Friday, May 1, 2009

Moving to Nashville, & Reformed Egyptian and the Book of Abraham Papyri

Hi everyone,

Because Jenn often signs her posts with my login, I'll state up front that this is Seth. We are waiting to close on our home in Nashville, and the closing date has been pushed back three days, so it looks like we'll be going on an extended camp out and trip across Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Once we've settled, I'm sure there will be pictures to post of the new home.

I'd like to plug a new blog I'm contributing to, My most recent post (click here) is on the issue of rebaptism in Community of Christ, identity, boundaries, and the direction of the church.

Having returned a few weeks ago from the Restoration Studies Symposium in Independence, Missouri, I thought I'd share the paper I presented. Enjoy!


“Reformed Egyptian and the Book of Abraham Papyri:
A Shared Scriptural Dilemma across the Restoration”

Restoration Studies Symposium
Independence, Missouri
18 April 2009

At a meeting of the Twelve with Joseph Smith presiding, the group was discussing the plurality of gods. The official minutes record:
Resolved that we believe the doctrine of a plurality of Gods is scriptural. Resolved that when the doctrine of a plurality of Gods is taught it should be done with prudence.
Pres. Smith said We should not be justified in making the faith of individuals on this matter a test of fellowship.
This meeting occurred, not in Kirtland or Nauvoo, but Fox River, Illinois, in 1865; and the prophet presiding was Joseph Smith III, not his father.

These minutes are part of the historical record of Community of Christ, known from 1872 to 2001 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or RLDS Church. What might be surprising for some Latter-day Saints who are familiar with Community of Christ theology, early RLDS leaders embraced doctrines such as the plurality of gods, citing the Creation account in the Bible, but also the Book of Abraham. It would seem that for the early Reorganization, however, plural gods did not necessarily mean plural marriages—or exaltation of humanity to God’s state as understood by Utah Mormons, through the endless production of physical and spiritual offspring by a husband eternally sealed to his multiple wives. Still, while Reorganization leaders may have been cautious about proclaiming plural gods, they unabashedly cited the Book of Abraham—at the level of scripture, though it was never canonized by the church—to support patrilineal ordination, or the rights of the priesthood being passed from father to son, as in Joseph Smith, Jr., to Joseph Smith III.

The March of 1860 issue of The True Latter-Day-Saints’ Herald, which was the organ of the Reorganization, responded to another branch of the Latter Day Saint movement rejecting some of the later revelations of Joseph Smith, Jr. The Herald stated:
Now we propose to prove that all the revelations which Joseph gave unto the church, we were bound to “give heed unto.” If the first edition of that book is divine, all the subsequent revelations which are contained in the Book of Covenants, in the Book of Abraham, &c., and which he gave unto the church, are equally divine.
With more recent “revelations” regarding Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy, the early Reorganization took a much more inclusive approach to Joseph Smith’s prophetic productions than it might have, had it known the source of plural marriage.

Within these early doctrinal statements and formulations, the Reorganization was making sense of itself and its past; and its future, the present Community of Christ, is in no means restricted by its earlier use of and belief in the Book of Abraham. Within the Restoration, an assumed canon has no binding or permanent authority without the seal of common consent, and Community of Christ canon reflects that Saints of the Reorganization grew within but ultimately beyond a worldview that literally interpreted every production of a prophet to be prophetic and binding. This is further reinforced by some sections of the Community of Christ Doctrine & Covenants—regarding baptism for the dead, and John Taylor’s report of the martyrdom—being seen as no longer pertinent enough to be included in the canon. First moved to historical appendices of the Doctrine & Covenants in 1970 by conference action, these historical appendices were removed altogether by 1990 conference action in what Community of Christ Historian Richard Howard has termed a “scriptural appendectomy.”

Shifting statuses of scripture raises some serious questions, however, as to the nature of prophecy and reliability of prophetic translation in general, and in Joseph Smith in particular. Most of the early leaders of the Reorganization explicitly trusted the Book of Abraham, as a production of Joseph Smith, Jr.; but, even if they had thought to question, they lacked the linguistic tools necessary to analyze the original source text. Today, Saints of the Restoration—and especially those who believe in the Book of Abraham—have more reasons for apologetics over Smith’s translation. If we are to believe in the Book of Abraham, “as long as it is translated correctly,” then we cannot believe in Smith’s version. Today, some sort of unconventional explanation is needed to understand this failure to translate the text faithfully.

