A Tale of Two Translations
The Pearl of Great Price is composed of the Book of Moses (which is actually Joseph Smith’s version of the first several chapters of Genesis), the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s version of Matthew 24, excerpts from the History of the Church, and the Articles of Faith.
The Book of Moses
We have in the Book of Moses something quite remarkable. It does not claim to be a translation of an ancient text, but it is more than mere commentary. It is actually a selection from the Joseph Smith Translation — sometimes (and more appropriately, in my opinion) called the “Inspired Version” — of the bible. The word ‘translation’ in Joseph Smith Translation is misleading. As I said, Joseph was not working from a source text (other than his own KJV bible).
The text itself has actually undergone quite a few changes (see this discussion), the most significant and substantial of which occurred early on. From what I gather (and I am no specialist), Joseph began work on the JST almost immediately after the organization of the Church. The earliest MS we have dates back to June 1830 — two months after the founding. About 9 or 10 months later, Joseph returned to the project and substantially revised his original revelation. Kent Jackson (see the link above) writes,
Some of those [revisions to the text of the Book of Moses] are editorial in nature and clarify and smooth out the words of the dictated text. But others are inspired additions and corrections that provide new insights or even change the meaning of what had been written before.
So, this was not a case of the windows of heaven being opened and Joseph simply dictating what he saw. It was an unfolding–a gradual accretion of inspiration–that occurred over months and years.
The Book of Moses contains some of the most beautiful passages in Mormon scripture. In addition to the wonderful teachings on the page, the process of how we came to have them should teach us something about the nature of revelation.
The Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is perhaps the most problematic of Joseph’s scriptural productions, and it tops the list of historical issues that shake people’s faith in the truth claims of the Church (at least according to John Dehlin’s survey of doubters). Learning more about the Book of Abraham certainly caused me to reexamine my own views on revelation and and the nature of scripture. From the evidence, it is hard for me to believe that the scripture we have was translated in any straightforward sense of the word from the actual papyri in Joseph’s possession at the time.
Why would he claim to have translated the papyrus? During his translation, Joseph went so far as to create a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs to aid the work of translation. It seems apparent that he believed (or wanted people to believe) that he was actually translating the papyri in the usual sense of the word.
Beyond its origins, the text itself is considerably stranger and (to my mind) more problematic than most anything else we have canonized of Smith’s writings. Among other gems, we have references that seem to corroborate the dubious ‘curse of Ham’ theology (1:24), Kolob and other bizarre astrological references (3:4), and it all seems to end rather abruptly (before we even get to the Fall).
The best of times… the worst of times…
So, where can we go from here? One possibility is to just throw it all out. I can respect this decision. At times the weight of the evidence against the divinity of Joseph’s calling seems to far outweigh any supporting evidence.
Another possibility is to uncritically accept it all. If you’ve read anything else that I have written so far, you know that I don’t think this is very defensible (and if you are still reading, you probably agree).
As with so many things in life, I think the correct answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Having an open canon is a wonderful blessing, but it is also a weighty responsibility. It calls us to critically evaluate scripture. We should be ready to accept the good, but we also need to be willing to let go of the bad.
In my posts on scripture, I’ve been trying to make the case that the Mormon outlook gives us a unique position from which to interpret scripture. We know that prophets are human, and in our better moments, we don’t expect perfection from them.
Paul presents some interesting challenges to the modern conceptualization of prophets.
For starters, he doesn’t come from within the establishment of the Church. Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus is as dramatic as conversions come in scripture. Following the model of many Hebrew and Book of Mormon prophets, Paul is called from outside the established hierarchy, and unless I’m missing something, we don’t have any record of him being formally ordained into the highest councils of the Church. Quite to the contrary on several occasions, he seems to take pride in emphasizing his separateness from the old-guard leadership.
Secondly, Paul is no timid disciple of the Christian movement. He devotes his life to challenging the established order of things. The conflict between Paul and Peter is downplayed in the Mormon reading of the New Testament, but one gets the feeling that Paul had very little respect for those who assumed authority as leaders of the Church. In Galatians, he writes about people–“false brethren”–who had infiltrated his meetings to “spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.” Later he says of the leadership of the Church (see Galatians 2:6),
But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me
Interestingly, the LDS edition to the scriptures does not have any footnotes for this verse. It is never referenced or cross-referenced in the officially sanctioned study materials included with LDS versions of the bible, and it receives only scant mention in the Church’s other publications. The closest thing I could find to a direct discussion of the Jerusalem Council was a 1974 Ensign article that makes passing reference to a “tense incident” between Peter and Paul.
