Friday, December 31, 2010

Aloneness and Community --

  I found this quote in a book I am reading by Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity.  For some years he was the ringmaster for a website named  He died of cancer this year, but I think this book sums up his philosophy pretty well.  Mine also.

  A lot of the journey I'm on is described by this quote:

"I want to be one who values relationships and community, but who is not defined by them.  I want to have the certainty, confidence, and contentment that come from knowing who I am in the eyes and heart of God, not just who I am in relation to people.

"At the foundation of the Christian life, there is a kind of sacred individuality, a sort of holy aloneness that cries out to be left alone with God.  This isn't all of the Christian life.  It doesn't erase those parts of a Christian's experience that happen in the context of relationships, but this sacred solitude nees to be discovered, respected, and protected".

Possibly this is a major area the LDS church falls short.  So much of the LDS experience is defined by the group that there is really not much structure for establishing a personal relationship with God.  Certainly the necessary practices are described, which would be foundational and sincere prayer and scripture study.  Yet maybe the end goal isn't laid out very well, nor is a sense of spiritual individualism really valued.  Your primary value in the LDS church is your value and relationship to the group, rather than your own intrinsic value.  It's not possible to sit in an LDS meeting for more than five minutes without receiving a list of ways to "lengthen your stride" to conform more to the goals of the group.

Alas this is just not who I am as a person, nor is this the Jesus I see in the Bible. The true gospel is about earnestly seeking out the desires of God and conforming to those, as imperfectly as we understand them, and not merely conforming to a group.
The Christmas Eve Service --
My wife had to work on Christmas Eve, so I went looking for a Christmas Eve service on my own. There's a large Baptist church in a neighboring town that I've been to before. I know a few people there from a Bible Study Fellowship class I was involved in for about three years.

The first time I went to this church's Christmas Eve service it was a real eye-opener. As a Latter-day Saint we are familiar with being instructed, guilted, and exhorted to do more. The idea that Christ has done great things for us is largely presented as evidence that much is expected in return. Very few LDS meetings end without the feeling that you're just not doing as much as you could be doing. They really don't want to encourage a comfort zone, because people need to be busy doing the Lord's work.

The service I went to three years ago was different. Rather than motivating people out of guilt, obedience, or threats, they simply worshiped. The pastor read passages from the Bible and interspersed with that were several devotional musical numbers, a combination of hymns and contemporary worship music. As this church is mixed generational, there was a little something for everyone. It did a really great job of communicating the feelings of hope inherent in the Christmas season, culminating in a candlelight exercise.

They turned out all the lights, leaving one large candle up near the pulpit. It represented the light of Christ. The pastor lit a single candle from the larger one and used this to light candles for a small number of ushers. The ushers went down the aisle and simply lit the candles of the people on the row ends, who lit the candle of the person next to them.

All in all no one did a great work. Each helped maybe six other people light candles, but this produced a wave of light in a room of several hundred people that worked its way back. Before, the room was in darkness. Soon, it was bathed in light, and for the most part all we had to do to achieve that was to share the light with one other person.

Hopefully the message in all this is clear. Generally if we can just share the light of Christ with the people around us, soon our entire surroundings will be bathed in the warm glow of Christian light.

Three years ago it was a beautiful service.

I went the following year, and it was likewise beautiful.

This time was different. Not so much because the service had changed at all, but because I had. As much as I love this church and what they do, I realized that half the musical numbers were the same ones from the previous services. I also noticed that most people didn't really respond much to the performances. Although we sang the hymns together, there was a sense of passion missing.

Probably the thing that hit me the hardest was how comfortable the service was for the people there. Most of the people there (now in a new building seating 600 - 700 people) seemed to know each other. Families sat together. As a stranger sitting by myself I had a boundary of three seats on either side of me until the room just began to fill in completely. The fact that this service was being enjoyed by groups of people, of friends, of families, was not lost on me. The one person who spoke to me was there with her husband and was likewise not a member of this church.

