Wandering Mormons as Nephites

June 27, 2010
By

More than two years ago, the Holy Spirit began insisting that I re-read the Book of Mormon. Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize the impulse as anything but a good idea originating within my own intellect. That’s what I do with anything – process it intellectually first. I knew spending more time reading scriptures would be the spiritual equivalent of walking more for my heart, so I put it on my to-do-list. You know all about the to-do-list that never seems to get any shorter because of emergencies and recurring requirements.

So, re-reading the Book of Mormon stayed on the to-do list for a while. But then the press became more persistent and insistent: “No, you REALLY need to re-read the Book of Mormon,” and the very persistence began to get through my blocks of rationalization. So I kept moving it up the to-do-list until it was high among the emergencies and the recurring tasks, and I began to read.

I had not gone cover-to-cover since I was in elementary school. I still have my first Book of Mormon given me as a baptism gift, and almost every verse in it is underlined: I didn’t know what went with what back then, and figured just about everything must be terribly important and interrelated. So I absorbed the story for a story important in my religion, and soaked up any theology unconsciously in the process. In the decades since, I used the Book of Mormon many times in preparing sermons; you preach a lot when you live in a denomination of mostly small congregations where priesthood is not the province of all worthy males. I taught many individual topics in classes or missionary efforts. I even had a few verbal jousts on my front steps with LDS missionaries before I learned that was fratricide that wasted everyone’s time. But the focus on the immediacy of my assigned tasks didn’t convey the global oversight of that first boyhood reading. In the later readings, I had the theology, both from the Book itself as well as from a deeper understanding of the other scriptural sources of Christian theology, but had lost track of the story as story.

From this perspective, as I began to read I began to understand overarching themes I’d missed before because they hadn’t been “on task”. Among them, I began in particular to see the books of 1st Nephi through the Words of Mormon as sort of an “old” Old Testament concerned with the overwhelming question of the first generations of Nephites: “Is there still a place for us with God?”

After all, in 600 BC, Judea was the “church”. You didn’t think of personal salvation outside of the structure of your Jewish tribal identity, and keeping the covenant kept your identity guaranteed by the only true God. I mean, look what had happened to the Northern Kingdom. Just gone! Conceptually to the Jews then, it didn’t matter whether individuals in the 10 tribes had been obedient or disobedient, just or unjust. The Kingdom of Israel had been judged unworthy of God’s continued protection as a whole kingdom. The fate of the people as individuals simply was not a question that had any place in the mental landscape. What did God care about a just Assyrian or Egyptian compared to a Jew?

What does it do to your mental landscape, then, when God starts telling you that you are to leave your tribe, and you aren’t ever coming back? You are being further told that the tribe itself is about to be conquered and won’t be there if you do change your mind. You are amputating your culture, and you have little to replace it with, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. There is beyond the wilderness and the sea a “land of promise” to fill the physical hole, if you cling to your faith, but what replaces everything else?

Lehi and Nephi had their visions. They went, but you can see their frustration and anger at the Jews in their writings over the sheer stupidity of the disobedience of the covenant that was bringing the Babylonian disaster upon them. Laman and Lemuel turned their anger toward their father instead. Everybody was supposedly committed to going into the wilderness, but they all kept forgetting things (like wives) and finding reasons to have to go back to Jerusalem to get them. They seem to have been in shock. Stay! Go! Make up your mind!

And so the scriptures about the ultimate fate of Israel/Judea, as discussed by Isaiah or Zenos, become dominant concerns in this Book of Mormon “old” Old Testament. It is not an abstract theological debate to the Nephites; much of their personal focus and records are devoted to testifying that God has promised a reconnection of their seed (and even the seed of their rebellious Lamanite brethren) to the Israelites in a future time. Acceptance of Christ is seen as the means of this reconnection as well as the means of personal salvation. In fact, personal salvation is the newer, more revelatory concept which is increasingly emphasized as the story moves toward its historical climax. Even at the time of Christ’s appearance, this societal reconnection is on the minds of the people, and Christ takes time to reemphasize it along with his teachings about personal salvation. Indeed, “convincing of the Jew” of Christ’s divinity is as important as “convincing of the Gentiles”; the land of promise is not just a promise for the Nephites, but a means of keeping a promise by God for everyone else.