Most of the other references to the disagreement between Paul and Peter go to great lengths to reassure the reader that Paul was submissive to church authorities and was commissioned by Peter to take the gospel to the gentiles. The scriptural accounts, as I read them, make it sound more like Peter finally assented to Paul’s insistence that he be committed the ‘gospel of uncircumcision.’ As Paul writes, the Church fathers in Jerusalem ‘added nothing’ to him.
Paul and Jesus
The biblical scholar, James Tabor recently published a book called Paul and Jesus where he defends the claim that Paul transformed Christianity (see this interview for a rundown of the main argument). Tabor makes the case that Paul essentially wrenched control of the fledgling Christian movement away from James after Peter’s death.
Tabor argues that Paul’s version of Christ was much different from what was developing among the original apostles. One need only contrast the Epistle of James (tucked away at the back of the canonized epistles) against Paul’s more charismatic writings to get a feeling for how things may have been different. In the interview referenced above, Tabor quotes Abraham Heschel as saying that without Paul there would never have been a need for reform Judaism, as that was the general trajectory of the Jesus movement.
Tabor claims that even the Gospels were heavily influenced by Paul’s version of the Jesus message, and Paul himself was less concerned with the traditions that had been developing around Christ’s life than he was with his own visionary experiences (remember, he never was acquainted with the man Jesus). Paul’s Christianity — the version that took hold — was a very different animal than what likely would have developed in his absence.
What if Paul had it wrong?
It was Paul who penned the words “through a glass, darkly.” It seems like we should be permitted to at least pose the question: what assumptions do we take on when we buy into Paul’s version of Jesus?
This is a specific example of a more general phenomenon that I have talked about several times in previous posts. The great religious thinkers in human history have all been reformers. They — sometimes radically — changed the ways that we think about spiritual things (while often claiming to be restoring something that had been lost), and when they were successful, their followers have sought to preserve their legacies by institutionalizing their teachings.
Somewhere in this process things go wrong. The original revelation was flawed. Often, the efforts of followers to preserve and protect the reformer end up twisting the message. Over time, the message of the reformer loses its original potency.
The beautiful thing about Mormonism is that we acknowledge the importance of continued revelation. However, this continued revelation is highly contingent on the receiver. If we are unwilling to question the assumptions that are lumped in with the larger Christian tradition, we risk being stuck with a more limited understanding of God than we might otherwise.
Where might Paul have gone wrong? Have we misunderstood him?
In its section on the Doctrine and Covenants, the manual says that it
contains the revelations regarding the Church of Jesus Christ as it has been restored in these last days. Several sections of the book explain the organization of the Church and define the offices of the priesthood and their functions. Other sections … contain glorious truths that were lost to the world for hundreds of years. Still others … shed light on teachings in the Bible. In addition, some sections … contain prophecies of events to come. [examples removed — find the original quote here]
One of the things that made a lot of sense to me about Mormonism in my more believing years is this idea that God continues to speak to us. The Doctrine and Covenants, as the description above makes clear is basically just a collection of questions that Joseph had and answers he received.
The idea of an open canon is lovely. It doesn’t make sense to confine ourselves to a few books that could be agreed upon by a committee that met more than 1500 years ago. Why shouldn’t God speak to us as She/He/They did in ancient times?
The problem of history
The Doctrine and Covenants has almost the opposite problem of the Hebrew Canon and the Gospels. We have an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to the history of the Church. Ours is a history that is (sometimes–oftentimes?–troublingly) knowable if we make the effort.
Unfortunately almost none of the actual historical context makes it into the book itself (it isn’t even arranged in chronological order!). I don’t believe that this is a problem unique to Mormons, but we certainly are guilty of divorcing our scripture from its context. The process of breaking the text into numbered verses facilitates study in important ways, but it also discourages holistic reading. In the Doctrine and Covenants, this tendency toward atomizing scripture is magnified by the total lack of coherent narrative. The references to the History of the Church in the headings of the D&C are precious little to go from for the lay member.
The lack of context contributes, I think, to a misunderstanding about the relationship between God, the prophet, and the people. Because we have so little recent experience with revelation the way it was practiced in Joseph’s day, we might get the impression that the prophet sits at the head of the Church and relays God’s word to the people. The reality seems to be considerably more complex.
