Missions and memory

People keep asking me for proof that the irritating tics in Mormon writing I’ve mentioned actually exist. In that respect, Taylor Kerby’s post over at BCC is useful in a couple of ways.

Only Superman is Super” provides a good example of the imagined audience of Pharisaical dunderheads, for one. The post builds on a contrast between a sophisticated reading of the Book of Mormon and an imagined discussion of Nephi in a typical Sunday School class: “Yet when we discuss him in Sunday School, this complicated figure, and his agenda, is handled with the sort of nuance we would attach to an earnest Disney prince intent on saving his princess.” The contrast is irritating and unnecessary – if the ideas are good, they don’t need the invocation of a chapel full of superficial ignoramuses to make them look better.

And of course the post is also an example of Book of Mormon historical revisionism. The post includes a long list of items Taylor is skeptical of, beginning with Nephi’s physical self-description and his willingness to forgive his brothers. While it certainly is interesting to speculate about the unknowable historical reality behind the scriptural narrative, Book of Mormon historical revisionism often comes with doctrinal stakes, as it does in this case, too. Taylor proposes that “division leads to violence, and violence destroys civilization” is the Book of Mormon’s central warning, overwriting the Book of Mormon’s own warnings with a sentiment that’s at tension with the text: the Book of Mormon knows both wicked and righteous separation, and violence is used both to save and destroy the Nephites.

But I digress. Although I disagree with several of Taylor’s points, the post is absolutely correct to call the Book of Mormon a tragedy, and it raises the question of unreliable narrators. Of course, one problem with treating Nephi as an unreliable narrator is that we then have to ask: unreliable compared to who? Because I need to introduce you to some notably unreliable narrators:

You. And me.

Even under the best conditions, when we’re discussing our own lives in good faith, we warp reality in the interest of narrative and distort the truth in the interest of self-presentation. And we can do this entirely unconsciously because our memories aren’t photographic records. They’re the stories we tell about ourselves in our own minds, and we’re constantly revising them. We need to apply a healthy dose of the skepticism that Taylor has about Nephi to the narratives we create about ourselves.

Let me tell you a true story.

Seven years after I returned from my mission, I decided to write a detailed account of my experience, and so over the space of several months I created an 80,000-word document in which I tried to make sense of what I had seen and done. Among other things, I recorded a teaching opportunity made possibly by a group of Muslim doctors who had come to Europe from Nigeria for some specialized training.

Once, when another Christian friend of theirs was sick, they invited us to go preach to her in the hospital, as we were Christians and preaching to the sick was what one did in Nigeria.  While Elder M. talked to their friend, I had a conversation with the German woman in the next bed.  She was interested enough to take a book and let me send her address to the sisters in O.

The problem? Seven years after the fact, I had flipped the roles that I and Elder M. had played. What I had actually written in my journal that day was

The patient’s family had met with missionaries before, and the patient herself was pretty interested. And another German lady came by and started asking questions, so Elder M. taught her.

Or as I wrote in my weekly report to the mission president:

While we were there, a German woman came over and asked, “Is that a Bible?” So I taught the Zimbabwean family while Elder M. taught the German woman.

There’s also photographic evidence. I don’t know why I took a picture. I have nearly no other pictures of people I taught, especially people I knew only briefly. I could tell you that the doctors had asked me to take a picture, or that it was just a random impulse on my part, but there is no reason to suppose that either version is true. But there is a picture, and in it, Elder M. is holding a conversation with a German woman.

Why would my memory switch what I and Elder M. had done? Of all my mission companions, Elder M. was the one with the highest intellectual aspirations (and the only one with the foresight to smuggle a poetry anthology into the field), and one element of our companionship was intellectual rivalry and competition, especially at first. By switching our roles, I gave myself the more challenging assignment – teaching in a foreign language – and relegated Elder M. to the seemingly easier job of teaching in English. That in turn underscored that I came out ahead in those contests. But did I? Elder M. might see things differently.

Is this a true story? That’s for you to decide. For me, it’s a story for which I have contemporary documentary and photographic evidence, and that’s a much different thing.

So: no, I do not fully trust the narratives you have created based on teenage memories any more than I trust my own. We may accurately remember many things as punctual incidents, but the narratives we’ve built around them are subject to question. I need to see some supporting evidence or additional context. It’s one of the reasons we keep journals: reading what we wrote long ago forces us confront the fact that what we remember as happy years actually had some bleak weeks and months, our anger was not as righteous as we thought – but also that we were capable of greater wisdom than we give ourselves credit for, and sometimes that jerk we hated looks even worse through adult eyes.