The scriptures were familiar, the songs were familiar, and being part of a family-oriented church was familiar. Although I was a stranger there, were I to join I would know exactly how to play the game, to laugh and make friends and pleasant conversation. There were lots of people my own age, my own race, and my own class. This room was full of people just like me. All I needed to do was to roll the audio tape and put on the mask and I would fit right in. This was a church I could settle right into, know people, come twice a week, get involved in the social groups and Sunday School classes, and would have no need to venture outside for anything.

The one fly in the ointment here is that the gospel was never intended to be comfortable for us. I think we can point to the examples of Jesus and the apostles as confirmation. The apostles were instructed, they were equipped for ministry, and they were sent out. They were never granted a comfort zone, other than the ultimate promise of salvation and the Second Coming. Nor should we expect anything different.

In many ways I think a church should be like a bicycle seat. It should provide a place to sit, yet not be so comfortable that you want to remain there for any length of time. A church is a place of worship and rest from the cares of the world, but it's not a destination. It's a beginning.

The worst thing a church can do is to present an attractive compelling sub-culture that causes you to be a faker to fit into. God made us as individuals, and I think churches should serve to rub off the rough edges that interfere with our ability to be relational with others, yet not interfere with those differences that make us who we are as people.

So, as much as I enjoy the church I attended on Christmas Eve, it was readily apparent that it was not the place for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Addendum: the ward Christmas party --

Another confirming detail for me was the ward Christmas party. I know we had one. I found out because they sent e-mail to the Elders Quorum at the last minute looking for people to do set up and takedown. The one personal invitation I got to it was from the automated notification system on the ward calendar, which showed up two days after the party. It was kind of sad to me that neither my home teachers nor my home teaching companion thought enough of me to invite our family to the party. A trivial thing, and not something I'm really offended by. Just kind of disappointed. An indicator that people really don't care about us that much.

We got some e-mail and a Christmas card from people in our previous ward, but not a single communication from people in our own ward.
The Dry and Weary Land --

Even though we haven't been to LDS services since July I'm still assigned as a home teacher, companion to someone in a leadership position. I specifically asked to be assigned as a home teacher because I wanted to maintain that connection to the community. Likewise we have always tried to welcome our own home teachers, the missionaries, or anybody else who would like to engage us.

Practically this hasn't worked that well. We're not in the social whirl of the ward, which is a generally young ward, and we are "out of sight, out of mind". Practically folks are busy with their families, and people have been ingrained with the culture of obedience, so that's what the leaders get. Obedience, without a lot of passion.

I went about three months without hearing from our home teachers and finally e-mailed them to set up an appointment in November. We had a nice visit, and they shared a thoughtful message. I didn't e-mail them in December, and we found a plate of cookies with a post it on it wishing us a Merry Christmas on our doorstep. Now, that was a nice gesture, and I appreciated the thought, but our primary phone is my cell phone and I am never more than about twenty minutes from e-mail. I would have really appreciated some kind of personal connection more than cookies and a post it, but we are "inactive", and everybody knows the way you home teach inactives is the non-threatening plate of cookies that will not offend them.

On the other hand, we are friendly, so maybe a message connecting us to the Christmas spirit with the goal of providing spiritual nourishment and maybe even bringing us back?

Sadly we just don't fit into people's pre-defined categories, so too bad for us.

On to my own home teaching appointment this past Wednesday.

We also did the drive-by with plates of cookies, although my companion had segregated the route into people we should make appts with and people we shouldn't (because they wouldn't be home if they knew we were coming). The father of one family in the latter category had a general look of astonishment for the minute we were on his doorstep, like "why are you people doing this?"

The other two families were happy to see us. One family was very active and the other friendly, but not so active. We made really pleasant conversation, and I found myself slipping back into the role of home teacher, telling stories from past visits, talking about "church things", "church people", etc. I can play this part, because I did it well for 20 years. Mostly I loved home teaching and loved the LDS church, but many home teaching assignments are just exercises in getting it over with because the families are either busy or don't want to be bothered. So you talk the talk, touch all the bases (message, "is there anything we can do for you", prayer, and run for the car).

