Tag Archives: Joseph Smith

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.

donnie_darko-frank

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Mormons Contra Scholars

On rare occasion, having the courage of one’s convictions can be admirable. While I much prefer having the courage to attack my convictions, the Mormon man who went on hunger strike to protest same-sex marriages in Utah surely disagrees. He was saved from his starvation-unto-death vow by the Supreme Court’s recent stay of the lower court ruling striking down Utah’s ban on “abominable” marriages. The Mormon Church has long been fixated on this issue, as is apparent from this 1993 statement by Apostle-Elder Boyd Packer:

There are three areas where members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away. I chose these three because they have made major invasions into the membership of the Church. In each, the temptation is for us to turn about and face the wrong way, and it is hard to resist, for doing it seems so reasonable and right. The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.

Though it’s not surprising that gays and girls pose existential threats to old-white-male LDS leaders, their fear of eggheads is more puzzling. It’s not often that scholars and intellectuals are accused of posing threats to anyone, let alone an enormously wealthy corporate (and tax exempt) church group that operates around the world.

While I’ve long been aware of Mormon hostility to academic history and anthropology, both of which have a nasty habit of disproving official LDS doctrine or “history,” I did not know that this policy was driven by such brutal honesty. In a 1981 speech to Mormon educators, Packer pulled no punches on the issue:

“There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.

If I did not know better, I might think that Apostle Packer had been reading Nietzsche:

Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which the case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure — or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified. (Beyond Good and Evil §39)

Untruth, in other words, may be a condition of life. Scholars and intellectuals be damned.

Fawn-Brodie-Joseph-SmithFawn-Brodie-Excommunication-Letter

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Mormon History Machinations

Over at Slate, David Haglund has posted a fascinating piece on the life and travails of Mormon historian Michael Quinn. Trained as an academic historian, Quinn obtained his PhD from Yale in 1976. When he applied for a faculty position at BYU, his credentials (and interest in early Mormon history) were viewed with suspicion. The church leader assigned to interview Quinn was Boyd Packer. Packer was less than enthused:

Packer said, “I have a hard time with historians, because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting.” That’s according to Quinn—my request to speak with Packer, whose health has badly deteriorated in recent years, was declined. But Packer certainly said similar things before larger audiences. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators called “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” which was organized around four “cautions.” The second of them is this: “There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

While Packer may have been a dissembler, he wasn’t dumb. In fact, if I didn’t know better I’d think he had been reading Nietzsche (Beyond Good & Evil 39):

Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.  Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure–or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.

As Quinn discovered during the course of his research and writing life, too much truth about Mormon history can be dangerous. Though I was not familiar with Quinn until now, I just ordered one his books. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1998) looks superb, as this blurb suggests:

In this ground-breaking book, D. Michael Quinn masterfully reconstructs an earlier age, finding ample evidence for folk magic in nineteenth-century New England, as he does in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s upbringing. Quinn discovers that Smith’s world was inhabited by supernatural creatures whose existence could be both symbolic and real. He explains that the Smith family’s treasure digging was not unusual for the times and is vital to understanding how early Mormons interpreted developments in their history in ways that differ from modern perceptions. Quinn’s impressive research provides a much-needed background for the environment that produced Mormonism. This thoroughly researched examination into occult traditions surrounding Smith, his family, and other founding Mormons cannot be understated. Among the practices no longer a part of Mormonism are the use of divining rods for revelation, astrology to determine the best times to conceive children and plant crops, the study of skull contours to understand personality traits, magic formulae utilized to discover lost property, and the wearing of protective talismans.

Mormonism is not, of course, unique in being magical. All religions are magical, with that which is orthodox within any tradition being deemed “not magic.”

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Gopnik, Lamanite

Insofar as I can tell, the only positive in this presidential campaign is all the light being shed on one candidate’s curious religion. For understandable reasons, it’s not something this candidate wants to discuss. Anything that attracts the attention of his dogmatic base to these blasphemous beliefs is unwelcome. For the rest of us, it is fascinating.

