Armenia: A Personal History

I’m not from Armenia (the majority of my great-great grandparents are from Scandinavia), but since college, I’ve had a fascination for the country and it tragic history.  I first “discovered” Armenia during a graduate history class at Brigham Young University.  I wrote a short paper on its medieval history.  Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state-sponsored religion, predating even the Roman Empire’s conversion.

Armenians were, and still are, amazing craftsmen.  Their early churches, many of which predate the Romanesque and Gothic churches in western Europe are masterpieces of architecture, and many are decorated with elaborate stone carvings.  During the Middle Ages, many Armenian craftsmen migrated west to find work, and had a major influence on western European churches.

Little Remains of the Ancient Armenian City of Ani

Little Remains of the Ancient Armenian City of Ani

Twenty-five years ago, as a high school graduation gift for my twin sons, I took them to Turkey for a month.  Some of the places that I wanted to visit were the remains of Armenian churches located in eastern Turkey.

Our airplane landed in Istanbul, and from there we took a ferry up the Bosphorus and east along the southern coast of the Black Sea.  We debarked at Trabzon.  From there we traveled overland to Kars, in extreme eastern Turkey.  From Kars, my sons and I took a taxi to the ancient and deserted ruins of the ancient city of Ani.

This incredible and holy archaeological site sits right on Turkey’s border with Armenia.  (But when we were there, it bordered on Armenia SSR, USSR.)  Mt. Ararat is nearby, the mythical landing spot for Noah’s Ark.  I will describe our visit to Ani in another blog post, so I won’t repeat it here.

Mt. Ararat in What Is Today Eastern Turkey

Mt. Ararat in What Is Today Eastern Turkey

This post, however, is about the loss of 1.5 million Armenians at the end of WWI.  According to a blog post by Haroon Moghul on religiondispatches.org:

In 1913, the Committee of Union and Progress, a xenophobic, nationalistic and militaristic junta seized [control of what remained of] the Ottoman Empire and attempted to rebuild it in the image of secular European nationalism.  In 1915, a few months after joining the fighting in WWI, CUP organized for the elimination by transfer, and other far more brutal and direct means, the Armenian Christian population of eastern Anatolia.

Today, Turkey is far more homogenous than it used to be.  That’s the price of modernity.  Ethnic cleansing, population transfer, slaughter.  It’s ugly, but we should not look away.  The [Turkish] Armenian population was systematically eliminated.  That’s genocide.  There’s no way around it.

This is the one-hundred year anniversary of that genocide.  Commemorations are going on at various locals throughout the world.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in Erevan, Armenia

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in Erevan, Armenia

Pope Francis recently sparked the ire of the Turkish government when he said that humanity had lived through “three massive and unprecedented tragedies” in the last century, the first being the genocide of the Armenian people.  Pope Francis said it was his duty to honor the memories of the 1.5 million Armenian who were killed:

Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding with bandaging it.

Turkey, unconvincingly, has always disputed the 1.5 million figure and said the deaths were part of a civil conflict triggered by WWI.

Many of the victims of the genocide were civilians deported en masse to barren desert regions where they died of starvation and thirst.  Thousands also died in massacres.

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Why Is Playground Equipment Important in Developing Countries?

In 2014, my friends, colleagues, family, and I have installed playground equipment in Ecuador, Peru, Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia, and the Navajo Nation.  In the last 6 years in Uganda alone, we have installed swing sets and other playground equipment at over 30 sites.  Installing playground equipment is important for a variety of reasons.

Installing Playground Equipment at a School near Lira, Uganda

Installing Playground Equipment at a School near Lira, Uganda

A group working in Kenya called Grassroots Alliance for Community Education (G.R.A.C.E.) recently published a promotion that explains why outdoor playgrounds and recreational activities are important:

Article 31 of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Children states that countries should recognize the right of children to rest, leisure, play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Play is a means of developing the skills needed in adult life, as it helps children interact with each other, develop language, learn how to set and adhere to group rules and develop physically.

