Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Book of Mormon: First Nephi

Despite my criticism about the underwhelming way Joseph Smith started out the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi is actually one of my favorite sections.  There’s no other piece in all of literature that’s ever been written in the same method as the so-called “Small Plates of Nephi.”  The major distinctions that set 1st and 2nd Nephi apart from the rest of the Book of Mormon are:

Refined Narration

Joseph Smith had already told this story once before, then finished his complete book , and backtracked to re-tell the beginning again, replacing the content from the 116 pages Martin Harris lost.  It seems he was applying Jesus’ principle of the first being last and the last being first quite literally to his creative writing method.  I would go so far as to say that if not for this incident, the Book of Mormon would not have become the phenomenon that it is today.  Its original beginning would have probably exposed Joseph Smith’s development into an experienced writer, and certainly wouldn’t have contained more sophisticated elements like intertwining plotlines and foreshadowing (like the Jaredites), which he only did here because he already knew what would happen later.  Starting out with polished writing has also been advantageous to other sacred texts, like the Urantia Book and the Qu’ran, which were written backwards or out of order respectively.  If there’s anything to be learned here by aspiring authors, it would be to go back and re-write the beginning after you finish your novel to make it an instant hit.  The fact that most Mormons aren’t even aware of the order their book was actually written is probably the only thing keeping many of them in the faith.

The Most Source Diversity

While Joseph Smith didn’t seem to have a detailed plot outline when he first started (the 116 lost pages caused him to tighten his plotting later), one thing that’s apparent was that he always intended his book to be an analogue to the Bible:

And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.

2 Nephi 29:3

It’s not by accident that an oceanic crossing parallels the flood narrative and also the Exodus in the beginning of each book, the chronicles of kings and judges at about the same place as Judges, Kings, and Chronicles, or the visitation of Christ at the same place as the Gospels, followed by paraphrasing of Paul at the end.  It seems Joseph Smith was concurrently reading through the Bible for inspiration for his dictation, and one can see a residual influence of Biblical materials from the point after he passes them in his reading.  By the time he gets to the re-write in 1 Nephi, he’s clearly read the entire Bible and the Apocrypha.  Nephi is, after all, the only section to plagiarize from the Apocrypha–the name “Nephi” is even derived from 2 Maccabees 1:36!  1 Nephi also has some of the broadest variety of quotations from the Bible, and the dreams of Lehi and his son Nephi are apparently his Apocalypse, written last but not at the end of the book (Lehi’s dream is also copied from a dream had by Joseph Smith’s father, but that’s a story for another day).  While Joseph Smith seemed largely uninterested in the poetry of the Bible (even declaring Song of Solomon non-canonical), the only original composition of poetry in the Book of Mormon is the Song of Nephi (2 Nephi 4:16-35), probably an analogue to the Song of Moses in Exodus.

A Sign of Things to Come

Nephi is an important change in direction in Mormon revelation.  The reader can visibly see Joseph Smith’s loss of interest in his project of translating supposed gold plates and his newfound interest in re-writing the Bible.  Every single mention of the Mormon-specific wordprint “plain and precious things”, referring to doctrines supposedly edited out of the Bible, are limited to 1 Nephi.

And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

1 Nephi 13:26

He actually commences this new project within the pages of 1 Nephi, re-working 2 chapters of Isaiah (48 & 49) near the end.  He devotes even more space for his revision of Isaiah in 2 Nephi (chapters 6-8, 12-27), and the remainder of the book is his commentary on these passages.  His methodology here is exactly the same that he would employ on his “inspired” Bible translation, omitting the words italicized in the KJV and adding new phrases periodically.  As if the Book of Mormon didn’t have enough occurrences of “And it came to pass”, he even adds one not found in the original text of Isaiah!

