Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Paradigm Shift-"Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling"


One thing that I've been doing recently is trying to see Latter-day Saints from the perspective of others. This has been an eye-opening experience. I've become a lot more sympathetic to those not of our faith, or at least more aware of how we may be portraying ourselves for better or for worse. The days are over that we can simply dismiss our quirkiness as being because we are a "peculiar people". We can do better than that to articulate our beliefs and to build bridges to others willing to venture into conversation about religion.

Here's a quote that's especially applicable now that it's somehow become a national pastime to disparage and/or criticize Mormons simply because one of them is running for President and it puts the Church in the spotlight:

“We may never become accustomed to untrue and unjust criticism of us but we ought not to be immobilized by it.”
-Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Something that has actually helped to "mobilize" me recently is to face some of those criticisms head on. I figure we ought to know more about our history (and doctrine for that matter) than our critics. Looking back on it now, reading Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman was a perfect platform on which to do this. For those who haven't read it yet, let me fill you in by quoting from a Times and Seasons blog that reviewed the book and then interviewed the author (who I happened to meet on his doorstep, but that's another story):

"Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophet’s story. His reading of Joseph’s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormon’s countercultural take on Native Americans, and of the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushman’s portrait, a flawed man—one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time." (http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2759)

I happen to agree with this review, except for the word "troubled" to describe Joseph's relationship with his father. However, I could certainly use the word "troubled" to describe Joseph and Emma's relationship as a result of the murky plural marriage picture. That could very well be added into the review. I don't say this to dwell on controversial topics (although I'm certainly not afraid of them.) On the contrary, I invite questioning because out of questioning come answers, growth, and revelation. It can also prompt valuable discussion. And this book does just that. So I thought I'd share some thoughts I have about my experience with Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling, and how it has shifted my paradigm of Joseph Smith.

First off, here's where I now stand with my paradigm: Joseph was a man who did incredible things in his life. Some of the things he did bug me. Most of the things he did amaze me. This I know: Through it all, he was a prophet called to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and build the foundation for God's kingdom in the last dispensation of the world. Perfection was never required to be a prophet. So while my testimony has never been stronger of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, I'm no longer under any false impression about Joseph Smith the man being nearly without fault, which is the impression that sometimes has been given in Sunday School or on those BYU-TV commercials trying to sell you something about "the Life and Times of the Prophet Joseph Smith." Nor does this take away from my testimony of the greatness of the restored gospel. In fact, I think it actually adds to it.

My testimony has never been linked to whether Joseph was impeccable or not. It's also certainly not linked to whether the Church is perfect, for it certainly isn't. My testimony is linked to the power of the Book of Mormon to bring me to Christ. Because the Book of Mormon brings me closer to my Lord, Savior, and Redeemer-Jesus Christ-I find value in it and the effort Joseph made to bring it about--imperfect man he was notwithstanding. He himself admitted that he had many rough edges. Such as loosing his temper or getting angry. I can relate to that. I like the image of a forceful prophet. I can see some of that in myself. So knowing the truth not only makes you free, but it gives you hope because you realize that the Lord still can make something great out of your life even if you're not presently the most "Christ-like" person.

I loved my experience reading this book because it is enlightening and it was right up my ally with a mixture of historical, biographical, and religious reading that still is causing me to ponder. I recommend it as excellent reading, at the least to join in the conversation. However, this isn't a book for those members of the Church that rely solely on a sanitized version of Church history. Nor is it for those who teach that Joseph and Emma had a model relationship, or for those who cling to the belief that Joseph Smith was almost "barely-mortal". His human mistakes and frailties come out. But I like that, because it helps me relate better to all people in history who also faced struggles and problems--just like us. We can learn from both the good and the bad, the majestic and the not so majestic.

Just because there are some uncomfortable aspects in our Latter-day Saint history (and there are) doesn't mean we shouldn't face up to them or pretend they're not there. Our critics certainly won't ignore them, and they won't allow you to plead ignorance either.

