Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Myth of Joseph Smith

1. Ritz Crackers and Richard Bushman

Talked to Cort yesterday over a lunch of a few Ritz crackers about early LDS church history.

Cort and I exist in two interrelated, but distinct worlds--one in which we're busy chasing documents, trying to carve out a window to the past through what Joseph referred to in a letter as "the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked bro=ken scattered and imperfect language," another in which we need that same past to operate as a repository for values and meaning, a life-enhancing myth.

I use myth in the most respectful sense of the word, to mean "a sacred story." Myths aren't necessarily untrue, the term is to differentiate between the what happened and the more significant what does it mean to us. You see, the events of a person's life alone, the traces left in artifacts and papers, aren't worth most people's time. The meaning comes through the myth that tells us what the person stands for.

Take the example of Jesus Christ. Events in his life include getting born, getting lost on a family trip, getting baptized, telling stories, writing on the sand, getting arrested, and getting killed in a particularly painful way. It's a confusing life, one not considered worth noting in any secular record from during or near his lifetime. Myths, though, taught the prepared how to understand him. There were myths of the Messiah, a God-filled individual who would transform and sanctify the world. There were myths of sacrifice and reconciliation that revealed meaning in his staggering suffering and terrifying death. And there were myths about Incarnation, and how through the example of a divine man we could come to know God. These and other myths, drawn from a variety of sources, were essential to accessing productive spiritual meaning from the events of Christ's life. I believe in Christ--and I owe that belief partly to guiding interpretative myths.

Yesterday, over Ritz crackers in the BYU library's hidden sixth floor, Cort and I talked about myths for finding meaning in the life of Joseph Smith.

Cort was particularly concerned because the myths of Joseph Smith he grew up with don't always fit as well as we might like with what we think we're learning from the written and material fragments Joseph Smith left behind. I don't think this is because our fundamental myth of Joseph Smith as a rasul, the Prophet of the Restoration, breaks down under pressure. I think the problem is with extra layers of myth we want to add for educational purposes. We want Joseph Smith not just to be a prophet, but an embodiment of all good values and pure wisdom, someone we can use anecdotally as an example of every principle, something like what Mason Weems tried to do with George Washington. Richard Bushman once reputedly described the LDS use of this approach as telling church history on credit cards--when morals are emphasized without any investment in correlation to fact, someday a reckoning will come due as those taught overdrawn myths struggle to reconcile them with our best guesses at historical reality.

We need to do more to promote myths of Joseph Smith, I told Cort, that do more to ease than to complicate our relationship with his history. That's too big a task for one day, but it's one I feel a need to start more openly working on. Encountering a new myth for a familiar figure, after all, can be exhilarating.

2. Walking on Water

I remember a Jeffrey R. Holland talk (looking it up I noticed it was halfway through my mission, which may explain why it's so vividly imprinted on my mind) called "The Grandeur of God." In that talk, Elder Holland reminded us of an important and "often uncelebrated" myth for understanding Christ, the myth of Christ's life as a revelation of the nature of the Father. It's a productive way, I think, to approach Christ and a productive way to approach God.

Perhaps a year before I heard that Elder Holland talk (if memory serves correctly, which it often doesn't), my companion and I were listening to his Truman G. Madsen tapes about the life of Joseph Smith. In one passage, I recall Madsen sharing what was probably his myth for approaching Joseph Smith, though I didn't recognize it as such at the time. Madsen said in that passage that the reason he studied Joseph Smith was to be inspired by Smith's Christlike attributes. In Smith, perhaps, Madsen hoped to see Jesus the way Elder Holland asked us to look to Jesus and to see in him God. Do we want Joseph to be a window to Jesus? To we want him to be an Incarnation of the whole gospel?

Now, I don't consider it blasphemous to look for God and Christ in any human being--I think part of exaltation is learning to see God in everyone around you, and was greatly inspired by Pres. Uchtdorf's first talk as an apostle, in which he proved himself to me to be a special witness of Christ (D&C 107: 23) by saying "I have seen the face of Christ in your faces, in your deeds, and in your exemplary lives." But I think we're going to be disappointed if we use the myth of Joseph Smith as a Christlike figure to access him the way we use Jesus as a Father-like figure when looking at his life, the same way we would be disappointed if we expected from Peter, the leader of the early Christian church, what we expect from Jesus Christ.

What are our myths of Peter? How do the scriptures make meaning out of him?

Peter is the one who walks on water, but gets frightened and sinks (Matt 14: 28-31), the one who tries to defend the Prince of Peace by cutting off a servant's ear (John 18: 10), the one who denies Christ and bitterly weeps (Matt 26: 75), the one who has and embraces a movement-changing vision (Acts 10: 9-28), but later gets rebuked by Paul for being afraid of revealing how far that vision has taken his faith from his people's customs (Gal 2: 11-14).

Our myth of Peter is a one of our greatest myths of discipleship and church leadership. It is about miraculous faith accompanied by devastating failures in faith, about startling visions and doctrines coupled with burdensome day-to-day business and persistent inequalities. We don't expect Peter to do everything right, or to embody every positive principle. Part of his myth is the ways that he falls short and fails. (Can we see Christ's grace in Peter's stumbling?)

