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Introducing Jeff Bennion

Jeff considers himself an amateur dilettante. In other words, he loves a lot of stuff but isn’t disciplined enough to stick to anything for very long. His interests include LDS and Christian theology, biology, chemistry, psychology, physics, language and literature, computers and technology. At any given time he’s reading at least five different books, more proof of his lack of ability to focus. His fellow missionaries voted him “most likely to invent flubber” (something about being absentminded), and in high school they voted him “best earlobes”. If he ever put his mind to it, he could be the skinniest sumo wrestler AND the heaviest jockey. He lives and works in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife, soon-to-be-born son, and a very spoiled dog.

50 Posts
When Your Staff Shatters May. 12th, 2012 at 7:00 am

There is a fantastic scene in the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when the wizard Gandalf comes face-to-face with a Nazgul (the Witch King of Agnmar), who has been terrorizing the city of Gondor. He raises his staff to challenge the Nazgul. The Witch King throws off his cloak to expose his crown of fear and raises his sword of flame. With the barest of effort the Witch King shatters Gandalf’s staff.

Gandalf is taken aback, momentarily stunned. He has wielded his staff to thwart much evil and destruction, it is the repository of much power. But it fails him here. What will he do next? Will he just crumple up and die, as the Witch King says he is about to?

No, he doesn’t. Taking advantage of the arrival of the cavalry from Rohan, Gandalf gets up and continues to rally the citizens of Gondor to the defense of their city, exhorting them to hold strong in the defense of their city, even in the face of a terrifying and merciless assault.
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Nobody Don’t Love Nobody (not!) Apr. 21st, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Stacey BessWhen I was attending college at the University of Utah, I liked to volunteer at the Bennion Center. As a lowly volunteer, I had nothing to do with the name. It was named after my (very distant) cousin Lowell, but it was fun walking around there like I owned the place. The center bore Lowell’s name not because he gave it a lot of money (as is usually the case with Universities) but, refreshingly, because of his great example, though he was of very modest means. While I was there, Lowell himself still volunteered; one of the jobs you could sign up for was driving him around on his visits to the vast array of shut-ins he ministered to.

One the most striking and energizing places to go was the so-called “School with No Name.” Stacey Bess was the “Principal” of this school, founded to teach students who were housed at the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. Though it originally didn’t even have a proper classroom, by the time I was there it met in one room above the shelter. Aside from the single room and students of all ages, it had little else in common with the one-room schoolhouses of lore.

You can begin to imagine, but only just begin, the challenges she faced in a classroom with no set roster, children of all ages and academic ability, coming from families with crushing economic, mental health, and criminal challenges, and attending her class for a completely unpredictable duration.
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Alma and the Power of the Word Apr. 7th, 2011 at 1:40 am

There are some insights that can come from the scriptures only if we assume that they are true, written by actual historical figures who bear reliable witness of the events they participated in. Instead of reading the scriptures as if they have something to prove to me (which is all too often my attitude), I need to try reading the scriptures as if I have something to prove to them. As N.T. Wright says, if you read scripture this way,

You will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgement over it. But you won’t come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably… until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.

So it is, I believe, with the Book of Mormon. And in doing so, we will find all sorts of tiny ways where the text reinforces the truths it is bearing witness of. But this sort of insight seems impossible to discern if we approach the text skeptically, always trying to find out whether it’s true or not. I’m not saying that method is invalid or wrong (and some of that is inevitable), but I do want to suggest that at some point we need to move past it, and that in fact the scriptures themselves are inviting us to wholly embrace them, and it’s only when we do this that they can really start to teach us, provoke greater insights, and really change our lives.

I thought of one example of this that happened with me recently in my scripture study. I hesitate to mention it, because the insight isn’t particularly clever, or perhaps even original. But it meant a lot to me. I post it here not to show off my keen reading skills, because others are much keener than I. I only do it to illustrate this idea about how we can read scriptures differently, even if this example appears meager to others.

The Book of Mormon tells us that Alma the Younger was a uniquely gifted communicator, both before and after his conversion. Mormon tells us that “he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities and … stealing away the hearts of the people.”
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The Salt Lake Tribune on Elder Perry Apr. 2nd, 2011 at 12:49 pm

If you’re visiting us from the article about Elder Perry in the Salt Lake Tribune, the story the reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, mentions can be found here. I don’t know Elder Perry personally; we have never met, though I have observed him from afar and heard from people who have interacted with him. As I told the reporter, I think the story perfectly captures Elder Perry’s ability to be warm and uplifting, even when offering a correction. A rare gift, but one that Elder Perry is able to do with no apparent effort. Ms. Fletcher-Stack’s article captures his understated yet highly influential qualities well.

