381: Why Ritual “Makes Sense”

Ritual is strange—or so it seems to our rational minds—yet, strangely, for many of us who participate in these often highly stylized and repetitive actions, we feel better afterward. Why is this so? Is there a method to ritual’s madness that helps explain this phenomena? I think so.

In a departure from the usual Mormon Matters formula of a panel discussion, this episode features me, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon, reading a short article I wrote for the Fall 2016 issue of Sunstone magazine, “Why Ritual ‘Makes Sense’.” In it I address various aspects of ritual and how, even though rites and practices can be extremely diverse in nature, they share key commonalities. Rituals, through their various means, attempt to help us access more fully the energies and their attendant empowerment for us that are all around us but often missed due to the strength of the sensory input from our bodies and the clutter of thoughts and concerns going through our brains. How do rituals help us do this? Why is it important for us to seek methods that can bring us into these kinds of experiences? Why do rituals, such as the LDS endowment, often feature retellings of a group’s cosmogonic myths (stories of how the world/cosmos came to be)? I offer clues to these and many other features of ritual and the effects of our participation.

I hope you’ll enjoy these ideas and this side trip away from the panel format. I promise, though, that we’ll be back to that with the next episode!


NOTE: Save the Dates! Natasha Helfer Parker and I will be hosting two Mormon Matters retreats in Utah this summer and fall. We will host the first 1416 July, and the second, 2022 October. Watch for descriptions and registration information very soon!



Dan Wotherspoon, “Why Ritual ‘Makes Sense’,” Sunstone, Fall 2016

Link to the Faith Matters Foundation website, where video of the conference “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation” will be available for download and viewing by 24 April 2017.

379–380: Effective Teaching in the Church

Mormonism provides numerous opportunities for us to teach each other. But, as we know, many times our Sunday classes fall short of being wonderful, too often failing to convey new or important insights, and hardly ever yielding transformative classroom experiences. How can we change this? How can we as teachers or class members move us into more enriching territory?

A second issue arises for teachers and class members whose faith journeys have led them to more complex views of LDS history, theology, or culture than is typically presented in the lesson manuals or anticipated by others in their various replies to questions asked during the class session. How can we who fit within this category, with integrity, teach within the church? How can we signal our willingness to engage the lesson manual materials while still seeking to reach a bit higher or offer perspectives that might lead to new thinking or deeper examination? How can we negotiate the expectations we sense from many to deliver the “safe” or the “usual” material with our own sense of being called to try for more?

This two-part episode tackles these issues and more, and features two wonderful and experienced and thoughtful teachers within Mormonism, Kristine Haglund and Stephen Carter, along with Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon. What are their best ideas for structuring classroom experiences? For preparing ourselves to teach within the church or share from the seats? For overcoming the fear of possibly falling flat on our face and/or being released for overreaching and offering challenging perspectives that those in leadership feel are a bit too much? What are some of the ways they have negotiated these hurdles in their own gospel lives? What great classroom experiences do they point to as highlights and approaches that might inspire all of us to work to be more effective gospel teachers?



Kristine Haglund, “What I Wish I had Said, Part 26 or So,” By Common Consent blog, 3 July 2011

Stephen Carter, “How to Use the Total Perspective Vortex in Your Very Own Sunday School Class,” Sunstone, March 2005

378: Engaging Constructively with General Conference

The April 2017 General Conference season is upon us. Having started last weekend on March 25th with the Women’s session, it continues April 1st and 2nd with four general and one priesthood session. For many who have undergone (or are undergoing) a shift of faith, engaging with general conference can sometimes be a difficult experience. Because of new perspectives we’ve gained, it’s impossible to avoid certain changes in attitude toward conference talks and proceedings. For many of us, these are healthy shifts, emerging from spiritual growth and increasing confidence in what we believe God is calling us toward. Yet it takes quite a while to “normalize” in this new way of viewing conference and the role and abilities of prophets in guiding the church or serving as God’s mouthpieces. We can listen respectfully, yet with eyes wide open to the human beings called to these roles and the mixture that is their words and ideas in conjunction with what they sense God is leading them to speak about. But for others of us, especially those in the early years of a faith shift, or for whom some very large change has come into their life or who have become quite activated about certain topics, conference talks that don’t match what we’d ideally like to hear can be very upsetting.

