Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

068-068-the-liahona-fullAfter successfully subverting the lands and economies of the natives and then violently refusing to remain party to their political contracts with their countries of origin, Nephi now sees the new immigrant population prospering. What does it mean that they prospered? I immediately think of things like infant mortality and economic growth. What would Nephi have meant by this? Is it a foil to their being in captivity? Does it refer to the fact that they geographically spread? Is it their continued subjugations of and thefts from among the native populations? What were Nephi’s family’s own experiences in the New World? Did they prosper? Did the biblical accounts of displacement together with their own displacement of natives make Nephi desensitized to the latter-day slaughter? Or was that facet simply absent from or downplayed in the dream itself? Or did Joseph’s own view of a righteous American Revolution cover over its dark sides? These questions spring up at me throughout this chapter. And prospering is a key concept throughout the Book of Mormon; I’m not at all confident I know how this concept functioned for Nephi.

There’s another contrast or at least link in the first sentence: this new people’s prospering is placed alongside their “carrying forth” a corrupted book. Again, I don’t know what to make of the pairing. The emphasis on the corrupted nature of the book seems to argue against the idea that the Gentiles prospered because of their fostering a biblical culture. Is it perhaps an implicit warning against our being too comfortable with our success? Maybe prospering is disconnected from and potentially in contrast with moral flourishing—perhaps prospering is not a sign of divine approval; even when things appear to be going well (prospering), central aspects of Zion might be rotten (based on a corrupted understanding of God’s covenants)?

The corruption of this abbreviated version of the Plates of Brass—and like everyone, I assume this refers to the Bible—is linked to the establishment of that great and abominable church. Since the days of Joseph we’ve commonly imagined corrupt or incompetent priests making changes, deleting passages, making poor translations, and the like. Maybe destroying whole books or demanding that they be buried in the Egyptian deserts. We’ve got an impressive historical record of the transmissions, however. Enough to know both that changes are inevitable and that there’s never any such thing as a “pure text.” We also know that while there have been small but substantive changes (Hannah prayed inside not outside of the temple darn it!), our Old and New Testaments have remained remarkably consistent over the course of the last two millennia. So what does it mean that this book—the Bible—was pure when it proceeded out of the mouth of a Jew? What else (other than corrupt and incompetent transmission) could be happening?

I’m convinced this has more to do with culture and the nature of the hermeneutic community. Institutions do oversee the historical transmission of texts. But they also oversee the interpretation of the texts—and the latter usually dictates their approach to the former. Plain and precious things aren’t removed simply by deletion, they’re more commonly removed by training our eyes not to see them. As the wise Ethiopian profoundly notes: none of us can understand these things without a community that interprets them for us. There must be an entrance point into reading and understanding a text. Unfortunately, doorways can also constrain the parts of the building to which we gain access.

This is what I take to be the great and abominable church. In particular, materialist and hedonistic cultures—that is, those cultures that enshrine economic prosperity as their central organizing and value-adjudicating principle—corrupt our ability to see plain and precious truths in our texts. It makes it possible for a whole continent of “Christians” to utterly ignore and subvert Christ’s (albeit complicated) pacifism and instead perpetrate horrific slaughter in the crusades. Similarly, culture allows swaths of “Christians” today to ignore Christ’s teachings on wealth and waste their lives on getting rich and ignoring the poor. Here is the great and abominable church.

On a deeper level, I wonder how much of this implicates the Judeo-Christian tradition at large. That tradition and the European peoples have certainly prospered in an economic, material sense. And I’m far too wedded to it myself not to hail and promote its other prodigious accomplishments—the Restoration being just one of them. This is the great puzzle of this section. We prosper while being blinded to plain and precious truths by the great and abominable church. We prosper “insomuch that Satan hath great power over [us].”

5 comments for “Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

  1. I feel we would be well-served to not attempt to apply our sense of morality to the ancients, or assume that what Nephi saw was what we currently teach about that time period. He saw what would happen to his descendants, and he saw what would happen to his brothers’ descendants, and he saw the Lord’s next attempt at a righteous people. Like the majority of Earth’s wars, these were not conducted under the enlightened, civilized rules of the Geneva Conventions.

    And remember, also, that Nephi had already described the state of the Lamanites at that time as “loathsome.” Slaughter, looting, and theft were by no means introduced by Europeans; mass scalped graves dated before Columbus attest to that. It was in many ways impossible for these Gentiles to steal something that had not itself recently been stolen. This was divine judgment, remember, in a way that certainly has much precedent even if it may not have been explicitly proclaimed by the angel.

    We can’t reshape God into the being we want him to be. At times he commands peace, at times he commands slaughter. His perspective is longer than ours, and his foresight can turn the most brutal war into a force for good. It can even, eventually, turn me into a righteous man.

  2. Argh. Had a big comment on the emphasis and distinction in the text (as well as other places like Ether 12:23-24) between the mouth of prophets (i.e. speaking) and writing. I was going to bring up the issue of texts being parasitic on speaking in Saussure and others and then bring up Derrida. But alas it all went into the aether somehow.

    So the key points.

    1. the text makes a huge distinction between a prophet speaking as a prophet and what gets recorded
    2. the problematic Mormon view of shifty monks deleting texts is wrong. However the main problem is not distinguishing between the Old Testament composition and the canonization and transmission of the New Testament. Given the OT was compiled by uninspired scribes apparently with conflicting politics they were fighting over out of unknown texts of unknown authority and unknown editing and redaction I think the traditional Mormon folk story fits the Old Testament pretty well.
    3. The problem of the NT was less corruption of texts than texts simply never getting dispersed. That is the apostasy happened extremely early.
    4. There’s some hints going way back to Sjodahl’s commentaries that the brass plates might reflect the norther tribes scripture rather than the bias of the Josiah reforms Lehi’s enemies faced in Jerusalem
    5. That said figuring out where Laban fits in politically is tricky but has a lot to bear on the nature of the brass plates.

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