21 February 2008

Holy scripture, holy myth (part I)

My present intention is to make this a three-part series of posts about some recent reflections on the meaning and purpose of the scriptures. This initial post will focus on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT). A follow-up will introduce additional issues that the Book of Mormon narrative adds to complicate my thoughts from post #1. The third post will discuss how what I have set forth in post #1 might explain (or affect) the way that we teach scripture in the Church.

Since this semester is my last one at a university (at least in the foreseeable future), I chose to take an undergraduate-level course in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, in part because I knew so little about it and in part because I so desperately needed to get outside of the law school for an intellectual experience. I chose an undergraduate course simply because the sum total of my exposure to the OT is limited to whatever I have heard or discussed in Sunday School every four years. My professor takes a secular and academic approach to the HB/OT, which is entirely appropriate given the setting. It has definitely been a different experience from your typical Mormon Sunday School class (and for that matter, any Sunday School class I ever attended prior to joining the Church). By writing what follows, I don't mean to endorse any of these theories or hypotheses. I agree with some, but am undecided on many others. I simply mean to explore our notions of the historicity of scripture with what contemporary HB/OT scholarship might be able to tell us (or what it cannot tell us).

The main theme that I wish to address is how the HB/OT breaks down into history or myth. Due to Latter-day Saints' general rejection of the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible, the introduction of mythic elements to our scripture should not bother one much. However, exactly where that division occurs is not entirely clear, neither to me nor to most of the scholars who have devoted years to understanding this complex work. My own sense is that the historicity of much of the HB/OT is not important to the truth of the Restoration. Acknowledging the mythic elements of these important stories can be very disconcerting at first, especially to one who has grown up with these stories and characters. However, in my opinion, the fact that some of the HB/OT is myth rather than history provides no grounds for a rejection of the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. Apart from its literal historicity, the HB/OT can still tell us important things about our Heavenly Father's relationship to his sons and daughters, our relationships among ourselves, and God's plan for his creations.

In the time and space available to me, I could not possibly go through the entire HB/OT. Instead, I have chosen to pick out a couple of major instances of this phenomenon to illustrate my thesis. I also can't lay out all of the evidence for the assertions I am making, but I will point you to the textbooks I am using if you need to see it for yourself.
For example, there is little or no extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus, at least as it is told by the Book of Exodus. There is likewise no extra-biblical evidence for the figures of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The first relatively certain historical event that we have recounted in the HB/OT is the establishment of the United Monarchy under David and his son, Solomon. From there on, things get more and more concrete. Further back from that point (around 1000 BCE), it becomes more and more difficult to tell where history begins and myth ends.

The Exodus and Conquest- Scholars generally reject the idea that somebody named Moses liberated a bunch of Hebrew slaves and took over 600,000 of them (about 2 million with women and children) wandering in the desert, eventually coming to conquer and settle in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Alternative theories that have been proposed include: a small group of slaves escaped from Egypt and came and instigated a revolt in Canaan, eventually taking over. There is some material evidence for the presence of Semitic slaves in Egypt during certain periods, but no Egyptian record of a mass exodus. Furthermore, many are comfortable with the notion that some Hebrew slaves came out of Egypt simply because it does not make much sense to make that embarrassing incident part of your history if it simply is not true. On balance, I am willing to say that the Exodus, on the scale recounted in the book of Exodus, did not happen.

My point is, if the Exodus is not historical...so what? I cannot think of any core tenet of the Restoration that hinges on this fact. We certainly tell stories about Moses parting the Red Sea (also questionable) as an example of faith and the power of God. If these events never happened, those stories function equally well as myth and does NOT mean that God lacks the power to do them. (The story of Moses parting the Red Sea also shows up in the Book of Mormon, but my discussion of that will appear in part II of this series).

