Mark Wright vs. Earl Wunderli: How Perspective Changes Everything

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A Depiction of Mesoamerican human sacrifice, from Mark Wright’s Article. Notice the jaguar and macaw, on each side waiting to be sacrificed next. Cf. Alma 34:10

[Cross posted from Studio et Quoque Fide with slight alterations.]

Last year, Earl Wunderli published study claiming to show that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith strictly by internal evidence. It has been critically reviewed by Brant Gardner, Robert Rees, and Matt Roper with Paul Fields and Larry Bassist (forthcoming from BYU Studies Quarterly). For Wunderli, one of the curiosities that seems to indicate a 19th century authorship for the Book of Mormon is that, “when Jesus appears, he invites the multitude to thrust their hands into the sword wound in his side and feel the nail holes in his hands and feet. How Nephites would know the significance of the wounds is a question.” (Earl M. Wunderli, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013], 217.)

When I first read Wunderli’s comments, I must admit I was a little amused. Why? Last week’s paper from Interpreter is Mark Wright’s presentation “Axes  Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” from the Temple on Mount Zion Conference in September of 2012. I love Wright’s work because he finds such subtle ways in which the Mesoamerican setting changes the way we understand the Book of Mormon and sheds light on perplexing issues. I remember being at the conference and listening to Wright. In it, he talks about Christ’s visit to the Nephites and Mesoamerican sacrifice.  Wright explains:

The typical method of human sacrifice was to stretch the victim across a stone altar and have his hands and feet held down by four men. A priest would then make a large incision directly below the ribcage using a knife made out of razor-sharp flint or obsidian, and while the victim was yet alive the priest would thrust his hand into the cut and reach up under the ribcage and into the chest and rip out the victim’s still-beating heart. (emphasis mine)

Indeed, this is a very different method of sacrifice than crucifixion, and many among the Nephites likely would not have understood the method by which Christ was killed. But, Wright notices something interesting about how Christ invites them to see his wounds.

When Christ appeared to the Nephites, he may have been communicating with them according to their cultural language when he invited them to come and feel for themselves the wounds in his flesh. He bade them first to thrust their hands into his side, and secondarily to feel the prints in his hands and feet (3 Nephi 11:14). This contrasts with his appearance to his apostles in Jerusalem after his resurrection. Among them, he invited them to touch solely his hands and feet (Luke 24:39–40). Why the difference? To a people steeped in Mesoamerican culture, the sign that a person had been ritually sacrificed would have been an incision on their side — suggesting they had had their hearts removed — whereas for the people of Jerusalem in the first century, the wounds that would indicate someone had been sacrificed would have been in the hands and the feet — the marks of crucifixion. (emphasis mine)

Obviously, Christ was not sacrificed in a Mesoamerican way, with his heart ripped-out. But the crucial point for all to understand is not how he was sacrificed, merely that he actually was sacrificed. A mark on the side, below the ribcage, would have communicated that message to Nephites in Mesoamerica quite effectively.

In contrasting Wright’s insightful approach with that of Wunderli’s, there is an important lesson to be learned: perspective and context can change everything. There really is no such thing as a wholly “internal” reading of the text. We all bring perspectives, assumptions, and understandings to the text that are external to it, and drive our interpretations of it. Wunderli does not read the text through a Mesoamerican lens (and would not be capable of so doing, in any case), and so he finds Christ’s showing of his wounds to be a curious feature, bringing in the assumption that the wounds would make no sense to anyone outside of the Roman empire. Meanwhile, Wright shows a careful reading comparing Christ’s showing of wounds in both the Old World and the New, notices the subtle differences, and seeks to understand how a setting within the New World serves to explain those differences. I’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves which reading is more productive.

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 5

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MAThe following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, and Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Director of Media Products for FairMormon.)

Dear Doug,

I haven’t heard from you since my last letter discussing Joseph Smith’s hesitancy to talk about his First Vision. I hope all is well. As promised, this letter hopes to address your concerns with the fact that Joseph wrote or dictated various accounts of the First Vision. From your previous letter it appears that you were surprised to find out that there were variant renditions of the vision. You quoted, in fact, one critic who claims that the Church has tried to “cover up” the fact that these differing accounts exist. The truth is, Doug, that the various versions have actually been discussed in the official Church magazines such as the Improvement Era in 1970 and again in the Ensign in 1985 and 1996.

