Easter Thoughts – “Alleluia, amen.”

Seeing post after post on personal blogs and Facebook has made me want to write something… something to try to communicate what Easter is to me. But as I’ve thought of what to write, the task seems impossible. How can I fully communicate to someone else, some who hasn’t lived through the experiences that taught me what I believe about God, the majesty and wonder and awe that I feel on the day that commemorates Christ rising from the dead?

There are too many personal experiences, too many verses of scripture, too many pieces of art, and too many feelings for these pixels to capture. In spite of that inadequacy, I do want to communicate in part what can’t be said in whole.

Eric Whitacre’s “Alleluia” captures some of the gratitude and humility I’m experiencing today. Gratitude for a God who “so loved” the world that he sent is son, and from personally feeling that love. Gratitude for parents and a religious tradition that have both lead me to seek beauty and truth from the world around me. And humility from seeing that I have been given so much, and from knowing that I need to give more.

A large part of of why I’ve chosen this song is that Eric Whitacre describes himself as a spiritual person and an agnostic. I love that the experiences he had with Christianity at King’s College led him to write what he did. That, to me, makes the praise more valuable, in a sense, because even someone who’s not sure they believe can be moved by the love of a Heavenly Father.

On this Easter Sunday, I say “Alleluia, amen.”

Don’t skip this three-minute explanation.
Ten minutes, but worth every second.

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace”

This Sunday, someone will be at church and feel like they don’t belong.

Maybe they don’t have as much money everyone else, or maybe they have more money than everyone else.

Maybe they’ve struggled for years with infertility, and their prayers seem to fall on unlistening ears.

Maybe they don’t feel like God could love with them, not with the things they’ve done.

Maybe they’re exhausted from being in leadership callings for years.

Maybe they’ve just found out something new and troubling about the church, and it’s affecting them more than they expected.

Maybe they’re afraid the other guys in priests quorum will find out that they’re attracted to other boys. Maybe they’re terrified that they won’t make it to their 25th birthday.

Maybe they’ve just been fired from a job and feel like failures who can’t provide for their families.

Maybe they’re not able to go back to how they used to believe in the church, and they don’t want anyone to know about their doubts.

Maybe they feel like failed parents because a child has left the church.

Maybe they’re not sure how to tell parents, friends, and leaders they don’t think they should go on a mission.

Maybe they won’t be at church because it’s just too hard.

Sometimes, there seems to be so much pain in the world. It can be easy to feel helpless.

On the other hand, maybe you and I, even while carrying our own burdens, could ease those of someone else. Maybe we could reach out to someone and say hi and smile. Maybe we can make a new friend. Maybe we can listen to another and love without judgment. Maybe we can echo, to some extent, the love that God has for his imperfect, struggling children and help make their burdens lighter.

The Completeness Assumption

I recently came across a post by Ben Spackman (who excels at being my older brother, among other things) about seer stones, and noticed something new. 

“While on my mission in France, I learned about Joseph’s use of the seerstone, along with the Urim and Thummim/ Nephite “interpreters,” and eventually nothing at all, in translating the Book of Mormon. I suspect my source was something from FARMS (now the Maxwell Institute), since many of their books and papers referred to it. I had learned some intellectual humility early on in my mission and assumed I knew little, so I naturally took it in stride along with all the other  new things I was learning.” (Emphasis mine).

Ben’s reaction to potentially strange information (translating via rocks and then nothing at all) was affected by how much he assumed he already knew about the topic. I had never thought about this before. It led me to a hypothesis:  when we assume we know little and embrace intellectual humility, our ability to digest information about murkier church issues improves. 

The opposite also holds. When we assume we know everything and haven’t been taught intellectual humility, we struggle to digest information about murky church issues. 

[Now, before I say more, I want to point out two things about assumptions. First, most of our assumptions are subconscious– we don’t see them until something challenges them, like getting married (you load the dishwasher like that?) or traveling to a foreign country (that’s not how you’re supposed to line up). Second, we inherit our religious assumptions from our environment (parents, congregations, local leadership, etc.) 

This combination means that, when it comes to issues about church history and doctrine, those who struggle are not to blame for the subconscious assumptions they’ve inherited.]

I think many church members have inherited a subconscious assumption that checking off the “good Mormon” boxes (going to seminary, church and temple attendance, serving a mission, etc) teaches us all we need to know about a topic. This is one of the big reasons some church members get rocked by new information: we think we know it already.

