Author: James Olsen

Reading Nephi – 14:8-17 part I

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The angel begins by reminding or interrogating or raising the covenants of the House of Israel. I’m not sure the angel’s intent. Is this pedagogical priming? Is it interrogation? Is it a test, with the angel serving as guardian or gate-keeper, not allowing Nephi to pass on to the next part of the vision until he’s proven his gnosis? Is it the divine teaching that incorporates Socrates’s great insight that knowledge begins with acknowledgment of ignorance?

Reading Nephi – 13:42-14:7

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We return now to the grand parallel Nephi makes in the articulation of his vision—Lehite afflictedness and Gentile blindness. While this passage focuses on the binary possibilities for the fate of the Gentiles, in the context of the parallel there’s a critical message for the Lehites as well—if the Gentiles can assuredly repent, then the remnant of Lehi can assuredly be restored. Overall, it’s a passage concerning the universal possibility of reconciliation and union under the covenant.

Reading Nephi – 13:38-41

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Theses passages are tremendously challenging. On the one hand they insist on the historical nature of their prophecies—an understanding of history and of God’s movement in history is their whole raison d’etre. But even retrospectively it’s difficult to get much traction, to pin down events or movements or historical happenings, or to see these passages as illuminating particular events.

Reading Nephi – 13:30-37

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Verses 30-33 give the logic of this vision. There’s a grand parallel going on between the dramatically afflicted and nearly destroyed remnant of the Lehites and the “awful blindness” of the Gentiles. God’s ultimate covenant with Israel is rich enough to offer provisions to both in their different but analogously wretched lots. While I find this passage tremendously uplifting and profound, I also can’t simply run away from the stone of stumbling that is this language of God smiting whole peoples and generations. My Mormonism keeps me from being fully modern in many ways, and as communitarian as I believe myself to be, I simply can’t grasp the idea that historical, trans-generational, trans-millennial conglomerates of humans can be both accountable and justifiably acted upon in the same way that an individual can. I want to say that these claims of God smiting people is merely the way Nephi understands and elaborates historical tragedies. And maybe that’s right. But it’s also…

Reading Nephi – 13:20-29

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After 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…

Reading Nephi – 13:10-19

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I wonder what we’re getting here in this passage. How much of this is straightforwardly the details of the vision? In particular, is Nephi’s understanding of the vision a part of the vision, in the same way that one comes into a dream already comprehending the background and meaning of the events that one dreams? Or is the interpretation all Nephi? Was he even capable of making the distinction? How much of this is the evolved interpretation of a man who has pondered for decades on the vision’s meaning? Then again, how much of this is from the mind of Joseph Smith for whom no historical events would’ve loomed larger than the American Revolution? One of course need not deny historicity to think that the details of at least the meaning of the vision were something different on the gold plates than as they came out on Oliver’s parchment stack. The wrath of God stands out to me. What is…

Reading Nephi – 13:1-9

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A consistent feature that distinguishes the Book of Mormon from the Bible is its pan-human focus. Nephi does not strike me as very cosmopolitan—rather the opposite. He cares about his family and posterity, and his overriding focus even there is not love and loyalty but theology; he cares that they’re tied into God’s covenant with the House of Israel, that their history is sacred and thus legitimate. It’s easy to see Nephi as exactly the sort of overzealous man who devotes his time and attention to his calling at the expense of his personal family (which he never mentions outside of confessing that he took a wife; maybe this is, as Hardy speculates, a form of coping with his failures as a husband and father; or maybe this was Nephi’s form of coping with the pain of having lost his family, the way that church service functioned originally for Brigham Young). Nephi is single-mindedly focused on his tribe and their…

