(Click to enlarge.)
The parts will come together.
Slice them. Saw them. Sew them. Staple them.
Make it work.
We have the spark of godliness.
We channel the powers of heaven.
Death is nothing.
Black thread weaves it all together.
Trembling hands pulling.
Bleached teeth biting.
Knotty fingers tying knots.
We shall create. It shall arise.
We shall repeat the ancient miracle –
but this time, with perfection.
A familiar face stares upward.
We will fix you.
We will make you more than you ever were.
Storm. Mighty storm. Lovely storm.
Birth is always bloody – and loud.
The giant waits.
Insert the prongs. Raise the rod to heaven.
Flip the switch.
This is all you lack.
The power sizzles through you now.
Do not fear the pain.
Fear is for the unknown. Pain is clarity.
Pain is life.
Your screams are lovely to us.
Your struggle gives us hope –
makes us whole.
Precious monster, you are beautiful. You are ours. You are loved.
…but why do you break the chains we gave you?
And why is there anger in your eyes?
I recently read an interesting blog post by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, entitled Has Your Bible Become a Quran? The premise of this post – one that I have not seen stated before in such clear terms – is that, at some point in its interaction with Islam in the Middle Ages, Christian tradition and belief became heavily influenced by Islam and actually adopted a number of its precepts, and many Christians today adhere to these Islamic ideas even while reviling Islam and denying any possible kind of connection to it. I agree with much of what Freeman says because I have seen it myself. For instance:
- Obsession with “The Book”: Freeman correctly asserts that Islam, from its earliest days, relied upon the Quran as the kernel or nucleus around which all Muslims united. While Muslims believe that the Quran does not contain all words spoken to Man by God, it is seen as the purest and most important relation of such communications. The concept of the church has never been a part of Islam, and Muslims actually tend to be annoyed by any suggestion that any Islamic group could be termed a church. In Christianity, on the other hand, the concept of the church has always been central to the faith. Jesus Christ clearly established an organization with various levels of authority during His ministry. While written scripture was certainly important to the early Christians, they had many works of scripture that “mainstream” Christianity has long disregarded or even lost completely, and the Bible as we know it did not exist until centuries after the deaths of the Apostles. If the Apostles were the authority of the Christian faith while they were alive and the Bible is the authority now that they are dead, what was the authority for the centuries in which there were neither Apostles nor a Bible? As Freeman explains, the modern tendency to appeal to the Bible as the ultimate authority of Christian doctrine and the unifying element of the Christian world is neither logical nor biblical nor Christian; it can actually be traced, in part, to ideas transferred to Christianity from Islam during the Middle Ages.
- Disavowal of the individual: Islam teaches that humans reach their greatest potential by submitting completely to the will of God. The very words “Islam” and “Muslim” come from a root that means “to submit”. It is actually common for Muslims to proudly refer to themselves as the “slaves of Allah”. A similar attitude can commonly be seen among many Christians today. That is, they ascribe to a brand of Christianity that heavily emphasizes a belief that holiness comes through submission, as the individual, without Christ, is nothing. While the technical veracity of this belief is a matter of debate, the attitude it often conveys is one of self-deprecation that is found nowhere in the Bible. As Freeman says, the Bible does not teach us to submit to Christ, but to unite with Christ. There is a fundamental difference in feeling there. While all are fallen and utterly hopeless without Christ, one of the key distinctions between Christianity and Islam is the Christian belief that all humans are the children of God. We would do well to remember this.
And yet, while Freeman does make many interesting points that I agree with, he does also make a few mistakes:
- Religion without revelation: Freeman correctly asserts that membership in the Church, and not knowledge of or belief in the Bible, is what characterizes one who has united with Christ. He is also correct to point out the fundamental fallacy that is being committed by those who essentially worship the Bible. However, he fails to address the concern that was the cause of this drift toward Bible-worship to begin with. For Muslims, the Quran immediately held the utmost importance to their faith because Muhammad was supposedly the “seal of the prophets”, or the last prophet. If there were not going to be any more prophets to lead God’s people, where could they look for guidance? Who would stand as God’s representative on Earth? If they did not have prophets, they at least had the words of Muhammad in book form. This book would take the place of a prophet. Christianity resisted this drift at first. Since no statement was ever made by the New Testament prophets and apostles that could in any way be construed as a statement that the time of prophets had ended, there remained for some time an assumption that more prophets would come. However, this belief eventually faded, and Christians too came to believe that the words of dead prophets could somehow make living prophets unnecessary. Freeman is right to criticize this shift from prophetic leadership to the veneration of a book. However, he fails to see the fact that the whole reason the people did this was because there were no authoritative representatives of God – prophets – leading them. Freeman correctly asserts that membership in Christ’s church rather than veneration of a book is the defining characteristic of a Christian, but he fails to see that a church without prophetic guidance is not Christ’s church. Those who turned away from the clergy and toward the Bible did so because they saw that the clergy were not prophets, but were giving guidance based on their own philosophies instead of revelation. Not having living prophets, the people sought to at least be led by dead prophets.
