Sacramental Truth

This blog is part of my ZionBound series.  The full series can be read on my blog site here.

For a few years now I have viewed truth as something that should be regarded as a type of pseudo sacrament.  As I understand the sacraments, they are rites or rituals that bring us closer to God – they bring us, in a spiritual sense, into God’s presence.

Truth is similar to a sacrament in this manner.  Obviously, we cannot regard truth as an actual sacrament, because truth is a concept, not a ritual or ceremony.  Yet, like a sacrament, when we are honest with ourselves, and with each other, and with God, we move closer into God’s presence.  We become more aligned with what Christ wants us to be, as a people, and as individuals.

Conversely, if we are dishonest – in any way – we must expect that we drift further from God’s hopes for us.  We cannot expect to be more reflective of what God wants us to be if we are not truthful.

We also have to consider the fact that as Christians, as members of the Later Day Restoration movement, and as members of Community of Christ, we have a duty to be truthful.  I will even say that we have a duty to seek the truth – but let me put that in context.  We must, when we are exploring a particular issue of doctrine or theology, seek the truth. I don’t mean that we are otherwise obligated to keep hunting for truth, as that would become a full time vocation.

When we consider that Christians are called to follow Christ, to be His disciples, it than of course automatically follows that we need to embrace his teachings, and follow his examples.  This means that we need to promote truth.  How can we be regarded as model examples of Christian disciples if we do otherwise?

There is an even more important reason why we should ensure we are reflecting truth in our lives, in particular in our religious experiences.  Pontius Pilot asked Christ “what is truth?”,  however, before Christ could answer, Pilot turned away to address the multitudes.  Therefore, whatever Christ’s response may have been was not revealed.

I have often wondered what Christ’s response would have been, had Pilot not walked away (perhaps out of fear of hearing the answer).  A couple of years ago, I concluded that Christ would have indicated that truth, ultimate truth, is the mind and will of God.  Its just that simple, and it does not need to be any more complex than that.  Whatever is the mind and will of God is truth.

Being honest and truthful is, quite simply, our responsibility.  Meaning, that in our efforts to understand our doctrine and theology as fully as possible, we must ensure that we are being honest in our conclusions, and always fully truthful in all things.  Including our motives.

This is, however, perhaps not always easy.  As religious people, we each approach any doctrinal issue encumbered with our own beliefs.  Beliefs about scriptural interpretation, beliefs about scriptural authority, beliefs about the sacredness of tradition, beliefs about the church, beliefs about our history, beliefs about God, beliefs about how we think things ought to be.

The more controversial the doctrinal topic being explored, the greater the potential exists that we may compromise our own honesty, and our duty to the truth.

I’d like to use female ordination as an example of this.  A while back, I was engaged in a dialog with a person about the validity of the call of women to the priesthood.  He presented his reasons why he felt female ordination was wrong. I refuted them each.  This went on for a while, until he was no longer able to offer any further reasons for opposing female ordination.  He was unable to defeat my responses to his reasons for his opposition.

However, he still was against it.  It occurred to me that, ultimately, he just did not want female ordination to be valid.  He just didn’t want it to be right.  He preferred, and was quite comfortable, with viewing it as wrong.  Even when he realized there was no actual doctrinal basis to do so.

Of course, this was just my own conclusion and I had no way of knowing for sure if I was right.  So, I asked him.  Or, to be honest, I told him.  I said that I suspected that the real, ultimate, true reason why he was against female ordination was simply the fact that he did not like it.  He didn’t want to see things change.

He acknowledge that I was correct.  That actually surprised me.  However, it also impressed me.  He was being truthful with me.  Which of course, is commendable.

However, the fact that I was right is also troubling, because it proved to me that many people, in fact, probably all of us, are prone to behave like this from time to time.

He may have been truthful with me, but he was not being truthful with the doctrine in question.   To oppose a doctrinal change, simply because you don’t want it, is not an honest approach to God’s church – even if you are being honest with the reason for opposing something.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  It is perfectly fine to oppose doctrinal changes. I have done so on many occasions; and I have gone to great lengths to do so.  I’d almost say that I like it, however, that would suggest that I oppose doctrinal changes simply for the sake of doing so – for fun, and that is not at all the case.    However, when I do, sincerely feel in my heart that something is not right, I confess I do enjoy laying out my reasons for why I feel that way.  I like to explore and wrestle with doctrinal issues.  Pondering the scriptures, as Nephi counsels us, is something that helps me to relax.

Therefore, please be assured that I do not object to objecting.  However, I would hope that if we do so, if we object to something, that we have doctrinal reasons for doing so, so that we have something more substantial and legitimate than merely not caring for something.

The real test for all of us is this: how do we respond when we run out of doctrinal reasons?  Since opposing a doctrinal change without a doctrinal reason is not an honest approach to opposing such a change, than we had better find a doctrinal reason to object.

Often, the doctrinal reason is there first.  We oppose the change because we already believe that the change would conflict with our understanding of existing church doctrine, of our understanding of theology, of scripture, etc.

However, we have to ponder, what if all of the reasons that we have are soundly refuted? What do we do then?  Do we, like the person I spoke with, acknowledge that we still can’t support the change simply because we don’t like it?  Again, we already know that doing such is not an honest approach to rejecting a doctrinal change.

Or do we go hunting for additional doctrinal reasons to resist the change?  Doing that to some degree is probably acceptable. However, there has to come a point when, if we keep having our reasons refuted, yet we continue to keep hunting for more and more doctrinal reasons to object to a change, that we are equally guilty of not being honest since clearly our basis for doing so, if the first and even second wave of doctrinal reasons are refuted, is so that we can avoid accepting the change.

If we have to keep looking for more and more objections to try to defend our point-of-view, what than is the true, honest reason or our objection in the first place?  It would seem obvious that when it comes right down to it, we just don’t like it.

And that is not honest.  That is not valid.  That is not Christ-like.

As I suggested previously, I think we probably all fall into this custom, from time to time.  I’m sure I have.   However, I have to recognize that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I have a duty to the truth.  Jesus Christ is God, and God is the source of all light and all truth.  Therefore, those of us who take upon the name of Christ must be upfront with ourselves, and with God, and with each other.  How we approach doctrine and theology and scripture, and any church issue must reflect our duty to the truth.  Truth is sacred, and if we obstruct truth, even our own personal truth, than we are undermining our own relationship with our Heavenly Father.

We are called to be perfect, to strive to be Christ-like; and if Christ ever said that he was against something, I’m quite sure, if he were asked why, his answer would not be “I just don’t like it”.

Questions to Ponder

1) How do you view the relationship between truth and discipleship?
2) What gets in the way of personal honesty?
3) How can we ensure that our motives are honest?

“Why are you happy?”

“Why are you happy?” my bishop asked me last night. That question was the culmination of what was a casual conversation about life. I stared at the wall, unsure of how to respond. My words couldn’t be superficial, yet they couldn’t be obnoxiously verbose, either. “I am conscious of living,” was my response. The conversation then turned to love and gratitude as being the ultimate expressions of a utopian world. Yet the question then became, do we reject the negative or embrace it? thoreau

After the conversation ended, I realized where I had first heard of the idea of being “conscious of living.” It was a speech I have referenced before, David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” Regardless of beliefs, it seems true that “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” or at the very least, the truth we can know is this reality, this existence. I have found that when I coast through life, unaware of those around me, absorbed in some meretricious pleasure for a period of time, I am actually miserable. From a religious perspective, being absorbed by the concept of an afterlife may be beneficial for hope, but should it distract us from the truth of this life? What happens if the eventual reality one conjures up is, in fact, a false, idolatrous hope, or as the philosopher of Ecclesiastes would put it, a “chase after the wind?” That is why when my bishop asked why I am happy, the answer was immersion in the mystery of this life.

