BoM Gospel Doctrine Lesson 25: Alma 17-22 (Draft)

Alma 17 begins with a chance meeting between Alma and the sons of Mosiah, and then we get a 14 year flashback. The sons of Mosiah (which either includes some who weren’t his sons, or he had more sons than are previously named) are doing something which is easily perceived as hostile: group of armed (Alma 17:7) princes (remember who Mosiah was) enter enemy territory. A raiding party for glory and honor, perhaps?  This, perhaps, is why Mormon specifies that their weapons were for hunting (17:7) and that they split up (17:13).

We begin with Ammon’s story, one of the best known. Tied up like most Nephites, he states his will to live among Lamanites until he dies (17:23). Well well! A royal Nephite defector! And one who only wants to serve the king? Talk about a feather in that king’s hat! We then come to the story of Ammon and the flocks. The text only says “flocks” so where do we get sheep from? (As far as we know, there were no sheep in the Americas at this time.) We import from our own culture, and images we’ve seen. But be careful; artists are rarely either prophets or scholars, and artistic depictions often imaginative and inaccurate, but powerful.

I wrote up a piece about the Book of Mormon translation and Joseph Smith’s seerstone last August, and quoted a new book about the translation and seerstone, with a section about artists’ depictions (pdf excerpt.)

while art and artists are often credited with making historical, and particularly religious, ideas come alive and plainer to understand, an inherent problem enters when the language of religious art becomes translated into the language of history by its viewer. What we see becomes what we believe, and often, therefore, what we think we know about facts and details of history. And when we learn religious facts and history (from scholars or historians) that contradict what we think we know (through artistic renderings), a state of cognitive dissonance—and in the case of religious art, spiritual dissonance—can often be the result. The translation of the Book of Mormon is perhaps the most pertinent and pressing example of this problem today in the LDS mind. [My emphasis]

Church art does not constitute church doctrine. Be careful. Brant Gardner says of this passage, “Whatever animal it was, it was not one with a herd instinct, and was one that was fast enough that when scattered they could not be easily recovered.”

Through his service, Ammon makes a great impression, and wins the king’s trust enough to speak of religion. In Alm 18:5, 26-28, Ammon uses the Lamanite concept of the Great Spirit. This is a kind of accommodation, a principle of revelation, communication, and interpretation. Accommodation means speaking to people in the way they understand, adopting their language, terms, and concepts. I presented last year at a BYU Conference on Accommodation at Corinth. (Video, pdf of my text)

>>anyone who has tried to teach the Gospel in a foreign language and culture has learned, probably painfully, that in order to communicate effectively, you must begin with their words, the words the native speakers use along with all the conceptual baggage attached to those words.

Brigham Young stated that in such a situation,

you are under the necessity of condescending to their low estate, so far as communication is concerned, in order to exalt them. You have to use words they use, and address them in a manner to meet their capacities, in order to give them the knowledge you have to bestow. If an angel should come into this congregation, or visit any individual in it, and use the language he uses in heaven, what would we be benefited? Not any, because we could not understand a word he said. When angels come to visit mortals, they have to condescend to and assume, more or less, the condition of mortals, they have to descend to our capacities in order to communicate with us.”

Brigham Young perhaps had in mind the example of king Lamoni and Ammon in Alma 18. Having been impressed by his faithfulness, swordsmanship, and apparent immortality, Lamoni and his court assume Ammon is “the Great Spirit.” When Ammon arrives, he begins a theological conversation.

Ammon began to speak unto [Lamoni] with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And [Lamoni] answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth. And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit? And he said, Yea. And Ammon said: This is God. (Alma 18:24-28) (add the rest of this.)

Because Lamoni does not know what “God” means, Ammon must accommodate; he can either keep talking in ways Lamoni does not understand, or he can use Lamoni’s own words and concepts to teach him. Notably, Ammon does not take the time to enumerate any of the ways Lamanite traditions of “the Great Spirit” might differ from the Nephite traditions of God. The “underlying conceptual assumption [of accommodation, to quote Sparks again] is that in many cases God does not correct our mistaken human viewpoints but merely assumes them in order to communicate with us.” However extensive, compatible, or correct the Lamanite implications of “Great Spirit,” Ammon does not take to the time to address them, focusing instead on adding these new doctrinal points he thinks most relevant. Many if not most of Lamoni’s preexisting views and thoughts, then, were largely unchanged by this new teaching. So it is with accommodation and revelation. <<

Accommodation is something I’ll expand on in my book.

It’s interesting to me that the missionary story we tell so much and hold up as the thing to emulate… is so different than current missionary practice. That is, Ammon declares his intention to live permanently in his “mission field,” and spends most of his time in service, not active proselytizing. In fact, his greatest success comes only because of his service and commitment to live like a native, so to speak, permanently.

Our missionaries today, by contrast, don’t do a ton of service, don’t live permanently (or even long-term, depending on the mission president), and while they try to speak the language, there are various barriers to missionaries living like natives. I fear most missionaries are pretty ignorant of the literature, history, politics, and background of the country they are in. This kind of thing is certainly not encouraged anymore.

In 1961, Elder Henry D. Moyle traveled throughout Europe, visiting missions. At a conference in Hamburg, he spoke for more than four hours, a talk that inspired me, a talk that would now be unthinkable. After promising, in what I would later come to recognize as missionary boilerplate, that if we worked harder, studied longer, made ourselves more receptive to the Spirit, we would baptize, he continued on with a truly exceptional question. “You want to teach the German people something about life and religion,” he said, shaking his head, “but what do you know about these people? How many of you have read anything by Johann Wolfgang Goethe?” There were more than two hundred missionaries in that room. Not a single hand went up. “How many have read Friedrich Schiller?” No one. “Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Immanuel Kant? Friedrich Nietzsche?” We sat chastened and silent. He stared at us glumly. “The German people have a thousand years of history and culture. How do you think you are going to talk to them, get to their hearts and minds, when you know nothing about them?”- From this article.

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