Monday, January 6, 2020

Comments on a Book Review of A Preparatory Redemption: Reading Alma 12–13. Edited by Matthew Bowman and Rosemary Demos (as published in BYU Studies Quarterly)

            I realize that reviewing a book review, which this (sort of) is, is a little unusual. However, it is the best I can do since I refuse to read the actual book that was reviewed. I see such a read as a complete waste of time. More and more, as so-called “Mormon Studies” (the academic study of “Mormonism”) increases at the university level, we see books and articles being produced that purport to apply the training of the academy to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is an exercise in futility at best and spiritual danger at worst. The things of God (His words) can only be understood by the Spirit of God. We now have another superb instance of proof that this is the case.

            The latter half of Alma 12 and first part of Alma 13 are the Book of Mormon passages that receive intense academic scrutiny in this book, A Preparatory Redemption, issued by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute (still?!) attached to BYU. My comments on the book are necessarily restricted to the quotations and summaries from it and reactions to it found in the review, which the book’s authors and editors are not responsible for. Yet it appears to me that some conclusions can be reached. The discourse being covered is Alma’s teachings to the people of Ammonihah. The text includes quoted material from Alma, but is also part of a larger abridgment by Mormon.

            The book reviewer, Charles Harrell, explains that the book’s introduction cautions that the essays in it should bee seen “as theological and speculative, rather than as definitive.” They are “clearly exploratory and experimental.” Right away we see that this book will have very limited appeal and use; after all, what good is experimental theology to Latter-day Saints who only desire revealed truth?. Only those who enjoy the specious speculations of others will want to read this material. Most people are seeking gospel truths, not academic speculation. We get “a diversity of perspectives” from scholars instead of attempts to glean gospel truths. The reviewer thinks much of it evokes “new and insightful ways of thinking about the text.” But is that what we really want, especially when they are readily acknowledged to be entirely speculative?

            The reviewer informs us that he believes that some items in the book that seem dominant are the result of group-think; having the authors meet together and discuss the assigned text together may have allowed one or two voices to persuade the others. He points out that some contributors evince a lack of knowledge of how early 1800’s English may have affected the translation and how that affects our understanding. This is a small and relatively unimportant (and speculative) argument. The introductory material concludes with a quotation from the book, that it is “a collaborative document designed to orient the reader to the overarching questions, themes, and conclusions that emerged from the seminar’s discussions.” Here we have a strong up-front statement that the value of the book is only as valuable as the seminar’s discussions”—or the speculations of the academics evaluating the assigned text. This conveys an underwhelming sales-pitch to me.

            We now confront the major weakness of the book being reviewed: The application of academic philosophies to understand the word of God. This shows up starkly in all the material reviewed. The book’s essays are “often insightful and even provocative, challenging traditional readings.” “Insightful” is great if such is really the case. “Provocative” is rarely beneficial, and “challenging traditional” interpretations is usually bad, since traditional interpretations are usually those that have been formally taught to the Church by its inspired leaders. Boiled down, this means these academics are smarter (more “insightful” and “provocative”) than the prophets, pitting themselves and their great learning against the inspiration of the Lord’s anointed who have ensured that correct teachings are found in our study curriculum. “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not” (2 Nephi 9:28).

            One example of this is the notion that Alma 13 isn’t really referring to foreordination to the priesthood in the premortal existence—directly contradicting the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. We are told it is “anticipatory”, “in terms of God’s foreknowledge, rather than in terms of human premortal existence.” This is stone-cold false doctrine, coming to us by virtue of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute and tithing resources (I shudder to think how he feels now about how his name is being used by them.)

            We are next told that the “holy order” of God wording in Alma 13 is not the Mechizedek Priesthood or high priesthood, but some exclusively Book of Mormon “quasi-monastical” order. High Priesthood is High Priesthood is High Priesthood, as taught in the Doctrine and Covenants. This is the kind of doctrine you get often get from acedemia. I am glad the reviewer pointed out that this was an erroneous reading of the text.

            Matt Bowman’s contribution to the book is summarized and critiqued, properly, since it contains rampant speculation: “Bowman’s take on holy order is considerably broader than what most Latter-day Saint commentators would allow and what can be confidently gleaned from the text.” Bowman’s assertion that the Holy Order doesn’t mean high priesthood but more of a club organization is worse than speculation.

