Thursday, December 13, 2012
THE VALUE OF SCRIPTURAL FICTION
What is the Book of Mormon if it is not a record of pre-Columbian Hebrews revealed angelically to Joseph Smith, Jr.?
Science has not found any DNA evidence linking American Indians to ancient Semites; nor is there any firm archeological evidences that Book of Mormon geographical sites that actually existed.
There is evidence, though, that a lot of Ethan Smith’s ideas, expressed in his 1825 book, “View of the Hebrews,” do appear in Joseph’s record of the Nephites and Lamanites. So, does this mean that Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery or some other 19th Century individual wrote the Book of Mormon and plagiarized other people’s ideas to enhance its readability and theology? If so, was this not wrong?
First let us address the issue of plagiarism. Plagiarism was not even considered ethically or legally wrong until the 1700’s and then laws against it were loosely and ineffectually enforced. By the 19th Century, plagiarism, though illegal, basically in the same way that it is today with requirements to cite other works in footnotes or reference pages. (A Very Brief History of Plagarism) The writers of ancient scripture, though, the ones Joseph wished to imitate, knew no such concepts.
So, if all of this is true, does this mean that Joseph was a shyster, a flim-flam man like “The Music Man’s” Professor Harold Hill who sold music instruments and music lessons, “when he didn’t know one note from another?” Or is there some other, alternative way of viewing this Latter-day scripture and its translator? After all, “Joseph Smith, Junior” is listed in the very front of the first edition, the 1830 edition as “Author and Proprietor.”
Did he originally mean to have published the Book of Mormon as a religious novel like the many that appeared during the 19th Century, before and after Joseph, such as Civil War General Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” which appeared fifty years after the Book of Mormon but like the Book of Mormon, partook of American Evangelical Protestant doctrines and values? When did our young prophet decide to turn his religious novel into a religious myth and attempt to add it to Christianity’s already large mythology collection and why should we 21st Century citizens wish to read and study it?
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines mythology as,
“MYTHOL'OGY, n. [Gr. a fable, and discourse.] A system of fables or fabulous opinions and doctrines respecting the deities which heathen nations have supposed to preside over the world or to influence the affairs of it.” –: an allegorical narrative.”
The definition above leaves quite a bit to be desired. “An allegorical narrative,” though, is correct. I do personally feel that the term “heathen” is pejorative and should be removed.
Myths were the original way of writing theology. As civilization became more “advanced” and literacy became widespread, theology was set down in lengthy and dry tomes that only appealed to other theologians. Theology became what is known today as “systemized.” The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” by Homer were stories that were epic poems and were often sung. They were the original scriptures of Hellenic civilization.
The Hebrew Scriptures, too, were myths that taught very subtle doctrines under the guise of history. The arts of philosophy and philosophical debate were developed in Greece and during the Bronze Age were unfamiliar with the early writers of the Hebrew Bible.
In fact, biblical experts today cannot firmly attribute any of the books of the Old Testament, Apocrypha, or the New Testament to the writers whose names they bear except for seven of Paul of Tarsus’ epistles. If one had a new theological concept and wanted a large audience for it, he or she would chose a long dead prophet and write under his name. This was known as a pious fraud. It might have been a “fraud,” in a literal sense but it was often the only way a gifted and creative religious thinker could get his thoughts read. The priests and the aristocracy of the day had a monopoly of religion and were adverse to any upstart outside theologians. To be recognized an individual would then claim he discovered a long lost scroll authored by Isaiah or some other already recognized prophet and if the writer was lucky, his forgery would become received scripture.
If Joseph Smith, Jr. did write the Book of Mormon, he was following in a time honored tradition. In 1830 upstate New York or anywhere in the United States for that matter, who would have listened to a farm boy with little formal education? This is probably one of the reasons why the Book of Mormon regales so much against the rich with their chances for learning.