In this episode, we are treated to thoughts about conference from Carol Lynn Pearson, Patrick Mason, and Mark Crego, three wonderful, experienced church members and conference watchers whose experiences over the years have matched those of many listeners. Along with Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon, each of the folks here have at times felt in great harmony with what is shared in conference, at other times quite devastated by it. But through continued striving and efforts to push through they have gained good awareness of what conference is and is not, what we might reasonably expect from it, and how to celebrate the wonderful talks and not over-react to the ones that disappoint or can even feel to them spiritually dangerous.

We hope through listening you can have an engaged and constructive conference weekend. And please share your own experiences and reactions in the comments section below!

373–377: (Encore) An Easter Primer

Encore presentation of a great discussion of all things Easter. First released 12 March 2013. Enjoy the old bumpers and their music!

Empty Tomb_Anne CutriWith a forty-day Lenten season that flows to a conclusion in Holy Week and its beautiful rituals, for many Christians, Easter (even more than Christmas) marks the spiritual high point of the year. At no other time do sacred time and space collapse quite so easily, with events and liturgies and encouragements that lead people in sustained reflection about not only their gratitude for Christ and their beliefs and hopes about salvation, but even more generally, the renewal of aspirations, plans, and energies. While Mormons join with the rest of the Christian world in basic beliefs about Christ’s resurrection and central role in salvation, and they, too, celebrate Easter, they don’t do it in quite as sustained a manner as many other Christian traditions who carry into their worship centuries-long traditions and fully developed music and liturgies and portals into the mysteries of the resurrection miracle.

In this five-part series, the same amazing panel who shared about Christmas—Jared AndersonZina Petersen, and Kristine Haglund—join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon on a journey through scripture, history, worship, and celebration related to Easter. Designed to be informative about elements with which Mormons in general are not all that familiar, it also explores different presentations of Christ’s final acts on earth in the various Gospels and scriptural tradition, the range of views about what “resurrection” means, how Christian and Pagan traditions interacted to create the mix of elements we find in Easter season, and how these elements combined to create some of the world’s greatest music, poetry, and pageantry. But it also explores personal realms. How do each of the panelists integrate a love for Easter themes, claims, symbols, and rituals with their own empirically oriented and critical brains? What is happening in their hearts and minds as they celebrate Easter?

The podcast totals nearly five hours. It’s a huge bite, and it can certainly be taken slowly.


A brief guide to the parts:

Parts 1 and 2 (episodes 373 and 374) focus primarily upon the scriptural record, with its earliest layers, differences between texts, interaction with Jewish elements, the “empty tomb” traditions as separate from “resurrection appearances.” They explore various Christological theories and their different approaches to the idea of resurrection. Listen also for some really great poetry and fresh angles that would make great sermon materials.

Parts 3 and 4 (episodes 375 and 376) take us from the early church to the middle ages and on through the centuries, helping us understand the development of various traditions and interactions with solar and lunar cycles and their feasts and celebrations. These also contain great information about and peeks into the beauties of Lent, Holy Week, rituals such as meditations on the “stations of the cross,” and much more. History and aesthetics! What could be better?

Part 5 (episode 377) features the panelists and host sharing their own Easter experiences and reflections on myth and ritual, rational thought and the mysteries of spirituality.

We very much hope you’ll enjoy these episodes! Please use the comments section below to share your own reflections on Easter and all that this season means to you.

372: Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed

John B. Cobb is one of the world’s most renowned theologians and philosophers, noted especially for his Christological pluralism and work across many disciplines, and lately in major ways in ecological sustainability circles. His writing and thinking are marvelously clear and powerful, continuing even today at age 92. We are thrilled that just last week he agreed to sit down with Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and great friend of the show and frequent panelist James McLachlan for a brief discussion of his life and the development of his thought, and then a much more extensive focus on his latest book, Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed.