When that was all there was, it was enough.

Now it feels like a dark shell. Although we shared cookies during these visits, we didn't share any of the spirit of Christ. Our mission was obedience. We are supposed to visit, so we visited, but we stayed off of possibly offensive topics which are the true theological reason we are supposed to be visiting in the first place.

I guess the worst thing is that I realized what a fake I am. I can talk the talk of an active home teacher, but I will never fit back into this group again. The signal to noise ratio is too low, by which I mean the ratio of real spiritual experiences and enlightenment to just "busyness", going visiting just to fulfill assignments, sitting through meetings as an act of obedience, hearing the exact same lessons over and over again because of the exhortation for teachers never to stray from the script and follow the Spirit. I don't believe in the absolute authority of the leaders. I believe in the authority of God and of Christ, and trying to hear that message of the still, small voice is increasing like trying to communicate with a Mars probe. Through LDS channels it is still out there, but there's too much intervening interference to get a clear signal.

I can pretend all I want, standing on someone's doorstep with cookies in my hand, but I am really not cut from the same cloth as these people anymore, and we all know it. My perspective is too different, my behavior is too different, what "the gospel" is to me is too different. I will never fit again, even if I wanted to.

I wanted to reference the First Presidency message from January, which arrived in my home just before Christmas, but it's not online yet. I'll add a link to it when it comes up. It was very deflating. I opened it hoping for a Christian message, and instead got a regurgitated exhortation for more missionaries for the LDS church from the church President.

Really the December message was no better: December First Presidency Message

Although it at least references Christ, this is the limpest possible message that could be imagined. It doesn't actually testify of Christ, but instead merely challenges people to think about Christ in the Christmas season. This subject should be a sonnet at Christmas-time, but instead is a little to-do list written on a post it. "Buy milk". "Vacuum the stairs". "Think about Jesus".

One interesting thought is this. Why is the most important message that could possibly be delivered to mankind offered by one of the counselors to the President, while the "Lord's Prophet" instead offers a useless message in January trying to convince people to merely do things? Why wouldn't the Lord's true prophet on the earth take advantage of this opportunity to stand on every street corner, visit every homeless shelter, preach non-stop in the tabernacle, the Conference Center, on BYU-TV, to buttonhole every visitor to Temple Square, to walk through the streets of Salt Lake City, Orem, Provo, and every other populated town in Utah begging people to share the message of Jesus with their neighbors? Why isn't this man acting as Peter, Paul, John, or even Joseph Smith, intent on sharing this message of hope and salvation? As opposed to what clearly interests him most, advocating the institutional needs of the church for more warm bodies filling seats at the MTC and filling the corporate sales force of LDS incorporated?

There is just no content to this any more.

I can do better.

I am going to.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Choosing a Fork --

This blog has been largely dormant for awhile because I didn't have much different to say. I've been in about the same place spiritually for awhile, kind of stuck between the LDS church on one hand and trying to figure out where I fit into biblical Christianity on the other.

Maybe "stuck" isn't necessarily the best description. I sort of am what I am spiritually and theologically. Functionally I am a star-shaped peg, and what I have available to me are different shaped holes, none of them being star-shaped.

I remain converted to the spirit of Mormonism, or at least that spirit that has so far been most compactly described by Mormonism, which I find exemplified by the first vision story. A 14 year-old boy went into the woods, seeking truth and an answer from God, and he got one. In fact he got a personal appearance from both God and Jesus Christ.

Now, this story has so many versions to it that it's impossible to know what actually happened, or whether anything really happened, but the story itself remains magnetic to me. The prevailing philosophies of the day had "truth" described by authority. Either the authority of a religious institution or the authority of a book that was the physical product of a religious institution. Whether that religious institution was guided by the hand of God is known in the heart of each individual. I believe it was.