But then there is the other question: whether or not we should reject the negative. For some time now, I have been inspired by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both seem to offer insights into this question. Job is usually interpreted as a commentary on why we suffer, but I think there is more. Otherwise, the answer would be that we suffer because God and Satan make a wager on whether or not we will crack under pressure. Job, as I have come to appreciate it, discusses why the righteous suffer, and contrasts itself with the traditional idea that the righteous will prosper and the wicked face destitution. At the end of the book, Job has an experiential conversation with God. Rather than the traditional monarchical image of God as a king who hands out reward and punishment, God emerges as the ever-present and transcendent force behind the mysterious wonder of existence. Job states:

“I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (Job 42:2-5, KJV).

How does this answer the question of the righteous suffering, and challenge the conventional wisdom? Well, in this case, there is no sense of inherent justice. God is awesome and full of wonder, but we are the ones who must accept the injustices of existence. It is up to us to embrace and respond to the negative aspects of life affirming the marvel of existence. When we retreat from life, misery can consume us, however when we are conscious of living, negativity can be overcome.

Ecclesiastes answers the question similarly and more directly. According to Qoheleth, the philosopher of the book, we chase after different idols of fulfillment, trying to make sense of life and create ultimate, unfettered happiness. This is wrong, however. By accepting the difficulties of life, we may immerse ourselves in it. Happiness, in the eyes of Qoheleth, is relative to the negative. As with Job, we can create a real sense of joy out of life’s despairing moments and injustices.

“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, KJV).

So I reaffirm my answer: I am happy because I embrace life in all of its joys and sorrows, and I try to live consciously, immersed in this world as the one truth I am sure is real.

Whence Cometh Authority?

JohnandFionaHamerI’m on the road again (which has sadly delayed my post).[1]  This week I’m visiting my family in Minnesota and the –17° F temperature outside contrasts somewhat with the +82° F in South Beach a few weeks ago. The Book of Mosiah so far has alternated between narrative action broken up by two lengthy sermons. This week’s reading (Mosiah 9-10 CofC/17-22 LDS) picks up right after Abinadi has finished his sermon and the story takes off immediately. Chapter 9 in the Community of Christ version is big, long, and action-packed — I can see why it’s broken up into so many chapters in the LDS version.

As you’ll recall from last week, we’re in our book within the book.  The “Record of Zeniff” chronicles the story of a smaller group of Nephites who have gone back to the Land of Nephi, where they are surrounded by (and pay tribute to) a much larger kingdom of Lamanites. King Zeniff the Over-Zealous was succeeded by his unworthy son, King Noah the Wine-Bibber. King Noah, aided by the wicked priests of his court, has initiated all sorts of unrighteous practices, which Abinadi has condemned in his sermon. In keeping with the theology presented thus far, Abinadi has predicted that since God punishes nations for bad behavior, the Nephite kingdom in the Land of Nephi is about to get punished.

That happens right away in this week’s reading. The wicked priests charge that since Abinadi “hast said that God himself should come down among the children of men” and predicted the ministry of Christ, he has crossed a line and said things that “art worthy of death” (Mosiah 9:10-11 CofC/17:7-8 LDS). Refusing to recant, Abinadi is burned at the stake on this charge of heresy and/or blasphemy.  He thus becomes the Book of Mormon’s first proto-martyr: killed for his testimony of Jesus Christ on the model of the early martyrs in the Biblical Book of Acts. (Abinadi’s experience with the wicked priests can be compared with Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent execution for heresy, told in Acts 6-8.)

As with martyrdoms in Acts, Abinadi’s Christian martyrdom achieves converts. One of the priests — a man named Alma — is persuaded by Abinadi’s preaching, leaves the court, and secretly organizes a new church called “the church of God or the church of Christ” (Mosiah 9:49 CofC / 18:17 LDS). When King Noah find out about it, he sends the bulk of his army to break up the new church, but Alma and about 450 of his followers escape into the wilderness (Mosiah 9:72-73 CofC / 18:33-35 LDS). Meanwhile, with the army gone, a revolution against King Noah breaks out at home. The chief rebel, Gideon, is about to slay the king when the Lamanites attack.

After much battle and mayhem, King Noah is himself burned to death, but his priests escape into the wilderness. The remaining Nephites (sans both Alma’s group and the wicked priests) make peace with the Lamanites on much harsher terms. Gideon becomes captain of the Nephite royal guard and Limhi, one of Noah’s sons, is named the new king. In the wilderness, the priests have fled without their families and decide to kidnap “daughters of the Lamanites” to start their lives over again. Thus, we now have three separate groups of Nephites in vicinity of the Land of Nephi: (1) King Limhi’s group, (2) the group of wicked Nephite priests with Lamanite wives, and (3) Alma’s group.

It is now that our story re-encounters representatives of the main group of Nephites (who live in the Land of Zarahemla) as our disembodied narrator brings the story all the way up to the point where Ammon and his search party discovered King Limhi’s group (Mosiah 9:164 CofC / 21:23 LDS).[2]  Having reconnected with the Nephites in Zarahemla, King Limhi decides that his group needs to escape their Lamanite overlords. Captain Gideon hatches a plan, which is to get the Lamanite guards drunk,[3] while all the people and all their flocks escape through the secret back gate of the city (Mosiah 10:8-11 CofC / 22:3-8 LDS). All goes as planned and Limhi’s group are reunited with the main body of the Nephites in Zarahemla, leaving Alma’s group and King Noah’s group still off in different parts of the wilderness.

That’s a lot just to summarize. At some point, the action may get boring or repetitive, but that hasn’t happened yet for me.

Alma and Authority

Although Alma and his group largely duck out of the action, their story is the most interesting to me from a theological perspective. In Acts, preaching and martyrdoms are set against the backdrop of the apostles’ work building up the young Christian church. Here in the Land of Nephi, however, there is no Christian church (yet) and there are no apostles commissioned directly by Jesus to build one up. King Limhi’s group (after the defections of both Alma and King Noah) feel the problem acutely. They now believe the testimony of the proto-martyr Abinadi, and they are “desirous to be baptized” — “but there was none in the land that had authority from God” (Mosiah 9:176 CofC / 21:33 LDS).

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Christians understood authority to descend through apostolic succession. Jesus commissioned apostles including Peter, who established churches led by bishops who succeeded each other in an unbroken line to the present. While Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to look to apostolic succession, Protestants in breaking with the Papacy had to look elsewhere for authority. They found it in scripture, which they argued was the sole source of authority.

Off in the wilderness with his small band, Alma has neither ordination through apostolic succession nor scriptures (King Limhi’s group and King Mosiah’s group have the various plates). Alma’s solution is to receive authority directly through the Spirit. As we read:

Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying, “O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.” And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said, “Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead, as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.” (Mosiah 9:43-44 CofC / 18:12-13 LDS)

Alma then submerged both Helam and himself under the water, baptizing himself at the same time as Helam. After this original self-baptism/baptism, we’re told that in all the subsequent baptisms only the baptizee would be submerged. As mentioned above, the newly baptized souls then came to be called “the church of God or the church of Christ” and “whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God, was added to his church.”

