Tuesday, May 29, 2007

19th-Century Document and 21st-Century Scripture 

The following is a paper I submitted recently in a class on Community of Christ Scriptures, specifically the Book of Mormon. The assignment was to take a pre-selected portion of text and examine it from one of any several positions - ranging from traditional/historical to something closer to the postmodern view I assume here. Rather than adopt a perspective I didn't agree with (as valuable an academic exercise as that would have been) I decided to genuinely wrestle with how I approach and interpret the Book of Mormon, and attempt to find some meaning in that context. The following is a result. Forgive my sloppy footnoting, too. -FC

II Nephi 2-4 Under a Faithful-Critical Lens
By [Flannel Christian]
May 2007

The Book of Mormon clearly reflects the language, values, perspectives and priorities of nineteenth-century North America, quite in contrast to those that the best scholarship in the area can reasonably ascribe to pre-Columbian Native Americans of ancient Hebrew descent. The historians’ compelling critique, placing the Book of Mormon’s origin and authorship in the hands of Joseph Smith, Jr., however, does not address the text’s status of scripture, nor the (prophetic) insight it casts on a formative stage of American Christianity. When lifting up the Book of Mormon as an historicized artifact of religious and revelatory significance, one must inform the proverbial left hand what the right hand is doing. History and faith work best together. The more we understand the historical situation and issues addressed by the Book of Mormon, the more revelatory the text can become.

It is in this spirit that I examine a sample text from the Book of Mormon. In the narrative context, the selection is just after the period of the migration of Lehi’s family to the Americas, and the initial struggle for safety and identity in the new world. I begin with an identification of clearly nineteenth-century elements in the text, both for the purpose of making clear the origin and nature of the text and for the purpose of beginning to lift up what might be most prophetic about the passage in its nineteenth-century context. Then, I attempt to draw conclusions about the motivations and insights of Joseph Smith for writing the text in such a way, and also touch on possible meaning for our world today.

This is not intended to be exhaustive, but introductory – to start and shape a conversation, not to end it. This project is also not meant as an apologetic – strictly a defense – of either the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s character. The Book of Mormon is an historical artifact, and Smith was a human being – as such they have particular perspectives and priorities that may not necessarily be in common with our current sensibilities or best understanding. There are two lessons here: we must always be cognizant of the limitations and contextualized nature of our own consciousnesses and predispositions, and that God can (and must?) work through humans enmeshed in sin. The fact that we can imagine a vision radically different from what we have been given or have been in the past is the best proof I have seen of the existence and persistence of grace.

The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Artifact

II Nephi 2 begins with a clear reference to Joseph Smith, Jr., and an endorsing overture to his career (vv10-35). Verse 29 expressly names Joseph Jr. in a prophecy outlining the forthcoming of the Book of Mormon (BofM). Although this arises toward the beginning of current versions of the BofM, in terms of the dictation timeline of the project by Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery it is near the end. [1] After encountering public resistance and scorn resulting from word of his “translation” work, it seems natural that Smith would want to authorize – if not divinize – his efforts. [2] II Nephi 2 does exactly that. [3] It might be a fantastically accurate (and coincidentally beneficial) ancient prediction, or convenient self-gratification on the part of the author. [4]

Verse 2:21 also answers the concerns of 19th-century Americans, particularly false doctrines and contention between/among Christians. [5] The use of the phrase “in the latter days” smacks of dispensationalism and the Second Great Awakening.

The obligation of God to respond to faith, in 2:42, where prophecy is the product of the prophet’s piety, also reflects 19th-century frontier American confidence in the power of the individual, and points at the larger confusion at the time between the roles of grace and works in salvation. In a post-revolutionary American context, the can-do and individualistic rhetoric of the Revolution has been translated into spirituality, reviving the ancient Christian question of how much individual behavior affects salvation. [6] In a Jewish worldview around 600 BCE [7], however, this is not a perspective likely to have surfaced. Prophets speak because God makes them, not because of anything particular the prophet did to make themselves deserving of God’s direction. God chose Abraham and Moses, not the other way round. In a Hebrew worldview at that time, God continues to be involved with the people of Israel because God is bound by a covenant, not because of the faith of the people – which many times lapsed and failed. Nevertheless God continued to be involved with and provide a prophetic voice for Israel. It seems clear that the language and worldview in the II Nephi text represents 19th-century American Christian presumptions, rather than 600 BCE Hebrew ones.

Another clue as to the 19th-century origin of the text is the already-fulfilled “prediction” that the ancestors of indigenous Americans (the Lamanites) would not “perish” (3:3&16). In fact, one of the background assumptions/purposes of the BofM is to explain the presence of indigenous peoples in the Americas and their relationship to ancient Hebrews.

Skepticism of the exclusively divine origin of the BofM is fueled by persistent parallels between Smith’s work and Ethan Smith’s 1823 book, A View of the Hebrews, which posited a Semitic origin for indigenous Americans. The book was in wide circulation in the years before Joseph Smith began working on the BofM, and several members of Oliver Cowdery’s family were members of Ethan Smith’s congregation in Poultney, Vermont. [8] As well as possibly providing the central thesis for the BofM (that is, the Semitic origin of Native Americans), A View of the Hebrews might have provided the broad plot outline for Joseph Smith’s work. [9] At any rate, the parallels between the two works are uncanny, if it is supposed to be mere coincidence. [10]

19th-century-isms continue in “Nephi’s Psalm” (3:29-66). First, the idea of the ministering of angels (3:39) is foreign to ancient Hebrew thought. In the Hebrew scriptures, angels do not “minister” to humans, but are merely agents of God’s will. The phrase “children of men”, an approximation of “son of man,” doesn’t show up in Jewish thought until the Maccabeean era and the composition of the book of Daniel. [11] Mention of the “evil one” (3:44) is also proleptic in that Hebrew thought up to the Babylonian exile hadn’t developed the idea of an evil adversary somehow explicitly opposed to YHWH. The passing reference to “salvation” (3:50) and “redemption” (3:51) is striking evidence of Christian influence. To have these phrases show up reveals a conflation of Biblical language accessible to the (nineteenth-century) author, and written into an ancient context. Additionally, an emphasis on contrition and heart-brokenness as a qualification for spiritual sincerity or an encounter with the Holy echoes strongly of conversion stories typical of the Second Great Awakening, the religious milieu in which Joseph Smith was raised. [12]

Most damning, perhaps, to the view of the BofM as an historical record of pre-Columbian indigenous Americans are the glaring archeological, anthropological and linguistic claims that are ruled out by virtually all scholarly research in those areas. The sudden and unexplained presence of domesticated livestock in the new world (4:16), the existence and use of a working compass (4:17), and the manufacture of iron, brass and steel (4:21) despite absolutely no archeological evidence of any metal-smithing technology among native American populations and the fact that steel itself would not be developed until the fourth century BCE on the Iberian peninsula.
Also troublesome to a “historical record” point of view are the presence of 19th-century ideas among 6th-century BCE peoples: proto-democratic political institutions (4:28, also Mos. 13:35-36) [13], racism based on skin color (rather than other cultural or ethnic identifiers) (4:35), ethnic mixing a problem (rather than religious diffusion) (4:37), identifying darker-skinned peoples with sloth and mischief (4:39), and so on. Certainly, elements of each of these can be found rising in isolation and rarely in the Biblical record. But their prevalence in the time and national culture of Joseph Smith, Jr., points to more than coincidence. [14]

Prophecy and Humanity in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon’s “primary purpose was to warn Americans in the 1830’s.” [15] Like many books and fragments in the Bible [16], the Book of Mormon was written as if it were a record of an ancient age, but merely used that format to speak to the issues facing believers in that day. [17] In contrast to 20th-century ideas of authorship and honesty, ancient writers and thinkers both within and outside the Judeo-Christian community regularly wrote under assumed identities, for various reasons. [18] Pseudepigraphical works, or texts written under the name of another person, served to validate and promulgate ideas that might otherwise not as quickly or as authoritatively gain currency among readers. [19] It might also be the case that pseudepigraphical writers felt themselves to be faithfully continuing what they perceived to be the tradition or thoughts of the original figure, only recast for contemporary circumstances. Approaching the BofM as a pseudepigraphical work not only allows one to get past the historical inaccuracies and the threat of imposing upon indigenous American populations a history that is not their own (in a new variety of cultural colonialism), but opens up the text to be much more meaningful about our own history as inheritors of frontier American Protestant Christianity. [20]

Joseph Smith’s self-endorsement at the beginning of II Nephi 2 reflects an understandable human desire for acceptance and belief – to be believed, believed in, and have one’s insights taken seriously. It could be this underlying sentiment that drove the pseudepigraphical nature of the BofM’s authorship in the first place. After all, toward the time of the manuscript’s completion, and increasingly after its publication, Smith prophesied under his own name. Pseudepigraphy might also unconsciously reflect a sense of one’s own indebtedness to the influence and inspiration of the past, to engage oneself in faithfully carrying on the work of those who have gone before. Writing oneself into the narrative of the past – oftentimes done implicitly, done here by Smith explicitly – is also a way of framing ones life and actions as participating in a larger, longer, more noble and purpose-driven enterprise than the vain hopes and vision of one lonely person. [21] Writing oneself into the narratives of the past can serve to ground oneself in the tradition and values of the narrative, but it can also offer the dangerous impression that the authority of the tradition is at the whim of this latest participant. The project of the Book of Mormon may have started out being blessed by the former, and by the end shows influences of the corruption by the latter. Smith’s self-inclusion in the story of the Book of Mormon might serve as a representative tipping point between being formed by the tradition and seeking to command it – and as such can remain an object lesson of both the blessing and danger of seeing ourselves as continuing the path of history.

The anachronisms of Joseph Smith, grafting 19th-century cultural issues and presumptions like racism and democracy into the story of an ancient people, actually serve the argument that the BofM is a pseudepigraphical work of profound importance. [22] In seeing Smith’s authorship, we are provided the opportunity to see a daring human perspective, while recognizing ourselves that the perspective is human, and thus falls short of the glory of God. Letting go of the historical-record argument, we are liberated from worshipping the book, and instead can glean from the book the mind and will of God. The text can be turned upon itself in its yearning for justice in a world of unjust politics and religion, and speaks as much to the 21st-century as to the 19th in “offer[ing] ways of surviving in liberal society without being destroyed by its corrosive potential.” [23] Even if we no longer adopt the manifest-destiny perspective of “America for (White) Americans” implied by seeing this continent as a blessing set aside for colonial descendants, we can take up the hope resident in that affirmation. There is a unity of mind and purpose and history that awaits all people – indigenous and colonial, Christian and Jew, Old World and New World. The discord and contention that seemed to be ripping society apart in the early years of the nineteenth century are answered by a hope in peace and unity. These early years of the twenty-first century stand hardly less in need of that hope.

The portion under examination here also speaks of the fate of those who would plot division and warfare. Their war-mongering and violence cut them off from the presence of God (4:31-32). We in the 21st century are able to confront the issue of wars of/for power without taking up the racially-charged references that plagued the nineteenth century. (Or are we? These uncomfortable elements may be just that uncomfortable because of how closely they fall to our own national rhetoric regarding our would-be enemies. We may not have come so far in two-hundred years.) The BofM may speak of an ancient rivalry, but its insight remains all too compelling: those who sow violence (in opposition to God’s desire for peacefulness and unity) will be scourged to the point of destruction (4:41). Our nation and American Christian establishment would do well to listen to this prophetic critique, lifted earnestly out of the Biblical tradition. Not only is such violence and war-making contrary to right relationship with God, it leads to the destruction of democracy. The nineteenth-century threat was Jacksonianism. What is the 21st-century threat to democracy, and do its roots reach into war-making and power-hunger?

Nephi’s Psalm (3:29-66) echoes the perennial American issue of facing a terrible and powerful enemy armed with little more than hope in God. And yet, it is a song of praise for God’s constancy, and a hymn of confident hope that trusting in God is ultimately the wise choice. Nephi, like Joseph, is crying out for deliverance from his enemies, lashing out and asking God to wreak vengeance upon them. Even so, despite his heart filled with rancor and teeth set with venom, his prayer leads him in the end to seek something different. The challenge, as Nephi puts it, is to “ask not amiss” (4:65). We have to know what we’re asking for – not vengeance or victory or security; but love and forgiveness, release from anger and strength of heart. How much do American leaders need to pray this prayer of humility and awe, to sing this song seeking the strength to forgive, laying one’s weakness before God and putting trust in God’s commands? How many of our leaders need to ask not amiss – to ask the right question?

In the end, we must keep in mind about the Book of Mormon the kind of sensibility demonstrated by Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity:

…[T]he 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. 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. [24]

By exposing the lie that the BofM is not an historical account of ancient peoples, we can see the truth it was crying out all along. By understanding what is fiction, we begin to identify the fact. The BofM isn’t something more than it is. It is, however, desperately more than the story of golden plates and peep stones. It is, at its heart, a sober and startling depiction of the reality young Joseph and so many others saw in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Book of Mormon was a truth-telling that ended up converting thousands, and giving them hope. That is still something we can touch today.

[1] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 235-236; and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explanations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 398.

[2] Ibid., 249.

[3] Ibid., 259.

[4] The Book of Mormon narrative directs the translation of the plates as Smith’s primary duty. Similarly, in a contemporaneous revelation given in March, 1829, Smith is chastised by the Spirit and told that no other gift besides translation will be given him. (Book of Commandments,1833, IV:2) Interestingly, this revelation is later revised to allow for Smith being given additional gifts in the future. (Jerald & Sandra Tanner, Mormonism – Shadow or Reality? [1964], 72.) (See also Doctrine and Covenants 5:1d, and American Apocrypha 248-250 & 260.)

[5] Dan Vogel, Ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 91: “Smith’s opinions in the Book of Mormon promised to settle the doctrinal differences that divided Protestant America in the 1830s – to end religious confusion.”

[6] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, American Apocrypha (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 351: “…the Christology of divine triumphalism… has long reigned unopposed in optimistic, ‘can-do’ American Christianity….”

[7] Lehi’s family is allegedly Jewish, and the surrounding events of their departure from Jerusalem places their migration around the year 600 BCE. (Ruth Ann Wood, Ed., Survey of the Book of Mormon [Independence, MO: Community of Christ Temple School, 1996], 44.)

[8] B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd Ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 27.

[9] Ibid., 160-161.

[10] Ibid., 323-344.

[11] “Throughout the book there is no usage of the messianic term ‘Son of Man,’ although this is the one that Christ usually identified with himself in his own ministry. The expectations of the Nephites are those of nineteenth-century American Protestants rather than of biblical Hebrews.” (Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957], 39-40.)

[12] Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming the Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 128-135; also, B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd Ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 287-308.

[13] Tomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 36.

[14] Dan Vogel, Ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 91-92.

[15] Nathan Bangs, The Life of Freeborn Garrettson (New York: J. Emory & B. Waugh, 1829), 29, 33, 48; quoted from Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 26.

[16] For example, the Book of Daniel, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Deuteronomy, Job, Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah, and others.

[17] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 3.

[18] Tony & Charmaine Chvala-Smith, in a lecture in “Community of Christ Theology,” a course in the Community of Christ Seminary, 5/22/2007.

[19] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 339-340: “…[I]t is quite clear that the book as a whole fits very comfortably into that broad class of pseudepigrapha which seek, as late-comers, either official entry into the canon or similarly high credibility by using an ancient authority’s name.”

[20] A. Bruce Lindgren, “Sign or Scripture: Approaches to the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue Spring 1986: 74: “Scriptural status [or authority] does not rest upon questions of historicity. It is likely that significant portions of the Old Testament canon are not fully historical as they stand today. Others, such as the book of Job, may not be historical at all. Writings are scriptural because the church holds them as normative or authoritative.”

[21] Through these verses, the Book of Mormon “bridge[s] the gap between the Bible and the 1830’s readers’ personal histories, between ancient respected prophets and despised modern visionaries.” (Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999], 44.)

[22] “…[T]he 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.” (Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity [Yale U.P., 1991], 115-6.)

[23] Dan Vogel, The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 86.

[24] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1989), 116.

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