These chapters include an account of the happiest, most righteous, productive years in all of Book of Mormon history, the model utopian society that endured almost two hundred years after Jesus’ appearance. Unfortunately, we only read about that time period (which surpasses the time covered by Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and 3 Nephi!) for eighteen brief verses. Why don’t we have more about this ideal period? How much could we learn from such a successful society? What can we apply from the details we have?
In addition to talking about this Zion society, we will also discuss:
- The Three Nephites!
- Fun thought exercise: If you could ask God for any “desire of your heart”, what would it be? What do you think are reasonable constraints for this question?
- The idea of “gospel” and “Church” of Jesus Christ
- The sobering end-times admonitions in 3 Nephi 29-30
One Time Donation:
This episode is longer than the rest, but the wide ranging, engaging and satisfying discussion with Sara, Jenne, and Carl is worth “staying after class” for!
Here are links to some of the things mentioned in our conversation:
- William Wilson’s entertaining and insightful Dialogue article about the Three Nephites.
- Terryl and Fiona Givens: The God Who Weeps, by The success of this book gives me hope for the future.
- Peter Diamandis: Abundance
- Half the Sky documentary on Netflix. Here’s some additional material (though not the movie) on PBS.
- For those who are interested in more ideas about the value of religious myth along the lines of the Paul Tillich quote I mentioned, this site with sermons by Richard Holloway is great.
- Peter Singer: The Life You Can Save
- The Bodhisattva Vow
- Lake Baikal
Many thanks to James Estrada of Oak Street Audio for his hard work in postproduction.
Come back for the discussion and several links to pertinent resources.
1) How is it possible that in the story right after Jesus’ long visit to the people of Bountiful wherein the Disciples pray and Jesus appears again to settle a dispute about the naming of the church, but then there are “no contentions or disputations among” these righteous people for 160 years or more thereafter (see 4 Ne. 2, 13, 15-17)? So the ONLY disputation that arose was about what to call the church; after that, everyone was good to go for 2-3 generations!?! This has to be a rhetorical device or editorial mistake of some kind. I understand that Mormon was trying to show that these people lived in a Zion society successfully for a really long time, and that contention is one of the major impediments to Zion community (the first thing that Jesus says to the people of Bountiful in 3 Ne. 11:22,28-30 (see also 3 Ne. 18:34) was that there should be no contention about how to baptize. Indeed, Jesus’ “doctrine” is that contention should be done away with, whatever that means). But how are we to realistically believe that this rather large community (which grew to repopulate the land over the next 160 years) lived in utter peace and harmony to the point of having no disputations among them, when the first thing that happens after Jesus ascends to heaven is that there arose a disputation about something as minor as the name of the church?
2) “And how be it my church save it be called in my name?” (3 Ne. 27:8) Why indeed must the Church of Christ be named after Jesus? Is there some magic metaphysical power in naming the church thus? It seems that to some extent, the name of Jesus does have power: twice in this same chapter Jesus enjoins the disciples to always call upon the Father in his name in order for the Father to hear the prayers and bless the church. Does that mean that God doesn’t hear prayers that aren’t uttered in Jesus’ name? Vv. 10-11 may hold a key to understanding why the church needed to be called Christ’s church: “And if it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it.” IOW, the people should be reminded by the church’s name that the teachings of the church are in Jesus’ gospel, and that they are the only teachings that will help them receive a merciful judgment one day. But there’s definitely some sort of magical thinking invoked here which spills into the Church in modern times. Weren’t there similar disputes about naming the church in Joseph’s day? Isn’t the current LDS Church extremely (overly?) sensitive to the spelling of its name (dash between latter and day; “Latter” is capitalized, but “day” isn’t)? Growing up, I remember being taught that it was clear that some Christian denominations totally missed the mark by naming their church without Jesus’ name in the title, as if they completely misunderstood Jesus, his message, and the power of his word as evidenced by the naming of their church incorrectly. Of course, other invocations of Jesus’ name carry tons of power in LDS practice (all ordinances, blessings, cursings, and exorcisms done using the name). How much of this magic word thinking is still prevalent in the Mormon worldview today?
