Mythology, Apology, and Plausibility – Reading Nephi – 17:23-47 – Overview

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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I Nephi 17:23-47

In mythically promoting our history we risk undermining it—at least we do so in today’s information age. But this chapter with Laman and Nephi sparring makes me think that perhaps this is always the case. We glorify and mythologize our founders so that they can carry the weight of our cultural superstructures—to make them worthy of our adoration and emulation. Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammad and Joseph Smith all become mythical figures, embodiments of perfection, superlatively superlified, something far greater than what we experience in our everyday—and consequently, something worthy of adoration and emulation. The end result, however, is inevitably what Jesus discovered: that no prophet—not even the Messiah—is considered a prophet in their own country. The mythologizing removes our heroes from the everyday, from the mundane, from humanity, from earth—and consequently whatever we discover on earth is conspicuously less, patently does not live up to our implicit or explicit expectations, our mythology-spawned standards. Ezra Booth was converted by the magnificent power and spirit of the Restoration. He was quickly unconverted by Joseph Smith who didn’t even meet the standards of an educated or culturally refined person in his day, let alone the super-standards of Protestant notions of prophethood.

Today we’ve either wed the Protestants’ notions or otherwise generated our own historically false notions of what a prophet is. Consequently, we have a lot of Ezra Booths among us—or leaving us—today.

Nephi is of course savvy with his reference back to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt. Laman obviously knew of Moses, and we have every reason to think that the story of Moses was foundational to his own theology. Laman exonerates Jerusalem from Lehi’s (and the other prophets’) criticism specifically because Jerusalem kept the law of Moses. Jerusalem is the Promised Land, the land of their inheritance. These beliefs of Laman assume the divine nature of the Exodus. Even moreso, Nephi’s contemporary (New World) audience believed in the Exodus, and here Nephi legitimizes his own efforts by recalling the mythological Exodus and uniting it with the narrative of Lehi’s exodus, in turn creating a new founding narrative. I suspect that this worked well with the contemporary audience—those Nephites living in or near the land of Nephi, those who either had no personal experience of Lehi’s exodus, or had experienced it decades previous, allowing for it to gain the mythical status of a capital-E Exodus. At the same time, I suspect it didn’t do much for Laman and Lemuel in Bountiful who could easily discern the difference between the mythologized Exodus of Moses (which they believed in) and the filthy, wretched, suffering-infused exodus of Lehi (which they lived).

We particularly struggle with this scenario today. One common reaction to the mass proliferation of historical information concerning our founding generation and its miracles—warts and all—is to retrench and proliferate fairytales about the Restoration and the perfection of our heroes who carried it off. This approach doesn’t work.

I think we have two choices. We will either need to come to grips with the fact that God calls mortals as prophets and so become reconciled to their bumbling about in like manner to any other mortal (despite the divinity of their call and ultimate success of their work), while at the same time developing the spiritual eyes to see the divine in both the warp and the weave as well as the larger tapestry of the Restoration. Or else we, like Laman, like the Nazarites, like so many of our sisters and brothers nursing empirical wounds on exMo sites and in coffee shops, will ultimately be disillusioned by the same myths created to bolster our faith.

3 comments for “Mythology, Apology, and Plausibility – Reading Nephi – 17:23-47 – Overview

  1. Wow, this is a bold OP, but I personally have no issues with it. I think it’s human to perform this mythologizing of “heroes,” as it gives us an out; if we mythologize a hero, we make it so we cannot be judged by the same criteria.

    I cannot be the hero, the hero was inevitably better than I am and therefore I’m off the hook. And yet there is contributor after contributor to the narrative within the small plates of Nephi to counter this, like Enos, the supposedly late bloomer in terms of his contribution.

    Enos didn’t consider himself heroic; he may not have been compared to some peers, but who am I to judge? Again, a hero can be no more or less than a person who does the needful, particularly as God sees the needful to be done. “…by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:20)

  2. I do think its important to realize and understand that our prophets, both modern (Joseph Smith) and ancient (Nephi), saw angels, heavenly visions, heavenly beings, performed miracles, etc, while still being mortals. It gives us hope, something to look up to. We all can have profound miraculous events in our own lives. Too often we see ourselves as nothing, faithless to perform miracles or see miracles. In that process it becomes easy to discount the events in prophets lives not seeing the miracles that shaped their lives and what they aspired to.

    One thing we must realize with prophets is they do in fact have extraordinary experiences, moreso than the rest of us because of their willingness to take up the cross of Christ and follow Him. For this reason the Lord makes them his prophets. They exercise far greater courage and faith than most of us, they pray more frequently and are far more diligent in performing tasks for the Lord. Above all, they have a greater charity towards all of Gods children, a greater capacity for compassion and love. We too can become like our prophets but it requires that we too bear up that cross and follow Christ. The sad fact is that in todays world, surrounded by so much social pressure and pride, we almost appear as if ashamed to bear up that cross, to pray more diligently and frequently, too quick to judge, too easily offended, too greedy on giving charity, too prideful. We are slowly becoming just like Laman and Lemual- discounting Gods miracles, questioning the prophets, disbeliving of history, faithless and weak.

    Almost all people who fall away from the church in our day do so because they, like Laman, refuse to put forth the pure love of Christ, take up Christs cross and follow Him. In doing so, just like Laman, they are blinded by truth, discount miracles, and especially come to disfavor the miracles, of which they stop seeing, that were performed at the hands of prophets.

  3. The antidote to mythologizing our founders is to remember the hard times too. Nephi spends verses 30 and 31 reminding Laman that the Israelites hardened their hearts and reviled even against Moses. Moses struggled, though we don’t know how many details were on the plates of brass. Moses had to learn how to delegate (Ex. 18: 13-26), and live with the disappointment that he could never work so many miracles that people would stop doubting. That didn’t convince Laman to mend his ways, but Nephi did try to say Moses had a hard time too.

    Perhaps this mythologizing is just a symptom of the human desire to be discontented. Somewhere else is always better, and some other group of people is always more righteous and easier to live with. When I finally dug in and actually read all the histories of my pioneer ancestors, I was surprised at how ordinary they were. My ggg-grandfather related a truly extraordinary conversion experience, and then spent his life as a typical Mormon, with a fair share of hardships, and no flashy leadership callings. He’d probably be upset if I tried to mythologize him.

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