Alma then went on to establish a priesthood:

And it came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their [the church members’] number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 9:51 CofC / 18:18 LDS)

Thus, it’s very clear that Alma has authority to baptize (beginning with himself!), to organize a church, and to ordain priests. That authority has apparently not come from any ordination he may have received as one of King Noah’s wicked priesthood (apostolic succession, however tainted). Instead, he’s received authority directly from the Spirit, in response to his public prayer.

The question faced by Limhi’s people and Alma’s people was, of course, directly relevant to Joseph Smith and his early supporters. Being a part of the Gold Plates project stirred within them a desire to be baptized and to organize a church. And they were able to take Alma’s precedent as a model for how this could be done. Accordingly, having prayed about the matter like Alma, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had a spiritual experience which caused them to feel they had received authority to baptize. They then baptized each other and others in their early small group; and, like Alma, began to ordain members to a restored priesthood long before their own “Church of Christ” was organized on April 6, 1830.

Later, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s ideas of authority evolved, they remembered or retold their spiritual experiences with more detail as visions involving specific personages: John the Baptist, and the apostles Peter, James, and John.[4]  And these visions as they were heard became visitations, which were consonant with a new understanding of authority — one that once again relied on apostolic succession, in this case, directly from the apostles themselves. Thus, the idea of the authority of the Spirit, presented here in Alma, while serving as the actual model for the early Restoration as it happened, no longer matches the idea of authority in the mainline Restoration tradition, nor does it match the “traditional” way the sacred story of the Restoration is now told.

Nevertheless, the model has continued to inspire individual Restoration believers who find themselves in schism with the larger, mainline Restoration tradition churches. For example, in rejecting the organizations of Brigham Young in Utah and Joseph Smith III in Illinois, William Bickerton (a former follower of Sidney Rigdon) explicitly used Alma’s church as a model for reorganizing his own “Church of Jesus Christ” (headquartered in Monongahela, Pennsylvania), which has continued to this day as the third largest branch of the movement.

Stray Observations

• The formula employed by Alma for performing baptism is interesting for its uniqueness.  Making no mention of the “remission of sins,” the baptism is instead a “testimony” or symbol of a personal covenant to serve God.  The inclusion of the phrase “until you are dead” reminded me of the traditional marriage vows which are taken “until death do us part”.

• The ratio of 1 priest per 50 members in Alma’s church has not been the practice in any Restoration tradition church that I am aware of.

• The priests of Alma’s church “were not to depend on the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit…” (Mosiah 9:57-59 CofC / 18:24-26 LDS) signalling a very early bias in the Restoration against paid ministry.  This view, of course, later became problematic for Joseph Smith himself as he struggled to lead a church and support a growing family.

• Alma does his baptizing at the Waters of Mormon, which are at the place of Mormon near the forest of Mormon.  This is our first introduction to the name “Mormon”.  It’s described as “having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times, or at seasons, by wild beasts” (Mosiah 9:32 CofC / 18:4 LDS).  But it isn’t clear from context, if the land is named after a King Mormon (whose story was lost in the 116 pages) or if some other king (like Noah) named it because Mormon means “borderlands” or “semi-infested with wild beasts”.

• Alma’s church came up with a solution to the beggar problem that we all struggled with during King Benjamin’s sermon:

Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly, he should impart more abundantly; and he that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given. And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul. (Mosiah 9:60-62 CofC / 18:27-28 LDS)

• Although Zeniff was originally just an over-zealous guy and although we are told that his grandson Limhi had the kingdom “conferred on him by the people,” the new king was nevertheless chosen from Zeniff’s royal line, despite the wickedness of Limhi’s father Noah (Mosiah 9:103 CofC /19:26 LDS).  The idea of kingship here includes a popular component and retirement, but it remains hereditary.

• The idea of that the Nephites had to pay tribute for the upkeep of the guards quartered among them by the king of the Lamanites (Mosiah 9:105-106 CofC /19:28 LDS) must have resonated to readers in the early post-revolutionary United States.

Next week: The end of the Book of Mosiah (Mosiah 11-13 CofC /23-29 LDS).

_______________________
[1] Sadly, no books with me means none of the footnotes are going to be backed up with references until I get home.

[2] Although the Record of Zeniff began as a first-person account by King Zeniff, after his retirement the narration become anonymous.  Now the record comes all the way down to and includes the arrival of Ammon previously narrated from Ammon’s perspective in Mosiah 5:1-24 CofC.  As the story has played out, we now have the additional detail that Ammon and his companions were mistaken by King Limhi’s guards for members of King Noah’s group.  If the text had been composed in a conventional way, an author might now be tempted to go back to chapter 5 and have the guards ask Ammon something like, “What have you done with the daughters of the Lamanites?” Which questions would confuse both Ammon and the reader at that stage in the story.  However, the Book of Mormon was not composed conventionally, and the text once dictated was essentially fixed permanently.

[3] Getting your guards drunk is a general stock literary device, but it is also, unfortunately, in keeping with European American stereotyping of Native Americans.

[4] Although these have become sacred stories for the movement, they do not fit the rest of the historical record.  Early members like David Whitmer testified that stories of these personages were a later development.  Their memories are backed by contemporary records which show that the understanding of priesthood as narrated in the story were later developments that did not exist in the early period.  For a complete description of the evolution of priesthood, see Gregory Prince’s Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995).

King Benjamin Is Serious about Panhandlers

MiamiBeachOne thing about committing to a weekly schedule is that Wednesday comes around no matter what. Capping off an intensely busy work week last week, extreme weather in Toronto caused flooding at the building where my congregation has church, resulting in the cancellation of my Sunday School class. While you might think that would mean I’d have had lots of time to get ahead on my blog post, that didn’t happen. Instead, nothing got done prior to packing and getting on a plane Monday morning.  Now we’re here on our first vacation in a long time, visiting Miami Beach to celebrate Mike’s 40th birthday. (This was the destination of our first vacation together 17 years ago, so it’s a special place for us.) Anyway, long story short, I don’t have all my books with me this week, and I think I’m the only person reading the Book of Mormon here on the beach. But at least it’s sunny and 82° F.*

This week, King Benjamin is wrapping up his sermon and he’s got a message that is pretty explicit about a couple key ideas.

(Point #1) You must give money to beggars when asked. You may have all kinds of ideas about makers and takers in society. You may like to rant about a culture of dependency, but you’re totally wrong. According to King Benjamin, it’s a simple commandment: “ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 2:29 CofC).

Got some qualifiers on that? Want to rationalize your way out of this? King Benjamin’s way ahead of you.

Perhaps thou shalt say, “The man has brought himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance, that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just.”

Exactly! I’m good because I give charity freely to other, theoretical people who are “deserving poor” — not this guy in front of me, who is doubtless a welfare king.

Wrongo! According to KB:

“I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth for ever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

O man! For ever. (As an aside, although there’s no room for nuance in King Benjamin’s absolute formulation, I can’t help but reflect that the panhandlers here in Miami Beach have a bit of a different experience than the folks back home in Toronto enduring the polar vortex.)

That aside notwithstanding, the teaching about giving freely to all beggars continues very explicitly (Mosiah 2:37-45 CofC). This kind of personal charity, according to King Benjamin, is directly analogous to God’s grace, which is the other key point in the sermon’s wrap up.

(Point #2) From God’s perspective “are we not all beggars?”

Do we not all depend upon the same being, even God, for all the substance which we have; for both food, and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 2:32 CofC)

In King Benjamin’s formulation, we are totally dependent on God for everything, but most important of all, we are dependent on God for our salvation. As “unworthy creatures,” who ought to be aware of our own “nothingness” and our “worthless and fallen state,” salvation can only come as a gift freely given by God.