Reading Nephi – 12:13-23

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The pattern goes from “normal” chaotic, difficult, mortal life, to intense trial and darkness, to the burst of light when God comes and establishes an order that results in Zion, to apostasy from Zion leading to apocalyptical violence. Interestingly, however, the apocalypse isn’t the end here; rather it’s followed by more everyday, mortal struggle before the next chapter—which expands the scope of this drama from tribal to global. But this is the same pattern that Joseph Smith prophesies for our own dispensation: a prophet sets up a people who go through chaotic, difficult, mortal struggles, often assailed by our enemies (for which we are always or often at fault), leading toward an intense trial and darkness (the pre-millennial wickedness that we’re always so convinced is right now, where even our very elect are deceived), which is to be followed by the parousia par excellence when Christ reigns personally upon the earth together with everything else we prophesy in our 10th…

Reading Nephi – 12:6-12

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And here it is, the climax of the whole story. God himself comes down from the heavens to visit his people. Note that this is how we always experience that singular (even if repeated) event: it’s in the future. We’re always waiting for the parousia and never ourselves experiencing it.

Reading Nephi – 12:1-5

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Now Nephi looks and beholds the future of his posterity and people. And one can understand why he comes out of this vision depressed and feeling sorry for himself—and why he immediately lays into his brothers with a condemning despair.

Reading Nephi – 11:26-36

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Behold the condescension of God. Earlier, the angel asked Nephi if he understands it, and Nephi admits that he does not. Now the angel tries to show him. But what is it that Nephi sees? First is the mere fact of the Redeemer going forth. I’ve often heard it interpreted that the condescension is actually that of Jesus, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, willing to come down incarnate among mortals and subject himself to their rejection and cruelty. I’ve nothing against this interpretation, though it strikes me as merely a remnant of traditional Christian theology. But here there is the following series of “Looks!” with no other direction, taking us to the end of the chapter. It seems that this whole series of events is the condescension of God. There is a Redeemer sent, a prophet sent to prepare the way, rituals and ordinances given to humans, angels that descend to minister, an atonement performed, twelve apostles to testify…

Reading Nephi – 11:24-25

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The most powerful connection for me in all of this . . . is the striking fact that the point of the word of God is to lead to the love of God. This is surely the chief constraint on any scriptural hermeneutics.

Reading Nephi – 11:13-18

As commanded, Nephi looks, and what does he see? Interesting that the first thing he sees is cities, including Jerusalem and then Nazareth. What are the other cities? Why does he see cities? This is all in the context of Nephi being guided to come to understand the meaning of the tree. Ultimately Nephi determines it to represent the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of all God’s children. I wonder, then, if the purpose of seeing the cities was merely to orient Nephi toward the greater context of the meaning of what he sees—this isn’t a vision whose significance is merely for Lehi’s family, nor even for the Jews only (though apparently the only two cities Nephi recognizes are Jewish). Instead, Nephi’s shown the population centers of the earth—this is a vision encompassing humankind. There’s no indication that Nephi notices this or any other meaning to the cities he sees. When the (new) angel asks…

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Mormons and Modernism

Mormons and Modernism: Modernism, Secularism — and the Mormon Response? Thinkers as diverse as Charles Taylor, Marcel Gauchet, John Milbank, Mark Lilla, and Louis Dupré have written about the origins of the modern period—the radical change in thought and society from the medieval period to the modern that occurred gradually and culminated in the sixteenth century. Modernism brought us the renaissance, modern science, the birth of the modern state and democracy, as well as, ultimately, what Nietzsche called “the death of God.” In the twentieth century, questions arose about modernism, such as “How should we understand its grand narratives?” and “What have been its costs to human being?” Recognizing both modernism’s difficulties and achievements, if we cannot think against or beyond modernism, can with think within it? This seminar for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and not-yet tenured faculty will explore the emergence of modernism and its eventuation in what is often called “postmodern” thought. We will ask if Mormon thought should be understood as part of or in contrast to modernism. Do we have any unique responses to the…