What if we approached Joseph Smith the way we do Peter? What if, instead of expecting him to have all the answers, we were interested in the moments throughout his prophetic career that left him looking for guidance, as a gospel gradually emerged? What if it was OK for him to have prejudiced based on his place and time of origin, as Peter clearly did, and mostly importantly--what if we could replace some stories about how Joseph Smith lived the principles of the gospel with some stories about how he struggled with them? We don't want to speak evil of the Lord's anointed, certainly, but can we learn to speak of his failures productively and well? Can they play a greater role in our meaning-making myths of Joseph Smith?

I think that will start with the faithful learning to tell new Joseph Smith stories that fit the Peter sort of myth instead of the George Washington one.

3. Church History Thursdays

I don't think I'm the only one working on this, of course. Developing more reconcilable myths is a widespread endeavor, especially since the advent of the internet.

My personal contribution to this broad and scattered project will be to start a subset of posts on this blog dedicated to new ways of telling stories from the history of the Restored Church. We'll try to make these thoughts a regular Thursday event--some thoughts may be significantly shorter than others.

I hope you find them productive ethically and spiritually, as well as more historically resonant.


  1. First off, I HATE that people use the lesson of peter and the boat as an example of lacking faith. WHERE WERE THE OTHER 11 APOSTLES?! Does anyone ever say "now as we learn, the other 11 apostles didn't even have enough faith to walk on the water..." No, we say "oh poor Peter lost faith, but Christ was there to help him." Not denying that last statement isn't true but if we leave it at that we miss out on something really important.

    To me Peter's examples/myths (don't know if I'm using that word the same way you are) show us that there isn't one final moment where everything becomes easy-where we don't need faith anymore. Sometimes I get seduced into thinking one day I'll just HAVE everything to be perfect. Peter walked on the freaking water! The Son of the Living God and he are the only people documented in scripture or recent history to have done so. However, even though he had tremendous faith (and one could argue tremendous impulses), he still gets afraid and needs to reach out, even though it was his own choice to start the journey to Christ in the first place. Even when we begin a journey with great faith and pure intent-whether we're getting baptized, married, changing careers, etc.-we still have to know that it will be scary even WHILE we're performing miracles. We may forget that we're essentially walking on water ourselves.

    OK, there's more ideas but it's late.

  2. I think that's a great reading of Peter's water experience and a good model for approaching Joseph Smith. Both were men of intense vision and audacious faith. We can see evidence of that vision in both men's struggles.

    Joseph Smith had the vision to do stuff that was completely crazy -- starting cities, for example. Sometimes, the details of realizing those visions got complicated and scary, just like walking on water got scarier for Peter when he noticed the waves. Members at the time and members today sometimes became disillusioned when Joseph faltered or just plain screwed up. I'd like us to see that for Joseph, as for Peter, the driving vision and audacious faith are what we should value, and that maybe the apparent failures of evidence of that interesting, human faith.

  3. I think Peter (and Joseph too)was a model for the believer that has faith that the holy spirit will provide the discernment required to make the multitude of choices between what is easy and what is right and who then goes ahead in life succeeding and/or stumbling all for the ultimate glory of God.

  4. One of the reasons I love the Prophet Joseph Smith is because he never claimed to be perfect. Just think how easy it would have been for him to keep all those rebukes from the Lord out of the D&C. That he admitted his faults makes him greater in my mind.

  5. Peter had the thrill of walking, talking, eating, sleeping with Jesus - and sharing his life and times. Joseph Smith claimed only to have seen visions - even the first was a "vision." But Joseph never doubted it.
    The point is that Joseph, amidst the intense skepticism of his day and ours, stands incredibly tall as a valiant disciple, since he had to walk by faith alone instead of direct knowledge, as Peter had.
    A wider perspective of Peter and the times in which he served is had by looking at how the Lord protected him from the immediate aftermath of His arraignment and crucifixion:
    Matt. 10:32-33 would seem to condemn Peter out of of hand. Then compare Matt. 26:32-33 (note that Jesus uses the imperative "shalt") and Peter's unconscious compliance with that subtle "command," later, in 69-75. Peter must have realized, after the fact, the gentle protection the Master afforded and this was the reason Peter wept bitterly.
    Had Peter consciously denied Jesus, under Matt 10 he would have reaped condemnation.

  6. That should have read: Compare Matt. 26:34-35. Sorry.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Dear most recent anonymous,

    Sorry I removed your comment. I do think it's a good idea for LDS people to talk about the fact that Joseph Smith drank alcohol at various times in his life and that he did really practice plural marriage (seems like we associate it more with Brigham Young). But I'm not comfortable with my blog being used to give links to sites that are going to have an antagonistic, one-sided discussion of early Mormon history. Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith is extremely open but is invested in context rather than trying to maximize sensationalism. I would recommend that people start there.
    And if you think reading a book takes too probably shouldn't be trying to make sense of history in the first place. Getting the 19th century involves more than a few minutes on the internet.

  9. I really, really like this post. As a person who grew up LDS and left the church for a time this really resonates with me. Part of the reason people CAN be so put off by the mormon church is some of these "myths" that just don't ring true and then they wonder well, if they are saying these things that aren't true then maybe there are more things I should question….etc.

    I've loved my return to the church, and I have made every effort to see it for what it really is, to recognize the difference between what the actual church TEACHES and what others say/interpret/act out about what they think it teaches. I can't base my faith on how people in the church behave or don't behave, looking for the truth at the bottom of it all is what it should be about.

    Thanks again! I think embracing the human-ness in any prophet past or present can only bring us closer to our Father in Heaven. They don't have to be perfect to serve….and neither do we!



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