Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review: "The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations" part 2/2 by Jeffrey Needle

Comments by Jeffrey Needle (see part 1 of 2 here)

As you can see, Joe Geisner's comments easily stand on their own; he certainly needs no help from me, or anyone, in expressing his views about this massive volume. Rather than write a separate review, Joe has kindly allowed me to piggyback my few thoughts on to his review, to offer a non-member's perspective. I trust I don't repeat too much of what Joe has to say in his very fine and very complete review.

Since hearing about the content of this volume at a talk given by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the current Church Historian, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. It sounded a bit like just the thing for Mormonphiles like myself, who have an enormous interest in all things LDS but who have no emotional attachment to the claims of the religion. And as Joe points out in his review, leaders have been reluctant over the years to admit that substantive, important changes were made to the revelations. This volume could signal a new era in Mormon history-telling, surely good news!

I've pondered the reluctance of Church authorities to lay out the historical record cleanly and completely. It's almost as if some of the leaders have feared that Mormonism is, in effect, a house of cards that might collapse at any moment if it is discovered that there have been changes, alterations in the revelations. But is Mormonism so frail, so unsteady on its feet, that a whiff of the truth might make it all come down?

As Richard Bushman said some time ago, "We've grown up. We can now discuss our past openly and honestly." Elder Jensen adds, "We have nothing to hide." Bravo! And with this volume, we can see a glimpse of the richness, and variety, of the revelatory experience in early Mormonism. More importantly, we can now understand revelation as a progressive and flexible phenomenon, rather than a producer of static communication from God to man.

Of course, some realities emerge whenever discussing religious institutions and their telling of their own story. Sociology 101 teaches us that the primary purpose of every institution is self-preservation, that organizations will not do anything that will threaten the stability and existence of that organization. And in Mormonism, the vast number of new members, those who must receive the milk first and then the meat, necessitates a careful telling of history, what Mormonism titles "faith-promoting."

But, in time, the milk no longer suffices; it's time for the meat. And finding meat on the Mormon menu has been pretty tough. The Bible itself tells us: "But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day." (Proverbs 4:18) Does this apply to prophetic experience as well? Of course it does! Why then do we shy away from the more difficult issues, such as changes to the revelations, when such changes can be understood as the result of that light shining brighter and brighter?

It is to be expected that, as time passes and as that light continues to shine, changes to the early revelations are to be expected. Some may balk: why not just create new revelations? Why alter what previous prophets have written?

The citation from Proverbs, I believe, contains the answer to this question. Not only does the doctrine of continuing revelation *allow* such updating, but it virtually *requires* it. While ultimate truth may be static and unchanging (although some would dispute this), the reality is that our perception of that truth, and our expression of our understanding of that truth, confront us from day to day.

Prophets are fallible; they are, after all, people, just like you and me. With a certain amount of boldness and, perhaps, some private doubts, these inspired men and women have penned their thoughts for all to read. At times they've had to go back and amend their writings. As their own vision of Truth became more focused, it is only natural to expect that they would go back and re-interpret their own views to conform to more recent revelation.

I can recall coming across a volume from Bookcraft early on in my explorations of Mormonism. It discussed Joseph's First Vision. To my surprise, it related several versions of that experience. The version canonized in the Pearl of Great Price is not the earliest, but rather the version, it seems, that is most faith-promoting. I wondered at the time how Mormons could accept the canonized version so readily. Today I understand the rationale and, surprisingly, have little trouble with it.

Was the Church ready for this book on the First Vision back when it was published? I recall it was published in 1980. Disturbingly, since then, the Church has shown little willingness to turn the historical pages and find the exquisite truth that lay behind the faith-promoting teachings. Joe mentions a few of the General Authorities who have tried to perpetuate a stereotype that simply falls to the side when considered closely and with complete honesty. I'm confident they're aware of what has actually taken place throughout their history. I'm also confident that their mission has not been to lay out the whole story before the world, but rather to present a confidence-building account that would feed the flock and encourage faithfulness.

Maybe this is why I treasure this newest volume so much. Yes, it weighs about 100 pounds (slight exaggeration?). And no, it isn't as compelling as a Dan Brown novel, nor as titillating as the latest Danielle Steel romance. But after Brown and Steel recede into our collective memory, this volume will stand tall as one of the most important and relevant releases from the Church's press.

Make no mistake: at nearly a hundred bucks, this is a big investment. But it's worth grabbing this volume now and spending some quality time re-discovering the roots of your faith. If Karl Barth was correct, that Scripture was, in effect, a "divine-human encounter" that morphs into a personal contact point for each of us individually, this book can come alive as evidence that early LDS revelation was, and still is, this same kind of encounter.

Each reader meets God in the Scriptures in a different way. Early LDS leaders likewise experienced God in their own deeply personal way. And as their minds scanned the theological horizon, and came to understand Joseph's revelations in new and exciting ways, they journeyed through those revelations and clarified so many points, filled so many holes.

What a treasure this book is! My excitement about owning this book is eclipsed only by my anticipation of what's coming next. Have we turned a corner in the telling of Mormon history? I hope so. I hope that Mormonism can now emerge from behind the sacred doors of the President's vault and present itself in all its glory and wonder.

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