Jesus consistently referred to God the Father by the Aramaic term, “Abba,” which is very intimate, indicating an unconditionally loving stance from the father to the child. Shortly after Jesus’ death, Christianity began to employ monarchial titles to God—Lord, King, King of Kings, etc.—emphasizing God’s sovereignty and power. This shift, coupled with all the wrong turns brought on by modernity (individualism, industrialization, professionalization, rationalization, pervasive technologies), have all but eliminated the use and feel of “Abba” in today’s world. For Cobb, Jesus’s “Abba” understanding led him to begin to look at others in the world through God’s eyes. Abba is a God who loves ALL of us, not just those on “our” side. As such, we must meet the world with radical love; we must love even our enemies. God loves even sinners. Living out of this consciousness, Jesus rejected the compromises involved in accommodation of Roman rule in Palestine, but he likewise rejected the path of revolt, rightly predicting what eventually happened in Jerusalem when that strategy was tried. Instead, Jesus lived out a “third” option. And he lived it right on through to the cross. It was so powerful, many people were moved then, and throughout history (think of someone like St. Francis of Assisi), and even more recently (Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with many, many Christians who have an Abba understanding of God). They live powerfully even as they live counter-culturally. In them, and should society shift its values away from money, power, and all the other distractions and selfishness of this world, Abba God has not failed.

Tune in to hear from this most powerful thinker who has been and is changing the world person by person, book by book, and whose work and influence is growing in places as far away as China and is inspiring great movements in ecological activism. It’s a wonderful treat to have him engaging us in Mormonism.

Note: This was recorded on a single digital recorder rather than in the normal way Mormon Matters connects with guests, and is therefore a bit more uneven in volume, and also contains some small distortions we couldn’t eliminate as we’d move the recorder to face whoever was speaking. Still, we believe it is very listenable.



John B. Cobb, Jr., Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed (Fortress Press, 2016)

John B. Cobb, Jr.,  A Christian Natural Theology, Second Edition: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007)

Herman E. Daly, John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Beacon Press, 1994)

John B. Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Westminster Press, 1976)

371: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation

As Richard Bushman mentions in this podcast episode, one of the very first things Joseph Smith did in announcing himself to the world was to take on the title of “translator.” What an audacious thing, especially as Mormonism associates translation with the gift of seership, even proclaiming that “a seer is greater than a prophet” (Mosiah 8:15). Since declaring himself a translator, and yet it being apparent that he knew no ancient languages, exactly what Smith meant by “translation” has been an ongoing debate both within and without the faith. Though never a particularly settled question, it has in recent years become a topic of renewed fascination within Mormon scholarly circles, and with the release in the past 18 months of images and more information of the seerstone Smith used in translating the Book of Mormon, it has caught on as a fresh area of inquiry among non-specialists as well. In addition new angles of inquiry are emerging that examine the notion of translation far beyond the confines of Book of Mormon production.

Recognizing this renewed interest and the fascination of the approaches being taken, the Utah State University religious studies program, in partnership with the Faith Matters Foundation, are convening a conference (“New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation”) on 16 March 2017 at Utah State exploring these emerging perspectives with great energy. This episode of Mormon Matters hosts three of the conference’s participants, Richard Bushman, Samuel Brown, and Philip Barlow, to tease some of the new perspectives that are finding some footing and why discussions like this are important and fascinating both to scholars and lay church members. The episode, of course, mentions the conference a lot, but even for someone not able to consider trying to attend, there are wonderful insights aplenty as Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon turns these three great thinkers loose to talk about things for which they have great passion.

We think you’ll love listening in, and after you do, we hope you’ll add your thoughts in the comments section!


Links to things discussed in this episode:

Faith Matters Foundation website (opens on page with conference information, including schedule and parking. Also sign up to receive emails from the foundation, including when video of the conference is ready for viewing)

Joseph Smith’s Use of a Seer Stone in Bringing Forth the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Matters podcast, Episodes 287-288, 10 August 2015 (featuring Ann Taves, D. Michael Quinn, and Ronald Barney)

Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton, 2016), paperback; Link to purchase Kindle edition of same book)

Selected Books and Writings by authors on this episode:

Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple (Maxwell Institute, 2014)

Samuel M. Brown, In Heaven As It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford, 2012)

Philip A. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 2013)

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, reprint edition (Vintage, 2007)

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (University of Illinois Press, 1987)

Richard L. Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue 4, no. 4 (Winter, 1969)