There have been recently a number of propositions introduced at the Community of Christ World Conferences to de-canonize the Book of Mormon based on the view that Joseph wrote it and not pre-Columbian Hebrews. This would be most unfortunate in that for them to be logically consistent they would have to decolonize the entire Bible but for seven epistles of St. Paul. The Book of Mormon as well as the Bible should be considered for what is said theologically in them and not whether they authentic in the smallest degree or not.
The teachings in the Book of Mormon reflect the state of evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th Century and how young Joseph dealt with this. Joseph Smith, Jr. was a very creative man. His theological thoughts moved on from there climaxing in the beautiful King-Follett Discourse given on June 7, 1844 where he espoused the belief that God was once a mortal creature like us and through the acquisition of knowledge became an advanced being capable of creating worlds and universes, the ability to do this is being borne out today by modern Physicists and Quantum Physicists. (See “Kurwich Wonders" ) Joseph Smith the genius was far ahead of his time. Joseph was an extremely creative individual who built a worldwide religion of 14 million + adherents today (there are as many Mormons in the world as there are Jews) from an original membership at the Church’s organization on April 6, 1830 of only six. That is a 2333333.333% increase in 182 years or if the Church grew uniformly from year to year, which of course it did not, an average 12820.513% increase yearly. This is an astronomical growth, even adjusting this figure for the so-called “swimming conversions.” Why? Joseph built a fictitious world which was and still is in many instances, far warmer and more interesting than the work-a-day world of humdrum and boredom most of those who had investigated Mormonism had been used to before they converted.
Joseph sparked the imagination. Not only that, but he gave them a cooperative way of life where individuals and families could not fall through the economic and social cracks of society. Joseph gave them goals to work for and a way of life. I have not even mentioned the many Jungian archetype and other rich and meaningful symbolic representations in Joseph’s work, but that would make this presentation much too lengthy. So, even if Joseph Smith, Jr. did not tell the literal truth in all things, like Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man,” we who have been privileged to have touched his magic would be so much worse off if we had not. This is why Mormon history, Mormon culture, and above all those parts of Joseph Smith’s teachings that reverberate with modern science need to be preserved. This is why we are still Mormons even if we do not believe in the literalness of the Book of Mormon. If Mormonism is fiction, it is the very best fiction to have come out of 19th Century Western tradition.
TODAY’S REFORM MORMON GOSPEL DOCTRINE TEACHER, JIM NICKELS, INTRODUCES HIMSELF: I was a member of LDS Church for 44 years, joining the Church as a convert at age 21, 1969. I left the church in 2006 and was baptized into the Community of Christ. I have been very inactive in that church due to physical disabilities that have confined me to my home. I find both Reform Mormonism and the Society for Humanistic Mormonism, where I am Assistant President, to be my sources of spiritual nourishment. I am married to a beautiful lady, Tracey Levendusi-Nickels, who does not share my religious beliefs. While having been once baptized into the Community of Christ, she now attends the Protestant church to which she originally belonged. I am 64 years old. I have three grown sons. Tracey is my second marriage. My first "eternal" marriage was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple in 1970. Eternity ended in 1991. When in the LDS Church, I was active and served in many callings including Sunday School President for over 5 years. I left for philosophical reasons. I like to think for myself and not be told that I am "on the high road to apostasy." I worked for the Lake County Indian Department of Public Welfare in public assistance, child welfare placement, child protective services, and quality control. I retired from all gainful employment 7 years ago when the doctor ordered me to. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in History/Comparative Literature (double major) from Indiana University in 1970, a Master of Science degree in History from Indiana State University where I had a teaching assistantship teaching 2 semesters of the "United States to 1877: End of Reconstruction" an introductory U.S. history course. I also have received a Master of Science degree from Indiana University in 1974, and an online Master of Arts degree in Creativity Studies (my concentration was "Creativity and Process Theology) from Union Institute and University in May, 2012. I am currently working on a fourth Master of Arts degree online from the same school in Psychology (concentration "Carl Jung and Religion), graduation date will probably be in 2015. I hope to do a Jungian analysis of Joseph Smith as my thesis. My goal? To become a polymath. I was born on August 25, 1948 in Russell County, Virginia. I currently live in Mishawaka, Indiana.