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|Joseph Smith as the anti-Mystic|
Mar. 7th, 2008 at 12:38 pm
How does Joseph’s flagship religious tract, Book of Mormon, compare to the works of famous mystics like William Blake, Swedenborg, the Bagavad Gita, the Kaballah, or even Nostradamus? As mystical literature, I’m afraid, the Book of Mormon is very disappointing. It’s too naturalistic, and there’s not enough fantasy. While Krishna is flying around in his airplanes, Coriantumr is decapitating Shiz. While Swedenborg is communing with heavenly spirits in the celestial realms, Ammon is chopping off some arms. And it’s too easy to understand; you want vague and poetic stuff, that people really have to chew on, and are never quite sure they’ve understood. That’ll keep their attention. And when they’re wrong, we can always just claim the interpretation was wrong, rather than the holy revealed text itself.
The only parts of the Book of Mormon that do that were either censored (the “sealed portion”) or cribbed from Isaiah, and you could have saved yourself three bucks and just read the original from the Bible, but anyway Ezekiel’s the Old Testament prophet to go with if you really want to trip out. If you’re going to invent a new scripture, the Book of Mormon is exactly the opposite kind of book a mystic would write.
You’d want to write something full of feel-good platitudes. Any the visions or spiritual journeys should be conveniently located in other worlds or dimensions, or better yet in the afterlife so no one could come back and contradict you. Any episodes located in actual history should be distant and human-scaled, rather than depicting the course of an entire civilization. (Joseph Smith can’t let it go at just one, of course. While still describing one civilization’s rise and fall, he goes on to describe two more!)
In other words, if you were really smart, you should write something like this. Joseph’s output doesn’t compare favorably to this at all. It isn’t feel-good, first of all. It doesn’t talk enough about love and peace and what a wonderful person you, the reader, are, or at least can be with minimal effort and none of this self-esteem busting notions of sin and repentance. And Joseph’s book is too detailed and naturalistic. Sure, there’s the occasional Liahona or angelic visit, but the narrative is short on the thrilling details about the operation of spiritual realms. The Book of Mormon is: preach, get rich, fight wars and starve in famines, rinse and repeat.
Boring stuff for mystics, who from time immemorial have preferred the ethereal to the earthly, and the cosmic to the concrete. While some try to claim that the tools and materials Joseph Smith used were products of his time, it has only become possible to claim that the more remote those who make the claim are from the actual times Joseph assimilated. Seerstones were used for remote viewing, it is true, but never for translation. (And the Urim and Thummim was and is an exceedingly obscure referent.) I can’t find any contemporary references to metal plates of records, only metal armor and such. The idea of metal plates to keep records was roundly mocked at the time (another case of an ugly wart turning out to be an evidence for its claims). His contemporaries found the book to be foolishness and a scandal; as a product of its times it should have been better received.
Of course, all this doesn’t prove Smith wasn’t a fraud. It only proves he wasn’t a mystic. His failure to adopt the mystic role limits much of his appeal, because, as Bushman writes, Joseph Smith insisted on anchoring his prophetic output in the real world. Swedenborg is enjoying a renaissance because his visions can be decoupled from their concrete referents, and even some of its Christian theology. I doubt Madonna has much interest in becoming Jew, yet she is an enthusiastic practitioner of a form of Kaballah, of all things.
While some cultural Mormons want to insist you can do the same thing with the Book of Mormon, I don’t think you can, and neither does Bushman. The Book of Mormon won’t let you. It’s too detailed, too naturalistic, too concrete, not metaphorical enough. As Dale Morgan (cultural, but unbelieving, Mormon) wrote to Juanita Brooks, a believer:
It also shows the remarkable chutzpah of Joseph Smith. If he didn’t produce the Book of Mormon the way he claimed he did, then he was either very stupid, or incredibly bold. As Ellsworth writes in another context, Joseph was always swinging for the fences.