There is none other salvation, save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there conditions whereby man can be saved, except the conditions which I have told you. Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things both in heaven and in earth… Believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he will forgive you…And behold if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; (Mosiah 2:12-22 CofC)

Theologically, this whole passage struck me as very Protestant. No doubt many a Baptist preacher would like such an explicit description of the idea of grace. In King Benjamin’s formulation, salvation is the ultimate gift. We can’t earn it; we can only receive it if we humble ourselves completely and accept ourselves to literally be on par with the panhandlers.

 

Narrative Developments

When King Benjamin’s sermon ends, the whole assembly speaks a liturgical formula, which is called a covenant and is functionally like a mass baptism and confirmation, as they all take upon themselves “the name of Christ” (Mosiah 3:11 CofC).

When that’s finished, King Benjamin retires to emeritus status, his son Mosiah becomes king, and the narrative lurches forward. I know that the Book of Mormon is famous for being dull and repetitive — and maybe that will happen when Oliver Cowdery shows up, the dictation speeds up, and the well goes dry — but for now in this early phase, there’s a lot packed into a little space.

Right away King Mosiah sends a guy named Ammon (a descendant of Zarahemla, which was hitherto just introduced as the name of the land) along with fifteen other “strong men” to the “land of Lehi-Nephi” to find out what happened to “the people who went up to dwell” there (Mosiah 5:1-4 Cof C). Presumably, both the story of the people going to Lehi-Nephi and the story of Zarahemla were part of the lost 116 pages.

Ammon and his party find the land of Lehi-Nephi and its king, Limhi, who is the grandson of the leader of the original expedition, Zeniff. King Limhi and his people pay tribute to Laman, King of the Lamanites and hate their condition enough that they’d prefer to be slaves to Ammon’s people (who are being identified as the Nephites here, I think, for the first time) (Mosiah 5:22 CofC).

But there’s more! In addition to the records of his own people, King Limhi has a set of “twenty-four plates, which are filled with engravings; and they are of pure gold” (Mosiah 5:64 CofC). They were found in the wilderness amid the ruins of a desolate battlefield. The record will, no doubt, “give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed” (Mosiah 5:70 CofC).

King Limhi can’t “translate” the gold plates, but Ammon is aware that King Mosiah has inherited that capacity, which “is a high gift from God” (Mosiah 5:75 CofC). Specifically, King Mosiah is a “seer” — which is to say a man commanded by God to look at things called “interpreters” “wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 5:72-73 CofC). Moreover, Ammon goes on to explain:

…a seer is greater than a prophet… a seer is a revelator, and a prophet also, and a gift which is greater, can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which have past, and also of things which are to come; And by them shall all things be revealed, or rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them; And also, things shall be made known by them, which otherwise could not be known… Doubtless, a great mystery is contained within these plates; and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men… (Mosiah 5:77-83 CofC).

Thus we will be treated to a story within the story — gold plates within gold plates. And with King Mosiah the seer and his interpreters, we have a precedent for Joseph Smith the seer and his seer stones.

Next week: I’ll be reunited with my books in the winter wonderland of Canada and our reading will be Mosiah 6-8 CofC/Mosiah 9-16 LDS.

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* At least it was that temperature Tuesday when I was doing my reading, not so today as I’m posting.

The Gospel According to King Benjamin

book-of-mormon-2This week we’ve jumped into the text of the Book of Mormon proper with Mosiah chapter 1 in the Community of Christ version, which is chapters 1-3 in the LDS version.[1]  Although the dictation process in the initial phase after the loss of the 116 pages was apparently slow and halting, the resulting text was certainly not lacking in ideas and content. Indeed, in this week’s reading we have the first portion of King Benjamin’s sermon — one of the most celebrated components of the Book of Mormon. As a result, this post will run a little longer than my plan for a normal week, but hopefully you’ll find it worthwhile.

As we begin our reading, we find ourselves at the end of the life of King Benjamin. We are told by the narrator that “there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the people which belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days” (Mosiah 1:1 CofC and LDS). As we discussed last week, it’s tempting to speculate that the first part of the Book of Mosiah was lost among the 116 pages (which may well have contained many more lost books than just the lost Book of Lehi). If so, the missing section would presumably have covered a period of warfare prior to this time of peace.

An Introduction to the Text

Although we are picking up mid-story, we are given a bit of an introduction to the overall text in the form of a lesson spoken by King Benjamin to his sons “concerning the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass”:

My son, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God. For it were not possible that our father Lehi could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates… were it not for these things which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God that we might read and understand of his mysteries and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren the Lamanites, which know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct. (Mosiah 1:4-8 CofC/1:3-5 LDS)

This restates the purpose of the text we read in last week’s revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 2:6a-e CofC/D&C 3:16-20 LDS) in greater detail but with an important difference. In the D&C revelation the “Lamanites” — for which we should read the Native Americans in Joseph Smith’s day[2] — are to be given a written history that will lead them to “believe the Gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ.” In King Benjamin’s teaching, the same dilemma (fro is cited: lacking such a written history, Native Americans refuse to believe “even when they are taught”. But unlike in the D&C where the gospel of Jesus Christ is cited, King Benjamin calls this knowledge the commandments and mysteries of God, (for an important reason we’ll see later in the reading). In King Benjamin’s teaching, the appreciation of the power of text expressed here is something that resonates especially for me.

A Model for Righteous Leadership

King Benjamin next makes a proclamation for all his people to gather to hear a lengthy farewell address, during which he promises he will “give this people a name that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 1:17 CofC/1:11 LDS)[3]

Addressing the gathered multitude, King Benjamin first presents himself as a kind of perfect model of sacred kingship — providing a check list for the righteous exercise of authority, both secular and religious. Since these are a list of his own qualities and acts, he is forced to include a slightly defensive humblebrag: yes, humility should be on the list, so you can be sure “I have not done these things that I might boast…I do not desire to boast…” (Mosiah 1:47-48 CofC/2:15-16 LDS).

As a model leader, King Benjamin has not sought gold, silver, and riches, but he has insisted that his people “keep the commandments of the Lord.” In words that must have been reassuring to readers in the young American republic who had only a few generations previously thrown off the rule of their British monarch King George III, in part, over the issue of taxation, King Benjamin reminds his people he had never caused them to “be laden with taxes” or to bear that “which was grievous to be borne.” (Mosiah 1:43-46 CofC/2:12-14 LDS)

In what I think is a very important message, King Benjamin stresses that his people should not “think that I of myself am more than a mortal man” since “I am like yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities of body and spirit.” (Mosiah 1:40-41 CofC/2:10-11 LDS) Leaders, even kings and prophets, are the same as everyone else.  Indeed, admitting his old age and infirmity, King Benjamin’s address marks his final act as king, since he has decided to retire from his position. (This is an interesting scriptural precedent for leaders retiring from active service to emeritus status, which has been the practice for the prophets and presidents of Community of Christ, but not the LDS Church.)

But the foundation of righteous leadership, in Benjamin’s teaching, is service. In a passage I found lovely, he takes his message of service even further:

Behold, ye have called me your king. And if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then had not ye ought to labor to serve one another? And behold also, if I, who ye call your king — who has spent his days in your service and yet hath been in the service of God — doth merit any thanks from you, O how had you ought to thank your heavenly King! (Mosiah 1:50-51 CofC/2:18-19 LDS)

The Gospel According to King Benjamin

The content of this sermon doesn’t let up. Although we’re skipping a lot — there’s far too much here to cover in one blog post — I want to get to place where King Benjamin fulfills his special promise to reveal a name to his people, which knowledge will make them “distinguished above all people” exiled after the destruction of Jerusalem.

