Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: Millet
I was sitting in a Sunday School class once when the teacher began to address the issue of comparing ourselves to one another. He warned of the hazards of doing so and then added, “We should never compare ourselves or our situations in life to others. If you must compare yourself to someone, then compare yourself to Christ, for he is our Exemplar.” I reflected on that comment for quite a while that day and found myself thinking, “Oh, we should compare ourselves with Christ. Well, that certainly makes me feel better! From now on I will lay my deeds and my puny offerings next to his, and then I can really get (and stay) depressed.”
The fact is, comparing just doesn’t work. Period. We will either maintain a constant feeling of inadequacy or cultivate an inappropriate view of our own importance. Neither is healthy. Even some of Jesus’ chosen disciples were tempted to seek for positions of prominence, and the Master chastened them with the words, “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:26–27; compare Mark 10:28–41). Jesus himself set the standard and abolished all forms of spiritual pecking orders when he, the greatest man to traverse earth’s paths, described his role as follows: “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).
Andy Stanley put this all into perspective when he asked: “When you die, do you get to go to heaven if your good deeds constitute 70 percent of your overall deeds? Or does 51 percent earn you a passing grade? . . . Or what if God’s holiness and perfection outweigh his mercy and he requires that 90 percent of our deeds be good? Or what if God grades on a curve and Mother Teresa skewed the cosmic curve, raising the bar for good deeds beyond what most of us are capable of?” (How Good Is Good Enough? 45–46.)
While for Latter-day Saints, salvation is a family affair, coming unto Christ by covenant and carrying out the will of God is an individual undertaking. When it comes to standing at the bar of judgment, a summary of our lives (including our good deeds) will not be placed alongside anyone else’s. We are baptized one by one, confirmed one by one, ordained one by one, set apart one by one, and endowed one by one. And even though we kneel in the house of the Lord opposite the love of our life in the highest ordinance this side of heaven, the keeping of temple covenants and ultimately the matter of being conformed to the image of Christ is accomplished one soul at a time. We are all in this together. No one of us is exempt from the examinations of mortality or receives a bye in the game of life. We’re here to do the best we can. The quest for spirituality doesn’t entail our being xeroxed into the image of another human, but rather the quest to have God, through his Holy Spirit, make you and me into all that he desires us to be. Through the years and after the Holy Ghost has fashioned our hearts, after the Lord has educated our consciences, after the Spirit has matured our judgment and enhanced our wisdom, then “when [Christ] shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (Moroni 7:48; compare 1 John 3:1–2).
POSTED BY: Millet
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the grand news, the glad tidings that through our exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, coupled with our repentance that flows therefrom, we may be forgiven of our sins and justified or made right with God. Our standing before the Almighty has thereby changed from a position of divine wrath to one of heavenly favor and acceptance; we have traveled the path from death to life (see Romans 5:9–10). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Or, as Peter taught, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7; emphasis added). Surely it is the case that we can cast our burdens upon the Lord because he cares for us—that is, because he loves us. But I sense that more is intended by Peter in this passage. We can give away to Him who is the Balm of Gilead our worries, our anxieties, our frettings, our awful anticipations, for he will care for us, that is, will do the caring for us. It is as though Peter had counseled us: “Quit worrying. Don’t be so anxious. Stop wringing your hands. Let Jesus take the burden while you take the peace.” This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he pointed out that “f you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way” (Mere Christianity, 130–31; emphasis added).
Following his healing of a blind man, Jesus spoke plainly to the self-righteous Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” What an odd statement! And yet it goes to the heart of that which we have been discussing—our need to acknowledge our need. Those who have accepted Christ and his saving gospel come to see things as they really are. They once were blind, but now they see. Those who choose to remain in their smug state of self-assurance, assuming they see everything clearly, these are they that continue to walk in darkness. Thus Jesus concluded, “If ye were blind”—that is, if you would acknowledge and confess your blindness, your need for new eyes to see who I am and what I offer to the world—“ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9: 41).
It was Jacob, son of Lehi, who wrote that those who are “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [the Holy One of Israel] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18; 4:10; 8:2). On the other hand, “the poor in spirit,” those who consider themselves spiritually bankrupt without heavenly assistance and divine favor, those who come unto Christ and accept his sacred offering, inherit the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:3; 3 Nephi 12:3).
Let’s be wise and honest: We cannot make it on our own. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. We are not bright enough or powerful enough to bring to pass the mighty change necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. We cannot perform our own eye surgery. We cannot pry our way through the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. We cannot make ourselves happy or bring about our own fulfillment. But we can “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in [us] forever” (Ether 12:41). Then all these things will be added unto us (see Matthew 6:33). That’s the promise, and I affirm that it’s true.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.
Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.
In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.
From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.
In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).
