Transparent Things

When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!

Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things

Last Saturday, my wife and my mom and I visited the Kirtland temple, the site of many of Mormonism’s formative events.  Among many other things, upstairs in the temple we saw a desk said to have been used by Joseph Smith – one of those chairs with a writing surface attached, a nineteenth-century version of something like you’d see in a college lecture hall.  There was a rope across the chair, its meaning obvious, because if you are the kind of person who would find himself standing next to that chair, you are likely to also be the kind of person who would want to sit in it, and, well, it can’t be expected to bear us all.

Mormon historical sites always bring the tensions of my outsider’s interest into sharpest relief for me.  My work has taken a turn toward the material; I have sunk into the history of objects, as Nabokov wrote (mostly bibles, in my case), and reverence for the objects and places of a faith that isn’t one’s own threatens to migrate from tacit voyeurism into outright fetishism.  Explaining your interest in Joseph Smith’s chair, when that interest is not that he brought you the means to salvation, is tricky.

The Kirtland temple is revered as the site of several important divine manifestations, including a vision of heaven that took place in the upper room, down the hall from where the desk sits.  Our Community of Christ tour guide, affable and gracious, sat us down in that room and told us about the vision, matter-of-factly – told us that heaven had been made visible right there in that room.  As a nonbeliever, I don’t believe that that happened, at least not in the way that our guide does, but the fact that Joseph Smith used the room I was sitting in as an office – that he sat there and thought and brooded over how to do right by his followers, how to handle his detractors, how to expand the enterprise he had started – was more than enough for me to get chills.  I stood and stared out the westernmost window, where Joseph must have sometime stood; he would have looked out on his printing office where I saw only trees.  The window glass was not original, but I think the floor under me was.

The interest of outsiders is a thing that Mormonism is struggling with now more than usual, in the current “Mormon moment.” Most of the current interest is political rather than academic, of course, but the same trickiness applies – the interest of outsiders will always come across as vaguely voyeuristic or suspicious.  Mormons are wary.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a short presentation as part of a “timely talk” about Mormonism at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, in Baltimore.  (The event was headlined by the wonderful Terryl Givens.)  I talked a little about patriarchy and authority within the Church, expressing what I see as points of tension for those of other faiths in a way that I think came off as gracious as might have been hoped, and then in closing I talked about what I as a non-religious person have come to value in Mormonism, and I read aloud my favorite part of the Book of Mormon, from 2 Nephi:

22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.

23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.

24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.

25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

I told the audience of my longstanding intention to have that last line tattooed somewhere conspicuous, as words to live by (Mormons not typically being the tattoo-getting sort, I think I could be the first).

This is, to me, the best thing Joseph Smith ever wrote.  To believers, though, those words are scripture, and many believe that their power is lessened where recognition of their divine provenance is lacking.  After the event, someone approached me and asked, with a familiar polite insistence, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?”  I have a good answer for this — Yes, twice; the second time an 1830 replica, to get the full feel of the original printed text without the later versification.  “Have you prayed over it?” though, the inevitable follow-up question, always gets me to mumbling, same as “Do you love the Bible?”, something evangelicals ask when I tell them I work on early-American bibles.

The election has reduced the impulse to mumble – it serves as a legitimate reason for outsiders to ask questions (particularly since Romney’s party makes “faith” such an explicit issue).  It’s true – nonbelievers cannot appreciate the Book of Mormon or the faith’s other elements in the way believers do, but it’s also true that we can see things that are occluded for believers and generate important questions.  In one view, the election is serving as an excuse for voyeurism, but the current intensity of outsiders’ interest is part of what is moving Mormons of disparate beliefs to articulate their varied opinions publicly – that New York Times op-ed “I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian” (while probably making a point too subtle for the public discourse) and the recent LDS Pride presence are fine examples.  Mormonism will not come out of this moment unchanged, and that will be a good thing – as he made clear in 2 Nephi, Joseph Smith believed change was essential, and the church he built can bear it.

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