What’s the Bible About?

June 26th, 2015

I ran across this comment somewhere down the list on another blog the other day, and it struck me as, well, symptomatic of why our culture has pretty much given up on Christianity and the Bible by now:

Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent most of my life reading the Bible as if it were about me, and only recently discovered that it is, in fact, about God. I’ve spent so much time searching its pages to find the answer to “What’s my identity?”, “What should I do with my life?”, “Am I allowed to do this or that?”. All of those questions are answered in the Bible, but I was missing the entire point. The questions I should have been asking were, “Who is God?”, “What does he love and hate?”, “How does he relate to the world?”, “What is my response to him?” I think it’s very difficult for anyone to orient their mind away from themselves, and that’s not a new phenomenon – just the expression of it is.

“We ask the Bible to tell us about ourselves, and all the while it is telling us about the ‘I AM’. We think if it would just tell us who we are and what we should do, then our insecurities, fears, and doubts would vanish. But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by the knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of the ‘I AM’.”— Jen Wilkin, “Women of the Word”

It strikes me as hard, actually, to tell the difference between the Before and the After photos here. The first reading is all about “me and God”, and the second is all about “God and me”— “I AM” vs. “I am”.

It’s hard for us to grasp that the Bible isn’t about us at all. In fact, it’s not even about God, but I think the churches— all the churches, even maybe especially the Orthodox!— are doing an abysmal job of showing what it is about. The Bible is about Israel, and about God’s dealings with Israel and Israel’s dealings with God. We can certainly learn about God and about ourselves if we want to (and who doesn’t?), as long as we study those dealings, but in both cases if we learn anything about ourselves or God, it’s necessarily something refracted through the story of Israel. And oddly, Israel is the missing dimension. There was creation, and then there were some prophecies (“typologies”, if you’re Orthodox), and then there was Jesus. And me!

These days I’m struggling to understand Matthew 11.2–16.20. There’s nothing in those chapters about me, at all. Jesus has just given his “Missionary Discourse” (chapter 10), which is all about the rejection that the apostles will face, and now in chapter 11, John the Baptist sends from prison to find out whether Jesus will say he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. Basically, Jesus points to Isaiah— and not just to a proof-text in Isaiah— this is the point usually missed— but to the whole history that Isaiah himself is talking about and responding to— and says in various ways, Yes, the whole thing that Isaiah was talking about in Israel— now it’s come to a head. And then he says some things about John and his importance at this moment in Israel’s history, and then in that context(!) the famous “Come unto me all you who labor” speech, which actually has a function in Matthew’s story and is not just a bit of pietistic sentimentality for “me”. Then there are further episodes which show two responses to Jesus, his claims, his teaching, and his activity— the Pharisees think he’s in league with the devil, and the disciples come around to confessing that he’s “the Messiah, the son of the living God”. Both responses are the endpoints of long trajectories that have been going on since chapter 8 and before.

What in any of that is about “me”? Where do people even get such ideas?? Would we read Jane Austen to see what she says about us??

The thing is, taking the Bible to be all about “me” is easy. I don’t have to go far for resources or study aids (though you can buy all kinds of em if you like)— I’m right here, and I just have to think about me!

But seriously— seventy percent (or whatever it is) of the country is Christian, and you can’t find a single serious theology book on the shelf. Has anyone ever noticed this?— how astonishingly low the quality of the “Christian” section at the bookstore is— especially as compared, say, to the Buddhist section? Pablum and pap! Drivel and pulp! Self-help and sentiment! It’s all on the level of the novels you find at Safeway. In fact, it is the novels you find at Safeway!

But to read the Bible as the story of Israel— well, we’re going to have to learn a little about the history of Israel, and about its foreign culture, and maybe even some Greek and Hebrew. Well, the churches are no more interested in teaching that kind a stuff, than the average novel-reader is interested in learning it.

But the Bible is as foreign a book as the Iliad and the Odyssey, as Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, or the Mahabharata.

Which makes it really interesting, but this surely raises some equally interesting questions about “mission”. Like, what is it about when I, a 21st century American trained (up to a certain point) in this very ancient, foreign text, then take this text and go to a completely “exotic” and foreign place like faraway Uganda, and attempt to teach people about it there?

I have an answer to this, but it’s as roundabout as the process of refraction that I mentioned above, and I’m not going to try to explain it unless somebody reads this and engages with me a little (and don’t just ask me “What is it”!). Otherwise I’ll just leave it right there, to pique the interest of the. . . . crickets!

But by the way if you haven’t seen it already, there’s an old flyer I wrote, called “What Your Bible Really Says”, on this page here.


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Fear Him Who Can Destroy Both Soul and Body in Hell

June 19th, 2015

Matthew 10.28— “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (KJV)— people often struggle with the meaning of this verse, for several reasons:

  1. It seems incongruous that God would be the destroyer, for Matthew’s God doesn’t generally appear as one who “destroys” people— indeed, Jesus quotes him twice as saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9.13; 12.7). However, it’s true that a number of passages do threaten the wicked with fire (3.10,12; 5.22; 7.19; 13.40, 42, 50; 18.8–9; 25.41)— and yet this threat seems a little out of the blue, in this chapter, known as the “Missionary Discourse”.
  2. Perhaps he who can “destroy both soul and body in hell” is the devil. But it seems incongrous to ascribe the final judgment of human beings to the devil, who himself will be the first one cast into “eternal fire” (25.41). How would he have the final say?
  3. The first part of the verse, “fear not them (pl) which kill the body”, makes perfect sense within the context. The contrasting singular “him”, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” ought then to refer to someone specific in the same context. But who is more dangerous to a persecuted person than his persecutors, and why?
  4. Most importantly, Jesus says nothing else in his “Missionary Discourse” (Mt 10) about “heaven” or “hell”. The topic, from beginning to end, is mission and persecution— not one’s eternal fate. So why this, here?

“Rather fear him who is able to destroy”— Matthew uses the verb “destroy” (apollymi, ἀπόλλυμι) nineteen times (2.13; 5.29–30; 8.25; 9.17; 10.6, 28, 39, 42; 12.14; 15.24; 16.25; 18.14; 21.41; 22.7; 26.52; 27.20). Four of those times— a fifth of all occurrences— are found in two nearly identical verses (10.39; 16.25) where “destroying” is something one does to oneself. One of these verses appears, in fact, shortly after 10.28— “he who finds his life shall lose it: and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it” (10.39). “Lose” would be a legitimate translation in some other context, but here it obscures the fact that in Greek it’s the same word— and same active voice— as “destroy” in 10.28. Moreover, in both 10.39 and 16.25 it appears twice in connection with “life”— but “life”, in these verses, is KJV’s translation of psychē (ψυχή), the word for “soul” in 10.28. So the Greek leads us to suspect that the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10.28) is the same one who, “seeking to save his soul”, “will destroy it”. That person is of course— oneself!

So Jesus is telling his emissaries, “Do not fear those who kill the body” but “cannot destroy both soul and body” (10.28); rather, they should confess him before others (10.32), even before enemies from their own households (10.36), for indeed “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10.38)— and “Whoever finds his soul will destroy it, and whoever destroys his soul for my sake will find it.” (10.39; cf 16.25).

“Those who destroy the body” are not to be feared. But one can “destroy one’s soul” by seeking to save it. And thus indeed one will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (10.28).

In their mission, the apostles will meet with opposition from wicked people. Those people are dangerous, and the apostles should be “wise as serpents” (10.16). But even more dangerous than such persecutors are they themselves. Their own penchant for self-preservation— this is what they must fear! They must instead take up their cross and follow Jesus.

As to “body” (sōma, σῶμα), this word appears 14 times in Matthew: In addition to the two occurrences our verse (10.28, ‘those who kill the body… him who can destroy both soul and body’), we find twelve others—

5.29–30, ‘better that one of your members should be destroyed, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell;

6.22–23, ‘if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of dark';

6.25, ‘do not be anxious about your soul (KJV: ‘life’)… Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?;

26.12, ‘In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial';

26.26, ‘This is my body';

27.52, ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised';

27.58–59, ‘asked for the body of Jesus… took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud’.

Interestingly, the first 8 occurrences, down through our verse (10.28), all refer to one’s own body. After that, all of the last 6 occurrences all refer to Christ’s body, except for ‘many bodies of the saints’ (27.52).

Mt 10.28 warns about “the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (KJV). “Hell” is KJV’s usual translation of gehenna (γέεννα), an Aramaic word found only in the New Testament (7 times in Matthew: Mt 5.22, 29–30; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; and 4 times in the rest of the NT: Mk 9.45,47; Lk 12.5; Jm 3.6).

“Gehenna” does not refer to a subterranean place of fiery torment that awaits the wicked in an afterlife (our idea of “hell”), but first of all to the Hinnom Valley (Hebrew: ge hinnom), south of Jerusalem, once used as a place for human sacrifice. That was the crime of idolatry which led directly to Jerusalem’s destruction and to the Babylonian Exile. As a place, thus, of extreme uncleanness and disaster, it became Jerusalem’s garbage dump, and thence a prophetic figure for the eschatological judgment that will finally overtake Israel’s corrupt religious, political, and economic leadership and those who benefit from it— they will be thrown out of the Renewed Jerusalem and burned with the trash.