If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The term Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “appearance.” Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent helps Christians not only to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus Christ but also to look forward to his glorious Second Coming. Although Advent customs may be foreign to many, like so many other seasonal traditions they are a wonderful way to turn our attention more fully to the true meaning of Christmas.
Many Advent traditions come from Germany, where Martin Luther encouraged its continued observance as a way of teaching children and families more about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ. It came to be celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans there and has become a common celebration in many Christian faith communities throughout the world.
One of the best known Advent customs is the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and a single white candle in the center. The wreath itself represents the never-ending circle of God’s love, that he is forever the same in his love toward his people. The green of the wreath, as in the Christmas tree, represents the hope of eternal life that comes through Christ and serves a reminder of the freshness of God’s love and promises. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, that his birth represented the coming of the light into darkness, and that we are called to reflect that light in our lives.
The outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, although customarily the third one is rose or pink. Traditions differ regarding the symbolism of the candles. One is that they represent the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through Jesus Christ. Each Sunday before Christmas an additional candle is lit, creating a beautiful stepped effect as the previous weeks’ candles burn down further. Scriptures can be read and carols sung as part of the lighting, which we do before family prayer. The four candles can also represent the different Old Testament covenants that God made with his servants, beginning with Noah and continuing through Abraham, Moses, and David. The central white candle is known as the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and represents the new covenant made possible through Christ.
While formally observing Advent is not part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, individuals and families can often adapt and employ such traditions for their own use. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has spoken positively of the Advent traditions that he grew up with in Germany in a recent First Presidency Christmas devotional, as have other converts to the Church. As my wife and I were developing our own family traditions early in our marriage, observing Advent was one that we found enriched our Christmas season, and in recent years we have found that it is a wonderful way to teach our children, share spiritual experiences with them, and keep them focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
For LDS families, Advent can be adapted by reading not only from the Old Testament and New Testament but also from the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price (see our selection at my Advent site). While not all families may wish to observe such Advent customs, spending time with the scriptures and enjoying beautiful music on the Sundays of Advent can be uplifting and provide meaningful reflection on the season.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The Smithsonian magazine featured an interesting article by Barbara Kreiger on King Herod this past month (see “Finding Herod’s Tomb,” [August 2009]: 36–43). Last year, Ehud Netzer, a famous Israeli archeologist, announced that he had found Herod’s tomb (see RSC blog posting for December 12, 2008)—a startling news report that caught the attention of scholars and the popular media.
Archeologists have been looking for this tomb for a very long time. In this latest update of its discovery, Kreiger provides a wonderful word-picture of the Herodium (the fortress-palace of Herod in the Judean wilderness some seven miles south of Jerusalem) and some stunning photographs, including one of the reconstructed royal sarcophagus Netzer found (see p. 39)
In addition to telling an engaging story, the article provides a view of the original mausoleum reconstructed by Netzer himself (pp. 41–42). He estimates that it was a seven-story building located about halfway up the artificial mountain Herod built for his largest palace-fortress. So dominant was the site in antiquity, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem could see it. This is simply amazing!
When I lived in Jerusalem (1997–98) some 250,000 people visited the Herodium each year. We took our BYU students there each semester. I felt like I was walking up the hill myself as I read this article. Kreiger not only captures the lay of the land in her well-written essay, but also captures the tension that permeates the air today: “I see Arab villages and Israeli settlements in three directions” (p. 39). The conflict between Arab villagers and Israeli settlers has virtually stopped all tourism to the site today. “But to the east,” she continues, “cultivation abruptly stops as the desert exerts its authority, plummeting out of sight to the Dead Sea, then rising again as the mountains of Jordan” (p. 39). The conflict between wilderness and civilization is as real as the conflict between to people who claim ownership of the land. Standing at the Herodium and viewing the scene only heightens one’s awe at what Herod did here when he built his fortress-palace and then built his mausoleum.
In the end, no matter what one thinks of Herod, one must surely admit that Herod was one of the greatest builders in antiquity. His tomb and his fortress-place in the Judean desert demonstrate that fact. The work of Ehud Netzer provides us another window into the world of the first century—a world dominated by kingdoms and rulers who had a different vision than that of Jesus of Nazareth.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The book of Exodus preserves the Ten Commandments, including “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From an early period, the meaning of the fourth commandment has been discussed and debated. Fortunately Craig Harline, history professor at BYU, has written a history of the efforts to set apart a special day each week. The book is titled Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Harline’s story begins on a particular Super Bowl Sunday, focusing on his ninety- year-old grandmother’s reaction to the televised event as the family gathered to watch it. She finally left the room wondering how society had arrived at this point. He reveals his concern too, but for a different reason. Harline recalls that he was “struck by the Sunday part of ‘Super Bowl Sunday.’ How did that happen?” (viii). The book answers that question.