LDS scholars have known about the different versions for many years and the Church has attempt to publicly acknowledge and discuss those versions for more than forty years—long before there was the Internet, which, as critics often claim, is the impetus which has “exposed” these supposed difficulties.

The real concern isn’t about “covering up” the fact that these different accounts exist, but rather what we make of the fact—acknowledged for decades by believing LDS scholars—that there are discrepancies between the accounts. This particular issue is one that really had no impact on me during my own faith-crisis. I remember having read one of the Ensign articles that discussed the different accounts of the First Vision so it didn’t catch me off guard when I read about it in anti-LDS literature.

I know the point of the critics is that Joseph Smith supposedly evolved his story as he got older—which suggests that the story is made-up—but I never found this argument to be that impressive. Who doesn’t tell about an event different at different stages in one’s life or depending on the listening audience?

When I was about 10 my 8 year-old little brother got out the ladder and climbed on the roof in the hopes of “parachuting” off with a bed sheet. The sheet got stuck on the roof antenna and he dangled precariously over the ledge of a two-story drop. My mom came to the rescue, climbed the ladder and pulled him in back to the roof. It was a fun story I told for many years about my crazy little brother. It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered that my mom was deathly afraid of heights. I never knew it before. My mom told how she really struggled to get up on the roof and prayed for strength. She worried that if she ran to get a neighbor or called the fire department, the sheet might rip and my brother would fall to the ground, so she knew she had to move fast.

When I tell the story to my own kids the event is the same, but the story and emphasis I tell is different than the way I told the story in my pre-college years. Changing the details in hindsight doesn’t mean I’ve fabricated the story, I just know more now than I did then so my story includes the wisdom that has been added.

Most of the so-called “discrepancies” between the various accounts are of little importance and can easily be resolved by additional insight that Joseph received following the vision as well as the audience to whom the accounts were written. I’ll bet you don’t tell the First Vision story exactly the same—with every nuance and emphasis—when you talk to your High Priest group as you did when you were telling an investigator while we were on our missions.

The three biggest potential problems with the differing accounts are: 1) Joseph’s age is inconsistent in the differing accounts: 2) according to many critics there was no 1820 revival (which Joseph claimed was the reason he sought the Lord in prayer), and: 3) in the first known record (1832) Joseph only mentioned seeing Christ rather than seeing both the Father and the Son. So let’s look three issues.

Joseph’s Age at the First Vision

From 1828 to 1831 Joseph began collecting, compiling, and attempting to preserve Church documents—the first of which was his revelations. Later he began gathering other documents such as minute books. By 1832 he began documenting the details of his personal life and history. This 1832 record was penned primarily by Joseph himself, although some parts were written by Joseph’s scribe Fredrick G. Williams. Although the 1832 history was an unpolished draft and was never printed, it contains the earliest known account of Joseph’s First Vision.

This 1832 account claims that Joseph was in his sixteenth year when he experienced the vision (this would mean that he was 15 years old—in our first year of life we are less than 1 year old, in our second year of life we are 1 year old, etc.). In the official 1838 account, however, Joseph says that the vision happened in his fifteenth year (or when he was 14 years old). Why the discrepancy?

First, the “sixteenth” year in the 1832 account is not in Joseph’s handwriting but in Williams handwriting and is inserted between two normal lines of text. Obviously, Joseph’s age was added after Joseph first penned the account. It’s possible that Williams got the age wrong, but it’s also possible that Joseph Smith couldn’t immediately remember the year when the theophany took place.

I know I’ve had times when memory has failed me. Without my wife’s help I can’t accurately remember which year we first went to Disneyland, when I experienced my first kiss, or when my tent got flooded at Boy Scout camp. When Joseph initially experienced the First Vision he had no idea that this was the first in a series of events that would ultimately lead to the restoration. That connection wouldn’t be made until years later when Joseph could look back on the past with the benefit of hindsight. Under such circumstances he may not have made a mental note regarding the year or month when the vision occurred, and years later he would have been forced to calculate or estimate backwards in order to recover the correct date—the same as I have done on numerous occasions.

Joseph’s recital of his childhood memories indicate that he was just like the rest of us when it came to recalling things from our past. The further back in the past, the more likely he was to estimate his age with qualifiers such as “about.” In fact, in his official (and published) 1838 history he said that his brother Alvin died in 1824. Four years later, however, he discovered that he was mistaken and he corrected the history to reflect the correct year of Alvin’s death at 1823.

