I'm frequently asked by persons who don't know much about Mormons, Are Mormons Christians? With a smile I always give the same answer, "Yes we are, very much so."

Mormons quite often are referred to as Latter-Day Saint Christians due to the official name of the church which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But it's more than just a name, Latter-Day Saints strive daily to live the life of Christ and study his teachings and those of his apostles to become more like him.

The Bible tells us the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26) The word Christian means “a follower of Christ" but the word disciple means “student” or “pupil.” Hence a true Christian is not someone who simply says they believe in Christ but rather someone who ardently follows and studies the Savior their entire lives. Mormons do exactly that, therefore we are very much Christian in the truest sense of the word.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Did Jesus teach in this ancient synagogue?

(by William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-15-16)

Driving along the western shore of Lake Kinneret, called “the Sea of Galilee” in the New Testament, it’s virtually impossible to miss a steep cliff called Arbel and a valley below it called either the Wadi Arbel or the Wadi Hammam (“Valley of the Doves”). This area is saturated — literally as well as figuratively — with ancient history.

The Arbel cliff contains roughly a hundred caves, in and around which bloody battles were fought during the Maccabean Revolt in 161 B.C., the Herodian war in 38 B.C. and the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D. 66-70.

Perhaps the most important thing for Christian visitors to know, however, is that the Wadi Hammam is almost certainly the path that Jesus walked between his hometown of Nazareth, in the mountainous Upper Galilee, and his adoptive Lower Galilean home in the village of Capernaum, where the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John lived, as well as the tax collector Levi or Matthew. Jesus would have traveled northward from Sepphoris and Nazareth to the town of Cana (John 2:1-11, 4:46, 21:2), descending eastward from there to the Sea of Galilee.

Emerging from the valley onto the lakeshore, he would have found himself facing the town of Magdala, which (as her name indicates) seems to have been the home of Mary Magdalene. One of the most prominent of the early Christian disciples, Mary is actually mentioned more often in the New Testament gospels than most of the apostles, and — much more importantly — she was both an eyewitness of the crucifixion of Jesus and the first witness to his resurrection.

Magdala is in ruins today, but a Palestinian Arab village called al-Majdal existed there until being abandoned just prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and a modern Israeli town with essentially the same name, Migdal, was founded directly to the north in 1910. The original Hebrew name of the ancient village was “Magdala Nunayya” — “Magdala of the Fish” or, perhaps, “Fish Tower” — which clearly suggests that its major industry was the drying and export of the fish that are still abundantly taken from the lake (and served to tourists). Positioned as it was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the mouth of the valley that ascended to Upper Galilee and, past that, to the ports of the Mediterranean, Magdala was superbly situated for the export of dried freshwater fish to markets throughout the Galilee and even beyond Palestine.

The most exciting recent development at the site has been the discovery, during preparations for the construction of a new hotel at Migdal Beach in 2009, of a first-century synagogue. One of the oldest such structures ever found in Israel, this synagogue appears to have been used from roughly 50 B.C. to the end of the first century A.D. In other words, it was standing during the time of Jesus himself. Did he ever visit it? He almost certainly did. “Jesus went about all Galilee,” reports Matthew 4:23, “teaching in their synagogues.”

Given its location near the Wadi Hammam, the connection between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and the fact that Magdala is only six miles (10 kilometers) from Capernaum, it seems unlikely that Jesus never visited the building.

In the center of the Magdala synagogue is a rectangular stone that features a carved image representing the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that stood in the temple of Jerusalem prior to that sanctuary’s destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Flanked on each side by a column and a two-handled vase or jug, this is the oldest such representation known to exist, and the only image of the temple menorah that was very likely created by a craftsman who had actually seen the original in Jerusalem. While it stood, devout Jews congregated at the temple from all over the land of Israel during the three great annual festivals of Passover (Pesach), Weeks (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot).

Discoveries such as the synagogue at Magdala help to take ancient biblical history in general, and the life of Jesus Christ in particular, out of the hazy realm of mythical things that happened, if they happened, “long ago, in a land far away,” and to give the scriptural stories a sense of vivid, concrete reality. This is as it should be for a faith based upon the conviction that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

(For photographs and information about the synagogue and the “Magdala Stone,” see magdala.org.)



Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why There’s Hope for the Middle Class

(by Tyler Cowen nytimes.com 4-15-16)

America has often thought of itself as a middle-class nation — one in which most people are merely comfortable and neither very rich nor very poor.
That notion has come under siege lately. Income inequality has been rising since the early 1980s, and the median household income is now lower than it was in 1999. The status of the middle class has become a highly charged political issue. Nonetheless, a sober look at the trends of recent years reveals some reason for optimism: Pathways that already exist offer some chance of rejuvenating the middle class.
The weakness of recent middle-class wage growth has stemmed from a number of factors, including foreign competition, technological changes that favor highly skilled workers and persistent poverty. Let’s consider each in turn.
Much of the competition for American manufacturing has come from China, and recent research has shown that China’s economic impact in the United States has been bigger than many economists initially thought, and in some ways, it has been more painful. China’s manufacturing has held down American middle-class wages, while soaring Chinese demand for commodities has pushed up resource prices. Of course, cheap Chinese imports have made American paychecks go further, but that is no consolation for people who have lost their jobs or suffered lower wages as a consequence.
Better times may be ahead, though. Higher wages in China — and other emerging nations — are now limiting the competitive advantage of those economies. And perhaps more important for Americans, as China reaches technological maturity, it is likely to shower innovations on consumers, creating a net gain for people in the United States.
China is already the major producer of solar panels and electric cars, for example. It is likely to contribute important innovations in consumer drones and driverless cars and in many other fields: The Chinese government is pouring immense resources into biotechnology, including new gene editing techniques. When it comes to mobile apps, messaging and electronic payments, China is arguably ahead of America. Imagine a future in which Chinese innovations benefit Americans just as the United States benefited Europe and vice versa.
This would mean more competition from China, of course, and lost jobs in some fields, but to simply focus on the negatives would be shortsighted. The reality is that innovators do not capture all or even most of the benefits they bring to the world. Once an idea emerges, its benefits begin to expand, and those benefits will surely spread to the United States.
What economists call skill-based technical change may also shift in a more egalitarian direction. The advent of information technology increased the value of workers and managers who could manipulate these new talents effectively, while smart software eliminated the jobs of many travel agents and paper-filing clerks. But consider a universe in which all it takes to work with a computer is to talk to it. That could lower the wages of technicians, while opening a new world where less skilled laborers could work with information technology effectively.
That new world is already emerging. Consider the Amazon Echo, a small stationary computer that responds to voice commands. It can play music, call a car service or build a shopping list. Imagine fully functional voice-activated computers created for the workplace as more people grow up with information technology at their fingertips.
Finally, income inequality may begin to reverse itself through the evolution of social norms. Poor people who see no way out of their plight won’t all be able to advance without outside help, but some of the impoverished will succeed despite the barriers they face.
Religions and social movements with strong moral codes may be able to help improve life prospects. It is striking, for example, that Utah fits the economic profile of an older, more middle-class-oriented America. The reasons for this are complex, but they may stem in part from the large number of Mormons in the state.
Mormons have done relatively well in economic terms, perhaps, at least in part, because their religious culture encourages behavior consistent with prosperity, such as savings, mutual assistance, family values and no drug and alcohol abuse.
I am not a Mormon and am not advocating that religion or any other. But it seems reasonable to observe that changing social norms, sometimes associated with religion, can help improve living standards.
All of these mechanisms involve some degree of speculation, and the speed at which they will develop will vary. Still, these processes can already be found around us to a limited degree.
Furthermore, all of them could happen without requiring any major change in American public policy and thus they could bypass possible government gridlock.
Most people agree there is plenty of unfairness built into the current political system, such as bad public policies, which often favor the well-off and erect barriers to the advancement of poorer and less educated individuals. How to change these policies will no doubt continue to be a matter of political debate.
But there is reason to believe that when inequality trends start to run in reverse — whenever that might be — it will be because of processes that are operating largely outside of politics. Technology, trade and even religion may help restore prosperity to the middle class.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dying Christopher Hitchens considered Christianity, new book claims

(by Kimberly Winston religionnews.com 4-20-16)

Before his death at 62, Christopher Hitchens, the uber-atheist and best-selling author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” considered becoming a Christian.