The Godblind Mar. 9th, 2011 at 8:06 am

Can you see the 74?It seems that athiesm is undergoing another of its frequent vogues. Witness the parade of best-sellers: Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, to name some of the most prominent ones. Each of these books takes the position that atheism is the only natural, logical, and rational way to view the world and our humanity. If you page through these books, however, it is not long before you are struck by something else: none of these men have ever had a firsthand spiritual experience with the divine.

To point this out may seem obvious to the point of pedantry, but it is actually an important observation. Atheists and pro-religion humanists suggest that religion came about as a way to comfort widows and children, or to reduce the terror of death and civilize us, as Freud believed, or to anesthetize the masses, as Marx did, or (perhaps most colorfully of all) it was merely “the effect of a frenzied mind” as Korihor put it (and which Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett would most certainly agree, I feel confident).

But in fact, as William James observed in his Varieties of Religious Experience, most religious people come to their religious beliefs through personal experience with the divine. They believe, not because of the “foolish traditions of their fathers,” but because they have personally experienced “a mighty change” and “come to know these things of themselves.” A 2008 study came to the same conclusion, suggesting that 70% of the American population experienced God as a personal being. An additional 12% came to a belief in a deistic God through the practice of their reason, which, interestingly, is the same percentage who came to disbelieve or doubt the existence of God through their reason.

Such a high percentage of believe suggests that on some basic level we are “wired” to believe in God, and it leads me to wonder if these famous atheists lack this wiring. Read more »

Sister Spamalot Mar. 8th, 2011 at 7:40 am

When I was in a single’s ward, a friend of mine (and fellow ward member) was a member of our ward’s email discussion group. One of the rules of the discussion group was not to post commercial messages. One ward member posted just such a message, I am sure quite innocently. My friend emailed her personally and gently reminded her that postings of this nature were against the group’s rules. She replied that she th0ught the message would be useful to some and said she would continue to post such messages in the future. They exchanged a few more emails arguing about this until finally my friend said to her, “You know what? Problem solved: I’m adding you to my spam filter.”

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Here’s an Apostle Different than Elder Packer Oct. 10th, 2010 at 12:14 am

I know it’s discouraged to have favorites, but in light of the recent controversy over the comments of an Apostle in General Conference, I thought I would highlight some incidents and quotes from one of the Apostles I admire greatly, has taught me a great deal, and has frequently inspired me.

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Ted Kennedy’s Reward May. 26th, 2010 at 10:20 am

Image shown may not be theologically correctAfter the late Senator Edward Kennedy died of a brain tumor late last summer, there were the usual suspects proclaiming that he was burning in hell because of what he did (or rather didn’t do) with Mary Jo Kopechne and his stance on abortion. As I would feel with any deceased person, I found these sentiments highly presumptuous and spiritually dangerous. So imagine how taken aback I was when I read this statement from a close former associate of his, former Senator now President Obama.

In January when the health care bill passed, President Obama said:

Today, of course, we all feel the heavy absence of one of our greatest Irish-Americans; a man who loved this day so much; a man who I believe is still watching this body closely, particularly this week — and that is our beloved Ted Kennedy.

Wow, I thought. If Ted Kennedy’s reward in the next life is for him to have to be some kind of spectral Majority/Minority whip, required to shepherd legislation and cajole (former) colleagues for all eternity, he really has been damned!

“Which Thing I Never Had Supposed” Apr. 14th, 2010 at 1:18 am

I have recently been thinking about what Moses says in chapter 1 verse 10 in his eponymous book: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” I’ve often thought this was a curious thing to say, at least to me it has long appeared obvious that man is nothing. So why was this news to Moses? As I considered the context in which Moses lived and wrote, I had a new idea.

Moses grew up in Egypt, which even in his day was an ancient civilization, one that achieved heights of architecture, science, medicine, religion, population and land extent, military might, and durability that have seldom been equaled, even up to and including modern times. Moses performed many miracles in Pharaoh’s court, but many of them could be duplicated by Pharaoh’s magicians. By the miracles Moses performed, he knew that God was more powerful than the might of Egypt, but Egypt was still pretty impressive. And after the exodus, Egypt’s level of civilization could only have appeared even more impressive in comparison. Moses could only be more impressed at the heights of civilization that man could achieve.

So when God takes Moses on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, and even then God has to hold back to avoid blowing his mind, it must have really put all of man’s achievements in perspective. Compared to this, man really is nothing.