But various institutions certainly reserved the right to tell each individual what the meaning of the text was. Did the words empower the apostle Peter, and thus validate the Catholic church? Did the words constrain the aspiring Christian to keep commandments as the pathway to Heaven? Did the words empower the believer through grace so that commandments were really no longer binding? Pick your preferred institution, and thus choose your yoke and your master.

The essence of Joseph Smith's first vision story is that God cares about individuals apart from institutions. Revelation comes to the individual directly from God. The institutional yoke is broken. The heavens are open, to the extent we choose to listen.

That right there is the underpinning of my faith. Whatever we might choose as a church, a creed, whatever, the driving force behind it must be that direct connection to God, achieved through the Holy Spirit. Institutions have value to the extent that they foster that connection, and they are damned to the extent that they impede it.

Modern day mormonism has become everything Joseph Smith's first vision story was supposed to overcome. It has become a large powerful bureaucratic institution that tells people how they must behave, and it supposes to be the conduit through which most meaningful revelation flows from God to the individual.

It has taken its place alongside many other large and powerful religious institutions that choose to use people to serve their institutional ends. It's better than many, if not most, but the fact remains that it impedes that channel of revelation, much as the life-giving waters of the Colorado river are siphoned off, bit by bit, until a mighty river becomes a muddy trickle at its disappointing endpoint, somewhere in Mexico.

So, my star-shaped peg no longer fits into the hole of institutional Mormonism. So where does it fit?

Largely I'm a scriptural Christian. I believe that God has spoken to men in various ways over time, and the most enduring records are found in the scriptures, primarily the books we consider the Old and New Testaments. These books are and always have been the core of my faith. I believe the Book of Mormon reflects a lot of biblical truth, yet there is no shred of historical proof that it is what it claims to be, a record of an ancient people. Nor does the translation process really seem designed to persuade the vast majority of people that a loving God would want to draw to himself. I don't think the Book of Mormon is the cynical fraud that many, if not most, do, because the principles in it reflect such inspired biblical truth. I find it to be a derivative work, inspired fiction, worthy of reading as one of the most influential books of the 19th and 20th centuries, a clear expounder of truth, yet not one that can doctrinally go beyond its biblical foundation.

So, where does all this leave a star-shaped peg in search of a hole to fit into?

Until recently, just sitting on the workbench. I no longer fit into the LDS church. I have a hard-won distrust of denominations and institutional churches. Yet as Christians we cannot stand alone. The core of Christian practice must happen in communities. No church that I felt drawn to would accept me, because my LDS connections and some resulting life circumstances were not acceptable. The points on the star would just not go down the holes.

Thankfully that may have changed.

This has been a pretty influential holiday period, and my direction seems increasingly clear.  I'll devote the next few posts to sharing the story, and following that to whatever happens next.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why Are You So Afraid? --

  Jesus asks the disciples this question in Matt 8:23 - 27.  After reading the January 2010 First Presidency Message, (5MB PDF of magazine , illustration on p4) I think he might ask modern day LDS apostles this same question. 

  So much to cover.

  Even the picture associated with the article is shrouded in fear.  It shows the appearance of Christ to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, which was certainly the highlight of the Kirtland Temple dedication.  Except the actual appearance wasn't out in the open.  It happened behind a curtain, so that only they were witnesses to it.  The picture in the article only hints at this.  Richard Bushman points out in Rough Stone Rolling that there are only 3d person journal accounts of this, Joseph Smith never wrote of it, and few saints at the time were even aware it happened.  So, why an illustration that implies it happened in plain view?

  It refers to the apostasy in Kirtland following the bank collapses without mentioning Joseph Smith's involvement in it.  It moralizes this apostasy as though people just didn't do enough to sustain their faith after all these marvelous experiences, while totally ignoring the flaws in the church leaders that was such a huge factor.

  The article itself references D&C Section 88, known as the "Olive Leaf".