The description (though not the name) of “gehenna” is given by the last two verses of the Book of Isaiah (66.23-24)— the source from which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all draw their language when they mention “gehenna”. The prophet is speaking of how Yhwh will finally restore Jerusalem to the splendor she’s supposed to enjoy. When he does that, ‘all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares Yhwh’ (Isa 66.23), and when they’re done worshipping, ‘they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh’ (66.24).

So “gehenna” is not the “hell” envisioned in our translations— that is, not an afterlife— but an image or poetic figure of how all those self-serving kings, corrupt priests, bankers, murderers, adulterers, and so forth are just so much trash, to be hauled out when Jerusalem is finally established in justice and peace!

As we saw, 10.28 does not seem to speak of a possibility of someone other than oneself destroying both soul and body in gehenna. Rather, one who “seeks his soul, will destroy it”.

Interestingly, all of the other references to “gehenna” (5.22, 29–30; 18.9; and 23.15,33) refer to a judgment to which one may be liable by one’s own actions as well. In 5.22, “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the gehenna of fire”; in 5.29,30, “it is better that one of your [limbs, eyes] be destroyed, than that your whole body be thrown into gehenna” because of your anger or lust; the same in 18.9. Even in 23.15, Jesus says, “when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a son of gehenna as yourselves”— that is, he behaves worse than you do— and in 23.33, he calls the Pharisees, “serpents, brood of vipers”, and asks, “how will you escape the judgment of gehenna?”

That is to say, whenever that Matthew refers to “gehenna”, the one “who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna” (10.28) is never other than oneself.

That “the one who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna” is oneself fits the context of the discourse in Matthew 10 perfectly, and solves the incongruencies involved in taking this as a reference to God or the devil.

The one who can get both body and soul thrown into the garbage dump of the renewed Jerusalem is no one but— oneself!

Be especially wary of that person— and of his concern for self-preservation!


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‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’

April 9th, 2015

Just for the record— something I wrote the other day on facebook went sorta viral, so I edited it and incorporated subsequent discussion, so if you didn’t see it there, it’s presently the top item here— entitled as above— ‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’. As I say there, the terms gehenna, hell, she’ol, and hades— as well as what the Bible and Christian Tradition say about where Christ went when he died, and what he did there, and where we go when we die, and what we do there, are no longer well understood, so they need some discussion. Comments invited!


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Human Slaves Are Feeding Your Cat

August 18th, 2014

Americans’ love of pets— not just a psycho-pathology, but an environmental, political, and spiritual pathology as well.

In my experience, it’s always been women who go crazy about animals; guys often have dogs or even cats, but not usually four or five or ten of them. Not being an essentialist, I refuse to speculate what it might be about the “female psyche” that makes women go crazy about cats, but I wonder what it is about women’s lives that takes this toll. Best I can come up with is that maybe in a world of men spinning out of control in places like Ferguson, MO and Iraq, if we can keep our little feline friends happy, then we can feel good about ourselves. A friend of mine, whose mother had this illness, puts it this way: “But they’re hungry, you see, and you need to feed them. The whole world is hungry…!” So it’s a sort of metastasis of the compassion instinct— but in response to what?

I’m no stranger to bonding with animals. I had a kitty in Kampala, and i liked my little kitty. And since it turns out a lot of Africans were mildly afraid of cats (witchcraft associations), keeping it was an interesting experiment in social interaction. Problem is, I like to connect the dots even more than i like to connect with kitties.

So today I noticed that all the canned cat food i feed to the SIX cats i take care of (I should explain that I’m house-sitting; they aren’t mine) is labeled, “Product of Thailand”.

Well, about that Thai fishing industry— wouldn’t you know— it’s a major location of human trafficking; see also this article, and this one, and this one; and for good measure, here’s one about the Thai prawn industry as well. I particularly liked the part about where one guy beat up on a boss who was torturing him, so once the crew subdued him, they summoned three other boats, tied each of his arms and legs to one boat, put their engines in reverse, and— pulled him apart, alive, as the other slaves were forced to watch.

I’m personally not eating shrimp again, or any fish caught in Thailand.

But UPS brought me this big box of cat food today, a monthly occurrence:

  • Weruva (“Because Weluvya”) Chicken in Gravy;
  • Tiki Cat (“Gourmet Whole Food”) “Molokai Luau” tuna on rice with calamari;
  • B.F.F. (“Best Feline Friend”) Tuna & Beef Baby-Cakes (“wild-caught & dolphin free”)

And a 30-lb bag of dry food:

  • Taste of the Wild “Rocky Mountain Feline® Formula with Roasted Venison & Smoked Salmon”, “The balanced diet that nature intended”— with “Fruits & Vegetables”.

Well, this dry food includes “Dried Chickory Root… helps support a healthy digestive system”; “Blueberries & Raspberries… packed with powerful antioxidants to help keep the body healthy as the days go by”; and “Tomatoes… an additional source of antioxidants”. The cats like it well enough, but come on!— Is this really even cat food??!

Of course I get that cats like fish. So… salmon. Though really, I don’t know why we don’t raise mice for cat food; it would probably take a lot of burden off the seas. But smoked salmon? In fact I wonder where they even get the smoked salmon and especially the venison for this feline fruit-and-meat salad. Are there gigantic deer farms somewhere in Missouri (apparently, that’s what the Taste of the Wild company means by “Rocky Mountains”), where deer are bred and raised to become cat food?

Of course we love our kitties and we want only the best for them. Our kitties, ourselves. The whole marketing pitch is all about pampering and comfort and indulgence. “Poor witto Beau-Beau. Did pussie get his antioxidants and venison today?” Our kitties, ourselves. And there is something terribly weak, something deeply out of balance not only with the diet, but with the attitude.

In Kampala, I could buy these little tiny dried fish that people used to make a popular fish sauce out of, for about 5¢ the handful, and one handful fed the cat for several days. So “Eat Local” was a real option. And my cat was a real killing machine that kept the rat, mouse, cockroach (eww!), and lizard populations down as well. Too bad about the lizards; as a Southwesterner, i’ve always thought they were cool, but as the saying goes, you can’t take sides in the jungle. However, here in America we don’t have the little dried fish or the giant cockroaches, and not so many rats or mice, so we feed our cats tuna, which comes in packages of aluminum (which can now be recycled in many places) as well as plastic (which can’t), and which is transported from Thailand by an industry that runs on fossil fuels.

Oh, and about that tuna: In the first place, even if a lot of the fish in those cans looks suspiciously like sardines— nonetheless, it says “tuna”, and we need to consider the implications of feeding tuna (especially slave-caught tuna!) to our cats:

In 2010, Greenpeace International has added the albacore, bigeye tuna, Pacific bluefin tuna, Atlantic bluefin tuna, southern bluefin tuna and the yellowfin tuna to its seafood red list. “The Greenpeace International seafood red list is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.”

It is widely accepted that bluefin tuna have been severely overfished, with some stocks at risk of collapse. According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (a global, non-profit partnership between the tuna industry, scientists, and the World Wide Fund for Nature), Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, Pacific Ocean (eastern & western) bigeye tuna, and North Atlantic albacore tuna are all overfished. In April 2009, no stock of skipjack tuna (which makes up roughly 60 percent of all tuna fished worldwide) was “considered” to be overfished. However, the BBC documentary South Pacific, which first aired in May 2009, stated that, should fishing in the Pacific continue at its current rate, populations of all tuna species could collapse within 5 years. It highlighted huge Japanese and European tuna fishing vessels, sent to the South Pacific international waters after overfishing their own fish stocks to the point of collapse.

A 2010 tuna fishery assessment report, released in January 2012 by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), supported this finding, recommending that all tuna fishing should be reduced or limited to current levels and that limits on skipjack fishing be considered. [source: Wikipedia]

It’s going to be interesting when we fished the oceans to the point of collapse to feed our cats, and cat food starts costing $ten per tin, and global warming wipes out our own land-based food supply (paid for anything at the supermarket lately?)

Will we start eating our cats? Well, if we don’t want to go there, I’m thinking it’s about time we started to look seriously at what our addiction to pets is costing a world where, in addition to the environmental issues i’ve mentioned, one out of every eight people goes to bed hungry each night and billions more are doing barely better than that. I’ve met people who would be happy to eat cat— except for the witchcraft issue— and that might just be negotiable.


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Can There Be Morality in a Godless World?

June 21st, 2014

By etymology, “sin” is a term taken from archery; it means “missing the target”. So we can still speak of sin in a godless world, if we can still conceive of a “target” for human existence there. I think a good example of this would be Buddhism, in which there is no god, but there are skillful and unskillful acts. Buddhism, at least in its american versions, doesn’t really subscribe to “rules”, but it is by no means just a matter of “if it feels good it’s ok; if not, not”. Buddhism is quite clear about what’s skillful and what’s unskillful, but this is based on a very clear perception of the nature of the mind and of things as they are, rather than on any external creator or rule-maker. What makes acts “skillful” or not is whether they’re based on insight or on delusion. The goal of spiritual practice (or rather, of life) is health, peace, compassion, wholeness, and ultimately a state beyond even these. There are six hells, but the interesting thing is the six corresponding heavens aren’t ultimately any less delusional. What’s needed is insight, not ecstasy; wisdom, not “feelgood”, however high the feelgood is!

