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 believe: Through it all, he was a prophet in the most general sense of that word. Perfection was never required to be a prophet. So while I still regard Joseph Smith as a "prophet", 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."