3) 3 Ne. 27:13-22: a distillation of Jesus’ gospel. But this telling of it isn’t focused on the repenting, the coming, the baptizing, and the reception of the Holy Spirit as part of a new life with God. This telling is focused on impending judgment, the importance of “works”, and “enduring to the end”, which enduring, apparently, is a requirement for Jesus to hold you “guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world” (v.16). This telling also includes the warning about what happens to those that do not endure (v.17,19). Here a focus on sanctity and purity is much more prevalent than in the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. “Works” seem to play an indispensable role in determining the ultimate state of the soul, at least as important as the atoning sacrifice itself in power to save or condemn the individual. Is this soteriology consistent with our best understanding of early Christian salvation theology? is it a reaction to a growing movement toward grace-only salvation, so common in Protestant denominations? Are we truly saved only after all we can do? What is at stake when we make that particular claim about salvation? What benefits are derived, and what drawbacks do we accept?
4) 3 Ne. 27:32: a reference to the son of perdition. This verse seems to suggest that the term is applied narrowly to Judas, who betrayed Jesus for money (also a narrow interpretation of the motivation for Judas’ actions), but more broadly to anyone who will set their hearts upon the things of the world instead of upon Jesus (see also 3 Ne. 29:7, where “gain” is again referenced in connection with becoming a son of perdition). Any thoughts on this term? It couldn’t just apply to Judas; it also scarily implicates us all. D&C 76 provides a different interpretation entirely, one that both gets the vast majority of people off the hook, but which also heightens the stakes of “denying the Holy Ghost” (whatever that means), while simultaneously distancing the discourse from the BoM’s association of becoming a son of perdition with the love of money and material things of the world above loving and following Jesus. Thoughts?
4) 3 Ne. 28: Jesus, granter of wishes, reader of minds, with the magical touch! Lots of miraculous occurrences in this chapter, striking to the uttermost desires of most individuals to be both united with God, and to achieve immortality. Interesting that the three that wished for immortality were ashamed of their wish. The amount of detail and attention given to the “three Nephites” is significant considering that almost nothing is said by Jesus above what he said to the people of Palestine, as well as in 4 Nephi, were nothing is said about HOW the people lived in harmony for 160 years. I have a theory: my sense is that Joseph Smith was VERY interested immortality, and that in this chapter we see him working out ways that a legacy can be preserved within a theological context. Mormon claims in v. 36-40 that he did not initially know whether the three Nephites were mortal or immortal after their transfiguration and epiphany, but that he had prayed and been told that their bodies were changed, and that it wasn’t a resurrection in the strict sense, but that the resurrection would come later. Can we read this as Joseph’s own questions and musings and prayer and revelation about the nexus of corporeal corruptibility and the immortality of the soul? What a strange chapter!
5) 3 Ne. 28:19-22: The disciples are a) cast into prison, b) cast into pits, c) cast into furnaces, and d) cast into dens of wild beasts, none of which could hold them. These guys are like the ultimate supermen, wrapping up all of the most impressive and dramatic legends of peril/deliverance from scripture into one group. Are these proto-American religious tall tales, a reflection of frontier America boasting? Everyone loves a good story, right? This fits right in with the folklore and urban legends built up around the three Nephites, who have no end of thrilling, eerie, and faith-promoting rumor stories featuring them. I would love to hear how the stories of the Nephite disciples function in terms of folklore archetypes, especially their functions as they appear and reappear in the stories we tell ourselves to reveal aspects or motifs about our own communal identity. Is the folklore phenomenon of the three Nephites a bit of the same spirit of mythologizing that was done by the disciples of Jesus in Palestine, who told stories and eventually crafted narratives of Jesus to preserve a memory of him?