At what is perhaps the core moment of his address, King Benjamin relates a vision of an angel, which I’ll quote here at length:

And he [the angel] said unto me: “Awake and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto thee glad tidings of great joy…

“For behold the time cometh and is not far distant that with power the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay;

“And shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwelleth in the hearts of the children of men.

“And lo, he shall suffer temptations and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

“And he shall be called Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.

“And even after all this, they shall consider him as a man and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world.”

This vision is a brief “gospel” in the sense that it is an account of the life of Jesus with a theological interpretation of its meaning. By way of comparison, the apostle Paul gives an even briefer summary gospel in his first Letter to the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news (“gospel”) that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NRSV)

When someone produces a summary, it can be interesting to observe which details are left in and which are left out. Paul, perhaps tellingly, omits relating anything about the teachings or acts of Jesus in life, focusing solely on his death and the resurrected Christ.[3]  King Benjamin’s summary, by contrast, includes many of the events of Jesus’ life recorded in the four full-length Biblical gospels, while still leaving out any teachings. (I notice that detail, perhaps, because if I were to undertake my own summary, it would probably focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ teachings.)

As in Paul’s theology, the purpose of Jesus Christ’s ministry in King Benjamin’s gospel is “that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.” This idea is explored in considerable detail elsewhere throughout King Benjamin’s address (and Paul’s letters). One critical distinction that King Benjamin makes is that although those who have knowledge of Christ must repent and have faith in Christ to be saved (Mosiah 1:108 CofC/3:12 LDS), Christ’s atonement automatically covers those who are ignorant of Christ’s gospel (Mosiah 1:107 CofC/3:11 LDS), including especially those who die in childhood (Mosiah 1:114-15/3:16 LDS), meaning damnation in King Benjamin’s conception is reserved only for those who have heard the gospel and reject it (Mosiah 1:127-29 CofC/3:25-27 LDS).

Finally, I’m struck by the “high Christology” of King Benjamin’s gospel. Since the death of Jesus, Christians have wrestled with his nature and the relationship between the ideas of Jesus, Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God (explorations known as “Christology”). If there is only one, omnipotent God, who is Jesus? Was he simply a righteous man (a very “low Christology”)? Was he a righteous man who was “adopted” by God to become divine (adoptionism)? Was Jesus divine but subordinate to God the Father (Arianism)?  Was Jesus fully divine at birth and only appeared to be a man (docetism)? After centuries of wrangling, the orthodox position emerged that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine” and that there is “one God in three persons.” This doctrine of the Trinity holds that God the Father and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all one God, but Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father — a very complicated solution that is often described as a “mystery.”

King Benjamin’s calls the pre-existent Christ “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity” and goes on twice to use the formula “Christ the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 1:116,118 CofC/3:17,18 LDS). This strong equation of Christ with the Lord Omnipotent might imply either a Trinitarian outlook, or an even higher Christology — the idea that the pre-existent Christ is God the Father (modalism or Sabellianism). We’ll surely get more hints as we continue.

If you’re reading along and other content-related things popped out at you, please feel free to comment!

 

Next Week:

Next week’s reading is Mosiah 2-5 (CofC), 4-8 (LDS), where we’ll hear part 2 of King Benjamin’s sermon.

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[1] As I noted in the first post outlining the project, the Book of Mormon was only broken up into verses after the schism of 1844.  As a result, the LDS Church and Community of Christ have completely different versification systems.

[2] Because there’s so much content to consider this reading, I want to temporarily side-step a lengthy discussion of race and the Book of Mormon. We will surely have much more to say in future weeks. For now, I’ll say that to my thinking, the Anglo-American worldview of the early 19th century was itself unarguably racist and the Book of Mormon reflects the historical biases of its day, just as Paul’s epistles reflect the biases of the Roman Empire of the 1st century CE. Since we are not reading the Book of Mormon as a history this year, I am not supposing here that the text has anything at all to do with the actual history and pre-history of peoples indigenous to the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492. Instead, I expect the description of Lamanites in the text will tell us about the ideas (and prejudices) of Joseph Smith and other Anglo-Americans in the US of the early 19th century.

[3] According to Biblical stories, the exiles from the fallen kingdoms of Judah and Israel would include those taken to Babylon, those who (like Jeremiah) fled to Egypt, along with the members of the northern kingdom who had previously been removed by the Assyrians.

[4] Paul’s writings pre-date the composition of the four full-length gospels of the Biblical canon, and thus the “summary” in his case would be those details about the life of Jesus that Paul thought were most relevant, based on what Paul might have known from the contemporary oral tradition.

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A Couple Stray Observations:

• Last week in the D&C revelation, we were told “neither doth he [God] vary from that which he hath said” (D&C 2:1c CofC/D&C 3:2 LDS) and in this reading the same teaching is repeated: “he [God] never doth vary from that which he hath said” (Mosiah 1:56 CofC/2:32 LDS).

• In explaining why he needed to rehearse his characteristics as ruler to his people, King Benjamin said “I, at this time, have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless and that your blood should not come upon me when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you” (Mosiah 1:64/2:28 LDS).

This reminded me of the theology of King Henry V’s men in the famous scene in Shakespeare (act iv, scene i). The king, in disguise, talks to common soldiers to get a sense of his army’s mood on the eve of battle and at one point states: “methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.”

To which the first soldier replies: “That’s more than we know.” The second agrees, saying: “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” And the third further explains: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.”

Henry’s theology is more sophisticated and he disagrees (the text is here), but King Benjamin’s words imply that he may agree with the men.

The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon

ChapterheaderSample1Although our project this year is to carefully read the Book of Mormon in the order of its composition, the earliest portion of Joseph Smith’s gold plates manuscript was lost (and consequently did not make its way into the Book of Mormon when it was published in 1830).

The first phase of the writing began after Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where her father Isaac Hale set them up with a small house of their own in December of 1828. The composition process was oral: Joseph dictated and Emma wrote down the text. Martin Harris, who was emerging as the chief financier of the project, visited a couple times in early 1829 before relocating to Harmony on April 12 and taking up work as the principal scribe.[1] By the middle of June, a significant portion of the work was complete and Martin convinced Joseph to let him take the working manuscript back to Palmyra, where it was stolen and probably destroyed.

The lost section is generally called the “116 pages,” (although that figure refers to the number of pages of the later replacement manuscript covering the lost section and not the actual number of pages lost). This first section is also called the “Book of Lehi.” From the later internal narrative of the Book of Mormon, the lost text was said to have been first part of an abridgment or edited summary of a much longer collection of records. The Book of Mormon takes its name from Mormon, who was the editor of the abridgment. Properly speaking this name should only refer to the lost 116 pages and the section of the text from “Words of Mormon” through the “Book of Mormon” within the Book of Mormon, i.e., because the Book of First Nephi through the Book of Omni, and then the Book of Ether and the Book of Moroni are not meant to have been part of Mormon’s abridgment.

We’ll explore the device of texts within the text in future weeks; suffice to say that that although we’re attempting to read the book in the order it was composed this year, we can’t start with the original beginning because it is lost. However, we do have something else. (If you’re following along in our weekly readings, you’ll already know what that something is.) In July of 1828, Joseph dictated a new text — with Emma once again replacing Martin as scribe. Joseph used the same procedure that he had been employing to dictate the Book of Mormon with the key difference that the plates were not involved at all, even conceptually. The result was an original message of rebuke, but also consolation. (Because of later alterations when the text was published in the Book of Commandments and again when included in the Doctrine and Covenants, I’m quoting here from the text as copied into the “Revelation Book 1” manuscript, transcribed by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.)