This is not just a matter that involves the Book of Abraham: early Saints did not question Smith’s translation of Egyptian texts because he had previously translated reformed Egyptian. Whether it is canonized in their church or not, Saints who honestly consider the mode of transmission for the Book of Abraham will likely have to push their interpretations of how we have received all of Restoration scripture well beyond the conceptions of their nineteenth-century counterparts.

In this paper, I argue that the Book of Abraham is not a burden, but a blessing, an entry point into a new understanding of Restoration scripture. Whether canonized or not, the Book of Abraham confronts every member of the Restoration, and allows for a departure from worn-out arguments over scriptural literalism, and entry into scripture as inspired mythos, a necessary foundation that is central to our identities and faith. This new understanding shifts emphasis from source to content for all of scripture: Hebrew, Christian, and Restoration. In this paper, I will begin with the origins of Restoration scripture, followed by a history of the Book of Abraham. I will then shift to a new understanding of inspired translation as sacramental mythos, followed by the failures of the Book of Abraham to stand up to scholarly research. I will conclude with the need for a breathing canon of scripture and new understanding of prophecy and revelation.

The Origins of Restoration Scripture: Inspired Translations
Shifting opinions about translation, of necessity, affect views of the translator. The familiar title throughout the Restoration, “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” once had appended to it a fourth title: “Translator”:
I give unto you my servant Joseph to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and prophet.
It is one thing to reject the Book of Abraham as scriptural because it was never accepted by the common consent of the church, or that it contains false doctrine; but it is quite another to be questioning the translation abilities of a prophet, seer, revelator, and translator who is responsible for the bulk of Restoration scripture for just about every branch within the Latter Day Saint movement. If we cannot trust his abilities at translating Egyptian, how can we trust his statements regarding reformed Egyptian? And, if he cannot translate ancient texts faithfully, how can we faithfully trust his direct revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants?

I argue that solutions to understanding scripture in a postmodern setting should include an appreciation for the human element: of the delicate balance between Divine and human voices, of the situated nature of scripture in time and place. While perhaps a terrifying prospect for some, new understandings by many have removed the need for endless debates over what Paul truly meant about women not speaking in church, or what impact DNA has upon the Book of Mormon. Many have found that the sacred story is no less powerful in their lives and worship when detached from concerns over whether it is factual, actual, unmediated, and inerrant (especially in the case of Restoration scripture such as the Book of Mormon). In fact, for many, it has become more powerful, more meaningful. As with recognizing that Moses did not really write the Torah, but that its mythic epic is still foundational, valuable, inspired, and scriptural for so many of Abraham’s children, Restoration scripture is not necessarily undermined when it is read by Saints of the Restoration as Restoration mythos.

Some, of course, would be aghast. Like most other conservative believers in sacred texts, many Mormons see contextualization as the last step in de-canonization: if it isn’t inerrant, historically and doctrinally, and to be taken literally on all levels, then scripture’s value is somehow lost. For fear of a straw man, I’ll stop there—for I hope that their arguments are more nuanced; and at very least suspect that they are sharpened, in their minds, by faith—a realm that I both respect and which is beyond critical analysis.

My point is not the blinders of faith that are required to accept the arguments of the literalists, nor that their approach is one of forcing fact into the confines of scripture instead of critically analyzing scripture based on fact; instead, my point is the lack of appreciation between the literalists and contextualists. One argues that the Creation can be scientific, and the other that the Creation has no basis in science, and in so doing, both can very easily miss the point to the story (the former even more so). Therein lies the breakdown in dialogue that is almost irreconcilable, especially because, among believers who read the scriptures literally and contextually, both sides feel that their faith is being attacked. This breakdown involves neither being able to see the other’s position as a viable environment to sustain spirituality or base one’s worldview.

Thus, not surprisingly, many within the Mormon faith community distrust or misunderstand the liberals within for (among other things) their views on scripture; and, being in the minority, and seen as devious or a threat by many priesthood leaders, liberal Mormons experience isolation within a community where scripture is rarely approached critically. With common views on scripture, especially Restoration scripture, and the lack of critical dialogue on scripture within their faith community, it is not surprising that conversations between liberal Mormons and Community of Christ members spring up from time to time, in symposia such as this, and among friends and scholars.

