Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Post I've Been Avoiding

I haven't been entirely honest with you. There has been a post on my mind for some time that I've avoided making, because it deals with a subject matter that might change our relationship (or, rather, what you think of me). Those of us in the Community of Christ tradition already know, but since this is an ecumenical-type blog reaching out beyond the narrow sectarian lines of a peculiar denomination, this is the first time I'll be addressing this. I've tried to give the impression that I am a blogger willing to discuss most any issue or topic respectfully and earnestly - and while that's mostly true, I've had this post in mind for some time and not written it. And it has affected my willingness/eagerness to post anything at all: I don't want to be untrue or ingenuine. But I realize now that I am also doing you and this proto-community we're building a disservice by not posting what I think is interesting. I have to respect you as much as I hope to be respected by you - and in the context of a blog that means sharing what I feel is topical and insightful.

The topic is the Book of Mormon. The Community of Christ inherits the Book of Mormon from our history as authoritative (alongside the Bible) for our community. The CofC generally approaches scripture differently than most traditions, but the Book of Mormon is nonetheless peculiar, and there is no dearth of positions among members of the church regarding it. My intent in posting this - as with all my posts - is not to convert, but to discuss or highlight what I have found interesting or compelling. Realizing that this is not just a CofC forum, but an ecumenical (perhaps even inter-faith) community, I ask for indulgence in posting the following. Thanks. -Flannel Christian

Recent interpretations of the Book of Mormon have emphasized its rationality in contrast to the religious enthusiasm of American revivalism, its calm millennial hope in contrast to Millerite enthusiasm, its progressive optimism in contrast to Calvinist determinism, and its quest for order in contrast to romanticism. Unfortunately, these interpretations miss the animating spirit of the book. ... These interpretations fail to see that the Book of Mormon is a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class and education. (The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch, pp115-6, emphasis mine)

Author Nathan Hatch is an historian - specifically a religious historian, more specifically an historian of American religiosity in the post-revolutionary era. He is not, by the way, a Mormon. His book, The Democratization of American Christianity, which I read recently for a Seminary class in religious history, focuses on the fifty year period following the American Revolution (1780-1830) and analyzes the impact of the populist, democratic and revolutionary language and ideas of the Revolution affected American Christianity. His analysis is brilliant and engaging. Hatch meaningfully charts the course of American religion in a distinct and divergent direction from its European (primarily English) counterpart: anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, emphasizing the authority of the individual and the unschooled. The whole way through, in fact, the text serves as an insightful commentary on American culture (not just religion) up to the present. (A recent manifestation of this American spirit of anti-intellectualism is so many people praising the president not for his education or insight but for his down-home-ness and approachability - the seeming greatest compliment to pay to the supreme leader that he seems like the kind of guy you could have a beer with.)

Hatch illustrates his thesis of the ideas of the Revolution affecting American Christianity by focusing on popular and upstart movements that arose or grew during the post-Revolutionary period. Among these are the Methodists, the Baptists, the Christian movement, black churches, and the Mormons. Being both an American and a member of a religious community that traces its history to the Latter Day Saint movement, this book was a phenomenal read for me. Hatch's thesis and work deserves more discussion and attention than I am prepared to give it here, but one part jumped out to me in particular: his (brief) discussion of the Book of Mormon.

Honestly, I was surprised he talked about the BofM at all, let alone as much as he did. And it is funny to think that this non-LDS historian has had a greater impact on my faith-encounter with the Book of Mormon than any religious thinker in the past twenty years of my life. You see, like most Americans, I am a rather secularized person. Like most people my age, I am also postmodern - meaning I approach absolute claims with significant criticism. And I am also an historian (albeit amateurish), so I see events and beliefs in the past (and present) as contextualized, as affected by the events and thoughts and historical factors surrounding them in space and time.

As such, many of the cliche absolute claims of Christianity are troublesome to me - when Christians use the Bible or doctrine to bash others, for instance, embarrasses me. I see many of the claims Christians make, no less the Bible, as historicized and context-bound. But the Bible and some elementary doctrinal claims are more or less public domain, and most everyone feels free to discuss them as if they are what they claim they are. (It's not all that simple, of course, but indulge me... this is just background.)