No 1820 Revival

A number of critics have argued (and you cited some of these in your previous letter) that, contrary to Joseph’s 1838 First Vision recital, there was no religious revival in Palmyra in 1820. First, it’s important to point out that Joseph didn’t claim there was an 1820 “revival” but that there was an “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” in the vicinity preceding his plea for the Lord’s guidance. The fact is, however, that newspaper articles, letters, and other writings by non-Mormons of the day, support exactly what Joseph Smith claimed. There were a number of religious camp meetings and revivals in the area surrounding the Smith’s home during, and just prior to, 1820. The critics are flat our wrong in their argument—which is demonstrated by current research and documentation.

One Personage Instead of Two

As you note in your previous email, the critics claim that the story of the First Vision evolved into a more complicated tale as time passed by. Prior to 1835, they argue, Joseph claimed to have only seen one personage in his vision (unlike the appearance of the Father and the Son which we read about in the 1835 account).

Joseph wrote his 1832 account as an unpolished and unpublished brief personal biography in which the focus of the First Vision recital was his personal standing before the Lord. The 1835 account was transcribed by Joseph’s scribe Warren Parish when Joseph recounted the experience to a non-Mormon visitor. In this account Joseph shared the detail that both the Father and Son appeared in his vision.

When we examine the letters and journals of those who knew Joseph prior to 1835 we find that as early as 1832 some members were aware that Joseph was visited by two personages in his First Vision. The fact that Joseph didn’t mention the Father and the Son in his rough 1832 account doesn’t indicate that he made up the story, but rather than the focus of recital was different than the 1835 account in which he shared a more detail with a non-member who was curious about the events leading up to the Restoration.

The fact of the matter is, that all of Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision are harmonious on the important points—Joseph’s disillusionment with the churches of his day, his search for religious truth, his prayer for guidance, the fact that God answer’s prayers, and the appearance of deity in response to his supplication.

While Joseph may not have initially understood the worldwide significance of his First Vision, in time he was able to see that the hand of God was already in play from his early childhood, through his adolescent years, and into adulthood as the Lord prepared him to become an instrument in the Restoration of Christ’s Church on Earth.

Your friend,


Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 1

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 2

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 3

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 4

Some Thoughts on Suicide

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cassandra-hedeliusEvery now and then an article like this comes out (headline: Utah has highest rate of adults contemplating suicide, coalition says), and critics of the church hasten to pull long faces about how defects in Mormon doctrine and culture are harmful. Regarding this story, I’ve seen several ex-Mormon/anti-Mormon discussion boards nod sagely at the proposition that LDS doctrine teaches that we need to become perfect > no one is perfect > the discrepancy leads to despair > more suicides. And sure, that’s superficially plausible. Just-so stories are nice.

But I can come up with other explanations that just happen to match my own pre-existing beliefs and commitments. How about this: outside of LDS culture, many people, especially the young, are adopting biological determinism as their entire philosophical framework (i.e. everything you are and do is determined by your genes; there’s no soul or afterlife). If that’s what you sincerely believe, and meanwhile your brain is misfiring chemically so that you suffer clinical depression, why think that it can or should be fixed? The universe has no reasons why you can or should be happy. And so suicidal ideations go unreported and untreated.

Conversely, inside LDS culture, there’s a lot of attention to the concept that we are that we might have joy, God loves us, the atonement can fix and heal, and resurrection will solve our mortal bodies’ problems. Therefore if your brain is misfiring chemically so that you experience clinical depression, you are more likely to decide something is amiss and seek treatment. And so suicidal ideations are reported at a much higher rate than elsewhere, leading to headlines like today’s.

And how about this: Given that people who die of suicide tend to isolate themselves prior to harming themselves, perhaps in Utah more potential suicides are reported because it’s harder to isolate oneself in a Mormon culture. Home Teachers, Visiting Teachers, on-the-ball Bishops–there are a lot more opportunities for someone to find out about suicide potential, and to pass it on to ecclesiastical and then therapeutic channels. Mix that up with the mysteriously higher western US suicide rate (even altitude has been shown a possible risk factor), and voila–somewhat higher completed suicide rate, and much higher reported rate of contemplated suicide.