So even for that reason alone, I am grateful that I read Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling. It was a great, unique, one-of-a-kind experience. I certainly now have more knowledge. And knowledge truly is empowering. I also have a deeper appreciation. But I didn't feel a sense of conclusion immediately after finishing the book. I felt like I needed to ask the author something. I wanted to know essentially: Where do I go from here? What do I make of some of the disturbing facts that I hadn't previously fit into my neat little paradigm? What should my new paradigm be now? Part of my answer came by the Spirit through teaching the Elders Quorum lesson one Sunday on The Prophet Joseph Smith out of the Spencer W. Kimball manual. That was a sacred experience that hit me at exactly the right time. The other part of my answer came when I stumbled upon the following question and answer that I'm now sharing with you because it's the very question I would have wanted to ask the author after I finished reading the book:

Question: "By way of prefacing the book you write: 'For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case.' This is, obviously, not the approach of official, correlated Church history. What are the benefits and drawbacks of your approach—and what would you say to a Church member whose faith has been jarred by the disconnect between what s/he learned about Joseph Smith in Sunday School and what s/he learned from reading your book?

Answer: "I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know? On the other hand, are we obligated to talk about Joseph’s character defects in Sunday School class, or his thirty wives? That may defeat the purpose of Sunday School or Institute. I am hoping that a book like mine will help to introduce all aspects of Joseph’s life into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone. These now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate."

15 comments:

JAMIE COOK~ said...

I wonder if people have been "judging" and everything where you currently live. I know your eyes have been opened. It is VERY different than UTAH. Has anyone actually approached YOU personally abou the church?

Clean Cut said...

Beside a few questions here and there, it hasn't really seemed to be an issue since we moved to Texas. Sometimes, however, I get the feeling that people just don't know what to say or what to ask because it is so different from anything they're familiar with. Awhile ago I came across a a blog entry from Times & Seasons that struck a note of truth about what I've sometimes felt since becoming the only Mormon among my co-workers and neighbors since we moved to Texas. Although I don't agree with everything he says (I certainly don't think of the Church as just a "White" church since the gospel transcends race), it did make me think about how I'm sometimes perceived, and wonder how much truth is in it. Here is the blog post quoted at length:

"There is a classic Saturday Night Live skit (from back when it was funny) that perfectly captures one of my nagging anxieties about being Mormon. In the skit, Eddie Murphy is in a room full of white guys. They are all polite and friendly, but painfully stiff and formal. Murphy tries in vain to get them to loosen up. He then leaves the room, and the stiff white guys immediately cut loose, cranking up the music, boogying (the skit is from the late 1970s), and generally acting “black.” When Murphy enters the room again, the boogying white guys immediately return to their uptight WASP-ish persona (White, Anglo Saxon Protestant). And so on.

The skit is telling, poking fun at the powerful and subtle exclusion of blacks from white society. The nagging black suspicion illustrated by the skit is that no matter how friendly the stiff white guys seem, you are not really part of the group. Things are different as soon as you leave the room. I have similar suspicions about Mormonism and the WASP establishment.

American Mormons live in the world created by a century of assiduous assimilation on the part of the Church. In the words of President Hinckley, our message to the world is “We are not weird.” We look like you. We act like you (except for the coffee and booze thing). We fit in. We are WASPs too, just without the Protestantism, and really we’re almost just like Protestants anyway. We fit in. We can be part of the group.

And it appears that we are. We get to be in the room, and generally speaking we get treated with polite and friendly respect. But what happens when we leave the room? Do they all cut loose, giving lie to the veneer of acceptance that we saw when we were there? Underneath the politeness are we still outsiders? It is hard to say, and I suspect that most of the time the reaction to Mormons is that there is no reaction. Religious identity just isn’t an issue. At other times, however, I feel like Eddie Murphy and I have stolen into the room early only to find the stiff white guys cutting loose.