The Book of Mormon, though, doesn't have that same public acceptance. That's partly because of its newness (only 170 years old), and partly because of the difference of Mormons from what is generally-held Christianity. But the BofM's non-acceptance is primarily due, in my opinion, to our modern/post-modern reliance on reason and explicit verifiability (in a quasi-scientific way) for qualifications of "truth." We believe that in order for something to be meaningful, it has to be "true;" and in order for it to be "true" (in a modern/post-modern fact-driven way) it must be reasonably verifiable and coincide with other scientifically verified data. And, frankly, the Book of Mormon's historical claims just don't stand up under that kind of scrutiny. So the Book of Mormon has been both a part of my rich heritage and an embarrassment to my secularized, post-modern, rational sensibilities.

Here is this rational, post-modern historian, doing brilliant analysis of the cultural, political and religious climate of the post-revolutionary period, and he spends a few pages talking about the Book of Mormon. That's not too surprising. A lot of people can afford a couple pages dedicated to ripping the BofM apart for not matching up to its absolutist claims and so forth. But what is surprising is that Hatch didn't do this. Hatch, as an historian, approaches the text with the foregone conclusion that it was written by Joseph Smith (as opposed to an historical document divinely translated by JS). But this upfront falsehood is entirely unimportant to him - it forms one of the uninteresting postulates upon which his interest and analysis begins to rise.

What is interesting to Hatch is what the BofM says to its readers (particularly its nineteenth-century American readers), and what it expresses and gives voice to in that historical period and place. Hatch writes: "The single most striking theme in the Book of Mormon is that it is the rich, the proud, and the learned who find themselves in the hands of an angry God. Throughout the book, evil is most often depicted as the result of pride and worldliness that comes from economic success and results in oppression of the poor." (117) Hatch puts Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Latter Day Saint movement in the context of an American sensibility that reflected the rage/outrage against injustice and authoritarianism that was cultivated during the American Revolution. Hatch's thesis is that the political language of the Revolution in the years following the end of the War spread and transferred to the religious sphere - inciting people to scorn religious authority and classism. "The vision of Joseph Smith is intensely populist in its rejection of the religious conventions of his day and in its hostility to the orthodox clergy, its distrust of reason as an exclusive guide, and its rage at the oppression of the poor." (120)

What captures and holds Hatch's attention (and therefore his readers') is not the outlandish historical claims for the origin and nature of the Book of Mormon, but the message and worldview the Book of Mormon was expressing and constructing. Smith was giving voice to a sense of alienation from and disappointment in traditional/institutional Christianity - seeing the sectarian bickering of denominations, the drive-through revivals that lifted people for a moment and then left them just as quickly, the hypocrisy of wealthy or ostentatious priests and religious hierarchy while the work of lifting up the poor and oppressed went undone.

In attempting to define his alienation from the world around him, Smith resorted to a biblical frame of reference rather than to one of conventional politics.... Yet in constructing a grand and complex narrative account of the ancient world, he chose to employ a distinct set of biblical themes: divine judgment upon proud oppressors, blindness to those wise in their own eyes, mercy for the humble, and spiritual authority to the unlearned. This book is a stern and sober depiction of reality. (116, emphasis mine)

Did you hear that? An historian calling the Book of Mormon a "sober depiction of reality"! Holy moly! I'm not advocating the acceptance of the BofM's historical claims and self-identification here. My postmodern critical mind can't do that. But what I am beginning to learn is that "truth" may have more meanings than my narrow, secularized, modern/postmodern sensibilities have heretofore allowed.

I have thought (or feared) for many years that because of the absolutist claims of the Book of Mormon and its dubitable origins, I would have to jettison the text entirely. I have fallen for the evangelical Christian line that everything has to be "true" if any of it is true. They were speaking of the Bible (advocating for its full and literal infallibility and authority) - on which I am willing to take them to task - but for some reason I yielded the argument on the Book of Mormon. Can I accept the outlandish and foundational claims as falsehood, and still lift up the work as a valuable and meaningful expression of the Spirit of God? Can I say - similarly to the way I speak of the Bible - those absolute claims about divine origin are not "true" in a scientific or historical sense, but the text nevertheless speaks a truth?

