Monday, August 30, 2004

SCRIPTURE AS ART: Reform Mormons and Scripture

Sunday, 29 August 2004


What exactly is scripture? How are we to regard it? Should we take it as literal history ? As Myth? Perhaps as a combination of the two? Is scripture the literal Word of God--the infallible result of a human scribe literally taking Divine dictation?
These questions lie at the heart of what prompts scholars and archeologists to explore the history of the world’s most revered “Holy Books.” For evidence look no farther than the current issue (August 30, 2004) of Newsweek magazine. The cover story (“The Race to Unearth the Bible”) deals with the attempts of archeologists currently working in the Middle East, to make sense of the world’s most famous book of scripture. It’s a challenge to understand the nature of scripture if one limits oneself only to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Testament or the Koran. After all, these books were written thousands of years ago, and are the products of cultures whose values were very different from our own.
In trying to understand the nature of scripture, Mormons have an easier job than others, for as Fawn Brodie wrote:
“…Joseph Smith dared to found a new religion in the age of printing. When he said, ‘Thus saith the Lord!” the words were copied down by secretaries and congealed forever in print.” (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows my History, pg. vii)

In dealing with the question of how to regard scripture, Reform Mormonism takes full advantage of this fact.


In April of 1829, Oliver Cowdrey traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania where Joseph Smith was at work on “The Book of Mormon,” and offered to serve as Joseph’s scribe. Day after day, the young prophet would sit with his face buried in his cap, gazing at his seer stone, dictating “The Book of Mormon” narrative while Oliver wrote down every word. Of this experience, Cowdrey later wrote:
“These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’” (See “Pearl of Great Price,” notes at the end of “Joseph Smith--History”)
Oliver was so overwhelmed by the experience, that he, too, desired to “translate“ the scriptures. In answer to his request, Joseph dictated a revelation promising Oliver that he also would be allowed to “translate” new scriptures. But when Oliver made the attempt, he found he was unable to “translate” anything at all. Imagining that the act of “translating” was more or less a mechanical process, Oliver had overlooked the manner in which the revelation said this “translation“ would take place:

“Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall swell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.” (Doctrine & Covenants 8:3-4)

In response to Oliver’s failure, Joseph dictated yet another revelation. After assuring Oliver that he would be given “power” to “translate” other records, the revelation laid out the process used by Joseph to “translate” “The Book of Mormon”:

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:2,7-9, emphasis added)
What Joseph Smith described was not a supernatural process at all. In producing “The Book of Mormon,” Joseph was following the same process that any author would in writing a book; that any artist would in creating a work of art.
Perhaps sensing that something is “not quite right” in the world around him, or that some truth or insight is being overlooked by others, the artist takes bits and pieces of his surroundings (the writings or art created by others before him, the various ideas being discussed and debated in his own day, etc.) and using his own emotions, insights and values as a filter, he organizes them into something brand new--something that will capture and convey his sense of things.
Universally, artists feel that they have been inspired to create new works of art. At times during the creation process, the artist might feel as if some unseen power is guiding his choices; but, of course, before any artist can get to this state, he must study, contemplate, ponder and plan. Only after this preparatory work has been done, can the act of creating art seem spontaneous. Even then, this spontaneity is something of an illusion: consciously or subconsciously, the artist is making choices of what to include or not include in his art, what to emphasize or not emphasize --and all of these choices are based on his point of view, on what “feels right” to him.
The process of creating art is entirely subjective--and, as Mormon scriptures themselves attest, so is the process of writing scriptures. All scriptures are works of art.
Many may think that viewing scripture as art somehow devalues the Bible, “The Book of Mormon,” The Koran or other “holy books.” According to the Reform Mormon view of things, this is not the case.
Reform Mormonism teaches that since humans are in the image and likeness of God, it is their destiny to progress and become like Him. Since God is a creator, One who brings order to chaos--human beings emulate God when they become involved in creative acts.

An artist might be completely sincere in his conviction that he was inspired to create a work of art. This does not mean that anyone else will feel that way. History is filled with examples of great writers and poets whose works were not “discovered” and appreciated until long after they were dead and gone. Who knows how many other artists lived and created works which then disappeared entirely without ever finding an appreciative audience?

Whether a writer’s work is found inspiring will depend on what the reader is thinking, feeling and experiencing when she reads the book. Just as writing a book is a totally subjective experience for the author, so the reading of the book is a totally subjective experience for the reader.

This is true even when reading scripture. “The Book of Mormon” recognizes this fact. Consider the following verse--one of the most famous and often quoted verses in that book of scripture:
“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth• of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (The Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4)

Whether or not the person reading “The Book of Mormon” (or any other book) is able to detect truth in the book will depend a great deal on the state of that person’s mind and emotions.
A person who reads the book with “a sincere heart” and “real intent, having faith in Christ,” could have (though not necessarily) a completely different reaction than one who reads the book in a different state of mind.

That two people could read a book of scripture and have two completely different reactions to it, does not diminish either the scripture itself or those who read it. The experience of being inspired is very personal and individualized.


Many people have been raised to think of the Bible and “The Book of Mormon” as historical records. For many such people, to think of the Israelite exodus from Egypt or the wars between the Lamanites and Nephites as fictional accounts is subversive; it robs the books of their spiritual authority. Many believe that fiction, being man-made, can not serve as scripture.
And yet Christ himself used fiction as a tool for teaching and inspiring.