  What a marvelous section.  Fundamentally it recaps a lot of the doctrine on the three kingdoms of glory and gives specific details about the millenium, the Second Coming, the battle of Armageddon, and finishes with some instructions about the operation of the School of the Prophets.  It's vast in scope and visionary, turning the mind towards the ultimate victory of Christ and the transformation of the earth into its ultimate paradaisical glory.  I'm honestly not sure I've ever read it from that perspective before.

  So, where is the fear in this?

  I think it points out that the apostles are scared of the gospel.

  Rather than using Joseph Smith's vision of Christ and revelations like the Olive Leaf to point to the cataclysmic events of the Second Coming, these are the quotes we are most familar with:

"And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom." (v77)
"Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.
 Therefore, they are left without excuse, and their sins are upon their own heads." (v81 - 82)
  And of course our perennial favorite:
"Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;" (v119)

 So, we take a miraculous vision to Joseph Smith that was surrounded in mystery and boil out all the nuances surrounding it.  We take a fascinating, thought-provoking vision of the millenium and the Second Coming and reduce it to simple pithy aphorisms about behavior improvement.  The youth and Primary suggestions at the end of the article (viewable in the PDF version above) solemnly invite the youth to fast, pray, read their scriptures, keep the commandments, follow the Holy Ghost, and remind them that we draw near to the Lord by following Thomas S Monson.

We take a complex period of history in the LDS church from which much can be learned about the flaws of men and the importance of basing our testimony on Christ, and instead imply that if only people had been more faithful their testimonies would have survived?
Why are we so afraid of our history?  Why are we so afraid of the majesty of our doctrine?  Why are we so afraid?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

On completing the Book of Mormon for the 17th time, I think it’s timely to apply Moroni’s promise in Moroni 10:3 - 5: “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

Indeed, by the power of the Holy Ghost we may truly know all things.

As I’ve read the Book of Mormon I have continually taken the challenge, and I believe. I believe that the things the BOM testifies of are true.

What does it testify of?

The Book of Mormon is another witness of Jesus Christ, that he was and is the Son of God, and that he is God, with no other God before him. The Book of Mormon testifies that Jesus Christ was the God of Israel, that he appeared to the Israelites in a cloud, and that he led them in the wilderness. It testifies that Jesus Christ was the Father of Heaven and earth, and that he came to earth in human form to pay the awful penalty of our sins.

It testifies over and over again that the way to eternal life is through faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end in our faith and not turning away from the witness of the Holy Ghost and following Satan instead. In Moroni 6:4 it testifies that when Christ came in 3 Nephi that the people were baptized in faith, being saved wholly through the merits of Christ and nothing else.

It demonstrates that through keeping the commandments we have access to his grace. Obviously if keeping the commandments means perfecting ourselves we would have no need of having sins remitted; therefore, we can rely on Jesus for a definition of keeping the commandments, which means to love God with all your heart and mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

I believe all the things that the Book of Mormon testifies of and I believe in the power of the many inspirational stories.

There are many things the Book of Mormon doesn’t teach.

It doesn’t teach that salvation comes through LDS temple ordinances. It doesn’t teach that you have to be married to more than one woman in the temple to have eternal life. It doesn’t teach that God is an exalted man.

It is primarily written to gentiles and the descendants of the Lamanites to implore them to come unto Christ for their salvation, and it only indirectly testifies of Joseph Smith. It’s a testimony of Christ and not a testimony of Joseph Smith, any later works he might come forward with, or of the institutional church.

There’s a connection we often make, that if the Book of Mormon is true, then therefore Joseph Smith is a prophet and we can trust everything else he said and did. We also assume that that authority he might receive from our testimony of the Book of Mormon can be transferred to his successors. I don’t think the book itself compels us to make those connections. None of those statements are made anywhere in the Book of Mormon. Its purpose is to testify of Christ and not of Joseph Smith, and we have to be careful not to extrapolate from it things it doesn’t say.