It’s Not Easy Being Green Nov. 19th, 2009 at 3:06 pm

It's Not Easy Being GreenYou would think, listening to some environmentalists, that all that is holding us back from saving the earth is for the scales to fall from the eyes of greedy corporations and an ignorant, complacent populace. There is a simple way to tell who is environmentally naughty, and who is environmentally nice. Science knows what is best, but people aren’t listening to the science! There is a well-understood and well-accepted consensus of what is environmentally-friendly and what is not. And how apt that the naughties should get a piece of coal! But I will attempt to show here that it’s not even close to that simple.
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Mormons in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol Sep. 17th, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Dan Brown's The Lost SymbolWhen KSL published this article a few years ago suggesting that Dan Brown had the LDS Church in its sights, a lot of people feared he would do to the Church what he did to the Catholic Church in his Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code.

A prompt poster with the handle “neworder” over at Mormon Apologetics got a hold of an early copy of the book, and only found a couple of peripheral mentions of Mormonism in the book.

I got a hold of a copy of the book today and gave it a quick scan as well, and my impression is the same as neworder’s. From what I can tell the LDS Church does not play any significant role in the plot. The book is selling very briskly, and it’s been #1 at Amazon for weeks now.

Though this isn’t the place for a detailed review, I will just say that readers will find in this book another Robert Langdon thriller. Fans of Brown’s prior novels will find this one just as exciting of a page-turner. Those who found his prior efforts lacking will find nothing here to change their opinions. In short, it’s a fun and diverting read, but those expecting Moby Dick will be disappointed.

Still, to the public relations issue, should we Latter-day Saints breathe a sigh of relief that we escaped the attention of Dan Brown, or should we be offended that the author doesn’t consider Mormons capable of pulling off a grand and ancient conspiracy?

9/11 From My Wife’s Perspective Sep. 12th, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Though a day late, I thought I’d talk briefly about my wife’s experience on 9/11/01. (When I lived in DC, I missed out on all the traumas: I was out of town for 9/11, I was out of town for the anthrax attacks, and I was out of town for the sniper. I guess my alibi is ironclad.) My wife was driving to work on I-395 just before it crossed the Potomac. She heard a huge boom and turned and saw a black cloud coming out of the Pentagon. She happened to have her work’s digital camera with her in the car that day (they were still quite rare in those days), and so she pulled it out and snapped a couple of photos.

Plane as it hits the Pentagon

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Remembering Eugene England Aug. 12th, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Professor Eugene EnglandIt’s pretty obvious that I’m nobody special, but I do have some memories of some pretty special people. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my old professor, the late Eugene England, and I thought I’d share some memories of him here.

I had always wanted to take his class when I was at BYU, but they always were either full or didn’t work with my class schedule. When I came back from my mission and enrolled at the University of Utah, I was surprised but delighted to discover that Eugene England was teaching a class there, through an extension center. I signed up right away, and the class was full of traditional students like me, as well as some amateur enthusiasts (I mean that in the best sense of the word) including one superannuated Seventy.

We asked him how he came to teach at BYU’s rival, and he said he had some friends in the U’s English department who suggested it. He said it was amazing what teaching at a different University could do to one’s reputation. Merely driving 40 miles further to teach the same class could transform him from an apostate Mormon liberal to an upholder of the oppressive, fascist religious patriarchy.

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Terrorists and the Mythical Man Month May. 22nd, 2009 at 7:35 pm

During this recent Obama/Cheny smackdown (in fact, let’s just put the two in a UFC ring and get it over with), I was thinking about the argument that our policies are creating more terrorists than we are killing or capturing. I have no idea how to approach answering that question, but it made me think of a more important fallacy embedded in that claim.

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Is Intelligent Design A Theory? Feb. 28th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

If I have some reservations about Darwinism as a good theory, what can we say about intelligent design? Let me first try to describe it. Intelligent Design theory says that there are too many interdependent parts in metabolism for these changes to evolve gradually. They call this irreducible complexity, and it’s pretty easy to imagine. A half an axle, half of a cell phone, are not half as useful as a whole one, they are entirely worthless. Intelligent Design advocates point to a great number of complex processes in life, from cellular motors to oxygen exchange in hemoglobin, and say that these things cannot develop incrementally. A cellular motor that barely works, or a hemoglobin that doesn’t exchange oxygen, is worse than nothing. It confers no evolutionary advantage and in some cases will kill you altogether. How do you get all this complicated machinery to develop gradually, in stepwise fashion?

