Archive for March, 2010

Alma 1:10-25

March 19, 2010

For my Reading Scripture class, we’re using Royal Skousen’s recent edition of the earliest Book of Mormon text.  I love it, in part just because it’s a beautiful book, but also because I feel as if it helps me read more carefully, to notice things I never saw before.

The story of Nehor’s trial is one that I’m used to hearing.  And yet, when I read it out loud on Wednesday, it seemed completely unfamiliar.  There is a part of the story in the text that I don’t think I had ever opened my ears to hear before.  The way the trial is presented is not, as I had thought, unambiguously positive.  As I read, I get the feeling that the narrator (Alma, Mormon?) might view the handling of Nehor’s trial as a mistake.

The text that catches my voice says that after Nehor is condemned
“they carried him up on the top of the hill Manti,
and there he was caused
or rather did acknowledge between the heavens and the earth
that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God…” (Alma 1:15).

Maybe it’s the sense-lines in this printing, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed the ambiguity before over whether Nehor’s confession of the error of his ways was forced or voluntary.  It seems almost to be a slip of the tongue: “he was caused or rather did acknowledge…”  But this is a serious issue, because it’s the difference between an effective judicial procedure and a kangaroo court.  And I think the text includes both possibilities for a reason.

What follows from the trial also surprises me.  We learn that Nehor’s execution “did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land” (1:16).  This is an aberration, since the two situations which follow this same pattern—that of Sherem (Jacob 7) and that of Korihor (Alma 30)—end in the text with all the people becoming convinced of their errors.  So now we have two unsettling facts: the text leaves some question as to whether Nehor’s confession was forced and then says that for the only time in Nephite history, the public refutation of an Anti-Christ didn’t end the spread of his doctrines.

What if these two issues are connected and the first explains the second?  This is Alma’s first recorded ruling as chief judge.  We know that there will later be significant questions about the legitimacy of the judges.  And we know that there are already tensions—expressed in Nehor’s preaching—about the role of the new Church (of which Alma is high priest) in society.  So perhaps we can imagine that there was considerable attention surrounding this case, in which an opponent of Alma’s Church was brought to trial before him, on charges of murder.

And this is where the uncertainty about Nehor’s confession and the continuing spread of priestcraft come together for me.  Nephites who are perhaps skeptical of this new Church which has been established, and this new system of judges, are watching closely to see whether Alma will use his governmental authority to support his religious denomination.  And then Alma makes Nehor’s trial not a matter of murder, but of heresy.  And during Nehor’s execution, which ends with his “ignominious death” (Alma 1:15) there is a problematic confession, not of murder, but of heresy, which likely was portrayed by the Church as voluntary and by Alma’s opponents as forced.

What’s the end result?  The rift between the Church and non-believers become wider, as some non-believers begin to suspect that the power of the government is being used to bolster Church authority.  Controversial preachers outside of the Church grow in popularity, perhaps by preaching against what they call misuse of the judgment seat.  And soon believers and non-believers are not only arguing, they’re brawling in the streets (Alma 1:25).  Alma’s ruling against Nehor is not a success, it’s a terrible mistake (even if it’s a factually accurate ruling) because it undermines the legitimacy of the fledgling system of judges and harms the reputation of the Church in the eyes of non-members.  Perhaps it even led to increasing popularity for the preaching of one Amlici, who says that the judges have failed, and he should be king.

Types and Shadows

March 9, 2010

You, looking at this painting, see Jairus, his wife, and his daughter.  I see my parents and my sister, who served as models for the artist.  To me, that says something about the way a work of art can be two things at once (or three, or four, or more) which may in turn help us understand how a scripture can mean two things at once ( or three, or four, or more.)

The first time I saw this painting (right now it’s hanging in the BYU Museum of Art) all I could see were my parents and sister.  It had been months since I had seen them, and when I walked in and saw them hanging there on the wall it hit me in the gut, and all I could think of was how lucky I was to have a family, a family with the kind of love you see in this painting.  There is my sister looking out, and my mother looking at her with the love I know she has for all five of us, and my father with concern pouring out of his eyes.