This affinity and the number of Mormons participating might increase, if predictions of one scholar of religion and of the Restoration are correct. David Howlett suggests that some of the same positions taken by Community of Christ will eventually be adopted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church), such as reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon and Restoration scripture; he states that “Community of Christ,” as it critically and yet faithfully reexamines its heritage in its present-day setting,
in this way, is the laboratory of the Restoration movement in which these contemporary social and intellectual issues are being worked out, just as the “mainline” Protestant denominations are the centers for social change that eventually even conservative Evangelicals will adopt.
The History of the Book of Abraham
The Pearl of Great Price, which is not always well known among members of Community of Christ, is part of the LDS canon. One of the four standard works of the LDS Church—which also includes the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants—the Pearl of Great Price is a fluid collection of scriptural miscellany; fluid, in that its contents have varied over the years, even up until recent decades; and miscellany, in that those contents are prophetic productions of Joseph Smith that do not fit nicely into the Doctrine & Covenants, and which are not part of the Book of Mormon. Of these scriptural odds and ends, the Book of Abraham is the most curious.

Where the plates of gold where taken back by Moroni, the source materials that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from are available—at least partially—for scrutiny. And these sources have been scrutinized by scholars, perhaps as early as the Reorganization, and certainly by 1912, spearheaded by the Episcopal Bishop of Utah, the Rt. Rev. Franklin S. Spalding, who sent the facsimiles of the papyri to eight prominent Egyptologists. These scholars’ opinions that the translation was incorrect has only been upheld by several more contemporary Egyptologists who have reviewed the original source text; only LDS scholars, usually working closely with or for BYU, have argued that the translation of Joseph Smith is legitimate in some way or another.

While the text blurs into the realm of faith, the Book of Abraham is not beyond critical analysis. If it is a correct and unmediated translation by the Prophet of some of the literal writings of Abraham—as the early Reorganization saw it, and many within the LDS Church still see it—then the Book of Abraham should hold up to peer review by current Egyptologists. Joseph Smith did not seem wary of this sort of critique, for he sent Martin Harris to verify the authenticity of his work. Harris eventually met Mitchell and Anthon who analyzed the “caractors” transcript of the reformed Egyptian symbols taken from the plates of gold, where from Smith was translating the Book of Mormon.

Related to our ability to gauge Smith’s translations from the fragments of original texts that are in existence, the Rosetta Stone was discovered around the time of Joseph Smith’s birth. This superlative find for studies of antiquity was then translated by Champollion around the time that Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Although modern knowledge of Egyptian emerged contemporaneously with the Book of Mormon, still it is near impossible to analyze the source of the Book of Mormon, with the plates of gold returned to Moroni, and the language itself, reformed Egyptian, being known by “no other people” (See Mormon 4:98-100; LDS Mormon 9:32-34). But while reformed Egyptian is ultimately beyond scholarly analysis, the Book of Abraham facsimiles are not.

The papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated were part of a traveling exhibit of Michael Chandler. Along with four mummies and some other artifacts, Joseph Smith purchased the scrolls in June of 1835 while Chandler was visiting Kirtland, Ohio. Among but not limited to 19th-century Americans, there was a great interest in reviving the wisdom of ancient civilizations, including Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Michael Chandler had found an excellent place to display and sell his mummies, for early Mormonism was caught up in the Egyptian revival and spiritual mystique of Egypt. Both Lehi and Abraham, two central figures in Smith’s reproduction of ancient prophetic wisdom, traveled through Egypt. Smith, as someone well versed in nineteenth-century folk magic, likely shared the popular conception of Egypt as a source of magical knowledge and arcane wisdom.

After purchasing the mummies and artifacts, Smith began a preliminary translation, identifying the scrolls as containing the writings of Joseph and Abraham. On October 1st, 1835, he wrote “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.” Interestingly, Smith’s development of the Egyptian alphabet occurs simultaneously with his interest in grammar altogether, taking classes in Kirtland on both the English language and Hebrew. The attempt to decipher Egyptian syntax from the hieroglyphics on the scrolls illustrates that he was attempting to understand the papyrus both intellectually as well as through revelation. Or, he was “study[ing] it out in [his] mind,” as Oliver Cowdery had been instructed by God in Doctrine & Covenants 9:3 (LDS 9:7-9), after his failed attempt to translate the Book of Mormon. In Section 9, Cowdery was told, “you can not write that which is sacred, save it be given you from me.”