If, on the other hand, you live in a godded world (can i make up that term?), then the question of sin and morality is whether the god of your world provides a list of rules (which may be more, or less arbitrary) and some system of reward and punishment for keeping or not keeping them. There, the “target” you could miss would be something like “perfection” or perhaps “righteousness”, and “sin” would be breaking the rules and failing to attain to that perfection or righteousness. In Protestantism it is said that no amount of rule-keeping will make you righteous, and that you can’t possibly keep all the burdensome rules anyway, but Jesus kept them for you and his righteousness or perfection is imputed to you. Thus you can relax a bit, maybe. But the basic paradigm is still one of rules, or “ethics”, and the measuring stick registers the extent to which you keep them.

But perhaps your god has provided, precisely, a world, and a possibility of life within it, in which you can either attain to some kind of health or fall into sickness. The goal of this godded world would then be similar to that of Buddhism— health, peace, love, integrity, union with God and with the cosmos…. “Sin”, in this case, would be to live in an unhealthy and destructive way that brought misery to you and those around you.

As to the sources of morality in a non-theistic world, I’ve already said it would be reality itself, and whatever practice (e.g., meditation) helped you to gain deep insight into it. If there’s any revelation in a godded world, the question is whether it reveal purely extrinsic “rules”, a “code of ethics”— or whether it illumines the nature of life from within and helps you to live in wisdom, understanding, and grace? Or are there other possibilities for what “revelation” is? What kind of revelation is the Bible?

Developmental psychologist James Fowler, in his important but unreadable book, Stages of Faith (you can find serviceable synopses here or here or here), shows how different kinds of “faith” and hence of “morality” are related to the stages of human psychological and social growth. He traces the successful negotiation of each stage, and its failure. And he notes that most americans get stuck between the need for authority that characterizes the third of his six identifiable stages (characteristic of the early teen years), and the more reflective, individuative relationship to one’s spiritual context that characterizes the fourth, which emerges (if at all) in one’s twenties. If you listen to their discourse, not to agree or disagree but to hear the kind of discourse they engage in, it seems that many people do in fact rely on a strong authoritarian moralism when responding to moral and social challenges. “The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and that’s good enough for me!” This explains a lot of our politics, in fact, especially on the conservative side.

So “morality”, would seem to have different meanings for different people, based on their own level of development. To one person, the question of morality in a godless world comes down to whether there could be a “code of ethics”, such that “morality” is about following or keeping those rules. Or would “morality” be about a possibility inherent in life, in which you can be more, or less, true to the order of being in which you’re part, in which you can attain to health or fall into sickness, and become, or fail to become, a mature person, integrated in freedom, creativity, and love?

I think just to state the question that way is to make the optimum obvious, but the answer doesn’t have to do with whether the world is godless or godded. Do you want to be Mark Driscoll or the Dalai Lama? Jonathan Edwards or Mahatma Ghandi? Pius IX (“Pio No-No”) or the Elder Thaddeus? Of course we all admire the latter of each of these more than the former. But that the rules, even the Bible, might be “relative” in some way can be quite scary. It usually takes a crisis of some kind— a major disappointment in a religious figure or community; coming to terms with something that renders you a permanent outsider, like being gay; a recognition that by applying the rules as absolutely as you thought you had you, you badly hurt someone you really love; reaching midlife; or perhaps by long sojourn in a foreign culture— usually it takes something like these to force you to make your transcendental passage beyond the safe confines of religion and morality as you’ve received them, toward a wider, more open and inclusive horizon.

I like to think that every traditional religion provides both authoritarian and integrative answers, but by nature the latter can be understood only when you’re ready, and those who can guide the disciple along those paths are relatively rare. Most people who have to leave home find themselves frighteningly alone, and very often have to give birth to themselves, often again amid tempest and earthquake. In any case, birth is hard and painful and dangerous, and the chances of coming out stillborn— of falling, for instance, into alcoholism, permanent distraction, various delusions, or simply a life of quiet despair— is very great. I’m not sure many make it.

I think that whole cultures can undergo this kind of transcendental passage too, at least to some degree, even though of course at all times there will be people at all stages of development in something as big as a culture. But it seems that if a leader emerges not by political maneuvering or demagoguery but “by the power of an indestructible life”, as Hebrews says about Jesus in a context not altogether irrelevant— after bloodshed and puritanism and mayhem, there may be a new flowering of life, a new period of cultural energy. Gandhi was one example, perhaps; Rumi, another; Jesus and the Buddha, certainly. Or, without such guides, a people may just tacitly agree to take it down a notch and just live and let live, within whatever largely unspoken (and often unjust) arrangements a social order maintains itself. Woe, though, to that culture which is ruled by clerics, even if they dress in business suits!

Another book i could recommend is A. Reza Arasteh, Toward Final Personality Integration. Thomas Merton wrote a review and reflection on the first edition of this book in Contemplation in a World of Action, and correspondents may well be interested at least in that article, which has the same title as an earlier edition of Arasteh’s book, “Final Integration in the Adult Personality”.


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Faith in the Book of Mormon

June 3rd, 2014

I originally posted this to a friend’s blog, but he’s not doing anything with his blog, and neither he nor anyone else ever commented on it, so I thought I’d polish it up and post it here, in case anyone was interested and wanted to respond.


It’s interesting to read the Book of Mormon as a series of stories that Joseph Smith was telling in response to people or contexts that he was actually encountering as he was writing it. Obviously it has to be something like that; to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the culture of Israel at any time in history— let alone during the period between the Exile and Christ (i.e., between 600 BC and 100 AD), when the book purports to have been written— it’s quite obviously not a pre-Christian Jewish document produced by any “Lost Tribes of Israel” (which weren’t all that lost anyway). In fact it’s poignant testimony to our massive ignorance of the Bible that anyone in Smith’s day or ours could even for one second take it to be Israelite, or not solidly a piece of Americana. It swims entirely in the 19th-century American frontier Protestant milieu in which it appeared, and reflects a standpoint that both competes with, and rests upon that milieu. So even though I sometimes find Smith’s stories hilarious (see the “Rameumptom” narrative below), they’re also sometimes interesting for the light they throw on American religious attitudes, in both his day and ours.

Readers who aren’t familiar with the Book of Mormon may find it helpful to know that it’s modeled on the Bible, in the sense that it’s comprised of some 15 “books”, each purporting to be by a different author. The portion I’ll be discussing includes chapters 30-34 of the Book of Alma, in the Book of Mormon. Significantly, in the earliest version of the Book of Mormon, these chapters comprised a single chapter 16, some 261 verses long. Subsequent editions broke this and other lengthy sections into smaller units and renumbered some of the verses. This has the effect of somewhat dissociating parts of what reads more as a single narrative in the original long chapter. There were also some changes in the wording, as for example at 16.78 || 31.1, where “dumb idols, etc.” [sic!] became simply “dumb idols”. How significant any of these changes are would take more study than I’m interested in doing, but in any case we can use the current version on the official website of the Salt Lake Mormons, the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”.


In keeping with my theory that Smith was responding to people or contexts that he was actually encountering as he was writing his book, the figure of “Korihor” in Alma 30 reads well enough as someone (or as a composite of people) whom Smith and his followers encountered in real life as they spread their message within the somewhat narrow theological horizons of frontier America in the 1820s. Korihor (y’gotta love Smith’s onomastic imagination, even though the names he invents are only randomly Hebrew-like)— denied the existence of God, not in an abstract, philosophical sense, so much as the god of prophecies. One can imagine just such homespun American skeptics, or perhaps Roman Catholics, within Smith’s horizon.

Prophecy was always a hot topic in Protestantism, particularly in its American flavors. It really wasn’t until well into the development of historical critical studies that people who read the Bible could appreciate its prophets as addressing their own contemporaries. Surely these are the End Times, and surely God’s Word the Bible is addressed to Us! Like most Americans, Smith and his followers rarely showed much interest in scholastic arguments about God’s existence, but the idea that the Bible contains important “predictions” about the End Times and America’s role in them has always been a matter of intense and abiding concern. Indeed, Smith was founding precisely a church of “saints” for “these latter days”— that is, for the times not long before the return of Christ. Mormonism isn’t too millennial any more, however much it ever was, but the Book of Mormon reflects the preoccupations of Smith’s milieu as in a mirror, and (since they haven’t changed much) general American notions of religion even today.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Ellen G White and her Seventh-Day Adventists, or Charles Taze Russell and his Jehovah’s Witnesses, Smith didn’t emphasize or attempt to discern the prophetic future; instead, he set forth a prophetic past whose key predictions had already come to pass. Thus in one stroke his book avoids the “Great Disappointments” and failed eschatons of his contemporary End-Times enthusiasts, and even points to the present as its own proof! Smith thus becomes the first “prophet, seer, and revelator” of a new, fully American Christianity, with its own American Bible— if you can accept it.