Behind the pleasant and respectful veneer that Mormons generally encounter in America, what are they really thinking? I suspect that they think we are nuts.

Of course, at the end of the day this is probably not such a bad thing. One of the nice things about living in a liberal society, is that you can have peaceful, productive, friendly, cooperative interactions with people who think that you are nuts. It needn’t be an issue. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want Mormonism to be made completely safe. The subtle frontier in the WASP-filled room marks off my identity as something meaningful and powerful. Without it, I am just another stiff white guy trying to boogie."

NM said...

This is one of the best (and honest) posts relating to how someone can be LDS, yet know of JS' difficult issues, I have ever read. Thank you =)

...I glimpsed at your account through Mormanity by the way...

k-dub said...

What a well thought out and extremely well written post. I have a stack of books I want to read but never make time for, but I will read this one. Can I borrow yours? he he he...just kidding, I may already have it. I am very used to being the only mormom, or one of the very few, in most social settings through out my life...school, friends, work, etc. In fact the only time I have been surrounded by members was at BYU. I believe my testimony of this Gospel is strong because of the fact that I was never in that so called "comfort zone" where everyone around you believes as you do. I learn from and appreciate so much the beliefs and ideas of people of other faiths, and I think by constantly being challenged or made to notice how my faith inspires and blesses me, makes me appreciate it more. Anyway, that could be a whole other post. Would love to read more of your thoughts again soon!

Jeff Ashlee and Ben said...

It is good to see you guys. I am glad that you found my blog. It is always fun to see how our families change. Your girls are beautiful!I look forward to reading more from your blog.

David T. said...

Excellent blog, Spencer. You've really taken the time to add a treasure trove of references, links, etc. Nicely done. As for Bushman's treatment of Joseph in contrast with the Church's, I don't think the gulf between them is as wide as it used to be. Pres. Hinckley & the Brethren's decision to cooperate with Helen Whitney, for example, intimates an acknowledgement that it's time to strip down some of that varnish and see the man for who he truly was: A stumbling, yet unrivaled phenom. I mean, truly, who would not stumble bearing the weight of such a mantle? No wonder Brigham, God bless him, was awestruck by and unquestioningly obedient to him. For me, Joseph was the toughest sell, even after my conversion. It was the recent profiles, such as Bushman's, that brings me to embrace and love him now as I do. Thank you for your introspective slant.

Steve Probert said...

I really can't comment on the book because I haven't read it, sounds intriguing. I can comment, though, on many years of thinking and reading about Joseph. I often wonder about the assimilations of revelation and gospel principles by Joseph and those belonging to the church. It does not surprise me to see turmoil, trials, and imperfections brought to the table. The material brought forth through Joseph is the test to me. As I gain years in this life I am seeing a timeless factor grow within the works he translated. I recall some of the brethren being grateful that they understood Joseph Smith's weaknesses because it made them feel as though they have a chance. I am quite thrilled with the new study guide on Joseph, going for 2 years. We have already given 2 lessons and I look forward to them all.
You guys are doing well with the Blogs even carrying on some intelligent conversation.
Want to get the video conferencing hooked up with your babies so I can see my grandkids.
We love you all - continue to shine.
Papa Steve.

Evamarie Jill said...

Reading the book right now. I won't comment much more than to say that I agree with you about the need to avoid the "ignorance" clause. Although I do not believe that it is necessary to read this book in order to be a faithful Latter-day Saint, I do believe that one who really wants to delve into the life and times of Joseph Smith should seriously consider reading "Rough Stone..." Especially if one wants to be informed on what people might ask them concerning Joseph Smith-- and I can almost guarantee it will be an inquiry about something that isn't taught in Sunday School.

Great Blog, Spence!

Kurt Manwaring said...

Bushman's book was a wonderful experience for me as well. It wasn't so much the things he said that took me aback as much as who was saying them - and retaining his faith. You mentioned in another place on your blog how impressed you were with his approach in the Pew Forum - that type of person does wonders for helping the Church be seen for who they are.

