Welcome back to This Mormon Life, I’m William Ramsey. This week we’re talking about Joseph Smith’s seer stones. LDS leadership recently released picture of these stones that he used to translate the Book of Mormon, and we’re using them as a door to talk about different issues facing the Mormon church.
That brings us to Act 2, Histoire, Mythologie, Eternité.
Before I talk about the Mormons, I want to take a detour to the Jews.
In Yehuda Kurtzer’s fourth chapter to his book Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, he outlines his criticisms of Holocaust history and calls for a more creative and a more ritual way to remember the holocaust. He is critical of academic histories of the holocaust. He finds these tellings cold, overly reliant on Nazi documents, and overall void of emotion, meaning, or healing.
He recalls the ritual ways Jews now remember their slavery in Egypt, the near genocide at the hands of Haman, and the destruction of their temple. They celebrate with ritual meals, costume parties, loud noises, and scavenger hunts. It has been turned into a joyful, thought at times bittersweet, celebration full of meaning-making and tradition. To Kurtzer, the way the holocaust is remembered is obsessed with accuracy, allowing only room for detached sadness. In order to heal and grow as a community, Kurtzer calls for a mythologized and ritualized understanding of the Holocaust.
This is the reverse problem that Mormonism is facing. In the face of the squeaky clean origin myths presented in most official publications, there is suddenly a push for accurate history. These new Mormon malcontents, raised in the internet age of easily accessible information, suddenly want the Joseph who drank and smoke, who once threw a trumpet at a militia member’s face, who had multiple wives he never told Emma about, and the Joseph who was a treasure hunter who used his peep stones to translate a golden bible out of a hat. Mormonism is outgrowing the Joseph who was responsible, an exemplar husband, and who once nobly declined whiskey when his leg was operated on as a boy.
Before I go on, let me clarify my jargon. When I talk about myth v. history, I’m not invoking the difference between true and false, but instead the difference between fact and meaning. Here’s the split between Judaism and Mormonism right now. Judaism has all the facts but is short on meaning making, Mormonism has all the meaning-making, but plays loosely with facts. For both parties, there’s room to combine the two ways of knowing.
Here, I turn to a much earlier chapter in Judaism, or more properly the ancient Israelite cult of YHWH. You see, when your read Genesis, the heroes are not squeaky clean hyper masculine moral exemplars. They lie, they trick family members, they sleep with lots of women, and they literally wrestle God. And with all this filth, incredible meaning is still derived out of these texts.
So it should be with Mormon origin myths. Some people mention that Sunday School needs to tell the sanitary myth because the purpose of Sunday school is to be inspirational and faith promoting. I contend that nothing could be more faith promoting than wrestling, like Israel to God, with the flawed humanity of Joseph Smith and the absurd parts of the origin myth. The church is clearly catching on to this. Their press release on the seer stones was as much sermon as history lesson. The church simply needs to be sure the controversial parts of their history are allowed into the center instead of rotting on the periphery only there for those who know where to look. Why remember Joseph Smith by singing “Oh how Lovely was the morning…” when you could instead having a rousing Sunday school discussion about the moral conduct of God’s prophets? Making the mythology and ritual align with the history does not need to effect anyone’s eternity, so why has it been anathema for so long?
I will not rest until I hear a primary children state from the pulpit “I’d like to bear my testimony, I know the church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sister, and I know that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by sticking his head in a top hat… Inthenameofjesuschristamen.”
Coming up next on This Mormon Life, we’re not just going to acknowledge and make meaning of the weird, but fully embrace the weird. Turn to weird mean-making. It’s gonna be weird.