To question or not to question ‘The Church’?

IMG_2208A couple of years ago I was in a temple recommend interview with a member of the Stake Presidency.  I had just arrived through the door when unexpectedly and without any particular context associated with the TR questions I was told.’Sister McCluskey, I’ve heard you bare  beautiful testimonies of Jesus Christ, but I haven’t heard you bare your testimony of


‘The Church’ – would you kindly do so now’.  This was not a brilliant start to what I had expected to be a pretty straight forward  interview.   He seemed to be suggesting that my love for Christ simply wasn’t enough and that I needed somehow to match my enthusiasm for the saviour with a similar inclination toward the church.  It turned out that, that wasn’t good enough anyway because the Stake Presidency had already decided  that I wouldn’t get a TR on the basis that I had unnerved too many people with my lack of orthodoxy.

This was all indicative of a palpable fear that my difference would somehow infect ‘The Church’, that the non-conformist way I expressed myself was not helpful and needed to be disciplined.   It was saddening but not entirely unexpected – but no one has offered me a very good solution for stemming the tide of words and questions that just bubble up out of me in spontaneous bursts of curiosity so I’ve just decided to give into it. And to be truthful I don’t get the sense that God (and Mrs God) wired my mouth shut either. (BTW the TR thingy got resolved eventually).

Ecclesiastical abuse aside this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have noticed in the ways in which  we understand ‘The Church’.     Excuse me now as I do a bit of theorizing!

The shaping, unifying, and organising principles of any religion tend to be the ‘cumulative traditions’ which we construct across time and express through language, symbolism and ritual.  Yet as Terryl Givens (2007)  points out,  Mormon culture exists on a ‘field of tension’ where multiple sites with respect to doctrine and belief seem to be legitimate places to inhabit.  On the doctrine of polygamy for instance, while having been recently retracted as a ‘formal doctrine’ by GBH, the practice for some in our church is still  to imagine the principle as requisite for our salvation (though I think they are a bit barking mad – still, horses for courses). While it seems to have been made clear that the practice of the priesthood is available to all worthy men (my emphasis) I was recently in a Sunday School class where the teacher emphatically endorsed the McConkie position on the very 19th century protestant theory of the curse of Cain (to the nodding assent of a bunch of nice old white folk).

Stories, discourses, ideas, sermons, talks, narratives, scriptural expositions, conversations, correlated materials all get thrown into the mix and the way we try to make sense of that mix is very telling of our religion.  Joseph Smith himself (the perennial questioner) ushered in an era of spiritual limitless.  His ideas were sublime, transcendent, superlative and miraculous.  Yet he lamented:

I have tried for many years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them….[that] will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions; they cannot stand the fire at all.

I often wonder what he would make of the church today where all of the expository offerings given over the generations have been nudged by certain strong minded leaders and the equally bullish members to a place that sometimes feels for all intents and purposes like an assembly of a bunch of neo-liberal, far right, fascist, misogynistic, patriarchal, racist,  imperialistic, oligarchs.   The recent meteoric rise and adulation of the frankly unhinged Glenn Beck in Mormon circles in the US is testament to the kind of poverty stricken dialogue some Mormons have defaulted to.  My position is that this cultural rendering (and I would say the same if we had ‘gospelized’ a far left political agenda),  does not mirror the gospel of Jesus Christ, nor should it be conflated with the Church.  Sure it is a feature of the breadth of the ideological terrain that mormonism occupies through its members, but there is nothing universally redemptive about the free market ideologies or conservative  politics that seems to be the flavour of the Book of Mormon belt, and has found its way to New Zealand in an unholy and confused politico-religious bricolage (deep breath).   Only a couple of days ago I was confronted by a member who asked (as if it was a matter of worthiness) whether or not I was a (shock, horror) left-winger – as if that was incomprehensible in someone who claims a Mormon identity.  There is a deeply disconcerting conformism abroad in Mormonism which sometimes works to disenfranchise the margins by abusively calling into question their political orientation as a marker of their righteousness.

Nibley (1989, p.75) addresses an aspect of this state of fevered conformism  which seems characteristic of our community,  with his  searing indictment of Latter-day Saints who have lost the will to think, to question, query, dialogue, pursue understanding, but instead choose to  languish defiantly at a place of of religious ‘zeal’ alone.  Joseph Smith’s pattern of thought and enquiry he argues is a corrective for the Latter-day saints who find virtue in:

sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom.  We think it more commendable to get up at five A.M to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one – that [he argues] is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds.