The Most Doctrine-changing Corrections 

Out of the thousands of changes to the text since the first edition, the weight of the major doctrine-altering corrections are found in the books of Nephi.  One of Joseph Smith’s primary motivations evident in the Book of Mormon was to provide clear proof-texts for Protestant doctrines that it seems Smith wanted to believe, but didn’t think were supported strongly enough in the Bible, such as the Trinity.  Joseph Smith unmistakably started to lean towards Modalism by mistake at the end of the Book of Mormon, calling Jesus “Jehovah” in the last verse (Moroni 10:34), and this trend continued seamlessly into 1 Nephi, and even into his “translation” of the Bible which followed soon after.  Observe these important Modalistic prooftexts which were edited out in the 1837 edition and every new edition thereafter:

And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of flesh.  1 Nephi 11:18

And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!  I Nephi 11:21

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea,the Everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.  1 Nephi 11:32

And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall bestablish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.  I Nephi 13:40

Postdicted Prophecy

Another unique characteristic of 1 Nephi is postdiction, or prophecies written after the fact.  It looks as if knowing what would come up ahead in the plot gave Joseph Smith the idea to foretell events he knew would happen in history as well.  While he had already used this method to predict Biblical events like the virgin birth (Alma 7:10), now he started to predict events in American history, like Columbus and colonialism (1 Nephi 13:12), even referring to mother England as “mother Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:17).

Giving the Nephites  such crystal clear prophecies like these and also the name of the virgin Mary (Alma 7:10) or John the Revelator (1 Nephi 14:27) really point out the magician-nature of Joseph Smith.  After all, these names were useless to a civilization far removed on another continent, and the future of American history was irrelevant to a people that would die out a thousand years before any colonies were established.  This information is absolutely meaningless to anybody except Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, the Americans to whom the Book of Mormon was targeted, and only reflect his flair for showmanship.

Retroactive clairvoyance is similarly deployed in other fraudulent holy books.  The Bhavishya Purana is an open system Hindu text that evolved over thousands of years, to the point that it included postdicted “prophecies” about Muhammad, British colonialism, and even Queen Victoria.  We can determine the close of this text occurs in the 19th century, when it ceases to predict any further future occurrences.  Similarly, the Bhagavata Purana and others predict “Lord Buddha” by name, but this is clearly a tactic devised to bring Buddhists back into the fold of Hinduism.  Rather than helping the case for the Book of Mormon, these postdictions are a damaging nail in its coffin of credibility.  Just like the Bhavishya Purana, these remarkably specific prophecies go only up to the point in history when they were actually written, and fall short of predicting anything after Joseph Smith’s restoration (1 Nephi 15:13).

The irony is that the Book of Mormon failed to deliver any prophecies that would have been useful to Joseph Smith’s church, among other things important events like the founding prophet’s death or the Mormon migration to Utah.  These so-called predictions were designed to inspire awe and make people believe in the Book of Mormon, and were not valuable for any other reason.  This is a marked deviation in the Judeo-Christian philosophy on prophecy, in which predictions are cautionary or instructive.  Joseph Smith’s view of predicting the future was not actually prophecy, but rather magic.  Ultimately, he was just a cheap magician.

American Exceptionalism

1 Nephi doesn’t just summarize Joseph Smith’s version of American history up to the 19th century, it presents his view of American Exceptionalism.  He saw America as God’s country with a special blessing, and particularly of note, that the white people shall inherit the earth:

And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.  1 Nephi 13:15

Colonizing America had a psychological effect on Christian settlers.  The Old World was mentioned throughout the Bible, with parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe being represented, but the New World was mysteriously overlooked, seemingly God-forsaken.  Proto-fundamentalists in the 19th century sincerely searched the scriptures for any reference that could remotely suggest another world, and they felt they had found their solution in an obscure phrase, “the isles of the sea.”  Joseph Smith took this vague expression and created an affirmative doctrine out of it:

But great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea; wherefore as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren. 2 Nephi 10:21

All of the appearances of this phrase in the Book of Mormon are exclusive to Nephi, he even inserts it into his first lengthy quote from Isaiah (1 Nephi 21:8), from which he probably originally picked up the phrase.  His stream of consciousness is evident in the narrative flow, as he starts postdiction in 1 Nephi chapter 10 and stops in chapter 14.  After this follows several chapters of wholly original narrative, unusually lacking in Biblical wordprints, quotes, or paraphrases.  Then, in chapter 19 he picks up the “isles of the sea” phrase and carries that obsessively throughout the rest of 1 & 2 Nephi.