As I noted in Mormonism as Evolutionary Exemplar, we’ve recently seen three superb articles covering different aspects of this peculiarly American faith. To these articles we can now add a fourth. It is the best of the bunch. In I, Nephi — Mormonism and Its Meanings, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik hits on all cylinders. For reasons that surely have something to do with Romney’s religion, Gopnik has just read these four books:

For reasons that surely have something to do with Romney’s religion, all these books have been (or will be) published this year. Mormonism and moneymaking make for good bedfellows. Authors and publishers have obviously taken note.

While Gopnik’s cruise through these books probably won’t please Mormons, the course he charts is an impressive passage. It is some of the best thinking and writing I’ve encountered in a while. Read it.

After digesting Gopnik’s buffet, you can chew on additional morsels from Russ Douthat. In Romney’s Mormon Story, he contends that Romney is hamstrung by his faith and American (mostly evangelical) hostility towards it. What should be his greatest strength is a weakness because it must remain hidden, downplayed for the base (which truly is base). But this isn’t the only problem. For the more tolerant among us, and perhaps even the admiring, there is this:

Of course, a visit to Mormon country also provides reminders of why Romney has been wary of talking about his religious background. There’s the Mormon Temple, whose interior can be viewed in scale-model form but not actually entered; the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race; the fine line Mormon society walks between a healthy solidarity and an unhealthy conformism — and hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith’s revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counterhistory of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.

Though I don’t know the details, I understand that archaeologists and historians at BYU once spent a great deal of time and spurious effort attempting to prove the Lamanite myth true. As Mormonism has matured, these efforts have diminished and the myths are now constructed, as so many religious stories are, metaphorically. What does this mean for Gopnik? He might just be a Lamanite.

“Nephi [Bearing Uncanny Resemblance to Romney] Subdues His Brothers” by Arnold Frieberg

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Mormon Garmies & Ghost Dance Shirts

Once we get past the sniggering, Mormon underwear (officially known to Mormons as “temple garments” and unofficially as “garmies”) presents a fascinating site of study. Why are they worn and what do they represent? The answers, I suspect, differ greatly depending on who is talking. Anything that is so obviously personal, so close to the body, will undergo continuous transformation and be constructed in ways that ecclesiastics will never capture or acknowledge. Whatever the official explanations or rationales, I’m confident they are less rich than more personal understandings. I’m also confident that garmies work on levels that Mormon leaders may not fathom. To give but one example, garmies fit nicely into the costly signaling theory of cooperation that is vogue in evolutionary studies of religion.

Mormon doctrine and academic theory aside, we can get some sense for the myriad ways Mormons perceive garmies in this delightful piece by Valerie Tarico. Judging the symbolic potential by comments from various garmie wearers past and present, I can envision an entire cottage industry for cultural anthropologists similar to that which surrounds Islam and the hijab. The difference, of course, is that garmies don’t provide a rich field for fashion, commodity, or authenticity analyses. This is not to say that garmies have not changed over time. As this LDS chart shows, they have:

It is to say that garmies, despite the provocative re-design and sales efforts of Mormon’s Secret, probably won’t be a fashion or identity statement anytime soon. But as Tarico recounts, garmies could become popular for other reasons:

In Mormon folk religion, Garments have special powers. Stories are told of wearers being saved from bullets or a fiery death in a car crash. One story tells of a Mormon soldier during WWII who was killed by a Japanese flame thrower – but his Garment survived intact. The stories go back to Joseph Smith himself, who died in a hail of bullets without his Garment on. His companion, Willard Richards, who was wearing his, emerged unscathed. Mormon historian Hubert Bancroft described the incident in his 1890 History of Utah: “This garment protects from disease, and even death, for the bullet of an enemy will not penetrate it. The Prophet Joseph carelessly left off this garment on the day of his death, and had he not done so, he would have escaped unharmed.”

