John Larsen recently released a podcast on violence and Mormonism. Larsen’s productions are always entertaining, and I think he is onto something in his discussion of the difficulty of identifying a distinctly “Mormon culture” from the background Western culture in which it was spawned. In the podcast, he and the panel discuss violence — especially violence that is sanctioned or even “caused by” God. While this is one reading of the text, I think it misses something important about the nature of scripture and one of the most important meta-narratives in the Book of Mormon.
I’m no literary theorist, but I’ve read enough to have some understanding of the concept of an “unreliable” narrator. Wikipedia tells me that it is a literary device that goes back at least to ancient Greece, and it probably has earlier origins. For the uninitiated, I think it is easiest to understand the concept when it is juxtaposed against its opposite. Most of us are familiar with traditional novels written from the perspective of an unbiased (usually unnamed) and, for all intents and purposes, omniscient third person. The narrator has privileged information about the inner states of the various characters of the novel and is able to relay to us the story as it happened.
When the reliable narrator speaks, we have no reason to doubt her. She is giving us the story as it happened, and she generally just fades into the background. Most of the time when we read a book, we don’t have any reason to question the reliability of the story-teller, and we often don’t even give him or her a second thought. There is a willing suspension of disbelief and we go along for the ride.
Unreliable narrators, on the other hand, are more interesting. When the reader is given clues in the text that the narrator of the story is perhaps not telling the whole story, or we have good reason to doubt his credibility, we can engage with the text in a different way (but we’ll return to this idea later). A good example of an unreliable narrator is Yann Martel’s Piscine Molitor Patel from The Life of Pi or the unnamed narrator from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In each of these novels, the reader gradually comes to question the reliability of the story-teller and the story itself gains a new depth that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Unreliable Prophets, Seers, and Revelators?
But what does any of this have to do with scripture?
I think we too often approach scripture from a reliable narrator perspective. Indeed, when we cite quotes like “The Book of Mormon [is] the most correct of any book on earth” or hear any of the thousands of injunctions to study the scriptures, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that we can therefore depend on the reliability of the accounts found therein.
As Mormons, this is kind of an odd position to take with respect to scripture. We of all people should appreciate the messiness of the revelatory process. Given our direct contact with prophets, seers, and revelators, we have plenty of reason — indeed, we have plenty of commands — to question their reliability.
Our latter-day scriptures themselves repeatedly testify of their own incompleteness and proneness to error. God speaks to us according to our understanding — the prophets are fallible and limited — only when moved upon by the holy ghost — etc… We believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things.
The Futility of Violence in the Book of Mormon
Let’s come back to Larsen’s claim early on in the podcast that the Book of Mormon is the “most blood-soaked” (or something to that effect) book of scripture in existence. He is certainly right on some level — the Book of Mormon leads with an incredibly grisly story of Nephi killing Laban and concludes with an epic war that wipes out hundreds of thousands of people, but to imply that the violence in the Book of Mormon is an endorsement of killing or evidence of a vengeful god who uses bloodshed as a tool to chasten humanity is, I think, a misreading of one of the underlying messages of the Book of Mormon.
Let’s talk for a moment about that infamous confrontation between Nephi and the unconscious Laban. The primary song version of this story (and I shudder when I see primary choirs sing this song) makes it all about obedience. Nephi “went and did” what the Lord commanded and the people were blessed with the Brass Plates containing the scriptures as a result. This is the reliable narrator approach to the text.
But engaging with the story at a deeper level — one in which we don’t assume that Nephi is the Fribergian superman we have created in our collective imagination — reveals a potentially different story. I’m not totally convinced of the actual historicity of any of these characters, but if we suspend disbelief about the provenance of the scripture for the moment, Nephi tells us that he is making his account decades after the fact. It isn’t as if he pulls out his gold plates and chisel every night before he goes to bed. The account we have comes years after the murder of Laban. Are we willing to consider the possibility that Nephi is rationalizing his actions?
And what about all those wars in the rest of the book? One way to read the Book of Mormon is to see it as a renunciation of war. Over and over, the Nephites return violence for violence. This leads to an ever-escalating struggle between themselves and their former kinsmen that culminates in their destruction. The one moment in the scriptural narrative where this cycle of violence is broken is when the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s refuse to defend themselves (see this fascinating talk on the same subject).
Larsen objects to the idea that God would use the Lamanites to punish the wayward Nephites (and he cites the parallel idea in Mormon thought that the Civil War was punishment for Joseph Smith’s murder). Indeed, the text of the Book of Mormon endorses this idea at several points. Perhaps again, this is a post-hoc rationalization (spiritualization?) of the facts confronting the peoples of the Book of Mormon (and the Mormons of the 19th century). Needing to explain the violence perpetrated against them, the authors of the text construct a narrative that is palatable to them but untrue.