For lack of a better term, I call this the Completeness Assumption. We assume our knowledge of these topics is complete. Once we’re aware that this assumption exists, we can process it, examine it, and evaluate it. 

In my evaluation, it’s a faulty assumption born of mismatched purposes. 

The bulk of a typical Latter-day Saint’s knowledge comes through church-established vehicles: Sunday school lessons, manuals, seminary classes, general conference talks, missionary discussions, church art, etc. Historically, there have been two purposes to these mediums: to teach about Jesus Christ and to be “uplifting.” Until recently, historical completeness or examination of tricky issues has not been a priority. The Joseph Smith papers, the gospel topics essays, and Wayment’s translation of the NT are evidence that the church is striving to create resources that do make those things a priority.

This inherited Completeness Assumption explains the reaction of many members when they hear about historically tricky issues: “I’ve been a member my whole life, served a mission, I listen at every general conference and I’ve never ONCE heard about [issue X].” We struggle to process the information, or worse, we discard anything new as anti-Mormon propaganda. Why? Because nothing has ever challenged the Completeness Assumption before.

Maps, Models, and Mormonism

Note: I wrote this on Facebook and needed to publish it somewhere. Originally written July 18, 2018

I shared this in a combined lesson to the 12-18 year olds at church today. The video is six minutes and it’ll take 5-10 to read through my ramblings. These are rough-draft ideas, so feel free to pick it apart. I’m a fan of intelligent disagreement.

Maps and Models

First, we watched this video on maps and models. It’s pretty fun if you’re into history/cartography/learning stuff in general. This post will make much more sense if you watch it.

Then, I recapped the video. Since it’s impossible to render anything in three dimensions perfectly in two-dimensional space, all maps are models. They are simplifications that cannot completely portray all of the information they represent. The mapmaker’s goal determines the form a map takes and determine its weaknesses/strengths. Every map will imperfectly show a 3d object in 2d space, and some aspect of a map must, therefore, be “wrong.” 

Example, the Mercator projection is fantastic if you want an easy way to calculate the angle you should take to sail from point A somewhere in Europe to point B somewhere in the Americas. To fulfill that purpose, the Mercator project distorts country size. Looking at the Mercator projection, you’d think Greenland and Africa are roughly the same in size when Africa is roughly 14 times larger. So, Mercator is a good map for navigation (which we don’t really use any more thanks to GPS) but terrible for country size. 

How does this apply to Mormonism? 

A lot (most?) of what we learn in the church is a model. When we talk about the atonement as a bridge over a gulf of misery (Helaman 3:27-30) or as death and hell as a monster that Jesus helps us escape from (2 Nephi 9:10) or as Jesus standing between us and justice, making intercession… these are three different ways to model the atonement. Modeling the atonement is akin to trying to model a 3-D object in 2-D space. 

As such, our models of spiritual truth will have limitations similar to the limitations of map-making. Our attempts to describe truth will be simplifications that are unable to capture the whole, and in some applications may be wildly inaccurate. 

Also, the usefulness of our religious models will change over time. In Old Testament times, the chief conflicts of the day were war and death. God is seen as a Lord of Hosts (literally Lord of Armies). Today, most of us are unfamiliar with war. We struggle instead with loving our neighbor, with being forgiving but holding to our principles, with mental health issues, and making enough money to support a family, etc. As such, the model of God as the Lord of Armies isn’t as useful to us. We see him as a personal God, the God who weeps, Jesus who turned over tables at the temple and also said, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Just like the Mercator projection, the usefulness of the model of Lord of Hosts has changed since the world has changed. 

When we grow up and find that something doesn’t fit the model we were taught of the gospel/church/history/scriptures when we were in primary, are we to discard the whole thing? Do we stop using maps altogether because every map is, of necessity, inaccurate? Or do we recognize that models have different purposes and different problems? When we learn Greenland isn’t the size of Africa, do we reject all maps? 

Obviously, we don’t. We adapt our models. 

When we find that “God answers prayers” doesn’t mean the same thing it did when we were five, should we reject prayer altogether, or should our knowledge of prayer mature and adapt to new information? When we learn Joseph Smith was a prophet as children and then learn about polygamy, do we reject him altogether as a prophet or do we take a closer look at our model of him and adapt it? 