Many of those who come to this site feel either their “sense of the Spirit” or the “sense of their intellect” calling them into the “wilderness”. Whether it is because the church is not found to be as-advertised, because it changes too slowly, or because it changes too much, the shock and the anger are real and pretty much the same for all. They often no longer can support parts of the culture, but have nothing clear in their sights to replace it. They leave, miss something they left behind, go back, and try again to follow one direction or the other. Some fraction of them experience rejection by the community because they are perceived to be rejecting the norms of the community first. And sometimes they don’t know whether to be angry at others or ashamed of themselves.

They are reenacting this great dilemma of the early Nephites. How are they and their families to be connected to the purposes of God, when they have previously experienced their “tribe” as the only authorized means of connection? Yet, if the call is genuine, it will keep persisting and growing more insistent. There will be a land of promise for those who follow that call, and if the Nephite example holds, it will not just be a land of promise for those “wandering Mormons”. It will be a land of promise of those who come after them, and, in the long run, a blessing for the tribe they left behind as well. Experiencing being called into the wilderness isn’t a strange thing in Mormon history; it’s sort of what makes you one of the tribe in the first place.

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14 Responses to Wandering Mormons as Nephites

  1. MH
    June 27, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Very Interesting analogy. I like it!!!

  2. dblock
    June 27, 2010 at 10:13 am

    One of the reasons why people on the out side think of Mormons as,”cult Like,” is because of one your statements in your premise,”You are amputating your culture and you have little to replace it with.”

    There are many people who don’t have the church in their life and make a community of their own, They do this by continuing their own spiritual journey, they do this by providing good works. They do this by surrounding themselves with good people. Yes, good people can be found outside the church, contrary upon popular belief.

    When people make statements such as what you did, you leave people to think that no one will care for them , and the world is a frightening place. That in my opinion is how and why the social connection of the church often leave people thinking that they can not think or survive on their own

  3. June 27, 2010 at 10:41 am

    dblock:

    I don’t underestimate the problem you described in any way. The fear of the immediate pain of “living in the wilderness” is often intimidating and overwhelming — whether it’s a job, a church, a family relationship or a disease we are taking about. Some of the time we all feel its “Better the devil we know…”

    But my point is that if our Spiritual ancestors were hearing the call correctly, life was to be found in the wilderness, not in Jerusalem. Of all the religious world, Restorationists ought to absorb that message in their bones.
    We aren’t the ones who stayed when we heard the call of the Spirit to strange lands of promise; we’re the ones who claim we trusted enough that we’d follow seeking the promised land.

    This may apply to us on this site particularly in a religious context, because Americans are as likely to change denominations in their lives as not, and religious denomination is often not a strong part of Americans’ self-identification. But cultural amputation is real to others in different contexts; I’ve seen a Peruvian go ballistic because someone casually referred to her as South American.

  4. dblock
    June 27, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Given the fact that we are on a Mormon web site, I took your statement as meaning, the cultural amputation from the church. When someone leaves the church the friends they thought they once had, are no longer there. Its’ almost as if the Mormon church is stuck in a grade school mentality that if you don’t believe the way I do, you can’t be my friend. That’s what I find to be cult like behavior. You have to think alike, sound alike and believe alike. Otherwise your bad

    On a side note,if I were Peruvian and someone referred to me as South American I would go ballistic, because there are many cultural differences between Latin American Cultures. Peruvian culture is much different that someone from Brazil. For a world wide church we do not really go far in recognizing different cultures. For instance, our general conferences are often geared toward the American audience, and laced with American politics.