While some will argue that ‘The Church’ belongs to the Lord and must be left alone, defended and remain unquestioned I wonder if we are not drawing upon a popularized political rendering rather than a working and thoughtful definition of the ‘The Church’.  To me, the church is us.  The church is a community of similarly inclined worshipers, who, like an oil slick, will list where the waves take us without some thoughtful, well considered questioning and critique.  ‘The Church’ is also the corporate church, and the ecclesiastical church both of which has a duty of organizational care for us ‘the common church’.  The idea that its the Lord’s church does not indicate that we are to be hands off in a kind of ‘arc of the covenant’ way.  It means that inasmuch as it belongs to the Lord we need to model the kind of care, charity, succoring, stewardship, correction and evaluation that will keep it relevant, inviting and cherished by all.

Some suggest that ‘the church’ is not helped by critique.  I wonder if they would suggest that of themselves.  I know I have been constantly, and sometimes uncomfortably moved and changed from places which were not helpful for my soul.  I have been afflicted in my comfort on more than one occasion, and have been better off for it.  Isn’t that the power of community?  Isn’t that why we are bought together to worship so that in our isolation we’re are not left to flounder in self-satisfied ignorance?

I love ‘The Church” and while it might come as a surprise to some, I love being a Mormon.  Its who I am in my blood, in my bones and in my heart.  You could take me out of the Mormon but you couldn’t take the Mormon out of me.  When the Lord speaks of His church I do believe that he is  more than marking His territory,  He is claiming us and making us His.  And for this Mormon, there is tremendous comfort and ecstasy in the notion of us belonging to him and to each other in a vibrant, beautiful, messy, wounding, healing, brilliant, complex, diverse, changing and organic church.

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  • Mogget

    First, thanks for the warm welcome. It is great to find some kindred spirits.

    Second, John C asked me to blog a bit on when Jesus died. The tricky part is the question of the date. But in order to do his request justice, I have elected to cover the other components as well.

    I will post the other sections sequentially, over time, to allow for whatever else needs to be allowed for. I hope you enjoy this little series…

  • David J

    As for the year, I usually go with John P. Pratt’s Divine Calendars: Astronomical Witnesses of Sacred Events, A Collection of Articles on Religious Chronology. He sees undisputable evidence for the date he picks (4 BC? Can’t remember…).

    I’m rummaging through my brain (it’s a crowded and messy place), and for the life of me I can’t remember where I read an excellent and very fair survey on this. JBL somewhere? Somebody have access to ATLA (I’m at home), go check on there.

    Mogget — in your opinion, what does it matter to the gospel writers regarding the hour of his death? I’ve often wondered why they even mention the hour. Was there some type of Roman law on this? I just read Hengel’s Crucifixion for a paper, but I don’t recall anything in there on this.

  • Mogget

    The time / date of the crucifixion undoubtedly has theological implications for the authors of the Gospels and, I would suggest, for the preGospel sources they used. That is one very important reason to avoid harmonizing — you will lose the theology unless you know what you are doing.

    Hopefully as we move through this, folks will begin to fill those implications in, in the comments sections, and see how the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel approach the topic respectively.

    I think the key idea is the association of the death of Jesus with Passover and Unleavened Bread. With regard to the hour, then, at what time of the day were the lambs slaughtered?

    This seems to have been more important to John than the Synoptics, because, as we will see, the Synoptics actually put the death of Jesus on the day after Passover, if Passover is reckoned according to Leviticus and Numbers.

    Of the four temporal indicators (hour, day, date, year), the year is least important to our authors and / or their sources, which is one reason it is never mentioned.

    When we get to the section on the year we will see that since we have no firm birth date, it is hard to get too excited about the year of his death.

    I would say that at the time the preGospel sources were forming, and even as Mark was being written, the year of Jesus’ death was common knowledge. Now, alas, it is not so.

  • NFlanders

    Seriously, David J.? John Pratt? You’re better off asking a Magic 8 Ball.

    We can always pick up this threadjack when Mogget posts the next installment on date of birth.

    Back on topic, what are the reasons that the gospel writers felt the hour was important?

