Thursday, July 06, 2006


Chicago Tribune 14May00 A4
By Donna Seaman.

By Terry Tempest Williams
Pantheon, 338 pages, $25

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS -- Mormon naturalist Terry Tempest Williams' latest book is getting strong reviews in major newspapers and magazines like the Chicago Tribune and Time. Williams' book, Leap, looks at Mormonism more than her previous books, "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place" and "Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape." In Leap, Williams uses a trio of paintings by 15th Century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Delights" as a jumping-off point for her examination of both

On the surface, Williams' book is a description of Bosch's trio of paintings in which she examines every detail that Bosch painted. Williams goes much farther than most that visit an art museum, examining the paintings with "the purposeful attentiveness of a wildlife biologist in the field," according to the Tribune, which notes that she surprised other museum visitors by bringing binoculars, as a way of identifying the birds that Bosch painted. "Were Hieronymus Bosch's acute skills as a naturalist appreciated?" she wonders.

But the book goes deeper, beyond just an analysis of Bosch through a naturalist's eye. Each of the details in Bosch's paintings leads Williams to memories that involve her family, her marriage, and her Mormon upbringing. In one of the paintings, Bosch depicts the creation of Eve in Paradise, and his inclusion of a grove of trees in the painting leads Williams to reflect on the First Vision, in which God was revealed to the young boy Joseph Smith. She credits Mormonism with its reliance on personal revelation and notes that it is a religion whose "sacred texts were housed and hidden in the earth." Donna Seaman, writing in the Chicago Tribune says, "The recognition of the significance of personal revelations, and of the sanctity of the earth, resonate profoundly for Williams, and become key themes in her bold and fluent interpretation of Bosch, which, in turn, inspires candid, often provocative musings on the difference between religion and spirituality, and fresh insights into our complicated and crucial relationship with nature."

Seaman says that Williams' exploration allows her to "bridge the divide between the teachings of Mormonism and the gospel of nature, and to articulate a 'living faith' based on 'the healing grace of wildness.'" Seaman goes on to call the book a "dynamic, shape-shifting and lyrically interrogative meditation," and she credits the book with covering "matters of life and death." In the end, according to Seaman, Williams "tells us that we must restore our sense of wonder, and recognize that we live in paradise, a garden of earthly delights that deserves our reverence and our love."

In a much shorter review in Time magazine, Steve Henry Madoff says that Williams' description of Bosch may be more than a match for Bosch's 'wild' painting. "Strange and endlessly fascinating, her reflections on Bosch's images of Heaven, Hell and Earth take on the burning urgency of a dream, says Madoff. "'Can a painting be a prayer?' she asks. Her answer is yes, prayer. Incantation and benediction too."

Related Links

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Deseret News write-up on Margaret Starbird @ Sunstone Symposium,1249,600152175,00.html

Mary Magdalene's Role Missing, Speaker Says

By Elaine Jarvik
Deseret Morning News

"There are a lot of people who want to debunk me and send me home," Margaret Starbird announces, standing at the front of a small lecture hall at a downtown Salt Lake Hotel on Wednesday afternoon.
"Not here," calls out a woman from the second row.
"No, not here," Starbird answers. "That's what I like about Salt Lake City."
Her audience are attendees of the annual Sunstone Symposium, the annual meeting dedicated to "independent Mormon thought." This is the symposium's 30th anniversary and the second consecutive year that Starbird has been among the invited presenters. For the second time, Starbird addressed an idea she is convinced of but is also the source of recent worldwide controversy: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a baby with her, that Mary Magdalene was Christ's disciple and that the Catholic Church has kept this information under wraps for centuries.
The claims have gained worldwide exposure in Dan Brown's mega-seller "The Da Vinci Code." Brown cites Starbird in his bibliography and mentions two of her books — "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" and "The Goddess and the Gospels" — in the body of the novel. Brown's and Starbird's ideas are also part of a larger debate about the role of women in the early church.
Starbird's conclusions about Mary Magdalene are part of a journey, she says, that began with her own skepticism about these radical ideas. The journey began in 1983, when she was what she describes as a Roman Catholic mother of five who taught Sunday school and a scripture studies class for women. That's when a friend suggested she read a book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," a book that postulates Mary Magdalene's role as Christ's bride.
Starbird says the dust jacket was enough to make her shun the book for two years. When she finally read it she says she asked God to help her discern whether the ideas in it were true. If they weren't, she told God, "I'll just burn this book."
She was looking for a sign. So she opened her Bible — to the page that read "New Testament, Revised Version." Revised was the word that jumped out at her. But she wanted to make sure. "I don't understand, Lord," she said, asking for another sign. This time she opened her Bible to a passage that read "Restore my wife, whom I am espoused to."
"Maybe he's talking about your inner bride," a friend suggested. So the friend prayed, too, for a sign. And shortly thereafter, on her hands and knees in her bathroom trying to find a leak in her toilet, the friend saw the name of the toilet manufacturer: Church.
"We didn't know whether to laugh or cry," Starbird remembers. "It was like my words had taken flesh in her bathroom."
Convinced now that this was her life's mission, Starbird enrolled in the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she devoted herself to answering four questions: could Jesus have been so human as to be married; if so, when; "how did we lose (Mary Magdalene); and how do we get her back."
Starbird says her research unearthed "mountains of evidence for the sacred union." To those who call her work heresy, she says, "We're not changing the gospel. We're just throwing new light on it. . . . I teach what the church taught in the beginning and then forgot."
Now living in the Seattle area, Starbird devotes her time to traveling around the country spreading the word and to continuing her research. A new book, "Mary Magdalene: Bride in Exile" will be published in November.
The importance of uncovering Mary Magdalene's role as Christ's wife, Starbird says, is that both Christianity and Christians need the "sacred feminine" that Mary provides.
"What we lost when we lost Mary Magdalene," she told her Sunstone audience, "was ecstasy, passion, a relationship with the body and with one another. We are earthen vessels filled with God."
Acknowledging Christ's marriage and Mary Magdalene's role as both a wife and disciple is a way of acknowledging the need for the feminine in both men and women, and in the church itself. "The feminine is a way of knowing and being," whereas the masculine is about "going and doing," she says. "That's why the self is a marriage of both."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mormon Connection to Masons Explored Ahead of 'Da Vinci Code' Sequel