            Commenting on another essay in the book, the reviewer notes: “Gore’s explication of Alma’s doctrine of a preparatory or probationary state of mortality, in which one prepares for the endless state that follows, is faithful to the text, and he refrains from extending Alma’s probationary state into the spirit world as many Latter-day Saint commentators have been prone to do. In the Book of Mormon, there is no concept of repentance in the spirit world.” This is a debatable assertion about the doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon, but is not debatable in gospel doctrine. Doctrine and Covenants 138 clearly teaches that repentance is possible for some in the spirit world, though exactly who gets to take advantage of such a prolonged probation is less clear. Since no one leaves this life in a perfected condition with no sin, there must be provision made. No verse or passage or scriptural book spells out all of the doctrine, so the point made by the reviewer might be valid but is inconsequential to the doctrine itself. The fact remains that “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” This truth is the whole reason for President Joseph F. Smith asking God for clarification on how the gospel was taught by the Savior to those in the spirit world.

            Next, an essay mingles the philosophies of men with a little scripture. Our reviewer states: “Joseph Spencer leads the reader into two narrow and deep crevices: one tracing what he calls Alma’s anthropotheology (a theology of human nature) and another examining Alma’s cosmotheology (a theology of time and eternity). Spencer introduces his topic by drawing on the metaphor of Christ’s death and attendant rock fragmentation (see 3 Ne. 8:18) to extrapolate the concept that ‘Christ’s virtual death’ (before the foundation of the world) fractured eternity into time. This cosmotheology, he suggests, set up a particular anthropotheology, which sees humans as being caught in this time fragmentation. This, he contends, is the real essence of the human condition.” Do we think Alma would recognize this philosophizing from his own sermon? Would Mormon recognize it? I certainly don’t recognize it.

            “His verbal dexterity and ability to mine profound meanings from a single word or phrase is most impressive. Spencer is eminently analytical in his approach to scripture, raising second- and third-order questions that most readers would never think to ask of the text. But he is also a tenacious semantic sleuth who pushes the text to its limits and is able to wring out meaning beyond the prima facie meaning. Alma 12–13, with its inherent ambiguity and elasticity, provides the perfect grist for grinding out Spencer’s theology.” I am relieved the reviewer had the sense to call it “Spencer’s theology” instead of Alma’s or the Lord’s. The reviewer might be impressed by these erudite academic exercises but I am not. Such speculation is a classic case of “looking beyond the mark” and getting it wrong. Jacob 4:14--They “sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.” Certainly the reviewers review of what the essay author has written fits this description well, they “stumble.”

            More stumbling: “Processing the philosophically oriented theological writings of Joseph Spencer is mentally taxing. I had to read his essay in a quiet place, free from distraction, in order to digest it. His rarefied, cosmotheological reading of Alma’s sermon can easily dizzy the intellect.” Philosophically-oriented theological writings sound to me like the philosophies of men mingled with theology and taking away the plainness; seeking for things they cannot understand. Again, I wonder if Alma would have recognized his own teachings in Spencer’s philosophizing. “This abstract, philosophical reframing of Alma’s sermon is both novel and mind bending.” And shall we say, false. More: “Spencer also muses at length over a subtle irony in the human condition, noting that when we know God’s will, we are powerless to act on it; and when we do have power to act, we can’t really know if we are doing God’s will.” True doctrine tells us that God reveals His will to His children precisely so they can act on it, if they will, and that God is pleased when we do it, and often tells us so. The true doctrine leads to one making their calling and election sure.

            “Spencer’s essay is an excellent example of how to approach a text with analytical rigor and attention to detail. He methodically takes readers through a highly disciplined thought process, enabling them to see the text as he does. The real payoff from Spencer’s essay is the way he seeks to uncover the theological subtext of Alma’s sermon to a level that I would have never considered otherwise.” How many things are wrong with this conclusion? Certainly we ought to study or search the scriptures seriously and rigorously and with attention to detail, applying all the mental ability we have to learn the doctrine. But we certainly do not need to see the text at Joseph Spencer does, or as the philosophers do, or search for some fictional theological subtext only Spencer can show us. Instead we should ask God in the name of His Son to give us the Holy Spirit to teach us as we study and ponder the teachings of Alma (or any scripture). Beyond that, we do not turn to the philosophers for enlightenment, but to the prophets and apostles.