That is the provocative claim of “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” a controversial new book winning both applause and scorn while underscoring, again, the divide between believers and atheists that Hitchens’ own life and work often displayed.

The author is Larry Alex Taunton, an evangelical Christian who knew Hitchens for three years and, he says, had private, unrecorded conversations with him about Christianity.

Those 2010 conversations, shortly after Hitchens was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would kill him 18 months later, took a serious turn.

Once, he asked Taunton if his friend understood why he, Hitchens, did not believe in God.

“His tone was marked by a sincerity that wasn’t typical of the man,” Taunton writes. “Not on this subject anyway. A lifetime of rebellion against God had brought him to a moment where he was staring into the depths of eternity, teetering on the edge of belief.”

Taunton, 48, founder of Fixed Point Foundation, an organization that defends Christianity, acknowledges in the book there are “no reports of a deathbed conversion” for Hitchens.

But Taunton writes that during the same time period, “Christopher had doubts … and those doubts led him to seek out Christians and contemplate, among other things, religious conversion.”

“At the end of his life, Christopher’s searches had brought him willingly, if secretly, to the altar,” Taunton writes at the end of the book. “Precisely what he did there, no one knows."

The book, published by Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson, is proving popular among evangelicals, winning praise from Douglas Wilson, another of Hitchens’ Christian friends and debate partners, and from Chris Matthews, a Catholic, who said during an interview with Taunton on his MSNBC show, “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” that the book is “beautifully written.”

But among members of Hitchens’ inner circle, the book’s claims that Hitchens was too famous an atheist to admit his late-in-life change of heart, that he was privately “entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long,” are getting a decidedly different reception.

Steve Wasserman, who was Hitchens’ friend for 30 years, co-executor of his estate and with Hitchens’ family at his death, called the book’s claims “petty” and “appalling” when they were read to him.

“I am not in the position to dispute what Taunton says were private conversations,” he said by phone from New Haven, Conn., where he is executive editor-at-large for Yale University Press. “But I really think it is a shabby business. It reveals a lack of respect. This is not a way to debate Christopher Hitchens’ beliefs — to report unverifiable conversations, which amazingly contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.”

Benjamin Schwarz, Hitchens’ editor at The Atlantic, where he published some of his best work, said, “That Christopher had friends who were evangelicals is testimony to his intellectual tolerance and largeness of heart, not to any covert religiosity.”

And Michael Shermer, an atheist and founder of Skeptic magazine, who read the book’s manuscript and liked its description of the friendship between the two men — enough to give it a favorable jacket blurb — said Taunton’s claims of Hitchens’ flirtation with conversion were “exaggerated.”

Reached by phone at his home in Birmingham, Ala., Taunton stood firm in the face of such criticism. Asked about the fairness of publishing such claims about Hitchens after his death, he said: “The things that I relate, I think by and large I substantiate. What I am saying is this: If Christopher Hitchens is a lock, the tumblers don’t line up with the atheist key and that upsets a lot of atheists. They want Christopher Hitchens to be defined by his atheism, and he wasn’t.”

Taunton first met Hitchens in 2008 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where both were involved in a debate about religion. Hitchens famously said he would debate anyone, and Taunton often arranged and moderated debates between Hitchens and noteworthy Christians.

The two men became friends and spoke warmly of each other in public — Hitchens once said in an interview, “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton has, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.”

Taunton writes of his deep concern for Hitchens — for both his soul and his physical well-being. The two took two cross-country road trips after Hitchens became ill, and Taunton’s recollections of those trips and the conversations they had — untaped and unwitnessed by anyone else — form the heart of the book.

“I would say to any would-be critics, read the book,” Taunton said. “You will see that this a gentle treatment of Christopher Hitchens, far more gentle than his (book-length) assaults on the Clintons or Mother Teresa. I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt.” 
Hitchens tried to ensure that anyone claiming he turned to religion at the end of his life would be discredited. In 2010, he made a video with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which he said, “In the event of anyone ever hearing or reading a rumor of such a thing, it would not have been made by me. … No one recognizable as myself would ever make such a ridiculous remark."