The author is an excellent writer and a thoughtful observer of people and places, including texts, both ancient and modern. He not only tells the story and history of important words like Sabbath and Sunday but also weaves in the life experiences of real people who have attempted to make sense of special time—holidays and holy days. He provides word-pictures of life in the ancient Mediterranean basin; medieval and modern Europe; and nineteenth- and twentieth-century England and the United States.
Among the hundreds of insights, here are two that helped me reconstruct the past so that I could appreciate the present.
First, the creation of the “free Saturday afternoon” in England was the beginnings of the “weekend.” Many “countries adopted both the term and the [English] practice of a ‘weekend’” after World War I (217). This reconstruction of the week, from a six-day workweek, provided additional opportunities to rest and to engage in leisure activities. Some people claimed the purpose of a free Saturday afternoon was to allow people to do what they need to do on Saturday, leaving Sunday for worship and quiet meditation, the traditional English “quiet Sunday” (218). Instead, “those who wished to broaden the English Sunday held that, despite an increase in free time, new leisure opportunities and facilities were not enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to take advantage of them, unless these were available on Sunday too” (218).
Second, for some, engaging in sports on Sunday grew from a noble idea that sports “could be the bearer of moral virtues” like “team spirit, discipline, unselfishness, and more” (261). In one sense, participating (not watching) in “good games” was better than playing cards or wasting time in the pub, as one Englishman argued, “Our games keep us healthy, and mean abstaining from habitual drinking, late hours, etc.” However, participating in Sunday sports for some “meant more work for others” (261). This was specifically true following the shift from participating in sports to watching sports on Sunday.
Harline demonstrates that Sabbath practices continue to change over time, adding, “It seems safe to say that this process will continue: Sunday will change as the world around it changes.” Nevertheless, he opines, “It also seems safe to say that, whatever the changes, Sunday will retain its extraordinary character, however one might understand that” (381).
I have learned a lot from my colleague and will use some of the cogent insights in my Honors New Testament class when I teach the Sabbath controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees as recorded in the Gospels and when I teach the modern revelation (section 59) on the Lord’s holy day in my Honors Doctrine and Covenants class this coming fall semester at BYU.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).
Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.
On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).
Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.
Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).
Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Several years ago, a former student wrote me to express his concerns about our doctrinal teaching that the Church of Jesus Christ was the “only true and living church” (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). He had come to believe that such a position was arrogant and prideful. Additionally, he questioned the idea that he could have been so fortunate to be in the right church when so many others were not. He thought this was so statistically unlikely that it was illogical to believe it.
Certainly I recognize that, like all nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and any other formal or informal groups, the Church of Jesus Christ contains both good and bad members?some who attempt to live close to the ideals of the gospel and others who do not. However, I have come to categorically reject broad generalizations about any group?whether they be about Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, or the politically liberal or conservative. In my study and experience, I have found that no denomination, group, family, or nation can be so easily defined by such stereotypes.
In the years since this exchange, I have often thought about my former student’s notion that it is illogical for a person to believe that he had been born into the one true Church, because it is statistically improbable that he would have been one of the lucky few, given the billions of people who have lived and will live upon the earth. Consider the logic of his approach. As I told students in a world history class I teach, “No ancient monarch or ruler lived as well as you do?you have clean water, abundant food sources (both in terms of quality, diversity, and quantity), dental and medical services, educational, recreational, and entertainment choices, and finally economic and political freedoms beyond anything that people living in the past could have even imagine.” If my former student were right, it would be illogical to accept that we could be so favored to live in an age of opulence, convenience, and comfort enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the earth’s inhabitants.
I have reflected often on the idea that believing that we belong to the one true church would necessarily make a person arrogant and proud. Certainly there are plenty of privileged people who are arrogant and proud because of their good fortune. But there are many, many others living in modern pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous societies who instead feel that their many blessings place great social responsibilities on their shoulders. They feel duty-bound to devote their time, resources, and energy to helping others less fortunate. And that is precisely the answer to my former student. There are some, perhaps many, in the Church who are indeed arrogant and proud, but there are many others who understand that the privileges of membership also require us to devote everything we have to helping others obtain the same advantages that we enjoy. Where much is given, much is required.
I do not know why I was born in the West in a time of such unprecedented opportunities with all the miraculous inventions, life-saving technical and medical advances, and expanded freedoms and liberties that are available. But I do know that we are now living a lifestyle that most in earth’s history could not imagine. Such knowledge has humbled me and compelled to me be sensitive to the larger world by learning about the challenges people face and to do something about it by helping, supporting, and donating to other worthy causes that help people have food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, and educational opportunities—beyond contributing to the Church’s humanitarian fund.
What are the odds of being so blessed? I don’t know, but I realize that I have an opportunity to do something with what I have been given.Older Posts »