Monday, December 17, 2007

And it came.....[snore]

The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni, Read by Dr. Lael J. Woodbury, Latter Day Saints Church

Mark Twain nailed it right out the gate.

…so ‘slow,’ so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

About a year ago, when the 2008 election was just getting its boots on and names were being bandied about, I’d been noticing all the usual signs. McCain decided he’d have to be Pander Bear to some right-wing religious institutions he’d taken a few swipes at earlier. Giuliani was vamping a bunch more in the press. And Willard “Mitt” Romney decided that he had never been right about a single matter to come before him prior to this moment, but now he was sure of the correct positions to take.

I checked out each of the candidates and the one who seemed most likely to win the GOP nod to be 2008’s sacrificial lamb was Willard. Now, take that for what it’s worth. I also predicted 2004 was Howard Dean’s year — and that didn’t go over so well.

Needless to say, some research was in order. Several years ago, when the wife and I were first a-courtin’, we came to a compromise position on religion. I would attend church with her despite my unbelief, on the condition that I could ignore the service and read whatever religious texts I wanted to while there. I was in the process of reading all the major works of western philosophy and you can’t get far in that realm without a little Bible under your belt (which I had already read once back in my Catholic school days). So, I reread the Bible, moved on to several various esoteric non-canonical books, then read the Koran, the Tao Te Ching, the Discourses of the Buddha, and was just starting in on Hinduism when we essentially ceased going to church at all.

Well, having made it through at least a few biggies, I let things slip. (The birth of a child will really cut into your reading time too.) But with what appeared to be Willard’s slick salesmanship, and figuring that his nomination was almost inevitable (despite that whole fundie Mormonism = cult thing), I decided it was time to read The Book of Mormon.

And luckily, this decision fell right around the time I was listening to boatloads of audiobooks. I wondered, was there an audio version of the Mormon scriptures? Well, yes, there was, offered for free as a download from the Latter Day Saints website. You had to register (which means I still get occasional mass emailings from the church [which I dutifully delete, that being easier than going to their site to fill out a “why don’t you want to get our emails anymore?” form]), and then you could download the whole book in all its glory.

Reader Dr. Lael J. Woodbury has a pleasant enough voice, but no matter how honeyed his delivery, he can’t make this book even remotely interesting. Smith was no storyteller and this supposedly holy work lacks any of the zip and zest that the bloodthirsty Old Testament and Koran bring to the table. It lacks the philosophical bent of the New Testament and eastern religious texts. It, in fact, lacks much of a point.

All in all, what the book is is a bland mush of stories about reputed descendants of the Israelites who sailed away shortly after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem only to found a colony and kingdom(s) in the North/South American continents. No one is really sure where they landed, no archeological evidence has ever been uncovered to support this idea, and the only one making the case is Joseph Smith (or his angel Moroni).

What you’re given then are a bunch of ludicrous fake Israeli-ish names like Lephi, Nephi, Ether, Lamanites, Mosiah, Omni, and so on, rather like George Lucas letting his children name his characters and them coming up with Count Dooku. There are wonderfully absurd moments of childish-sounding passages like when we talk about the Lehi-Nephiites and their battle against the Lamanites, etc.

While there is some argument about whether or not Smith plagiarized much of his book from an earlier published tract entitled View of the Hebrews, what is obvious is how much is plagiarized from the Bible and from Shakespeare and other sources. In an early chapter in the second book of Nephi, we are treated to a quote regarding an undiscovered country “from whence no traveler can return.” (Not only is Joseph Smith’s god unoriginal, he apparently is also redundant.)

There is also such repeated liftings from the Book of Revelation such as a constant refrain of a favorite passage of millenialists “wars and rumors of wars.” Why this specific phrase should turn up in a book supposedly written in 600 BC, essentially prior to the Book of Revelation, circa 65 AD, and in its King James formulation, I can’t say, though I suspect “miraculous” might be how Mormons would depict it.

If you were to trim from The Book of Mormon all the plagiarisms, all the usage of the phrase “and it came to pass” what I suspect you’d be left with is quite a short story. And that’s what’s so weird about this book and its place in the LDS canon. The book simply adds nothing whatsoever to one’s beliefs. Oh sure, there are a few stories of wars (which is the bulk of the book; the Nephites war against the Lamanites, the Lamanites war against the Nephites; the main character of the specific story dies and is replaced by his son; and then the Lamanites war against the Nephites), but there are no real stories. Some plot points occur, but they are never illustrative of a greater point, they are not memorable, and they don’t echo down through the rest of the text as historical examples.

And as far as redundancies padding out the length, take a bite out of this passage:

But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.

And the whole book is rife with this kind of inflated language and piled up passages. What’s worse, the opening page claims that the whole thing is an abridgement. If the book isn’t rementioning the gold plates (as though we’d forget that absurdity), ripping off the KJV, endlessly tacking on “and it came to pass,” then it’s going on about “whoredoms,” which seems to consume generations of Nephites. They all go on and on about the exact same sets of issues regardless of when they were supposed to be living. Pick any two books out of the Bible and even though the same translating process is involved, you’ll find different areas of emphasis, different takes on the same doctrines, different voices. Not so here.

Say what you want about the sheer absurdity of the Old Testament, but the stories there were well-hewn retellings of oral fables with lots of editorial input and rewriting. The stories, as stories, are often quite evocative and they jar the memory because they were told for a very compelling reason. People need stories to make sense of their lives and the popularity and longevity of those stories illuminates something of the human condition. We remember David and Goliath not because it’s a wicked bit of combat, because we’ve all had the experience of going up against someone (or something) bigger than us. Judas’ kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane sticks in our craw because who hasn’t been stabbed in the back by a trusted friend? And who hasn’t wanted she-bears to tear apart forty-two small children for their mockery?

There’s nothing even remotely approaching that in The Book of Mormon. No great stories, no universal human condition, no soaring poetry. Worst of all, there’s no new doctrine. Outside of believing in the book because it says it is true, there are no new rules of behavior codified in the Mormon bible at all. It advocates nothing the earlier Bible didn’t already and it outlaws nothing not explicitly outlawed by the Bible. All the LDS’s doctrinal teaching comes from later sources. Even the book’s racism is second-hand.

So what’s the point?

A number of previous commenters on The Book of Mormon go to great lengths to “disprove” the book based on things like its King James plagiarism includes the same translator’s errors that earlier Bible had or that The Book of Ether mentions honeybees in America in 2000BC when that insect wasn’t introduced to the continent until Spanish conquistadores brought them over in the 1400s. Who gives a shit if The Book of Mormon is fake? I’m sure it is, but I don’t particularly care to debate that.

What I find most objectionable about the book is that it’s ludicrous even by religious text standards, it’s irrelevant within its own purported field, and that it’s just utterly and overwhelmingly dull, forgettable, and trite. Several times during the reading, I thought to myself, wait, didn’t I listen to this part already? It took me well over six months to listen to the whole thing, and several times I considered throwing up my hands and just deleting it all from my iPod and getting on with my life.

But I soldiered on. And now, at the very end of it all, what do I recall specifically from The Book of Mormon that I could relate to you?

And it came to pass.

Nothing more, nothing more at all.

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