Inspired Translation as Sacramental Mythos
Here we gain a glimpse at the concept of “translation” for Joseph Smith, which has implications not just for the Book of Abraham, but for the Book of Mormon, and the Inspired Version (also known as the “Joseph Smith Translation” or “JST” by Latter-day Saints). It is not a translation in the usual sense, for Smith was doing something very different with papyri and gold plates than Champollion was doing with the Rosetta Stone. Precisely because of the revelatory element being mixed in with the human intellect and experience, it is ultimately beyond scholarly critique because it is outside of the realm of historically verifiable fact. Both scriptural literalists and contextualists alike would do well to consider this fact.

As Christian Primitivism, which is a third category beyond Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox Christianity, the Latter Day Saint Movement began as a reaction against creedal argumentation and reformulation and in search of primitive worship and prophetic guidance; as scholar of religion Kathleen Flake observes:
Luther nailed his complaints to the door and the church fathers [of his day] countered with decrees of anathema. In such exchanges of creedal statement and dogmatic restatement, most of modern Christianity has formed and reformed itself. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, wrote stories, however.
Drawing upon Howard Bloom’s observations of the Prophet’s genius as imaginative myth-making, she states that “myth in the sense used here refers not to fiction as the opposite of fact but to highly symbolic narratives that attempt to account for existence by providing a history of divine and human interaction.”

Within our post-modern world, myth is untrue, rude, and misleading; but Smith was recapturing an essential element of human experience and especially spirituality: a foundational narrative through which we see and make sense of our lives and the heavens, formed from the imperfect dust and clay of human experience, but vivified through an endowment of God’s power and light. Chesterton’s words regarding poetry and poets are very applicable here when applied to prophecy and prophets:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion […]. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Scripture is a sacramental experience, where from common elements—water in baptism, bread and wine in communion, and olive oil and human touch in healing—symbolic, holy emblems are created, emblems that orient and realign the participants in the sacrament with the order of the cosmos. Speaking of the Endowment but applicable to our treatment here, Greg Prince in his history of the development of Restoration priesthood, insists that “one test of any religious leader is his or her ability to provide the community of believers with tangible, finite symbols through which an understanding of and communion with the finite is facilitated.”

From the very human and physical components of his time, experience, and imagination, Joseph was drawing upon his prophetic anointing of the Spirit and witness of the Divine, reaching for the metaphysical stars, as it were; and each time we relive this new understanding of Christian experience as Saints of the Restoration, we are both the origins and legacy of our own inspired creation stories. English historian E.P. Thompson speaks of ethnic groups as being “peoples who are present at their own creation,” who create their own teleology and foundational legends. Certainly ethnogenesis applies to the Latter Day Saint movement historically, and is a necessary element to identity that will ensure its perpetuation into the future. But this process is not creating carbon-based copies: perpetuation of a new and everlasting gospel should include individuals seeing, interpreting, and living the everlasting message in new ways.

Literal Translation of the Book of Abraham Incorrect
Joseph Smith never canonized the Book of Abraham, but he didn’t need to for Saints of the New Organization (later termed the “Reorganization”) to list it among the inspired works of the Prophet that were uncontestable, and to use it as evidence of lineal authority in the priesthood. Smith’s own language suggests that he considered it to be an inspired translation, involving both human and divine elements in his translating process. Consider this statement, shortly after he began his initial translation:
I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.,—a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.
Consider also and again his diary entry on the 1st of October, 1835, where Smith recorded: “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.” Stating in relation to the translation process that “the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth,” and that “the system of astronomy was unfolded,” it is unlikely that Smith believed it to be a translation in the traditional sense, even with his growing training in grammar.

Smith’s process of translation may have been lost to history, were it not for woodcut reproductions of the papyri. These were made to display the Egyptian vignettes that Smith translated from, and were included with the first printing of the Book of Abraham in the Times & Seasons in 1842. Were it not for these facsimiles, we might have missed out on an essential baptism by fire—essential to our understanding of scripture, and our identities as members of the Latter Day Saint movement.

