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.
A while back, I read Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The novella retells the story of Jesus by replacing him with two characters — twins — named Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the radical and powerful preacher, goes about ancient Judea gathering followers and spreading a message of brotherly love and forgiveness. Christ, on the other hand, is conflicted and jealous of his brother. Ultimately, he is persuaded to record his brother’s life and teachings. In his recording, he is encouraged to emphasize the fantastic and the miraculous — even to invent it and insert it into the narrative — to serve the higher cause of Truth. He is assured that if he will do this the teachings of Jesus would continue to live through an institutionalized church. By the end of the story, Jesus is killed and Christ steps in to fulfill the miracle of the resurrection.
Pullman’s tale is a little too tidy, but it raises some interesting questions. When I talked about the Gospels, I made the point that our ‘primary’ sources are built from “copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago.” Our institutions, as valuable as they are in preserving these stories and memories, have the unintended side-effect of calcifying assumptions around them.
Take for example, the idea of the virgin birth.
I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that when Catholics talk about the “Immaculate Conception” they are referring to the birth of Mary rather than the birth of Jesus. According to the (il)logic of the original sin doctrine, Mary had to be born without sin as well so she wouldn’t pass on the guilt (associated with sexual union I am guessing?) to Jesus. In my mind, this is theology at its worst — bad assumptions built on top of one another.
Lest any Mormons get smug about silly Catholic teachings, let me remind the reader of some unfortunate Mormon speculation on the matter. One does not have to dig too deeply to find scandalous quotes from Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, or Bruce McConkie on the logistics of Jesus’ conception.
What can we know?
I don’t want to go too far down the post-modernist ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-truth’ rabbit-hole, but we should remember that we are dealing with pre-modern authors here. They weren’t so concerned with factual accuracy in their stories. The gospels and other writings that make up the New Testament had an agenda (and it certainly wasn’t to put down Jesus’ biography).
Two of the four gospels don’t even discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mark and John both basically begin with Jesus’ baptism (John tacks on that bit about the Beginning and the Word). Paul’s silence on the subject of Christ’s birth seems suggestive to me that it wasn’t that important to him whether or not Jesus was born miraculously.
The biblical authors who were more concerned about Christ’s earthly origins don’t themselves agree on his family history (see this article for some discussion of the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke).
We might expect the details of Jesus’ birth to be a little hazy, but even events that were presumably better documented than the Nativity are problematic. The LDS Bible Dictionary includes a Gospel Harmony that attempts to correlate the different accounts of the same events in Jesus’ ministry (you can find a more extensive Harmony here). Of the 160 events listed in the linked Gospel Harmony, only 11 (less than 7%) were mentioned by all four Gospel writers. Nearly half (76 out of 160) of the events discussed in the Gospels were only mentioned by one of the four authors.
It gets even worse. The gospels are not four independent accounts of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that the gospels of Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark’s (older) account, so some of the correspondence we see in the Gospels results from the fact that they are drawing from the same second- or third-hand source material. There is also likely some selection bias in the Gospels that were ultimately canonized. I would guess that the Church Fathers who were responsible for canonizing the gospels were inclined to make their choices — at least in part — based on the consistency of the accounts.
The devil is in the details
For centuries, Christians have been trying to piece together the details of Jesus’ life. The incomparable Alan Watts described the problems with focusing too much on the particulars (emphasis added):
the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn’t accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss’s son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own “I am” is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God. (from this site)
Separated as we are by 2,000 years of history, we should be a little more cautious in what we claim to ‘know’ about Jesus.
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 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.
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.