Where things get problematic is where certain stories or characters who are extremely important to Mormon belief get thrown to the myth side of the equation.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob + the Twelve Tribes- There is generally little in the way of evidence to suggest that Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any of the Jacob/Israel's twelve sons were historical figures. Most of the events of their lives were private intrafamilial happenings and so it is not surprising that no extra-biblical evidence exists to substantiate them. Such persons could have plausibly existed. However, the narratives we have of their lives are composite in nature (see the Documentary Hypothesis) as is most of the Pentateuch, meaning that different stories (probably from different oral tradition) were woven together over time to form the version that we now have.
It is also believed by some that the twelve tribes that come to compose the nation of Israel are not in fact the biological sons of Jacob/Israel, but merely twelve tribes that united in Canaan under the worship of YHWH. Under this theory, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be etiologies, or stories of how certain people(s)/tribe(s) came to be. The patriarchal story would have explained to the Israelites that they were kin rather than simply political allies.

I can ask the same question of this as I did of the Exodus above- if not true, then so what? Unfortunately the answer is much more complex here. Mormons have a great deal invested in the figures of the patriarchs and the Twelve Tribes. In the temple, we are given the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In our patriarchal blessings, we are declared to be of their lineage and are named to be a part of one of the tribes of Israel. Our notions of eternal marriage are closely tied up with the Abrahamic covenant. So it becomes much more difficult for us to cut ties with the patriarchs than with the Exodus, or with a global Flood. Nevertheless, in spite of its difficulties, I could imagine a non-literal reading of these narratives that nevertheless affirmed the truth of the Restoration (Incidentally, my wife, in her Ph.D. program, has studied all of the numerous ways that early Christian theologians discarded the literal truth of the patriarchs and "spiritualized" or allegorized their biographies). Even if Abraham did not exist, the fact that we call the covenant of eternal marriage along with other covenants the "blessings of Abraham" does not make them any less real. I do not think that we really believe that these blessings originated with him in the first place. His narrative is simply a shortcut for us to explain the meaning of the covenant. Similar to this is the way we call the higher priesthood after Melchezidek- he was not the first, but he was exemplary of it. I am not sure what to make of the twelve tribes, if they are not in fact historical. The importance of tribes seems to be declining in the global Church anyway, so it may be moot. Still, Abraham seems such a key figure in our theology that doing away with his historical reality would seem so much more problematic than many other HB/OT personages and stories.

I could go on for a long time about this, but I would rather here from you. Am I missing something here? Would introducing mythic elements into the HB/OT completely destroy the Gospel? If you have any specific instances, I would be happy to hear them. I am still making up my mind about all of this, so I would be happy to get any input I could.

I promised to disclose the textbooks I am using, so here they are: Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Revised and Expanded) ed. Hershel Shanks and The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2nd ed.) by Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner.

15 February 2008

Future apostleship speculation

You will recall that, immediately behind a Hispanic, Marlin K. Jensen was my second choice for the new Apostle that will be called into the Quorum as of the April General Conference. Obviously, anything we hear or say prior to then that does not come from the First Presidency can be taken as speculation and rumor. But thinking back to this past September, when the Church sent a high-ranking member of the leadership to the memorial service at Mountain Meadows, they sent then-Elder, now Pres. Eyring. Less than a month later, he would be called into the First Presidency, though none of us knew it at the time. Is this a generally reliable tool for ascertaining the identity of the newest Apostle? If so, see these stories to see who the First Presidency is sending out to do their bidding now. Elder Jensen already carries the title Church Historian, but this particular function seems to be entirely unrelated to that role. Is this a result of the fact that Elder Jensen is a well-known Democrat among the Seventy? I doubt it, because the Church is so famously neutral on partisan issues, and this would seem out of line with that stance.

08 February 2008

Anybody missing Mitt yet? (my last Mitt Romney post....ever...hopefully)

He's only been gone for a day, but I've started to wonder if the intense interest in Mormonism that resulted from his presidential campaign will fade away. Who knows whether President Hinckley's death and funeral would have received as much mainstream media coverage had Mitt not been a major player in the Republican primaries. Whatever happens to the interest, Richard Bushman noted in the Salt Lake Tribune that "I don't think we'll ever be the same."