Holy Mackerel! I was waiting for school to start this morning at 8:38 AM and I was running out of things to do on the Internet so I just plugged in "Da Vinci Code" on Google just to see what's up with "the Code" these days. Top of the page! Number one headline, posted just 9 hours ago:
Mormon Connection to Masons Explored Ahead of 'Da Vinci Code' Sequel

Mormon connection to Masons explored ahead of 'Da Vinci Code' sequel
Mason-Mormon ties: What's fact, what's fiction
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune

Flanking the main entrance is a pair of sphinx guarding the Temple. They are comprised of a lion's body and a man's head, signifying great strength and master intelligence and are symbolic of mystery. Between the paws is a granite sphere, polished and inscribed to represent the Terrestrial Sphere (shown) and Celestial Sphere. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Dan Brown clearly enjoys playing with legends, history, symbols and secrets. And readers' minds. In his best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, Brown wove all these - real and imagined - into a breathless mystery about Christianity, Mary Magdalene and the Divine Feminine that has spawned an industry of de-coders eager to separate fact from fiction.
Now that he has turned his attention to the mysteries of Freemasonry, the centuries-old fraternal order, the new book also might deal with Mormonism.
But rather than announce the Da Vinci sequel in a news release, Brown embedded tantalizing clues to its subject on the book's jacket. Written in typeface that is slightly larger and bolder than the rest (it requires a magnifying glass to find them all) are the words: is there no help for the widows son.
"O Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow's son?" was used historically as a Masonic distress call, but when journalist David Shugarts plugged it into Google, the first hit was a 1974 speech given by an LDS Institute of Religion teacher, Reed C. Durham, at the University of Utah.
Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reportedly began to utter the call as he fell from a second story window after being fatally shot by a mob in a Carthage, Ill., jail in 1844, Durham said.
In an electrifying presidential address to the Mormon History Association meeting in Nauvoo, Ill., he traced close parallels between Smith's account of digging gold plates out of a New York hillside and Masonic tales of Enoch and buried treasure. Smith wore a "Jupiter talisman," or what his wife called "his Masonic jewel," and LDS temple ceremonies bear a striking resemblance to Masonic rituals, he said.

The Winding Staircase, like all Masonic symbols, is illustrative of discipline and doctrine, and opens to us a wide field of moral and speculative inquiry. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune)

speech was so controversial that Durham's superiors in the LDS Educational System forced him to issue a public apology.
The speech was never published but was surreptitiously taped and has floated around on the Internet for years.
It may have also caught Brown's attention, Shugarts speculates, and may provide one plot twist in Brown's next book, tentatively titled The Solomon Key. Brown confirmed in a speech last year that the book's mystery will be set in Washington, D.C., where many architectural features were drawn from Masonry, and will feature the same lead character, Harvard-professor-turned-detective Robert Langdom.
Getting a jump on the novel's historical context, Shugarts has written Secrets of the Widow's Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to The Da Vinci Code.
He provides a broad history of Mormonism, including its brush with Masonry in the 19th century. It also offers nuggets about Masonic history such as these: At least eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were 13 U.S. presidents including George Washington. A Freemason released Paul Revere from British custody on the night of his famous ride, after he determined that Revere was a Mason. Mozart's "Magic Flute" and Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King were written as Masonic allegories.
The Washington Monument and a similar monument on Bunker Hill in Boston, were not just coincidentally shaped like an Egyptian obelisks, but intentionally designed to honor Masonic allusions to ancient Egyptian mystical wisdom.
Much of the symbolism is mathematical, even geometrical, which could explain why the fraternity has attracted rationalists such as Voltaire, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.
"We've heard from Masons

