Tag Archives: Mormonism

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.

Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

Battlestar_Galactica_1978_-_intro

I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Lions Among Men

Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.

Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.

I'd trust this man.

I’d trust this man.

Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.

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.

Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.

Alien Bears

“And if there’s life on other planets, I’m sure that he must know, and has been there once already, and died to save their souls.” Larry Norman, one of the original Jesus Freaks, may not have been the deepest theologian, but his words come to mind as I see scientists reluctantly admitting that maybe life on earth is not so unique after all. It’s been in the news that Kepler Space Telescope’s data have been indicating that other planets like earth may be quite common. It has always amazed me that people have been so reluctant to let go of the notion that we are the only spark of intelligence in this vast, vast, cold, and dark universe. We seem to need to think we’re special. Religions generally indicate that the gods made us for some purpose or another, some love us, some are indifferent, others may be hostile. But generally, we’re unique. The Mormons have for years taught that there is life out there, but mainstream Christianity has generally been agin it, mainly owing to the crucifixion. Larry Norman, the original Christian rock artist, speculated that cosmic history repeated itself: if Jesus died for us, well then, he must’ve done the favor for them too.

Once Edwin Hubble stepped away from the telescope, stuck his famous pipe in his mouth, and said “huh,” I would’ve thought other scientists might’ve considered, like H. G. Wells, that “they” were out there looking back at us. Why this reluctance to suppose that we’re not alone? The story in the Washington Post cites the typical reason: the Goldilocks effect. Scientists, perhaps unwittingly influenced by the anthropic principle, have supposed other planets, if they existed, were either too hot or too cold to support life. We, like Goldilocks, happened to inhabit the only planet among the billions of galaxies of billions of stars, that got it just right. More like God-ilocks. The idea derives from Genesis where, it is strongly implied, we are the only ones. Religion influences culture, whether materialists want to admit it or not. The earth-only bias is inherently religious.

Who's looking back at Hubble?

Who’s looking back at Hubble?

Astronomers will gradually come around to the idea that there are other planets like ours. It will likely take decades, perhaps centuries, before they will commonly admit that life forms like ours are out there walking around. Eventually they may decide that there’s something to UFOs after all. Meanwhile, various New Religious Movements have already hitched rides on those flying saucers and they will be laughing once the rest of us catch up. We tend, under the influence of those who claim religion is always Bronze Age drivel, to forget that religion often leads the way to new territory. When the little green men and women land, we’ll find that many religions have beat science to the punchline. I’m not so sure, however, that the aliens will know who Jesus is. After all, this chair’s too hard, and this one’s too soft.