I have mixed feelings about Mitt's passage from the national spotlight. On one hand, whenever I felt afflicted by blogger's block, there was always something Mitt-related to read or write about. He was a convenient and ubiquitous topic, if not target, for many months. On the other hand, as I mentioned in an earlier post, at some points it just got to be too much. Too much Mitt, too many places, too many times.

Will Mitt's fleeting moment in the public eye mean anything long-term for the Church? I am more skeptical than Brother Bushman. The 2002 Salt Lake Olympics don't seem to have increased the Church's long-term profile much. A presidential election is much more important and interesting to most Americans than the Olympics (and in particular the Winter Olympics) but Mitt got out before the really fun stuff happens.

06 February 2008

Obituary for Mitt Romney's campaign

Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency of the United States died Tuesday night, at approximately 11:30pm, of a broken heart due to inadequate support from California Republicans. Gov. Romney is in the first stage of grieving his loss- namely, denial. Luckily for those who hope that he will retain his dignity, his promise to carry on with the campaign, delivered late last night, was not followed by an early morning announcement of the termination of his campaign, a la Giuliani in Florida. His future plans are unknown, but likely involve, service as a mission president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In all seriousness, people, it's over. Romney only won last night in the places he was easily expected to win, or could not lose (i.e. Utah). He put in a much worse showing on Super Tuesday than even those who do not actively support his candidacy (me) could have hoped. The denizens of the Bloggernacle will use up plenty of bandwidth in the coming days and weeks dissecting the failure of Romney's bid and its reasons, especially after the official announcement comes down.
Most of the commentary will likely revolve around assertions that it was Romney's Mormonism that killed the campaign. I am not so certain; the reasons are likely more complex than that.

My own theory is the following: 1) In states where Romney placed second to McCain, his Mormonism was of little import to the outcome. I think that there are legitimate reasons (albeit ones I do not agree with) why a Republican voter could prefer McCain over Romney which have nothing to do with Mormonism. Some of those include: McCain's superior experience, the fact that McCain is "the devil you know", and Mitt's well-publicized flip-flopping on moral issues particularly relevant to social conservatives. (Note: I personally don't find any of these reasons compelling, but I know other people who do)
2) In other states where Mitt either placed second to Huckabee, or placed third behind McCain AND Huckabee, his Mormonism was the principal reason that he lost or did as poorly as he did. Looking at those states where Huckabee had substantial support, I am not sure that those outcomes were ever in doubt. I think it would serve as a good use of our time to speculate on what would have happened to Mitt's campaign if candidate X had not run/had dropped out earlier. I mean, if McCain does not run, what about Giuliani? If Huckabee drops out, what about McCain/Giuliani/Thompson? It all boils down to the non-controversial contention that if Mitt were the only Republican candidate running, he would have the nomination all sewn up. In the American system of electoral politics, where staying home and abstaining from voting is a legitimate option, it is impossible to say whether the absence of a voter's ideal candidate (for many evangelicals, Huckabee) would cause them to shift support to a less-than-ideal candidate, or simply stay home.

Romney has promised to keep campaigning, but as it becomes more clear that McCain is the front-runner, donations will dry up and he will be forced to spend more of his own money. Pursuing futile uses of resources is not nearly as fun when you are not spending other people's money. I think Romney might hang out for a couple more primaries, maybe into next week, but if he does not win all or a substantial portion of them, he will call it quits. He might want to hurry. I hear there is a open spot in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...

04 February 2008

My picks - First Presidency reorg (February 2008)

Before the official announcement, I wanted to announce my predictions for what we'll see at 11am MST, 1pm EST today.

First Presidency:

Pres. Thomas S. Monson (duh)
1st Counselor- Dallin H. Oaks or M. Russell Ballard
2nd Counselor- Henry B. Eyring

I think that President Eyring will stay as 2nd Counselor simply because he will likely be junior in the apostleship to anyone who could be named except for Elders Uchtdort, Bednar, or Cook. Also, he has not really been in the First Presidency so long to earn any seniority there.