Bancroft’s 1890 story about Joseph Smith and his bulletproof garment raises an intriguing (diffusionist) possibility. Two years earlier, in 1888, the Paiute prophet Wovoka revived the Ghost Dance and began hosting Native American visitors from around the country at the Walker Lake Reservation in central Nevada. In 1889, the Lakota shaman Kicking Bear visited Wovoka on behalf of the Sioux. By the time Kicking Bear arrived back in South Dakota, what would become the Sioux version of the Ghost Dance had become more millenarian and militant. Kicking Bear told Lakota warriors that if they wore special shirts, bullets could not harm them. Tragically, many Lakota discovered otherwise at Wounded Knee in 1890.

While shirts with particular symbols were to be worn in Wovoka’s version of the Ghost Dance, he did not claim they were bulletproof. I wonder whether the bulletproof or protection idea was in the Nevada air or whether Kicking Bear might have picked it up while traveling through Utah. There were many Mormons in both places. If Kicking Bear had become aware of magical garments, he may have joined that idea with Ghost Dance shirts. The Ghost Dance, after all, was an amalgam of traditional and Christian beliefs. Adding a Mormon idea or practice would have fit this syncretic worldview.

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Adaptive Mormon Revelations

One of my favorite books on Mormon history, much despised by Mormons, is Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. Brodie writes with considerable panache about things Mormons would like to forget. Despite Smith’s many foibles and  frauds, he comes off surprisingly well: it’s hard not to admire his audacious exuberance and resilience in the face of disasters. I couldn’t help but think that Smith would have been a fine drinking buddy, if only he drank.

Another thing I couldn’t help but think was that some of his ideas, subsequently enshrined as Mormon doctrine, were patently ludicrous. For instance, the megalomaniacal notion that prophets abound and routinely channel God through ongoing revelations. To an outsider, this seems absurd and it’s easy to ridicule. But I just read something in The Economist that makes sense of it:

In the early days of Mormonism, the pioneer evangelists of the young faith saw considerable successes arguing the absurdity of the idea that for millenia God used prophet after prophet to make plain his will to man and then, suddenly, became mute, abandoning his favoured creatures to tease out with our meagre minds the meanings of the old prophecies and their application to present circumstances. That there is another scripture, that prophets roam among us still, should surprise only those ready to accept the outrageous notion that a once demanding and garrulous God has retreated from his children in silence, having nothing more to say.

The idea of an ongoing prophetic relationship to God has not only proven an effective selling point for proselytising Mormons, it has built into Mormonism a potent adaptive flexibility. In the face of potentially ruinous religious persecution from Congress, church president (and putative prophet) Wilford Woodruff in 1890 disavowed plural marriage in “The Manifesto”, which has been canonised and is believed by mainstream Mormons to reflect divine revelation. In 1978, after decades of pressure from the civil-rights movement, and facing the problem of expanding the church’s membership in countries with large mixed-race populations, church president (and putative prophet) Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation making blacks eligible for the Mormon priesthood.

If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, the first point is a good one: Why was God so busy revealing himself to prophets only between 1800 BCE (Abraham) and 630 CE (Muhammad)? If God is active in the world and speaks through prophets, an ancient burst of activity followed by doctrinal fixing and stasis is more than a bit puzzling. I’m down with the Mormon idea that (if such a God existed), there should be prophets every generation and ongoing revelations. It not only makes sense but sounds like more fun.

Why only in the past -- Why not now?

The second point is equally good: If you are going to create a religion in an age of skeptical inquiry, mass communication, and majority prejudice, the ability to pivot doctrine on a dime is essential. When things go badly or change is needed, prophets simply issue adaptive revelations. This aspect of Mormonism, which I had previously considered disingenuous and amusing, now seems less absurd.

There is a rationality (living prophets) and pragmatism (convenient revelations) here which I hadn’t previously considered. No wonder Mormonism is giving the hoary Abrahamic religions a run for their money.

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Blooming and Buzzing

Wondering whether this election will herald the coming of a presidential prophet, Harold Bloom is in rare form in this masterpiece of compression on Romney the Mormon. He hits all cylinders at the finish:

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.


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