The reader, the text, and the unreliable narrator
Stories with unreliable narrators require and added level of engagement from the reader. They call upon us to make independent moral judgements about the things we are reading. We can’t passively assume that everything we read should be taken at face value. Everything becomes a lot more contingent and interesting.
[So, here's a funny thing... I was recently called as a gospel principles teacher in my ward, so I'm going to skip ahead to where I probably would have been if I had been a consistent blogger and to the lesson that I am preparing for this Sunday]
Why did our Heavenly Father send us to earth as members of families?
That’s a funny question. I don’t really buy the premise. It fits too nicely into the “Saturday’s Warrior” kind of mythology that has been less than helpful in my own life. To ask the above question is to assume that God is in Control, as if every detail were meticulously laid out from the beginning. I’m more and more convinced that life is a great deal more untidy.
At the risk of becoming too personal, perhaps a little background will clarify my confusion on this point. My wife and I recently became foster parents. For a variety of reasons we have been unable to have children the “natural” way, and the foster care program seemed like a good fit for us. We have been extraordinarily fortunate to be placed with two beautiful kids who fill our lives with joy, frustration, sorrow, hope, and all the rest.
By almost any measure these kids are getting a raw deal out of this mortal probation. They have dealt with hardships before their first birthdays that, I suspect, most people reading this blog will never have to confront. They will both be dealing with the consequences of their biological parents’ decisions for their entire lives.
We sing to them before they go to bed each night. On one occasion, my wife suggested that we sing, “I am a Child of God.” As we sang the first verse, we were both struck by how little the words seemed to apply to them.
I am a child of God,
And He has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear
I refuse to believe that God is micromanaging the assignment of spirits into families. If God is responsible for the composition of earthly families, my kids (and the hundreds of thousands of others in similar situations) deserve an explanation — and it better not even smell like one of the treacly platitudes we are given too often.
This strikes at the center of a lot of things I’ve been wrestling with recently. If God exists, He/She/They/It/whatever owe us something more than what we’ve been given.
For the last few days and for whatever reason–and God knows she has reasons–our little girl has been having trouble sleeping without one of us holding her. As I sit rocking her and trying my best to comfort her, I can’t help but think of the cliches we are given about God. “Wrapped in the arms of His love,” “Enfolded by His mercy.” She could use some sliver of that compassion we are frequently assured that God has for us. Is it too much to ask the Omnipotent Lord of the Universe to comfort a little frightened girl? But instead she is left to the (much) less-than-perfect comforts that we try to offer.
The problem of evil
Everything I’ve said so far is just a specific case of the more general “problem of evil.” It’s just that I’ve rarely had occasion to stare it so closely in the face. It is a thorny problem indeed, and giving it a fancy name sure doesn’t help.
We are sometimes warned against blaming God for the evil in the world.
I’ve never understood this. From what I’ve been told, God is big enough to take a little blame.
But wait, the apologist for God might respond, we don’t see the whole picture! We’re thrust in the middle of this three-act play without knowing the beginning or seeing the grand conclusion! Have faith and patience, things will work out in the end! (in my mind this kind of apologia always comes with a lot of exclamation points. Indeed, the fact that God needs so many apologists is increasingly odd to me).
That’s not going to work for me. Until God or someone speaking on God’s behalf sees fit to explain it to me, I think I’ll risk a little wrongful attribution of blame. A god who is worth the title had better be able to forgive my inability to understand, and it feels like the bigger sin to just accept it as all “part of the plan.”
[I'm skipping a few chapters -- as I've said before, I don't have much helpful to say about the spirit or gifts of the spirit...]
Sacrament and Sacrifice
To me, the sacrament is a beautiful reversal of the ancient order of sacrifice.
Blood sacrifices are ubiquitous in human and religious history. Most often, these sacrifices were performed as a way to ritually feed or otherwise appease the gods. The first chapter of Leviticus lays out the method of sacrifice. It repeatedly mentions the idea that the sacrifice is to be a “sweet savour” to the LORD, reminiscent of the origins of the practice of blood sacrifice.
The sacrifice is directed toward the god. It is something that it demands of its people. By sacrifice, the subjects of a god are able to extract favors or at least hold back its wrath.
The sacrament — at least as I understand it — reverses this logic. In the traditions that I am familiar with, the officiator breaks the bread and pours the wine (or water) at the altar. Rather than the offering being consumed upon the altar by fire (perhaps thought of as the incarnation of the god on earth?), it is distributed to the congregants.
The sacrament is directed outward toward the people. It is offered to all. Through the sacrament we are fed and reminded of the bounty provided to us.
The outpouring of God
In Luke’s version of the events of the Last Supper, Jesus says of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (NIV).