New Apostle:

1st choice- a Latino (Walter Gonzalez of the Presidency of the Seventy would have been my pick, but then I found out he worked for CES...)
2nd choice- Marlin Jensen (Democrat, a white male but practically a minority in the Church)
3rd choice- D. Todd Christofferson (Duke Law alum)

Does anyone know if we'll get the announcement of the new apostle today or will that wait until GC in April? If we have to wait, why? So the membership can sustain the new Apostle? Then why is that not necessary for the reorganization of the First Presidency?

To see some more predictions, reached in a more rational and deductive fashion, see here.

03 February 2008

Hangin' with the "other" House of Israel

On Friday night, I got the chance to attend a local synagogue for Shabbat services. To give you some background on my visit, the youth from the synagogue visited our ward en masse for Sacrament meeting and stayed for a Q&A session with our youth. Adults who were not directly responsible for the YM/YW programs were not allowed to be in the room, but from the reports I have heard, things went very well. The youth leaders decided that they wanted to reciprocate that interest and thus our visit from last week came about.

I don't want to give a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened, so I'll only mention a couple of the more interesting moments. If you are really interested in witnessing a Jewish worship service, just visit your local synagogue (and if possible, arrange for reciprocal visits for your youth). I found that the rabbi was extremely kind and open to our attendance (he even announced it to the whole congregation), and furthermore stayed after the Shabbat service ended to answer our questions and allowed us a close-up look at the Torah scroll which he removed from the ark again just for our benefit. From my interaction with him, it seems that the rabbi thought that this kind of interfaith dialogue and experience was a vital part of his youth's education in their own faith and key to their correct education. But more on that below...

First, a couple of my own observations about the Shabbat services...

1. When Mormons think about bringing investigators to church, one of the things we naturally worry about is how people will handle our unique Mormon vocabulary (and how it might differ from how the same terms are used in mainstream Christianity). That obstacle is greatly enhanced in the synagogue since nearly the entire service (except for some brief reader responses and the sermon) is conducted in Hebrew. All of the songs and chants are done in Hebrew AND the books you are provided to follow the service have NO MUSICAL NOTES. I assume that the Jews know them by heart, but the rest of us just have to muddle through and follow the tone as best as possible. Imagine our hymn book with no notes and a first-time investigator trying to sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" just following the rest of us.

2. One of more interesting moments in the service was that the rabbi mentioned politics (and the upcoming Super Tuesday primaries) in his announcements and sermon. Now, I am personally in favor of having a wider latitude to speak about political issues (on both sides and from a Gospel-centered perspective) as an official matter in our Church meetings (I think that often the perceived space to speak about such things is smaller than it actually is). Nevertheless, when individual members attempt it, it usually goes poorly, in my opinion, so perhaps the "don't discuss it" rule is best. So when the rabbi immediately mentioned the primaries, the Mormon part of me had a cringe moment. Nevertheless, he was only bringing it up in order to remind those present that they should take a rest from the constant flow of news and rumor on Shabbat to preserve the day of rest as holy. As a news and politics junkie myself, it took a rabbi to remind me how wrapped up I can get in these things, as opposed to some of the other important aspects of my life and spirituality that I routinely ignore. Perhaps more interestingly is that even though the rabbi limited his comments on this occasion, he did not seem to feel utterly constrained to prohibit all talk of politics in his congregation. Furthermore, his sermon was a semi-serious look at a recent humorous book entitled "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible". The rabbi spoke light-heartedly about the book's premise, but avoided irreverence, and managed to make important points about the value (and limitations) of ancient scripture and the meaning of following commandments in the modern world. Typically, when members of our own church stray afield of the Standard Works or GC talks (and sometimes even when they don't), the result is sometimes painful and most often not good. I am actually all in favor of allowing a range of materials into our lessons and talks (as opposed to the limitations currently placed on those activities by the correlated manuals themselves) but seeing that we do it so poorly, perhaps it is for the best. I am sure that the rabbi has trained to do what he does and I do not advocate a professional clergy on the local level within our church- on the contrary, the lay nature of our local leadership is one of the things I love about the Church. But a little basic education on how to give a Church talk and how sources (both Church-approved and not) can be used to elucidate Gospel truths is certainly in order.