But the problem precisely is, “if you can accept it”— that is, “faith”. That’s a problem that has become all the more acute today, of course, because Smith could not and did not anticipate, as he peered through his “seer-stones” (allegedly the fabled “Urim” and “Thummim” oracle pieces of biblical antiquity, though actually quite different from them) at the past that played itself out in colorful visions at the bottom of his hat, the rise of scientific archaeology both in the Middle East and in the Americas, or the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and of the Semitic and Native American genomes. So although the ploy of locating his “prophecies” in the past, about a past that actually did happen, his story of the settling of America has ended up faring no better than White or Russell’s calculations of the future. Thus not surprisingly, the question of faith has become quite acute in contemporary Mormonism. How indeed to keep “believing” in something that has been so thoroughly discredited, from so many angles?

All the more reason to read the sequence that begins with the story of Korihor the unbeliever and Anti-Christ, then, for here Smith deals with the problem of religious knowledge— that is, with the relation of knowledge to faith— and does so from several different angles.

Many people in Smith’s world accepted the notion that the Bible was full of prophecies, but they doubted Smith’s prophecies; others (for instance, Roman Catholics or Episcopalians) would have pooh-poohed the idea of “prophecies” addressed to our time altogether; the Bible predicted Christ, but not America. Korihor, like many who refused to join Smith’s new sect 2000 years “after” the events in the Book of Mormon, denied generally that prophecies were true and that anyone could know the future. Of course, Smith’s reader knows that Korihor, who lived some centuries before Christ, was wrong because Christ did come. So— do the messianic events that proved Isaiah reliable, confirm the book’s New World prophecies as well?

Now, everybody knows that Christ came. But without actual knowledge of the American past apart from Smith’s book, how indeed would you know whether Korihor and the past he belonged to actually happened? And, given that you couldn’t actually know about that, in Smith’s day, on the basis of archaeology, genetics, or whatnot— on what basis would you then believe it? I don’t know enough about American religious history that I can point to any specific early-nineteenth-century Richard Dawkins that Smith might have encountered, whether in person or in print. But the Korihor story itself attests to the fact that Smith felt a need to respond to “atheist” objections such as Korihor’s, that occasionally did rile the hearts and minds of the frontier faithful. I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know if there’s a discernable match between Korihor and any of Smith’s known encounters.

Korihor sometimes seems to express a kind of generic atheism, but his objections are never purely philosophical. For him, the real issue is always prophecy. The God in doubt is always the God who stands behind prophecy. The prophecies Korihor doubted have been proven by the coming of Christ. So faith in all of that is on one level. But regarding faith in Smith’s book, most Mormons I’ve known have said that you have to pray and get a “testimony”, which will be God’s own confirmation of truth in your heart. Yet the question of faith and evidence apparently remained strong enough that Smith had to write the Korihor sequence, in which Korihor and the punishment he receives at the behest of Alma, “the chief judge who was governor over all the land” (Alma 30) serves as an illustration of unbelief, and an extended account of Alma’s subsequent mission to the Zoramites (Alma 31-34) serves as an illustration of belief. But although, unlike Korihor, the Zoramites want to believe, they seem to have some doubts as to how to do so. In these chapters, Alma and his brother Amulek (and Smith behind them) deal with the question of religious epistemology directly.

Korihor’s story is one of a number of narratives in the Book of Mormon in which characters who doubt a prophet receive stern comeuppance. When I first read the Book of Mormon a long time ago, my main impression was that again and again a prophet (in some cases, a prophet named Joseph!) makes predictions, encounters opposition, and threatens the recalcitrant(s) with divine wrath; whereupon the naysayers either repent, and the story moves on; or they do not, and he calls down, as it were, fire from heaven; and the cycle repeats. That ever-present threat of divine rebuke for unbelief in prediction, is pretty much the content of the Korihor episode. Smith’s readers know that Christ really did come, so a further question becomes inevitable: Do the threats carried out against those who refused to believe the prophets in the BofM apply to us, if we reject Smith and his new religion? The story of Korihor seems to suggest that they would. The story of the Zoramites thus teaches how we can avoid them.

Psychologist James Fowler points out in his Stages of Faith (google it) that spiritally, despite their sophistication in other areas, most people never develop a faith that goes much beyond the authoritarianism of their early teen years— which is why, ludicrous as it might seem, “authoritative” “prophecies” and threats of punishment actually work among large segments of the populace even today. As long as the leader is charismatic and people fear that his or her predictions might come true, they’re ready to drink the Kool-Aid.


In Alma 30, Korihor arrives and starts spouting confusion among the (post-) “Hebrew” tribes of the American frontier:

30.6 there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.

The narrator steps back a moment and comments on the legal background of Korihor’s preaching:

7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.

8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.

9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

In case anyone still entertains the notion that the Book of Mormon has to do with any “Lost Tribes of Israel”, let me point out that this notion is already put to rest right here. Already this is a piece of pure Americana. The Old Testament was had quite explicit “laws against a man’s belief”, including this one, as important as it is well-known:

I am Yhwh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before Me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Ex 20.2-6)

But more deeply, for the Bible, religion isn’t a matter of “belief” at all. You worship the god of your own people. Solomon built temples for his foreign wives in Jerusalem precisely so they could worship their own gods. Christianity, when it came, proclaimed a single God who superseded all the national cults, but it did not seek to enact “laws against a man’s belief” until half a millennium later. But Smith’s story seems to assume a plurality of religions— precisely that of 19th century America. And this is true even though the land in the America of his story is populated only by post-“Hebrew” tribes. There is only one god, and individuals might “desire to serve” him or not. So land of Korihor and Alma and their contemporaries is basically upstate New York in 1825. But Korihor’s American-style freedom will turn out to be someting less than inalienable, in Smith’s supposedly pre-Columbian Neverneverland.

12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:

13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.

14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

Christ, of course, is in the future of the story, but in the past of its readers. To deny Christ in the story is to deny prophecy, but for the reader to side with Korihor’s denial would not only be to deny Christ but to deny what one already knows to be true.

But Korihor’s main objection seems to be the one that every naysayer would level against End-Times predictions even today:

15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Smith’s readers— quite likely End-Times believers already— know, of course, that Korihor is a fool. Christ has already come! But his foolishness leads Korihor to denial even the atonement as well—

16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.

To the narrator, this denial of atonement and remission of sins entailed self-will and lawlessness:

17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.

I’m partly guessing, but the story seems to explain the underlying logic of this, at least in part, when Amulek tells the Zoramites, “he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption” (34.16b). Not to “exercise faith unto repentance” is not to reject an atonement already made, but to deny that there will be an atonement. But if Christ doesn’t make an “eternal atonement”, as is “expedient” “according to the great plan of the Eternal God” (34.9,10,13), nobody else will either, and therefore justice will not be established. So you’d be free to live lawlessly. But that’s only my guess, and this would contradict the idea that “he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice”. It isn’t clear, at least within the bounds of this story, why Korihor’s denial of prophecy and atonement would mean that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (30.17).

In addition to denying the atonement and promoting immorality, Korihor also denies life after death:

18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms— telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

It’s curious that women are those whom Smith mentions first among those led into such “whoredoms”. But anyway, Korihor peddles his wares among several groups, with the inevitable result that despite the fact that “the law could have no hold upon him” (30.12), he keeps getting arrested and brought before the high priest. At last,

21 …he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land.
22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?

23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah.

Korihor responds by listing his objections to Giddonah’s religion (which we can take to be a cypher for frontier Christianity and for Mormonism, insofar as they would agree on the damage that Korihor is doing). He adds to his objection to “the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (30.16), an objection also to what we might call (and what frontier Protestants often did call) priestcraft— that priests convince people to follow them by manipulating their superstitions in order to gain control:

And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.

24a Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage.

“The traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (30.16) are, specifically, prophecy. He doesn’t say that the prophecies aren’t true; he says, “ye do not know that they are true”. And with this assertion, the question of religious epistemology which is really the main thread of the narrative despite the several other objections he mentions, is fully out in the open.

And he insists on it:

24b Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.

But just for good measure, he adds a rejection of the Western (post-Augustinian) notion of Original Sin:

25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.

There are almost too many things to comment on in Korihor’s speech. He denies prophecy (30.15-16), the atonement (30.16-17), and life after death (30.18). He calls prophecy “the foolish traditions of your fathers”, and religion “foolish ordinances… laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and … to keep [people] in ignorance” (30.23). In 30.24, he explicitly claims the American civic value of freedom of/from religion, and in 30.25 he denies Original Sin. 

Despite the archaizing diction, Korihor’s objections are practically a laundry-list of modern “liberal” objections to Christianity. We almost expect him to include creationism, anti-gay crusading, Tea Party politics, and the Right To Life.

Nevertheless, how to know whether prophecy is true is the main issue. He already raised this subject in 30.15, when he demanded, “How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.” He repeats it in 30.24b: “Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.” And he comes back to it in 30.26, where he not only denies that one can know for sure that a Christ will even exist, much less come and atone for the sins of the world:

26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world—

The priests claim to know the future and other “foolish traditions” only in order to control people and to profit from them:

27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.

—”They durst not enjoy their rights and privileges“— well, this is an American story, to be sure!

—(And, btw, “durst” is an archaic past tense of “dare”— so Korihor/Smith is saying, “ye lead away this people… that they dared not look up…”. Smith never quite understands Elizabethan English. You may have already noted that he uses ‘ye’ for both singular and plural.)—

28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God— a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Korihor’s charge of priestcraft clearly paraphrases boilerplate anti-Catholic tract material. On this reading, Korihor seems to view Giddonah’s religion— i.e., his fictive “proto-Mormonism”— as a kind of Catholicism (he is, after all, a priest).

But Korihor is not just an anticlericalist. He has transgressed into outright atheism. To profit from them, priests yoke people to “some unknown being, who they say is God— a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be” (30.28). Korihor is a full-blow Freethinker. This is a little startling, though, for two reasons. First, given the fact that we usually envision frontier America as filled with sturdy Bible-believing Methodists or some such, we don’t expect Smith to have to deal with such brash irreligion. But Korihor’s atheism also seems a bit out of place in a narrative that doesn’t otherwise deal with God in the abstract. But in just a few verses, the high priest and chief judge Alma will show that he understands Korihor’s denial of God existence with denial of (prophecy of Christ). The god denied in this tale about the nature of religious knowledge is always the god of prophecy.

As an endless pastiche of Bible verses, Christian tracts, half-remembered Protestant theologems, American law and culture, pseudo-Elizabethan language, “ancient” context, and speculation about the origins of the Native Americans, the Book of Mormon is very postmodern. Or rather, Smith’s tale of freedom of/from religion, denial of prophecy (which is equivalent to denial of Christ), objection to “tradition”, repudiation of priestcraft and original sin, disavowal of life after death, and outright atheism— and of religion’s response to all this— not only casts Korihor as the very image of an American sceptic, but unveils the Master Narrative of Western Christian culture just as it breaks its axle on the stony ground of the New World. And by presenting his story as “sacred scripture”, Smith himself is actually making the very tracks he’s trying to cover by showing how wrong Korihor is. Smith is not only creating in Korihor a homespun portrait of the freethinking, critical persona he’s encountering on America’s frontier, but a portrait at the same time of himself as Korihor the charlatan. How will Korihor’s Joseph Smith deal with Joseph Smith’s Korihor?

Well, apparently the great religious freedom that Korihor could take for granted in frontier America— “and the law could have no hold upon him”, 30.12— he has well and truly used up. When he denies the existence of God, Giddonah the high priest has him arrested anew, and hauls him to Zarahemla, where he must appear before the State:

29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God [—and remember: this is the god of prophecy—], they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.

Interrogated by Alma, Korihor again insists, with “great swelling words” that Alma, the priests, and the teachers are leading people astray only “for the sake of glutting on [their] labors”. Alma denies this, saying that he has “never received so much as even one senine for my labor; neither has any of my brethren, save it were in the judgment-seat; and then we have received only according to law for our time” (30.33). But Korihor doesn’t believe him (30.36), and the episode degenerates into something of a tit-for-tat— Korihor accuses Giddonah and Alma of believing without evidence in God who can’t be seen and doesn’t exist (30.15,24b,26,28). Giddonah says that Korihor himself actually has the same evidence that he does, in the form of a “testimony” by “all things” that God exists and the prophecies are true (30.41). Korihor requires proof of Alma’s testimony that there is a God, and Alma requires him to prove there isn’t one:

39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.

40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?

42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

Korihor is possessed!

But what “testimony” is Korihor denying?

For the Book of Mormon, as for the American frontier Protestantism upon which it feeds, belief in the God of prophecy means belief in predictions. To believe in the predictions is to believe in God, and conversely, to believe in God is to believe in predictions. Korihor precisely and consistently denies both the predictions and the supposed “God” behind them.

Now, as we’ve said, for the characters in the Book of Mormon, “Christ shall come” refers to Jesus, who came in the reader’s past. S/he already knows that Christ has come, just as predicted in the Old Testament. Thus the Old Testament, together with the New, is a proven and reliable predictor of our own future. Smith’s narrative also contains narratives of predictions of the coming of Christ; so it too is at least potentially reliable. In the Book of Mormon, “Christ shall come” also means, “shall come to America” after his ascension, to establish his true religion on American soil. Since there’s no question that Christ came in accordance with prophecy, the question now is only whether the events described in Smith’s book really happened.

But Korihor, in the pre-Christ past of the Book of Mormon, demands a sign:

 43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.

“Power”, of course, means power to bring the prophecies of Christ to pass in the future, but this would have to be shown by some other display of power in the present.

 44a But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee…

That prophets prophesied is sign enough that prophecies are true! but if that’s not enough,

44b …yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

This seems like a variant of the cosmological argument— but do “all things” prophecy “that Christ cometh”? This is precisely Alma’s claim. He has said, “What evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? … I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony” (30.39-40). He is not proving the God of the philosopher, but the God of the prophets.

45 And yet do ye go about, leading away the hearts of this people, testifying unto them there is no God? And yet will ye deny against all these witnesses?

And he said: Yea, I will deny, except ye shall show me a sign.

Exasperated, Alma prophesies that God will strike him dumb if he says another word:

47 …behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; therefore if thou shalt deny again, behold God shall smite thee, that thou shalt become dumb, that thou shalt never open thy mouth any more, that thou shalt not deceive this people any more.

It’s worth savoring that statement a moment: “It is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction”.

You need to die, because your demand for a sign really disturbs us.

At this, Korihor becomes surprisingly meek. He doesn’t deny God; he just continues to insist on proof:

48 …I do not deny… but I do not believe… and I say also, that ye do not know… and unless ye show me… I will not believe.

Even though Alma thinks he has a lying spirit, Korihor actually seems quite sincere. It’s interesting, in fact, how this exchange tracks certain verses in John’s gospel. Compare “behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction” (30.47) with “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (Jn 11.50). Korihor is supposed to be the bad guy, but Alma’s rhetoric casts him in the role of Christ— and that makes Alma and the other high priests into Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin. Korihor’s plaintive “Unless ye show me… I will not believe” (30.48) also recalls Thomas, who said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20.25). The risen Christ assuaged his unbelief by allowing him to put his hand into his side— with precisely the result that Korihor seeks, when Thomas cried, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20.24-28). That is all Korihor is asking for. We cannot but feel sympathetic, and we hope that somehow he will get his answer.

And get his answer he does. Alma proves the existence of the God of prophecy by striking Korihor dumb:

 49 …This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.

50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma.

And yet again, oddly, Alma’s prophecy casts Korihor in the role of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, whose tongue the angel bound until John was born, precisely because he asked for a sign: “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1.20)— but Zechariah seems unable to speak because of joy, not because of punishment.

Moreover, still as in the story of Zecharias, the narrator assumes that Korihor has been struck deaf as well (cf Lk 1.62-63), because the “chief judge” (not Alma this time, even though Alma was said to be “the chief judge who was governor over all the land” in 30.29)

51 … put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more?

This seems to assume that the only sign God would give is a chastisement. Speechless Korihor then writes back and fesses up:

52 … I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.

53 But, behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me, Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray… and for this cause, I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

He also begs Alma to pray that the curse be lifted (30.54). But Alma refuses, even though Korihor has recognized his error, and expressed remorse and repentance:

55 …If this curse should be taken from thee thou wouldst again lead away the hearts of this people.

Nothing here about forgiving “seventy times seven times” (Mt 18.22)! Korihor is reduced to beggary (30.56), and the narrator takes up one last time the issue of religious knowledge from the standpoint of the victors:

57 Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them.

How do you know that there is a God and that Christ will come? Because someone who denied it was silenced and reduced to beggary, and the same will happen to you if you deny it too.

In the end, a faction of Zoramites, followers of a man named Zoram, end up trampling Korihor the speechless beggar to death for some reason unspecified (30.58-59). The narrator then steps back and delivers the Moral Of The Story:

60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

Just so! And as for you, faithful reader— ask questions, and the church authorities will make sure you never talk again; you might even be killed. (And those became real threats in Smith’s Mormondom).


Korihor’s story has raised the question of belief and settled it in terms of authority. But this is not a satisfactory answer, and so, despite the apparent ending we’ve just seen, there follows another long account that raises the question of religious knowledge once again, but answering it this time in terms of an epistemology of faith as such.

The episode opens as Alma learns of what Korihor’s killers, the Zoramites, are up to:

31.1 Now it came to pass that after the end of Korihor, Alma having received tidings that the Zoramites were perverting the ways of the Lord, and that Zoram, who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb idols, his heart again began to sicken because of the iniquity of the people.

As the story progresses, though, it turns out to say nothing about “idols, etc” (as the original version put it, at 16.78), and the Zoramites are not otherwise described as idolaters. Rather, they are introduced as “dissenters from the Nephites” (31.8). The issue here is dissent, though as we will see, nothing is said of their actual argument with the Nephites. The story on depicts the peculiar form of the religious practice they have evolved; this will invite our consideration, but eventually the focus moves to a group of Zoramite outcasts who are excluded from regular Zoramite worship, which receives no further mention. Alma and his brother Amulek then teach the outcasts about the nature of faith. We should still keep in mind that “faith” still means, above all, faith in prophecy.

Upon hearing of the Zoramites’ heretical doings, Alma gathers a band of brethren and missionaries and travels to “Antionum”, where the Zoramites have “gathered themselves” (31.3). There he discovers that they have developed a remarkable new religion, which features “synagogues” built around a curious construction called a “Rameumptom” (31.21). Here is the full description of the new religion and its ritual:

31.12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;

13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person.