Beginning with the assurance that “the works & designs & the Purposes of God cannot be frustrated”, we read: “although a man may have many Revelations & have power to do many Mighty works yet if he boast in his own strength & Sets at naught the councils of God & follows after the dictates of his will & carnal desires he must fall to the Earth & incur the vengence of a Just God”.[2]  However, the warning is probationary: Joseph has messed up, but he’s going to get a second chance:

[B]ehold thou art Joseph & thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord but because of transgression thou mayest fall but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work & except Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift[.][3]

In the first several paragraphs, God is referred to in the third person (he, his) and Joseph in the second (you, your, thou, thee, thy) as if the Joseph who is dictating the text is acting as a kind of disembodied narrator to the Joseph who is receiving the message. However, that changes briefly in the final paragraph[4]:

[F]or as the knowledge of a Saveiour hath come to the world so shall the knowledge of my People the Nephities & the Jacobites & the Josephites & the Lamanites come to the Lamanites knowledge of the Lamanites & the Lamanites [Lemuelites] & the Ishmaelites which dwindeled in unbelief because of the iniquities of their Fathers who hath been suffered to destroy their Brethren because of their iniquities & their Abominations & for this very Purpose are these Plates prepared which contain these Records that the Promises of the Lord might be fulfilled which he made to his People & that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers & that they may know the Promises of the Lord that they may believe the Gospel & rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ & that they might be glorified through faith in his name & that they might repent & be Saved Amen[.]

With the phrase “my People the Nephites,” Joseph appears to slip into the prophetic voice for the first time — moving from the indirect discourse of God speaking of his people to the direct discourse of God speaking about “my people” in the first person.[5] (And I say “appear to slip” in because by the end with “his People” and “his name” he has already slipped back out again.) Joseph’s use of the prophet voice (which will build considerably in future revelations) was a restoration or imitation of ancient Israelite prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, who presumed to speak messages of rebuke, counsel, and hope to people and individuals, invoking God in the first person.

Thus, out of the crisis of the lost text, we have the start of something new: Joseph the seer is now beginning to act as Joseph the prophet. Ultimately, the assertion of direct revelation was probably just as important as the publication of the Book of Mormon for the foundation of the Latter Day Saint movement that followed. But as the first instance illustrates, the history and forms of both are intertwined.

We can note also that in addition to rehearsing some of the contents of the lost text — it was apparently a story about the Nephites, Jacobites, and Josephites who were destroyed because of their iniquities and abominations by the Lamanites, [Lemuelites], and Ishmaelites — we also are told the purpose of the work: to give the “Lamanites” a history that will lead to belief in Jesus Christ and ultimate salvation. We’ll surely talk more about all of the above in the weeks to come.

Next week’s assignment: Mosiah 1 (CofC); Mosiah 1-3 (LDS).

 

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[1] An extremely useful chronology of this period is found in Dan Vogel (ed.) Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Signature Books, 1996-2003), 5:337-456. A briefer, but still useful chronology can be found in Grant Hardy (ed.) The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003), 643-52.

[2] In the original, the scribe wrote “the words of designs” but crossed out “words of” correcting the text to read “works & designs”. See: http://josephsmithpapers.org/ : the-papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revlation Books (2), Revelation Book 1, pages 3-4.

[3] Later edits will soften this rebuke somewhat. When published in the 1833 Book of Commandments as “Chapter II”: “thou mayest fall” becomes “if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.” And by the time the same text was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as “Section XXX,” the line “therefore repent of that which thou has done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen” became “therefore repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen”.

[4] This changed when the text was edited. The text in the Book of Commandments read: “Therefore, repent of that which thou has done, and he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season, and thou are still chosen…” The altered text in the D&C reads: “therefore, repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen…” which retroactively introduces God as “I”.

[5] These prophetic compositions (now usually referred to as “revelations”) were often initially called “commandments” and were collected, edited, and published in the Book of Commandments (1833). They were later edited again and rebranded as “covenants” when included in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). This first revelation became “Chapter II” of the Book of Commandments and “Section XXX” of the 1835 D&C. (It’s now Community of Christ D&C 2 and LDS D&C 3.)

This series is cross-posted on Wheat and Tares.

Reading the Book of Mormon in 2014 with Fresh Eyes

BooksOfMormonIn the new year 2014, I’m going to read the Book of Mormon.

I’ve opined more than once that as a major work of American literature, the Book of Mormon is unfairly ignored by readers outside the Restoration tradition. I believe the book can (and should) be read as an epic of the young American republic in the first generations after the revolution. With a few exceptions like Harold Bloom, most non-Mormons have either followed Mark Twain’s humorous panning of the text (as impenetrably boring)[1] or they’ve disregarded it altogether.

Even within the Restoration tradition, the book has tended to be used in particular ways. For the earliest members in the 1830s, the Book of Mormon was apparently more important as a sign of the end times and prophetic authority than as a source of theological content for preaching.[2] Over the years I suspect that readers within the tradition have tended to read the text as a history book — in keeping with the idea that the religion of Mormonism has history in place of a systematic theology. Recently, for many readers committed to reading the text as a literalistic history of the ancient Americas, this has led (in my opinion) to substantial distortions of its original meaning as the book is reframed through the prism of our ever-expanding knowledge of actual Meso-American history.  (In Community of Christ, it’s been read less and less according to informal feedback from members in my own congregation and around North America, with many people unsure how to approach the book anymore.)

I’m planning to approach the text differently. Instead of reading the book as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority or the authority of one of the successor churches of the religious movement he helped found or trying to read into it a history of the ancient Mayans or Olmecs, I’m intending to read the Book of Mormon for its theological and philosophical content. To better understand this content, I’ll attempt to place it within Joseph Smith’s immediate context — the fervent North American Protestant religious revival in early the 19th century known as the “Second Great Awakening.” I’ll try to read the stories for what they are trying to teach as stories, rather than as histories of past events. I hope to track the early development of Joseph Smith’s religious thinking and how it influenced the early Restoration, but I also want to see how I will find meaning in the Book of Mormon’s theology and philosophy for those of us living now in the 21st century.

I think I’m returning to the Book of Mormon with a unique vantage. On the one hand, I’m fairly knowledgeable about the background history of its composition and publication and I think I’m rather familiar with its contents in a general sense. But I haven’t actually read the book cover to cover since I was a young teenager. I’m therefore approaching the text with eyes that are at once informed but also somewhat fresh.

I also come at the text armed with a different understanding of scripture than many other faithful members of Restoration traditions that are more literalistic. My views are largely in keeping with Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. This view includes the idea that scripture is not inerrant scientifically or historically. Rather, scripture is a human response to the Divine and the prophet or evangelist who authored the text was subject to the biases and errors inherent in his or her historical context. Rather than excuse ethical or philosophically bad teachings in scripture, in my view we need to understand them for what they are and use them to help us explore the ethical and philosophical questions we face in our lives today.

My own bias at the outset includes my belief that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century scripture, composed orally by Joseph Smith and written down by various scribes (especially Oliver Cowdery). If you believe the text is a translation of an ancient American text, I think you may still derive benefit from reading along with me and examining the text in a different light. However, the resulting discussion will not be a forum for historicity debates; those can be held elsewhere. Similarly, if you aren’t sure about or don’t believe in God or have value for the word or concept of “scripture,” I think you may still benefit from reading along and examining the book’s content in context.

