Apostasy Narratives

Posted by on April 29, 2013 in Belief | 14 comments

First, read this quote from James Talmage’s Jesus is the Christ, which is quoted (among other places) in the Doctrines of the Gospel manual (published in 2000):

“For over seventeen hundred years on the eastern hemisphere, and for more than fourteen centuries on the western, there appears to have been silence between the heavens and the earth. Of direct revelation from God to man during this long interval, we have no authentic record.”

Then, read this quote from Elder Ballard’s 1994 General Conference talk:

“The beautiful simplicity of Christ’s gospel was under attack from an enemy that was even more destructive than the scourges and the crosses of early Rome: the philosophical meanderings of uninspired men. The doctrine became based more on popular opinion than on revelation. This period of time was called the Dark Ages. They were dark largely because the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ had been lost.Then in 1517, the Spirit moved Martin Luther . . .”

Finally, read this take from Fiona Givens, co-author of The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life:

“[During 'what we call the apostasy'] the church is not destroyed, it does not utterly disappear. It retreats underground, where the Spirit nourishes it. That was so overwhelming to me: how does God nourish a church in the apostasy? How does He nourish a church that no longer has priesthood keys and ordinances? Well, He sends her the greatest philosophers, poets, writers, composers and thinkers of all time. God doesn’t create ex nihilo; one can’t restore something that isn’t already there; the building blocks for the Restoration were always there. I mean, that’s just awesome.”

(I highly recommend the entire interview with Ms. Givens, found at the Mormon Women Project.  It’s a gem!)

Per quote 1 — the notion that God would remain categorically silent to every soul born for 1700 years (and then, presumably, only talk to Mormons) seems to fly in the face of everything the scriptures teach about the light and love of God. Thankfully, our discourse seems more tempered than this, generally.

The second quote allows for God to inspire and even “speak to” a few choice souls; it seems typical of what I grew up hearing about the apostasy and the need for a restoration; in particular, it views historical “characters” such as Martin Luther as inspired players in a drama that culminates in Joseph’s visions.

The third quote is a rather radical departure from the normative narrative, viewing the “dark ages” as a time of vibrant spiritual beauty in certain quarters; Givens urges Mormons to take seriously the 13th Article of Faith and engage in a serious study of theology that includes drawing on the best spiritual thinkers of the Christian tradition to enlighten our own theology. She describe the spiritual greats of medieval and Renaissance times (including female mystics such as Julian of Norwich) as providing the building blocks for the restoration.

While I like Givens perspective the best (by far!), I’m not wholly comfortable with any of these quotes.  So  I sat with it this weekend, trying to figure out why.

I think my ambivalence comes down to this:

While I’m highly sympathetic and personally committed to seeking out wisdom from other religious traditions for personal and group edification, I am wary of co-opting great religious thinkers as primarily actors in our own institutional narrative.

Communication between humanity and divinity is complicated business. It is a miracle, every day, when any of us feel the touch of divine in our life.

It’s easy to admire and quote Mother Theresa as one who lived a saintly life. But if we see the hand of God in her life, if we are inspired by her light, then perhaps we should also grapple with the fact that her spirituality was animated and fed by her faith’s sacraments, by the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, by strict adherence to a creed that we sometimes glibly reject as corrupt. She, and her faith, deserve that dignity.

Givens quotes Joseph Smith as saying,“If the Presbyterians have truth, embrace that. If the Methodists, have truth embrace that too. Get all the good in the world if you want to come out a pure Mormon.”

I’d only add that such truth-seeking should be accompanied by a profound spiritual humility — a humility should prompt us to embrace the mystery of a God big enough and loving enough and wide enough to defy our attempts to create neat narratives out of messy, beautiful human history.

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  1. “I’d only add that such truth-seeking should be accompanied by a profound spiritual humility — a humility should prompt us to embrace the mystery of a God big enough and loving enough and wide enough to defy our attempts to create neat narratives out of messy, beautiful human history.”

    Amen and amen. Wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking post, Deborah, dear!

    • I just love the paragraph you quoted, Aimee. Deborah, this post is a gem!

  2. Yes. We are quick to proclaim we have the truth, and embarrassingly slow to pay attention to the truths we lack.

  3. I’d expand that even beyond the Judeo-Christian time corridor – if we believe that all people in the History of this Earth are God’s children, then all cultures ad religions have had guidance and inspirations over the Millenia that we would do well to pay some attention to.

    • Oh, I would, too! I kept my comments limited to focus on our traditional narrative RE the history of the Christian church as relates to the restoration. I’m pretty sure Rumi had a direct line . . .