  I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon really belongs in the canon along with the Old and New Testaments, because it only has one witness, Joseph Smith.  The testimonies of the other witnesses are compromised by later statements and by their support of other supposed prophets like James Strang.  In any case the only thing the witnesses can testify of is that there were physical plates, if they actually saw or handled them at all.  They can’t testify anything about the content or the accuracy of the translation. It wasn’t written in a language they or anyone other than Joseph Smith could read.

Nowhere in the Bible does anything else rest on the testimony of one person. When Moses received the Ten Commandments there were divine manifestations surrounding this event that were visible to all. The cloud was visible to all by day, as was the pillar of fire by night. Certainly the drowning Egyptians were visible to all. Many Old Testament prophets testified of substantially the same message. We have an entire existing Hebrew culture today that has preserved these teachings and witnessed that, whether or not all the events actually happened, the people involved at least existed and taught these things.

In the New Testament we have the witnesses of four different gospel writers and the doctrinal writings of three apostles, all of whom were personal literal witnesses of Christ in the company of others. We have the witness of the early church that the things they taught were substantially in accordance with what people thought were the core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Never before is such a substantial body of teaching given in a hidden language, with only one person having the power to interpret that language, with no independent evidence that any of the events involved actually happened.

The Book of Mormon is clearly derivative of a more in-depth work. It builds on top of concepts taught in the Bible in an attempt to summarize and clarify them. Some have said that the Book of Mormon addresses every doctrinal controversy raging in Joseph Smith’s day, and it leaves few doctrinal stones unturned. It continually exhorts us to repent and keep the commandments without being specific about what those terms exactly mean.

It doesn’t contain the depth of the New Testament teachings of Christ, including the parables that help us figure out the nuances of Christian life. I think the stories of Abinadi, Alma the Younger, the mission of Ammon to the Lamanites, the sons of Helaman, and the Anti-Nephi-Lehis are tremendous teaching moments about faith and duty to God, but we miss a lot of the subtle teachings of the rest of the New Testament as we are exhorted over and over again to repent and keep the commandments.

It talks about the Nephites keeping Mosaic law without once discussing any of the specifics of that law.

Especially through 3 Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni the target audience of the Book of Mormon is clearly gentiles who are already familiar with Christian teaching and are being called to repentance. The spirit is a spirit of revival. In that spirit the Book of Mormon builds on a framework of existing teachings.

The book is clearly written to convince.

It comes across over and over again as a summary of thousands of years of Jewish and Christian thought. Moses was given a part of the plan, Paul had a part, John had a part, as did many others, but many of the characters in the Book of Mormon have the whole thing. They understand the trinity. They understand salvation by grace. They understand the complex relationship between faith and works, with works not being saving but being an evidence of faith. They have a clear understanding of Christ coming to earth as both God and redeemer to save mankind from their sins.

The brother of Jared even has the astounding vision of the God of Israel, who spoke to Moses from within a cloud and led them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Christ steps out of the cloud and into a physical body, just because of the unsurpassed faith of the brother of Jared. Jesus Christ reveals himself physically and lays out his redeeming mission in complete detail. In about two verses hundreds of years of doctrinal debate over the nature of the trinity and the connection between the God of the Old Testament and the redeemer of the New Testament are put to rest.

Regardless of the truths taught in the Book of Mormon, there’s an aspect of it that just seems “created”, rather than actually being a historical record.

The Book of Mormon is completely black and white. Other than maybe Laman and Lemuel and Zeezrom and perhaps Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah, people are either good or bad. Entire nations either repent or dwindle in unbelief. When a civil war happens the rival camps gather themselves together and fight to the last man. Nobody deserts. Populations don’t flee the destruction. They fight to the death.

This contrasts to the New Testament where most characters other than Christ have both good and bad in them. Judas is a complex character, leading Christ to destruction and then killing himself in despair. Peter denies Christ and then is himself martyred. Christ doesn’t put on the mass demonstrations of his power in the New Testament other than healings, appearing only to a relatively small number of faithful and leaving his resurrection in doubt to some even to this day.