6) 3 Ne. 29-30: An exhortation by Mormon that interrupts the narrative and perhaps reveals Mormon’s take on the importance of Jesus’ visit to the people of Bountiful to those who will read his words in future generations. The message: when you see these things, you’ll know that the end is near, so repent so you don’t have to burn. Also, be baptized and be filled with the Holy Ghost and be part of the House of Israel, and receive the promised blessings. Is the story of Jesus’ visit to the people of Bountiful more significant for what it signifies than for what it actually says? Is the purpose of the story (and perhaps the Book of Mormon itself) to function as an evidence of God’s plan in action in the last days? Are we not really supposed to find any new or unique or unprecedented theological, doctrinal, or practical material in the Book of Mormon because the book is more important for what it represents than for what it says? Is the Christian church founded among the people in the Book of Mormon merely an ancient version of almost any Christian church that one could expect to find in Joseph’s day, with a little bit of authority thrown in so that you know which church is the truest of them all? I think Terryl Givens talks about this a bit in his book By the Hand of Mormon, where he speaks about the “artifactual reality” of the the golden plates and the resultant Book of Mormon as a vital element of the modern Mormon movement. This, bolstered by Given’s observation that Joseph Smith and the early missionaries rarely preached or proselyted by reading from the Book of Mormon as much as they used it as a prop for discussing the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith and the restoration movement he founded. Going back to Mormon’s summation at the end of 3 Ne., either we’re enlivened with the idea that Jesus had the SAME message for the Nephites and Lamanites as he did for the people in Palestine as he does for us today, or else we’re frustrated that Jesus and Mormon tease us with an image of Jesus who has lots more to say, but sadly none of it gets written down. The first option seems to fit well with the theory of the story/BoM as signifier; the second with a desire to find further light and truth within the words of the story/BoM, only to be disappointed that it wasn’t meant to function that way. Thoughts?
7) 4 Ne. 25-46. No more socialist utopia, and churches get set up to get gain in opposition to the true church of God. Not long after that, people distinguish themselves by race (that also somehow coincide with a division of the people between righteousness and wickedness), and finally, the mysteries and secret combinations of the Gadianton Robbers are revived. Radical self-interest, jingoism, plutocracy, and cronyism prove the downfall of civilization. These philosophies really do challenge Jesus’ teachings of radical equality and subversion of the economic, social, and political domination systems that prevented humankind from realizing God’s Kingdom on earth. And how quickly these philosophies destroy possibly the world’s only successful long-term Zion experiment. Why is it, then, that we have so many LDS who read and believe the Book of Mormon, and yet completely fail to grasp the social and political messages in the text about how when all things are in common and we as a society eschew self-interest in favor of benefiting everyone around us, God is pleased? Or that whenever Nephite or Lamanite culture is in decline, it is due to the self-interest at the expense of others? If Jesus and Mormon weren’t resurrected already, they’d surely be rolling over and over in their graves to know that so many modern LDS are adherents of the philosophies of Ayn Rand! Is this just a paradox of modern political philosophy, that in order to defend social political stances on women’s rights, abortion, marriage, etc., conservative religious folk have to swallow a whole lot of prosperity gospel and philosophy of self-interest in order to also defend the free market system against that evil specter of Communism? When I read these verses, sadly, I feel like many religious institutions are losing sight of the “true church of Christ” as they defend what they believe are fundamentals of their religion, even though none of those core fundamentals can be found in Jesus’ own words describing the Gospel or the Kingdom of God (for example, try to find concepts of earthly family, sexuality, church organization, or prophetic/priestly authority in the words of the historical Jesus). Thoughts?
8) 4 Ne. 47-49: Amos hands the records to his brother Ammoron. Way to go, Nephi, Amos, Amos, and Ammoron, at keeping good records about how to foster and sustain a Zion society over the years! Or is it Mormon as editor to blame for the fact that we have virtually NOTHING about HOW this society overcame human frailty and weakness and ensure that everyone in the society had their needs met? Of course we’ll never know whether Mormon just had minimal records upon which to draw, or whether Mormon decided that this part of the history of the people wasn’t interesting or needful. But what could be more needful to the future reader than a viable model for how to build the kingdom of God!?! The more I read these chapters, the more frustrated I am that all we have is descriptive information about what happened, and no prescriptive counsel on how to bring about similar blessings other than to do what has already been done in countless churches for millennia: gather often to pray, fast, sing, take sacrament, tell stories about Jesus, then go and share and serve and lift and be patient. Why is the Book of Mormon such a tease?
conservative religious folk have to swallow a whole lot of prosperity gospel and philosophy of self-interest in order to also defend the free market system against that evil specter of Communism?
