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.
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.
Posted in American Religion, Higher Education, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Rock-n-Roll, Sects
Tagged Brigham Young University, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, demons, Imagine Dragons, Mormons, Roman Catholicism, U2
Either 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.
Posted in Bible, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Abraham Lincoln, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Gospels, Hebrew Bible, historical Jesus, John F. Kennedy, Midrash, Robert M. Price, The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems