Thursday, August 27, 2009

False Midrashim and the Fall of the Kirtland Bank (part one)

I’ve heard an interesting false midrash on D&C 104: 17 several times now. It goes that the phrase “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” means that we don’t need to worry about things like future oil shortages because, after all, God said there would be enough.

I first heard this from a student in a Brigham Young University freshman composition class I was substitute-teaching—it was the heart of argument in an 8-page paper on energy policy. I asked him to read the next verse, and suggested that the promise is conditional (see D&C 130: 20-21) on our ability to live gospel laws: if people live modestly, if they impart of their substance to ease entrenched distributional inequalities, then there is enough for everyone. But, to butcher another scripture, if we all drive SUVs (even to church meetings two blocks away), we have no promise.

But who really wants to listen to me? Wouldn’t it be more righteous to have the faith to believe that a God who can split the water move mountains build planets can give us a little extra oil just for our faith?

It’s interesting: Mormonism’s commitment to balancing faith, works, and grace actually may be closer to productive paradox. We don’t believe in 33% faith, 33% works, 33% grace, we believe in at least 100% of each. Mormons should have:
-absolute faith in a living God’s miraculous power
-a standard of ethical and moral living that moves us toward our dream of Zion
-a total ability to let go sometimes and believe that God is great enough to save us

This is wonderful, but sometimes leaves us vulnerable to false ideas that appeal to, say, our sense of faith or righteousness. Relying on faith, we sometimes fail to be sufficiently faithful as stewards (an assignment that requires our vigilance and intelligence).

That’s what happens with the false midrash that teaches sufficient means limitless.

Marvin Hill argues it may be what happened with the Kirtland Bank, but works to distance Joseph Smith from such confusion. Next week, I’ll talk about why it’s OK to think that Joseph might have made the same error, and had to learn this lesson along with everyone else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

False Midrashim -- A of F 8

"We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God"

We tend to focus on the historical translation process of the Biblical text when considering this scripture, and forget perhaps that each of us "translates" the scriptures, in a significant sense, every time we read or remember them! All of us, in fact, are constantly creating our own little midrashim, or interpretative stories, to move from words in scriptural language not entirely native to us to some sort of application or way of seeing the world. (Language, after all, as I learned from Punjabi, is as much as system of associations that changes from individual to individual and over time as a collection of vocabulary and grammar. We don't necessarily share the language created to connect God with the prophets, even if it's written some form of English.) We have to interpret the scriptures in order to live, and thanks to the spiritual Urim-and-Thummim of the gift of the Holy Ghost often do quite well, but still need to remember there is always a degree of separation between the text and our interpretations.

And so it is that I believe the scriptures to be the word of God, but understand fully that they are frequently translated incorrectly by myself and my fellow Latter-day Saints!

What makes a translation good or bad?

-To me, the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of scripture don't necessarily need to be historically accurate to be acceptable. In Tyler Perry's play Madea Goes to Jail, for example, Madea tells her foster child that Peter stopped being able to walk on the water because he looked down, saw Jonah and the whale, and got distracted, which teaches us to mind our own business and not let other people's drama get in the way of doing what we need to do. The ahistorical nature of this thoroughly amusing midrash does more to add to than take away from its moral and spiritual productivity.

-I don't care for the idea, common among fundamentalists of every sect and religion, that a given interpretation must be wrong simply because another one is right. The ancient rabbi Rava used to teach that only the simplest solution for any question only required the use of a single passage (as opposed to a collection of several scriptural sources), and further that the same passage could be properly used to answer a near infinite number of questions! I don't know that I subsribe to the first half of Rava's system, but I enjoy the confidence in the power of revealed words inherent in the second half. Is God so poor that he could only fit a single meaning into each phrase or verse? The experience of most Latter-day Saints is that the answer is no. The same verses speak to us at different times in life with different answers. We are well acquainted with the mystical powers of revealed words, and ought to dismiss fundamentalist stubborness on single interpretations as shallow at best.

-I think an interpretation is only truly wrong when it is counter-productive. Some interpretations are always and inherently counter-productive (if you were to interpret the scriptures, for example, as encouraging you to follow Satan, you will always be wrong), most wrong interpretations, however, are more contextually counter-productive: perhaps useful in a narrow context, but problematic when overgeneralized (for example, overextending a scripture that teaches the productive truth that God can heal to counter-productively rule out scientific medicine).

An important closing question:

Is this current midrash on the nature of interpretation good or bad? What do we get out of it?

The Opposite of Pride -- Alma 4: 12

"Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted." (Alma 4: 12)

I posted recently on the question: "what is the opposite of faith?" In that case, doubt, fear, and rebellion are only a few of the possible responses. The opposite of pride is more commonly accepted as humility, and yet what does humility mean?

In this verse, the opposites of pride must be verbs. To oppose pride is to respect instead of despise, to face the needy instead of turning our backs and closing our eyes, to to act against others' hunger and thirst, to minister to the sick, and have empathy with the afflicted.

Why do I choose to say respect instead of love? Because what passes today for Christian love is too often condescending--love without respect is also prideful.

What does it mean to face the needy? Emmanuel used to say that to relate to another face-to-face is to sense the vulnerability of the Other and that, as Rambam used to say, the loss of any one person is the loss of a whole world.

Why hunger and thirst? Perhaps the hunger is physical and the thirst spiritual, a thirsting for knowledge and peace.

Why sick and afflicted? "Sickness" is for those ailments that can be healed in this life, "affliction" is for those conditions God has given individuals to endure for the entirety of their mortal sojourn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Money (Last Thursday's Overdue Post)

Joseph Smith tells us in his 1838 history (the one we keep in the Pearl of Great Price) that Moroni warned him specifically that Satan would use the "indigent circumstances" of his father's family to tempt him to use the plates to get rich. (JS-H 1: 46) Moroni neglected to mention that publishing the translation of the plate's text would cost more than Joseph had ever owned in his life. He also didn't say anything about how that significant publication cost would only be the beginning of a long succession of financial demands that revealed projects would place on Joseph and those who believed the Book's words.

While we're intellectually aware that the early church was pretty poor, I don't know that we modern saints often consider how that constant back-of-the-mind gnawing of money worries may have influenced Joseph Smith. He does not appear to have tried to scale back plans from what he thought the Lord wanted because of a shortage of resources. He may have made some unwise choices, though, in trying to make the means sufficient for the visions he cherished.

A few thoughts:

-Was Joseph worrying about who would fund the printing of the Book of Mormon when he asked God again and again whether he could lend the 160 pages to Martin Harris? It's one matter to take "no" for an answer. It's quite another to wonder if you're going to alienate the only person with any significant financial means who believes in what you're doing. Did Joseph stay up late worrying about how his relatively wealthy friend Martin Harris would feel if he kept saying no? Did he pray a little too insistently before falling back asleep?

-The Saints sacrificed a great deal to contribute toward the building of the House of the Lord in Kirtland. Was Joseph trying too hard to generate money in other ways to fund church projects after the temple's dedication? Certainly, he appreciated sacrifices, but were there ever points when he wished he could stop asking people for money? Or when he figured they'd sacrificed enough and should be able to live in greater prospertity already?

-The Saints, under Joseph's direction, had refused to sell land after they were driven from Jackson County in 1833--they felt that to do so would be denying their faith in God's revelation of Jackson County as a sacred place. By 1838, they were settled outside Jackson County and facing pressure to move again. Joseph was still trying to pay debts left from his failed business ventures in Kirtland. Did he want too desperately to stay in a place where he hoped to establish prosperity and let some saints go too far in trying to protect it?

I don't know to what extent these are accurate and productive readings of each situation, but I do think that Joseph's complicated relationship with money deserves some attention in the way faithful Latter-day Saints think about him and the kinds of challenges he faced.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Missouri Conflict

Ran across a few old news items that reminded me of church history:

26 Sept 2008: Socio-Economic-Religious Background to Conflict

12 April 2009: "Dignity", Refugees, Problematic Peace Committees

These are more or less current events in rural Orissa, one of India's less developed and modernized areas. I'm reminded of several of the social and economic factors that may have informed the Missouri conflict. The way Laxmananda Saraswati's assassination was immediately blamed on Christians reminds me of how the 1842 assassination attempt on Boggs was immediately blamed on Mormons.

I'm not saying the two conflicts are the same, of course, but maybe looking at one now can help us think about what things might have been like then.

How resonant are Orissa conflicts with Mormon/Missourian ones in the 1830s?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Myth of Joseph Smith

1. Ritz Crackers and Richard Bushman

Talked to Cort yesterday over a lunch of a few Ritz crackers about early LDS church history.

Cort and I exist in two interrelated, but distinct worlds--one in which we're busy chasing documents, trying to carve out a window to the past through what Joseph referred to in a letter as "the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked bro=ken scattered and imperfect language," another in which we need that same past to operate as a repository for values and meaning, a life-enhancing myth.

I use myth in the most respectful sense of the word, to mean "a sacred story." Myths aren't necessarily untrue, the term is to differentiate between the what happened and the more significant what does it mean to us. You see, the events of a person's life alone, the traces left in artifacts and papers, aren't worth most people's time. The meaning comes through the myth that tells us what the person stands for.

Take the example of Jesus Christ. Events in his life include getting born, getting lost on a family trip, getting baptized, telling stories, writing on the sand, getting arrested, and getting killed in a particularly painful way. It's a confusing life, one not considered worth noting in any secular record from during or near his lifetime. Myths, though, taught the prepared how to understand him. There were myths of the Messiah, a God-filled individual who would transform and sanctify the world. There were myths of sacrifice and reconciliation that revealed meaning in his staggering suffering and terrifying death. And there were myths about Incarnation, and how through the example of a divine man we could come to know God. These and other myths, drawn from a variety of sources, were essential to accessing productive spiritual meaning from the events of Christ's life. I believe in Christ--and I owe that belief partly to guiding interpretative myths.

Yesterday, over Ritz crackers in the BYU library's hidden sixth floor, Cort and I talked about myths for finding meaning in the life of Joseph Smith.

Cort was particularly concerned because the myths of Joseph Smith he grew up with don't always fit as well as we might like with what we think we're learning from the written and material fragments Joseph Smith left behind. I don't think this is because our fundamental myth of Joseph Smith as a rasul, the Prophet of the Restoration, breaks down under pressure. I think the problem is with extra layers of myth we want to add for educational purposes. We want Joseph Smith not just to be a prophet, but an embodiment of all good values and pure wisdom, someone we can use anecdotally as an example of every principle, something like what Mason Weems tried to do with George Washington. Richard Bushman once reputedly described the LDS use of this approach as telling church history on credit cards--when morals are emphasized without any investment in correlation to fact, someday a reckoning will come due as those taught overdrawn myths struggle to reconcile them with our best guesses at historical reality.

We need to do more to promote myths of Joseph Smith, I told Cort, that do more to ease than to complicate our relationship with his history. That's too big a task for one day, but it's one I feel a need to start more openly working on. Encountering a new myth for a familiar figure, after all, can be exhilarating.

2. Walking on Water

I remember a Jeffrey R. Holland talk (looking it up I noticed it was halfway through my mission, which may explain why it's so vividly imprinted on my mind) called "The Grandeur of God." In that talk, Elder Holland reminded us of an important and "often uncelebrated" myth for understanding Christ, the myth of Christ's life as a revelation of the nature of the Father. It's a productive way, I think, to approach Christ and a productive way to approach God.

Perhaps a year before I heard that Elder Holland talk (if memory serves correctly, which it often doesn't), my companion and I were listening to his Truman G. Madsen tapes about the life of Joseph Smith. In one passage, I recall Madsen sharing what was probably his myth for approaching Joseph Smith, though I didn't recognize it as such at the time. Madsen said in that passage that the reason he studied Joseph Smith was to be inspired by Smith's Christlike attributes. In Smith, perhaps, Madsen hoped to see Jesus the way Elder Holland asked us to look to Jesus and to see in him God. Do we want Joseph to be a window to Jesus? To we want him to be an Incarnation of the whole gospel?

Now, I don't consider it blasphemous to look for God and Christ in any human being--I think part of exaltation is learning to see God in everyone around you, and was greatly inspired by Pres. Uchtdorf's first talk as an apostle, in which he proved himself to me to be a special witness of Christ (D&C 107: 23) by saying "I have seen the face of Christ in your faces, in your deeds, and in your exemplary lives." But I think we're going to be disappointed if we use the myth of Joseph Smith as a Christlike figure to access him the way we use Jesus as a Father-like figure when looking at his life, the same way we would be disappointed if we expected from Peter, the leader of the early Christian church, what we expect from Jesus Christ.

What are our myths of Peter? How do the scriptures make meaning out of him?

Peter is the one who walks on water, but gets frightened and sinks (Matt 14: 28-31), the one who tries to defend the Prince of Peace by cutting off a servant's ear (John 18: 10), the one who denies Christ and bitterly weeps (Matt 26: 75), the one who has and embraces a movement-changing vision (Acts 10: 9-28), but later gets rebuked by Paul for being afraid of revealing how far that vision has taken his faith from his people's customs (Gal 2: 11-14).

Our myth of Peter is a one of our greatest myths of discipleship and church leadership. It is about miraculous faith accompanied by devastating failures in faith, about startling visions and doctrines coupled with burdensome day-to-day business and persistent inequalities. We don't expect Peter to do everything right, or to embody every positive principle. Part of his myth is the ways that he falls short and fails. (Can we see Christ's grace in Peter's stumbling?)

What if we approached Joseph Smith the way we do Peter? What if, instead of expecting him to have all the answers, we were interested in the moments throughout his prophetic career that left him looking for guidance, as a gospel gradually emerged? What if it was OK for him to have prejudiced based on his place and time of origin, as Peter clearly did, and mostly importantly--what if we could replace some stories about how Joseph Smith lived the principles of the gospel with some stories about how he struggled with them? We don't want to speak evil of the Lord's anointed, certainly, but can we learn to speak of his failures productively and well? Can they play a greater role in our meaning-making myths of Joseph Smith?

I think that will start with the faithful learning to tell new Joseph Smith stories that fit the Peter sort of myth instead of the George Washington one.

3. Church History Thursdays

I don't think I'm the only one working on this, of course. Developing more reconcilable myths is a widespread endeavor, especially since the advent of the internet.

My personal contribution to this broad and scattered project will be to start a subset of posts on this blog dedicated to new ways of telling stories from the history of the Restored Church. We'll try to make these thoughts a regular Thursday event--some thoughts may be significantly shorter than others.

I hope you find them productive ethically and spiritually, as well as more historically resonant.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What is the opposite of faith? -- Deut. 31: 27

"For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the Lord; and how much more after my death?" (Deut. 31: 27)

The word faith is surprisingly difficult to define: it can mean acceptance of a set of beliefs, it can be used to express an attitude of confidence and trust. To be "faithful" implies consistency and fidelity, talking about a "faith" denotes a set of beliefs and an accompanying community of relationships. Why did God choose such a slippery word to instruct us?

We try to anchor ourselves to the word, at times, by speaking of its opposite.

If the opposite of faith is doubt, faith is primarily an intellectual principle, practically synonymous with belief (not an unslippery word itself, as Mark 9: 24 shows).

If the opposite of faith is fear, then faith is primarily an emotional principle, trust made courage--but what, then, of the scripturally desirable fear of the Lord?

Perhaps it is better to see rebellion as faith's opposite. Faith, then, is a more a matter of how we choose to align ourselves than about the more passive elements of belief. Faith is less a matter of head or heart than of feet, and where they stand.

Or maybe it's best to see faith as a principle of many opposites, a word God made slippery precisely so that it can face us in every aspect of self.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Who Needs to Know? -- Mark 1: 11

"And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Mark 1: 11)

Three verses report on what God said after Jesus' baptism: Matt. 3: 17, Luke 3: 22, and this verse in Mark. Only Matthew has God saying "this is" my beloved son. Mark and Luke both have "thou art."

What does the one word difference imply?

To me, the change seems to indicate a different intended audience. In Matthew, God is speaking to the people who are present, bearing testimony, as it were, of Jesus.

In Mark and Luke, however, the words are clearly intended for Jesus himself--as a reassurance, perhaps, that his course thus far has been pleasing in his Father's sight? As a revelation that his intimations that God is his father in perhaps more than the way in which God is the father of all human beings are correct?

Or did Jesus simply need to hear the voice of God in order to start his ministry? Did he need to hear directly in that moment: "you are ready"?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Point -- 2 Nephi 2: 25

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." (2 Ne 2: 25)

"Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." (Luke 18: 17)

The midrash?

'Nuff said.

Photos courtesy of V. Elisabeth Westwood


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