This is the second week of the reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. We’ll be trying to discuss a chapter each week. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism as that’s when we tend to all learn the most.
Future Mormon Chapter 2: Burnt Offerings — Reading 1 Nephi 1
God’s redemption doesn’t involve an elimination of all suffering but a transformation of our relationship to that suffering such that the suffering itself becomes a condition of knowledge and favor.
The first section of the chapter starts off with a discussion of the type scenes that Lehi’s vision uses. Type scenes or type settings are patterns in the narratives of heroes that are repeated in further stories. Unlike our culture where the most novel is the most important and “true” for the Bible often narratives were fit into repeating patterns. The first scene Adam discusses is Lehi making sacrifice and encountering a pillar of fire. There are four similar examples of this in the Old Testament where a sacrifice is consumed by fire from heaven. In each case the fire indicates the acceptance of the sacrifice and the manifesting of his presence. Even beyond the sacrifice examples we know of the burning bush when Moses gets the Law as well as the pillar of fire that follows the Israelites in the desert. (Ex 13:21) Adam contrasts this with the other example of fire where Sodom and Gommorrah are consumed. To Adam this means either fire from heaven consumes your sacrifice revealing God’s presence or it rains down and consumes you. “But have no doubt, everything will be consumed either way.” There is sacrifice or judgment.
The next section is the type scene of the book. Adam notes that in the theophany of Lehi’s first vision with the Spirit gives Lehi a book to read. Adam notes a few things. First we don’t know if Lehi has a Christology yet. We view the figure as Jesus but there’s no indication Lehi does. Second why is the vision mediated through the reading of a book which acts as a stand-in for God. Finally there’s the oddity of the delay of Lehi’s prophetic commission (which doesn’t happen until 1 Ne 2:1) Adam notes that this “detour” parallels the types of detours we encounter where we have the Book of Mormon which is a narrative rather than God just telling us directly what he wants. Adam attempts to tie the first point and second point together asking why we must “suffer the forced choice of either willing sacrifice or devoting judgment? Why not provide a third option: freedom from all that trouble and delay in the first place?”
His final section is more questions than answers focusing on the mysteries of God. He introduces it by noting that the kind of deliverance God offers differs significantly from the type of deliverance we thought we wanted. Turning to the opening of the Book of Mormon he notes a relationship, “having been afflicted…therefore I make a record.” Adam suggests that Nephi’s afflictions is qualified by his having been favored and had great knowledge. That is favor and goodness are dependent upon experience suffering. This is tied to the mysteries as they show how redemption doesn’t eliminate suffering but transforms our relationship to suffering.
I have to confess this chapter was much more of a mixed bag for me. I really liked the type scene Adam identifies in the first section. I think it’s important for understanding Lehi. Likewise I really think he’s right to point to the problem of mediation in our theology. It’s a facet of our theology that gets scant attention. Jesus as mediator gets a lot of course. But the question of mediation in general does not. Adam’s completely right to identify the key mediation not being Jesus but that most of our contact with God comes via books, prophets or other figures. Even when we have an experience that goes beyond that, much of the experience points us back to our more mediated sets of experiences. The investigator praying about the Church typically gets their confirmation indirectly by a testimony of The Book of Mormon as the word of God and Joseph Smith as a prophet. This structure of mediation runs throughout our theology and deserves much more concerted thought to think through the implications and issues.
Even though I’m deeply sympathetic to the points Adam raises in the book section, I felt like a lot could have been said that goes beyond mediation. For instance unlike the fire and sacrifice section Adam largely neglects the type scene of Lehi receiving a book. This is a common trope in many apocalyptic visions. Adam’s comments on mediation are quite interesting, but I feel like much of its significance was avoided. Keeping to what Adam does say, it’s quite possible that the reason for the book is to provide a common basis for prophecy. That is we don’t have multiple individual prophecies but different prophets seeing the same prophecy. The heavenly of eschatological book is thus this common prophecy of past, present and future.
We get a hint of that in 1 Nephi 14. While Nephi doesn’t read a book like Lehi, he is having the same vision as his father second vision. Within this vision he sees some things he’s forbidden to write about (1 Ne 14:25) because John will write them along with others. Nephi later refers to a sealed book which is “a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.” (1 Ne 27:6) The rest of that chapter suggests this is the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. However much of the idea of a book that has the full history of the world can be found in numerous apocalyptic writings. This is especially true in The Book of Jubilees where Moses writes from the beginning of creation until the eternal sanctuary is built. In many of the Enoch texts Enoch is a scribe, including in the Testament of Abraham and Jubilees. This is usually the history of the world both past and present. The text of these heavenly books are written either by angels or Enoch.