Is our canon really open?
It has been nearly 100 years since the last real revelation was recorded in the D&C. Now, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the pace of revelation would slow a bit now that the church is fully institutionalized, but the extreme caution modern prophets appear to exercise in publicizing their prophecies seems to be entirely new.
Take Official Declaration 2. It is essentially a press release announcing that a revelation had been received. There is no “Thus saith the Lord” or similar language revealing the ‘mind and will’ of God concerning the matter. The closest it comes is the concluding paragraph which notes,
We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
But we are left to speculate as to what precisely the will of God in this matter is (especially concerning the rightness or wrongness of the ban in the first place). Our contemporary prophets seem to have delegated their prophetic responsibility to the PR department of the Church.
A more recent example is found in the family proclamation — perhaps the most important statement to come from the First Presidency in recent memory. A less-noticed edit to Boyd Packer’s infamous October 2010 general conference talk walked back his assertion that the proclamation was a revelation. The original said,
Fifteen years ago, with the world in turmoil, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” the fifth proclamation in the history of the Church. It qualifies according to the definition as a revelation and would do well that members of the church to read and follow it.
Packer’s anonymous editor replaced the last sentence with, “It is a guide that members of the Church would do well to read and follow” (see this post for a full documentation of the changes made).
A silent witness
The Doctrine and Covenants stands as a silent (silenced?) reminder of a church that once had the confidence to claim special and direct access to the will of God.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, this is not altogether a bad thing. There are several examples in our history of prophets saying terrible things in the name of God. Through Joseph, God threatened Emma with destruction in Section 132. God, through Brigham, said any number of crazy things. Caution is certainly in order when we claim to speak for God.
But it feels disingenuous to me when the church goes to such great lengths in making the case that it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I can’t help but get the feeling that the Brethren have worked themselves into a tricky corner. They are complicit in inflating the expectations of the membership to unhealthy heights, but now that they’ve got most of us here, they don’t seem to be sure what to do.
I think we would do well as a people to have a serious, open, and on-going discussion about the nature of revelation and the role of prophets.
I’ll return to the rest of the standard works shortly, but doing these last few posts on scripture has gotten me thinking.
In my discussion of the Gospels (and now that I mention it, I had intended to do a post on the Pauline epistles as well, but I skipped straight to the Book of Mormon… maybe later), I talked about how I am not so interested in the particulars of Jesus’ life and ministry. I think it is just too difficult to separate out what he may have actually said from what others have put into his mouth over the centuries (for all of its flaws, Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus has a great title).
What is interesting to me is how Jesus is re-imagined over time. This morning, I was reading a really interesting post on the “war on Christmas” nonsense that pops up every year around this time. To quote the post,
You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.
But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.
The way that we tell the story changes over time, and the Jesus that we imagine for ourselves is–in all probability–quite different from the one that we claim to worship.
It is a scary thing to give ourselves over to the idea that the only way Christ exists in the world is in our collective imagining, but I can’t help but think that is a more healthy position than believing that we have some special access to his true reality. Too much confidence in an idea as powerful as Jesus can lead to dangerous places. When we acknowledge our own limited capacity for imagination, we acknowledge the possibility that we have him wrong (a type of religious humility that is too often lacking in Mormon thought).
This is exactly why I believe that dialog is so important. When we acknowledge that we cannot see the whole picture, we are ready to listen. An imagining of Christ that happens alone — never exposed to the contrary opinions of others who are similarly striving — will always be incomplete.
In recent years, Church leaders seem to have placed a tremendous burden of proof on the Book of Mormon. Gordon Hinckley said repeatedly that the Book of Mormon is “either true or false.” In an interview, he continues (see the full quote, here),
If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.
If you’ve read anything that I’ve written on this blog over the last few weeks, you might guess that I don’t find this kind of black-and-white approach helpful.
All Mormons are familiar with Joseph’s description of the Book of Mormon as the “keystone of our religion” and the “most correct” book. It is easy to see how one could get from Joseph’s quotes about the book to Hinckley’s position, but I think we risk turning faith into something rigid and fragile by not admitting some of the obvious shortcomings of the book.
Racism in the Book of Mormon: A case study
The question of race in the Book of Mormon is a fraught one, and the way that we cope with it (and I believe it can be a traumatizing experience) reveals a lot about what we believe about scripture.
