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.
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.
After thinking a little more about my post yesterday, I think I may have been too dismissive of the value of shared stories.
To the extent that engaging with the biblical stories allows Mormons to participate in some larger conversation with other Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I think there can be value in retaining the old stories. Sometimes it takes a real, serious engagement with the stories on their own terms that lays a solid foundation from which we can build, and something valuable might be lost by too quickly or cavalierly dismissing the ancient myths of our tradition.
In my quasi-professional life, I spend most of my time studying and thinking about the deep differences between people in terms of their political beliefs. I am convinced that these differences are profoundly irreconcilable. No amount of philosophizing or argumentation will settle the deep divides in human societies that erupt when considering questions about individual freedom versus collective cohesion or different conceptions on human nature. There will always be (at least) two sides to these issues, and cleverly fashioned laws or institutions will never do away with the recurring debates that have always characterized politics.
Normatively, I am committed to the idea that the tensions that rise inevitably from the different perspectives that different individuals bring to the table is both necessary and healthy. Human societies that bend too far toward any ideology seem forced to learn the error of their thinking in time, and history has a way of teaching these lessons in painful ways.
As with politics, so also religion. Although the categorization is crude and obscures a lot of interesting diversity, it is sometimes helpful to think of conservative and liberal religious adherents. Us liberals (and I proudly number myself among them) are eager to move forward and cast off what we see as superstitions or just unhelpful beliefs, while our conservative coreligionists are more cautious and tend to be more enthusiastic about preserving the tradition warts and all. A religious institution that is overtaken by liberals risks coming apart at the seems, and a religious body that is dominated by conservatives might stagnate and die. Liberals will always be impatient and frustrated by the pace of change, while conservatives will often be nostalgic for an idealized past.
There is an important asymmetry (at least in the Mormon church as I have experienced it). The conservative’s perspective on the tradition generally inclines him or her to be more confident in his or her position. They seem to have the backing of the institution, and their voices tend to be louder and more welcome. Liberals are often targeted by conservatives who feel threatened by different approaches to the faith, and they have often been marginalized in popular discourse. This can lead to an unhealthy spiral of silence, as liberal voices are pushed further and further to the edges of the conversation that should be happening.
So what does all of this have to do with the creation myth?
Well first, I understand that by labeling it as “myth” (which is certainly not intended in any kind of pejorative way) I risk being misunderstood by conservative believers who are perhaps more inclined toward a literal reading.
I think there is an important function that is served by having these two competing perspectives on the nature of scripture and myth. The literal reading serves to preserve the story. Literalists are good with detail, and there might be something important lost in the integrity of the story if we were to abandon the literal reading altogether. By preserving the story through generations, the literal preservation effort enables us liberals (with a little bit of work) to try to see something beyond the literal reading, and (in an ideal world) at the end of the day, we are all engaged with the same source text.
I talked last time about the problems of a too literal reading of many scriptural stories. The only straightforward way to read this chapter is that the anonymous authors disagree with my take. We are treated in chapter 5 to an account of an actual historical Adam and Eve who had premortal counterparts. I’m not sure why we insist on so much literalism.
I’ve made the case for a less literal reading several times before in the short while I’ve been blogging this manual, but as often as they make these silly assumptions, I feel compelled to point them out. Let’s see where a truly literal reading of the Garden story gets us (or at least where it got one preeminent Mormon thinker, and perennial straw-man-of-the-blog).
In his famous “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk delivered at BYU, Bruce McConkie said the following in connection with Heresy #2 (evolution):
My reasoning causes me to conclude that if death has always prevailed in the world [a necessary precondition for evolution], then there was no fall of Adam that brought death to all forms of life; that if Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement; that if there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, and no eternal life; and that if there was no atonement, there is nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. I believe that the Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself, and that the Atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.
There is so much that I see wrong with this statement that I don’t really know where to begin. In McConkie’s highly literal reading of the text, we cannot accept the evolution of life because it would lead us inevitably to abandon the rest of the gospel message. He has reasoned himself into a corner that forces him to ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence against his case. This is a classic example of the problem of building “up” rather than “out” with respect to religious “knowledge” (for more, see this post specifically and the whole “Mormon in the Cheap Seats” series over at Doves and Serpents). McConkie has constructed for himself a towering edifice of religious knowledge, but it comes at the cost of rigidity and (if my own flirtation with McConkie-ism is any guide) fragility.
Again, I do not want to be seen as ragging too much on McConkie-ite Mormonism. It is powerful stuff, and I think it really works for some people. McConkie was not a “bad guy” from anything that I have seen. Although I do believe his teachings have done some real harm, he seemed very willing to apologize for and recant some of his more damaging ideas. I really do believe he was (even if seemingly chronically misguided) a well-intentioned person.
Back to the story
Leaving aside my annoyance with the literal reading of the story, Mormons seem to have dodged a theological bullet in their more generous interpretation of the events in the Garden. Thankfully, we do not subscribe to the ugly doctrine of original sin. Our more enlightened reading also allows us to avoid some of the more misogynist implications of Eve’s part in the story.
That is all to the good, but do we really have to believe that there was an actual person named Adam? And, more incredibly, that he was the first person to walk the earth? I think Mormons are fine with a symbolic reading of Satan as the serpent, and I don’t think most Mormons would really believe that Eve was created out of Adam’s rib, but I’m really not sure (it turns out to be a difficult question to ask without sparking some defensiveness on the part of the ask-ee). What would we lose by letting go of the overly literal readings of these old myths?