January 31, 2011

Review, Douglas J. Davies, "Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition"

Title: Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision 
Author: Douglas J. Davies
Publisher: Ashgate
Genre: Theology
Year: 2010
Pages: 282, includes bibliography, index, and scriptural reference guide
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 9781409406709
Price: 29.95

Douglas J. Davies received the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year for his 1995 book Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes. Although he toned down the titling for his first two books on Mormonism (Introduction to Mormonism and Mormon Culture of Salvation), the professor of Religion at the University of Durham has returned to distinctive titles with his latest work, Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Satanic Opposition: Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision

As one of the foremost non-Mormon scholars of Mormonism, Davies is known for his penetrating insights and a somewhat disjointed organizational style. He retains the "academic and non-apologetic perspective" of his previous books while interpreting the "key paradigmatic scenes of [Mormonism's] salvation narratives" (1-2). In other words, he believes the Mormon approach to salvation can be better understood through the stories Mormons tell about "the glade, garden and council"—the sites of the First Vision, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the pre-mortal council in heaven.1 These three stories move along the plot of the Mormon "Plan of Salvation" (2). According to Davies, this plan as taught through narratives helps explain Mormonism's appeal and longevity. Shifting Mormon emphases on elements of the plan also demonstrate Mormonism's adaptation to changing circumstances. Finally, Davies hopes that exploring the plan will help readers understand how and why the Mormon view of salvation differs from that of other Christian groups. 

"Narrative," Davies asserts, "is of the essence of humanity." He divides Mormon sources into four "narrative streams" through which he explores Mormon thought: 1) The Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and the Bible, 2) The Doctrine & Covenants and "personal testimonies," 3) "thousands of written diaries, histories, and personal journals", and 4) formal LDS history. This unusual division is encompassed within the "grand narrative" of the Plan of Salvation (3-4). The division allows Davies to draw from a huge variety of Mormon sources past and present to demonstrate the Plan's place in Mormon thought. It also allows him to sidestep the sticky question of authoritative or "official doctrine" because he is discussing how different Mormons have engaged their scriptural and prophetic tradition rather than outlining how all should engage it. If Mormon history has tended to overshadow Mormon theology in publications, this book reverses that order, which despite its shortcomings should at least prove useful in helping other writers identify and include more theological subjects in historical works. It stands as an interesting look at theology in its own right, however.   

Davies understands various Mormon thinkers as engaging with "a textual and ritual pool of potential orientations to the world" provided by the "revelations" of Joseph Smith. I employ the scare quotes around "revelations" to underscore Davies's effort to bracket the question of Smith's actual interactions with God. Davies's Joseph Smith is not quite a pious fraud and certainly not a deliberate impostor, nor did he literally speak to God. Rather, Smith "creatively engaged with the cultural resources of his day" and participated in "creative interplay with his closest associates" to solve religious questions. Davies holds that Smith had staying power "not only [because he] addressed contemporary ills, disputes and queries but [because he] also furnished bases for those future concerns that ever beset humanity in the quest to conquer death, gain a meaningful basis for family life, find mutual support and acquire an ethic of survival in a potentially hostile world." Mormonism's vitality can be explained by the fact that Smith and his followers shaped these goals into a "unified focus in a narrative accessible to all," the Plan of Salvation (10-11).

Davies understands the Mormon worldview as consisting of a cosmic battle between good and evil. The Plan of Salvation is the means by which God helps humanity navigate through the evil in order to progress to a higher state of existence. The main confrontation is embodied in the persons of Jesus and Satan at the pre-mortal council in heaven, at Gethsemane, and in the grove of trees where Satan tried to thwart Joseph Smith's attempt at prayer. Davies shows how Mormon views of grace, sin, accountability, freedom, salvation, and other issues are given meaning through the stories Mormons tell, above all, the story of the Plan of Salvation. 