In 1912, the New York Times reported on the translation of the facsimiles by several prominent Egyptologists, at the request of Rev. Spaulding. The article stated in damning terms that the Book of Abraham, “the only one of” the three “sacred writings” produced by Smith “to which the test of scholarship could be applied[,] has been submitted to such a test, and it authenticity has been destroyed completely.” The article further stated that
Two eminent scholars in England, two scholars in Germany, and four of the most noted Egyptologists in this country join, without a dissenting paragraph, in the condemnation. The sacred Mormon text was susceptible of accurate and complete analysis from the simple fact that it was taken from a genuine Egyptian original. The translation was a work of the Mormon prophet’s curious imagination.
Mormon leaders and other believers, responding to this potential death knell to the literal translation of the facsimiles not coinciding with Joseph Smith’s, insisted that too much of the original scroll was lost to say with certainty that Smith’s translation was incorrect. They seemed to overlook that Smith chose the facsimiles for reproduction with his interpretation, going to great lengths to have woodcuts created—and that he likely would not have done this if they were not related to the work; further, they overlook that he provided interpretations of the characters in the facsimiles, characters that were simply translated incorrectly. Whether the facsimiles represent even 1/100th of the total text is irrelevant: an incorrect translation is an incorrect translation.

But the story does not end there. The scrolls and mummies, sold by Emma Smith Bidamon in 1856 to Abel Combs, eventually made their way to the Chicago Museum, were they were presumably destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871 (as but another casualty of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow). Unbeknownst to the world, Combs had kept some of the papyri, which were eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1947. In 1966, a non-Mormon researcher from the University of Utah discovered 10 curious fragments of papyri pasted onto poster board, one of which he identified as Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham. Two years later, the LDS Church Historians Office discovered another fragment, the last of the eleven known portions of the Chandler collection purchased and translated by Joseph Smith.

Shortly thereafter, scholars began analyzing the newly discovered fragments. In the Summer 1968 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Jerrald Tanner and Grant S. Heward noted that Joseph Smith drew entire verses from one or two characters, the correct translation of those characters involving only one or two words. Tanner and Heward state that “the characters from fewer than four lines of the papyrus make up forty-nine verses of the Book of Abraham, containing more than two thousand words.”

In that Dialogue issue and the next, several Egyptologists, including Klaus Baer, John Wilson, and Richard A. Parker basically reaffirmed from the eleven source documents what had been said by the Egyptologists in 1912 who studied the three facsimiles. The correct translations had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham. Echoing the Egyptologists, RLDS Historian Richard Howard stated in a 1970 article in Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action, that the Book of Abraham was “simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination.”

Of course, Howard could make this statement without upsetting any Reorganized Latter Day Saints (at least regarding the Book of Abraham). In Salt Lake, the response was decidedly different. To provide a faithful reply to the growing evidence against the Book of Abraham, BYU professor and linguist Hugh Nibley was asked to comment on the eleven fragments. This he did, acting more as apologist than Egyptologist, in both Dialogue and in the LDS Church magazine Improvement Era in 1968.

To be able to properly comment, Nibley studied Egyptology under both Baer and Wilson, yet came to different conclusions than his mentors. Unlike every other scholar who had asserted that these were ordinary and common funeral scripts, and were from the wrong time period by centuries, even millennia, to be of Abraham’s period, Nibley attempted to find ways of explaining away the problems without really engaging the text. His sidetracks on lacunae in Egyptological research, on lost portions of scrolls, and on ad hominim attacks resemble the smoke and mirrors response given back in 1912. Today, many of the same apologetic arguments exist, competently countered by Christopher Smith in his paper, “The Myth of the Missing Book of Abraham Papyrus.”

Living Scripture
Perhaps Nibley said it best in 1968 in his article for Dialogue when he stated that Joseph Smith’s method of translating, if he was translating at all, “was by a process which quite escapes the understanding of the specialists and lies in the realm of the imponderable.” In that “Joseph Smith” did not “[get] his information through ordinary scholarly channels,” Nibley concludes with “wonder[ing] how any amount of checking along ordinary scholarly channels is going to get us very far.” In fact, it isn’t; and it is the same wall that we find ourselves up against, contextualists and literalists, and believing Saints of all stripes—with not only the Book of Abraham, but the Inspired Version (JST) and most importantly, the Book of Mormon.