One of the rooms in the Temple. The Salt Lake Masonic Temple was completed in 1927 and was built in 1 year, 3 months, and 22 days. The architect of the temple was Carl W. Scott and George W Welch. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune)

that they feel that [Brown is] going to do them justice," says Dan Burstein, who wrote the introduction to Shugarts' book. "He seems to be favorably disposed to thinking of Masons as an important historical underground movement, pushing the world towards democracy and enlightenment."
Today there are nearly 2 million Masons in the United States, with 2,250 members in 29 Utah lodges.
"We have a lot of Mormons who are Masons in this state, but we don't know exactly how many," says Ridgley Gilmour, Grand Master of Utah Masonic Lodge. "Anyone with a belief in God can petition to join but we don't ask what religion they are."
Gilmour was adamant the Masonry is not a "secret society," but a fraternal order with large-scale charitable giving built on deeply held American values of family, God and country.
"The only secrets we have are little signs and passwords which we use because it's an ancient custom, and, frankly, it's fun,'' Gilmour says.
It remains to be seen how much Mormon history will feature in the novel, (Brown's wife reportedly was raised in the LDS Church) but if the reaction to Durham's 1974 speech is any indication, any link between the two could be controversial in Utah.
For his part, Nicholas S. Literski, an active Mormon and Mason living in Nauvoo, thinks Latter-day Saints misunderstand the similarities. But they are significant.
"Everybody wants to obsess over supposed similarities in ritual," he says. "But that's just one aspect. Everything about Joseph and his family was tied into Masonic legends."

The Mormon connection: Smith's father, Joseph Smith Sr. joined a Masonic lodge when the family moved to Palmyra,



N.Y., in 1816. Later, Smith's brother Hyrum also joined. From them, Smith heard the story of a lost sacred word that was engraved upon a triangular plate of pure gold. The word was the name of God.
It makes sense that he would go searching for such treasure in the large American Indian burial mounds near his home, says Literski, author of the forthcoming book, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration.
And when Smith reported finding an ancient record written on plates of gold, he used "distinctively Masonic language to describe the experience," Literski says.
The church, which claimed to restore ancient truths of Christianity lost through the ages, attracted many members of the Masonic fraternity who traced their own roots back centuries and had similar esoteric teachings.
By the 1840s, many Mormon leaders in Nauvoo, including Smith and apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, became Masons and organized a lodge there under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. It wasn't long before nearly every male member of the church in the area had joined. At the same time, Smith introduced LDS temple rituals that included secret handshakes, signs and symbols like the all-seeing eye, the compass and square (tools of the mason's trade) and the sun, moon and stars that echoed Masonry.
Soon, though, other Masons felt that the Mormons were dominating the fraternity. In 1842, the Nauvoo Lodge was suspended. Many Mormons believed that Masons contributed to the murder of their prophet.
Antagonisms built up between the two groups. In Utah in 1860, Masonic lodges were established but they prohibited Mormons from joining. At the same time, Young forbade Mormons from joining and refused to allow any Mason to hold priesthood leadership positions in the church, Literski says.
It wasn't until 1984 that LDS President Spencer W. Kimball removed the prohibition against Latter-day Saints becoming Freemasons. Later that year, the Grand Lodge of Utah removed its own ban on Mormon membership so that, in the ensuing years, many Latter-day Saint men have returned to this part of their heritage.

In the novelist's mind: Shugarts says it was not his intention to be a plot spoiler for Brown's sequel. He couldn't do that if he wanted. But he did offer a primer on Masonry and Mormonism for those who will want to explore, as they did with Da Vinci, just how much of what Brown writes is really history.
"I had to push out in every direction possible," Shugarts said in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. "I read five books about Mormon history and thousands of Internet Web sites. I tried to be thorough and fair."
Though he only dedicated four or five pages to Mormons in a 200-page book, he's already heard from unhappy Latter-day Saints who accuse him of misreading or a biased approach to LDS history, a charge he rejects.
"Prior to embarking on my research, I had no particular opinion of Joseph Smith or the details of the founding of the [LDS ]Church," he wrote to one critic. "But I had met a few Mormons and they always impressed me as fine people. After delving into the story of Joseph Smith, I understood a lot more about LDS. I remain impressed that Mormons are fine people."
It will be interesting to see if Brown sees them that way as well. Literski isn't worried.
"He'll weave a good conspiracy," Literski says, "but no matter how inventive Dan Brown gets in terms of the connection, he will fall short of just how deep that story does go."
Even in Smith's day, there were Masons who believed the legends were historical truth and saw Freemasonry as a deeply spiritual, mystical quest. Other, more sophisticated members, discounted the old stories, wanting to refocus it along the lines of a charitable and benevolent institution.
The Smiths were about as far into mysticism as you can get, Literski says. "Joseph was rebuilding Solomon's temple with all the legendary baggage that came along with that."
Seeing the relationship between the two groups forces Mormons like Literski to revise his ideas about how God interacts with a prophet.
"You cannot understand what is going on in Joseph's mind unless you can know what he is seeing, hearing, feeling and touching," he says. "That gives me a stronger position of faith than would this idea that revelation is ex nihilo. Joseph was not a puppet."
Contact Peggy Fletcher Stack at or 801-257-8725. Send comments on this article to

Blog Archive