The image at the top of this post is a digital version of my favorite painting. The painting is called “A Conversation with the Master” and was painted by Nathan Florence. I am not generally moved by paintings but this one got to me. I can see myself in place of the woman, explaining to Jesus something no doubt important to me, gesturing as I describe the intricacies of my topic or problem. I’m lucky this day, as I have the Master all to myself on a long walk in the countryside. This is my chance to share my intimate, important concerns and ask him pressing questions. I have his ear. He listens intently to me, hands clasped behind his back, waiting patiently for me to finish. He knows the answers to my questions but listens anyway. My concerns are his concerns, and the fact that he is willing to make time for me tells me I am important to him.
The painting depicts communion with God in a way that speaks to my soul – in a way the beautiful Renaissance paintings do not. My communion with God is deeply personal. He is my friend and confidant. He listens to me; is patient with me. I feel important to him. Jesus helps me understand him, and this painting encourages me to be a better disciple.
The thing is, the painting is not historical. It doesn’t depict a historical situation – not one we know of anyway. Scholars are largely in agreement that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person, but we have no idea if he walked alone with one of his disciples, listening as she regaled him with the concerns of her life. But the painting’s power is not contingent on its historicity (or lack thereof); it’s power comes from the message it speaks to the heart of the person who takes it in. The painter used a framework familiar to both him and some future viewer he had in mind.
Scripture serves a similar role for me. I have no idea of the precise wording of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount but the message is deeply moving. Some community, some years after his death, took the time to commit a shared understanding of his teachings to parchment. Whether their recollection of his words was precise isn’t as important to me as is their recollection of the substance of what he taught. Whether those words were spoken on a mount or by the sea, while perhaps being an interesting bit for historians to quibble over, does not change the fact that the teachings speak to my soul and have had a positive impact on my life.
My perspective on the Book of Mormon is similar. While arguments over the historicity of the Book of Mormon seem to have more at stake to members of the LDS Church than arguments surrounding the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Matthew, I suppose our need for the book to be historical is in part due to our proximity in time to the event, our modern desire for precision, and the literalness of our religious heritage. Nevertheless, the book has several characteristics that, to me, indicate that it should be viewed in a non-literal way:
- It utilizes a framework commonly understood at the time of its publication, i.e., Native Americans as descendants of Hebrews who rightfully deserve God’s promised blessings.
- It tells the story of the United States that directly injects God into the nation’s birth.
- It directly addresses many common religious concerns of the era.
- It was written in a commonly understood religious parlance (what we’d call “KJV English”).
- It is riddled with anachronisms.
- The stories are almost mythical in nature, with largely caricatured versions of people – both villain and hero.
- It borrows heavily both verbiage and themes from the Bible.
- There is no archaeological, genetic, or scientifically verifiable evidence to support its narrative.
In many ways the Book of Mormon reminds me of the account of Jonah or the story of Job. Even more applicable might be the story of the Exodus, where incredible, but almost certainly false, stories depict the birth of a nation in a new promised land. The myth [I don’t use that term in a derogatory way but rather to imply an unbelievable story used to teach some moral lesson] of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt provided a cohesive story around which Israelites found a common heritage and built enduring communities. The Book of Mormon provided a similar foundation for 19th century Saints, who saw in its pages Joseph Smith’s prophetic gift and, just like Israel, built enduring communities in their own promised land. Neither story needed to be historically accurate to do so, and I would argue that our community’s dogmatism on historicity prevents us from making room in our community for those who do not view the book as historical but nevertheless embrace its message. The book need not be historically accurate to move the ball forward. Nephi need not be a real person in order for his example to encourage someone to greater communion with God.
A figurative Book of Mormon does, however, create some problems related to the book’s coming forth. Who wrote it? Was Joseph Smith perpetrating a fraud (even a “pious fraud”)? What about the Gold Plates and the witnesses? I admit I have no clean, satisfactory answers; however, I am persuaded by the arguments Ann Taves made in her paper titled “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates” and which she presented to the 2014 Mormon History Association. In the paper Ann takes up the challenge laid out by Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens: to account for the existence of something Joseph showed to others as the plates; accept Joseph’s sincerity in believing that the plates really were the Nephite record, i.e., he wasn’t trying to con people; accept Joseph as mentally healthy, i.e., not deluded; yet accept that the object he claimed was the plates were not, in fact, Nephite plates. She puts it this way:
The Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York provides an important test case, since two leading Latter-day Saints (LDS) scholars of early Mormonism, Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, argue that secular or non-Mormon historians have not taken the historical evidence for the Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered actual golden plates in a hillside in upstate New York seriously and that, as a consequence, historical scholarship on early Mormonism has remained highly polarized. Bushman has argued that at bottom it is the question of the plates that have led Mormon and non-Mormon historians to offer divergent characterizations of Joseph Smith. Non-Mormon historians, assuming there were no plates, presume there was something “fishy” going on, as Bushman puts it, and this then colors their entire assessment of Smith…Givens was right, I think, to argue that we cannot just explain the gold plates in terms of “Joseph’s psyche or religious unconscious.” For those of us interested in naturalistic explanations, this offers an intriguing challenge.