Now some apologists, who would rather make the facts conform to scripture (as they perceive it) than approach the problem as objectively as possible, have suggested a catalyst theory. They posit that Joseph was led to believe, by God, that he was actually translating Abraham’s record, but instead the papyri were only a catalyst to start the prophetic process; that an actual record of Abraham exists, but was not in the Prophet’s possession, and is lost to history. I cannot condone this, for it paints God as disingenuous, and suggests that the same God who can do all things would sometimes rather fools us into thinking that a miraculous work is taking place. I suggest that believing that God “fudges” for our own good may be symptomatic of the apologists’ own scholarship. Certainly it reflects their understanding of scripture as inerrant and unmediated, with prophets as human conduits from the heavens who serve only as mouthpieces with little input. Within a Mormon cosmos, where God let a third of his spirit children damn themselves over agency, I simply cannot see that same God abusing Joseph Smith’s agency to the point that he is merely an instrument and not instrumental, a means and not a being.

If we are to understand the Book of Abraham, and perhaps all of Restoration scripture involving inspired translation, we need to reconsider inspired translation and the very nature of revelation. What I’m calling for is a reconsideration of scripture as valuable, not because of its verifiability as a historical document, but because of its meaning to us as followers of Christ and Saints of the Restoration. Is the Book of Mormon’s worth based upon how well it stands up to DNA, or in its power to bring us to Christ? Does the Torah have value because Moses wrote it and because it correctly details the creation of the earth, or because of its foundational story which speaks to so many believers of God? When so many are willing to argue over the source, it is disheartening that they never see that content, as Word of God, transcends polity.

The Book of Abraham is not to be feared. In fact, its failure to stand up to scholarly investigation is a blessing, because it is an invitation to rediscover scriptural origins; and as a people of a story (and not a people of the book, as in a bound book), it is an invitation to rediscover our own origins. I suggest that scriptural literalism as a test of faith is a shallow sort of substitute for the power available to a faith community that embraces the vulnerability of the human voice in Divine prophecy. An indispensable aspect of the Restoration was the reintroduction of charismatic witness through a prophet—and the ability to retell the sacred story, in our own day and time.

Perhaps we will outgrow some of the longstanding interpretations drawn from the Torah and Hebrew scriptures, some drawn from the Christian scriptures, and even some drawn from Restoration scriptures—but our journey with the God who created all, who met Moses on Sinai, condescended as Jesus in Jerusalem, and spoke to the boy prophet in the Grove is our constant. A “true and living church” is one that embraces a living, vulnerable, ongoing process of prophecy and scripture. It encounters a breathing canon, not rigid forms and institutionalizations of a fixed, past message.

We need new standards to remain both faithful and honest. This is not a new call: for decades, Richard Howard, Wayne Ham, William Russell, Howard Booth, and others have been prophetic in calling for new vision—and the reaction from their brothers and sisters has echoed the words of Christ, that those who challenge the system “have no honor in [their] own country” (John 4:44). I suggest that we have reached the breaking point between the standards of the literalists and the tools of the contextualists, which—if upheld simultaneously—would result in throwing out almost all of the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants. It is time that we give heed to the warnings.

Demanding that scripture is the test by which all other facts must stand or fall fails to appreciate it fully as the mythical foundation to our identities, our cosmos, and our conceptions of God. I’m not saying that this foundation is not real, but that as imperfect beings, we imperfectly perceive it; thus, upholding scripture as inerrant potentially places our trust in man and not God. Strict literalism elevates the medium to the level of that which it testifies of, a potential if not outright act of idolatry when the only word we worship is the Word made flesh.

There ought to be a sacred trust that we care less of scripture’s origins than we do of our common origins. In this way, the divide between literalism and contextualism can be bridged by a common respect for scripture as the word of God, as meaningful, inspired, and sacramental no matter its sources or history. More importantly, there needs to be a common respect for how each of us approach, understand, and glory in the words of God. That’s not to say we accept every prophetic production—but that we test and weigh and discover those that are sacramental and meaningful, those that help us encounter and commune with the Divine.

Either we find this new, common definition and standard for scripture, or face schism, retrenchment, and disenchantment as more evidence mounts against Restoration scripture, the Book of Abraham being the first loose string in an unraveling fabric. This is why both Community of Christ and liberal Latter-day Saints have a common horse in the race regarding inspired translations of Egyptian, reformed or otherwise. All Saints of the Restoration, really, face this dilemma, whether they realize it or not. The only solution to this is to either stick your head in the sand, or look up to the stars, but each of us must respond to this shared scriptural dilemma.

While I see the solution as living, breathing prophecy that is as concerned with the present and future as the past, I recognize that new definitions for scripture and for the Restoration are dangerous and difficult and trying. Change is always hard. If we are to accept Joseph Smith, warts and all, good and bad, we might ask why he wasn’t willing to do the same for the Methodists. What’s the point to the Restoration’s impetus if all of Christianity and beyond is part of the Kingdom of God?

