Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about an important part of RLDS history that I mostly love but also get slightly annoyed by. In short, Wallace Smith, who was then prophet-president of the RLDS Church, was put on the spot by a local seminary professor, who asked the following question:
If our mutual studies of Christianity and the RLDS Church were to discovere that there was a discrepancy between what Jesus taught and what Joseph Smith taught, which would you accept?
Smith answered that “We would have to go with Jesus,” which is the obviously correct answer and one that would have major implications for the denomination in the decades to come. However, as I wrote in my previous post, one thing that bugs me about the premise of the question is the assumption that we know “what Jesus taught.” What the New Testament offers Christians is posthumous, translated recollections of what Jesus taught, which are presented by individual authors with individual agendas who sometimes contradict each other about the details of Jesus’s teachings. Now, as a practicing Christian, I happen to think there’s enough in those imperfect records to be worth building a faith around, but I also think it’s really important that we remember that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus’s teachings.
My concern in that original post was that the question is worded in a way that could seem to endorse the rejection of a Restoration fundamentalism only to embrace a sort of Christian fundamentalism instead. I don’t think that was the professor’s intent in asking the question, and I don’t think it was Wallace Smith’s intent in providing his answer, but in my mind, the danger is still lurking there behind the story.
I’m writing this post, though, because I think I’ve found a fascinating example of the opposite: Someone who’s willing to set aside Christian fundamentalism… but only in order to shore up a kind of Restoration fundamentalism. I’ve recently begun listening to the Gospel Tangents podcast that Rick Bennett does. I’ve seen Rick post his stuff to the Wheat & Tares blog for ages, but it’s only since he interviewed Dan McClellan (whose work I really like) that I started subscribing to all of Rick’s interviews. I don’t listen to them all, but I’ve found them interesting to dabble in, even if I don’t think I’ll agree with the interviewee.
Rick’s most recent set of interviews is with Val Larsen, who makes a series of interesting arguments during the interviews. In particular, Larsen argues that the Latter-day Saint belief in a plurality of gods (as well as in a Heavenly Mother) is validated by archaeological and biblical evidence of Israelite worship of figures such as El and Asherah. The non-monotheism of ancient Israelites poses some pretty obvious issues for Christian fundamentalists, and I would expect it to be uncomfortable for most Latter-day Saints, so I’m tickled by how readily Larsen is willing to accept that evidence.
I’m sympathetic to some of Larsen’s arguments here. I guess I’m a de facto Trinitarian these days, but I am still not 100% sold on the importance of Trinitarian thinking; thus, while I don’t really hold to Mormon views of the nature of deity anymore, I do think that the non-monotheism of the Bible undermines a lot of criticisms of Mormon thoughts about a plurality of Gods. In that sense, I think what Larsen is doing here is really interesting. Likewise, while my current theological preference is for a God is beyond gender (certainly beyond binary gender, and absolutely beyond solely male gender), I’m usually supportive of Mormon efforts to advance a divine feminine in the form of a Heavenly Mother. So, in some ways I like what he’s doing.
For all this sympathy, though, I can’t help but strongly disagree with Larsen’s approach. While I’m not a biblical scholar, I’ve read enough that I feel like Larsen’s arguments are based on a certain amount of sloppiness that stem from Mormon fundamentalism (in the sense of literal, unyielding beliefs, not in the sense of the practice of polygamy). In short, while there is undoubtedly a plurality of gods (including a divine femininte) in the Hebrew Bible, it is wishful thinking to suggest that they align perfectly with contemporary Mormon views. The sloppiness of Larsen’s argument can be seen from a number of mistakes and inconsistencies. For example, while the word “elohim” in the Hebrew Bible is plural, it is typically intended as plural, including in Genesis 1:1, where Larsen wants to read in Heavenly Mother as a co-creator. Neat idea—not supported by the biblical scholarship. Likewise, the Asherah that Larsen identifies with Heavenly Mother has often been identified as YHWH’s consort, not El’s, which would make her a wife of the premortal Christ according to Larsen’s logic. Finally, when Larsen “back-translates” the word “Lord” in the Book of Mormon to Hebrew words (which I agree is an interesting exercise but by definition can’t be done rigorously), he sometimes replaces it with YHWH when he wants it to correspond to Christ but at least once replaces it with Adonai (a generic title for “Lord”) when he wants it to refer to God the Father. That strikes me as indefensible.
In the interviews I listened to, Larsen is pretty up front about his fundamentalism, too. He wants to use biblical scholarship to advance this Mormon worldview, but he also suggests that this scholarship is largely speculative and shouldn’t always be trusted. It seems pretty clear that he’s willing to accept it when it supports his thesis (which is, of course, a literalist Mormon worldview) but won’t accept it when it contradicts that thesis. For all that I’m tickled by Larsen’s willingness to accept scholarship that unnerves a lot of Christians—and for all that I’m sympathetic to some of his objectives—I just don’t think this is defensible. In the third part of the interview, Larsen even goes so far as to demonstrate clearly his fundamentalism when he bemoans that more Hebrew Bible scholars aren’t willing to take the Book of Mormon as a historical starting point that should inform our understanding of the ancient Israelites. So close to rejecting fundamentalism, but so obviously replacing it with another flavor of it.
Larsen’s readings are interesting, and I think they’re even kind of fun. I don’t know that they would be wholly inappropriate in a private setting with a speculative attitude, but from what I heard, Larsen is pretty insistent that the Mormon worldview is the right one and that the scholars must be read that way. As a result, I wind up not having a lot of sympathy for his approach. Instead, I’m reminded of the same quote I closed last year’s blog post with, from W. Grant McMurray:
By being receptive to new revelation, we run the risk of replacing a stifling biblical fundamentalism commonly found in our society with one of our own only somewhat expanded variety.
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