The radical theologian, Thomas Altizer got himself into some controversy when he began to preach the death of God. But there is something beautiful about his thought. Altizer explored what it might mean for God to truly have been sacrificed. Christians are fond of reciting, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son….” But this doesn’t seem like much of an offering if it is only temporary — just as long as it takes for Jesus to be installed on the right hand.
I think we run a risk of cheapening Jesus’ sacrifice by focusing on the fantastic, unimaginable glory that he gained as a result. This seems to turn the sublime sacrifice into merely an exchange. I am a little uncomfortable with the lyrics of the sacrament hymn, “Jesus Once of Humble Birth”. The hymn juxtaposes Jesus’ humble past with his glorious future. We sing,
Once he suffered grief and pain;
Now he comes on earth to reign!
As if his grief and pain were done away with! The God that appeals to me is the God who suffers in the present tense. The Jesus that returned to the disciples still bore the scars of his mortal life. In the powerful words of modern scripture,
Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, I partook…
Here we have a God who remembers that suffering and is transformed by it. We read that Jesus will indeed return to reign, but he comes not as a conquering warrior drenched in the blood of his enemies. His robes are red with his own blood. Even the propagandistic tone of Revelation turns somber when we are suddenly confronted with a Jesus that takes the form of a “Lamb as it had been slain.” As another has paraphrased, Altizer taught that the incarnation of God was an act that poured the sacred irrevocably into the profane and was thus obliterated. We maybe are reluctant to follow him that far, but I think we have ample support for the idea that God’s experience on earth was transformative in some sense.
The God who Changed
I am haunted by a few lines from Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” In the second stanza, after the narrator has been consumed by leopards who gnaw on his bones, God commands the bones to prophesy and they sing these words:
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
At the sacrament table we are called upon to remember the “greater torment” of Jesus’ love. A love that exists in the world with all of its attendant sorrow and disappointment, and more importantly, we are called upon to spread that love.
Sin: The ‘laundry list’ approach
For most of my life, I have approached sin as primarily behavioral. Sin was breaking the commandments. I felt I could enumerate my sins (and indeed, I thought it was my duty to do so at the end of each day). The scriptures were basically compilations of rules that I needed to take care not to break. I went to church so that I could learn the many and various ways in which I might be breaking said rules, and there I could also learn the ‘Rs’ of Repentance.
I don’t think that approach worked for me very well.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I feel grateful for the scores of teachers that worked hard (for the most part) to train me up in the way I should go. And perhaps it is even helpful for a child and young adult to have the kinds of strictures that I lived my life under.
Sin as Symptom
I am told that the Hebrew and Greek words that were translated into ‘repentance’ in the KJV and other English translations of the bible might be more appropriately rendered as “turning away” or “reorienting.”
This seems to suggest a much more holistic approach. It isn’t enough to identify an individual behavior that is ‘out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.’ What we need is a fundamental reorienting of our lives.
From this perspective, it seems more appropriate to think of individual ‘sinful behaviors’ as symptomatic of some deeper problem. Repentance that focuses on the changing individual behaviors is like putting a bandaid over a runny nose. The symptom might disappear temporarily, but if we don’t do anything to address the underlying problem, our efforts will be in vain.
Where the theory meets the road
A few weeks ago, I put up a post where I briefly covered some of the different theories of the atonement. When we think about sin and repentance, our working theory of the atonement becomes important. For example if we believe that the atonement was Christ’s way of paying the price for each of our sins individually (as in the ‘penal substitution’ models of the atonement), we are implicitly saying that individual behaviors carry with them some quantifiable punishment price tag. Some eternal scales of justice need to be weighed out and brought back into alignment. This is reflected in a popular song in Mormon circles which contains the line “How many drops of blood were shed for me?”
This is a powerful sentiment, but I don’t think I can fully subscribe to what it is trying to say about the atonement. It seems to point us toward the unhelpful view of sin that I began the post with. If my sinful act causes (caused?) Christ some incremental measure of suffering that (for some reason) the universe requires payment… it seems absurd.
Repentance as changing course
One of the most powerful metaphors in Mormon thought is Lehi’s dream. Lehi’s dream imagines us separated from God’s love by physical space which needs to be traversed. In the journey toward the tree that represent’s God’s love, many lose their way and are lost in ‘strange paths’ and ‘mists of darkness.’ This spatial metaphor is helpful for me.
As I said earlier, sin is symptomatic of a deviation from the correct path. Repentance is the word we use for the reorienting that points us in the right direction. Of course we will never be headed on a perfectly straight course, and we should be continually getting our bearings and adjusting direction as we travel.