There are plenty of nits to pick in all that, but it’s at least as plausible as the “Mormonism is to blame” narrative.

Point is, such discussions tend to be based on really nothing more than what one wants to be true based upon one’s unrelated beliefs. Would that we were all psychiatrists and neuroscientists; as we’re not, let’s stop trying to pin tragedies on our enemies and instead think of a friend who seems unhappy and withdrawn. Reach out, and remember that a suffering person’s best view of Christ’s love might be exactly where you’re standing.

Fair Issues 66: Was Nephi’s bow made of steel?

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MACritics have been quick to point out that a “steel” bow in Nephi’s day is anachronistic – carbonized steel is not believed to have existed in Nephi’s day so this proves that Joseph smith was a fraud.

In this podcast Brother Ash talks about how the Bible mentions “steel” bows and Dr. William Hamblin (an expert in ancient Near Eastern history) explains that “the metal is apparently called ‘steel’ in the KJV because bronze is ‘steeled’ (strengthened) copper through alloying it with tin or through some other process.”

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore. Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The views and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon


Disconnect between Doctrine and Practice of Equality

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McBaine_Women_1024x1024[The following is an excerpt from Neylan McBaine's new book Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact. It is reposted here with permission of the author and Greg Kofford Books.] 

In my August 2012 FairMormon conference talk, one of the most challenging points that I made is that I feel we do ourselves a disservice as Mormons—when communicating both to external audiences and internal audiences—when we continually assert that men and women are “equal” in our Church. While this may have made some listeners and readers squirm, almost all of the personal responses I received on this point expressed relief. It seems that while we feel confident in our doctrinal belief that men and women have the same worth in the sight of God, we feel uncomfortable doing the cognitive leaps required to claim that men and women are equal in our practice.

The questions seem to be: If we believe in equality, do we have an obligation to practice equality? And if we practice equality, what does that look like? These questions arise in our cultural consciousness because they are the same questions that American society has been wrestling with since the day we declared independence from Great Britain. It was literally “self-evident” to the founders of our country that all people are created equal. How that belief in equality actually translated into a practice of equality was a discussion that shaped the very foundation of our country: for our founders, practicing equality initially demanded that white settlers in America should have the same taxation and representation as their brothers in England. And from the first moments of the country’s founding, debate also raged over whether the equality the new Americans had fought to achieve extended to people of all races. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans asked themselves questions similar to those we had at our founding: What does equality look like? How do we practice it? What terms do we draw as a society to determine what opportunities, resources, and experiences are equal? How do our institutions support those terms? Continue reading

Faith and Reason 19: Deseret and Bees

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From the book: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith

by Michael R. Ash

And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind - Ether 2:3 in the Book of Mormon

In the Book of Mormon we find that the Jaredite word deseret means “honeybee”. Years ago, Dr. Hugh Nibley observed that the word deseret “or something very close to it, enjoyed a position of ritual prominence” among the early Egyptians and they associated the word with a symbol of the bee. He explained, “We know that the bee sign was not always written down, but in its place the picture of the Red Crown… If we do not know the original name of the bee, we do know the name of this Red Crown –the name it bore when it was substituted for the bee. The name was dsrt (the vowels are not known, but we can be sure they were all short”).

Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt.  He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.

Julianne Dehlin Hatton  is a broadcast journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Radio and Television Host, and Airborne Traffic Reporter. She graduated with an MSSc from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2008. Julianne and her husband Thomas are the parents of four children.

Music for Faith and Reason is provided by Arthur Hatton.

RiseUp Podcast – Polygamy and Joseph Smith

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Joseph_Smith_first_vision_stained_glassDr. Greg L Smith practices medicine near his home in Canada. Aside from medicine, Brother Smith studies the history and doctrine of polygamy. If you have questions, Greg Smith has answers.

Did Joseph Smith Practice Polygamy or Plural Marriage?
Did he marry other men’s wives?
Did he marry under age girls?
Did he force women to marry him?
These questions and more are answered in this episode of RiseUp.

RiseUp is a podcast for young adults in Seminary and Institute who are looking for answers to difficult or critical questions about the LDS (Mormon) Church, and the courage to share those answers with others.

Mormon FairCast Book Review: Women At Church by Neylan McBaine

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Neylan McBain Interview - FairMomronNeylan McBaine grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in New York City and attended Yale University. She has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine, and the Washington Post to name a few.