Mormons have a problem with race. We should admit it, apologize for it, and move forward. Certain readings of the Book of Mormon do not help us in this collective repentance process. While it is not as straightforwardly racist as some have portrayed it, the intimate connection between the skin color of the Lamanites (the on-again, off-again villains of the narrative) and their righteousness, feeds into age old stereotypes.
As I see it, there are a few possibilities.
1) God is a racist
After reading the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of the “skin of blackness” and people becoming “white and delightsome,” we might conclude that God uses skin color as a marker of obedience and faithfulness. Nevermind that this view is contradicted by other parts of the book:
he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
The Mormon view of God at least opens up the possibility that he can “cease to be God.” We aren’t forced into the position that just because an act was committed by God it is definitionally good. By any standard of morality that I can endorse, the kind of racism that seems to be in the Book of Mormon would cross the line.
Since a racist god would thereby disqualify himself from being worthy of our worship, we can safely dismiss this possibility.
2) Nephi was a racist
Assuming for the moment that the scriptural Nephi corresponds to a (an?) historical person, it is possible that in writing the narrative, he inserted his own racist ideas. Dan Wotherspoon develops this idea in a recent discussion of racism in the Book of Mormon. (The Wotherspoon podcast helped me work through some of the more troublesome racial passages in the book, and a lot of what I will say below is derived from it.) For Wotherspoon, this explanation depends on at least three factors:
First, we have to assume that the people discussed in the text were not alone when they got here. The church has softened its position on this in recent years. Notably, they changed the wording of the introduction of the Book of Mormon to say that the Nephites and Lamanites described in the text are among the ancestors of the Native Americans rather than their principal ancestors. (This seems to ignore some of the discussion in the book about “this land” — presumably the Americas — being reserved for a righteous people and the fact that almost all modern prophets refer to Native Americans, Mexicans, South Americans, and Polynesians as ‘Lamanites,’ but it is what it is).
Second, we have to assume that the Lamanites — having abandoned the faith — began intermixing with the native population and adopting their customs.
Finally, if we take for granted the various allusions to dates in the book of Nephi, he seems to be writing it many years after the separation of the people into two warring factions. Given that Nephi had been socialized as an Israelite, he would have had strong ideas about ‘marrying outside of the covenant,’ and may have had ethnocentric stereotypes about the native people. Wotherspoon’s position is that Nephi may have seen the effects of the Lamanites’ intermarriage with the perhaps darker skinned native people and concluded that the natural changes in skin color were a curse from God.
I had not considered this, but it is at least possible. This explanation is interesting as it factors in the fallibility of the authors of the Book of Mormon, and it takes them seriously as three-dimensional people rather than the shallow caricatures we are sometimes told they are. As I’ve mentioned before, Latter-day Saints should be in a good position to accept limitations in ancient prophets given our experience with modern ones.
3) Joseph Smith was a racist
A more plausible explanation, in my mind, is to consider the ways Joseph might have inserted racism into the Book of Mormon. One theory of Book of Mormon origins (the expansion theory), holds that the process of translation was much closer to inspiration than what we typically think of translation (converting from one language to another). Expansion theorists (Blake Ostler and others) remind us that Joseph rarely used the plates in the translation, and received most of the book by looking into his ‘peep stone.’ The idea that the native Americans had their origins in Israel was floating around in Joseph’s time, and it is possible that a lot of Joseph’s own assumptions about how the world works made their way into the text.
Where are we now?
The Book of Mormon is a remarkable work. I am not completely sold on its historicity, but it seems to contain something deep and beautiful. I find myself unable to write it off as a hoax, but its origins are obviously more complicated (and in my mind, so much more interesting) than we teach our primary children.
Through Sunday School, early-morning youth seminary, institute and personal study, I had always had the impression that the gospels were penned by eye witnesses of Christ’s ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in my mind — must have been following Christ around and taking notes.
It turns out I was wrong.
While there appears to be some debate as to the actual timing of the four canonical gospels, the consensus seems to be that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest. The earliest credible date for Mark’s gospel is around 60-70 CE, and the earliest complete manuscript we have dates to 360 or so (older fragments exist, but none much older than 200 CE).
So the earliest account of Jesus’ life was not written down until 35-40 years after his death, and we don’t even have the original!
