God Gives US TV Sets To Please Our Eyes and Gladden Our Hearts: Two Mormon Views of the Prosperity Gospel

Here’s a brief transcript from a filmstrip intended for Mormon audiences, “The Lord’s Laws of Prosperity.” It’s undated, but the LDS Church Library places it in the mid-1960s.

Narrator: Certainly it is within the province of the Lord to bring prosperity to anyone he considered worthy of it….

Man: Is he talking about spiritual prosperity or temporal prosperity?

Narrator: (Chuckle) I’d say both.  He says The good things of the earth.”  I’m sure the Lord requires that we acknowledge his hand in all our blessings.  That he blesses us with houses and food and clothing and even automobiles and TV sets.  All things in the earth are his … “All things which come of the earth in the season therefo, are for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and gladden the heart.”

Man: That takes in almost everything.  Cars, television, books, movies, they all come originally from the earth.  They certainly please the eye and gladden the heart!

And here is a roughly contemporaneous excerpt from an essay by Hugh Nibley, one of Mormonism’s best gadflies of capitalism.

What we read about in the Book of Mormon is the “Nephite Disease”—and we have it! We should be glad that we do not have the much worse diseases that infect some other societies, and that there is greater hope for us. But diabetes if neglected can kill one just as dead as cancer—after all, the Nephites were terminated. We can be most grateful, therefore, regardless of how sick others may be, that God in the Book of Mormon has diagnosed our sickness for our special benefit, and prescribed a cure for us … “it must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old.” (D&C 38:39.) There it is in a nutshell: it is the fate of the Nephites, not of the Lamanites, Greeks, or Chinese, that concerns us; and that doom was brought on them by pride which in turn was engendered by the riches of the earth.  (Since Cumorah, 354)

It would be easy to simply contrast Nibley and the filmstrip here and to celebrate Nibley for being critical of the filmstrip’s undiluted and garish enthusiasm for the most mundane symbols of postwar American consumer capitalism.    But Nibley (though perhaps not the filmstrip) is more complicated than that, because, despite many lefty-leaning Mormons’ attempts, the Book of Mormon does not present a simplistic critique of wealth.  In several places, the book denounces people who (like ‘Man’) are overtly enthusiastic about getting gain and luxuriate in riches – but the book also promises that such wealth is in fact a gift from God.  This is the famous Book of Mormon pride cycle: God blesses the righteous with material prosperity, and they then promptly descend into pride and sloth and get defeated in battle.

This is not to say, however, that the book celebrates “righteous” wealth-getting – rather, it offers an image of wealth as an accidental byproduct of being righteous.  The book then cannot be read as an endorsement of capitalism either.  Rather, the economics of the Book of Mormon are spiritualized, supernaturalized, abstracted from our present assumptions of cause and effect enough that they serve poorly as a textbook of social construction.  The Book of Mormon’s writers live in a world in which God’s power has more to do with wealth – though not, perhaps, poverty – than one’s own talents.  It calls us to live in that world too – and such a feat of religious imagination will always be difficult.

Apologetics Again—But This Time with Feeling

Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radically reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert minds and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul. — David Bentley Hart

The conversation about apologetics in Mormonism, which was rather animated for a time there, has died down again. Unfortunately, I don’t think that conversation yielded nearly as much fruit as it ought to have done, and some recent events in what I might call my personal life have convinced me that the question of apologetics is far more important than I’d recognized myself. I return to the question, then, perhaps without any ready audience. [Read more...]

LL Cool J, Accidental Mormon?

Last week, I logged onto facebook to see my newsfeed crowded with excited links from various Mormon friends to hip hop pioneer LL Cool J’s twitter feed. Confused, I clicked over to discover that the man best known for the early 1990s hits “I Need Love” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” had tweeted to his 3.8 million followers the following:

That quote comes from a 1994 farewell address to recently-deceased church president Ezra Taft Benson from his longtime confidant and counselor Gordon B. Hinckley, and was published in the Church’s monthly magazine The Ensign. [Read more...]