14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.

16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.

17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.

18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.

19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.

20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.

21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.

22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.

23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.

Aspects of the story— “synagogues”, “day of the Lord” (= Sabbath), the prayer “Holy, holy God”, denial of the “Christ”, the assertion “we are a chosen and a holy people”, wealth, etc— remind one of the Jews, and it would be interesting to know whether and to what extent Smith had any contact with Judaism prior to 1830, when he published the Book of Mormon. Certainly, after publishing it, Smith and his associates did take a few weeks of Hebrew lessons from a certain Professor Seixas, who may have had some connection with Oberlin. If there is a Jewish background to this story, then Smith’s image of  “a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person, who would pray in gratitude for being one of the chosen” (31.13) would caricature the Bema of a Jewish synagogue.

But this archaeology is less interesting than the fact that, in any case, the rite he describes— the fact that the top of the “Rameumptom” would only admit one person, and exalts him above all others, the “spiritual” worship, “that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren” (31.16)— provides a rather canny, if hilarious image not of Judaism so much as of American Protestant religious individualism, which surely must have presented in both institutional or personal forms a constant problem for Smith and his missionaries, even if Smith himself exemplifies it in spades.

But above all, the prayer of the “Rameumptom” raises Korihor’s issues once again— denial of prophecies, “that there shall be no Christ”, disbelief in “things to come”, and so forth. But Korihor was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, or maybe a free thinker. The Zoramites actually do believe in God; they just believe (wrongly) that he’s a pure spirit and does not support prophecy. Moreover, most of them are wealthy and hence little interested in true religion. They are content to “return to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand” (31.23).

But the missionaries begin “to have success among the poor class of people”, who have been cast out of the Zoramite synagogues “because of the coarseness of their apparel” (32.2). When this begins to happen, Alma stops trying to win over the wealthy, and focuses exclusively on these simpler brethren (32.3-7), flattering them in their poverty (32.8-16). One cannot help thinking this is a description of Smith’s own missionary journey, just as it was and is of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists and other such sects today. An unfriendly commentator might say they were preying on the weaker sheep.

Alma delivers a remarkable monologue to his outcast Zoramite inquirers. It’s worth reading carefully, even though the wording is convoluted and the logic sometimes a little sketchy. He begins by comparing poor men, who sometimes “seek repentance” and find mercy, with those who don’t have to “seek repentance”, but do it anyway because they believe in the word of God. The latter are better off:

13 And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.

14 And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word?

15 Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed— yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty.

This seems a little strange, because repentance actually has nothing to do with material wealth or poverty, but with recognition of one’s sinfulness and a desire to return to God. Poverty may indeed, as Alma suggests, bring you to your knees, but the gospels give no indication that a wealthy man like Matthew the tax-collector was any better off than a poor man like Peter, after they’d both met Jesus.

But Alma is not actually addressing rich men; he’s trying to persuade poor men to believe even though they don’t know much at all:

16 Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble; or rather, in other words, blessed is he that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe.

In other words, blessed are those who join without really understanding too much of the message.

Now, “there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe” (32.17). Alma raises the very issue that got Korihor killed. Alma indeed claimed, “I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come” (30.47), but Korihor had put his finger on the problem: “show me” (30.48), and for that, he was struck dumb.

Korihor served as an example of one “who perverteth the ways of the Lord” (30.60), and of what church authorities might do with dissenters. But at least in the early days, Smith’s dissenters weren’t actually being struck dumb, so the narrative has to address the question of faith in itself. The Zoramites afford Alma an opportunity to do so on his terms.

Alma begins by denying that faith has anything to do with a desire to know, because knowledge is not the same as faith, and to “seek repentance”, we apparently need faith, not knowledge:

17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

This somewhat echoes Rm 8.24— “we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for [it]?”, and  2Co 5.7, “we walk by faith, not by sight”. But this background only obscures what’s being said. Korihor, and now presumably the Zoramites, have demanded a sign, and Alma explains, That’s not faith; because knowledge and faith are logically incompatible! Alma exaggerates St Paul’s point. Despite the fact that he repeatedly claimed to “know”, he seems to want to drive a wedge between faith and knowledge.

The Zoramites don’t (yet) believe, and they want to know why they should. Alma actually begged this very question when Korihor asked it (30.44-45). Alma again asserts that knowing is not faith, and indeed, knowing might even get you into trouble:

18b …if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

19 Now how much more cursed is he that knoweth the will of God and doeth it not, than he that only believeth, or only hath cause to believe, and falleth into transgression?

Better, then, not to know, but just to believe! Alma then adds,

Behold, I say unto you, that it is on the one hand even as it is on the other; and it shall be unto every man according to his work.

—which I take to mean that whether you know or not, you’ll get your due reward. But (getting back to faith itself)—

21 … faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

Well, or at least you hope they are, anyway— for how indeed would you know? Which puts us back where we started. But at least we know that faith is hoping that things you have no evidence for, are true!

For St Paul, hope is confidence in someone reliable, not a wish or a desire that something would turn out to be the case. In fact the word elpis (ἐλπίς) can often be translated as ‘confidence’. But the key point is that this confidence is always placed in a person, not in a prediction. For Alma, faith seems to be the belief, or at least the earnest wish or desire, that the prophecies, and the scriptures more broadly, are true. And about these, God apparently wants you to “believe” not actually to “know”:

22 …God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.

The primary object of belief is the “word”. Elsewhere this has more or less been equivalent to the prophecy that there will be a Christ, and it’s not surprising that Alma brings up the topic of prophecy here:

23 And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.

24 And now, my beloved brethren, as ye have desired to know of me what ye shall do because ye are afflicted and cast out— now I do not desire that ye should suppose that I mean to judge you only according to that which is true—

—evidently meaning that he’s not looking at their poverty, simplicity, and meekness, with intent to take advantage of them—

25 For I do not mean that ye all of you have been compelled to humble yourselves; for I verily believe that there are some among you who would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might.

—and here he begins to describe how the humble submission of faith actually works.

Since knowing is not the same as believing, the Zoramites can’t know the certainty of his words— but they can start with just a small “portion” of what he’s saying, and “exercise a particle of faith” upon it, or at least just exercise the “desire to believe”:

26 Now, as I said concerning faith— that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Basically, you have to manufacture belief by trying to believe, even though there’s no reason to do so.

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves— It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

As he compares this “desire to believe” to nurturing a seed, it’s easy to overlook the fact that although your faith is increasing, your knowledge is not. The word just “begins to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions”, you say, This is good!

It’s hard to get past the metaphor here, and return to its referent, because Alma has driven that wedge between faith and knowledge. Nothing he has said so far suggests knowledge of any kind. But he does now suggest that the word “beginneth to enlighten my understanding”, although he immediately restates this as, “yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me”. So apparently trying to believe the word results in understanding, and understanding results in a feeling of “deliciousness”, or appreciation.

So faith works like this: You hear the word, you find some small “portion” that you can “exercise a particle of faith” on, or rather, a “desire to believe”. You try to develop this until you begin to feel that it’s “delicious”.

29a …would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea;…

Yet Alma has to admit—

29b …nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

Still, because you’ve begun to feel that the word is “delicious”, that is, because you’ve begun to appreciate it on some level, you believe more. And since faith is what you’re looking for, not knowledge, this is ok!

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

The effort to believe pays off— in belief! Your faith is based on— the desire for faith! You say, “This is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow”!

31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

You’ve begun to believe, and yet there still seems to be an element of doubt— “Are ye sure?” It is, because the seed was good. And why was the seed good? because seed, when it sprouts, is good (32.28). Or, to restate the matter more fully,

32 if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

Remember, in the context of Alma 30-34, “faith” is always faith in prophecy, or in the God of prophecy. But do you really know that the prophecy is true? Alma has admitted that this an impossibility (32.18,21). But you’ve built the “desire to believe” (32.27) into belief!

In fact at this point you can even tell yourself that your knowledge is “perfect”, at least as far as “that thing” goes— presumably, the small “portion” of the word that you were trying to believe.

34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

“Faith” is “dormant”, because you’ve convinced yourself.

35a O then, is not this real? 

Alma asks. This is apparently the “knowledge” that he and Giddonah claimed they actually had, which Korihor refused to accept.

35b I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

But actually your knowledge is perfect only insofar as you’ve convinced yourself; you do actually have to keep believing and (as they say) “developing your testimony”.

36 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

37 And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. …

40 [Otherwise], …ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.

So then!—

42 … because of your diligence, and your faith, and your patience with the word, in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by, ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white; yea, and pure above all that is pure; And ye shall feast upon this fruit, even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst..

And who wouldn’t want that?

So knowledge that the word of prophecy and of Mormon teaching is true is based on hoping and trying to believe that it’s true.

Well, this can’t possibly be satisfying, and in Alma 33, unsurprisingly, the Zoramites want to know how they can plant the seed (33.1).

Alma first returns to the fact that the Zoramite poor have been cast out of their synagogues. They should realize that God will hear them in any place and at any time they turn to him (33.2-11). They don’t need synagogues. He then asks, “Do ye believe those scriptures which have been written by them of old?” (33.12). For the characters in the story, “those scriptures” are the writings of Moses and a number of other prophets who are known only in the pages of the Book of Mormon. For Smith’s readers, however, this would be the writers of the Bible. If you believe them, then how could you possibly disbelieve Alma? (30.14). As Alma asks the Zoramites to trust him, Smith asks the reader to believe his book.