- Comparison of the Book of Mormon to the Quran: First and foremost, Freeman’s statement that the Book of Mormon “tells us much about the mind of 19th century Upstate New York, but nothing about God” is patently false. Anyone who has given the Book of Mormon an honest reading knows that this statement is false. I will not bother to go into why: read it and see. But there is something else worth pointing out about his comparison of these two books. As mentioned previously, the Quran became essential to Islam because, with Muhammad being the “seal of the prophets”, something needed to stand in Muhammad’s place as the ultimate arbiter of true doctrine for generations to come. However, the Book of Mormon actually serves the opposite function. Instead of standing as a statement that the heavens are closed and that there is no more prophetic guidance – as the Quran does and as many Christians (incorrectly) claim the Bible does – the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is to stand as proof that prophetic leadership exists in modern times and that God will continue to commune with Man as He always has until the end of times – so long as Man is willing to listen.
As John Taylor once said, “religion without revelation is a mockery and a farce.” It is true that Christ established a real, functioning Church and that membership in said Church is what defines one as a true follower of Christ. However, when Christ did this, He did not pull out a copy of the KJV and say: “This is the standard English Protestant Bible, and upon this rock will I build my church.” He built His church upon a foundation of prophetic and revelatory authority. Clergymen such as Freeman acknowledge the concept of authority and church membership, but they deny the defining characteristic of said authority. After all, how can a man stand as an authoritative representative of God – leading the Church and dictating what is or is not correct doctrine – except by communing with God as the prophets of the Bible did? Without such revelation, no God-given authority exists. Without God-given authority, any church we may found is a church of Man rather than of God.
But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose. (D&C 49:24)
This post is Part 3 in a series regarding the message and the challenge that the Restored Gospel raises against the contemporary political establishment of the United States of America.
The story of the Book of Mormon largely revolves around centuries of conflict between two peoples – the Nephites and the Lamanites. Consisting of the descendants of Nephi and those who followed him, the Nephites were a fair-skinned people who are initially characterized by a belief in the Christian God, an agrarian lifestyle, and an appreciation for written language and astronomy. After a few generations in the New World, they even abolished monarchical rule and established a republic. The Lamanites consisted collectively of the dark-skinned descendants of Nephi’s brother Laman and those who followed him, Nephite dissenters, and, most likely, transplants from other nations and peoples. They outnumbered the Nephites, and this fact led to much fear: the danger of a possible Lamanite invasion is a hammer constantly hanging over the Nephite people for much of the record. However, despite a few instances in which the Lamanites managed to pillage, enslave, and kill groups of Nephites, for centuries, the Nephite people remained largely free of Lamanite influence thanks to a stronger source of motivation, superior weapons and tactics, and the grace of God. Indeed, with two Nephite dissenters at one point rising to become successive kings over the Lamanites, it is clear that, despite their smaller numbers, the Nephites had more cultural influence over the Lamanites than the Lamanites had over the Nephites.