A lot of these things have to work together, and very well, or they don’t work at all, and the organism ends up dead. So how do you suddenly “evolve” all of that stuff at once? The suggestion is, you can’t. And while Intelligent Design theory concedes that species do adapt in response to natural selection, the most important parts are too important, and too complex, to evolve gradually and randomly. The implication is (and this is very much an implication; rarely do they come out and say it) , those key parts were not evolved, they were designed. And then, depending on how much you credit some of their statements, ID advocates either leave it there, or they mean to say this proves the existence of a Creator.

The biggest problem with this formulation is it isn’t even a theory. Read more »

Is Darwinian Evolution [Just] A Theory? Feb. 24th, 2009 at 8:25 pm

You’ll hear some opponents of Darwinian evolution say this sometimes, and it makes me laugh. If Darwinian evolution is merely a theory, that is small comfort. After all, gravity is “just” a theory, but for all that, gravity can mess with you pretty bad when you take a stroll off a third-floor balcony.

My beef with Darwinian evolution isn’t that it’s “just” a theory. It’s that it’s become more than a theory for some. A good theory, according to Karl Popper, should be falsifiable. Yet if we concede (unlike the Creationists) that the Earth is older than 6,000 years, that species can be created and go extinct at times other than the creation and the flood, and that species themselves can change over time and adapt to their environments, then can we still be absolutely sure that the only mechanism of species creation and change is Darwinian natural selection? How would we know if other mechanisms are operating sometimes?

All too often, Darwinian evolution functions as a heuristic, or a rule of thumb, rather than as a theory. A theory should help us make predictions, and certainly Darwinian evolution makes plenty of predictions. But most often, Darwinian evolution seems to preordain its own conclusion and then the “proof” is actually sought to show how natural selection produced the observed result.

As an example, let us consider how the leopard got its spots. Read more »

Support for Darwinian Evolution in LDS Scriptures Feb. 20th, 2009 at 6:00 pm

This month is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. I thought it would be interesting to post some thoughts about Darwin and what he has spawned, but I’ll break it up into smaller posts. The first question I’d like to consider is, do the scriptures provide any support for his theory, or does it truly deserve the fierce objections some (though not all) LDS people have directed at him? I will list here four areas where I think the scriptures support Darwinian evolution.

Before we start I do need to briefly describe the theory of Darwinian evolution. It is meant to describe how different species get created. It says that due to limited resources, disease, predation, only certain individuals survive to reproduce the next set of offspring. Various random variations happen which, if they improve that individual’s ability to survive to reproduction, will then also get passed on. (Darwin had no idea how; we had to wait until Watson & Crick discovered the structure of DNA.) Species adapt in order to best exploit the available resources locally. When Darwin described it as “the survival of the fittest” he meant “fit” in the same way your clothes fit. He didn’t mean necessarily the survival of the strongest or smartest or fastest, but the survival of the individuals who were best adapted to their immediate environment would be most likely to survive–and sometimes being weak, slow, and dumb is an advantage.

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A Brief Thought on Belief and Chickens Feb. 18th, 2009 at 6:19 pm

On my mission in Belgium, Brussels I was transferred to Metz in the Moselle/Lorraine area of France. We began teaching a very bright recent convert the integration lessons. She had a very strong testimony and made a wonderful point that has stuck with me over the years. “Everyone says they believe but that they don’t practice. That makes no sense. It’s like saying, ‘I raise chickens but I don’t give them anything to eat.'”

So: Have you fed your chickens today? Read more »

Public Prayers Feb. 4th, 2009 at 1:49 pm

//www.flickr.com/photos/priyamitJust a couple of days ago I was asked to give an invocation at a public event attended by a couple hundred people. While the organizers were all LDS, most of the attendees were not. Yet I believe public prayers are not just an expression of my faith, but the entire group‘s faith. While I am not ashamed of my faith and in fact hope that all would choose to embrace it, I know that this was far from the case in this instance.

I ended up giving the standard Mormon prayer (invoking our Father in Heaven’s name, expressing gratitude, asking for blessings, and closing in the name of Jesus Christ), since I assumed that most of our audience was Christian.

Even though I am not usually nervous much at all in front of crowds, I was surprisingly nervous about praying in this situation. I’m not sure I did a very good job. After this experience, I have a lot more sympathy for those who have to do this often. It presumes a lot to assume that I know what a group of people wants and needs, not to mention the assumptions I must make about what Deity is willing to grant to such a group, or what is even appropriate to ask Deity to grant.

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Items I Have Smuggled Into a Movie Theatre Jan. 26th, 2009 at 4:00 pm
  • Two twelve inch pizzas
  • A two liter bottle of soda
  • A box of Boo Berry Cereal
  • Two pints of Ben & Jerry’s
  • A quart of motor oil (long story, but it was not used for any nefarious purpose) Read more »
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