The Zoramites are invited to believe that Christ will come because the scriptures prophecy that he will. In 19th century America, Smith’s readers already know that Christ came as prophesied, and also believe that Christ will come again because the Bible says he will. But the question is, can they believe that Christ came to America?

The Zoramites want to know how they should plant the seed (33.1), and Alma answers, “begin to believe in the Son of God” (33.22), and “plant the word in your heart” (33.23). And since the reader is already likely to “believe in the Son of God”, it’s only a question of “planting the word” that Alma— that is, the Book of Mormon— is teaching. Surely it’s in continuity with the scriptures already familiar!

Alma then sits down and his brother Amulek takes up not the issue of prophecy as such, but of its content— “that there shall be a Christ”, and the nature of his atonement:

5 …we have beheld that the great question which is in your minds is whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ.

This was the question of Korihor, and then of the impoverished Zoramites in the story. Since the ideal reader identifies with them, it becomes his/her question also. But the American frontier Christian who picks up the Book of Mormon and reads it already believes that “the word be in the Son of God”, and that there was a Christ. Would denying the Book of Mormon mean denying Christ?

7 My brother has called upon the words of Zenos, that redemption cometh through the Son of God, and also upon the words of Zenock; and also he has appealed unto Moses, to prove that these things are true.

The reader also already believes that the Old Testament (“Moses”) spoke of Christ; now he hears of other prophets who say the same. Amulek affirms that they’re trustworthy:

8 And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

Amulek aligns himself with the reader’s beliefs. Smith the missionary’s question is thus: “If you already believe in Bible prophecies, why wouldn’t you believe in my prophecies, since I too am aligned with the Bible you already believe it?

After all, faith is a matter of “believing”— that is, of hoping— that certain concepts, predictions, scriptures, and authorities are true, and convincing oneself that they are. You start with some small “portion” of “my words” that you can accept, and build out from there.

Korihor begged for mercy but died a miserable death at the end of Alma 30 because of his unbelief, even though he repented. But this doesn’t have to be your fate.

Amulek then points to the story of the bronze serpent that Moses erected in the wilderness, in order to save those who had grumbled against God and were being chastised by a plague of fiery serpents:

Nm 21.8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

The biblical text stresses salvation, even repeating that “if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Nm 21.9). Amulek, however, turns it into a story of condemnation, for he asserts that “there were many which were so hardened that they would not look; therefore they perished… because they did not believe…” (33.19).

Numbers 21 speaks of looking; Amulek speaks of not looking. Moreover, the Israelites saw and were healed, but the Zoramites (and the reader) are told that not seeing but believing will keep them from perishing. The Israelites only had to do was look; all you have to do is “begin to believe…. plant this word in your hearts, and … nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life” (33.23).

But if not, well— “there were many which were so hardened that they would not look; therefore they perished… because they did not believe…” (33.19).

Amulek thus resorts to the same threat of death that Giddonah and Alma issued to Korihor.

When Amulek says, “the great question which is in your minds is whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ” (34.5), he goes on to set forth a theory of atonement:

34.8 …I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.

Unless there is an atonement, and  unless you believe in it, you will “perish” (34.9)— such, indeed, was the fate of Korihor (cf 30.60). This is standard Protestant theology, and Smith’s immediate readers would not be inclined to doubt it. Amulek does give the notion of atonement a somewhat unique spin, but most people wouldn’t be so sophisticated as to object to it—

9 For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.

“There has to be an atonement, because all are fallen; therefore there has to be an atonement.” This atonement requires a sacrifice. This is explained by a dazzling display of non sequiturs:

10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.

What is this “expedience” that requires an infinite and eternal atonement? Why? Has an infinite and eternal crime been committed?

11 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.

12a But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered.

If that’s true, then not even a “Christ” can atone for anyone else’s sin. The law is clear. It “requireth the life of him who hath murdered” (34.12). But, Amulek reasons—

12b Therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

How does that conclusion follow from the fact just asserted, that no one can atone for another? 

Well, just never mind. Apparently Smith can’t explain it either, so Amulek skips right over the nonsequitur to the benefits of this infinite atonement, among which is the fact that it offers a way to have faith unto repentance:

34.15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

16a And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety…

What Amulek lacks in analysis, he here somewhat makes up in sentiment and poetry— and by reiterating his threat:

16b … he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.

All of this strikes me as more than a little garbled, but I take it that it means that there’s an infinite atonement that can satisfy the demands of justice, and that (somehow) it’s a means by which we can believe in it, and that if we don’t, we’ll have to face the demands of justice without it.

What Amulek describes, of course, is a rather confused version of the standard Augustinian-Anselmian-Protestant notions of penal substitutionary atonement and salvation by faith. He inscribes them here somewhat abstractly (i.e., without much explicit reference to Christ) and within the strange notion of faith as the “desire to believe”.

But if indeed no one can sacrifice his own life to atone for another, how indeed does the conclusion that Christ can and indeed “must” offer an infinite atonement for everyone? And if no one has ever committed an infinite and eternal crime, what “expedience” requires an infinite and eternal atonement? And what is the nature of that atonement, except that it is (said to be) “infinite and eternal”?

Smith wrote his book in the backwoods of America, and cannot be expected to show a lot of theological sophistication. This really isn’t much more complicated than a standard evangelistic tract, and indeed looks like little more than an attempt to weave just such “bumper-sticker theology” into his narrative somewhat artificially and without much context. The “infinite and eternal atonement” is just a thing that you have to believe— and in Smith’s early American frontier context, probably most people did, and with no more sophistication than his.

But with the breakdown of Christian culture in our own time, questions about the nature of the atonement of Christ have begun to emerge quite forcefully. Standard Calvinist theology tells us that Jesus saves us from God— an idea not only absurd on the face of it, but one that assumes a really troubling view of the nature of God himself as one who somehow has to murder his only son if his “wrath” is to be “appeased”. Personally, I don’t think this was ever really tenable, and it’s no surprised that it is sustained largely by an anti-intellectual, pietistic, and maudlin dolorism. Anselm and the Reformers had affirmed the need for an infinite sacrifice because they subscribed to mediaeval theories of honor and justice in which the gravity of the offense is measured by the majesty of the one insulted. Since God is infinite, therefore an infinite atonement must be made. That theory might have worked for the Middle Ages, but by the time Smith inherited it, it had become little more than a few relatively unexamined floating around in the American frontier. Thus— precisely as Amulek says— “if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay” (34.11)— Smith pastes a page from a tract he remembers onto an argument he doesn’t understand, and ends up actually demonstrating the logic of Korihor’s demand, bless his heart—

Prove it! Or at least, explain it, in a way that makes sense!

Smith can’t do this, and doesn’t really try. But precisely because its illogic demands “belief” (since it really doesn’t make sense, he tries to exploit its familiarity precisely as a “means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (34.15)— that is, as a point of entry into his own “revelation”. If people can convince themselves of penal substitutionary atonement, then they can convince themselves that the absurdities and threats of the Book of Mormon also make sense.

Amulek exhorts the Zoramites to exercise this faith, to call upon God, and not to forget the needy (34.17-31)… all in view of our impending mortality (34.32-33), because— and here is the threat again— “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world” (34.34). The reader recalls the accursed “Anti-Christ” (30.6) Korihor’s punishment, and the “lying spirit” that possessed him (30.37)! You wouldn’t want that, so maybe you’ll try and see if the Book of Mormon is true. Smith has shown you how. Start with a “portion” of what he says— perhaps the part about the Atonement which (as a Protestant on the American frontier) you already more or less believe— and “exercise a particle of faith” upon it, with the “desire to believe”, and you’ll sorta go with it. And bit by bit you can convince yourself.

Then “that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world”.


This whole series of chapters (which were one single chapter/narrative in the original) is a record of a (rather unsuccessful) wrestling with what “faith” has become in our culture. “Faith” means “believing stuff”. Within the world of the story, these “beliefs” amount to an assent “that there is a God” of prophecy (30.37-39), who has given predictions of a “Christ” who “shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and … atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it” (34.8). Korihor brought an unfriendly demand for proof of this, and was punished for unbelief; the Zoramites brought a friendly demand, and were instructed in the “means… that they may have faith”, which is just to convince yourself little by little until you have a “testimony” of it. In both cases, a dire threat hangs over the reader. If the story of Korihor and the Zoramites is true— even just symbolically— we live in a world where we must convince ourselves of absurdities or be damned forever.

If Joseph Smith was aware that he was making up this story— as he had to be, since there were no golden plates, nor later any “words of Abraham”— and that his Nephites and Lamanites never existed, he was a charlatan. The conclusion is inescapable. But I wonder how much he was aware of how deeply absurd his theory of religious knowledge could have been. The Lutheran-Calvinist model of the atonement was everywhere taken for granted, and Amulek’s presentation simply reproduces conventional ideas in rather abbreviated form. Moreover, even today, believers and non-believers alike often take for granted that “religion” is precisely about “believing” in this model in precisely this way.