I raise these motifs to note that the book is not just about mediation but represents the history of the world (Psalms 139:16) as well as the names of those saved. The idea being that those not in the book will die. (See Ex 32:32-33 or Psalms 69:28) In a sense it is still about mediation in that they mediate life and death. Adam though wants mediation not in that sense of “determine” but in the sense of deferring. That is the book represents a gap from God. God (or Jesus) appears but we don’t get an unmediated full encounter. We get the book. Much like God appears to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11 but we hear only the introduction of Jesus. The book for Adam thus represents levels of difference (as it is not God) and deferring (as they make a break from the immediacy of the message). I understand why Adam wants that to tie to his larger theme for the chapter. I’m not sure it works quite as well if the book is this eschatological heavenly book.
The final point of Adam’s is a deep foundational point for Mormon thought. From its earliest beginnings Mormonism was a religion of persecution. The persecution Mormons have faced throughout most of our history becomes the very nature of our conception of theology. Fundamentally Mormon theology is a theology of progress through suffering. Key to our religion is the idea of a positive role for sacrifice and opposition. The very plan of salvation which we see as the entire economy of God’s interaction with man is itself a vehicle of suffering for growth from gods in embryo into fully realized Gods. It follows, much as Adam says, that redemption cannot be the removal of suffering. Rather suffering must be transformed by redemption into a productive experience.
Despite this fairly foundational psychology of our religion, does it work for Nephi? I don’t know. I’m not convinced even though so much of what Adam writes here I agree with. I just don’t see Nephi’s opening as suggesting this positive role of suffering. I just don’t see it. It’s true it pops up in a certain way. Consider Lehi’s blessing to Jacob. “…thou knows the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Ne 2:2) Yet this productive sense of suffering seems to be less there as the main theme. Instead the sufferings are endured for the greater good. That is the sufferings aren’t seen as transformative but rather are endured.
While the Mormon ideal of transformative suffering can be found in places in the Book of Mormon, what’s truly surprising is how rarely it appears. When it appears it is usually more as part of the pride cycle to shake the Church out of its embrace of wickedness. That is it acts as a sign rather than a true transformation. That said, it is true that when the suffering arrives people either change or are destroyed. Right up to the culmination of the narrative with the destruction of the Nephites. But is that a sacrifice of suffering the way Adam portrays it? I’m not sure. I think the suffering is as often an existential suffering such as we find with Jacob when he writes.
“…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.”
That is suffering as often as not is part of enduring to the end and not a positive transformation to be embraced.
 For a great discussion of this Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative is a must read. He gives quite a few examples from the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon utilizes quite a few of these scenes. The most obvious one is how Nephi fits his own narrative into the Exodus pattern of Israel fleeing Egypt. Alter discusses a few others such as the annunciation of birth, the encounter with a betrothed at a well, an epiphany in a field, the initiatory trial, danger in the desert and the testament of the death of the hero. (Alter, 60) He also notes that the focus is less on actions of the heroes than on how the hero responds. Their responses are often given through dialog.
 For example what is the contrast between Lehi’s book in 1 Ne 1 and the book Nephi sees in his vision? Is it the same symbolism or different symbolism? How does Lehi’s book relate to the common book motif in the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition in numerous texts dating from 200 BC to around 200 AD. Typically the book motif is both tied to the nature of history both past and future but more especially questions life and death. Even texts more on the boundary of the apocalyptic tradition, such as the Book of Jubilees, see the heavenly book as “a book of fate, book of witness, and book of remembrance.” (Leslie Baynes, The Heavenly Book Motif in Judeo-Christian Apocalypses 200 BCE-200 CE, 110) It’s interesting that Nephi’s book fulfills a similar role. The idea of all of history inscribed upon heavenly books or tablets so common in the Book of Revelation is in Nephi’s vision in varying degrees. But what of Lehi’s? It appears similar in that Lehi reads not only of what the people of Jerusalem were doing but what would happen.
 It’s somewhat surprising that Enoch, who plays such a major role in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is so absent from the Book of Mormon, including Nephi and Lehi’s vision.
 As rough as the Lehites travails must have been, both in the desert and on the ocean, imagine what the rich land they arrived at must have seemed like in terms of blessings.