In short, we learn a very simplified model of the church as children in the church. Some never grow out of this model. Some come into contact with information that seems to contradict the model. When we run into that contradiction, some reject the model altogether, and others adapt their models. In an ideal world, our knowledge of spiritual things should change as we grow and learn new things.

However, no matter how much we learn, our knowledge is based on models that fail to capture the whole. We should always be open to adapting our spiritual knowledge to new things that we learn.

Spiritual Experiences Are Subjective

Maybe this is obvious. But maybe it’s not.

The spirituality of an experience is subjective, not objective. 

Three examples: 

Sometimes hear people say, “I really felt the spirit” in a meeting/lesson that I have found particularly lackluster. Other times, I’ll have a deep, intense experience in a sacrament meeting and look around to see that everyone else is staring at phones and not paying attention. 

Another example is Mark Twain’s reaction to the Book of Mormon. He found it such a “slow… sleepy… mess of inspiration” that he called it “chloroform in print.” (Taken from Roughing It, Ch. 16). Others find inspiration, joy, and a connection to Jesus Christ that changes their life. 

The Day of Pentecost is another illustration, fifty days after Passover (around the time of the crucifixion). Christ has been spending 40 days teaching his disciples. Peter, who seems to have gone from Christ denier to powerful witness in that time, stands up in front of a crowd from 13 different regions to preach repentance and baptism. Miraculously, everyone here’s him in their language. But some mock and say, “Hey guys! Peter’s drunk!” (Acts 2:13, Hugh Spackman Translation). 

Sometimes, when others mock, I question my own experiences. Could it have been that special if someone else didn’t experience the same thing? If others read the Book of Mormon and get nothing out of it, can it be what it says it is? 


Because the spirituality of an experience is subjective, not objective. 

A Young Father’s Fear

Having trouble converting ideas from brain to blinking cursor, I shall forego any commentary and simply quote the following, from Jeffrey R. Holland

Thirty years ago last month, a little family set out to cross the United States to attend graduate school—no money, an old car, every earthly possession they owned packed into less than half the space of the smallest U-Haul trailer available. Bidding their apprehensive parents farewell, they drove exactly 34 miles up the highway, at which point their beleaguered car erupted.

Pulling off the freeway onto a frontage road, the young father surveyed the steam, matched it with his own, then left his trusting wife and two innocent children—the youngest just three months old—to wait in the car while he walked the three miles or so to the southern Utah metropolis of Kanarraville, population then, I suppose, 65. Some water was secured at the edge of town, and a very kind citizen offered a drive back to the stranded family. The car was attended to and slowly—very slowly—driven back to St. George for inspection—U-Haul trailer and all.

After more than two hours of checking and rechecking, no immediate problem could be detected, so once again the journey was begun. In exactly the same amount of elapsed time at exactly the same location on that highway with exactly the same pyrotechnics from under the hood, the car exploded again. It could not have been 15 feet from the earlier collapse, probably not 5 feet from it! Obviously the most precise laws of automotive physics were at work.

Now feeling more foolish than angry, the chagrined young father once more left his trusting loved ones and started the long walk for help once again. This time the man providing the water said, “Either you or that fellow who looks just like you ought to get a new radiator for that car.” For the second time a kind neighbor offered a lift back to the same automobile and its anxious little occupants. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the plight of this young family.

“How far have you come?” he said. “Thirty-four miles,” I answered. “How much farther do you have to go?” “Twenty-six hundred miles,” I said. “Well, you might make that trip, and your wife and those two little kiddies might make that trip, but none of you are going to make it in that car.” He proved to be prophetic on all counts.

Just two weeks ago this weekend, I drove by that exact spot where the freeway turnoff leads to a frontage road, just three miles or so west of Kanarraville, Utah. That same beautiful and loyal wife, my dearest friend and greatest supporter for all these years, was curled up asleep in the seat beside me. The two children in the story, and the little brother who later joined them, have long since grown up and served missions, married perfectly, and are now raising children of their own. The automobile we were driving this time was modest but very pleasant and very safe. In fact, except for me and my lovely Pat situated so peacefully at my side, nothing of that moment two weeks ago was even remotely like the distressing circumstances of three decades earlier.