That’s why Alma’s discussion with Korihor and most discussions between believers and non-believers on the internet inevitably devolve to whether we can “prove” the “existence of God” or not, whether we can “prove” the Bible or not, or the Book of Mormon. People seem to have trouble conceiving of “religion” (let alone “Christianity”) in terms other than authoritarian “belief structures”. It can’t possibly be a matter of experience, though it may be a matter of “experiences” like “the swelling between my bosoms”. But “experiences” are not enough. I see people abandoning Joseph Smith even faster than the Christianity he mimicked and depended on.

Could there even be another kind of Christianity?


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Children vs Cats

April 29th, 2014

Some long-time supporters of the St Nicholas African Education Program have just let me know that their aging cat is having health problems, and may require some expensive medicine. Therefore, they may not be able to continue supporting education in Africa.

The lack of perspective is quite bracing, really, though it was actually one of the first impressions I had of the missions in Africa.

I was in high school, and had been corresponding for a little while with one of the White Fathers, with a view to going to their seminary after graduation. At some point he was passing through town and my parents invited him to dinner. I don’t recall much of what we talked about, except that he mentioned that he’d been driving an African bishop around in Los Angeles, and passed by Forest Lawn Pet Cemetery. The bishop wondered what that great estate was. Fr George said the man started crying when he explained it to him. “In Africa we don’t even have food for people, and you have cemeteries for your pets.” I have never forgotten that.


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About Those Short-Term Missions

February 19th, 2014

One of these days I’m going to get around to posting my thoughts about the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and its work in Africa.

But meanwhile, there’s a great piece that everybody interested in missions should read, here.

Great stuff and i wouldn’t disagree with a word of it, even though my experience was actually rather different.

I was the dean of a seminary in Uganda for three years, then Director of Studies of another in Johannesburg for two. In Uganda I was the only white person for miles around, so that was interesting. Uganda didn’t have the colonial experience of, say, Kenya or South Africa, where white people came and stole land, so a lot of the barriers I experienced in Kenya and then especially in South Africa just weren’t there.

But above all i found that if you want to make any positive difference, you have to be willing to live without privilege (well, more or less without, as best you can) and to prefer the “little” people to the “big” ones. This got me into trouble in both places, but I wouldn’t do things any different at all, and won’t, if I go back.

I was eating dinner with a young priest and his family one night, as usual— they’d sorta become my best friends— when another old priest came by and sat with us. He’d had a few beers, so his tongue was loose. Do you have any idea what you’re doing? he said. I thought, Uh oh. What? And he went on to explain that never in the 80 years that the church had been there, had a white person actually sat on the floor and eaten local food with the locals, night after night, obviously loving to be with the people there as one of them. He said people were talking about me “from here to Naansana” (which you barely see in the distance). I had no idea! I was just trying to have dinner with friends, rather than eat alone!

But it would have been ridiculous for me to try to build a school or a church. Most certainly, it is better all around to hire the locals to do it for themselves. I was there to teach theology, which was something they needed and wanted, and a contribution I could make. Oh, of course it really does take several years to “get” a local culture and to know the conversations you need to have, rather than the ones you think you need to have, but on the whole, it was working out.

In every case, no matter what you do, you have to stay close to the ground— and you have to think through the economic impact. I could have asked people in America to send boxes of school supplies, but I quickly realized that that would have destroyed the little shops that made their living selling pencils and pens. So instead i asked people to send money and then i spread it around so people could go to the little shops and buy their own pens and pencils. That made everybody happy, including shopkeepers I never met!


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Why is There a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus?

August 10th, 2013

What is the dove doing at the baptism of Jesus?

Well, probably most of us would say, Noah, dove, covenant— obvious! The dove is a symbol or sign of the covenant.

Ok, but… covenant with… who?— Noah? Israel?

Actually, the dove isn’t a sign of any covenant in the Bible. In the Noah story, God cuts a covenant with Noah, but only after he actually exits the box (‘ark’, in Latin), and a dove isn’t mentioned there. So I still wonder what the dove is.

There are 52 references to a dove (יונה) in the OT. I’m increasingly convinced that the number of occurrences of words in the Bible is significant, because the numbers are meaningful in other contexts, more often than they’d be if they were just random, but i know of no key. So i’ll just note that 52 is the number of weeks in a year, and file that away as a potential clue… to something.

But in these 52 references, the dove is mentioned—

  • in the noah story (4 times: Gen 8.8–12);
  • in sacrificial material (10 times: Lev 1.14; 5.7, 11; 12.6, 8; 14.22, 30; 15.14, 29; Num 6.10);
  • in a reference to famine in 2 Kgs 6.25;
  • in material about Israel going into or already in exile in Isaiah (2 times: 38.14— note the reference to resurrection in 38;17; and 59.11); Ezekiel (7.16); and Nahum (2.7);
  • in material about Israel returning from exile (Isa 60.8; Ho 11.11);
  • in a reference to Moab in flight/exile (Jer 48.28);
  • in material about flighty Israel in Hosea (7.11);
  • in the book of the prophet Jonah (whose name means ‘dove’) (19 times: 2 Kgs 14.25; Jon 1.1, 3, 5, 7, 15, 17–2.1; 2.10–3.1; 3.3–4; 4.1, 5–6, 8–9— all of them just naming the prophet/protagonist of the book);
  • in poetic references in Psalms (55.6 (image of escape); 56.0 (uncertain title); 68.13 (uncertain image of plunder)); and
  • in references to the bride in Song of Songs (6 times: 1.15; 2.14; 4.1; 5.2, 12; 6.9).

So, in order of usage: Jonah, sacrifice, Israel, exile, bride, Noah.

The Noah material is actually the least prominent, at least by frequency. We think of it first, mostly (I’m sure) because chapters 6-9 of Genesis are about as far as we ever get with the OT and, after all, the Noah story does come at an important place in the Bible. But Noah is not necessarily the main thing a Hebrew speaker who really knew the Bible might think of, when s/he thought of a dove.

Well, leaving aside the prophet ‘Dove’ (Jonah) for the moment— even though his name accounts for about two fifths (19/52) of all the references to a dove in the Bible— the next most frequent uses of a dove in the Bible have to do with sacrifices, particularly sacrifices of purification.

The semiotics of sacrifice are not well understood, but purification is always the repairing of some breach, which is why it’s required after healing from childbirth, a running issue of blood, or etc. It always takes place on the ‘eighth day’— which is a symbol of new creation (the eighth day is the new first day, after the Sabbath); as such it later emerges as a symbol of the resurrection, since Christ was crucified on the sixth day, spent the Sabbath in the tomb, and arose on the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, the day without evening). For purification, always two doves are required. And the sacrifice is associated in Leviticus and Numbers not only with purification, but also at the same time with atonement (reconciliation), Israel (it is an offering brought by anyone, not priests or kings), and with the poor (who can’t afford bigger sacrifices).

For some reason the dove has become a symbol of peace in our society— possibly because Noah’s dove was a “sign of reconciliation”. I’m not sure that’s quite the point in the Bible, but the dove did bring the olive twig, a sign of new life, to Noah. Even so, though— given that the Noah story is above all a good story— one still wonders why Noah chose a “dove”. But, given the popular symbolism, and because we don’t really know the Bible very well, I think we usually just assume the dove at Jesus’ baptism is “a sign of peace or something”, and don’t look any farther. But one really expects a lot more from a important symbol at a key moment. If you have some insight into this, do let me know!

But as far as i can see from the data i’ve presented, I think on the whole the dove is a symbol of Israel, and we should read the dove in the story of Jesus’ baptism as the vocation to be Israel comes upon him. This, it turns out, is quite consistent with the theology of all four gospels in general, where Jesus is the ‘true Israel’.

Arguably the dove in Noah’s story stands for “Israel” as well, since Israel was to be, precisely, a sign of hope and reconciliation and new life for God’s creation.

All of this leads us to reflect on the entire book of the prophet ‘Dove’, then— Jonah, of course— who spent three days in the belly of the whale, as a reflection on Israel’s vocation among the nations. ‘Dove’ went to Nineveh, in fact; that is, to Babylon, the place of Israel’s exile (and note how Israel goes into exile in Nineveh like a dove in Nahum 2.1-7; but God is against Nineveh and its violence in Nahum 2.8-13.

Dove = Israel, then, and when God asks Dove (Jonah), “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jon 4.11), he is plying that question not just to Dove/Jonah, but to Dove/Israel.

So at the baptism of Jesus, the dove descends, Jesus becomes the true Israel, and we see that God’s going to get his answer.

Perhaps purification always requires two doves because, as Isaiah 40-55 shows us, there was always Jacob-Israel, who fails, and Servant-Israel, who does God’s will. One of the doves is always sacrificed as an offering for sin, and the other as an offering for atonement. Actually the one Son fulfilled both. Curiously, he is said to have done so at age 33, and 33 is the number of references to a dove in the Bible except for Dove/Jonah.


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Marriage in Our Culture and According to the Bible

August 9th, 2012

This video (about 50 minutes) strikes me as really quite good.

I think there’s a lot of need to think deeply about marriage (and divorce and all the rest) in our society. I don’t think it’s quite the same thing in our society as it was in the first century— hardly at all, in fact. These two talks would be a good start, from a couple of angles.


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