  • Mogget

    My thought is that both the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel teach Jesus as the paschal lamb, but that they do so differently.

    The Synoptics concentrate their use of this imagery around the Lord’s Supper — in fact, after the end of this meal, the Synoptics don’t refer to Passover again as part of the final movement toward death. They shift to the imagery of the righteous sufferer for the crucifixion, and finally the Great Day for the actual death. In Mark, Jesus is on the cross from about 9AM – 3PM. Six hours to suffer. The sky darkens about half way through, etc., etc.

    On the other hand, John is quite clear that the meal Jesus shares with his disciples is not the paschal meal. The leaders of the Jews will, in the Fourth Gospel, decline to enter the praetorium during the trial in order to avoid the ritual defilement that would preclude particpate in the paschal meal later that night.

    In John’s case, Jesus is standing before Pilate at noon, which means that he is crucified after the sun begins to descend, and at about the same time the lambs are being slaughtered. According to Exodus, this slaughter should take place “between the twilights,” but at the time of Jesus the priests were doing all the slaughtering and so it began rather earlier in the day. John will continue with the paschal lamb imagery for quite awhile — no bones broken, etc.

    I’ve never heard of John Pratt, but that may very well mean nothing. The year of the death of Jesus is something into which I don’t think I’ve ever looked. So we’ll see…

  • John C.

    This is what is fascinating to me about this topic. I can understand why John structures it the way that he does, it makes good symbolic sense. I don’t understand the timing in the Synoptic discussion. Wouldn’t this (and its arguable greater antiquity) lead to the Synoptic discussion being more accurate? Because I have heard (dimly-remembered) arguments going the other way.

    ps. If this is more appropriate to a later post, feel free to respond there.

  • Mogget

    Let me answer you specificallly to the passion narrative (PN) in Mark, since that is the Synoptic version with which I am most familiar.

    First, Mark’s PN is highly, yet subtly, structured. The first part, 14:1-72, deals with Jesus and his disciples. The second part, 15:1-47, deals with Jesus and the Roman crucifixion. Within these boundaries, there are a series of alternating scenes shifting from a focus on other characters to a focus on Jesus:

    A The Jewish leaders and their plot (14:1-2)

    B Jesus is annointed (14:3-9)

    A Judas, one of the Twelve, joins the plot (14:10-11)

    B Jesus orders the preparation of the paschal meal (14:12-16)

    A Judas, one of the Twelve, is predicted as the betrayer (14:17-21)

    B Jesus shares the paschal meal with the Twelve (14:22-25)

    A Peter’s flight, and that of all the disciples, is predicted (14:26-31)

    B Jesus prays in Gethsemane (14:32-42)

    A Judas, one of the Twelve (got the idea, yet?) arrives in Gethesemane

    B Jesus reveals himself at the hearing (14:53-65)

    A Peter denies Jesus three times (14:66-72)

    And now for the Roman stuff…

    B Jesus reveals himself WRT to the Roman hearing (15:1-5)

    A Barabbas is released rather than Jesus (15:6-11)

    B Jesus is proclaimed innocent by Pilate and ironically styled as King of the Jews (15:12-15)

    A The Roman soldiers ironically proclaim the truth as they mock Jesus (15:16-20a)

    B Jesus is crucified (15:20b-25)

    A Passersby and the Jewish leadership ironically proclaim the truth as they mock Jesus (15:26-32)

    B Jesus dies and the centurion proclaims him God’s son (15:33-39)

    A The women watch the crucifixion from a distance (15:40-41)

    B Jesus is buried (15:42-47)

    While we’re here, notice two things. First, there’s a whole lot here about discipleship. Second, there’s a frickin’ huge (David J., Millenial Model) amount of irony going on. This outline does not do justice to that particular literary feature, as we may get around to seeing at some point.

    The interaction of Jesus with the Romans begins in 15:1. The crucifixion is the fifth and CENTRAL scene of the nine scenes that recount the climax of the mortal life of Jesus. And while there’s chattering before, and chattering after, there’s no talking in that scene — no direct speech is reported. (And for those who read in Greek, it’s in the historic present.)

    Two other things kick off in this scene. First, Mark begins his countdown. In v. 25, Mark says “and it was the third hour and they crucified him.” In v. 33, it reads “and when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the land until the ninth hour” and finally, in v. 34, “and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice…”

    This suggests that what is going on is not “just happening.” Something is behind the events underway, and that Something is bigger than the simple, arbitrary, march of time.