  4. The historian in me is always squirmy when we act like everything between AD 33 and 1820 existed for the sole purpose of the restoration. I get particularly irritated when we discuss the Reformation as if the reason they did what they did was so that there would be many religions for Joseph Smith to choose from. Maybe that is true, maybe God works in such simple ways. But it doesn’t really seem to be that way. I think God would have restored the Gospel regardless of Luther and his theses. And after all, plenty of reformers were not motivated by the Spirit. Henry VIII springs to mind. Yet his actions undoubtedly had the long-term impact of making what became the U.S. a primarily protestant stomping grounds (at least in those early years).

    I’m rambling. I guess I have a hard time just waving my hand at western civilization and glibly putting it down to apostasy. Most people in the church couldn’t tell you anything at all about those 1700 years, other than there was no priesthood on the earth.

    I do like the idea of God sending us Mozart to get us through not having a church. Send us another, and revamp the hymnal!

  5. I want to stand up and do a little dance, this rings so true. Thank you, Deborah. You’ve articulated what I’ve been thinking about all month and haven’t been able to pin down. Those first two quotes make me so sad. Sad is the word for it. And the third does help, and it’s how I tried to teach my YW lessons this month, but I did end up feeling like I wasn’t quite getting it right, that I had ended up (inadvertently) teaching them that the world revolved around Mormonism even MORE than they thought it did before we began discussing it. And I wasn’t sure how to resolve it. But yes. Humilty. I am so humbled when I look at the actual history, the real story, the astonishing relationships God cultivates with the children he loves of all faiths. I want to focus more on that–on HOW He goes about loving us, not on whom he loves and why and when.

    • Honestly, I hope “Apostasy” lessons become a relic of the past. I’m not sure it how it benefits us individually or as a people. I think we have enough work to do without congratulating ourselves for having more truth than our neighbors.

  6. This is lovely, Deborah, thank you! It is funny how some Mormon leaders make such very broad historical assumptions, all the while declaring they are not historians, but witnessess of Christ. Seems rather un-Christlike to me to judge such a huge section of human history as utterly goddless (and ironic given a couple of talks in the last 2 years of conference discuss William Tyndal). It is lovely to consider and embrance and understand the concept of Christ and the atonement when we consider this — is not the Atonement the cornerstone of Handel’s Messiah? Or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? There is so very much beauty in the history of humanity it just seems unChristian to denounce it all as darkness just because of the timeframe in which the miracles occur. Thank you for addressing this, Deborah!

  7. Simply beautiful.

  8. I love Mormonism and I believe it’s true, but I could never (in my adult life) get my head around the declaration that it is the ONLY true church. I’ve come to believe it as A true church. And I believe there are other true churches too.

    • “In my father’s house there are many mansions . . . “

  9. Thanks for the post about this important topic. However, I think there’s a misperception going on here about what Fiona Givens is saying. Reading the entirety of the book “The God Who Weeps” will clarify what some people are taking to be a “co-opting” of the wonderful poets and artists of the Medieval Age, Renaissance, etc. As the Givenses point out in their book, there is no “Mormon” narrative, per se. There is only God’s narrative. Mormonism is a vehicle that was implemented in this particular dispensation to gather truth– truth that had already independently existed– and add key priesthood ordinances to complete the human family circle (i.e. sealing). The “church” being nurtured in the wilderness is not the Mormon church– it’s God’s Church. The Mormon church is one manifestation of God’s Church– and an evolving one, at that (AF 9). It is an instrument in constructing God’s “Church,” or better yet, Zion.

    So when Givens quotes Joseph Smith saying “Get all the good in the world if you want to come out a pure Mormon,” she is reaffirming Joseph’s belief that to be Mormon really means being, in essence, a Truth-gatherer. This is a departure from the traditional Mormon Church-centric narrative; Joseph is not “co-opting” other religions’ beliefs for the Mormon narrative because Mormonism is part of the bigger narrative, and Joseph knew that. I hope this clarifies Fiona Givens’ views.

    Also, BYU held a conference last year on the Mormon conception of apostasy. The general gist of the conference countered traditional ideas about the “apostasy” with a much more generous and humble vision.

    • Thanks, Rachael! The Givens are doing important work. May their tribe increase. And I really loved Ms. Givens’ interview and their book.

      Whether or not there should be, there *is* a Mormon narrative about the so-called apostasy (it was even the topic of last month’s YM/YW lessons!), and it is one that desperately needs evolution. And the Givens’ work (among others) will help get us there.

      Like fok-doctrine surrounding the priesthood ban, it imagine will take quite a while to entirely root out Talmage’s vision (not to mention McConkie’s conflation of Catholic with “Great and Abominable”). So so glad to hear the the BYU conference presented a more “generous and humble vision.” That’s good news!

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