The New Testament has a complex texture that is completely absent in the Book of Mormon. Like comparing a fine cup of freshly brewed coffee with a soda. The coffee mixes the various flavors of the coffee with the cream and the sugar, while the soda is just sugar and water.

The Book of Ether is a curious addition, and seems to taint the rest of it. It’s kind of a letdown because it seems so clearly manufactured. It’s almost a microcosm of the rest of the Book of Mormon. It’s written in a secret language on plates that require seer stones and a seer to interpret, and thus the content comes from just one source. i.e. the “prophet” that interprets it. It tells the story of a people who were removed from a larger group and sent across the ocean to colonize the promised land. People begin in righteousness and are destroyed through sin. Rival groups attempt to annihilate each other and gather in teams to do so, rather than being scattered as refugees as is the rule in human experience.

Only the Book of Ether is more extreme.

The barges are more magical than Nephi’s ship. Whereas Mormon has an army in the hundreds of thousands, Coriantumr’s army is in the millions. Whereas the Lamanites mostly exterminates the Nephites, the people of Shiz and Coriantumr gather millions of people together and literally fight to the last man. All the women and children are armed. There are no refugees. Everybody gathers day after day with the aim of killing each other to the last man. There are countless sons who rebel against fathers and take their kingdoms, or sons who fight to regain their father’s kingdoms, one after the other, over and over again. It has a prophet, Ether, who witnesses the destruction of his civilization through pride and wickedness, just as Moroni does. The exhortations to the gentiles to repent or suffer destruction are repeated almost verbatim. The Book of Ether has every element of the Book of Mormon, only more exaggerated.

I believe it taints the Book of Mormon in the same way some people try to quit smoking by smoking more, to become sick of cigarettes. The Book of Ether has all the fantastic elements of the Book of Mormon in a much shorter time period, without the inspiring sermons or stories that are the jewels of the Book of Mormon. It makes you think that this fantastic story that came through Joseph Smith about barges crossing the ocean and rival groups destroying each other is hardly believable, and then you realize that the Book of Mormon has all the same elements, and it makes you question the rest of it.

The Book of Ether is wildly improbable and just repeats many of the same themes in the other parts of the Book of Mormon. It’s as though somehow the story of the Nephites and Lamanites was too subtle and we needed something more black and white, more obvious, with clearer alternatives between righteousness and wickedness, with more obvious consequences of turning away from God.

The Book of Mormon contains saving truths, whether it’s inspired or a figment of Joseph Smith’s imagination. Rather than testifying of Joseph Smith and his calling as prophet, which is the way we typically use it, it clearly testifies of Christ. That’s its stated purpose and the direction of the content. It’s clearly written to exhort the gentiles of Joseph Smith’s day and afterwards to repent and trust in the merits of Christ for salvation.

The fact that the Book of Mormon exists would probably keep me from leaving the church. The church itself is as much a receptacle of error as truth, but the fact that it holds the Book of Mormon in such high regard would be the only hope that truth would win out over the idolatry towards the institution.

We have largely gotten away from the principles of the Book of Mormon, yet the fact that we encourage people to read it drives those truths deep within their souls, and there’s hope that truth may in fact win out over the institution. Ultimately truth cannot be contained and will win out. The spark cannot be contained, no matter how dim it might be. The Book of Mormon fosters and nurtures the light of Christ, and the light will eventually win out. I believe this to be true as much in spite of the institutional church as because of it.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

More Book of Mormon journal comments --

27 Aug 2009

I just read through the first 11 chapters of 3 Nephi, and a comment about the nature of the Book of Mormon seems appropriate. In these chapters especially the black/white nature of the book is apparent. People are either righteous or they aren’t. Whole groups of people either convert or they don’t. The Gadianton robbers either infiltrate the government or the judicial system or they don’t. The Nephites either gather against the robbers or they don’t. The main characters like Nephi, Jacob, the Helamans, the Ammons, etc, are either righteous or they aren’t, Laman and Lemuel being exceptions, because as their story begins in 1 and 2 Nephi they are sometimes righteous and sometimes not. Possibly Lehi fits into this category also, because although he is a prophet he sometimes wavers and is confused about things.