Doubt as an enemy of faith
I searched for “doubt is” in the BYU General Conference Corpus, and this is what I came up with:
- a negative emotion related to fear (2009)
- not a principle of the gospel (2009)
- perhaps the beginning of his apostacy [sic] from the Church (1876)
- removed by obedience to the doctrines of the Church (1943)
- set at rest by the revelations (1953)
- sometimes the very opposite of faith (1925)
- spiritual poison that stunts eternal growth (1979)
- swallowed up in knowledge and certainty (1924)
- the spirit of the evil one (1873)
- where doubt is, there faith has no power (1995)
Across the General Conference pulpit, for more than 100 years, doubt has been marginalized. As John Dehlin reminded us recently, doubt has often been connected with personal unrighteousness or some kind of desire to sin on the part of the doubter. As the snippets from conference talks above make clear, doubt and faith are often pitted against each other. We have to overcome our doubts (ideally, supplanting them with a ‘sure knowledge’ or even ‘certainty’) in order to truly exercise faith.
That is all pretty discouraging… I’ve written a lot about doubt, and I feel like my doubts are sincere–the product of honest searching and trying to reconcile my own limited experience with the things that I am taught and have learned at Church.
Problems with vilifying doubt and doubters
The overwhelmingly negative messages we receive about doubt from the institution had the effect of exacerbating the ‘crisis’ part of my faith transition. At first, I was afraid to entertain any doubt, so I ‘shelved’ a lot of issues. This probably had the effect of making the inevitable confrontation with doubt much more difficult and frightening than it might have been otherwise.
Further, the compartmentalizing of religious propositions that didn’t fit the world as I experienced it bifurcated my life into religious and secular spheres. There was the fantasy world of religion where miracles happen and divine manifestations are commonplace (which seemed entirely foreign to me), and the ‘real world’ where the normal laws of nature apply and doing ‘church stuff’ was a chore. I felt alienated and alone among a people that professed to live in a different world that seemed inaccessible to me.
I think I’ve mentioned it before, but so much institutional vilification of doubt has the effect of silencing any dissenting voices (the spiral of silence). Mormons are given models of testimony (“I know X, Y, and Z”), and while it is a powerful glue for those for whom it works, it also builds tall walls against those for whom it doesn’t.
All of this is not to say that doubt is an unalloyed good. We can become consumed by doubt. T.S. Eliot says it best in his masterful reflection on doubt, Ash Wednesday:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us (emphasis mine)
To the extent that doubt paralyzes us — locks us into ‘too much’ internal discussion and explanation — and prevents us from rebuilding ‘something upon which to rejoice,’ it is a negative force. But it is not necessarily so.
Doubt is what led Joseph to the grove. Doubt motivated the rescinding of the temple/priesthood ban. The Gospels tell us that Jesus doubted: All things are possible to thee — remove this cup — why hast thou forsaken me? Doubt leads us to reevaluate and grow.
Certainty as an enemy of faith
As I’ve reflected on this topic, I’ve come to feel that certainty is at least as big a threat to faith as doubt might be.
Dieter Uchtdorf put this well when he said,
How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?
To the extent that certainty closes off questioning, it should be abandoned.
If I were to die tomorrow and find myself in some kind of afterlife, I would be surprised. But I would be shocked to discover if any of it was even approximately close to what I believe about it now.
Scientists have an expression, “All models are wrong, but some are useful (and some are more useful than others).” This is surely true of our knowledge of the divine. We can do our best to formulate a mental model of divinity and the eternal realms, but it will always be only a model.
I love the way that Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi poet, says this (quoted in Phyllis Barber’s beautiful 2001 Sunstone article):
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?
If you think that the Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly Laughing–
The question, ‘how are you doing?’ — even when asked sincerely and not just out of habit or social obligation — can only be answered with a ‘brilliant lie.’ Given hours or days or weeks, we could not hope to really convey everything that is happening internally at any given moment. How much more so with something infinite and so far outside our experience?
Faith as something different altogether
I have come to a place where I am realizing that faith is something qualitatively different than intellectual assent to a set of particular propositions. Faith, as Joseph taught, is a principle of action. It is a confidence that helps us to move forward.
Perhaps I am alone in making the mistake of seeing faith as requiring cramming my model of the world into something that can conform to the Sunday School curriculum (any observations to the contrary be damned). One of the reasons that faith was so difficult for me was that I had my definitions all mixed up. As another blogger has helpfully pointed out, the secular and sacred meanings of terms like belief have become muddled in our post-enlightenment world.
With this new perspective, faith is on a separate plain from things like doubt, skepticism, certainty, and knowledge. Actually, the manual does a pretty good job in its discussion of faith. There is no mention of doubt, and it sticks to an action oriented definition.
An unrepentant doubter
And so I remain a doubter, but a doubter that is trying to exercise faith. Realizing that the two — faith and doubt — can (and must) coexist has made all the difference for me.
I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’
The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:
The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.
Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.
Authority from God
But the manual tells us,
That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.
I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.
The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.
Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.
First principles and ordinances
I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.
Ordinances performed for the dead
I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.
I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.
This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.
Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.
So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?