            Next the reviewer engages Adam Miller’s essay: “Like Spencer, Miller takes a philosophical approach to Alma’s sermon, and I found his essay to be the most mind expanding of the bunch.” Summarized, he says: “Miller starts by turning Alma’s sermon on its head. On a normal reading, Alma seems to be advocating that this life is specifically granted to humans as a time to repent in preparation for the day of judgment (Alma 12:24). (David Gore is careful to emphasize this point in his essay.) Miller, however, inveighs against living our lives preparing for death and judgment, contending that doing so brings only alienation and pre­mature spiritual death. Always preparing for the Judgment, humankind never really lives, so “even before we die our first death, we experience a second death.” This is false doctrine contrary to all the prophets and does indeed turn Alma’s teaching on its head. So this BYU philosopher, not liking Alma’s doctrine because it doesn’t match his, changes it into his own. Now God is made in Miller’s image instead of Miller being made in God’s image. “Miller’s freewheeling commentary is not bound by convention, nor evidently by the text.” The desire to seem smart and put forth something new and gain prestige in the academy has betrayed many professors of whatever before, and will again. “in these things they do err, for they do wrest the scriptures and do not understand them” (D&C 10:63).

            The reviewer seems captivated by Miller’s intellectual wresting of Alma’s plain teachings, but is at least cognizant enough to note: “Miller’s perspective of Alma’s sermon is problematic on multiple counts, . . .” An enormous understatement to be sure.

            The next essay, which I will not notice much, is entitled: “Called and Ordained: A Priesthood of All Believers in Alma 13”. A priesthood of all believers, is of course, what the Protestant/Evangelical world operates on; one does not need to be ordained by one having authority and keys (what Elder McConkie called a “legal administrator”), one may instead simply believe in the Bible in common with all other believers and that is all “priesthood” really comes to. And that doctrine is just what many so-called liberal/progressives would like for the Latter-day Saints as well.

            Thank goodness for prophets that hold keys and direct this Church instead of BYU professors. “Bridget Jeffries, whose specialty is American religious history, asks how Alma 13 might be understood when read with an evangelical assumption of the priesthood of all believers, rather than the Latter-day Saint assumption of a male-only, ceremonially ordained priesthood. She succeeds in showing that such a reading is not only defensible but in some ways results in a better reading of the text.” Where this reviewer sees success I see successful failure and misunderstanding—again, we cannot take wrested (feminist imposed upon) Alma out of the larger body of canonized standard works and modern revelation to prophets today.

            The reviewer’s conclusions regarding the volume he reviewed sounds…sort of…a little bit…somewhat…ok—on the surface, but is really a recipe for the beginnings of another Great Apostasy: “This volume, despite a few shortcomings, is an important contribution to Book of Mormon scholarship. These essays are intended to be viewed as exploratory and, in some instances, even speculative, which is precisely what makes them so intriguing and thought provoking. One could argue that serious theological inquiry often requires this type of free exploration of ideas, especially if real theological breakthrough is to occur. The value of the volume isn’t that it provides a definitive exposition or approved Latter-day Saint interpretation of scripture, but rather this volume shows the reader how to approach a Book of Mormon text with analytical rigor and open theological inquiry.”

            On the contrary, this volume is evidently a fine contribution to dissident Book of Mormon scholarship. Latter-day Saints do not seek “free exploration” of ideas because we are NOT looking for theological breakthroughs. Instead, we are searching and seeking for eternal truth and that only comes by revelation, not by philosophizing away the scriptures. True theological breakthroughs, such as the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, all came by revelation to a prophet, not by speculation and exploration in the academy or classroom.

            May I simply state that if these essays became church doctrine, or began to overcome the Church, it would be a sign that the wild olive branches were overtaking the tame ones; that philosophy was again replacing revelation; that another Great Apostasy was overtaking the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. In that case, which is not and will not be so case, I would go inactive and wait for death eagerly, as I assume many who lived in the days when the original Twelve were dying off (in the meridian of time) did, when God took His priesthood and revelation from the earth. I would not be a member of a Church that believed the speculations promoted by these essayists.

            Reading this review of the NAMI publication has reaffirmed to me the critical necessity of the Church being led by a prophet of God and not by scholars and academics and philosophers, no matter how rigorously they can think. I do not want to join the Evangelical community making up apostate Christianity. I want true revealed doctrine taught by true Apostles as found in the standard works of the Church and as revealed to them today.

            My earnest question: why is BYU/NAMI promoting and publishing this stuff?!      

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