Nephi drips with American Exceptionalism, claiming that America is the best country on earth and was taken by God from the native Americans to be given to the Colonists:

Nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles who have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father that his seed should have for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren. 1 Nephi 13:30

This was actually a very prevalent belief at the time, but one couldn’t say the Book of Mormon is original in any of its message.  Just like Joseph Smith tried to augment theologies that he felt were too weak in the Bible, here he’s simply trying to provide a scriptural justification for beliefs his neighbors already held.  It’s no wonder Mormonism has been so successful (in America, at least; in the rest of world it’s made little progress, which is equally unsurprising), since it was designed to be compatible with the folk religion of his day.  In this way, Mormonism is perhaps the most American religion in the world, and this is why American Christians continue to convert to it on a daily basis.

Mormonism has made little progress outside of the Americas if their Temples are an indication

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The New Orientalism

the snake charmer

Jean Léone Gérôme's "The Snake Charmer"

In the 19th Century, the first Orientalists ventured to the Middle East from the West.  European artists and photographers like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Félix Bonfils went to the Holy Land looking to find inspiration from Biblical scenery.  What they found instead were cities approaching modernity and bearing little resemblance to the first century ideal in their imagination.  So instead, they painted the mosques and towns as they envisioned they would have been unchanged for centuries, not as they actually were.  They narrowed the focus of their camera lenses, shooting outside the bustling cities for more exotic scenery in the countryside: a shepherd tending sheep, a woman at a well, a poor fisherman.  Personal subjects were limited to those in traditional dress of scarves, veils, and robes.  They obsessed with the foreignness of the culture, emphasizing the barbarity of stoning, beheading, the washing rituals, the call to prayer, mosaics, snake charmers, and the Circassian beauties.  The Orientalists sought to capture the East not as is or even was, but as it was in their minds.  The Orientalists had seen the bigger picture beyond the camera’s romanticized reach, but their audience in the West who would largely never travel there themselves depended on this limited focus for their picture of the Muslim world.  While it was known on varying levels that this was not the extent of Islamic culture, it was the predominant impression, nonetheless.

In 1978, Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which redefined the term to refer to a postcolonial Western bias towards Arab culture.  The Islamic landscape was altered within a year of its publication, when the Ayatollah conquered Iran and Wahabism took over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Said’s impact on Western attitudes has only increased exponentially since 9/11, even though most people affected by this paradigm shift have never even read his book.  But without it, it’s unlikely that we would have the term “Islamophobia” in our lexicon, or that that “religion of peace” would be a euphemism for Islam.  Respect to Muslim sensibilities are at the forefront of US domestic and foreign policy, perhaps demonstrated no better than in the respectful way the military disposed of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse.  Criticism of Islam is quickly becoming unacceptable, as Americans are increasingly asked to become tolerant of intolerant values in conflict with universal human rights.  Cultural relativism has made us helpless to judge the oppression of women and minorities, not even in Afghanistan where the Taliban was overthrown, only to be replaced by a government that is, in everything but name, essentially the Taliban.  Everywhere in the media, from news coverage, to DC Comics’ joint publication of a Kuwaiti superteam, to Turner Classic Movies’ Arab Images in Film series this summer, there’s a concerted effort to re-educate the public about Islam, shatter the old prejudices, and create a new identity for Muslims.  As a nation, we seem to be apologizing for stereotypical attitudes and colonial transgressions, past and present.  We will probably have to apologize for a long time, in light of the mail bombs sent from Yemen last year addressed to historical figures from the Inquisition and the Crusades if that’s any indication of how long Muslim grudges last.

Heightened security and nearly 18,000 deadly terror attacks in the last ten years are a heavy reminder that an unquantified block of Muslims around the world hate the West.  But instead of responding to this fact, the West’s reaction has been to ask “why do they hate us?” with the rhetorical assumption that it must be something we have done.  Regardless of the answer we supply (occupation, blasphemy, capitalism, freedom, democracy, etc.), we have not only accepted the Muslim grievance without any critical analysis, we have also resorted to victim blaming.  In the extreme effort not to base assumptions about Islam on a narrow stereotype, the West’s new apologists for Islam have simply chosen a different narrow scope to point their camera.  In presenting a limited, romanticized ideal of Islam, they are following the same pattern as the Orientalists before them.  They don’t want us to see the whole picture, only the one they imagine.