Or, to invert the question: Can we ever tell the truth without speaking through lies?

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8 Comments:

  • Good Post Christian! It is one that I am going to have to go back and read a couple of times just to take it all in.

    I started reading the BofM last week. While at conference I realized that my lack of knowledge on the book was not acceptable as a minister in this Faith movement.

    By Blogger Sean Langdon, at 1:50 PM  

  • Yay Christian! This is a great post!

    Are you taking Community of Christ Theology with T & C in the upcoming intensive? I really adored that class.

    Ambivalence, I think, is probably the most important tool for ministers and theologians to have in their toolboxes. We need to be able to look at texts and histories in ways that don't require wholesale acceptance or rejection, but instead make space for complex and nuanced understandings.

    (sidebar: One thing that is interesting about Canadians is that we never had the same kind of great populism or democratization movements, no revolutionary war, and so people tend to be more content up here to continue with status quo classism and intellectualism.)

    In relation to our Community of Christ tradition, I think ambivalence is an important tool because we have such a tortured relationship with our history. For too long our history was our theology, and as we've begun to deconstruct that history, and reveal its darker side, we're not sure what to do. That is where creative, open readings of history can - as Hatch does with the B of M - give birth to new meaning-making for people. I once wrote a paper on this topic called "How to Dance with the Skeletons in Your Closet: A Constructive Approach to Deconstructed Community of Christ History".

    Thanks for risking and opening up this discussion

    By Blogger Shannon, at 11:17 PM  

  • A related article in the Guardian (UK):

    The Bible: unbelievably good
    "The fact that they are all untrue should not deter us from remembering the benefits of reading the religious texts at the heart of our cultures."

    Read the article here.
    (Thanks to blogger Jon for pointing this out.)

    By Blogger Christian, at 8:25 AM  

  • Gerr and Thank you. Now I'm going to have to pull that book of the bookshelf behind me and see if Hatch has any insights that I can use as I write 15 pages on the Book of Mormon between now and Tuesday for my Mythology and Morality paper... I need more time! (if only I wasn't a procrastinator)

    By Anonymous Lyle II, at 4:27 PM  

  • Christian,

    It is difficult to actually read the Book of Mormon and not have mixed feelings. Historically I can't accept it as accurate, and theologically it is at variance in many ways with what I THINK the Bible is saying. This said, and taken in the context of the somewhat muddled life of Joseph Smith, Jr and my doubts as to his "prophethood," what I am about to say may be surprising.

    I love the Book of Mormon. It challenges me on many levels and presents a view of the world wherein Christ is central. There is a certain enigma about it that I can't quite put my finger on.

    Though I do not accept the Book of Mormon as Scripture, it is still a very interesting read, far from the "chloroform in print" that Mark Twain accused it of being.

    One post I've written on the Book of Mormon can be found here.

    By Blogger Adam Gonnerman, at 1:06 PM  

  • Thanks, Adam. That was an interesting post (and I like the pic of you in front of the Kirtland Temple). I'm surprised anyone from outside a latter day saint perspective would read it at all, let alone enjoy it. :-) I also appreciated what you had to say about the evangelical perspective of the Bible. Thanks for the link!

    By Blogger Christian, at 3:54 PM  

  • There are many texts which make no claim to historical truth (i.e. are plain fiction) but have many truths contained therein.

    It's a sad commentary on modern life that we have not learned to distinguish between the two. I'd hope that we might be able to at least salute the good effects of the BoM on many people in the early 1800's even if we disparage its historical accuracy, its theological correctness, or its usefulness to ourselves personally.

    For me, I dispute the historicity of the plain narrative, and I get little spiritual consolation from the endless wars ... but I remain pleasantly amazed at the good effects the BoM has produced in the Community of Christ. For me, this warrants more study. How did such level-headed beliefs and respect for individual consciences emerge from such beginnings?

    Regards,
    Tony Barry

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:08 PM  

  • Christian,

    That was the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple. Unfortunately I've never been to Kirtland.

    By Blogger Adam Gonnerman, at 9:29 AM  

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