Reading Nephi – 11:8-12

The first conspicuous element here is the replacement of Lehi’s test or opening—all that time walking in darkness—with Nephi’s being questioned by the angel. Nephi does not walk in darkness—his vision begins, after the opening angelic interchange, with looking directly on the vision of the tree. And this too is different. Lehi’s dream was experiential; Nephi’s vision is observational and propositional. This is huge. Nephi requested to see the things that his father had seen. In response, the angel shows him the tree. It doesn’t start with the field, and the other elements of the vision all come later. There’s no gradual unfolding as Nephi chooses what to scan and perceptually seek after. Nor is it presented as a mystery—Nephi begins with an understanding of what he’s going to see and at least a rough outline of what it means (though his purpose is to see and know more fully). Beginning at the tree, it’s as though the angel is…

Reading Nephi – 11:1-7

I’ll confess, I feel a mixture of serious disappointment and jealousy as I’m struck by the utterly exotic nature of this event. Note not only the coming of the angel, but that the angel does not come to Nephi for specific reasons of instruction or witness—not like the shepherds abiding in their fields or Joseph Smith praying for forgiveness. Here the angel comes to simply ask: “What do you desire?” Now admittedly, this appears to be a sort of test—all right Nephi, let’s see what you ask for, and then we’ll see what you get. And Nephi apparently chooses wisely, which leads to his vision. But God knows I’ll settle even for the test! Perhaps I choose wrongly and all I get is admonishment to repent and search the scriptures (the typical angelic injunction—maybe most folks choose poorly and Nephi really is prodigious). How could I not be infinitely content to be graced even with a mere test such as…

Reading Nephi – 10:17-22

Nephi does it again right at the start of this passage, though this time it’s in reverse: he talks about faith in the Son of God, and then realizing that his reader would need clarification on that, he inserts the parenthetical about the Son of God being the Messiah of whom Lehi had been prophesying earlier in the chapter. The whole passage here is interesting in terms of its being a small bit of autobiography leveraged to preach a sermon at us. Nephi relays his experience to us in order to explicitly teach us and convince us that we can follow in the same path. Lehi was faithful, followed the commands of God, followed the inspiration of the spirit, obtained revelation (his own and others’), diligently studied that revelation, and came to know the mysteries of God. Nephi heard and hearkened and followed the same seeking pattern. His autobiographical description is both an invitation and a warning—we will be judged…

Reading Nephi – 10:11-16

At the end of this section Nephi notes that there were many other prophecies of Lehi, and many of those prophecies Nephi wrote in his other plates. Here he’s only written what he thought appropriate. Well then, what has he written? Out of many prophecies, what does Nephi consider worth including? Two main things. First, he’s copied over Lehi’s messianism and re-interpreted that messianism for his reader. Second he’s laid a foundation for one of the major themes of the entire Book of Mormon: this notion of scattering and gathering, which he’ll take back up when relaying his own vision in a few chapters, and which gets repeated throughout the rest of the record. With this latter, there’s something else that’s interesting. Lehi isn’t just prophesying for his posterity, he’s given them a way of understanding and affirming the wrenching experience that they’ve undergone by situating their personal experience within a much grander, holy narrative. It’s necessary that branches be…

Reading Nephi – 10:1-10

The first lines go right along with the confusion and different worldview conspicuous in 9. Having just stated the Lord’s intention for Nephi to focus on the spiritual as opposed to the secular and his own confusion over this point, Nephi launches in to tell us about his journey, his reign, and his ministry. It’s all the same to him. It’s all the workings of God. And I Nephi through the first part of II Nephi is in fact about showing that God was behind Nephi’s reign. I wonder what’s behind this notion of a “land of inheritance.” It’s a large theme in scripture. Here, Nephi’s keen on establishing a new land of promise, which becomes a land of inheritance for his people. This plays large later in the Book of Mormon as overzealous nationalists insist on retaking the land of Nephi, which results in disaster. I wonder if it is a part of Nephi’s and later prophets’ focus on…