Yet in my mind’s eye, for just an instant, I thought perhaps I saw on that side road an old car with a devoted young wife and two little children making the best of a bad situation there. Just ahead of them I imagined that I saw a young fellow walking toward Kanarraville, with plenty of distance still ahead of him. His shoulders seemed to be slumping a little, the weight of a young father’s fear evident in his pace. In the scriptural phrase his hands did seem to “hang down.” In that imaginary instant, I couldn’t help calling out to him: “Don’t give up, boy. Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead—a lot of it—30 years of it now, and still counting. You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come.”

Context and the Death of Mosiah

My favorite section of the Book of Mormon is from Mosiah 11 to Alma 43. There is so much detail in the storyline, from Abinadi to Alma I to Alma II and Amulek, from Aaron and Ammon and Ammonihah. Apparently, it’s also a treasure trove of place and person names that begin with the letter A.

The story of the Sons of Mosiah converting and their subsequent mission to the Lamanites is right in the middle. Mosiah 28 tells of their desire to leave their homeland and give up the kingship of Zarahemla. Mosiah is initially resistant because he’s afraid for his sons’ lives, but God tells him

“Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons out of the hands of the Lamanites.”

Mosiah 28:7

The sons leave and the story returns to Alma II’s missions and Chief Judgeship.

One thing I hadn’t noticed until recently is the proximity of Mosiah’s death to the departure of his sons. In Mosiah 28:8, the sons leave. Then Mosiah translates the record of the Jaredites, comes up with the system of chief judges, and dies. He’s 63 years old, having been the king of 33 of those years.

Where are Aaron, Omner, Himni, and Ammon? They’re just getting started on their 14-year mission, far away in the Land of Nephi. They left only one chapter ago, probably around a year earlier. Did they know he was going to die? Was he pretty sure he would never see his sons again? I’d wager they knew King Dad was getting on in years and that they might never see him again.

None of those details are explicitly spelled out anywhere in the verses leading up to their departure. But once you see the context, it becomes clear that Mosiah’s sons were leaving behind not just a kingdom and their homeland, but also their father. As always, the background adds to the so much more to their story.

Context and the Population of Zarahemla in 86 B.C.

I recently read through Alma 2, but didn’t get very far when I ran into verse 19:

“And it came to pass that the Nephites did pursue the Amlicites all that day, and did slay them with much slaughter, insomuch that there were slain of the Amlicites twelve thousand five hundred thirty and two souls; and there were slain of the Nephites six thousand five hundred sixty and two souls.”

Normally I would have read Alma 2:19 without much interest, skipping over the numbers to get to the good stuff. This time, I wrote the number down.  19,094 people died meant a lot more to me than there were slain of the Amlicites twelve thousand five hundred thirty and two souls; and there were slain of the Nephites six thousand five hundred sixty and two souls.  

That’s a lot of people. Then I wondered what percentage of Nephites that could be. How big is the typical Nephite capital in your mind? Is there a way to estimate the population of Zarahemla before the war? 

I think there is. My numbers suggest Zarahemla had a population between 80,000 and 150,000 in 86 B.C.

Disclaimer: If you’re not into math, this will get very boring very fast and I’d suggest skipping to the So What? section.  

Here’s the word problem: The year is 86 B.C.  Alma the Younger, Chief Judge in Zarahemla, is challenged in an open election by a dude desiring to be king, Amlici. The people vote and Amlici loses. Those who voted for Amlici get together and crown him king of the Amlicites. His first order of business is to kill those who didn’t vote for him. War ensues. After 12,532 Amlicites and 6,562 Nephites are killed in the battle, the Amlicites retreat.  Given the above, estimate the population of Zarahemla before the Amlicite war. 

In order to make the math possible, I’ve made the following assumptions. Some of these are variables.  

  • In the election of 86 BC, only men and every man voted.
  • Only men and every man from Zarahemla fought in the war. 
  • Only men are included in the numbers of the dead given in Alma 2:19.
  • There are as many women as men in pre-war Zarahemla. 
  • Every woman is married, and W% of men are married.
  • Every married man has C number of children. 