These New Orientalists have isolated their picture of Islam through the West’s individualism, constantly reminding us that not all Muslims can be judged by the actions of a few.  While that premise is true, their agenda surfaces when their conclusions about Islam are based on a converse that Muslims can in fact be judged on a sampling of their own selection.  Overlooking the deplorable treatment of women, gays, and minority religions throughout the Muslim world, their favored perception of Islam is double-weighted on the minority of Westernized Muslims.  It matters little to them that Muslim countries are the most homogeneous in the world, with many countries comprised of 99-100% Muslim.  They have parsed “radical” Muslims from “moderate” Muslims, and no matter how small the latter may be, that romantic ideal is what they hold must be true Islam.  Of course, they have to then overlook the fact that all the identified assault rapes in Sweden last year were committed by Muslims, or that Amsterdam, birthplace of gay marriage, has become the gay-bashing capital of the world thanks to Muslim immigration.  They condemn a lone preacher in Florida who burns a Qur’an for the actions of Muslims a continent away who murder people who had nothing to do with the incident.  To the New Orientalist, the West bears the responsibility for the bad behavior of Muslims.

The problem with this view is that it’s actually more condescending than the Orientalism of the 19th Century.  Treating Muslims more delicately because we don’t expect the same good behavior from them as from the general public really degrades Islam.  For instance, the South Park episode that “incited” Faisal Shahzad to attempt to bomb Times Square also depicted Jesus Christ, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, and Joseph Smith in even more unflattering depictions than Muhammad, who was never actually shown.  Islam, however, was the only offended religion that inspired terrorist attacks.  The belief that our behavior must change to accommodate the lowest common denominator religion presumes an unspoken barbarity that’s not shared by all the other faiths.  Similarly, when Muslims force women to dress in extreme modesty, it’s actually an insult to Muslim men to treat them as if they’re handicapped by a lack of sexual self control that’s not present among non-Muslim adult males.  If we believed that Islam were truly civilized, or even just that it had the potential for civilized co-existance, we would not be excusing behavior that we normally wouldn’t.  Their common false equivalency is to compare Islam’s development to being as young as Christianity in the Middle Ages.  This ignores the history of Islam in the Middle Ages and how little has changed since then, or that Mormonism, the Baha’i Faith, and virtually every religion that has appeared since then has grown up faster in less than 200 years than Islam has in 1,400.  It would be absurd to believe that a religion started tomorrow would have a license for a thousand years of abuses, and so accepting this behavior from Islam hints at an inferior perception of Muslims, whereas expecting more from Muslims is actually showing them dignity and respect.

Yet these same apologists simultaneously treat Islam as though it can’t be changed.    They decry critics of Islam as “racists”, even though Islam is not even a race.  Western women donned headscarfs in solidarity for the “Today I am a Muslim too” rally, as if the hijab is an unalterable characteristic like skin color.  Their failure to treat Islam as a multi-racial, supra-cultural religion lowers it to a degrading stereotype.  The impression they give is that they really think Islam is a primitive culture endangered by modernism and in need of special protection.

The 19th Century Orientalists impeded the impression of Muslim development to preserve images of a bygone era, while today’s Orientalists have inhibited advancement to create an equally fictitious narrative.   Instead of pretending that gender apartheid is acceptable in Muslim countries, it would be more respectful to call for reform; not doing so does nothing to advance the status of women in Islam, and only gives the impression that Islam cannot be reformed.  Killing people over cartoons is childish, savage behavior, but continuing to reward this behavior by not treating Muslims as adults in the 21st Century will never change anything.  Restraining our criticism of the religion has only emboldened the more radical Muslims, who see non-Muslim respect of Islam as a validation of Islamic supremacy.  Some ex-Muslim critics, like Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, may argue that Islam cannot be reformed, but the apologists are not helping their own case by not even enabling an environment for it.  Only the future can say whether reform is really possible or not, but first we need to get beyond calling critics “Islamophobes”, to stop tolerating intolerance, and to start condemning inexcusable behavior.

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Movie Review: Brigham Young

Brigham Young

Brigham Young theatrical poster

Last week I finally caught the 1940 film Brigham Young on TCM.  Mormon film history fascinates me as much as Mormon history itself, and like the latter it’s divided into two diametrically opposed camps: anti-Mormon films and sympathetic Mormon films, with little–if anything–in between.  By “in between”, I mean of course, historical accuracy.

