Friday, December 26, 2014

# 56: The History Doesn’t Matter That Much

By now you’ve probably heard that Joseph Smith “married" a whole bunch of women who were already married to other men.  And you’ve probably heard that Joseph Smith “translated” the Book of Mormon by putting a rock in a hat and looking at it for a long time.  Maybe you’ve heard that Brigham Young tried to sell the Nauvoo Temple, or that he said that there were people living on the moon.  

Maybe you’ve read Jeremy Runnells "Letter to a CES Director," and have been convinced by it.  

My question for you is this: how much does this history matter?

How much does this history affect your life, right here, right now?  

And how much does this history affect the way the current LDS Church is running?  

The Church has changed so dramatically over the last 180 years.  I bet if a Mormon from the 1830’s time-traveled to our day and went to Church, he would feel totally out of place.  

This new history I’ve learned about over the past three years is interesting.  I have no interest in suppressing it.  In fact, I don’t think it should be suppressed.  It should just be put in its proper context. 

Someone has pointed out that Jesus said, “By their fruits shall ye know them,” not by their roots.  In other words, you can tell a true prophet from a false prophet by looking at what the prophet produces.  It's less important to go digging into the prophet's past.  It's more important to examine a prophet's prophecies and teachings, and see if following the prophet's teachings leads to a good and happy life.  In my opinion, sustaining President Monson as a Prophet and following his teachings does lead to a good and happy life.  Therefore, I think I can honestly say, "I believe President Monson is a true prophet."  I just don't think he talks with Jesus Christ face to face or that he actually holds sealing keys and things like that.  

I have polygamist ancestors.  I now believe that polygamy is a deplorable institution and I’m happy that it was destroyed, thanks in large part to the actions of the U.S. government.  

But, all my polygamist ancestors are dead now.  They’ve been dead for a long, long time.  I’ve never met them.  I suppose I have their genes, and some of their culture has been passed on to me, but all their crazy ideas about polygamy have little or no effect on me.

And the historical Joseph Smith doesn't matter that much.  I contend that the myth of Joseph Smith has been, and still is, more important and influential than the historical Joseph Smith.  He's more of a mythical creature now, or a religious archetype, than an actual person.  He's a figment of our collective religious imagination.  And the Joseph Smith of the popular LDS imagination was a really great guy!  We should all be more like him. 

I don't think it's harmful to believe in the myth of Joseph Smith.  I actually think it's beneficial, and that's why I don't voluntarily share "anti-Mormon" information with my true-believing Mormon family and friends.  I think most Mormons are better off believing in the Church and living the religion.

The same kind of thing has happened with Christopher Columbus.  Columbus has been romanticized and glamorized, and he's come to represent discovery, American values, Christianity, adventure, bravery.  I don't know exactly how or why the myth of Christopher Columbus has been popularized and perpetuated the way it has, but I don't think that spreading the myth is a bad thing.  Unfortunately, the historical Columbus sounds like a pretty bad guy.

Even if historical evidence somehow came out that showed that Jesus Christ was a fraud, I would continue to follow Christ's teachings, until something better came along.  

If you look way back in your family history, you’ll probably find some horrible people who did some horrible things.  And there may be secrets that have been kept from you, secrets that you’ll never find out about.  Maybe some celebrated great-grandfather had a bunch of illegitimate children from extra-marital affairs.  Or maybe some grandmother spent some time in prison, or in a looney bin.  Um... so what?  

I just don’t think the history matters very much.

Here’s my suggestion for you.  Don’t worry about the history.  Just appreciate the Church for what it is now, pray, live the lifestyle, and do the best you can.

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  1. :) I like this! I just talked with someone last night about this exact thing. I took it another fun direction. My granddad is still alive and he's SO racist. I was talking to my friend about blacks being able to receive the priesthood and I believe my granddad had a horrible time with this "revelation" and probably still does. My granddad is 85 and a temple worker. I guess i'd expect more from him, but he's human and stuck in his ways. -Van

  2. Great idea, but not possible for some I fear. Cognitive dissonance arises when two contradictory views come into collision and for many, there needs to be a resolution to the conflict. As an example: I live in South Africa where we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with our apartheid past and its web of falsehoods and violence. I understand that political and social violence are not the same as the theological and mythic space, but the point I'm trying to articulate is that the notion of just accepting the contradictions with their attendant trauma can augment the dissonance. It is vital for many to expose, face, name the issue at hand, and to find closure in this way. I am not a Mormon, but similar matters have concerned me with Christianity: for me, the mythic Christ (Logos)cannot be divorced from the historical Jesus of Nazareth - and to discover (amongst many discoveries) that the theology of the virgin birth is based on mistranslations of
    the OT and that the nativity narrative was almost entirely mythical made me deeply distrustful of the dogmatic teachings of the church. I have read the Book of Mormon and have an interest in the history of the Mormon church (Joseph, Brigham, the golden plates, spurious origins of texts etc) and can understand the catastrophic dissonance and transition to disbelief which can occur when a "believer" faces these matters with honest inquiry. For some, it is just impossible to keep a dual belef system going without experiencing a kind of schizophrenic splitting.of belief and reality.

  3. Sorry, I need to pursue this..."I just don’t think the history matters very much" just can't work for many struggling in the valley of the shadow of unbelief. History does matter. It does matter if millions of Jews died in camps or if that was just some kind of Zionist myth. It does matter if the historical Jesus existed or not, if he was resurrected or not. If Joseph Smith was a charlatan or not. We cannot simply brush history - as flawed as the study thereof may be - aside. In my view to do so seems to cut belief loose into a kind of impregnable, illusory space where any belief goes as long as it's results are apparently benign.

  4. I didn't mean to suggest in Reason # 56 that people should ignore the history of the Mormon Church altogether. I'm trying to say that people should put the history in its proper context. And people should ask the question, "How much does this history matter to me and to my life right now?" I think some people can get obsessed with the ugly history of the Mormon Church. The study can consume their lives, and make them lose perspective. I don't think I'm living with cognitive dissonance now. I'm acknowledging that Joseph Smith, in many ways, was a fraud. Yet, I think the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day is largely a wonderful organization that I'd like to be a part of.

    What do you believe now?

  5. I think history does matter, when you are looking to current leaders to guide you in your life decisions and view points. So many members are trained to follow the prophets counsels explicitly and the past has shown some damaging effects: polygamy, racism, bankruptcy, and currently: sexism, bigotry, homophobia, ostracism of non member or "doubting" family/friends. If history doesn't matter, then our faith and commitment to the current church/leaders should be much less invested. But that would likely collapse the church because it only functions if all members take everything literally and are fully committed.

  6. Reason # 56 isn't "The History Doesn't Matter At All," it's "The History Doesn't Matter That Much." Also, I don't see how "following the prophet" these days results in sexism, bigotry, and etc. I think "following the prophet" today means trying to be like Jesus. Anyway... thanks for reading.

  7. I appreciate this article. I have a busy life with children, work, housework, etc. I barely have time to look up and see that oh, its Sunday again. I don't believe in the church anymore but I do, as you seem to, stick with it. it seems like a simpler and more wholesome lifestyle than if I cut loose and floated around in the sea of being Non Mormon. I do ignore the church history, mainly because it is so gnarled and I have other things to do than read about it. I ignore the annoying members and try to follow the wholesome, calming and kind teachings- the things that will make me kinder and more calm, and a better parent and spouse. I know I'm better off having joined when I did and having followed this lifestyle.