The following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, andOf Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Director of Media Products for FairMormon.)
As I’ve read through your list of faith-based concerns, I see that you frequently take issue with the scriptures and modern-day prophets as not always teaching the “truth.” Like you, and possibly many members in the Church, I tacitly accepted the position that prophets (both modern and ancient) were almost like demi-gods—that basically they could do no wrong nor say anything that wasn’t the absolute truth. I thought I learned this in Church, Seminary, and Institute. In hindsight, however, I don’t think that was really what I was taught (at least not by all of my instructors and leaders). Looking back, I wonder if I came to such assumptions because of my own expectations and the fact that the topic of prophetic fallibility was never directly addressed.
Unfortunately, by not questioning my own assumptions I took it for granted that the scriptures and the words of the prophets were inerrant. This assumption proved to be disastrous when I encountered LDS-critical material. The most powerful lesson I learned as I studied my way back into the Church (by finding answers to those claims that plugged my spiritual ears) was that my initial approach to the scriptures and prophets was not only naïve but is not the official position of the Church.
The two best things that came from my faith crisis were: 1) an increased strength in the firmness of my own faith (almost as if I had gone through the refiner’s fire), and 2) a more realistic appreciation for modern-day and ancient prophets. I’m almost embarrassed to say that up until my faith crisis I read the scriptures as if they were “true” fairy tales. What do I mean by that? Well the words were “true” because they touched my soul. I knew (and I still know) that they are true because when I read them I feel more than emotion—I feel the presence of a spiritual witnesses that seems to flow both peace and other-worldly intelligence into my heart and mind. There is nothing else like it (and I hope we can discuss this feeling more directly in a future letter).
But in another ironic way, reading the scriptures was almost like reading fairy tales. While I read about scriptural characters who engaged in struggles of their own, it was almost as if they were on another planet. Looking back, I unintentionally viewed past prophets (and their followers) from a superficial one-dimensional perspective. Those stupid Israelites, I thought, they saw all these wonderful miracles from Moses and yet they still fashioned a golden calf? How could anyone be so dumb?For the most part, past prophets were able to get out of tough situations simply by commanding water to come from a rock, or the walls of an enemy’s fortress to come tumbling down, or by causing the sun to stand still, or by lying down with friendly lions which didn’t eat prophets. Sure there were exceptions to these easy escapes (and of course Christ died a painful death to atone for our sins) but in many ways the scriptures—which I believed were true because I had received a spiritual witness that they are true— seemed like fairy tales of another world and didn’t really relate in any normal way to the world in which I live.
I understood that past prophets lived in a world that was different than our twenty-first century world. I knew they didn’t have electricity, airplanes, or iPads, but I guess I envisioned them as a technologically backward group that otherwise could have fit right in with the members of my own ward (other than the fact that they seemed to see these fantastic miracles on an almost daily basis).
As I explained in my first letter, it wasn’t until I began my personal studies (beginning with the writings of Hugh Nibley) that the characters in the scriptures (and eventually the characters of the Restoration) took on real human form. It wasn’t until I made this obvious but somehow missed connection that I began to understand scripture and revelation and how it pertains to prophets.
You see Doug, Adam, Moses, Isaiah, Mormon, Peter, Alma, and to some extent Jesus, were just like you and me. I’ve had undeniable personal revelation. Now I admit there was a time when I was struggling that I began to look for ways to argue away past revelatory experiences. In other words, I tried to find logical emotional and psychological explanations for how I was affected by revelation—ways that didn’t need to involve the supernatural. I spent enough time in my college psychology classes to know that we humans are great at convincing ourselves that things are real even if they aren’t, and that our brains can trick us and can even create real emotive responses to fake stimuli. Even though I knew all of this—all of the psychological and biological explanations that seemed to undermine an acceptance of the supernatural—I was never really able to completely push aside my spiritual experiences. While my brain could find excuses, my heart—my soul—told me that there was something more going on; that something tasted good and sweet and filled me in ways that the intellectual arguments could not.
My own personal revelations were not always—if ever—perfect. I’ve always been aware that they came to me, an imperfect vessel, in ways that required me to think them through in light of the things I already knew. While I’ve had a few instances of a clear loud voice, most of my revelatory experiences have been of the still small voice kind. And like listening to a still small human voice, it’s sometimes difficult to hear what’s being said because of ambient noise.
It was during my liberation from my faith crisis that I realized that prophets undoubtedly received revelation just like I received revelation. Sure there were the occasional big revelations like the First Vision, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ, or Alma (the younger) and Saul’s conversion stories, but I think that the typical prophetic revelations came to the mind and hearts of the prophets just like they came to me—“through a glass darkly,” as Paul said. Revelation for prophets works like revelation to each us; we get bits and pieces of direction, inspiration, and insight, but we have to typically figure out how to understand and define this information in the context of what we know. The primary difference between a prophet’s revelations and my revelations are the scope or sphere of stewardship. While I can receive revelation for myself or family (or my ward when I was a bishop), a prophet can receive revelation for all mankind during the prophet’s tenure.
The fact that we both receive revelation in like manner, however, pretty much guarantees that, at times, Heavenly Father doesn’t always reveal answers on issues that aren’t pertinent to our salvation or even in a timeline we’d prefer on issues that are pertinent (or “expedient” as we read in D&C 88:64). The contents of my brain don’t get magically replaced with all of God’s wisdom and knowledge when I receive revelation, so we shouldn’t expect this of our prophets. They—like us—are still going to make incorrect assumptions, wrong interpretations, and mistakes. President Uchtdorf acknowledged this very fact in a recent General Conference address.
