues on the carpet as they grind their axes and deploy them in hatchet jobs against Mormonism.

What are we to make of this superannuated lawyer/historian, who can be both Wasp to the Mormons and Neighbor of Nauvoo? (Butterfield’s blog has used both names. Original readings are available for both of these Nauvoo newspapers—The Wasp, and its successor, The Nauvoo Neighbor. Their mottoes, reflective of Butterfield’s two modes: “Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again,” and “The Saints’ Singularity—Is Unity, Liberty, Charity.”) Some might think the name a bizarre coincidence, or a clever pseudonym (of who? Jed Woodworth, young Mormon scholar and prominently-named assistant for Rough Stone Rolling?). I prefer to think he’s one of the Three Nephites, called ensure the long-term viability of God’s work by both keeping it honest and defending it from unfair critics. (To cite another motto of more recent vintage, The Truth is Out There.)


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Monday, March 06, 2006

Blogger Comment Feeds

A ‘newsreader’ is an application or website that allows users to ‘subscribe’ to any website with a ‘feed.’ This allows them to keep abreast of many websites—blogs, for instance—without having to check them individually, by providing a single location at which they are automatically notified of new content at any and all of the websites to which they subscribe. Blogger provides feeds for posts, but not for comments to posts, which means that users may be automatically notified of posts in their newsreaders, but must manually check at each individual site for new comments. I have a trick for generating a comment feed with Blogger, but it has a couple of important limitations.

The trick is to set up an auxiliary blog in your Blogger account—whose feed will become your comment feed—and use Blogger’s capabilities for interactions via email to automatically route comments from your ‘real’ blog to your new auxiliary ‘comment’ blog. For example, if your main blog is ‘myblog.blogspot.com,’ you can create an auxiliary blog called ‘myblogcomments.blogspot.com.’ You will also need to create a dedicated email account, for example ‘myblog.comments@gmail.com,’ at an email host capable of automatic forwarding.

Here’s how to tie it all together. At myblog.blogspot.com, under the Settings tab and Comments subtab, at the bottom of the page put myblog.comments@gmail.com in the blank labeled “Comment Notification Address.” At myblogcomments.blogspot.com, under the Settings tab and Email subtab, in “Mail-to-Blogger Address” fill in something of your choice, such as “myblogcomments,” to make an address ’[Blogger username].myblogcomments@blogger.com’—and be sure to check the ‘Publish’ box next to this address. Finally, set up the email account myblogcomments@gmail.com to automatically forward to [Blogger username].myblogcomments@blogger.com, and voila, ‘http://myblogcomments.blogspot.com/atom.xml’ is your new comment feed! (The intermediate email account is necessary because Blogger will not allow a Mail-to-Blogger Address to be used as a Comment Notification Address.) As a final touch, you can add a line of HTML to the template of myblogcomments.blogspot.com—to which users may arrive from their newsreaders—that will automatically redirect them to your main blog.

I was initially quite pleased to have come up with this trick, but there are two serious limitations that are among the reasons I will be moving to WordPress in the near future. First, it does not seem to be completely robust: after 483 comments it crapped out for some mysterious reason, with all subsequent comments arriving as posts with ‘Draft’ status at myblogcomments.blogspot.com, instead of being automatically published. (So my comments feed is currently broken!) I don’t know why this happened—perhaps space or frequency limitations of some kind were exceeded—but I haven’t bothered to go to the effort to figure out the problem. The second serious limitation is that the form of the comment feed is not one that Mormon Archipelago and LDSelect can automatically use in their comment aggregations, unless the proprietors of these sites could be prevailed upon to write a special parser for these ad hoc Blogger comment feeds. I haven’t tried to persuade them; perhaps if enough people used this approach they might be willing to look into it. (Unfortunately Blogger comment email notifications only contain a link to the main post and not the individual comment, so even with special parsing the aggregators could not provide a direct link to the comment.)


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