Origin myths play a central role in all societies and organizations. They are often highly idealized, and their main function is to provide a people with a sense of community, common identity, and purpose.
Mormons have an abundance of origin myths. As I talked about in the last three posts, Mormons have an origin myth that extends back to into the eternities. We have also fully embraced (perhaps even co-opted) the creation myth of Genesis. Moses and Abraham have been recast in Mormon roles as preservers of the “New and Everlasting Covenant.” Fast-forwarding a bit, we talk about Jesus as if one of his main to-do items during his mortal ministry was to set up an institutional church (complete with a First Presidency [Peter, James, John], Quorum of the Twelve [apparently the ancient church didn’t get the memo that the First Presidency is separate from the Twelve… but still], Seventies, Bishops, and Deacons [although these deacons were nothing like their modern-day 12-year old counterparts]). Then of course there are the legends and myths surrounding the beginnings of the Mormon Church and the trek to Utah.
As with so many things, the Mormon tendency towards revisionism leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I love the idea of an expansive Mormonism that embraces truth wherever it finds it. We can retell these old myths in new ways and fit them into a contemporary understanding, and we can use them to connect the Mormon project into a much older set of human traditions and ideas.
On the other hand, there is an arrogance — a sort of theological imperialism — that can result from co-opting these old narratives and trying to make them our own or, to be less charitable about it, distorting them to fit our own agenda. The resulting product is often simultaneously unfaithful to the original intent of the story and an act of cultural violence against those who would rather retain possession of their own traditions.
A completely different sort of objection to this practice of retelling past stories is that it locks us into some rather weird and outmoded ideas (I touched on this earlier in an aside on the Book of Revelation). No matter how we try to retell the original story, we often are forced to buy into a set of assumptions that come with it. For example, the manual describes the creation as unfolding in two stages. Joseph’s re-imagining of the creation story, tells us that God “created all things … spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5). This seems to be, at least in part, a creative attempt to reconcile the two somewhat contradictory creation accounts that are recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. It is also unnecessary. A far simpler explanation reveals itself when we understand a little more about how the Torah was composed (see this for a more complete account). Essentially, the compiler — or maybe more appropriately the redactor — of the Torah was combining competing accounts of the same events. We have two accounts of the creation because the redactor included two different accounts in the text. I imagine that if Joseph were equipped with the tools of modern biblical scholarship, he might have arrived at a different understanding of the creation myth.
The Creation in Mormon Thought
For better or worse, Mormons have fully bought into the Creation narrative as it is outlined in Genesis. Indeed, the creation plays a central role (inexplicably in my mind) in the highest rites of Mormonism.
A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released a report on beliefs about evolution among different religious groups in the US, and Mormons ranked embarrassingly low. Only 22 percent of Mormons agreed that “Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth” — less than Evangelical Christians and second to last of all groups reported (Jehovah’s Witnesses earned their spot on the very bottom with only 8 percent agreeing). This speaks to a weirdly literal reading of the myth (especially compared to the 77 percent of American Jews — the original purveyors of the myth — that endorse the idea of human evolution).
I am at a loss to pull out anything really useful from the Genesis creation story. As I mentioned before, I find naturalistic and materialist accounts of the creation more beautiful, compelling, and credible than the biblical story.
Mormons claim to have an open canon — perhaps we should be as willing to excise unhelpful stories as we are in expanding on the scriptural library.