Scope of the Project / How You Can Read Along

The text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today is different from the text as it was composed. Thousands of edits were made in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the different churches and publishers made subsequent changes. One of the biggest changes was the division of the book into numbered verses, which each church did on its own. The LDS Church also divided the long, original chapters into shorter chapters — thus the chapter and versification between the Community of Christ and LDS versions are entirely different. (I’ll cite both reference systems as I post.) To get at the earliest text, I’m going to do my principal reading from Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009). I’ll supplement it using Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003) for the LDS text along with my copy of the Community of Christ’s “Authorized Edition” of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, 1992).

In order to take in the development of the Book of Mormon’s ideas, I’m going to read it in the order it was composed, rather than in the order of its internal chronology. The earliest part of the text is famously lost: the so-called “116 Pages” given to Martin Harris. When Joseph began to compose again, he started at the point of the narrative where he’d left off with the story of King Benjamin in the Book of Mosiah. He then dictated the text to the end of the Book of Moroni before starting in on I and II Nephi through Words of Mormon. Using that order, I’ve divided the book into reading sections, which I’m posting here for anyone who wants to read along. Each Wednesday I’ll publish a blog post with my reflections on that week’s reading and we can share in discussion here.

My first post will be next Wednesday (on New Year’s Day), where we’ll talk a little bit about the book’s composition process and the original, lost part of the text. Since we don’t have the “116 Pages,” our reading will come from the Doctrine and Covenants (Community of Christ Section 2, which is LDS Section 3).

Next year I’m teaching adult Sunday School in the Toronto congregation who will be reading along with me and discussing the text each Sunday at 10 am.  I’ll be posting posting on Wheat and Tares for the Mormon audience and here for the Community of Christ audience.  Feel free to read along and join us!

ReadingSchedule1

ReadingSchedule2

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[1] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Twain devotes chapter 16 to a humorous review of the Book of Mormon. Although Twain’s quip that the book “is chloroform in print” is much quoted, the joke no longer translates as people have ceased to remember chloroform as a sleep-inducing anesthetic. I much prefer Twain’s take on the Eight Witnesses, which still holds up: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

[2] In her study of the writings of William McLellin, one of the original Latter Day Saint apostles, Jan Shipps noted that “although the Book of Mormon is always mentioned, at only three points does this extended account of six years for Mormon preaching in the early 1830s [i.e., McLellin’s journals] indicate that this scripture was used as a source for sermon texts.” More important than its content for early members was “the fact of the book” and “its coming forth a the opening event in the dispensation that was serving as the ‘winding-up scene’ before the curtain rose on the eschaton.” See Jan Shipps, “Another Side of Early Mormonism,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 6.

“How Blessed the Day when the Lamb and the Lion…”

I know I’m not alone when I confess that my favorite hymn is “The Spirit of God like a Fire Is Burning.” The song holds a special place in Restoration history as the last entry included in Emma Smith’s original 1836 hymnal, and was sung as part of the dedication ceremony for Kirtland Temple.  I always enjoy singing it, but the most special times I remember have been in the temple itself:  (1) during a interdenominational Latter Day Saint service at a John Whitmer Historical Association conference, (2) during the dedication of the new temple visitors center, and (3) during a worship service at an Affirmation conference.

We in Community of Christ sing the song a little differently than our Utah cousins.  Some of the notes are different, especially in the chorus.  We have the “…a-ar-mies of hea-eav-en, Ho-sa-nah…” while the LDS version adds more notes “…a-ar-mies of hea-ea-ve-en, Ho-o-sa-nah…”*  Also, in the Utah tradition, the hymn tends to be sung slowly and ponderously, while it’s way more up-beat in the Community of Christ tradition.

When I first encountered the text in the 1981 maroon RLDS hymnal, Hymns of the Saints, I was surprised to discover one additional difference: only three verses of the hymn were included.  The LDS version includes four verses culminating with:

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
Shall lie down together without any ire.
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessings in Zion,
As Jesus descends with his chariots of fire!

The original hymn actually had six verses of which “How blessed the day…” was the last.  Apparently both churches agree that verses four and five were worth skipping.  These are “We’ll wash and be wash’d and with oil be anointed, withal not omitting the washing of feet. For he that receiveth his penny appointed, must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat,” and “Old Israel that fled from the world for his freedom, must come with the cloud and the pillar amain; a Moses, an Aaron, a Joshua lead him, and feed him on manna from heaven again.”  While it might be interesting to speculate who lyricist W.W. Phelps considered Moses, Aaron, and Joshua — Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon for the first two, perhaps Lyman Wight (the general of Zion’s Camp) for the latter? — I feel like we aren’t losing too much by pruning these off.

CommunityOfChristLogoBut it’s a shame to lose the lamb and the lion in Zion verse.  After all, this was the RLDS verse!  Since the late 19th century, the church seal has been a picture of the lamb, lion, and child emblazoned with the motto “Peace.” It’s a Restoration distinctive going back to Kirtland, but for some reason it was omitted from the 1981 hymnal.  (In fact, I have one of the previous gray 1956 RLDS hymnals and I see the verse was already missing back then.)  While the “Ephraim be crowned…” bit is a little weird (referring to an early Restoration notion that Latter Day Saints were somehow literally descended from the Biblical tribe of Ephraim), the offending imagery was probably Jesus in the chariot of fire — evoking a much more militant concept of the vision of the lamb and the lion than is consonant with the church’s “Peace” motto.

When I got a hold of a copy of the new Community of Christ Sings hymnal this week, I immediately looked for my favorite hymn.  (I’m excited for all the new hymns, but first thing’s first.)  I was pleasantly surprised to see what I had always thought of as the RLDS verse restored — or rather, a new and improved Community of Christ “How blessed the day…” verse has been added:

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
shall lie down together in peace with a child.
With one heart and mind may the Lord call us Zion:
a people of justice, by God’s love inspired.

Beautiful!  Can’t wait to sing it in the temple.

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* According to the version printed in the hymnal published independently by J.C. Little and G.B. Gardner — the first Latter Day Saint hymnal that included music — the Community of Christ version is closer to the original.  However, in the Little and Gardner version there are additional notes in the first part of the chorus: “We’ll si-ing and we’ll shou-out…”  See Richard Clothier, 150 Years of Song: Hymnody in the Reorganization, 1860–2010, (Herald Publishing House: Independence, Missouri, 2010), 14–16.

Quit Counting!

3in1On many occasions I’ve had the opportunity to chat with members of other Latter Day Restoration factions (often including members of the Restoration Branches, the Temple Lot, LDS, and others). Many of these conversations have left me with the impression that a lot of members of these other groups tend to think that the purpose of the Restoration is to be the Restored Church. I also happen to know that a lot of members of Community of Christ feel the same way. However, this is in fact not the case.

Let me state at this early point that I do believe with all my heart that Community of Christ is the Restored Church; and that the very concept of the Restoration is integral to our existence.

However, we do not exist to be the Restored Church. The Restored Church does not exist to be the Restored Church. Or to be the Restoration. Say it anyway you want, but the simple fact is, we were not restored to be the Restored Church. That is, quite simply, just what we happen to be, as a result of the Restoration having taken place.

This might be a bit of a mind snap, so let me try to clarify what I mean. What is “the Restoration” a restoration of? Or, what is the Restored Church a restoration of? Quite simply, Christ’s church. That’s it. However, its an important distinction that I feel is often overlooked.

I’ll say it again. We were not established to be the Restored Church. We *are* the Restored Church, but we were created to be, and are, first and foremost, “the church”. If you have traditional Restoration beliefs, you have to accept this as valid.