A [large] number of poverty stricken children are forced to engage in farm work and heavy domestic work.  [And I would add activities like rock crushing.]  This is compounded by the shortage of safe spaces within the communities where children can play and interact in a relaxed and meaningful way.  These factors are major obstacles to exercising their right to play, rest and recreation.

During our January 2015 trip to a community in Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda, we installed a 4-seat swing set.  I recently received the following email from the community leader:

Due to the installation of the swing set in the school, the number of students has increased from 240 to 287 this first term of 2015. My finding therefore is that there is high competition of pupils for the swing set during playing hours. And so there is also a need of another type of game to occupy some of the pupils during play hours.

So swing playground equipment in developing countries can serve as important kid-magnets, encouraging younger students to stay in school.

Installing a Swing Set at a School in Kyarumba, Uganda

Installing a Swing Set at a School in Kyarumba, Uganda

In my humble opinion, the value of installing playground equipment in developing countries is seriously undervalued.

Posted in Africa, ethiopia, Playground, Social Justice, Sports, uganda | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Here We Go Again, Old Testament Biblical Dating

John P. Pratt, PhD in Astronomy (from the University of Arizona), has developed a biblical timeline back to Adam (and Eve).  His extensive “research” was recently summarized in Meridian Magazine.  And here are the dates:

The Exodus:  1462 BC

Great Flood:  2343 BC

Adam (Mortal):  4001 BC

This website (TRW) has long argued for a non-literal take on much of the Old Testament. 

One of the key elements to improving the compatibility between science and religion is the acceptance that much of the OT is myth, allegory, parable, legend, fiction, etc.  Many OT characters and events have little basis in either history or science.  Thus efforts like those of Pratt’s, while marginally amusing (putting a timeline on mythology), are not useful, and certainly not timely.  They turn religion into a mockery.

The problem with Pratt’s dates are numerous.  Take the “Great Flood,” for example.  There was no global flood.  It didn’t happen.  This has been the subject of two articles written by BYU professors indicating why the story is untenable from a scientific perspective.  Additionally, there is not enough water on the earth and in the atmosphere to flood to the tops of the mountains.  Plus, there were thriving civilizations in 2343 BC and they make no mention of a flood; their civilizations show no disruptions.

The Noah Myth Taking a Bath

The Noah Myth Taking a Bath

The eviction from the Garden of Eden in 4001 BC is also problematic.  There were human beings on the earth long before 6K years ago.  And they were sentient and there was death.  The LDS Church leadership needs to rethink the idea that without a Fall there is no need for an Atonement.

Ethiopian Depiction of Adam and Eve

Ethiopian Depiction of Adam and Eve

Why should we care about Pratt’s ruminations?  Because we should not be mixing scientific truth with religious mythology.  Do we want our youth to think that in order to be a “good” member of the LDS Church, they have to believe in a literal OT (particularly the Book of Genesis)?  Of course NOT.  If Pratt wants to believe in a literal OT, that is his business; but websites and blogs like ldsmag.com and ndbf.com do the Mormon Church a great disservice; they perpetuate the idea that biblical allegories are history (and worse science).  It is time for the LDS leadership to speak up.  This would be a great General Conference talk for President Henry B. Eyring.

Posted in bible, Creation, mormonism, Religion, Science, transhumanism | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Is the Mormon Version of the “Prosperity Gospel” Really Dead?

According to Tracy M, writing at bycommonconsent.com, Elder Dallin Oaks “brought the hammer down on the Prosperity Gospel.”  Maybe.

According to a talk given at the Elder Oaks:

Those who believe in what has been called the theology of prosperity are suffering from the deceitfulness of riches.  The possession of wealth or significant income is not the mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor.