Some read synopses of the Book of Mormon and immediately pass judgment upon it as a racist book, as it supposedly suggests that dark-skinned people are inferior to light-skinned people. However, a more careful reading of the text shows that this is not the case. Indeed, it does not take long for the prophets among the Nephites to point out instances in which the Lamanites were actually more righteous than the Lamanites. Jacob, brother of Nephi, said that the Lamanites had stronger families than the Nephites (Jacob 3:5-7). When a large body of Lamanites – called the Ammonites – converted to Christianity and had to flee Lamanite lands to live with the Nephites, they were clearly identified as being more righteous than the Nephites. Helaman, leading their young men into battle, said that they were more courageous than any Nephites (Alma 56:45). Eventually, the Lamanites as a whole became more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). When the Gadiantons, an organization of outlaws and manipulative conspirators, grew to become a great threat to both the Lamanites and the Nephites, the Lamanites were able to destroy the organization by either convincing them to change their ways or killing them, but the Nephites were not so successful due to their tendency to partake in the corruption of the Gadiantons (Helaman 36:37-38). While it is true that the Nephites are clearly described as being more cultured and technological in the early part of the record, one would miss the message of the Book of Mormon entirely by taking this as a suggestion that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people. The true gauge of superiority is not technology or culture, but righteousness.
At a time when the conflict and ethnic strife between the Nephites and Lamanites was at its height, the sons of King Mosiah, having experienced a great change of heart due to an angelic encounter, decided to go forth among the Lamanites to preach the Gospel. Hearing of this intent, their Nephite friends tried to dissuade them. Ammon, one of the sons of Mosiah, later recounted these warnings:
For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language. (Alma 26:24)
Such concerns were not unfounded. The Lamanites hated the Nephites, having frequently expressed this hatred through countless attacks and raids. How could Ammon and his brothers have expected to receive anything but animus and abuse from a people who hated his people so much? And yet, they went. They preached, and they did suffer persecution, but by the time they were done preaching, an entire province of Lamanites – the aforementioned Ammonites – had converted to Christianity and had become the friends of the Nephites.
As the Lamanites came to learn the Gospel and grew in their understanding of the things of God, prophets began to arise from among them. Just as Nephite prophets had called Lamanites to repentance years before, these Lamanite prophets crossed over to preach to the Nephites, who had grown haughty, prideful, decadent, and vain. The most memorable of these was a prophet named Samuel. Traveling to the Nephite capital of Zarahemla, Samuel scaled the wall of the city and began to cry repentance to the people. Certainly, seeing his dark skin and his clothing, many of the people were immediately incensed at the audacity of this Lamanite. Who did he think he was? The Gospel had gone from the Nephites to the Lamanites, after all. The Nephites had heard it already. This Lamanite needed to go back and preach to his own people. And then, revulsion turned into anger as they heard a Lamanite catalog their many sins. Some were not angry, but immediately sought out their religious leaders, seeking reconciliation with God. Others decided that this arrogant Lamanite must die. Taking up their bows and slings, they shot arrows and rocks at him. By the grace and power of God, however, none of these projectiles could hit him. He continued to stand upon the wall and deliver his message. Seeing the miracle in this, even more of those hearing Samuel’s words decided to repent and seek reconciliation with God. However, there were many who still resisted Samuel’s words and resented him for speaking them. Since their arrows and stones had missed, they took up their melee weapons and went up the wall after him. At this point, he finished speaking and finally fled.
Like the inhabitants of Zarahemla listening to Samuel, when it comes to hearing the words of prophets, we can all be divided into three groups. The first group hears, immediately feels the truth of what is said, and seeks reconciliation with God. The second group hears and immediately starts firing back with objections and arguments. Upon seeing that none of these objections or arguments manage to hit the mark, though, we realize our folly and seek reconciliation with God. The third group, undeterred by failure to hit the mark with objections, simply takes resistance to the next level.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I completely believe that, while the events in the Book of Mormon actually happened, the narrative has also been structured in such a way that clear parallels are meant to be drawn with the events and concerns of our time. Like the Nephite Republic, the United States of America has stood as a paragon of innovation, prosperity, faith, and freedom. However, like the Nephites in the time of Samuel the Lamanite, we have become top-heavy, destabilized by our arrogance. We think that our philosophy of government makes us superior, though it is increasingly becoming a thing of theory rather than practice. We think that our freedom makes us superior, though we waste it on addictions and trivialities. We think that our heritage makes us superior, though we have largely betrayed it. We think that our past victories make us superior, though we continue to hollow out the strength that made said victories possible. Some of us even think that our racial identity makes us superior, even while the demographic gaps in prosperity throughout the world are rapidly closing. Most Americans would not know it, but Qatar, Singapore, and Brunei all have a higher per-capita GDP (PPP) than the United States. By 2050, Taiwan and South Korea both will have passed us up. As for China, not only will it have passed us up as the world’s largest economy (based on PPP rather than nominal currency value) by the end of the year, but it is also catching up in STEM education. China is even well on its way to having more Christians than any other country in the world. Therefore, even while I talk about my country’s inspired origins, I cannot bring myself to identify with my more jingoistic peers in the political arena. Even if this country is not on the decline in and of itself, its prominence or primacy relative to other countries is quite clearly on the decline.