The same charges you hold against conservatives can be charged against liberals. The skipping over scriptures (as talked about in the podcast) in favor of scriptures that we prefer (which Jared sadly did in his commentary too).
What can be said of the liberals? Why do they ignore scriptures that talk about agency and covetousness?
I really like the voluntaryism “political” viewpoint because it respects agency but, at the same time, recognizes the importance of a people that need to be morally upright – in the sense of respecting one another, etc.
As a side note. A true free market supposedly creates a society that is more equal monetarily. It rids the world of super rich and poor. Whereas a communist society that uses the initiation of force exacerbates the wealth divide between the poor and the rich. Of course, the society that we currently live in (in the US) which is more fascist/crony capitalist/etc creates great wealth divides. We truly need to follow the scriptures and stop using the aggression to obtain our desires.
Really enjoy your comments that are read on the podcast!
A couple of points, Jon.
1) US liberals, at least mainstream articulate liberals, seem to emphasize more the notion of equality of opportunity rather than equality of result. So I don’t really see liberal political economy philosophies as ignoring agency and covetousness. The mainstream liberal platform doesn’t appear to be making demands that rich peoples’ wealth be completely confiscated and redistributed, thus implying a form of collective covetousness (although you could perhaps make that argument for Leninist communists, but those types are an extremely rare breed now, especially in the US). The liberal platform is more critical of the injustice of the wealthy elite having managed to privatize gains and socialize losses (which incidentally and paradoxically seems to be your gripe as well).
2) The principle of agency, as explained in LDS doctrine, seems to simply answer the question of why God lets bad things happen or lets bad people do bad things. The answer is that God does not apply his judgment/punishment until the hereafter and allows people to make choices without immediate correction and punishment. Also the doctrinal concept found in the scriptures of “you get what you sow” seems to apply only to salvation, and not material worldly wealth. Lots of wealthy people are bad, while lots of poor people are good. Wealth also isn’t always the product of hard work and wise/moral decision-making. So your belief that liberals skip over scriptures about agency doesn’t make much sense and appears to be a general mischaracterization that liberals are an entitlement society that doesn’t believe in holding people accountable: not true.
Just because people covet only some of someone else’s wealth doesn’t mean that they aren’t coveting. I don’t need to covet all your possessions to be covetous, I could just covet a single thing of yours and then I am guilty of covetousness. Likewise, the liberal platform and the conservative platform are both guilty of covetousness.
The system that liberals and conservatives want is the very system that promotes covetousness. The root is the same, as much as both ideologies don’t like to admit. What is the root? The desire to control other people through a false belief in authority (because the authority of unrighteous dominion doesn’t exist) and the willingness to use threats and violence to obtain those ends.
Liberals do seem to ignore agency in the scriptures. As we see with Mosiah 29 and the agency given to the people to take on responsibility to care for oneself and their neighbors without the threat or use of force. The liberal believes all poor must be taken out of poverty. But not all poor want to be taken out of poverty, some choose to be their and want to live poor. That is the poor person’s choice.
I 100% agree that not all people that work hard will become rich and that not all people that don’t work hard will become poor. I agree that there are wealthy people that are bad and poor people are good and that there are wealthy people that are good and poor people that are bad. But that is why the individual must make the decision to help the poor, so they can help those that are willing to be helped and lift them out.
Why is it injustice to bailout the wealthy? Why is it injustice to bailout the poor? They both come from the same root, they both covet the wealth of others and are willing to use violence or the threat thereof to take someone else’s money. The rich take from the poor/middle/upper classes. The poor take from the poor/middle/upper classes. Both have the same root, both are stealing from other people. The scriptures are very clear on this point (and so is sound logic) theft is unethical and we will not improve as a society until we take the higher road and are unwilling to steal and covet and threaten others.
One more thought. Typically the liberal side will say that we should respect the agency of man when it comes to gay marriage, abortion, etc. But when it comes to charity the liberal side apparently says there is no agency? Very inconsistent.
That is why I just stick with the non-aggression principle which would cause all this contention to go away.
Carl Youngblood says:
Here is an interesting facebook conversation I’ve been having on this lesson: