October 10, 2008

Reading With New Eyes

Likening With Care, Part 12
Take a quick look at this old FedEx logo. You've probably seen it hundreds of times, blue and orange; a shortened way of saying Federal Express. But there is more to this logo than first meets the eye.

About 18 years ago the FARMS Review published a review of Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert Millet's commentary on the Book of Mormon. The reviewer described what he felt was lacking in the commentary's overall approach:
My view is that [the authors] would have been more successful if they had been less concerned that the reader be coached on correct versions of what a Mormon ought to believe on a host of matters, and more concerned about attempting to get clear on the beliefs, practices, and understandings of divine things in the world called forth by the text, which necessarily includes much more than a collection of precise little doctrinal assertions or allusions, always seen through the lens of how we currently tend to understand such things.1
Just such an attempt as Midgley desired can be seen throughout Gardner's new Book of Mormon commentary, Second Witness. Gardner attempts to draw meaning from the text rather than constructing a theology into it from current LDS understanding. Thus, even when a reader disagrees with Gardner's hypothesis, he has likely highlighted something the reader has missed before, making them think about it in a new way. The commentary is most effective because the Book of Mormon becomes true for its own sake, for those who lived in the past, in addition to how it interacts with current LDS thought.

Take, for example, Gardner's discussion of Alma's baptizing himself in Mosiah 18. Most commentaries have attempted to present this baptism as somehow equal to baptism in the Church today, thus issues of priesthood authority and correct administration of the rite are the fundamental questions to be answered. Thus Gardner cites Joseph Fielding Smith and Daniel Ludlow, who both approached the verses in that way, though neither claimed their views could definitively be solved by an appeal to the text only.2 He brings in a newer (and he believes better) take on the baptism, however:
First, we should clearly understand what Alma is doing. He introduces baptism to his believers. Because it is called "baptism" it is very easy to presume that we know exactly what the idea meant in this ancient context. That would be too simple. First, we must remember that the conception of a whole-body washing for personal purity was long a part of Israelite religion. The miqveh was a rite of washing for the cleansing of the person. It is probably this native Jewish rite that John the Baptists expands into his baptism...3
He continues, citing others who have discussed similar possibilities. The key is that Alma's baptism takes on a deeper meaning when Gardner attempts to situate it in the larger culture of the Book of Mormon peoples rather than imposing a current understanding of baptism back into the text. Introducing the concept of the miqveh rite brings a new view to the text, a possible concept that was always there but wasn't necessarily seen.

These verses can still be likened unto our day, but they also have more internal significance; Alma is a real person performing a real rite that isn't equal to what we do today but held a similar important significance. The text becomes new. Think of the FedEx logo above. Again, you've seen it a hundred times, but when someone points out the subtle message of speed, efficiency, and movement embedded in the logo signified by a hidden arrow, it becomes new. Did you ever see it before?

Now that you've seen it there it becomes easier to see it again elsewhere:

There are good things to be said for likening in the traditional sense of simply applying verses to our day.4 Latter-day Saints read the scriptures in order to find current value therein, and can assuredly do so without noticing many of the nuances or alternate interpretations. Still, these efforts can also wind up "divert[ing] attention away from the message and meaning in the text under consideration, back towards what we already know."5 Gardner seeks to find deep meaning in the Book of Mormon and whether readers agree with his analysis or not, his work remains valuable if for nothing other than making the reader do so likewise.


I'd like to thank Brant Gardner for participating in the series "Likening With Care." His commentary can be purchased here. An older pre-publication version of the commentary is available here.

See Louis Midgley, "Prophetic Messages or Dogmatic Theology? Commenting on the Book of Mormon: A Review Essay (A review of "Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon: Volume I, Volume II" by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet)," FARMS Review 1:1 (1989).

Joseph Fielding Smith wrote of the ordinance: "We may conclude that Alma held the priesthood before he, with others, became disturbed with King Noah. Whether this is so or not makes no difference because in the Book of Mosiah it is stated definitely that he had authority…"(Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Deseret Book, 1960, v.3, p. 203).

See Second Witness vol. 3, Mosiah 18, or the online rough draft at Gardner's website here. In his discussion of these verses Gardner also cites Daniel C. Peterson, "Priesthood in Mosiah." The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only Through Christ, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1991.

An interesting discussion along these lines from which I drew some of my points occurred on the By Common Consent blog. See Ronan, "Christensen and Midgley on Mormon Pedagogy," Sept. 22, 2008.

Midgley, opt. cit.

October 6, 2008

Bill Maher's "Religulous"

The series "Liken With Care" with Book of Mormon scholar Brant Gardner will conclude on Wednesday. Meanwhile, enjoy some ruminations on a new film by Bill Maher. I note here that I have not yet seen the film, but I have read apx. 25 reviews whose opinions range from praise to disgust, and I've recently read a handful of articles and watched several interviews with Maher himself on the movie. These comments, then, represent an outsider's analysis and not a review of the film proper.

Comedian-turned political pundit Bill Maher’s new film “Religulous” (combining the words “religion” and “ridiculous”) appears to be another product of the so-called “New Atheism” movement. CNN’s Simon Hooper noted this movement is composed of various “thinkers and writers...[who share] a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”1

Maher and the other spokesmen believe that developments in technology, including weapons of mass destruction, have made humanity so powerful that religion’s basis in faith is likely to destroy the world through irrational conflict. Further, religious belief in general is seen as foolish and out of date compared to the enlightenment of current scientific thought. Maher’s film, then, is designed to entertainingly demonstrate that religion is both dangerous and irrational.