While I applaud this statement, this is NOT what many LDS Church leaders and members believe.  Some forms of the prosperity gospel are still very much alive in the Church.  According to a talk given by Elder M. Russell Ballard in 2012:

Do some sectors of our society have stronger values and families because they are more educated and prosperous, or are they more educated and prosperous because they have values and a strong family?  In this worldwide Church we know that it is the latter.  When people make family and religious commitments to gospel principles, they begin to do better spiritually and often temporally as well.

This observation by Elder Ballard edges dangerously close to the prosperity gospel.  And how many times have we heard that if we pay our tithing, blessing will befall us?  And many assume these blessings involve some form of “prosperity,” including financial.

There has always been a strong tie in Mormonism between tithing and spiritual and temporal rewards.  This point was driven home in the Mormon film “The Windows of Heaven” which is still being circulated by the Church.  The point of the film:  If you pay your tithing, the rains will come and the drought will be over.

Church members need to hear more talks with messages decrying the prosperity gospel.

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Historicity of the Book of Job: Does It Matter?

In a new book titled Re-reading Job:  Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, the author Michael Austin devotes several pages to the issue of the historicity of Job.  At first, I thought this was a silly issue.  Of course, Job isn’t history, it’s a poem, it’s a parable.

Job1

But then I thought a little longer, and the issue has wider implications, particularly as it relates to much of the Old Testament, to characters like Adam and Eve, Jonah, Noah, Daniel, Lot and his wife, etc.  According to Austin:

Did a man named Job ever live?  A great many people–many Latter-day Saints–believe this to be an extremely important question.  Often this comes from a reflexive biblical literalism that we inherited from our Protestant forbearers. . . .  Latter-day Saints tend to be uncomfortable thinking of any part of the Bible as imaginative literature–under the assumption that this would decrease its moral value and call the legitimacy of the entire bible narrative into question.

Note that I think it would have been better if Austin had said “entire Old Testament narrative” instead of “entire bible narrative.”

Austin goes on to explain why he thinks OT literalism, particularly as it relates to Job, is not necessary or relevant.  Before doing this, he reacts to a quote by BYU religion professor Keith H. Meservy:

Now, if Job were not real and his suffering, therefore, were merely the figment of some author’s imagination, and Joseph Smith on the other hand was very real, and his suffering and that of his people were not imaginary, then for the Lord to chide him because his circumstances were not as bad as Job’s were, would provide an intolerable comparison, since one cannot compare real with unreal things.  On the other hand, since the Lord did make the comparison, it must be a real one.  I would therefore conclude on this basis alone, that Job was a very real person.

Austin strongly disagrees with Meservy contention that “one cannot compare real things to unreal things.”  Austin uses the example of Christ who frequently made such comparisons by answering real concerns with instructional parables:

Modern prophets and apostles frequently refer to the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son in conference talks, even though they know perfectly well these figures never existed.

Though the question of Job’s historicity has never been formally addressed by the Brethren, it was the subject of semi-official letter, as Thomas Alexander reports in Mormonism in Transition:

In October 1922, while Heber J. Grant was in Washington, the First Presidency received a letter from Joseph W. McMurrin asking about the position of the Church with regard to the literality of the Bible.  Charles W. Penrose, with Anthony W. Ivins, writing for the First Presidency, answered that the position of the Church was that the Bible is the word of God as far as it was translated correctly.  They pointed out that there were, however, some problems with the Old Testament. . . .  While they thought Jonah was a real person, they said it was possible that the story as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time.  The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it “is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book” to illustrate “what is set forth therein.”  They took a similar position on Job.

jonah1

Austin concludes:  “there is no reason that a work of imaginative literature cannot also be a work of divine revelation.”

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LDS Church Leadership: Who is Minding the Ship?

After a series of colossal missteps over the last few weeks, I have to wonder:  Who is minding the good-ship LDS?

First, Elder L. Tom Perry, at the 2015 LDS Spring General Conference, defends “traditional families” (a legally married mother and father, who rear their children together) and warned against the dangers of “counterfeit and alternative lifestyles,” code words for same-sex marriage and the like.

