An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Book of Mormon’

Every Member of the Ward–Minus 2

At our Relief Society dinner last week, the ladies discussed the Bishop’s challenge for every ward member to read the Book of Mormon straight through by the end of the year. One sister complained that she had almost finished reading it through and wanted to finish the New Testament instead of starting over on the Book of Mormon right now. I suggested she consider that she had read ahead, and move on. But no, every member of the ward has to read the whole book starting this month.

I don’t know why our bishop chose this goal. The Book of Mormon is the Gospel Doctrine study course for next year, so jamming a complete reading in right now seems unnecessary. But Mormon bishops love giving arbitrary challenges. In the ‘70s they frequently asked ward members to live off their food storage for a week and then report their testimonies of following church counsel in sacrament meeting talks.

Not that I have anything against reading the Book of Mormon. I’ve read it multiple times over the years, although I never received the witness promised in Moroni 10:4. Once I quit focusing on the plot and characters, which never seemed very real to me, and focused on spiritual truths, I enjoyed the book more. I have to admit that most of the spiritual insights I like in the Book of Mormon are also found in the Bible. But some basic Christian teachings are most beautifully expressed in the Book of Mormon such as King Benjamin’s instructions about caring for the poor:

for are we not all beggars? . . .  And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God. . . . (Mos. 4:16-22)

What I object to about the challenges given in Mormon wards to read the Book of Mormon in a small window of time is that the proposal seldom addresses the book’s content. Instead, blessings are promised to those who sacrifice their time to accomplish the goal—and loss of blessings is hinted at for those who fail.

Testimonies born by those who comply are never about understandings gained. Instead, they focus on minor miracles that occurred because of their obedience:  “My parents were baptized;” “I got a job;” “I’m not pregnant,”  “My husband cancelled his subscription to Playboy;” “I found those missing car keys.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the value of a book is the wisdom learned from the content. I think it is possible to gain insights from the Book of Mormon that can help a person improve their lives, but this book is not a quick, easy read. It requires the serious attention which a year-long Sunday School course of study facilitates. Challenges for an entire ward to race through the book within a few weeks reduces scripture reading to rubbing a talisman—“Obey your leaders, speed-read through the book, and your luck will change.”

That’s why two ward members will not rise to this year’s challenge. Sure hope the wind doesn’t take the roof off our chapel this winter. George and I might be blamed.

Crisis of Faith

As a child, I enjoyed neither Primary nor Sunday School. My dad worked Sundays and my mother had to get dinner or care for my baby brother on Sunday mornings, so my brother Dooby and I were sent to church only half the time. But I knew I should go—something about blessings bestowed for seat time. I felt guilty when I didn’t attend—something about disappointing Heavenly Father. Church attendance for guilt appeasement continued until I left Utah. Our ward in Casper, Wyoming was so welcoming—the people so interesting—that one morning as I dressed for church, I was shocked to realize I looked forward to meeting my friends there and learning their take on the gospel.

Church attendance generally inspired me for almost 20 years. Sisters in Relief Society provided the wisdom I would have received had my mother lived longer. Scripture study in Gospel Doctrine class fed me intellectually and spiritually as we spent two years each delving into both Old and New Testaments. Repeated study of the Book of Mormon—my least favorite of the four standard works—helped me winnow spiritual gems such as King Benjamin’s admonition to share with the poor without judging whether they deserve their misfortune for, “are we not all beggars?” Alma’s teachings that the baptismal covenant includes being “willing to bear one another’s burdens” was another spiritual find.

Mormon meetings and activities met my social needs—especially when I became a Stay-at-Home-Mom and had no other access to adult company. Church provided spiritual comfort. I was taught, and in turn taught, that Heavenly Father is a kind, loving parent who would guide me in making wise decisions, help me deal with challenges, and raise my children righteously.

After sixteen years of marriage, George and I decided we needed a change in our lives. Instead of having separate flings, we decided to move. We fasted and prayed for guidance, received a confirmation, then plunged ahead into the worst financial decision of our lives. Church isn’t a lot of comfort when you do something stupid. In fact, it makes it worse to associate with people who relate their experiences of fasting, praying, and getting the right answers. I struggled with God’s unwillingness to bless us when we were trying so hard to obey the commandments.