For instance, Davies sees the Mormon focus on personal trial and effort as being exemplified by Jesus in Gethsemane, where Jesus appears to make a deliberate personal choice to suffer for the sins of the world instead of passively receiving pain, as he appears to do on the cross in some of the Gospel accounts. Davies believes Mormon proactivity helps account for, or is at least symbolized by, the apparent emphasis on the atonement in Gethsemane and lack of crucifixion iconography (chapter seven). Davies also includes more incidental examples, such as how the Mormon emphasis on freedom to make choices might manifest itself in peculiar Mormon phraseology such as the term "opportunity," as in, "we thank thee for the opportunity to do such-and-such," a term which my wife and I can't help but use sometimes, despite joking about how frequently we hear it in church meetings (227). In Mormonism life itself is composed of opportunities in which Mormon agency is tested.  

Davies's anthropological background (which may, parenthetically, help account for the somewhat scattered approach) invites a few stunning insights. Consider his discussion about the potential effects of thought and sin upon pain in the human body: "Just as a 'thought' may trigger a blush so, albeit on a different scale, Christ's 'thoughtful' engagement with evil triggered the physiology of 'sweated blood.'" He includes the story of a woman who, while working with many terminally ill patients, experienced a "total physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual agony" which helped her better appreciate the struggle her patients experienced (150-151).  

In some cases Davies traces the historical development of a particular Mormon doctrine (such as the shift in the role of Jesus from an Old Testament Jehovah to a more salvation-oriented Christ)2, but more often he provides snapshots of various Mormon views without chronological consideration. Thus the book reads as variations on themes instead of a systematic explanation of the Plan of Salvation, or of the book's three main characters. If anything, his approach underscores how intertwined history and theology can be and invites further exploration of the development of Mormon theology.   

The book is brimming with insights drawn out by Davies's self-described "theoretical and practical" approach. Elements of architecture, hymnody, liturgy, and art receive attention throughout in the midst of discussion about salvation, priesthood, or the atonement. Davies even contributes a piece of art on the book's cover which doesn't fit well within current mainstream LDS art but which nevertheless might resonate with Latter-day Saints. Jennifer Bell and Stephen McWhirter's "Gethsemane" appears to represent darkness enveloping traces of Christ's blood. At the center of the pattern of blood a bright point of light shines, radiating out like a star, perhaps a powerful symbol of hope and direction in the midst of suffering and darkness.  

Davies's understanding of how Mormons make use of the Plan of Salvation through their scriptural texts and rituals also helps him frame the emergence of certain novel LDS positions. Thus Davies briefly discusses similar issues he has raised in earlier books on Mormonism including blood atonement, Adam-God theories, plural marriage, and the restriction of priesthood from blacks. Since these themes have been covered in his earlier works it is unclear why they require restating here. Their inclusion often seems peripheral or disjointed, which is my main complaint about the book. True, he discusses "Atonement, Evil and the Mormon Vision" as the subtitle suggests, but he discusses so many other issues with equal prominence that the subtitle may well have been "A nice meandering talk about Mormonism by an insightful English Anglican." Framing LDS thought through the plan of salvation is a great move, but perhaps Davies strays from it too often. I would have liked a little more focus on the Plan of Salvations's development as a missionary tool, for example. And although he includes older Mormon pop culture views of the Plan like Nephi Anderson's Added Upon, he misses more recent iterations like Saturday's Warrior.3 Overall, however, Davies's insights make up for his meandering; I enjoyed the side roads even if I didn't understand how they connected to the overall destination. But with so many reiterated themes from his former work, why this new book? 

First, it allows Davies to revise or reiterate claims which have received responses from reviewers. One reviewer pointed out Davies's apparent overlooking of Old Testament influences in early LDS thought. Chapter two of this book, "Mormon-Israel," focuses specifically on that point.4 Adjustments to his depiction of grace in Mormon thought seem directly influenced by David Paulsen's response, although Davies may yet not satisfy Paulsen.5

A second, related reason for the book concerns Davies's ability to foster continuing dialog between Mormons and other Christians. Whether it be dissecting claims of worshiping a "different Jesus" (222), or describing the place of hierarchy within Christian traditions versus individual piety (223), or correcting the mistaken notion that Protestants don't believe in merit-based salvation (226), Davies finds fresh ways to frame old conundrums. Because Davies is familiar with several contemporary Mormon writers including Blake Ostler, Richard Bushman, and David Paulsen, his book should also foster dialog amongst Mormons themselves, including multiple restoration movements (he occasionally discusses the so-called Stangite and Community of Christ traditions). 