Even access to the original texts probably wouldn’t really settle anything. The gospels were essentially early missionary tracts. These were not intended to be accurate histories. Rather, they were used to win converts to the burgeoning Christian movement. As one who has spent two years of his life distributing religious propaganda, I have learned to be a little wary of the historical accuracy of this kind of literature.
None of this is to suggest that I don’t find value in the Gospels. To the contrary, I find them quite beautiful. As I’ve said before, it is difficult to separate that beauty from ancillary associations that build up over time, but I think there is a reason these texts have persisted in human memory that goes beyond the geopolitical position of Christianity in the ancient and modern world.
When it comes down to it, I’m just not that interested in the historical truth of the bible. From what I understand, there is fairly good evidence that there was a man who lived in ancient Judea that fits the description of the Jesus in the gospels. Whether that man actually was born of a virgin, or turned water into wine, or healed the sick, or cast out devils, or walked on water, or raised the dead, or even was raised himself from the dead seems of fairly little consequence.
What I love about the gospels is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.
William Blake talked about “Christ the Imagination” — I won’t pretend to know exactly what Blake might have meant (I never realized how wonderfully strange Blake’s prose is) — but his construction prompts me to consider the ways in which Christian cultures and communities are in a continual process of re-imagining Christ. We certainly can only “see through a glass, darkly.” Our own humble ruminations are built from copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman empire.
The fact that these dim memories live on in the human imagination (admittedly, to lesser and greater effect) gives me hope in humanity.
It ain’t necessarily so…
For me, it was a huge step to acknowledge that the stories in the bible might not be literal accounts of actual events. Thinking about my own relationship with scripture reminds me of a This American Life story I heard a few months back (Act I of this broadcast). The story’s narrator (Alex Blumberg) begins by saying, “Most of the common childhood myths, like that babies come from storks, get corrected sooner or later. They’re not obscure enough to sneak into adulthood unscrutinized. But occasionally, even a very popular childhood myth can make it through, like unicorns.” His interview with Kristy Kruger (punctuated by narrative asides) continues,
Kristy Kruger: In my head, a unicorn wasn’t really any different than a zebra. … I mean, in terms of believability, I think the unicorn is really ahead of the dinosaur.
AB: What do you mean?
KK: Well, I mean, when you think about a dinosaur from a kid’s perspective, a dinosaur is these really large, monstrous animals roaming the Earth. And then you have a unicorn, which is basically just a horse with a horn.
AB <narrative aside>: As Kristy Kruger grew up, she says that if she ever thought about unicorns, they were on a grassy plane somewhere in Africa, drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and the impala. And then one night, she found herself in a conversation at a party.
KK: It was about a group of five to seven people, kind of standing around the keg, just talking. And somehow a discussion of endangered species came up, in which I posed the question, is the unicorn endangered or extinct? And basically, there was a big gap of silence.
AB <narrative aside>: As you might be gathering, at some point in all these stories, you come to a big gap of silence.
KK: And then everybody laughed. And then that laughter was followed by more silence when they realized I wasn’t laughing. And I was like, yeah, oh God, unicorns aren’t real? Oh no.
When I think that I ever believed in a literal reading of Noah’s ark or the Garden of Eden… my mind slides into one of those “big gaps of silence” — awestruck by the magnitude of my own credulity. The biblical myths lived “on a grassy plane” somewhere in my mind totally removed from my normal understanding of the world. In my defense, I was surrounded by people who believed — or at least claimed to believe — the same stories. Perhaps I had been trained well to not prod too hard at the tenuous logic that connected them all together.
I’m going to focus on the story of Noah’s ark, but what I write applies equally well to huge swaths of the ancient books of the Bible.
In preparing for this post, I went back and looked at the LDS Institute manual for the “Old Testament” (a term for the Hebrew canon that I’m actually less and less comfortable with… but that might be a post for another day). I was thinking that surely the highest level of church instruction would add some degree of nuance to the story. Boy… was I ever wrong. Here are a few gems:
From Mark E. Petersen:
Noah, who built the ark, was one of God’s greatest servants, chosen before he was born as were others of the prophets. He was no eccentric, as many have supposed. Neither was he a mythical figure created only in legend. Noah was real.