Variables and Likely Bounds

A subscript of i means initial value (prewar) and f means final value (postwar)

  • Ni = initial population of Nephites
  • Nf = Ni – 6562 = post war population of the Nephites
  • Ai = population of Amlicites before the war
  • Af = Ai – 12532 = post war population of Amlicites
  • D = total number of dead = 12,532 + 6,562 = 19,094
  • Mi = initial male population of Zarahemla 
  • Mf = post war male population of Zarahemla = initial population minus those that died = Mi – D 
  • Ri = Ni / Ai = the ratio of Nephites to Amlicites before the war. 
    • Given my assumptions, Ni is the number who vote against Amlici.  A is the number that votes for Amlici.  Given my assumptions, Ri to be greater than 1 since the Nephites won the election.  In other words, just one vote in favor of the Nephites to tip a 50/50 election.  We also know that R has to be small enough that the Amlicites think they can win a war.  So, if the election had gone 75/25 for the Nephites, the Amlicites probably wouldn’t have picked a fight.  I think the highest R could be is 1.5, or 60/40.  I don’t think they’d pick a fight against the Nephites if there were more than three Nephites for every two Amlicites.  So, 1 < Ri < 1.5. 
  • Rf = Nf / Af = The number of Nephites per Amlicite at the moment the Amlicites retreat (Alma 2:18).   How many enemies per soldier will cause an army to retreat? My guess is at least 2, but maybe as many as 4.  So, 2 < Rf <4.  
  • W = percentage of men in Zarahemla who are married. The number of women in Zarahemla would then be M * W.  
  • C = number of non-fighting children per married Nephite or Amlicite male.  Does 2.5 kids per married family make sense?
  • Z = total pre-war population = Men + Women + Children 
  • Z = Mi + Mi*W + Mi*W*C = [W*(C+1)+1] * Mi

The Boring Part Algebra

Mi = Ai + Ni, and Ri = Ni / Ai.

  • So, Mi = Ai + (Ai *Ri ) = Ai*(Ri +1).

Do the same algebra for Mf.

  • Mf = Af + (Af *Rf ) = Af*(Rf + 1)

There are now two equations for Mf – Mi.  

  • Mf – Mi = D
  • Mf – Mi = [Af*(Rf + 1)] – [Ai*(Ri +1)]

Set them equal to each other

  • D = [Af*(Rf + 1)] – [Ai*(Ri +1)]

Af can be put in terms of Ai (Af = Ai – 12,532), so substitute it. 

  • [(Ai -12,532)*(Rf +1)] – [Ai *(Ri +1)] = D

Put in 19,094 for D:

  • [(Ai -12,532)*(Rf +1)] – [Ai *(Ri +1)] = 19,094

Multiply out and simplify, solving for Ai: 

  • [Ai*Rf+Ai*1 – 12,532*Rf – 12,532*1] – [Ai*Ri + Ai] = 19,094
  • Ai*Rf + Ai – 12,532*Rf – 12,532 – Ai*Ri – Ai = 19,094
  • Ai*Rf + Ai – Ai*Ri – Ai = 19094 + 12,532*Rf + 12,532
  • Ai * (Rf + 1 – Ri -1) = 12,532*RF + 31,626
  • Ai= (12,532*Rf+ 31,626) / (Rf – Ri)

Expand the equation for total pre-war population (Z): 

  • Z = [W*(C+1)+1] * Mi
  • Z = [W*(C+1)+1] * (Ri +1) * Ai
  • Z = [W*(C+1)+1] * (Ri +1) * (12,532*Rf+ 31,626) / (Rf – Ri)

Plug the final equation for Z into a spreadsheet, and voila! You’ve got yourself an estimated population!

So What?

Apart from illustrating that some of us like to play with numbers and spreadsheets more than others, what does the above tell us? Why does it matter what the population was?

The answer is that it gives us a hint of context. The scriptures are full of context clues that casual reading misses. When Alma later takes some missionaries of to Antionum to visit the Zoramites, he lists off a few friends whose names I always used to skip over. If you look at who he’s talking about in chapter 31, you realize Alma is going into Antionum with a powerhouse of super-missionaries. Glazing over the context means the story is not as rich.

The context clue verse 19 gives is that Zarahemla was a big place. In my mind, I always assumed the cities in the Book of Mormon were small, agrarian villages with some minor institutions in place. A pre-electricity population of 100k in a city means we’re dealing with much more than a mesoamerican equivalent of a backwaters Boonyville. Complex economic, political, and social systems would have been required to keep Zarahemla running smoothly. This is the city Alma the Younger is running as chief judge. The four sons of Mosiah turned down a kingship of Zarahemla in favor of a 14-year mission to their hostile enemies. The size of Zarahemla matters because the city is a character in many of the stories in the middle of the Book of Mormon.  Missing the context means we miss some of the richness of those stories.