“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them...” (Mark 4:33-34)
Christ understood the power of fiction to convey different ideas and different levels of meaning to different audiences. The fact that a Jewish man was not beaten by robbers and finally saved by a Samaritan in no way destroys the power of “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Likewise, that archeologists have yet to find evidence of an Israelite exodus from Egypt in no way renders the story of Moses any less inspiring. Regardless of how ancient audiences interpreted the Book of Exodus, for the past few centuries no human figure has come to enshrine the abolition of slavery as powerfully as that of Moses.
That both archeology and the study of Native American DNA indicates that “The Book of Mormon” narrative is fictional, in no way takes away from one of the book’s central messages: that the survival of a free nation depends heavily on the ethics of its people.


When one examines all the works produced of any given artist, one often finds that the artist returns again and again to a particular theme during the course of his life. Often a writer or poet will retell a story several times. Each time the retelling is different. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Sometimes the difference are profound. But when considered in light of the artist’s life, the differences make sense. One can look at the various retellings and see how the writer progressed in his understanding of things, how he grew as an artist.

Sometimes certain artists will go through various “periods” in their life--such as the painter Picaso and his so-called “Blue Period.” Perhaps one of these “periods” will become synonymous with the artist. Yet no one who appreciates the artist would denigrate his earlier work--even if it were of a lesser quality.

The same principle can be applied to scripture and the writers of scripture.

For instance the New Testament accounts of the Easter story contradict one another on many essential points. Does this mean that the Christian world should cease celebrating Easter, or just ignore the stories of the resurrection? On the contrary, by studying these contrasting accounts, we can gain insights into the minds and faith of their authors.

In the Mormon scripture, “The Pearl of Great Price,” is found the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Yet this account, dictated by Joseph Smith himself, contradicts in many essential aspects earlier accounts that he either dictated to others or wrote in his own hand.

Yet when these accounts are viewed as works of art--as Joseph’s attempts to revisit a particular story and, by changing certain details, convey newly discovered insights--one can see and more fully appreciate the progress that he made in his understanding of existence, of human nature and the nature of the Divine.

Discussion Questions:

What are the advantages of viewing scripture as art?

Why do you suppose Christ taught “the mysteries of the Kingdom of God” by using fictional stories, rather than using only historical references?

How can historical fiction explore moral, philosophic and theological issues more effectively than a mere recitation of historical facts? How can fiction illuminate facts?

What are some works of historical fiction that have inspired you or caused you to ponder your relationship with God--even though these works may have taken great liberties with historical facts?

How can viewing scripture as art help us to understand and reconcile the differences and seeming discrepancies found in the Bible, The Book of Mormon and Mormon history?


Since people write all scripture, all scripture is art. A work of art is greater than the sum of its parts; it can inspire one with a sense of meaning and purpose. Whenever artists create such works, they are engaged in a similitude of the creative act of God. With every such act, an individual becomes more like God.

To respond to some of the questions raised in this Gospel Doctrine session, or to make a comment or ask a question,
Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at
August 30, 2004
From Jennifer: Every culture in some way has come up with a way to try and explain why things are the way they are. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Hindus etc. have created many stories and gods for each thing. Gods of war, earth, love, beauty, death, education, elements, so on and so on. Each god has a story to explain things that have happened, or why things are. The Hindus have 330 million gods, which I personally think would give me a massive headache trying to keep track of and worship! However, even in the most outrageous of polytheistic religions, almost all have a god that is above all of the others. Kind of like a head-god, or leader. One could think of it as the US president (not Bush, but the theory) and the senate.

Catholics have saints that are similar to polytheistic gods except your not supposed to worship them as you do G-d the father. There are saints for everything, even bicycles (maybe the LDS missionaries should look to the patron saint of bicycles for protection? :-p) Even the authors of the Torah, or old testament, whichever you prefer to call it, had there ways of explaining certain ways of being. An example could be Adam and Eve.

G-d made man out of dust from the ground. When man (and woman) partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil G-d cursed Adam. G-d sent Adam out of the garden of Eden, and was forced to till the ground. “You will eat bread until you return to the ground. For from it you where taken, dust you are and to dust you will return.” Eve was cursed with the burden of intensified labor pains and child rearing difficulties.

Adam derives from the Hebrew word Adamah, which means “ground”! Eve comes from the Hebrew word Chavah, which means “life also “mother”. So, is it coincidence that Adam and Eve where named what they where? Is it a historical fact that they are indeed named Adam and Eve? Or, was it wordplay used by the Jews of the time to explain what they believed to have happened? Was Adam and Eve made up? Maybe the names where but we must have an original set of parents some where. Was there really a garden of Eden where we didn’t have to till the ground for food? But then as a curse we must? There might have been.

When reading scriptures and interpreting them, one should look at everything for what it is. Some stories are just that, they are stories and myths. It is our job to look deep, past the magic and see what the point of the scripture is. What does the Adam and Eve story teach us? What was the purpose in creating it? That is how I think one should approach all scripture. Even, the Book of Mormon. You need to find a balance between historicity and literalism. That is where the true beauty of the scriptures lie.
related to this week’s lesson
“Doctrine & Covenants” Section 9:
“The Book of Mormon,” Moroni 10:4
Reform Mormon writings on Scripture:
On parables (from the LDS Biblical Dictionary) :
The following books explore scriptural stories and characters from a more literary point of view--that is, the authors tend to treat these stories and characters as works of fiction rather than historical events and figures:
“The Harlot At the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible” by Jonathan Kirsch.
“Wrestling With Angels: What Genesis Teaches us about our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships” by Naomi H. Rosenblatt & Joshua Horwitz
“Digging in Cumorah” by Mark. D. Thomas
“Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet” by Dan Vogel
(The new definitive biography of young Joseph Smith--nearly a third of which explores the stories and characters of “The Book of Mormon” as Joseph’s literary creations.)