Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Prophetic Book of Ether

Terryl Givens.  By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  ISBN: 0195168887.

This book came to me as a gift from a dear Mormon friend, who heard about my faith crisis and wanted to help.  I found it more enjoyable than many apologetic works, and can recommend it (along with these interviews) to anyone interested in a faithful approach to Mormonism that does not eschew thinking (or truth, even the uncomfortable truth that people like Boyd K. Packer find useless).

Over the past ten years, I have done a lot of thinking (about life, including Mormonism).  One of the insights that has come to me can be illustrated well by a story in the Book of Mormon.  I offer my reading of that story here, as an homage to Givens, and a witness to the kind of Mormon that I am (inactive in the Corporation of the President, but firmly committed to certain principles of the gospel).

As a kid, I read the Book of Mormon many, many times.  (By the time I went on my mission, I had lost count of the number of times I had read it.)  To me, the culmination of the book was not the coming of Christ to the Americas (which always struck me as boring: he just repeats sections of the New Testament almost verbatim and performs a lot of perfunctory ordinances), but the Book of Ether.  In my mind, Ether was like a summary of the whole volume, with the brother of Jared playing the role of Lehi, the Jaredite kings fighting and converting like the early Nephite and Lamanite rulers, and Ether taking the prophetic mantle assumed elsewhere by Abinadi, Mormon, and Moroni.  Ether is simultaneously John the Baptist (a social outcast, eking out a lonely existence in a wilderness cave while he prophesies the end of civilization) and the Anglo-Saxon Wanderer (the last survivor of a lost tribe destroyed in battle, a role that Coriantumr also gets to play at the end of the Book of Ether, when the prophet Ether disappears: where does he go?).  As a social outcast within LDS Mormonism (and American society at large), I am drawn to Ether's character.  As someone who frequently feels like the world is falling apart around him, I identify with Ether.  I look into the world, and everywhere I see what Ether saw: Coriantumr and Shiz fight for total domination, dividing the whole civilized world between them, and eventually everybody loses (with Coriantumr as the lone survivor of what was once a great civilization: after everyone else perishes in battle, he wanders about all by himself, gets picked up by a group of new Jewish immigrants, and dies; Ether pulls an Enoch and just disappears from the narrative abruptly).  Maybe a crude chart can illustrate what I am getting at:

                                  CORIANTUMR vs. SHIZ

                                              Catholics vs. Protestants
                                      Martin Luther vs. Thomas Muentzer                         
                             Cavaliers (royalists) vs. Roundheads (parliamentarians)
                                                Puritans vs. Quakers
                                        conservatives vs. liberals
                                                    Tories vs. Whigs
                                  Thomas Jefferson vs. Alexander Hamilton
                       Missourians / Illinoisans vs. Mormons
                                         Confederacy vs. Union
                                         white people vs. black people
                                           bourgeoisie vs. proletariat
                                         management vs. unions
                              Axis Powers (Nazis) vs. Allies (Soviet-enablers)
                                                  fascists vs. communists
                                  Ezra Taft Benson vs. Hugh B. Brown
                                                       USA vs. USSR
                                 al-Qaeda / Taliban vs. USA
                                          family farms vs. Monsanto
                             straights (Mormons) vs. gays

Throughout history, people line up in partisan groups: us versus them.  The list above could get longer (much longer), but there is one thing you would never find on it: good versus evil.  Looking closely at both sides of the list reveals that even where one side enjoyed a preponderance of goodness (in comparison with its opponents), it was not utterly, purely good.  The political union forged to defeat the Nazis (a good enterprise!) came at the cost of enabling the Soviets (a bad enterprise).  The Confederacy supported slavery (a bad thing): they also supported states' rights (a good thing, since smaller systems function more intelligently, saving information that would otherwise be destroyed).  Alexander Hamilton was a staunch advocate for fiscal responsibility (a good thing): he also laid the foundation for the Fed (which comes with some seriously bad consequences that we are still living with).

