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.