A long one from John Taylor:
I would like to know by what known law the immersion of the globe could be accomplished. It is explained here in a few words: ‘The windows of heaven were opened’ that is, the waters that exist throughout the space surrounding the earth from whence come these clouds from which the rain descends. That was one cause. Another cause was ‘the fountains of the great deep were broken up’—that is something beyond the oceans, something outside of the seas, some reservoirs of which we have no knowledge, were made to contribute to this event, and the waters were let loose by the hand and by the power of God; for God said He would bring a flood upon the earth and He brought it, but He had to let loose the fountains of the great deep, and pour out the waters from there, and when the flood commenced to subside, we are told ‘that the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained, and the waters returned from off the earth.’ Where did they go to? From whence they came. Now, I will show you something else on the back of that. Some people talk very philosophically about tidal waves coming along. But the question is—How could you get a tidal wave out of the Pacific ocean, say, to cover the Sierra Nevadas? But the Bible does not tell us it was a tidal wave. It simply tells that ‘all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits upwards did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.’ That is, the earth was immersed. It was a period of baptism.
And from Joseph Fielding Smith:
We read that it was in the seventeenth day of the second month when the great deep was broken up, and the rain was forty days. The Ark landed at Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, therefore there were five full months of travel when the Lord drove the Ark to its final destiny. Without any question a considerable distance separated the point where the Ark commenced the journey and where it landed. There can be no question to contradict the fact that during the flood great changes were made on the face of the earth. The land surface was in the process of division into continents. The rivers mentioned in Genesis were rivers that existed in the garden of Eden long before the land was divided into continents and islands.
The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…
On its surface, the story of Noah’s ark is one of those rather innocuous biblical myths. It is fun to think of all the animals, and the forty days on the boat, the doves, the rainbow, etc. On closer inspection, the story loses its innocence altogether.
Without even considering the looming logical inconsistencies that immediately confront even the most casual reader of this story (which are so absurd on their face that I won’t spend any time knocking them down), the idea of a global flood is a staggeringly terrifying from a moral point of view. The authors of the manual cited above try to cast the flood in terms of the earth’s “baptism,” and they make the claim that the flood was really an “act of love.”
Another gem from John Taylor:
But, says the caviller, is it right that a just God should sweep off so many people? Is that in accordance with mercy? Yes, it was just to those spirits that had not received their bodies, and it was just and merciful too to those people guilty of the iniquity. Why? Because by taking away their earthly existence he prevented them from entailing their sins upon their posterity and degenerating them, and also prevented them from committing further acts of wickedness.
Let’s not dwell too much on the implications of this grim theology…
A faint silver lining?
As I’ve said before, I think there is some value that comes from engaging seriously with the scriptural texts. If nothing else, it forces the reader into a kind of mental discipline. Deep meditation on almost any text can lead us toward something higher than the words on the page. We can torture a moral message out of most any story if we try hard enough and squint long enough.
As the quotes above make clear, one approach to theology assumes the truth and goodness of the texts from the beginning and works backward toward a moral. Using an irrefutable syllogistic logic, we are taken from the ‘fact’ of God’s goodness, to the ‘fact’ that God sent a global flood, to the inevitable conclusion that the ‘flood’ was an act of mercy.
It can be helpful for us to be shocked out of our usual modes of thinking, and these kinds of stories — when we seriously engage them — might facilitate some kind of useful insight.
That all said, some texts are more helpful than others.
The function of the skeptic
Our hometeachers visited us this past Sunday and shared with us a message from a talk by Quintin Cook. In the talk, Cook says,
We also recognize that many individuals are not in tune with sacred things. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks of England, speaking to Roman Catholic leaders last December at the Pontifical Gregorian University, noted how secular some parts of the world have become. He stated that one culprit is “an aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith.”
I’m not a big fan of the ‘new atheists’ — I think they end up doing some harm to the secular cause with their aggressive tone — but I do think they can serve as a useful check against the overly credulous tendency of the faithful. The curt dismissal of spiritual things by some in the secular community is mirrored by a total unwillingness to engage with problematic readings of scripture by the believing community.
Recently Dan Savage gave a talk to high school students where he said,
We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation…
Predictably, his remarks were met with some criticism.
While I may have chosen different language, I think believers would be well served to take seriously the critiques of outsiders (just as I think that nonbelievers have a great deal to learn from believers). This is a two-way street.
I want to return to the idea of Zion as a ‘tent.’ As I’ve been thinking about that metaphor, I have been struck by the idea that a tent requires tension. The stakes are driven into the earth and connected to lines that are pulled taught. Without the tension, the whole thing collapses.