Dan Brown’s “Inferno”: An Eternal Return

I just finished reading Inferno, Dan Brown’s latest book. I’m no expert on Brown, though I have also read The Da Vinci Code. He is justly derided as a bad writer, but he is a good storyteller and sets his attractive characters in compelling locations. I think that Brown’s popularity also comes from his ability to touch on big cultural issues and questions—sometimes overtly and sometimes more indirectly—in familiar, reassuring ways. He touches on them, but doesn’t resolve them for the reader. He reviews them with simple, literary, ritual precision. In my research, I spend a lot of time in the nineteenth century and it strikes me that Brown is very comfortable in this era. Brown considers our unresolved cultural issues with familiar, nineteenth-century tropes and assumptions. He doesn’t talk down to his audience. Elements of high culture—art, literature, and their interpreters—become instruments of illumination, even revelation, not exclusion. In The Da Vinci Code, we begin with a strangely murdered man and end with the assertion that Christianity was built on a lie, the self-conscious suppression of the divine female. In the U.S., Americans increasingly discussed female divinity in the nineteenth century. This was due, in part, to the enormous influx of Catholic immigrants who worshipped Mary and other female saints, as well as to homegrown American groups that championed a divine female figure: the Shakers, Mormons, Christian Scientists. But not far beneath the surface of Brown’s conspiratorial plot lie larger, Reformation-based questions about the importance of individual religious illumination and questing for truth against the stagnation and corruption of tradition and organization. And all of this is mixed with fears of terrorism coded in Brown’s interpretation of Opus Dei as a dangerous, secret conspiracy of violent men.

Inferno begins with the now familiar art historian and “symbologist” Robert Langdon waking up injured in a hospital bed with no memory of the past few days. It ends with a third of the world’s population rendered infertile through an act of global bioterrorism and with larger questions about the balance between individual and social good and the ethics of scientific, genetic manipulation. Similar to the Code, the plot unfolds through a mash-up of Romantic notions, metaphysical magical tradition, anti-Catholicism, and a new entry from the nineteenth century—Darwinism. Recalling the tradition of the Grand Tour, Brown makes Europe the center of action, a treasure map that can be read to unlock the location of a bioterrorism attack that will change the world. Dante’s “Inferno” and Botticelli’s artistic interpretation of that work serve as keys to reveal the way to world salvation. As in nineteenth-century Romanticism, in Brown’s literary world artists, writers, and their intellectual interpreters like Langdon know how to get to the truth. They are able to connect to the wellsprings of divine connection. Brown’s Langdon operates as an attractive leading man version of Joseph Campbell—or, pushing it back further, Carl Jung—reading culturally specific symbols as transcultural, perhaps trans-conscious revelations of universal truths. Like a secular magician, as a “symbologist,” Langdon has access to secret knowledge of such importance that the head of the World Health Organization calls on him to help her avert this act of bioterrorism. Langdon races across Europe with his companions, the Campbellian wise crone Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey and the younger princess/goddess figure, Dr. Sienna Brooks. Echoing the treasure-hunting and elite hermetic practices that were common in America since the Puritan era, Langdon jaunts through Florence, Venice, and Istanbul finding hidden meaning in St. Mark’s Basilica or in a re-purposed head of Medusa. Brown re-enchants not just Europe. The human landscape as a whole whispers deep secrets to those in the know.

Langdon is battling the dead biologist and terrorist, Bertrand Zobrist, and the Consortium, the powerful, secret group that protected Zobrist. The Catholic Church comes in for critique from Langdon and Sinskey because of its opposition to birth control. Yet it’s really in the treatment of the Consortium that Brown taps into long-standing veins of anti-Catholicism that run through American culture in often transformed guise: anti-Masonry, anti-Mormonism, anti-communism and, most recently, anti-Islam. This is a fear of secret, hierarchical groups that are seen as intent on attacking the democratic American way of life. Wealth and power allow people like Zobrist to impinge on the individual’s right to control their own reproduction: an overt story of bioterrorism, a coded discussion of abortion and reproductive manipulation, perhaps? How much can and should governments interfere with reproduction for the greater good? When do the actions of the government or its agents cross over into the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church?