The Restored Gospel’s message to the United States on this wise, then, is the same message that was delivered by Samuel the Lamanite: Repent. There is nothing intrinsically superior about us, and in various ways, the peoples whom many of us view as being backward and reactionary actually exhibit many virtues that we would do well to emulate. This is not to say that Islamic extremists in Arab countries are right and we are wrong. Rather, it is to say that, so long as we continue on our present course, our period of primacy as a society will soon come to an end. If we are to be saved, it will only be by espousing the correct principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – principles that are beginning to flourish in the hearts of other nations, even while they shrink and decay in our own.
For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)
The Gospel is going forth in Latin America. It is going forth in Southeast Asia and India. It is going forth in Africa. It will soon go forth in the nations that are now closed to it. It is blessing the lives of people throughout the world. Meanwhile, it has stalled in North America and Europe. As our families deteriorate, as we finance our retirements on the backs of those not yet born, as we institutionalize inverted morality, and as everything that gave us any excuse to think that we are any better than the rest of the world continues to evaporate, we can expect to see more and more instances of the supposed “backwards”, “barbarian”, “heathen”, and “heretic” populations of the world becoming stronger as we become weaker. As the blessings of God begin to pour out upon them, we will begin to see a stifling in the flow of such blessings to us. We just may live to see massive amounts of missionaries flowing from Shanghai, Mexico City, and Cairo to preach the Gospel to the heathens in Los Angeles, Houston, and London. When that day comes, the message from God will be the same as it has always been: Repent.
When I was in high school, my mother became the school nurse. As she is considerably more social and talkative than I am, she quickly became more well-known among the student body than I was. At one point, one of the students who frequently visited her heard her say that she was a Mormon. This student was caught by surprise. “What?” she said. “I thought you were Christian!” My mother nodded. “That’s right. I am.” She then had to give the usual explanation of how we believe in Jesus Christ and the Atonement, etc., which most people tend to accept at that point unless they are feeling particularly ornery.
Despite the hatred and misinformation surrounding the claim that Mormons are not Christians, I can certainly understand the reasons for this common dichotomy, however false it may be. I remember how, as I child, I used to lie on the living room carpet on weekends and flip through the channels. It was common to stumble across them. Some would shout angrily as they pounded their cross-shaped pulpits. Others would welcome the crowd onto the stage one at a time, at which point they would touch them on the forehead and cause them to become overwhelmed by an otherworldly power that made them fall neatly backward into the arms of…well…bouncers. Others just half-spoke-half-sang their sermons while they swayed back and forth. Others would try to build and maintain energy in their congregations by demanding that everyone say “Amen!” after every sentence. If the “Amen!” was not energetic enough, they would say, in kind of a passive-aggressive way: “Can I get a better AMEN?!” Then there was the vocabulary I had never before encountered, with words such as “Jesus-aaah!” Maybe this is an unfair depiction of Protestant worship on the whole, but it is the honest truth of how I perceived it as a child. Anyway, they had their different styles, but they all had one thing in common: They were all professional performers. At the age of six, I could see that clearly, and it repulsed me. Where was the sincerity I had come to expect from church? At my church, everyone took turns speaking, and though they were sometimes awkward, the sermons came from the heart. We had leaders, but they did not act like that. I thought Christians were silly. They and I were very different.
I think I was eight years old when I made some comment about what I perceived to be the silly worship practices of Christians, at which point my brother corrected me. “We are Christians,” he said. The obvious etymology of the word “Christian” then dawned upon me. A Christian is one who worships Jesus Christ. I worship Jesus Christ. I am a Christian. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that the weirdos I had seen on television were somehow part of some larger group to which I belonged. However, I did also realize that most of my friends from school belonged to this group as well, and I was fine with that. Pretty soon, I found myself correcting my friends when they said that I was not a Christian. I was a Christian. I worshiped Jesus Christ. At the age of nine, I started reading the Book of Mormon on my own, and I sometimes brought it with me to school. I would point to the subtitle of that book: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. We were different, but we had important similarities. I made peace with that idea.
