I’ve taken a hiatus from this project, and am now returning to it. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here, and if you’d like to peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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I feel somewhat affronted by the angel’s adamant declaration and insistence on the binary nature of humanity. It’s not just that there are only two churches, but that these two churches exhaust the whole of humanity. Everyone’s in the pews—it’s just a question of in whose pew one’s planted. This strikes me as a rather medieval exclusivity. If you’re not with us, then you’re against us (as Jacob will later quote an angel explicitly declaring in II Nephi 10:16). There are those baptized and enduring, and then there are those heading toward damnation. It’s hard not to see this interpretation in Nephi’s own narrative account of his family’s dissolution.
Can this really be an angelic message from the heavens? “What may appear to be ok, normal, even noble, is really of the devil.” This is where families are torn apart: “I know you personally, I know your decency, your goodness, the ways in which you excel me—but you’ve chosen a path or lifestyle or politics or faith that I can’t reconcile. So against all evidence and reason, I determine that you’ve been fooled by the devil and are on the path to hell.” (I’ll ignore—or rather, just mention—the ego stroking this does to our mortal weakness.) This is one way—and too common a way—to read this passage.
Slowing down, however, I see that there’s another way to read this exhaustive binary; we can of course flip it the other way round, giving it a pluralistic and radically inclusive reading. The binary forces us to confront our own ignorance and prejudice: “You’re different; you’re other; I do not understand your culture and values; and try as I might, I cannot seem to reconcile your way of being and relationship with God with that of my own. If I’m careful and honest, however, despite my undeniable discomfort, I cannot see anyway in which your difference fights against God. Consequently, my God demands that I see you as one of us.” Or as Jesus puts it in Luke: “He that is not against us is for us” (9:50).
Another overlooked facet of the exclusive binary: it of course predates and continues well beyond Western medieval Christianity. But even if it didn’t, articulated as an exhaustive categorization, we cannot identify the Great and Abominable Church with any given historical institution (though of course any particular institution can be—and probably is—a contributing party). Once again, turning this around, it means the same thing for the Church of the Lamb—there’s no one-to-one correlation with any specific institution. This fact is emphasized with the explicit distinction that gets made between the Church of the Lamb and the covenant people of the Lord (I take the latter to be a sub-group of the Church of the Lamb). This too is given in the context of helping us understand the covenants of God with the House of Israel.
Additionally, dominion is a striking word in this passage. What does it mean? In context it seems to mean at least two things: control or influence (primarily cultural, but also political, economic, other?) and demographic density. The devil’s church of course has greater dominion, though it’s key here that the Church of the Lamb and the covenant people of God (again, the latter a subset of the former) are globally distributed. Those who are unwilling to sell their covenants are a minority. Those who prize spiritual progression enough to actively pursue it are a minority. But they’re a global minority.
Finally, the passage ends with the same confusing attempt to tie all of this in to specific historical events. Once again, the description of these events is so general as to seem applicable to any point in history. That seems right. We always find ourselves besieged by the Great and Abominable Church. We always find our dominion small. There are always wars or at least rumors of wars in all nations. Such are always the circumstances in which the children of God are placed. Whether on the macro world-historic level or within my own heart, I can find two churches warring—one with a frightening level of dominion.
Such are always the circumstances in which commences the fulfillment of the covenants of God with Israel.