Before I’d resolved that crisis, the church decided to save money by recycling Relief Society lesson manuals. Lessons that were already fairly similar were repeated until I could not only recite the lines with the teacher, I could predict when Sister Wilson would share the time she had gone back to the grocery store to return the 86 cents extra change the checker had given her—or when Sister Barnes would describe walking out of a movie with inappropriate language. I replaced Relief Society with my own home schooling.

Sunday School held my attention for several years longer because lessons were based on passages of scripture. But even scriptures get tedious if only one interpretation is allowed. General Conference, which used to inspire me, lulled me to sleep. I’m not sure if the speakers changed or if I had just heard it all before. But not attending church left a hole in my life. I investigated several possibilities and found spiritual compatibility with Buddhist study.

In Praise of Mark Twain

Yesterday’s First Unitarian service commemorated the centennial year of Mark Twain’s death—and the publication of his autobiography.Twain who famously said, “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” is not an author one expects to hear quoted in church—but Unitarians do not attend church to hear the kinds of authors quoted in more conservative denominations.

George, who doesn’t usually follow my excursions from Mormon chapels, was offended by quotes from Twain’s critique of the Book of Mormon—“chloroform in print” and “Whenever he [Joseph Smith] found his speech growing too modern — which was about every sentence or two — he ladled in a few such scriptural phrases as ‘exceeding sore,’ ‘and it came to pass,’ etc., and made things satisfactory again.  ‘And it came to pass’ was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.”

Mormons unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon prior to the 1979 edition, will not appreciate the validity of Twain’s quip about “And it came to pass.” While Mormons might not enjoy Twain’s satire on a book they consider sacred, most will have to admit they find it less than a fascinating read. Church leaders continually admonish the faithful to read the book, something I’m sure would be unnecessary if said book were a real page turner.

Mark Twain was an equal opportunity satirist. In Letters from the Earth, Satan (writing to the archangels Michael and Gabriel) describes the curious human creatures who inhabit the earth—the only creatures God created which possess malice and nasty minds. Twain satirizes the traditional Christian view of heaven as a place lacking the most important activity for human males—sexual intercourse—and full of activities men dislike on earth: singing, playing the harp, praying, and church meetings that go on forever.

Twain would have loved the Mormon concept of sex in heaven and eternal procreation. He could have gone to his grave with greater hope if only he had studied Mormonism more thoroughly.

Fighting Evil with Evil

George and I watched the movie Doubt on DVD this week and a line from the Meryl Streep character remains with me. Sister Aloysius (Streep), a nun who runs a parochial school with an iron fist, opposes the compassionate new priest who befriends the children. Although she has no evidence, she has a feeling the priest has made sexual advances to some of the boys and enlists a young novitiate to help her spy on the priest. When the young nun objects to her methods, Sister Aloysius tells her, “Sometimes we have to step away from God in order to fight evil.” The film never answers the question of the priest’s innocence, but it shows Sister Aloysius brutally unconcerned about harming others as she pursues her self-imposed duty to find the priest guilty. The young teacher adopts her mentor’s methods—stepping away from God to discipline her students—and ruins her relationship with her own students.

 I’m certainly not suggesting that allegations of child abuse should not be investigated, but I question using unscrupulous means to obtain righteous ends. In recent years some worthy goals have been sabotaged by overzealous advocates using dishonest means to promote their cause. The gun control group lost credibility when they enhanced statistics about gun-related deaths. Much of the American public lost confidence in all global warming evidence when a small group of English scientists attempted to suppress non-supportive evidence.

Hugh Nibley made a statement that the purpose of the many detailed war scenes in the Book of Mormon is to show us how awful war is. He also claimed that both sides in a war are serving Satan. I have thought about his words many times in the past several years as our country has launched two wars—bombing an already devastated country into further rubble and attacking a country which had not attacked us. Then our government justified using torture to obtain information from suspected combatants. The photos from Abu Ghraib and other prisons where American soldiers tortured prisoners prove we have stepped away from God.

Ignoring right values in an effort to preserve them defeats our purpose–no matter how noble our intention.

Seek Learning–Even from Gentiles

Over 35 years ago, I promised God I would read scriptures for 10 minutes every morning. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time, but each year I completed the volume studied in Sunday School, Ensign articles that provided background for the Sunday School course of study, General Conferences addresses, and a few LDS commentaries. Even the Book of Mormon, my least favorite scripture, became interesting as I concentrated on the spiritual truths presented, rather than the historical narrative. Still, I was never able to see the literary richness which Richard Dilworth Rust finds in the Book of Mormon. And most of the chiasmus that John Welch identifies seems like a stretch. Nevertheless, I find many meaningful passages, particularly King Benjamin’s address and Ether 12.