Reviewers have described it as an in-your-face piece of pop culture “that doesn’t pretend to be a serious cultural or scientific exploration of the roots of faith.” With an attitude of “glib condescension” Maher travels the world interviewing various people of faith, excluding all eastern religions. His “main strategy is to coax most of those subjects who are true believers to appear foolish as they offer stumbling, inarticulate responses to his friendly interrogations. The majority of his subjects are easy targets.”2

Another reviewer noted “Instead of doing serious and thoughtful research, instead of presenting us with (admittedly less entertaining) data about the influence of particular religious beliefs or institutions, instead of investigating the good works of people inspired by religion or the benefits of faith-based programs, instead of trying to understand the appeal of religious faith he seeks out the people on the fringes and pretty much makes fun of them.”3

The Salt Lake Tribune provided a synopsis of the film’s brief treatment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Just less than an hour into Religulous, Bill Maher is shown doing his stand-up act, talking about religions that believe in really crazy stuff - even by the standards of the major religions.

Thus begins four minutes of criticism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Maher then is shown talking in front of the Salt Lake Temple. But not for long, as a couple of burly guys in Mr. Mac suits - labeled Mormon Fuzz - quickly shoo Maher and his camera crew off church property.

The rest of the movie's Mormon segment is Maher's interview with two well-known ex-Mormons: singer Tal Bachman (son of Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive) and former LDS bishop Bill Gardiner, who's now a prominent member of the Ex-Mormon Foundation.

Maher goes over some of the tenets of Mormonism, with mocking illustrations. The mention of temple garments includes a photo of a man and a woman in their magic underwear. Talk of the belief that American Indians are a lost tribe of Judaism brings up a brief clip from Blazing Saddles, of Mel Brooks wearing Indian regalia and muttering in Yiddish.4
Given the brief time devoted and the fact that Maher’s two main sources on Mormonism are former members of the Church, Latter-day Saints should not expect a well-rounded treatment of their faith. Why were these two selected? Mormons were mentioned again in the film when Maher interviews an astronomer from the Vatican. When asked why the Vatican would be interested in science the priest says that "Well, I can tell you that we are not here trying to find other planets just so we can get to them and convert everyone-- and beat the Mormons to it." That's one I can definitely have a good laugh about.5

Some of Maher's explanations of how the film was created exhibit his less-than-forthright approach. He explained to the Los Angeles Times: "It was simple: We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it `A Spiritual Journey.' ... At the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me."6

Maher’s film is intended to be a comedy, not a reliable exploration of faith, but rather a polemical and purposefully irreverent method of ridicule geared more to entertain than educate; more commercial product than scholarly endeavor. It sounds the call of the “new atheist” movement toward what its proponents see as a more rational and enlightened worldview, but does so without responsibly or fairly engaging its target. Even if Maher’s position was correct, the brash, confrontational style interferes with the message and will likely resonate most with those already committed to viewing religion as merely silly.

Reviewer Shawn P. Means described the close of the film: “...the laughs are shut off in the final reel, when [Maher] unloads on the violence done in the name of religion (complete with images of 9/11, suicide bombings and George W. Bush's invocations of God) and urges humanity to "grow up or die."7 But what does Maher suggest people “grow up” to be? Perhaps the weakest point of the film is its failure to offer any viable replacement for faith. The faithful can certainly join with Maher in abhorring the excesses and evils perpetrated in the name of religion, but in calling the religious to abandon their faith, hope and charity, perhaps all Maher offers in return is the consolation that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature,” and that “when a man was dead, that was the end thereof” (Alma 30:17-18). If Maher is serious in thinking religion is going to lead to a nuclear disaster or worse in the near future and this film is the best he can do to help prevent it, he's not an extremely responsible or caring person, or he's not that convinced about the impending doom.Otherwise, he could have made efforts to actually reach out to the ones he believes should be feared rather than simply mocking.

Simon Hooper, “The rise of the 'New Atheists'” CNN Briefingroom, posted November 9, 2006. It should be noted on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show with John Stewart” Maher described himself as agnostic (one who does not know if God exists) rather than atheistic, a position he views as the mirror image of any dogmatic and blind faith-based religion. He does not examine the potential of his own views being dogmatic or “religious.” On this topic, see Louis C. Midgley, “Atheists and Cultural Mormons Promote a Naturalistic Humanism: Review of Religion, Femminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue by George D. Smith," FARMS Review of Books 7:1 (1995), 229–297. Other participants in the unofficial “New Atheism” are not as shy as Maher in proclaiming there is no god. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens have each recently published books as part of the unofficial New Atheism movement. For more on this movement and on science and religion generally, see the following reviews: Allen R. Buskirk, “Science, Pseudoscience, and Religious Belief (A review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan),” FARMS Review 17:1 (2005), 273-309; Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens,” FARMS Review 19:2 (2007), xi-xlvi; David Grandy, “Ideology in the Guise of Science (A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins),” FARMS Review 19:2 (2007), 239-243.

Stephen Holden, “Believers, Skeptics and a Pool of Sitting Ducks,” New York Times, October 1, 2008.

Nell Minow, “Religulous,” Beliefnet.com, October 2, 2008.

Sean P. Means, “Review: Maher takes on religion but sounds like he's preaching to the agnostic choir,Salt Lake Tribune, October 2, 2008.

Spoiler for Religulous, by "kevin," Themoviespoiler.com.

Patrick Goldstein, "Maher documentary jabs at religion," Los Angeles Times, Aug 16, 2008.