I was recently at a forum with the infamous Dr. Cornel West from Princeton. He mentioned some experiences he had been through with Mormons, and then made a comment about how this country needs more good Mormons on tv. His point was that there are some extremists who are really doing them a dis-service. I think Richard Bushman is one of those people who needs to be seen as probably being more depictive of Mormons than someone like Warren Jeffs.

I hadn't seen President Kimball's quote about Joseph Smith before. Where you're teaching seminary and are so recently removed from that age group as well, it really has to hit home.

I think that people, and Mormons in particular, walk on dangerous grounds when we consider our mortal relationships as a type of "mice and men" routine. Even viewing the Savior in a way that removes human feelings and passions creates a God that isn't easily related to.

Joseph was a man. And God embodies every good feeling with which we're acquainted with - some of them developed only through the destruction of the not-so-good feelings we're all-too-familiar with.

Best wishes with your MPP.

~ Kurt Manwaring ~

Kurt Manwaring said...

Bushman's book was a wonderful experience for me as well. It wasn't so much the things he said that took me aback as much as who was saying them - and retaining his faith. You mentioned in another place on your blog how impressed you were with his approach in the Pew Forum - that type of person does wonders for helping the Church be seen for who they are.

I was recently at a forum with the infamous Dr. Cornel West from Princeton. He mentioned some experiences he had been through with Mormons, and then made a comment about how this country needs more good Mormons on tv. His point was that there are some extremists who are really doing them a dis-service. I think Richard Bushman is one of those people who needs to be seen as probably being more depictive of Mormons than someone like Warren Jeffs.

I hadn't seen President Kimball's quote about Joseph Smith before. Where you're teaching seminary and are so recently removed from that age group as well, it really has to hit home.

I think that people, and Mormons in particular, walk on dangerous grounds when we consider our mortal relationships as a type of "mice and men" routine. Even viewing the Savior in a way that removes human feelings and passions creates a God that isn't easily related to.

Joseph was a man. And God embodies every good feeling with which we're acquainted with - some of them developed only through the destruction of the not-so-good feelings we're all-too-familiar with.

Best wishes with your MPP.

~ Kurt Manwaring ~

NM said...

Hi there Clean Cut,

I saw this youtube video the other day (I haven't watched all of it yet), entitled, 'Why People Leave the LDS Church and What We Can Do To Help'. It's a very good, and honest exposition of the current global state of the LDS church. The lecturer (if he is one) also adds some useful ways of helping the situation out.

Watch it and tell me what you think?

Clean Cut said...

NM, I'm sorry I never got back to you about your last question. I don't know how I ever missed your last comment. I actually have watched that before and I thought it was excellent. I'm glad you provided the link for others to watch. I think it was very good--I recommend it to others.

Dad (in law)--I think you really hit the nail on the head when you said "The material brought forth through Joseph is the test to me". You could not be more right. The fruits of the Book of Mormon as well as the numerous other revelations and translations are simply awesome.

And as Neal A. Maxwell once said in his talk "How Choice a Seer!": "The volume of resulting revelations and translations is enormous, underscoring the words "choice seer." But it isn't just the sheer volume of what Joseph received which is now being shared with mankind; it is also the existence of "stunners" in the midst of such abundance...If Joseph Smith had been the conduit for only one such divine revelation, it would be, standing alone, sufficient to ensure his prophetic greatness."

Garth said...

I stumbled upon your blogspot because I wanted to see what Google brought up on my former bishop from Rockville, MD--D. Todd Christofferson. I appreaciated reading the interview with Reuters. I had some challenges in reading Rough Stone Rolling. I thought that some of Bushman's interpretations, attributions, and assumptions didn't do justice to Joseph's divine prophetic calling. I like the perspectives you have shared in regard to your paradigm shift.

Deanna said...

Interesting to know.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Great post, Clean Cut. Too bad I didn't find it until now.

By the way, you have a gorgeous family. :)