Just as the LDS Church was getting kudos for a Utah law protecting the rights of the LGBT community, up steps Elder Perry and destroys all the good will in one fell swoop.  Elder Perry, who is 92 years old, is seriously out of step with the youth of the Church, the majority of whom don’t have a problem with same-sex marriage.  (And his talk is not going to change their minds.)  My children, all of whom are active in the Church, don’t have any problem with SSM.  It is not an issue to them.  They don’t see SSM as a threat to “traditional” marriage.

To further complicate matters, the LDS Church recently joined with other conservative Christian groups in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against legalized SSM.  According to Mormon spokesman Eric Hawkins:

We believe that a redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples has profoundly troubling implications for society in the long term.

Really?  Is there some shred of evidence supporting this accusation?  Fortunately, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and his daughter, Abby, (both members of the LDS Church) signed their names to a “friend of the court” brief urging the Supreme Court justices to rule in favor of SSM nationwide.

Jon Huntsman Jr. Signs in Support of Same-Sex Marriage

Jon Huntsman Jr. Signs in Support of Same-Sex Marriage

Second, up steps Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, past president of Brigham Young University, and complicates Mormon theology by reviving the old “chestnut,” that without a literal Fall there is no need for an Atonement.

In an increasingly secular society, it is as uncommon as it is unfashionable to speak of Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden or of a “fortunate fall” into mortality.  Nevertheless, the simple truth is that we cannot fully comprehend the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ . . . without understanding that there was an actual Adam and Eve who fell from an actual Eden, with all the consequence that fall carried with it.

Really?  Perhaps, Elder Holland should have explained how this Fall fits in with evolution?  You know that topic that LDS biologists teach at BYU?  Is he saying that Adam and Eve were black and that the Garden of Eden was in Africa?  Does he believe that Adam lived for 930 years?  And was there death before the Fall?  When you talk of a literal Adam and Eve, you open up an “interesting” collection of dilemmas.

But most importantly, teaching OT biblical literalism is not healthy for the youth of the Church.  When they discover science and verifiable history during their formal or continuing education, we don’t want them having to choose between science and religion.  The two should be viewed as compatible.  And connecting an allegorical Adam and Eve with Christ’s mission is downright dangerous.

Third, and perhaps the biggest symbolic misstep, was not inviting women leaders of the Church to the confab with President Obama.  What were our leaders thinking?  They had the perfect chance to show that women leaders matter.

So during the month of April 2015, LDS Church leaders alienated not only the LGBT community, but also many of its non-LGBT youth.  They caused eye-rolling among its scientists and further alienated Mormon feminists (whose numbers are growing dramatically because of previous missteps).  This was not a real good month.

For many Mormons, the poet T.S. Eliot was right:  “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Posted in mormonism, Organizational Dynamics, Religion, Science, Social Justice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

President Eyring and the LDS Conference Talk that No One is Talking About

The most important talk given at the Spring 2015 LDS General Conference was given by President Henry B. Eyring:

When we offer succor to anyone, the Savior feels it as if we reached out to succor Him.

There are more hungry, homeless, and lonely children of Heavenly Father than we can possibly reach.  And the numbers grow ever farther from our reach.

So the Lord has given us something that we each can do.  It is commandment so simple that a child can understand it.

It is the law of the fast.

In the Church today we are offered the opportunity to fast once a month and give generous fast offering through our bishop or branch president for the benefit of the poor and needy.

Your fast offering will do more than help feed and clothe bodies. It will heal and change hearts.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

It is important that we understand that the majority of us in United States and Canada are blessed beyond belief.  It is also important that we understand that we need to “succor” those in need.  Fast offerings are a great way to start.  But it is only a start.  Please volunteer with a local humanitarian organization (NGO).  There are many good ones around.  Some that help locally, some that help nationally, and some that help internationally.  I promise that it will change your life forever and be a great example to your children.

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