Explanations of the gold plates to date tend to presuppose an either/or choice: ancient
golden plates either existed or they did not. If they existed, then Smith was who he claimed to
be. If they did not and Smith knew it, then he must have consciously deceived his followers in
order to convince them that they existed. Alternatively, if Smith believed there were plates when in fact there were not, then he was deluded.
She then goes on to make a case that Joseph believed that, by creating some physical object, he was materializing the golden plates, similar to the Masonic myth of Enoch, which has Enoch seeing in vision a hill full of records and then bringing that vision into reality by going and actually creating the physical objects that materialize what he saw in the vision. I can’t do Taves’ argument justice so I suggest you read her paper, but something important to keep in mind is that Joseph and his contemporaries, especially the Whitmers and Martin Harris, were steeped in folk magic. What we tend to look askance at they would have taken seriously, so their witness statements must take that into account.
I also highly recommend Taves’ book Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, where she utilizes three case studies – Helen Schucman, Bill Wilson (founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), and Joseph Smith – to review events that provided for the emergence of new spiritual paths. For example, one of the common themes she explores is the need for the visionary/revelator to have a stimulus-free environment when creating their new spiritual text. In Joseph’s case, he placed a seer stone in a hat and then placed his face into the hat, closing out all visual stimulus. He also mentioned difficulty in “translating” when he was not in a spiritual frame of mind, such as having had a heated argument with Emma Smith prior to trying to translate. These circumstances seem to point to some sort of spiritual state of mind Joseph was utilizing when doing his work.
I don’t know if Ann Taves’ theory is actually what happened, or not. Personally, I see Joseph Smith’s religion as a reinterpretation of Christianity to include 19th century American, esoteric, Masonic, and millenarian themes, and Taves’ theory fits that context. Joseph seemed to genuinely believe his claims and, while certainly having problems with ego and a flair for bravado, he also doesn’t come across as deluded. I think he sincerely believed that angels had appeared to him, that he had a record of ancient people, etc. He spoke in his letters to Emma of walking among Nephite lands in Ohio, for example.
We are all products of our culture and sometimes adhere to beliefs that seem silly to outsiders but which, due to that cultural upbringing, seem perfectly reasonable to us. For example, when young I was taught that the earth was 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth. As I grew up I operated under that assumption and saw the world through that lens. Only later did I begin to truly understand geology, the fossil record, and human history, all of which forced me to reassess my previous assumptions about the world. Was I deluded when I believed in a 6,000 year old earth? No, but an informed observer would not have agreed with my worldview. Similarly, Joseph Smith and his contemporaries saw the world through a lens unique to their culture and family life, which included magic, buried treasure, angel guardians, and other phenomena we find unbelievable. Perhaps that is the framework through which God spoke to Joseph, similar to how I would frame an unfamiliar concept to someone in a way that would help them comprehend it.
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t need Joseph Smith to be an error-free conduit for the divine. His theology was shaped by how he understood the world – warts and all. He certainly made many mistakes and, in my opinion, erred theologically at times, but I don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t have to accept all that he claimed if the spark of the divine within me doubts the authenticity of those claims. A non-literal perspective allows the flexibility I need to approach God in a framework that makes sense to me, while allowing him the ability to communicate in a way that I can understand. I need not be hemmed in by the literalistic, folk magic views of Joseph Smith and those who followed him, just as I need not rigidly conform to a perspective of God handed down to me by an Iron Age society in the ancient Near East. We see the world differently and that is okay.
Recently I had an experience that perhaps can illustrate my thinking on this matter. On August 21, 2017 my family and several friends experienced a total eclipse of the Sun. For most of human existence such an event was terrifying and foreboding; however, for me that day, it was one of the most amazing and spiritual experiences of my life. I knew what was coming but the sight of it was truly awesome, and to experience it with those closest to me, all cheering and sharing our amazement, was moving. My experience was the polar opposite of my ancestors’ experience with such an event. Why? Science and human knowledge – I knew what was going to happen and why, freeing me to enjoy the show. My framework for understanding such an event is completely different than was their’s, so rather than being a sign of God’s disfavor it was instead an uplifting, spiritual event.
Artists frequently speak of being inspired by something beyond themselves when they create their art. That inspiration allows them, in turn, to inspire others through that art. The Book of Mormon can serve as Joseph’s canvas, inspiring us to greater communion with God. He saw the world through a magical, literal lens and that language was familiar to his soul. We need not be literalists like Joseph in order for the Book of Mormon’s message to move us closer to God or improve our life. This is why we must make room for those who don’t view the book as literal history. They have valuable contributions to make within our community. A non-literal faith can access saving grace as readily as one in which Nephi is a real person.
Ann Taves again:
Above, all, I am suggesting we cannot ignore the active role that Smith and those closest to him played in the process of materializing his visions. Viewing Smith in this way takes seriously his claim to have been a seer and allows us to consider the seer alongside the artist as the creator of things that, in Heidegger’s sense, open up new worlds.
While I am wholly inadequate to the task, I am not alone in my plea to please make room for those of us who see Joseph’s theology through a figurative lens. We’re not broken or lacking faith. The Book of Mormon need not be a literal history in order for us to learn of God’s grace from its pages. The artist has finished; now let us together enjoy the art.