I feel this all warrants highlighting, because, as I mentioned above, many people in Latter Day Restoration factions (again, including a large number of us) tend to overlook this foundational truth.

And it generally manifests in this manner: Counting.

Counting how often Restoration concepts are used. In the conversations I’ve had, many people have said to me “Your church (Community of Christ) is no longer a Restoration church” or “We are ceasing to be a Restoration church”, etc.

The same rationale for such thinking is presented over and over: “Your/our publications and your/our World Conference sermons seldom, if ever, quote from the Book of Mormon, early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Inspired Version of the Bible; or reference Joseph Smith Jr., the sacred grove, the restoration of priesthood authority, etc.”

This kind of thinking always makes me smirk, because I know with all my heart that we are not called to count such things. The original twelve apostles did not have the Book of Mormon. They did not have Joseph Smith Jr. They did not have the various unique features of the Restoration. Christ did not make such things the heart and soul of the church. They are not the spiritual foundation of Christ’s church, nor are they the purpose for which it was created, in any era.

The church was, I suspect, established for many reasons – but not for *any* the above. The church today is meant to be a restoration of the ancient church. It is, after all, not a new church, but a restoration – a new iteration, in modern times, of the ancient church.

However, a new iteration is not a new church, anymore than a reorganization of a church does not make it a new church; and we must always remember, we are, first and foremost, the church of Jesus Christ, not Joseph Smith.

We are called to be “the church”, not the Restoration. Our primary concerns should be ensuring that we are in alignment with the mission of Jesus Christ, that we are driving the Great Commission; that we are helping to further the cause of Zion by (among other things) feeding the poor, tending the sick, helping to diminish tyranny, protecting the environment, encouraging animal conservation and promoting communities of joy, hope, love and peace as we proclaim Jesus Christ.

The people who tend to count how often Community of Christ makes use of Restoration concepts or Restoration resources also tend to believe in the concept of the one true church. While this concept is no longer a focus item for Community of Christ, it is a doctrine that I personally believe in.

Yet, I find the combination of “church truists” and “counters” to be ironic because, I’m quite convinced that if the doctrine of a one true church really is of God (as I believe), then the church so recognized as the true church in the mind and will of God will be so viewed, by Him, for a plethora of reasons which will include the various causes I mentioned above (mission of Christ, feeding the poor, cause of Zion, etcetera).

If there is a true church, it will not be, in my opinion, regarded as the true church (by God) for how often it references the sacred grove. Or (ahem) priesthood keys.

It is also my conviction that any church that is obsessed with counting the usage of restoration teachings (in itself or others), or which is primarily focused on ensuring that it is the Restored Church, above all other considerations, will never be regarded by the Lord as His one true church.

In other words, once you start counting how often others reference Restoration theology, and/or become prideful of how much of a Restoration faction your own denomination is, you can kiss any claim you feel you have to being the one true church goodbye.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I reject Restoration concepts, doctrines, or resources. I embrace them, I celebrate them, I use them and I believe in them.

In fact, it is my deep conviction that our Restoration heritage is what makes us so awesome (and we are awesome).

Nonetheless, I tend to regard all of our Restoration characteristics as tools, to help us spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, to help people encounter God and Reflect Christ. Our Restoration heritage is what keeps us relevant; and we need to recognize that our Restoration beliefs resonate with a larger number of seekers.

There is just so much tremendous value in our various Restoration concepts and resources. The more we embrace them, the more relevant and redemptive I think we will be.

However, they are meant to help us drive the Great Commission, and the mission of Jesus Christ. They are not meant to be our very purpose, the reason for why we exist. Christ’s mission has never been to promote the Book of Mormon, or the Inspired Version, etc. His mission has little do with such things, but as we have been reminded, his mission is our mission.

It is however not just our mission. It is the mission of all Christians, including all the other factions of the Restoration.

So, let us all work together in furthering Christ’s mission, let us remember to “let contention cease” and let us stop counting!

Eternal Life: Leaving the Mystery A Mystery

one with god

It seems that for as long as mankind has been externally and internally conscious, there has been speculation about eternal life, or an existence beyond this current state of being. Our recognition of finitude has naturally led us to posit various ideas of the afterlife and/or immortality. From ancient literature to Swedenborg to blogposts today, fascination with the mystery of mankind’s potential is clear.

Interestingly enough, much of ancient Jewish literature before the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE had little to do with life after death. Sheol was simply a place where just about everyone ended up. The focus was on this life. Take, for example, Qoheleth, the philosopher of Ecclesiastes, who concludes somewhat depressingly, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” and that life is often a “chase after wind.” Yet all was not lost. We could still live fully in this life, an ideal which he captures by stating that one should “eat, drink, and be merry.” I am not encouraging constant partying, however metaphorically, that ideal emphasizes the value which can be taken out of this life. The Jewish apocalyptic genre changed Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, such as in Daniel which touches upon the resurrection of the dead. At the period when Daniel was written, Hellenistic thought was influencing Jewish doctrines, and a transformation began to occur. The timing was ripe for new conceptions of God, the adversary, and the afterlife, all of which would become more objectified.

Christianity, of course, has led to vivid depictions of the afterlife. During medieval times and especially in response to the Enlightenment era, Christianity became a religion focused on the afterlife. Dante Alighieri’s lucid descriptions of heaven, hell, and purgatory is perhaps the most well-known example, however others, such as the mystic Meister Eckhart contributed to the images as well. As I mentioned earlier, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote widely publicized descriptions of the afterlife, with some of his ideas perhaps even influencing Joseph Smith.

The point of this brief historical discussion is to illustrate how much the mystery of eternal life has influenced the speculative thought of mankind. In keeping with this tradition, now seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts.

The short answer is that I don’t know what any state of post existence may contain. Though I may be unsure of its exact nature, I like to believe that there is eternal life. Yet the most I am willing to say is that when I die, I believe it will be into the immanent and transcendent, accepting and sustaining God at the ground of my current state of being.

Eternal life can be experienced even now. What is eternity, but the confluence of time without time or limits; paradoxical on paper, but such are the limits of language. I would like to speculate on the exact nature of that which is beyond existence but language prevents me. I digress. The blessings of eternal life in this existence can be attained by overcoming the powers which serve to bind our actualization and fulfillment. As the theologian Bruce Epperly has written, the ultimate goal of life in terms of achieving fulfillment is growth in God, or as Paul wrote, growth through a life in Christ.

The Christian message should not be focused on the afterlife, as that leads to a focus on creeds and requirements. The Christian life should be one of cultivating a relationship with God in this life. With any relationship, there are ups and downs. In our imperfection, we may be unfaithful. Eternal life, however, cannot be distorted with images of reward and punishment in the form of eternal joy for some and torment for others. The imperfections of our finitude will never render us cut off from God, though we may be estranged. As I must include Paul Tillich into this post somehow, we can always accept that we are accepted. God as love means that God accepts us, trying to unify all that is, and working to bring about our individual and collective fulfillment. Our existential despair can be overcome not just as an individual, but also through experiencing the joy of others as they strive to grow and actualize themselves. The offer of acceptance and the ability to grow is, to modify Paul’s statement in Romans, limited to neither Christian nor Jew, atheist nor believer, rich nor poor.

(https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/everlasting-life-a-progressive-perspective/)
(http://www.marcusjborg.com/2010/03/17/agnostic-about-the-afterlife/)
(http://mysticalseeker.blogspot.com/2007/10/borg-and-afterlife.html)