Net must deal with 'Joseph' question
It's no wonder then that, just before he died, Elder Neal A. Maxwell fretted about finding a way to make the Mormon world on the Internet a little more uplifting.
Just as it's no wonder that Truman Madsen, quite likely the "most beloved mind in Mormonism," is also concerned.
In an e-mail sent my way last week, Madsen talked about trying to "help counter the dominance and prominence" of negative LDS Web sites. But rather than curse the darkness of cyberspace, he has ignited a little candle. And his Web site, trumanmadsen.com, is a small island of perspective in a swirling sea of information.
And, true to form, Madsen throws his focus on Joseph Smith. He hopes his site — and recent set of DVDs — will play some kind of role in the ongoing debate.
Anyone who follows religious matters knows that 2005 was an interesting year for Joseph. After decades of writing off Joseph as a kook and frontier fanatic, scholars began to rewrite their opinion of the man. Heavy hitters like Harold Bloom began seeing him as an authentic American visionary. On television programs, such as "Law and Order," Joseph's name began getting lumped in with the likes of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Conferences were called. Books were written. Seminars held. And, under the hot glare of the interrogator's lamp, Joseph's failures and flaws were soon brought into high relief. As with other larger-than-life figures, Joseph's life was tugged and stretched like a lump of molding clay. Like a patient etherized upon a table — to borrow from Eliot — he was poked and prodded half to death. Chances are his real image can now never be seen.
Yet, into that fray, comes Truman Madsen, sounding the same note he has sounded for 50 years.
He sounded it back in 1989 when I interviewed him for the paper. Then, he said, "If one's interest in religion is totally intellectual, you can become a legitimate expert. But there's still the hard question of whether you fully grasp what you're talking about. There are those who say you must have an existential commitment to religion, or you will always miss the elan, the vitality of it."
The "elan" — the "vital force" behind things.
In short, while hundreds of thinkers and feelers examine the "candle" that was Joseph Smith, Madsen reminds them to not ignore the flame.
Like any pane of glass, Joseph Smith had impurities and flaws. But for Madsen, the big question is: Despite the flaws and impurities, was Joseph still able to allow the light to shine in?
Don't focus on the glass, Madsen is saying, focus on the light.
Madsen asks, despite everything else, did Joseph Smith embody a spark of the divine?
It is a question that all of the other Internet sites — all 23 million of them — must, at some point, grapple with.