Tag Archives: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.

Coexist

In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

Imagining Things

Having a child in college is one way for me to stay attuned to popular culture. You can absorb quite a lot by simply paying attention while on campus. For example, on the last several visits I’ve heard the song “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons, being piped into various venues. Given the biblical language of the song, I wondered about its origins, but, like many a distracted parent, had too much on my mind to pursue it. Well, on a recent visit, the song got stuck in my head. Partially this was because during an a cappella concert the Christian group did a cover of the song. This sent me to the internet—the only place where information on contemporary culture is instantly at your fingertips—to do a bit of poking around. Secular groups, after all, frequently use biblical references unnoticed.

When I learned that two members of Imagine Dragons were from Brigham Young University, I just had to know if they were Mormons. From what I’d seen of concert photos, white shirts and ties were rather conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, it turns out, according to the web, that the group does have some LDS in its bloodstream. I’m not so naive as to think that being of a particular religious background makes rockers religious. The debates raged in college over whether U2 was a Christian group because some of them were Catholics. I don’t recall seeing any crucifixes on the album art. This is all especially intriguing because Christianity and rock-n-roll are considered by many to be natural enemies. The origins of rock in the sexually suggestive blues had many 1950’s parents quite worried.

Religion changes, however, once you get away from the parents. I’ve known Mormons that I couldn’t identify as such until they told me. I’ve known Catholics about which I still harbor doubts. Religious affiliation is sometimes purely cultural. That won’t prevent you from being excluded from consideration for a teaching position at any of their schools, however. Scholars of religion can be the greatest believers of fiction to be found. Still, I have to admit to myself that the song “Demons” does keep me coming back. I wonder if the Christian group performing the song was aware of its Mormon tinge, or if they even cared. Sometimes theology can be had for a song.

ImagineDragons

Exceptionalism

UnderTheBannerOfHeavenSome years ago I was invited to a famous person’s house along with some intellectuals—we’re all mature here, so names aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that I ended up at the children’s table, being soft-spoken as I tend to be. The discussion had turned to international affairs, and since I can barely manage my own affairs I didn’t have much to say. Eventually it was suggested that if rule of law could take hold in the Middle East, strife would end. I finally spoke up, loudly injecting a “no” into the conversation. The problem with religious-based conflict is that the rule of law has been subordinated to the divine will. That is very well illustrated in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. As Krakauer explains in his conclusions, he had set out to write a book that explored the history and background of his polite, abstemious, and law-abiding Mormon neighbors and friends. The story, however, takes a darker turn.

What Krakauer delivers is not a slam on Mormonism, but rather something far more difficult—an attempted even-handed history. As even Mormons at the various trials depose in the book, the faith has some strange beliefs. All religions do. For a religion less than 200 years old, the Latter-Day Saints also have an impressive violence in their history; parts of this book are like a fantasy novel, they seem so unlikely. Again, nothing unusual here. All religions have violent episodes. In general, religions aren’t violent—people are. The problems arise when the true believer (and there always will be) insists that religion trumps the rule of law every time. As Krakauer shows, those who violate society’s laws are not insane. They are, however, not judging the world by the same standards of the wider society. It’s just that, occurring as it does in the light of an historical period, the strangeness of how a religion starts is clearly illuminated in Mormonism. No number of apocalyptic horsemen will be able to stop the religious imagination once it is fired up. The problem with lines in the sand is that they easily move.

Perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Joseph Smith’s latter-day revelations is that of polygamy. Like a young Augustine, Smith had an eye for the ladies. Personal indulgence at the hand of a religious founder is not at all unusual. The problem is, the women in this book have been abused and traumatized in a religion, not unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that asserts (or has asserted) male superiority. Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen being married off to men three times their age to join what is essentially a harem doesn’t offer these young ladies a chance to become their own person. The majority of Krakauer’s study focuses on Fundamentalist Mormon sects, and not the mainstream Mormons who have great political power and occasionally run for president. Still, this is a very important book. It is not primarily about the Mormons. It is about those who can’t see beyond a blind faith in what would otherwise be a perfectly good piece of fantasy literature.

Equal Measure

Far off in the woods of Wisconsin sits a seminary. In these woods, I’m told, wolves eat little girls. That seminary has for decades distinguished itself by its stance against women priests. I knew of, and respectfully disagreed with this policy when I was hired to teach there in 1992. I didn’t make waves, but rollers have a way of finding you nevertheless. It doesn’t take much to capsize an unstable boat. Within my first year a student challenged me, “Did your life change forever on July 29, 1974?” I was unfamiliar with the code and asked what happened on that date, vaguely thinking perhaps it had something to do with the run-up to the Bicentennial. On that date, it turns out, Barbara Harris was ordained among the first female priests (the Philadelphia Eleven) in the Episcopal Church in the United States. I suppose my life should’ve changed—for the better—but I was a Methodist at the time. Perhaps my life changed then, for I was 12, but that change had little to do with what the student intended. Or maybe everything. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a woman priest in any case. In 1989, Harris was elected bishop, the first woman to hold that title in the Anglican communion. Just three years later I found myself in the lion’s den.

When I asked male students what their problem was with women priests the answer invariably pointed to three factors: Jesus had no women disciples (wrong, according to a certain sacred book they claim to have revered), the Roman Catholic church did not ordain women, and the Church of England did not ordain women. The problem with backing and filling is that filling always overtakes backing. By 1994 the Church of England was ordaining women. Yesterday, at long last, the General Synod approved of female bishops. Welcome to the twentieth century. Now only Rome stands in the way. I am confident, despite the certitude in the eyes of my Nashotah interlocutor, that Rome will eventually come around. I may not live to see it, but justice will be served.

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

There is good evidence that most religions, prior to the monotheistic triad, had women priests. Something about the singularity of deity seems to have contraindicated a protective mother in the psyche of male clergy. Ironically, the same day that the C of E decided to do what was right, Oxford University Press’s blog ran a post on Mormon women bloggers. Among the newest monotheistic faiths, like the traditions before it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has not recognized the sacerdotal role of women, leading some to be excommunicated for speaking out. We are told that God is a jealous god. This is, after all, the wilderness. After yesterday’s long-awaited decision the woods seem a little less dense, and the threat of the wolves may have been exaggerated all along. If religions would only see people as people all our lives might just change forever.

Myth-story

ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.