August 6th, 2009


From Twitter 08-05-2009

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Thursdays with Moroni, Part 1: Yo Joe!

I'll admit I don't really know that much about Mormonism. Sure, I've heard all the stuff about magic underwear, gold plates buried in New York, and Jesus hanging around in the American Midwest, but that's about the extent of it. So I've decided to actually read through the Book of Mormon. But first, I thought I should get a little background on the founder of the Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, Jr. Throughout his life, he managed to piss a lot of people off, go into debt, get convicted of bank fraud, marry several underage girls, and have himself declared King of Nauvoo, Illinois. Sounds like a guy you can trust with spiritual truths, right? But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that followers of religious movements don't care how jerky their founders were. In fact, if they're being criticized, that just means they're misunderstood and persecuted.

Smith's claim is that the Book of Mormon was translated from some hidden gold plates that he found with the assistance of the angel Moroni. The plates were written in a language that he called "Reformed Egyptian," which was what King Tut spoke after getting back from reform school. No, that wasn't his actual explanation, but it makes about as much sense. In order to translate them, he used glasses made out of the Urim and Thummim, which he had found buried with the plates. These objects are mentioned in the Bible as items carried by ancient Jewish priests, and their description sounds like their use was sort of the priestly equivalent of flipping coins, used to answer questions with two possible responses. How such things could be used to translate a text isn't clear, but I tend to think that Joe just wanted names that sounded mystically Biblical, without really caring much about the original context. And he apparently hid the plates away again rather than, say, donating them to a museum so that their authenticity wouldn't be in dispute.

Anyway, since the Book of Mormon was originally published in English, I figured I wouldn't have the same trouble in deciding between different editions that I did with the Bible and other books written in foreign languages. Then I found out that there were quite a few edits over the years. So I decided to stick to a scan of the original 1830 edition, at least for the time being.

Having read 1 Nephi, it's obvious that Smith was going for a style similar to that of the King James Bible, but he wasn't really that good at it, and some of the passages look like they were written by an Elizabethan first grader. Take 1 Nephi 1:93-97, for instance:

"And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod?...Behold thou shalt go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. And after the angel had spoken to us, he departed. And after that the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying, how is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands?"

Was it absolutely necessary to be that repetitive? How about at least a bit of variation in the word choice? There's another sentence describing a sword, whichcontains the word "thereof" four times.

Anyway, the book is narrated in first person by Nephi, an inhabitant of the Kingdom of Judah around 600 BC. He journeys out into the wilderness with his father and brothers. The brothers rebel against him approximately 50,000 times during the events of the book, but always end up coming back around. Before they begin their journey, however, they are told by an angel to retrieve the brass plates containing their family's history from some guy named Laban (same name as the father of Leah and Rachel in Genesis, but not the same guy). They fail multiple times, but finally Nephi kills Laban, and then impersonates Laban's voice in order to fool his servant. A prophet who's also a master impressionist? This guy MUST be good!

After getting the plates, Nephi and his family are directed through the wilderness by a "round ball" (I'd say that's redundant, but I guess a football counts as a ball, so maybe not) made of brass. Eventually, Nephi is directed to build a ship "not after the manner of men," which the family uses to sail to America, where they somehow manage to find horses and other animals that weren't yet known in the New World.

Also worth mentioning is that, before sailing to America, Nephi has a vision of the future, including the birth of Jesus to Mary, who is described as "exceeding fair and white." Later, European settlers to America are described as "white, and exceeding fair and beautiful, like unto my people." Wait, so they were Semites with the complexions of Scandinavians? But then, I've heard that racism was a central tenet of Mormonism until fairly recently, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Well, that's all for now. I plan to make this a weekly feature, but who knows how it will work out?