Brown also sounds nineteenth-century themes within Social Darwinism. Transhumanist Zobrist argues that humans have evolved to the point where, with their knowledge of genetics, they can speed up and control the process of natural selection and evolution. This was a common assertion among earlier reforming Social Darwinists, though they were focused on human moral and cultural, rather than biological development. At the end of the book we realize that Zobrist is not unleashing another Black Death, a violently painful, “natural” method of human population control. Rather, he has created a kinder, gentler involuntary virus-activated infertility. Brown leaves us with no clear answers as to how the world will or should deal with this, but he seamlessly marries together religion and science, a pairing that the media today hypes as antithetical but that had a much easier partnership in the past. Saint Lucia’s relics could miraculously prolong people’s lives; they had given way to genetic engineering, humans playing God. In Brown’s story, science and religion perform the same functions and carry the same mysterious power.

Brown tells a good story. But he also tells old and comforting stories, cogitating on big questions with familiar tropes. Critics may skewer him for his writing, improbable plots, and cardboard characters. Still, Brown has an ear for unresolved issues plaguing modern Americans and he knows how and how much to talk about them in order to draw readers into his fictional world. He is a literary Langdon uncovering the anxieties of modern Americans and, perhaps, relieving them for a short, escapist, regressing moment.

The Humanist’s Book of Mormon

The past decade has witnessed a remarkable surge of interest in the Book of Mormon—or at least of interest in making the text of the Book of Mormon available and accessible. Beginning, in many ways, with the 2003 publication of Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon (published by the University of Illinois Press and based on the 1920 edition), what might almost be called a kind of movement has taken shape: Penguin published a handsome reprint of the 1840 edition of the book; Signature Books published a beautiful Reader’s Book of Mormon based on the 1830 edition; Yale University Press published Royal Skousen’s reconstruction of The Earliest Text of the book; etc. Importantly, the institutional Church has not watched idly from the sidelines as this development has taken shape. For the first time in its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints granted rights in 2004 to an independent publisher (Doubleday) to print the Church’s then-current (1981 edition) official base text of the book. (The most recent, 2013 edition can be read online here.)

Among attempts to make the Book of Mormon more readily available and accessible, there have also been several publications of selections of the book. In 2005, Jana Riess published her Selections Annotated and Explained with Skylight. In 2010, Laurie Maffly-Kipp published her collection of American Scriptures with Penguin, which set selections from the Book of Mormon alongside other American sacred texts from the early Republic. These publications are in many ways the most interesting. In the choices they make—what to include, what to exclude—they employ unstated criteria about what’s most important in the book. Should doctrinal sermons or well-known narratives be privileged? Is Nephi’s covenantal focus or Alma’s soteriological focus of more worth to potential readers? How important is the visit of Jesus Christ in Third Nephi, or how important are his teachings on the occasion of that visit, when compared to other parts of the book?

To this series of publications—whether of the whole Book of Mormon or only (if more provocatively) of selections—the American Humanist Association has added its own edition. (For helpful information on the Association, see the well-written Wikipedia entry.) Earlier this year, the organization published A Jefferson Bible for the Twenty-First Century, a republication of Thomas Jefferson’s personal secularized version of the Gospels, supplemented by excerpts from other world scripture—the Book of Mormon included. Here again the Book of Mormon is presented only in bits and pieces but now with rather explicit criteria of selection.

I’m no humanist myself, secular or otherwise, but the humanist Book of Mormon is a fascinating—if brief—read. [Read more...]

Mormon Patriotism and the Cultural Reading of Scripture

At the New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills recently asked some important questions about Mormonism and the Constitution. Recalling discussions he had with an LDS student two decades ago who believed that America’s two founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were both inspired, Wills raised several provocative questions: Should every section and article of the original Constitution—including those that perpetuated slavery—be considered inspired? If the text constructed in 1787 was inspired, why did it require later amendments? How does viewing the document as inspired make one approach it differently than those who view it as a pragmatic compromise written by intelligent, if still flawed, politicians? And, most importantly for today’s political world, would this have any bearing on Mitt Romney’s presidency? [Read more...]