Whether readers agree or disagree with Davies's analysis he raises insightful questions for Mormon theologians. For instance, his description of the ambiguous role of the Holy Ghost in the Godhead (his? nature, identity, place in the overall plan timeline, etc.) proposes a fascinating project for Mormon thinkers (chapter eleven). At the same time, the book isn't without a few glaring problems. One of his bigger gaffes occurs during his description of the Book of Abraham when he cites the thoroughly-discredited Dee Jay Nelson (117).6 Still, this book deserves to be read for the same reason given in glowing reviews of his earlier work: Davies carefully and honestly engages with Mormon thought in a non-polemical way that promotes further dialog and understanding of Mormonism. His outsider's perspective should provoke reflection and new insights for life-long Mormons, and it should also help non-Mormons understand the strength and structure of the Mormon worldview as encompassed by the Plan of Salvation. 

1. Davies appears to have been inspired by an Edward Tullidge poem he calls "Gathering of the Grand Council of Hell" from The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star, 20.1 (1858): 14-16, which covers the same three scenes. Davies's scenes reminded me of Bruce R. McConkie's seminal conference address, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane," in which McConkie describes the "three gardens of God," the Gardens of Eden, Gethsemane, and the Empty Tomb, respectively (McConkie, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane", Ensign, May 1985). Davies refers to this address during his discussion of the atonement (143-147). Although Davies does not include the Garden of Eden in his paradigmatic stories, LDS temple rites portray the same sort of struggle between Jesus, Satan, and others which Davies's book explores. Davies generally discusses temple rituals with great care, although one brief passage may seem inappropriate to some Mormons (183).

2. Davies can thus be read as emphasizing a progression from one to the other, or as explaining how different historical emphases have led to a more multi-faceted understand of Jesus in the contemporary LDS Church.

3. Incidentally, in discussing shifting LDS emphases of the Plan of Salvation Davies hypothesizes that the presence of Satan is "already less in evidence," pointing to new Church DVDs which no longer depict Joseph Smith's description of satanic interruption in the Sacred Grove. Saturday's Warrior not only seems to leave out Satan, but it seems to largely leave out God and Jesus as well (235).

4. See Walter E. A. Van Beek, "A Comparative Exercise in Mormon Theology, A review of 'An Introduction to Mormonism' by Douglas J. Davies," FARMS Review vol.16 no.2, 319-28.

5. See David L. Paulsen and Cory G. Walker, "Work, Worship, and Grace: A review of 'The Mormon Culture of Salvation' by Douglas J. Davies," FARMS Review vol.18 no.2, 83-177. Davies incorporates several sources from Paulsen's response, not always for reasons expected. An in-depth comparison of his previous works, Paulsen's response, and the current book would be interesting but exceeds the scope of this review.

6. For a brief discussion of Nelson, see John A. Tvedtnes, "Nothing New under the Sun," FARMS Review vol. 10 no.1, 264-70. Minor gaffes include instances of non-uniform name spelling (Hyram and Hyrum Smith, Sydney and Sidney Rigdon, etc.) and some slightly inaccurate quotes ("philosophies of the wise" p. 144 should read "the philosophies of men and the wisdom of the wise," McConkie, ibid.), etc.

Also see Aaron R.'s insightful review at bycommonconsent.


WVS said...

Thanks, Blair. Very useful

Edje said...


Aaron R. said...

This is really excellent Blair. Alos, thank you for the HT.

BHodges said...

Thanks guys. As Aaron would probably attest to, it's sort of a difficult book to review.

Ben said...

Thanks, Blair.

Matt W. said...

Blair, is it fair to say that Davies considers Empathy to be the primary function of the atonement in Mormon Theology then?

BHodges said...

No, but he sees it as an important aspect. He seems married to the idea that Mormons understand the atonement as Christ's suffering for our sins (in a penal way, though he doesn't get that specific) and conquering death, thus granting "salvation" to all. Then, for exaltation, Mormons are responsible to do the work. His inclusion of the discussion on empathy etc. seems peripheral and somewhat disjointed in the atonement chapter, he doesn't systematically trace diverging atonement theories in Mormonism.

J. Stapley said...

Thanks for the review, Blaire. Very helpful.

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