Reading Nephi – 9

This is an extraordinarily odd chapter—and odd in ways that really do support the either prophet or genius narrative of Joseph Smith. Why, if one were simply trying to cover up their mistake in losing 116 pages and the first several hundred years of history, would you stick this chapter in here? You go ahead and finish translating from Mosiah through Moroni. Then, since your narrative is screwed up, you plan out this clever narrative of there being “other” plates—the Small Plates of Nephi—tacked on at the end of the gold plates—you use this ad hoc addition of these other plates to backfill and fix your narrative. But if what you’re really worried about is the scandal of the loss of the 116 pages, why wouldn’t you stick this chapter with it’s explanatory narrative—all about God knowing the reasons for these small plates when Nephi himself doesn’t, but surely there’s some purpose—at the very beginning? Modified slightly, Chapter Nine would…

Reading Nephi – 8:29-38

The folks who make it to the tree via the path-rod fall down. Its exhausting. This seems so significant, and seems to confirm my earlier reading of the path-rod as not the optimal means of getting to the tree; we ought not kid ourselves about the cost of this route. Likewise, there seems to be a significant contrast between the difficulties of the path-rod and the difficulties making the tree via revelation. It’s a difficult journey no matter how one gets there—but Nephi’s gloss here highlights the danger of exalting the path-rod, or mistaking mere means as ends. Overall we’re being keyed in to two prominent mistakes—the one made by those who leave the path to wander in darkness, and another made by those who stay but mistake the path for the destination. There’s another great contrast here, concerning our initial steps and desires: those who begin to make their way toward the tree vs. those who begin to make…

Reading Nephi – 8:23-28

Why didn’t Lehi and his family ever see or need the rod of iron or the path when they journeyed to the tree? And by contrast, why did so many of those who sought after and obtained the path & rod, then fall away? Reading closely, it is only those who relied on the rod to get through the mists of darkness that are specifically noted to have fallen away (of course, at least some of those who failed to use the rod were lost—a bit of a catch 22). And how could folks fall away simply because of the glitterazzi who were mocking them? They’d partaken of the blasted fruit already! Of course I don’t know. But here’s a few thoughts. Lehi & family’s conversion seems much more secure. They had to make use of the Spirit, or of their own pure striving, and they were motivated by family and by the tree & its fruit. I’m not sure…

Reading Nephi – 8:13-22

There are patterns here in the partaking of the fruit: self, then family, then others; self, then the righteous, then the wicked; self, then one’s people, then others. Enos later repeats this pattern in his great prayer. I don’t think this pattern lends credence to an egoistic (or even a growing enlightened self-interest) interpretation, however; quite the opposite. The first fruits of enlightenment seem to be to recognize that I am not a mere individual, that my own salvation is never enough. When pursuing righteousness, we seem to be made ever more aware of the centrality of others who at first glance appear to be different or separate from me. Rather than a growing awareness that others matter to my self-interest, it seems to be a growing awareness that others matter to my self, together with an awareness that we’re all of the same divine family. If we bracket the surreality of dreams, then we get an interesting insight into…

Reading Nephi – 8:9-12

How did Lehi know that the fruit was desirable to make one happy? Usually in dreams we just know things; we know the context or the background that makes the dream sensible. Is that what it was? What about in life? Why do some of us simply know how to be happy and others don’t? Why are some of us intuitively drawn to the “things of God” while others aren’t? Why do some react to the great theophanic events in the way that Nephi did and others react like Laman and Lemuel? Nephi makes it out to be a choice, a choice to pray and seek after personal revelation. Perhaps that was true in his case. But it seems so commonly a kind of instinct with no agency behind it. And yet: there it is before us all, a fruit desirable to make us happy. What does it mean that it is desirable to make one happy? Does it mean…