The scriptures record the stories of people who—although inspired by God—still had to engage real world problems from within a context of ancient societies. There is no escaping the fact that we (and prophets) will naturally try to understand new revelation in the context of our own experiences, cultural, etc. As the Lord told Joseph Smith,
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding (D&C 1:24).
“Language” includes more than words. It includes the context of those words according to the worldview of the person listening/writing as well as those who hear/read those words. In other words (no pun intended), “languages” are expressions of thoughts according to the context of one’s environments. Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon cultures had a different “language” (both in words and ideas) than we have today. So did the people of Joseph’s Smith generation. Undoubtedly, future generations will be able to correct our misconceptions and false assumptions that resulted from our weak language or understanding of the scriptures or history.
Once we understand this important point, we can recognize that not everything in the scriptures is based on scientific fact, on fully accurate history, or on a complete understanding of God’s directives. As members we need to learn to be open to new and better understanding of not only God’s Word but of science, history, and the world in which the scriptures were recorded.
So when we read about the angry and seemingly vindictive God of the Old Testament, we have to recognize that many of the books of the Old Testament are almost certainly based on a compilation of oral traditions—influenced by the culture of the times—which were put into writing many centuries after the events transpired. While some might argue that this would make the Old Testament a work of fiction, I woulddisagree. What such a position proposes is that God inspired the record-keepers of the Old Testament to record important spiritual messages so they could be used as symbols and archetypes by future generations. The general messages related in the scriptures are God-inspired, but the stories in which they are framed may rely on the imprecision of oral traditions rather than detailed factual history.
My great-grandfather fought in World War I. He never kept a journal and never wrote down his war experiences but he did share some of those experiences with his wife and children. One of his sons (my grandfather) kept those stories alive by sharing them with his son (my father) who shared them with me. Chances are that if my great-grandfather had recorded his wartime encounters with a Go-Pro video camera mounted to his helmet, the events would probably be different than the stories I know from the oral tradition. It’s human nature for the mind to focus on some aspects of an event, while ignoring other aspects. It’s human nature to emphasize and embellish, or to tell past events in light of additional knowledge, wisdom, or hindsight that comes years after the events.
The fact that a video recording of my great-grandfather’s war history would be different than the oral retelling of his history would not mitigate the historicity of World War I, that he was sent overseas to fight in that war, that he saw several of his friends die, that he had to kill other men in combat, or that a wound to his left foot caused him to limp in pain for the rest of his life.
If a movie were made about his life, the main character would represent a real person and real events but would undoubtedly also contain artistic embellishments.In today’s book market we have the genre of “historical fiction”—such as the popular LDS The Work and the Glory book series. Another genre of fiction is the “non-fiction novel” which describes real events and real people but incorporates fictitious conversations and fictitious story-telling techniques to relate the tale.
In Hollywood there are movies based on actual events as well as movies “inspired” by actual events. Inspired doesn’t mean that the story is historically accurate or even factual, but that the story’s theme is based on something that actually happened. The award-winning movie and historical drama, The Butler, for example, isn’t historically accurate. While the primary character (Cecil Gaines) is fictional, the concept of a black White House butler who served for many years and had close relationships with several presidents is based on a very real man (Eugene Allen).
It’s almost certain that those who wrote the scriptures (especially the Old Testament) took similar paths to persevering or recording important elements of their faith. Past generations didn’t look at historical accuracy in the same light we do in modern times. Modern historians are primarily concerned with representing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen, or “as it really was” (to use the phrase of the important 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke). But this mentality when approaching history is relatively modern, and simply wasn’t an assumption widely shared by ancient authors. For example, the great Greek and Roman historians and authors felt it was entirely within their prerogative to invent dialogue or speeches for their subjects to further a desired narrative or maintain a certain characterization.
That being the case, it’s important to remember that there was nothing inherently wrong with this type of storytelling. The importance of the tale was to teach a principle or morale, while historical accuracy took a back seat. God’s work isn’t furthered by the precise historical accuracy of an event so much as it is furthered by the way scripture study can open the heavens for our own personal revelations and testimony of the divine.
I believe that Old Testament prophets received revelation for the direction of the House of Israel, that Jesus was the Son of God, walked the earth, preformed miracles, and was crucified for the sins of the world. Likewise I believe that a group of early Americans (known to us today as Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites) also had real interactions with God and that about 2000 years ago some of them witnessed the resurrected Christ who blessed them and taught them eternal doctrines.
Despite my testimony of these things I do think it’s important to recognize that the scriptures—although God-inspired—were recorded by humans with all the frailties that accompany the human mind and memory. Therefore, not every word written in the scriptures represents the way God would behave, what He would teach, or what could have been recorded on a Go-Pro if it had been available. It is thus important to use critical thinking skills when approaching the scriptures as much as it is important to be sensitive to the whispers of the Spirit. When we approach the scriptures with a balance of faith and reason, we can probe questions such as how to discern truths embedded in both historical and non-historical parts of the scriptures and how to avoid misreading ancient scripture through our modern cultural or linguistic lenses.
With this preface on the Word of God, in my next letters I hope we can discuss some of your particular concerns about the scriptures.
Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 1
Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 2