My church has often been accused of trying desperately to be accepted by “mainstream Christianity”, whatever that is. One interesting note about that accusation is that many of those who make it, while agreeing to disenfranchise “the Mormons”, will also refuse to accept each other much of the time. Methodists and Baptists may accept each other as Christians, but what about Catholics? Now, that is a matter of debate. Adventists? Now we are getting really controversial. The truth is that we Latter-day Saints just want to be seen as what we are. We are not Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, but we are Christian. (The most correct subset name would be “Restorationist”.) We do not want to be labeled as “mainstream”, but we do not mind at all cooperating with “mainstream” churches when it makes sense to do so.
It is true that the leadership of our church has sought to make it clear that we are Christians, and most of our members seek to do so as well. However, not all do. One New York Times contributor, an active Latter-day Saint, once actually argued that, just as the truth of Christianity grew beyond Judaism centuries ago, so has our faith grown beyond Christianity now. Citing the issues we have always had with “mainstream” Christianity, he makes it clear that he is not in the same group as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Episcopalians – and does not want to be. While I certainly sympathized with him to some degree when I read this, I could not help but feel that his arguments were still a bit ill-founded, as, while I was not a Jew and therefore could not be termed Jewish, I was a follower of Christ, and was still therefore a Christian. Also, while the term “Mormon” does not actually make etymological sense when used in this way, the term “Christian” does.
Another issue that bothered me about said New York Times article was the author’s readiness to be called a “Mormon” after having rejected the title “Christian”. After all, “Mormon” is not the correct term for members of my church. Some people seem to think that the Book of Mormon gets its name from the name of our religion, but this is not actually true. Mormon was an ancient prophet who, with the help of his son Moroni, compiled the sacred records of his people into a single work. When Moroni finished his father’s work, he gave it his father’s name. Those who initially used the word “Mormon” to refer to people of my faith were our detractors and persecutors. We simply have not fought the term “Mormon” much because, while inaccurate, it is not offensive in any way. The correct term for someone who belongs to my faith, however, is Latter-day Saint.
But here is where this discussion of terms and labels really gets interesting: You see, just as the term “Mormon” was imposed on those of my faith by those who hate us, the term “Christian” actually has a similar origin. As is related in Acts 11:26:
And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
The word “Christian” was coined as a derisive term for those who followed the teachings of Jesus and who believed that He was the Christ, and this seems to have happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is no record of Jesus using the term “Christian” during His ministry. In fact, other than this statement about the word’s origin, there is only one other instance of its use in the Bible (1 Peter 4:16).
So what did the followers of Christ call themselves? In the Acts 11:16 reference mentioned above, they are referred to as “the disciples”. However, this is a non-specific term, as there were certainly many religious and philosophical leaders at that time, all of them with their own disciples. So what did they call themselves?
The epistle to the Romans is addressed “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” The epistle to the Corinthians is addressed “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Ephesians? “[T]o the saints which are at Ephesus”. Philippians? “[T]o all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi”. Colossians? “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse”.
Who were these “saints”? The Catholics have come to convince us that a saint is some sort of super-Christian, but I do not think that this is accurate. I think it is clear that these epistles were not written for the benefit of an elite cadre of especially holy people who stood separate from the main body of believers. Rather, these epistles are quite clearly directed at the Church in general, making no distinction between “elite” believers and “normal” believers. So why are they addressed to the “saints”? This is because a saint, in the biblical sense, is someone who has been “sanctified in Christ Jesus”. That is all. There is no distinction between Christians and super-Christians. There are only those who have accepted Christ’s Atonement and those who have not. The true term for someone who believes in and lives by the Old and New Testaments should therefore be “Saint”.
So, when it is all said and done, I have to say that I think the whole discussion about whether or not Mormons are Christians is technically unimportant, as both of these terms are essentially nicknames given to their respective groups by outside – even belligerent – parties. The real question, then, is this: Are the Latter-day Saints truly the modern version of the saints of biblical times, as their name implies?