Possibly this is due to the abridgement by Mormon, because 1 and 2 Nephi have more developed characters and include women, whereas the parts abridged by Mormon typically are black/white and only one woman, a Lamanite servant if memory serves, is called by name.

Contrast this to the New Testament, where Peter and the apostles are well-meaning but not generally with the program, and the 12 apostles are split 11/1 into righteous and unrighteous. Women abound, and gray areas abound.

We often speak of the Book of Mormon as the most correct book, yet the black/white nature and the absence of women doesn’t reflect our lives that well and the nuanced character of our testimonies. We can identify with Peter and Paul much better than we can identify with Nephi, who is clearly a cartoon character. Possibly Enos is a better fit, and possibly Alma, but the Book of Mormon characters are all firm in the faith and perform great deeds, while we limp along doing our best to figure out matters of faith. The Book of Mormon prophets spring forth fully formed in their faith, while Peter and Paul struggle to figure out the details.

For most people I think the New Testament is something they can relate to better. We can easily relate to Peter’s denial of Jesus, because we do that every day. The uncompromising faith of the Nephite prophets is less accessible.

29 Aug 2009

Having made it through 3 Ne 19 today I went back and re-read the accounts of Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection in the Bible in order to compare the accounts. 3 Ne has always left me kind of lukewarm before, because Christ lacks a certain sense of humility in 3 Ne that is present in the New Testament. I got more insight into that this morning.

In the New Testament Christ has 3 years to get his message across, to heal and to preach. He preaches openly to the multitude in the beginning and then to progressively smaller audiences (in general) because people come for the miracles and fall away because of his hard teachings. Plus it’s not safe for him to appear in public any more because of the opposition of the leaders. By the end of the New Testament he’s had the chance to teach those who will listen, and the only followers he has left is just a small number of disciples. Only the women have enough faith to actually go to the tomb and witness the resurrection firsthand.

By contrast, in 3 Ne the people have been through a whipsaw of faith and apostasy, over and over again. Even the disciples (apostles) need to start over and be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

By the end of the New Testament Christ is appearing just to small numbers of people, whom he ministers to individually.

In 3 Ne he doesn’t have that luxury, because they haven’t had the personal visitations the New Testament crowd has had. He has to do the mass healings and baptisms because they haven’t had the opportunity to have those things. He has three years of ministry to pack into just a few days. He has to preach himself as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and heal and baptize, because there isn’t the time to toy around with parables as in the New Testament. Much of the flow of the New Testament is a winnowing out process, and this has already been done in 3 Ne. Those that didn’t believe are largely dead. People separated themselves out by belief, and like Sodom and Gomorrah the unbelievers were destroyed. The remainder are true believers.

Of course the difference in response is interesting. In 3 Ne all believe and all fall to the earth. In Matt 28:17 even as the great commission is being delivered some are doubting. Whether the doubters are among the apostles depends on your reading of the text, but it seems likely.

In the early chapters of 3 Ne people separate themselves into belief groups where people are either faithful or not, and the unfaithful are destroyed. This is much more black and white than in the New Testament, where the reaction is mixed. Even the disciples/apostles aren’t uniformly convinced. Jesus doesn’t put on the convincing performance at the end, raining destruction through earthquakes and floods and destroying unbelievers and leaving the rest gasping for breath. He merely says “put your hands into my side and feel my wounds and believe”. The resurrection is the “sign”, so perhaps there’s not the need for the convincing display found in 3 Ne. The wheat and tares are still growing together, whereas in the Book of Mormon the winnowing out is much further along.