11.04.2008

From the Good Book: Election Day Thoughts on how the Book of Mormon blasts American Exceptionalism

american exceptionalism.

(you can read all about it in sarah vowell's new book)
(and in every US History text book)
(and in every reading assignment i had in college)

i don't like it.

(And in these last eight years the bush administration has taken this exceptionalism to new, alarming, and oh, so destructive heights.)

Nor do i like it when scripture--specifically the Book of Mormon--is invoked to justify and/or bolster american exceptionalism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism. Now don't get me wrong. this is an amazing country in many ways i don't need to write about here. but we're not perfect, and a capitalist republic is not the model for the kingdom of God (just like the 3-hour sunday meeting block probably isn't either).

In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman forms compelling analysis of the Book of Mormon's content with regards to America and Israel (i.e. God's Kingdom). While I'd strongly recommend beginning on page 101 to get the entire context and insight, for the sake of keeping anyone awake who is reading this, I won't quote it all......

"The story of Israel [in the Book of Mormon] overshadowed the history of American liberty. Literal Israel stood at the center of history, not the United States. The book sacralized the land but condemned the people. The Indians were the chosen ones, not the European interlopers. The Book of Mormon was the seminal text, not the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The gathering of lost Israel, not the establishment of liberty, was the great work. In the Book of Mormon, the biblical overwhelms the national.

Taken as a whole, the Book of Mormon can be read as a 'document of profound social protest' against the dominant culture of Joseph Smith's time. That may not have been most readers' first impression. Many converts said it confirmed their old beliefs. The book read like the Bible to them; its gospel was standard Christianity. The book patriotically honored America by giving it a biblical history. And yet on closer reading, the Book of Mormon contests the amalgam of Enlightenment, republican, Protestant, capitalist and nationlist values that constituted American culture. The combination is not working, the book says. America is too Gentile, too worldly, too hard-hearted. The Gentiles 'put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves, their own wisdom, and their own learning, that they may get gain, and grind upon the faces of the poor.' The nation must remember God and restore Israel--or be blasted.

The Book of Mormon proposes a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty. Against increasing wealth and inequality, the Book of Mormon advocates the cause of the poor. Against the subjection of the Indians, it promises the continent to the native people. Against republican government, it proposes righteous rule by judges and kings under God's law. Against a closed-canon Bible and nonmiraculous religion, the Book of Mormon stands for ongoing revelation, miracles, and revelation to all nations. Against skepticism, it promotes belief; against nationalism, a universal Israel. It foresees disaster for the nation if the love of riches, resistance to revelation, and Gentile civilization prevail over righteousness, revelation, and Israel. Herman Melville said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'He says NO! in thunder.' A NO can be heard in the Book of Mormon's condemnation of an America without righteousness."

104-5.

It frustrates me when our scripture is wrongly used to uphold and justify certain aspects of our nation and culture as it exists now. What we are now is certainly not the paradigm or standard of all righteousness. Just a step along the way.

And when at times the Church feels so, so frustratingly westerncentric it is encouraging to me to remember these perspectives Bushman underscores that lie in the heart of the gospel's center of doctrine--the Book of Mormon. A paradigm shift is occurring, however. I have seen this very clearly as I've been working for the Church History Department these last four-and-a-half months. The shift is happening. Tho it may be slow (to be expected with a 13 million member organization), I am encouraged, hopeful, and excited.

2 comments:

Amanda, Curtis, Ellis, Hugh said...

I did NOT fall asleep. Worthwhile reading and writing. And now I know what pages those great quotes from Bushman's book are on.

These thoughts remind me of Elder Christofferson's talk last conference.

And if you live in Beijing and have people from China, Austria, The United States, New Zealand, and Japan as your local church leaders, personal paradigms are shifting constantly. It's good for us all.

Nancy said...

The nation must remember God and restore Israel--or be blasted.

that sums it up for me