Today’s guest post is from commenter Brother Sky.
Lately, there have been a few posts on W & T and elsewhere concerning Mormons and happiness. The W & T one can be found here. This post and others I’ve read have me wondering about the relationship between happiness and the scriptures, specifically the Book of Mormon. Following the writings and teachings of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church continually teaches, in conference addresses and lessons too numerous to mention, that the Book of Mormon is not only “true,” it’s the “most perfect” book in existence.
The Book of Mormon is often touted (among other things) as a sort of cure-all for whatever ails us, a kind of spiritual self-help book or a scriptural balm that we can apply to our souls in a world full of troubles. In October, 1999, for example, Elder Russell M. Nelson said the following:
Do you want to get rid of a bad habit? Do you want to improve relationships in your family? Do you want to increase your spiritual capacity? Read the Book of Mormon! It will bring you closer to the Lord and His loving power. He who fed a multitude with five loaves and two fishes—He who helped the blind to see and the lame to walk—can also bless you! He has promised that those who live by the precepts of this book “shall receive a crown of eternal life.
The Book of Mormon, in other words, is a gateway of sorts to a kind of elevated eternal life, a joyful and blessed state which I’ve always assumed included happiness.
The question I have then is why our most foundational book of scripture, the text that can lead us to an eternity of happiness and joy, is such a catastrophic tragedy? Although there are inspirational, perhaps even joyful moments in the Book of Mormon, the narrative arc taken as a whole is not merely tragic but devastating. By the time we get to the words of Mormon and Moroni in the latter part of the book, hundreds of thousands (Mormon, Chap. 6) have died as a result of a series of armed conflicts astonishing in their variety and ferocity.
The purpose of the Book of Mormon’s narrative has always puzzled me. We see, in the last few chapters, an exhortation to remember and remain close to Christ. However, that message is preceded by a level of violence almost unprecedented in scripture. What is the purpose of such a juxtaposition? To make the way of Christ seem all the more appealing? Or is it something else? Is it possible to read the Book of Mormon as a blanket condemnation of war and aggression? Does God prefer to teach using negative examples? If yes, why? One wonders how we’d read the Book of Mormon if, for example, it ended with a transcendent moment like the Brother of Jared seeing the finger of the Lord.
These thoughts lead me to a few fundamental questions:
- How do we, as Mormons, reconcile what I would call the Book of Mormon’s tragic mode and our cultural mandate to be cheerful and happy? Are Mormons uneasy with tragedy because we feel the pull of the mandate of happiness so strongly? What are the consequences of avoiding, or seeking to avoid, so-called “negative” emotions or outcomes? What are the costs of constantly trying to tell “uplifting” stories in our educational materials and magazines when we know that often, things don’t work out for the best?
- Are there other, legitimate ways to interpret the Book of Mormon besides the relatively sanitized church party line? Is it possible, for example, to regard the book as a commentary on the relative power that human agency has over the doctrines of Christ? Note that the people in the book last longer before Christ comes (approx.. 600 years) than after he comes (approx. 400 years). Is the book suggesting that the doctrines of Christ aren’t terribly useful when it comes to saving humanity from itself?
- Is it possible that God believes teaching by a negative example is better than a “faith promoting” story? If yes, why haven’t we, as a people, embraced that? Why not have lessons or home/visiting teaching messages that talk about people failing? That talk about loss and despair? Why do we consider negative emotions and outcomes the “tools of the Adversary” when God himself, through Joseph Smith, shares a narrative that is full of these emotions and outcomes?
Questions for discussion:
- What do you think is the relationship between tragedy and truth?
- What can tragedy teach us that other, perhaps more comforting narratives cannot?
- Does the Book of Mormon teach that human agency is more powerful than the doctrines of Christ?
- How has reading the Book of Mormon helped or hindered your spiritual growth?