As a devout Mormon, I obeyed the council to spend even more time reading the BoM when the church ramped up the emphasis a couple of decades ago. Rereading the BoM over and over took time from studying other scriptures and it eventually became tedious. To add depth to my study, I started looking up cross references in the footnotes. As I continued my study, I found nearly every doctrine in the BoM is also found in the Bible.

Half-a-dozen years ago, as I closed the book at the end of Moroni’s farewell, I knew I did not want to start with, “I, Nephi” the next morning. I wanted to read the Jewish Study Bible I’d just purchased. Rereading the BoM would take time I could devote to learning more about the Old Testament. And what was the point of starting through the BoM for the second time this year? Would I learn anything or was I just trying to access blessings Church leaders promised for obedience? Was BoM reading a talisman?  Open book, read daily, receive answers to prayer.

I spent my scripture study time for the next several months on the Jewish Study Bible which opened my eyes to Jewish scholarship and to the reasons Jews don’t accept the Christian interpretation of passages foreshadowing Jesus.

Since then, I’ve expanded my study time far beyond the LDS Standard Works. My all-time favorite is Reverence by Paul Woodruff. Another life-changing book for me is Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-Kindness, a simple introduction to principles of Buddhism which can be practiced by members of any faith. Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light revealed how even the most dedicated Christian may harbor doubts that she is doing what God expects of her or if He even hears her cries for help. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, wrote many spiritually moving poems. The wisdom of Tao te Ching also resonates with my spirit. I especially like Stephen Mitchell’s poetic translation of this Chinese classic.

I recently finished Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I don’t have to be Jewish to be uplifted by his insights about God and human nature. His comment, “One of the major inclinations in every human being is a desire to be deceived,” explains many of our contemporary problems. 

As Joseph Smith was aware, God has not limited inspiration and wisdom to members of any one denomination. Branching out to access spiritual insights from many of God’s chosen children has deepened my reverence for all of God’s creations. Thank you Jewish and Gentile authors!

Flooding the Earth

Like many other Mormons I’ve been less than diligent about fulfilling my responsibility as a member missionary. My first attempt was over 40 years ago while teaching in Wyoming. A colleague from Chicago asked me about the Church. I leaped on this opportunity to present him with a Book of Mormon. He disappointed me by returning it a few days later saying he’d skimmed through it and saw a lot of repetition from the Bible—something I really hadn’t noticed when I’d dutifully plowed through it on my own.

The Church insistence on the Book of Mormon as a missionary tool seems odd considering the apparent number of members who find it less than a compelling read. If it’s really so fascinating and testimony building, why do members need to be continually exhorted to read it?

Shortly after my first bestowal of a Book of Mormon was returned, the Church encouraged members to send Books of Mormon (they were 50 cents then) instead of Christmas cards to nonmember friends. Statistics indicated that every Book of Mormon given out resulted in a baptism within 10 years, although not necessarily of the person to whom you gave the book. Mailing books intimidated me less than giving them face-to-face, so I sent them to four or five teacher friends, happy to know that church membership would be increased by four or five people within a decade. I really never felt comfortable about participating in more active missionary efforts because asking people to join my church was too much like asking them to be more like me.

The push to get members to give out Books of Mormon must have been effective; the Church grew rapidly throughout the 1960s and ‘70s even without further help from me. But the pressure increased. I finally salved my conscience before moving from Seattle by gifting neighbors with Books of Mormon. Knowing I was leaving made it easier.

That was 30 years ago and this time my efforts paid off. The Wrednekers were not my favorite neighbors. It wasn’t the marijuana growing in their garden or the parties with Mrs. Wredneker being chased around the house by drunken guests and Mr. Wredneker too stoned to care. It was the daughters telling about their activities with boy cousins that caused me to restrict our children’s association with theirs. At any rate more than ten years later, our daughter met someone at BYU who knew the Wrednekers. They had joined the church and were members of his ward. As far as I know, the Wrednekers were the only baptisms resulting from the Books of Mormon I’ve distributed.

Flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon was a Church theme throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Our daughter who served a mission in France recalls handing out free Books of Mormon to uninterested people, then walking back through the streets and noticing the same books stacked on trash barrels. Except for a few highly motivated individuals, I don’t see a huge effort being made now to set the earth awash in copies of the Book of Mormon.

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