In my extensive movie collection I have some silent examples of brutally anti-Mormon cinema that really make you relate to the Mormon persecution complex.  The first is the 1916 A Mormon Maid, which depicts frontier Mormons as the villains shrouded in robes and hoods inspired by the Ku Klutz Klan in the previous year’s Birth of a Nation (which coincidentally, the Reconstruction-era KKK never wore hooded robes either).  The second is 1922’s Trapped by the Mormons, one of several British efforts to depict the American missionaries as a corrupting influence and abducting force on Britain’s women; this film is particularly fascinating as it’s a mimesis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  There is apparently one sympathetic Mormon movie from the silent era, which like Brigham Young, depicts the Mormon migration to Utah.  I’ve always felt it was a shame that no Mormon filmmakers adapted any part of the Book of Mormon in a Biblical epic on par with Cecil B. DeMille during Hollywood’s golden age.

Anyway, within the first few minutes of Brigham Young it was evident it wouldn’t be anything like those previous films.  The movie opens with a Mormon family being driven from their home by an angry mob, and the scene closes with a copy of the Book of Mormon burning in the house fire.  The mother, actress Jane Darwell (apparently reprising her role of Tom Joad’s mother from The Grapes of Wrath), sorrowfully professes to outsider Linda Darnell that they’re being persecuted “Just because we’re Mormons.”

As you may have noticed already, 20th Century Fox devoted most of the budget to star power, casting heartthrob Tyrone Power in the lead role, which strangely for a movie named after him, was not Brigham Young.  Instead, Brigham Young was played by the lesser Dean Jagger, probably best remembered today for playing General Waverly in White Christmas.  In a humorously ironic casting decision, the part of Joseph Smith was played by a young Vincent Price, long before horror films would define his screen persona, but you still can’t help but see that persona in whatever character he plays.

Luckily for Mormons, Vincent Price doesn’t appear for very long in the film, as Joseph Smith is jailed and assassinated in the first half (ok, so that part wasn’t so lucky for them), prompting the Mormon exodus to the frontier territories.  The movie glosses over the political strife in Navou, IL at the time, only mentioning polygamy in passing as an accusation.  Brigham Young is introduced giving a defensive libertarian speech about freedom of religion and a flashback shows his quest to find a good religion “to raise his family up right”, which seem in stark contrast to the policies and practices of the real Brigham Young.  The realities of the church’s succession crisis after the death of Smith are also barely mentioned.  To their credit, the producers probably weren’t trying to make as much of a biased pr0-Mormon statement, instead, it appears they just wanted to make an epic western.  The Mormon migration was simply a different context to tell the same story after the Oklahoma land rush had gotten stale to movie-goers.  The religious aspect takes a backseat for most of the movie after that, and Mormons are depicted from then on as the persecuted flavor of the month.

Along the way, one can’t help but notice the scenes generously lifted from other popular films.  It’s appropriate really, that the movie plays out like the Book of Mormon, borrowing from a variety of obvious sources.  For instance, the motherly Jane Darwell refusing to have the wagon train stop for her as she’s dying is eerily similar to her scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which she doesn’t tell the Joad family that grandma has passed in the car, because she doesn’t want anything to stop them from getting to California.  The picture depicts some of the hardships of frontier life, climaxing in a locust swarm right out of  1937’s The Good Earth, before ending rather abruptly, and flashing forward to present-day 1940 Salt Lake City.

Contrary to what some people think about Hollywood’s golden age, studios did make flops back then, and this is one of the big ones.  It’s purported that the movie was rejected everywhere, even in Utah.  While it’s a well-produced movie, definitely a step up from a typical western programmer, it’s evident the producers thought they were making the next Gone with the Wind, and therein is perhaps why the budget exceeded its prospective audience by so much.

While critics today still haven’t been so kind to Brigham Young, Mormons have since come to embrace it.  Of course, Mormons have now embraced theater-going much more than they did back in 1940, so in retrospect its failure could also be comparable to expecting the Amish to carry a film about their community’s history.  Brigham Young is entertaining and watchable, although the reasons for this, such as the casting of Vincent Price as the prophet Joseph Smith, were not really intentional, so more of its entertainment value is in the “so bad it’s good” category.  It’s not a movie I would recommend for an accurate portrayal of Mormon history, or for a fun time, but rather as a curious oddity in cinema history.

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