Saturday, October 5, 2019

God Reveals Himself Through Narrative

         September 22 is a holy day within my faith, for it is a day of beginnings and of endings: the beginning of the Prophet Joseph’s work – and hopefully yours and mine as well – of bringing the Book of Mormon to all people. And the end of the ‘awful state of blindness’ in which the gentiles had been left by the loss of so many ‘plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb.’

And if you approach this holiday from the perspective of Sacred Time (a concept which has, sadly, been almost lost today) you just might experience it as a time of beginnings and endings in another way as well.

As night fell on the Sept. 21, the 196th anniversary of the angel Moroni’s appearance to the young Prophet, I read Moroni’s awful tale of the destruction of his people, when thousands of them were ‘hewn down in open rebellion against their God, and heaped up as dung upon the face of the land.’ And then, a week later, having finished the book and turning back to the beginning, my eyes once more took in those old, familiar words, ‘I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….’

From the perspective of the Nephites, time moved in cycles: their history as a nation began when their God led them out of captivity; they would prosper so long as they kept his commandments, and they would suffer when they forgot who it was that had delivered them in times past. But in the times of prosperity, pride always crept in after a little while, and so the people cycled in and out of God’s favor until, at last, they took their wickedness too far, turned away one too many chances to repent, and were destroyed from off the face of the Earth. Then God would bring in another people to possess the land, and the cycle would continue.

Meanwhile, amid all the toil and contention and bloodshed, and the sound and fury of rising and falling civilizations, the Savior stands with open arms to receive anybody who will forsake Babylon and all its works and choose the things of the Spirit.

That is the story which the Book of Mormon tells over and over again. To me, as a believer in Mormonism, it’s one of the most important stories ever told. And yet I don’t expect the summary I just gave to hold any weight for someone who hasn’t already read the book like I have, because there are just some things that can’t be reduced to any terms simpler than themselves. Scripture, and history in general, is one of those things.

And that finally brings me around to the central point of this whole post, namely, that God reveals himself through narrative.

The Bible doesn’t begin with a list of God’s attributes, or a list of his commandments, or a list of virtues and vices, or a list of things that people have to believe in order to be saved. Rather, its first words are simply ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.’

And that’s where you have to start if you want to understand what’s going on. You can’t simply say that since the Four Gospels contain the story of the ministry of the Lord himself, they overshadow the rest of the scriptures. You have to start in the beginning, when God gave his creatures life, and move from there to the covenant with Abraham, and the law of Moses, and on through the other events in their proper order, because Christ the Redeemer can only appear where Christ the Creator and Christ the Lawgiver have already tread.

At the most basic level, the scriptures are a history of God’s dealings with men. They’re not sacred because they’re infallible, nor because they form an ideal and complete picture of what our faith ought to be. They’re sacred because of their subject matter. God has chosen to reveal himself through narrative, and the Bible and Book of Mormon are the narratives that we’ve got.

People who try to reduce Mormonism, or any form of the Christian religion, to creeds, listings of the tenets of the faith, or encyclopedic compendia of doctrine will always produce only a pale imitation of the rich stories in which God is truly revealed.

And that is the reason why starting another annual reading of the Book of Mormon with those some words, ‘I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…’ brought me as much light and joy last Sunday as it did when I first got my own Book of Mormon at the age of eight.

There are some people in the church today who try to introduce investigators to the Book of Mormon starting with a few quotes cut out of 3 Nephi 11, under the impression that because that’s where Jesus appears in person at the temple in Bountiful, it must be the most important part. But when you really understand the importance of scripture-as-narrative, you can’t think that way. Mormon began the record with Lehi’s vision for a reason, and back in the days of Joseph Smith, when the new religion was able to grow from six believers to 25,000 in just fourteen years, each of those new converts began his or her faith journey with Father Lehi, the pillar of fire that dwelt on a rock, and the vision of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Is Christ absent from that vision? Of course not! The very first chapter states that the things which Lehi ‘read in the book manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.’ But Christ is revealed gradually, through narrative, in the thousand year story of a people who tried, at some times more sincerely than at others, to live by his commandments and walk in his light. The Lord’s personal appearances are brief, but the whole Nephite record is his story, and the whole Book of Mormon is his word.

And that holistic understanding of scripture-as-narrative will, I believe, do a much better job of bringing souls to Christ than any attempt to reduce our beliefs to a few vignettes, lists, creeds, or declarations of doctrine, no matter how Christ-centered they purport to be.

And that’s why, for me, drawing near to Jesus consists, in large part, of lighting my candle tomorrow evening, opening up my old Book of Mormon to the second weekly portion, and immersing myself in the tale of Lehi and Nephi and their wanderings in the desert.

Because that tale is how God has chosen to reveal himself to me.

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