As for Nephi, if we assume – which I don’t think we can – that the books of 1-2 Nephi are a handwritten personal account (rather than a work of hagiography for an eponymous ancestor or a text subject to countless generations of copying and redaction), Nephi seems about as reliable a narrator as you or me, describing the significance he saw in past events at the time he got around to recording them. The difference between him and us isn’t our reliability, but that he was a prophet whose writings have been canonized as scripture. I don’t feel any particular obligation to the Lehite family drama or Nephite political struggles, but I value his warnings and teachings. And I’d be a lot more useful to people in my vicinity with a firmer commitment to go and do than I can be with a deep understanding of unreliable narrators.

9 comments for “Missions and memory

  1. I have no criticism of this post. Thank you for the more thoughtful writing and examples.

    I have seen this in myself and my mission as well. I went back and reread my journals after I left the church and was struck by how my memories and stories and evolved over time. What was really surprising is the experiences that I have strong memories of that I can’t find the documentation for. I didn’t write about them at the time even though I was a pretty diligent journal writer during those years.

  2. For many years I would have told you exactly where I was when I learned about the revelation on priesthood: we had just picked my Dad up from work in Boston, and we heard it on the radio on the way home. My parents were absolutely thrilled (presumably why it stuck in my memory even though I was only seven years old), but they had to explain it to me–they’d never told me Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood.

    Then one day I realized that the revelation was given in 1978, and we left Boston in 1977. I presume the rest of the details are relatively accurate (we continued to pick my Dad up from work sometimes after the move), but who knows?

    This has some relevance to the “Wow, Nephi was pretty insufferable” problem too. Of course Nephi doesn’t remember exactly what he told his brothers decades before. So he constructs a speech that (hopefully) covers the same points, but is probably a lot more structured and eloquent than what he actually said at the time. Thucydides did the same thing in his history of the Peloponnesian war. But what we know from online discourse is that people tend to be more blunt when they don’t have a real person in front of them to talk to. And tone is really hard to convey in writing. So it’s at least plausible that Nephi wasn’t as negative in those conversations as his account of them makes it appear.

    FWIW, our Sunday School has been pretty hard on Nephi–that’s definitely the trend right now. But there’s one element of the “Nephi failed” discourse that really bugs me: if a woman were being abused by her husband the way Nephi was abused by his brothers, we’d be cheering her on when she left him, not calling her a failure because she couldn’t keep her family together.

  3. Honestly, Nephi as a biased narrator makes me wish we had Lehi’s writings. His perspective on the division between his sons would have been interesting.

  4. In chapter 10 of his book Moroni says:

    27 And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?

    I don’t think an argument that Moroni was an unreliable narrator will be a strong enough defense.

  5. I think Mormon’s comments in 3 Nephi 8:1-2 are relevant. Apparently there was some disagreement in his sources about chronology, and in verse 1 Mormon explains he’s going with Nephi(3)’s numbers because he was a righteous man and thus we know his record is “true.” But he immediately follows that with “And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time…”

    Apparently Mormon did not assume that just because Nephi(3) was righteous and did miracles and was keeping a sacred record he could not make a mistake (and the Lord would let it stand). So when Mormon says Nephi(3)’s record is “true” he really means something like “honest.”

    That’s where I draw the line too. Nephi(1) had to construct his narrative based on his fallible memory and almost certainly made mistakes, but he’s doing his best to tell the truth and is up front about his failings. We should try to learn from his weaknesses as well as his strengths, but most of all we should learn from his messages. The Lord preserved his record for a reason, and it’s not so we can learn not to be like Nephi.

  6. Just wanted to add that there’s a fascinating literature on how easy it is to artificially create memories, this research has very real on-the-ground implications since it started to hit in the wake of the repressed memory craze.

  7. I’ve heard this called the Brian Williams effect and there are any number of podcasts that cover it. Comes down to memory being the retelling of a story rather than the playing of a recorded tape. As we retell the story, the memory warps by the telling (especially when we tell the story with a purpose). Our brains cant tell that our warped version is not the truth. The warped version becomes the memory. Rinse. Repeat.

    Super fascinating stuff that makes me wary of anecdotes that prove a point but aren’t some how substantiated.

    Also very much interests me in terms of the JS first vision multiple versions over time.

  8. I like the tie in to the fact that God asks us to keep records. I guess we really do need to write things down.

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