3. In another part of the service, the rabbi announced birthdays and anniversaries of those in attendance. When I attended the Methodist Church, we had a similar practice in those worship services called "joys and concerns." Any member of the congregation could stand up and mention to the pastor and the rest of the congregation something noteworthy and good that happened to them or a friend or family member, and likewise could notify us of anyone who might benefit from our prayers or some Christian service for some reason. That is a particular element of those worship services that I wish we could incorporate into our own Sacrament meeting. I feel like it would greatly increase my sense of community and family with other members of the ward, and I think it could do the same for all of us.

4. At this same point in the service, the rabbi recognized a young woman who was about to have her Bat Mitzvah (the female equivalent of our Bar Mitzvah). She was asked to take part in the ceremony and her parents were allowed to read a prepared prayer that both commended her to God and told the congregation a great deal about the girl, her parents, and the hopes that her parents have for her future. It made me wonder how much we do to recognize the good things that our own youth, and particularly the YW, are doing. In most cases I have seen, major milestones in a youth's life are marked by nothing more than a cursory recognition of that achievement by the bishop, without any comment by the parent or the youth who just received the recognition as to how this achievement has impacted their lives and/or their testimony of the Gospel. It extends beyond the youth as well. For example, immediately after I left on my mission, the Church imposed stricter guidelines on how missionary farewells could be conducted (and for good reason, in my mind). Girls both did and do have equal access to take advantage of missionary opportunities, but far fewer girls take advantage of it than boys. I realize that this opens up larger questions about the treatment of YW in the Church, but I do not want to get into that here. My only question here is whether we could do better in appreciating and recognizing our youth and their achievements and provide them with further opportunities to grow and be recognized by the wider ward family. This recognition for the Jewish girl in my story was obviously a momentous occasion for her and she would be further recognized in a smaller Bat Mitzvah ceremony the next day. My fear is that in our services, the recognition of a YM or YW's achievement seems to be nothing more than another item on the agenda.

And now for the grand finale...
When I learned that the leaders of the synagogue had approached a member of our stake and wanted to arrange a visit to our meetings for their youth, it was immediately clear to me that the polite and enlightened thing to do would be to offer to visit their services. Too often, members of the Church are all-too-eager to share our knowledge of the Gospel with others, and too reticent to accept the light and truth that others might have to share with us. I think that too many believe that those of other faiths, and in particular non-Christian faiths, have little or nothing to offer us. When I brought the idea of another visit up with the ward leadership, they were initially hesitant, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. But other youth leaders seemed to have had a similar idea, and made sure it was carried out.

I suppose that you could cynically look at this as just another missionary opportunity (or as preparation for our young men who will serve missions), but since the conversion of the rabbi or any of the Jewish youth seems highly unlikely at this point, I think we can look for deeper indications of the value of this kind of interfaith practice. Even with the revealed knowledge we have of the Gospel, it is very important for us to understand and appreciate the beautiful and more ancient rituals of religions like Judaism. I grew up in a small town in the South with no Jews, Catholics, or Muslims, and I feel that my upbringing was diminished because of it. I did not get the opportunity to know any such persons until I went to college. Because of these kinds of interfaith activities, I hope that this generation of youth in the Church will be better able to forge strong bonds of friendship with those of other faiths, not only in my own stake, but throughout the Church. So for those of you who lead auxiliaries, and in particular the YM/YW program, my hope is that you will look for and take advantage of similar opportunities, even if you are the ones that initially have to show interest in visiting the services of another faith tradition.