  5. June 27, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I love that question from which to read the first part of the Book of Mormon: “Is there still a place for us with God?” I’ve always been really struck by the pathos of Jacob 7:26 where he reflects: “the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” I think they are constantly concerned with this question. But it’s answered so beautifully in passages such as the allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5), which is a panoramic view of where all the remnant peoples belong, how they fit in.

    I really like how you tie this into our personal journeys, holding out the hope of a symbolic “land of promise” for each of us, and tying it to personal salvation. I spend a lot of time defining what I DON’T believe, and not enough on developing a positive belief system. Even in this wilderness, is there still a place for me with God, and what would that place look like?

  6. June 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    dblock re #4

    The point you make in the second paragraph is what I was trying to get across in the example: cultural amputation for a Mormon might be about religion, but the phenomenon is real for ethnic, nationalistic, gender, etc separation as well.

    I didn’t explicitly say it here (though I have in many other posts), but I’m Community of Christ, so I’ve been living with the notion that one can have a testimony of the Book of Mormon and still not be LDS for a half-century or so. I trust, to use BiV’s example, God has a vision for how He’s manipulating the whole vineyard, and all of us who try to hear what God is saying to us personally will be led where we are supposed to go.

  7. June 27, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    BiV:

    I do believe it’s personal salvation, AND planetary salvation. Churches and civilizations may rise and fall, but God is bringing creation to its purpose. Even evil gets co-opted to bring to pass good despite itself.

  8. Olive
    June 28, 2010 at 4:48 am

    So dblock, would you be offended if someone called you Christian instead of a Mormon?

  9. June 28, 2010 at 5:26 am

    An interesting thought, that just as the early Nephites felt like strangers in the promised land, we might also feel that way.

  10. June 28, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Loved the post FireTag. Like BiV I spend too much time clarifying what I don’t believe in, and otherwise carving out my niche in the LDS church, and not enough time thinking about what I do believe in and responding to the call to find my “promised land.” Next time I read the BoM I’ll have a new way of looking at it. Thanks for the insight!

  11. Mark Gibson
    June 28, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    FireTag I was most impressed by your opening sentence. It takes guts these days, with all our intellectual thinking, to attribute a motivation to the Holy Spirit. Frankly I don’t believe the CofChrist’s past and current attempts to shunt THE BOOK OF MORMON are positive steps toward growth. Thanks for the post.

  12. Holden Caulfield
    June 28, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    “You are amputating your culture, and you have little to replace it with, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.”

    Amputation feels about right. It’s been three years for me and I am still wondering where to go, what to do. My wife asks me where I am at and I still have no answer. Don’t know where I am going, just know going back isn’t a possibility.

    I was looking on a Lutheran website yesterday and in their intro page, they started by telling the internet wanderer that the pastor will sit down with you and review his church’s beliefs and objectively (huh?) go over the beliefs of others, as he has developed a chart of other religions from their own books, etc., so you can make an informed decision.

    He went on to say this is all well and good, but whatever church you choose, stay away from the Mormon and JW cults.

    The funny thing is a friend of mine suggested I look into them because of they are “accepting”. For whatever reason, the pastor said in this one paragraph caveat on Mormons and JWs that Joseph Smith was born in England. I wrote him an e-mail, told him I was looking for goodness and love, not anti-church rhetoric. Also told him to at least get the birthplace in the right country.

  13. June 28, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Mark:

    I have to allow people to hear what they hear, even if it’s not what I hear. jmb275′s had several threads below on modeling the evolution of beliefs based on how one weights various kind of evidence using Baysean statistics. It’s possible for many people to look at the Book of Mormon as a 19th Century non-historical work and stay in the Restoration orbit. I would not be one of them under any circumstances I could imagine at the moment because I also have ample evidence of the CofChrist’s dwindling numbers — an additional factor that doesn’t apply to the LDS.

    Holden:

    …or at least get the right Joseph Smith. :D Hope you find your Liahona soon.

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