    (That Something can also make the sky go dark for three hours, so that oughta be a clue. The important thing with these “Something references” is that Mark, as also all the other Gospel writers, brings the reader to the foot of the cross and forces him/her to deal with it, but then ALWAYS moves the reader on. Each Gospel author moves toward the cross with different theological interests, each forces the reader to deal with the cross under a specific and different theological interest, and each finds different ways of hinting that the story is going to go on, even before the reader gets to the empty tomb. At the moment, Mark is forcing his readers to deal with the fact that God himself is behind the crucifixion of Jesus.)

    Second, we pick up the first overt allusion to Ps 22 (Ps 22:19) in the behavior of the soldiers. Ps 22 is the righteous sufferer, and it will be worth your time to have a quick read, just to refresh your memory, if you have the leisure. This is the reader’s second indication, more specific than the first, that whatever is going on, is going according to a plan; that is, God’s design is being worked out. As these allusions mount, this insight should begin to come into sharper focus.

    And so the point of this extremely long post, for those of you who are still awake, is that the way the story is told in both John and Mark has theological implications. In John, we see Jesus as the paschal lamb. In Mark, we see Jesus as the Righteous Sufferer, working out God’s plan on God’s timetable, a course of action that will push him to the limit, and in contrast with the behavior of the disciples, demonstrate just what it means to do it God’s way.

    (Well, among other things. Very complex little story going on here. We could read the PN in Mark together as Easter approaches.)

    Therefore, in Mark the point is not that it is 9AM, or noon, or 3PM, but that the time is evenly divided and the period of suffering is significant. On the other hand, in John punctiliar time (noon) is the important item. There is no tick of temporal indications in John, because the presence of a plan is worked out through the paschal imagery, not the Righteous Sufferer.

  • Mogget

    Great first sentence, there. Note to self: write and edit offline if you’re going to go on forever like that…

    And how the dickens do you get indentation? And how do you get an original blog entry to link to a second page instead of going on forever?

    Enquiring minds need to know, PDQ…

  • Mogget

    John C’s second point in his post about a light-year above this one, concerned the relative accuracy of the account in the Synoptics and in John. This is a good question, and I am not going to deal with it completely right now, since it will come back with a vengence when we get to the date of the crucifixion.

    But for the moment, recall that long outline I posted above. Now, it used to be that folks looked at the powerful theological points worked out in John’s elegantly structured narrative, and when they failed to find the same elegance and order in Mark, they figured Mark was more historically accurate. But that outline I posted above, plus the fact that the central scene in the first part is the Lord’s Supper, and the central scene in the second part is the crucifixion, and the alternating pattern, and so on, ought to convince anyone that Mark’s PN is no less theologically ordered and oriented than John’s. So that’s no reason to think Mark more historical on that score.

    The second reason offered for an a priori judgment of historicity for Mark in contrast to John is the idea that Mark’s work is older. It is true that Mark’s work is older, but this does not mean that Mark’s story is inevitably more historical. For example, in Mark Jesus comes to Jerusalem just once. And in one visit, he can so thoroughly alienate the Jewish temple leadership that they plot to kill him? And they want to kill him so badly that they are willing to kiss up to the Romans to do it?

    That’s just not all that plausible. It’s far more plausible that Jesus made more trips to Jerusalem as part of his public ministry, giving him more time to rile up the Jewish leadership so that they decided to kill him. And that’s the way the story is told in John!

    My point then, in this remarkably short post, is that each episode must be evaluated on its own merits for plausibility and ultimately historicity.

  • J. Stapley

    I am by no means precient; however, FPR has the potential for greatness, it would seem.

    Mogget, your cohorts can give you a primer on formatting, but you can drop me an email if you wish.

  • NFlanders

    Fascinating stuff, Mogget. Thanks for taking the time to explain the theological implications of the time of death.

  • John C.

    It was bound to happen eventually as I got people smarter than me in here.

  • Mogget

    Thanks, all, but you are far too kind. I shall try to keep up with things. I am just glad to find folks with a common interest and some good questions!

    And J, thanks for the formatting offer. It has struck me that HTML tags are what is needed, and I do have something on those here.