Jana Riess has recently published a book called Flunking Sainthood in which she decides to spend 1 month participating in various spiritual rituals. For example, she spent one month fasting from sun up to sun down as a pious Muslim would do during Ramadan (though she picked the month of February because it had the fewest days), she spent another month observing the Sabbath as an Orthodox Jew would, she spent another month in mindfulness prayer, and many other spiritual practices from a variety of religious traditions. I really enjoyed the book–she has a witty sense of humor, but she claims to have failed nearly every spiritual practice for a year.
John Dehlin recently interviewed her on Mormon Stories. In part 2, he discusses her book quite a bit, but in part 1, he discusses her background and perspectives on various issues. Jana grew up in an atheist family. As part of her “rebelious” youth, she went to church, eventually settling down with the Presbyterian faith. She felt called to the ministry and attended seminary to become a pastor. During her time in seminary, she converted to Mormonism. She has a Ph.D. in American Religious History from Columbia University.
There are some people who believe that the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are frauds. John questioned Jana about this line of reasoning, and I thought Jana gave some interesting insights (1) into the idea of a Mormon Midrash, and (2) truth doesn’t have to be empirical. I wanted to quote from their interview, starting with about 30 minutes left in part 1.
John Dehlin, “The Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon were like top 5 issues for people that have caused them to leave, and a lot of us just have the assumption that the only people who haven’t left are those who don’t know about Book of Mormon and DNA and the Book of Abraham, and everybody else has left, you know. How in the world do you stay knowing about that stuff?”
Jana Riess, “Well, I don’t know that this is going to be a satisfactory answer to be honest with you because one of the things that I have found is that some of the people, most of whom are men, who get very exercised about being in the know about what really happened with the Book of Abraham, etc. are not persuaded by arguments that rest on spirituality. They only want arguments that meet them point for point, saying—again this is an either/or proposition as well—the whole way they approach the question. If the Book of Abraham is not a divine translation of this ancient document, if it is in fact an ordinary funerary document that Joseph Smith completely expanded, embellished, elaborated on or if you are looking at a more cynical view, just simply lied about, then what do we do with the rest of our faith?
Well, let’s step back first of all and think about how important is the Book of Abraham to the Mormon faith in general? I don’t think it’s terrifically important, but that’s just me. But we need to have a tradition of midrash. We need to have a tradition where we can look at a prophet in the way that Jews have looked at prophets of old and say, ‘this is a midrash’ on a revelation, or this is a midrash on an earlier work of scripture.”
John, “What does that word mean?”
Jana, “Midrash, well it’s basically any expanded teaching. I don’t know what the exact definition would be, but an expanded teaching is something where in midrashim, you are taking a core text and then thinking about it cosmically, you’re thinking about it theologically, and you could look at, for example, the entire Pearl of Great Price as a midrash. You have Moses as a midrash on Genesis, right? If you think about it in those terms, the literal nature of it is less important than what the book is trying to teach us about who we are as children of God. I think that is where we need to be looking, and I frankly don’t give a hoot about some of the arguments about historicity, DNA, the more troubling avenues is of course Joseph Smith, the more troubling aspect is not the scripture itself, but what Joseph Smith said about and whether he can then be relied upon as a prophet of God. Based on my work on the Hebrew Bible, I would say yeah. Have you looked at those guys lately?
I mean we have this completely ridiculous idea of what a prophet is supposed to be. No human being can measure up to that and there’s certainly no biblical example that does, and yet we conveniently forget about it. We come up with these stupid Gospel Doctrine lessons that encourage us to look at people in the Old Testament as if they were perfect and they we look at our own leaders to be perfect as well, and when they aren’t, well we leave.
If you’re interested in more of the interview, I transcribed a bit more at my website. What are your thoughts on a Mormon Midrash?