Reading Nephi – 8:1-8

Verse 1: it seems clear that they lived in the Valley for quite some time. Lehi’s dream. This labyrinth makes the whole book worthwhile. I too have had dreams that make me deeply question the future and my relationships, that do not simply manifest but engender worry and joy. But here we see a dream that not only spawns reflection in the dreamer, but gives future credence to Nephi’s narrative and theocratic reign, shapes a people, is buried for fourteen hundred years, comes to light, and once again shapes another people. This dream is as iconic as anything in Mormonism. I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to the very first part. Lehi walks in darkness. For hours. Taking the account straightforwardly, this walk in darkness is the overwhelming bulk of the whole dream. Doing as Lehi and Nephi do and extrapolating this vision as a metaphor of our mortal lives, those lives are almost entirely—or perhaps I should…

Reading Nephi – 7:6-22

Here again we get a narrative, and in the perceptible foil of a competitor narrative. Once again, Nephi works hard to discredit Laman & Lemuel, and here we can see clearly what their major point is: returning to Jerusalem. It’s easy to imagine a New World experience decades into the future, in the wake of hardships that rival or surpass the hardship of the 8 years in the wilderness—infant mortality, disease, lack of food, the general hardship of coping with an entirely unfamiliar ecosystem, together with whatever struggles they might have had with their native neighbors. It’s easy to imagine competitor narratives to Nephi’s rule that focus on the illegitimacy of leaving Jerusalem—that comparative Utopia still very present in Lehite memory. It’s easy to imagine a public unconvinced either by the claims of Jerusalem’s destruction or unconvinced that becoming a vassal state would’ve been overall worse than what they suffered in the exodus and settlement of the Americas. Such a…

My petition for a bill of…

The law that God gave to ancient Israel was pretty clear and unambiguous: divorce isn’t part of the program. Then the people sued Moses for a bill of divorcement. I have no idea what that conversation between Moses and God was like. Maybe it had parallels to the one where Moses talked God out of destroying the Israelites and starting over. Whatever the conversation, God granted the petition and gave Moses that bill of divorcement. Then came Jesus of Nazareth. Divorce was a normal part of society in his day (even if not anything like divorce in our day). And Jesus spoke out in straightforward and unambiguous terms. Divorce was granted because of the people’s unrighteousness. Because they weren’t willing to keep the higher law. But together Moses and God had realized it was better for our people overall to grant the bill. I personally believe in that original law, reiterated by Christ. I believe that divorce is not part of…

Reading Nephi – 7:1-5

Sometimes I feel like I deeply understand the tight integration of extended family, covenant, and connection to God—a trinity that is indeed one in substance. And sometimes, as here, it feels so exotic. I feel like I stand in between worlds. One cannot live today without having these three analyzed as fully distinct. The rhetoric at church tends to place them in complimentary relationship—Zion is when we can get these three together. But reading Nephi it seems like something different. None of the three make any sense without all three. The point of enlisting Ishmael’s family is to raise up seed to God, as is the point of life and religion. God’s commands are issued and heeded not as a matter of sovereign authority exercising its whims, but as a covenantal relationship. The terms of the covenant are kept as God prepares a way for deliverance and as God’s children take advantage of that deliverance to raise up seed within…

Reading Nephi – 6

This was a chapter break in the original edition (end of Chapter Two), but I’m not terribly impressed with whoever’s editorial decision that was. This is clearly not a break. Nephi’s switched from discussing his father’s reading of the Plates of Brass to discussing his own writing—but it’s not meant to be a substantive shift; rather, it’s mean to draw a continuity. I don’t know that Nephi’s being audacious in the same way that you or I (or a General Authority for that matter) might be being audacious if we declared our writings scripture. But he is being audacious in the sense that he sees himself as continuing the record. There are the Plates of Brass, there is the Book of Lehi, and here are Nephi’s writings, and they all fall into the same category. Being the new caretakers of this record, the obligation is clearly to continue it. And this sense of things continues, even amongst later record keepers…