Later I could see Jairus in my father, and I could imagine my sister raised from the dead.  And what struck me about this painting was how Jairus and his daughter are looking out, as if Christ is standing where you are standing, looking at it, because from the thanks in Jairus’ eyes you know he is looking at the man who just lifted up his dead daughter and somehow made her very much alive again.

And then I saw it again, as my family and there family, and noticed how tight they are, how they are all holding each other, how the mother is holding her daughter with desperation and adoration, so thankful to still be able to hold her, to feel her pulse and her warmth.  And I noticed how healthy, how far-from-death, the daughter looks; how the sickly looking one is her father, the sweat on his brow testament to the crisis he has just gone through, the terrible heart-wrenching despair he has experienced.

Seeing Jairus and my father in this painting, I know this is not only a picture, but a promise.  That by raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead, Christ showed that he has power to raise my sister also.  That my family’s grief, which will someday come, will be swallowed up in the power of Christ as he brings us all forth at that great day.  He raises, he rose, and someday he will lift me from my grave, into the arms of my parents.

Romans Four

March 6, 2010

There’s a reason Paul and his companions were called “These that have turned the world upside down” (KJV Acts 17:6).  It’s because what they said and what they did was a radical threat to everyone’s assumptions.  It’s because they preached that the Son of God had come down and been crucified as an enemy to Rome and a heretic to the Jewish religious establishment.  And I think it’s because they talked about a “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (4:17).

By now, we’re used to the idea of a God who gives life to the dead.  But one who calls thing that are not as though they were?  What kind of God is that?  Isn’t that what lying is?  And isn’t our God a God of truth?  And anyway, what purpose would God have to call things that are not as though they were?  What sort of game is that to play?

Yet this is emphatically the sort of God Paul declares.  And, for anyone who considers Genesis and the Psalms to be authoritative, he furnishes some pretty good evidence. After all, Genesis says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).  And faith certainly isn’t part of what the Jewish establishment thinks of as righteousness; faith is a good step, but righteousness is the works of the Law, isn’t it?  Even if faith might be part of righteousness, Paul takes a look at that word ‘credited’.  When you work, he says, you don’t get wages as credit, you get them as your due.  But God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness, in effect saying “It’s not the same thing, but I’ll count it.”  Which means that God is calling a thing which is not as though it were.

And then there are the Psalms, which Paul quotes as saying “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (4:8). Sin is sin, and yet here is God openly saying that he’ll choose not to count some sins against some people.  God is calling a thing which is as though it were not. He’s making things utterly unreliable.  How are we supposed to distinguish between the righteous and sinners if God will ignore the sins of some and credit righteousness to others?

I’m all prepared to get terribly unhappy with God for this kind of irrational behavior when I remember something very important (which Paul has already covered at length in Chapter 3).  If God calls things the way they are, then I’m in trouble. Because I’m a sinner.  I can’t count on the rules, or the way things are, to save me one bit: I’m on the wrong side of that equation, just like everyone else.

And the thing about God’s way of accounting, as Paul describes it, is that it never works out against the one in debt.  Someone like Abraham, who hasn’t yet fulfilled the works of the law, has his sheer willingness to rely on the promises of this God credited to him as righteousness.  And the sinner’s sins don’t have to be counted against him.  No one who is righteous gets counted as a sinner in this system, and sinners (like me) have a chance to get counted as righteous.

But let’s get back to that faith of Abraham’s. God calls things which are not as though they are.  And Abraham’s faith is not just a belief that God is.  It’s a belief that they way God calls things is the way they will be, even when it seems completely impossible. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” Paul says, and in that phrase captures the essence of Christian faith (4:18). Against all evidence and hope in this life, we hold fast to the hope that Christ died and rose again, that because of him we will all rise.  Against all evidence and hope, we believe firmly in a God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are.  And by doing so, we truly turn the world upside down.