In the character of Ether, I look at these conflicts, and I see human capital being wasted.  People on one side ignore all the good on the other side.  Worse, they ignore the bad on their side.  They identify their side as God's side, and brand their enemies as the stooges of Satan.  Mistaking Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for reality, they see themselves as sainted heroes and the enemy as vile orcs, forgetting that we are all just people: we are all at once bad and good.  There are no exceptions.  Every human organization hurts at least as many people as it helps: the question is what kind of harm that is.  If it is slight, then we might be willing to suffer it, especially if the alternative (e.g. being ruled by the Nazis) is utterly unbearable.  But we should never pretend that it isn't there.  We should never tell people to put absolute faith in any human coalition, encouraging them to ignore and deny the reality of human imperfection as an omnipresent element adulterating everything it touches.  Blind allegiance is dangerous -- to the individual (whom it leaves exposed to abuse by the group), and to society (which needs constructive criticism and dissent in order to grow and prosper).

This insight is not original to me.  I first encountered it in the work of Hugh Nibley:
"Patriotism shows itself in times of crisis: 'These are the times that try men's souls!' is the refrain of the earliest purely patriotic odes—those of the Greek lyric poets, who describe the true patriot as one who stands shoulder to shoulder with his fellow citizens facing any odds. In this atmosphere of crisis, an attitude of defense and defiance naturally associates patriotism with the panoply of war. The classic trappings of patriotism have been inherited by the Western World along with the pageantry of chivalry from the ceaselessly warring tribes of the steppes of Asia. The flag is the bright rallying point that can be seen for miles by the mounted hordes on the open plains, where the trumpet's message and the arrow's flight carry unhindered for great distances. In jungle and forest it is another story, but the formal symbols of European patriotism belong to 'the World of the Jaredites,' the polarized world of host against host on the darkling plain, of Shiz versus Coriantumr. But does the true patriot destroy his people in his own interests as that previous pair did? Under chivalry the essence of patriotism was to support one's liege lord, who enriched one with a share of his ceaseless looting. There are no more touching stories of loyalty than are found in the literature of the Heroic Ages. Yet Roland, Beowolf, Blondel, etc., stand out precisely because they were those rare souls who remained true while others ran for cover.
There is something wrong with this patriotism, which is based on conflict. As Froissart tells us forcibly, under chivalry the only way to prove one's nobility was by fighting somebody. The tradition survives, and to this day there are many whose patriotism is not a widening but a contracting circle, recalling the defensive-aggressive posture of the Roman trux et minax (dour and threatening), the walled towns and castles of the Middle Ages, the family shelter of the Jaredites in which "every man did cleave unto that which was his own; . . . and every man kept the hilt of his sword in his right hand, in the defence of his property and his own life and of his wives and children" (Ether 14:2), and finally, the narrowest circle of all, with every man "walk[ing] in his own way," seeking his own interests amid the rich offerings of Babylon (see D&C 1:16). The passion for security ends in total insecurity, with the would-be patriot fancying himself as a lone frontiersman, facing the world with his long rifle, his keen eyes searching the horizon for enemies and finding them everywhere; until one day as he draws his circle even smaller, we find him coolly keeping his next-door neighbor and fellow countrymen in the sights of his trusty .22, lest the latter make a suspicious move in the direction of his two-years' supply" (from "The Uses and Abuses of Patriotism" in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints).
I still resonate with this kind of thinking today.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unwelcome in many of the places I grew up frequenting (including the LDS church, which does not welcome people who take its call for absolute loyalty with a rational grain of salt).  I have turned into a something of a social pariah -- a scruffy prophet crying out in the wilderness of the Internet, begging people to be honest with themselves and with others, even when honesty hurts.  I am another Ether -- one of many Mormons (and former Mormons) calling on the LDS church (especially) to remember its roots and come clean.  Who cares what the consequences are?  God can take care of the church, of people's testimonies, of the spin rival denominations may lay on anything we say.  Our place is to tell the truth and let the cards fall.  No more lies.  No more unthinking loyalty.  No more slandering the other side as mudslingers while we pretend to be spotless.  Following the advice attributed to Jesus in the Beatitudes, we need to forget about others' motes and concentrate on our own beams.  This will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do, and Mormons who really believe in righteousness will do it (to the best of their ability: no one can ask more than that).  Otherwise, we're just as guilty as anyone else.  In Ether's story, Coriantumr is no better than Shiz (and vice versa: at the end of the day, they are both guilty, both ruined, and both dead).

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