Neylan is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project, a continuously expanding library of interviews with LDS women found at

Neylan is the author of a collection of personal essays — How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) — as well as Sisters Abroad: Interviews from the Mormon Women Project (2013). She lives with her husband and three young daughters in Utah.


Your bio speaks volumes about your passions to support and place a spotlight on Mormon Women. When did your first feel the sparks of this passion?

I actually wanted to start with the cover of the book. Aside from it being warm and fuzzy paper, easy to hold in your hand as you read, the artwork is also quite gripping. I don’t always have much to say about the covers, but I love the painting on the cover of your book. Could you describe it and how the cover actually speaks well to the theme of your book?

This theme of feminism has a wardrobe of interpretations that attempt to clothe a given message. Because there are so many different versions of feminism, could you please take a minute to describe your own interpretation of feminism, and how you frame your self in reference to it?

Your opening sentence is as clear a thesis as I have read however, “This book is predicated on a single belief: that there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women in the church.” As I read it I wonder about one word in that sentence, the word “much” there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women in the church. How bold, italicized, and underlined did you want the reader to read into the word “much?”

It is your clear assumption that women are not being heard, and in this same first chapter where you state that a good portion of your book is going to talk about the problem: that some women are feeling neglected, overlooked, and silenced in their church experiences. Is it that these women are feeling neglected and overlooked and silenced by men? By other women? Both?

You address the issue of hurt, of pain, that women are feeling. There are multiple accounts of this happening throughout the church. In a recent interview Terryl and Fiona Givens talked about their new book, The Crucible of Doubt. In that book they talk about the utility of suffering, of trials and tests. They consider these as part of the experience of worshiping deity. Then I read your book and I read about the primary effort to alleviating the hurt. For those that might see these two and feel that both offer some truth they may also seem paradoxical. How then do you define the place, utility, or role of hurt?

You call for greater empathy from general church membership with those who struggle or have hurt. The Savior called for the same thing in his day, and one could argue that seeking for greater charity is the cause of all who wish to be considered disciples of Christ. Discipleship, for men or women, tends to operate on a metaphorical scale where there is a balance of helping others being in ratio to others helping themselves. In reading your book, there is a clear indication that you feel that the church has not done enough to help women or to reach out to embrace women’s voices. What then is that balance as you see it?

We believe in a church of continuing revelation, a living church, one that should not fight flat out the idea of change. But that belief is also tempered by understanding from which changes are to come, and why they come. The first half of your book is meant to lay out the case that there is a need for change. The second part offers some perspectives and examples on how changes can come. How then are we to first acknowledge the need, in a faithful way, without doing so in attacking the system or those who are doing their best to administer the gospel with limited capacities?

In going through part 1 of the book you spend a lot of time talking about the deep need for change on these issues. It can be uncomfortable to sit with that material. While Part 2 of the book is example after of example of how people have enacted changes locally, things that people have done to adopt more equality. This is more a fulfillment of D&C 58:27 where people are being anxiously engaged in a good cause. What are some of those examples

Fair Issues 65: Tracing the Lehites journey through the wilderness

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MAWhen we examine the territory likely traversed by the Lehites we find an interesting match for the Book of Mormons Shazer.  Wadi Agharr is about 60 miles southeast from the likely location of the Valley of Lemuel and is described by non-LDS scholars as an oasis more than 15 miles long.

In this podcast brother Ash relates how the Frankincense Trail may have provided the fertile valley in this area with surrounding mountains that presented the best hunting opportunities along the trail.

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore. Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The views and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon


RiseUp Podcast: Defend Your Beliefs Game Show

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RiseUp is a show geared towards Young Adults in seeking to find answers to questions about LDS (Mormon) culture and doctrine. But the podcast is also meant to provide help, courage, and direction for those wanting to defend their beliefs and testimony.

In this episode of RiseUp, host Nick Galieti uses a metaphorical game show to introduce the challenge of defending our beliefs and in providing answers, as well as the importance of establishing a strong testimony to be an anchor when such challenges arise.

Using the article, The Do’s and Don’ts of Defending Your Beliefs by David A. Edwards (posted on we learn some fundamental approaches to the challenge of finding courage to defend our beliefs with friends and neighbors.