It is here that the two most basic divisions in the Restoration appear: either the purpose is to restore, through revelation, the perfect, ancient order—and then once it’s restored, the purpose is to concretize it; or, the point is in the ongoing act of prophetic restoration. If the purpose of the Restoration is ongoing prophecy, then the impetus is secure; if not, then Saints cannot accept Restoration scripture warts and all, because the point was to get beyond the warts. I suggest that we need the warts, because, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I suggest that ongoing, prophetic guidance is the ancient order that God wanted to restore, and that this is a living creation that is opposed to complete institutionalization. Of necessity, a living church needs to breathe in new inspiration and be open to newness coupled with an everlasting message. An ongoing, prophetic journey demands change, as its covenant community continually refines are redefines itself. “Again you are reminded,” states a recent revelation of Community of Christ,
that this community was divinely called into being. The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe. (D&C 162:2a)
It is this breathing which allowed Community of Christ to cast off polygamy, the Book of Abraham, and other elements, while maintaining the spirit of the Restoration; and it is this breathing of a living, prophetic Restoration that will allow us to move beyond worshipping and placing faith in the messenger (whether prophet or scripture) and focus on worshipping and placing faith in God, which is the message of the prophets and scripture.

In rethinking our past to better understand the present and engage the future, we needn’t apologize: what is spoken is spoken, and God will not excuse Godself (D&C 1:8a; LDS D&C 1:38). Throughout the Restoration, there are many “prophet, seers, and revelators,” but few who have the appended title of “translator.” This speaks to the need for a myth-maker prophet, a Moses like figure, which is a one-time, foundational gig, upon which others build and refine the superstructure. Some other Restoration prophets have attempted to add new foundations, such as William Morris, and James Strang, and perhaps not incidentally, both, like Joseph, were killed. Joseph Smith III, in his growing journey as a prophet, was wise enough to separate faith in Christ from the means to Christ; he did not require belief in any tenet or book as a test of membership, reserving faith in Christ and repentance as the only basics.

Telling a new story is dangerous; Christ was a new story teller—“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, …But I say unto you…”. As members of the Restoration, we are all part of the same story. It is a new story, and it is an old story. But it is a story that necessary challenges the way things are, and challenges us to make them better, to draw closer to Zion. When those outer elements of the story begin to fray and fail to answer for our universe and experience, then we ought to strengthen the entirety of the structure, from the core to the fringes, by rediscovering and rethinking what God has always been telling us, but which we now see through a glass darkly. As prophetic peoples, this is our journey, this is our story, this is our legacy.


Tom and Alison said...

Wow - Seth the Mormon Scholar! I can't say I didn't see that coming... I read the part that I would call the executive summary, and then the last few pages and perused the rest. You have some good points in there, although I probably take Nibley's view on the other worldly translation, which probably sounds like hocus pocus to you. Hah. Anyway, make sure you send us your address as soon as you arrive in Nashville, Tugboat has something to send you.


Seth said...

The "hocus pocus" comment makes me think that you missed my point.

In your MBA student scanning, I wonder if you came across this paragraph:
"If we are to understand the Book of Abraham, and perhaps all of Restoration scripture involving inspired translation, we need to reconsider inspired translation and the very nature of revelation. What I’m calling for is a reconsideration of scripture as valuable, not because of its verifiability as a historical document, but because of its meaning to us as followers of Christ and Saints of the Restoration. Is the Book of Mormon’s worth based upon how well it stands up to DNA, or in its power to bring us to Christ? Does the Torah have value because Moses wrote it and because it correctly details the creation of the earth, or because of its foundational story which speaks to so many believers of God? When so many are willing to argue over the source, it is disheartening that they never see that content, as Word of God, transcends polity."

The whole point is that there is something magical (or mysterious) to mythos, something which transcends our own experience and provides a glimpse into the eternal. Nibley can call that whatever he wants, except scholarship, because he's speaking as a faithful apologist. And so am I, but without the baggage of scriptural inerrancy and historically-based content.

Tom and Alison said...

I see - I guess I missed a main point, which would explain a few of my test scores at school.

Email me your new address when you can.


Seth said...

It would also explain Ricky's test scores, in that he was cheating off of you.

We'll send you our address when we have it.