I grew up in a home where I was taught from my earliest childhood to be skeptical of Elder Bruce R. McConkie. I was taught that he was overly dogmatic and that his urge to systemization was inconsistent with the spirit of continuing revelation and the core of the restored gospel. Good honor-thy-father-and-thy-mother-that-thy-days-may-be-long-upon-land child that I was, I imbibed this ethos and by the time I arrived at college I had a deep, anti-McConkie strain. While in the MTC I served with a missionary who was one of Elder McConkie’s grandsons. He (the missionary not the apostle) informed me that it was alright for there to be people like me in the church because there were people like him (the missionary) whom the spirit had endowed with perfect knowledge. This clinched it for me. No hope for McConkie or his kin. Of late, however, I have made my peace. I have learned to stop worrying and love Elder McConkie.
The nadir of my McConkie-hating came while I was taking a New Testament class at BYU. The instructor gave us one real assignment in the entire course. We were to read a book on the New Testament, give it a grade, and justify our decision. “Here’s my chance!” I gleefully thought. “I can stick it to both Elder McConkie and the Religion Department!” I chose one of McConkie’s Mortal Messiah books. I intensely disliked the book. It was assertive and dogmatic. It clearly took potshots at other authors without even having the courtesy to cite them. It seemed resolutely unaware of any professional biblical scholarship. It was given to faux Churchillian arias that I found hopelessly pretentious. I gave it a “D.” My religion professor gave me an “A” and I graduated.
There were two things that led me to soften my attitude toward Elder McConkie. First, I learned about Harold Bloom’s concept of misreading. According to Bloom, all literary texts are produced in reaction against other literary texts. All authors are haunted by the anxiety of influence. All writing is a “misreading” of an earlier text. For Bloom this is all inevitable. What is not inevitable is the quality of one’s misreading. If one is a “weak” misreader then one’s text is little more than a failed recapitulation of some earlier master. If one is a “strong” misreader, then one’s text ? while misunderstanding the earlier text on which it relies ? is powerful, new, and creative. According to Bloom, the history of great literature is the history of strong misreadings. He also applies this framework to Mormonism, paying to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young the highest imaginable compliments: Joseph powerfully misread the Bible and Brigham powerfully misread Joseph. With this set of categories, I could see Elder McConkie in a more favorable light. His theology was a powerful “misreading” of Mormonism. It was creative, seductive, and influential. I could admire his courage as a writer and the verve of what he was doing.
The second thing that helped me to learn to love Elder McConkie was a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Joseph labored over the text of his revelations. Some of them were revised several times. More suggestively, some of them were not even formal revelations in the sense of Joseph going to the Lord and asking a question. For example, section 121 was embedded in a long open letter to the Saints. Several sections from the Nauvoo period are simply excerpts from sermons. In other words, much of our Restoration scripture is what we might think of as inspired text rather than words dictated directly from the Almighty.
I realized that what I took as faux-Churchillian rhetoric in Elder McConkie was actually something much more daring. Elder McConkie ultimately wasn’t trying to produce rhetoric, scholarship, or even theology. He was trying to write scripture. Once I realized this, I have to confess that I admired the ambition and chutzpah of the man, even if I think his success was limited. Rather than seeing him as a dogmatic, pompous, and plodding scriptorian, I saw him (at least in flashes of charitable interpretation) as a daring theological poet, powerfully misreading his predecessors. More than that, I saw an Apostle taking Apostleship very seriously. I saw a man struggling to move from the ranks of the ordained into the ranks of the lesser prophets.
In his final sermon, I think that Elder McConkie finally achieved what he was striving for his entire life. Furthermore, he was quite clear about his intentions. He began by saying:
- I feel, and the Spirit seems to accord, that the most important doctrine I can declare, and the most powerful testimony I can bear, is of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . In speaking of these wondrous things I shall use my own words, though you may think they are the words of scripture, words spoken by other Apostles and prophets.
True it is they were first proclaimed by others, but they are now mine, for the Holy Spirit of God has borne witness to me that they are true, and it is now as though the Lord had revealed them to me in the first instance. I have thereby heard his voice and know his word.
He goes on to give a tremendously powerful testimony of and sermon on the Savior. Interestingly, the sermon contains only one scriptural citation and that is only to the words actually spoken by Jesus on the cross. In short, the text is not an exegesis of scripture. It is not the magnum opus of a great student of the Bible. Rather, it is a text that has the audacity to claim that it is scripture. And on this occasion, I fervently believe that Elder McConkie did it. Elder McConkie was dying at the time, and he closed by saying:
- I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears.
But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God?s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.
I believe him. The Spirit has borne testimony to me of the truth of his words, which is I suspect exactly what he hoped for.
UPDATE, 25 February 2005: Re-reading this post, I realize that I forgot to mention another thing that softened my attitude toward Elder McConkie. I learned something about the history of Mormon theology. By and large, Mormons tend to get uncomfortable talking about having a theology, let alone that theology having a history. Rather, I think that Mormons tend to think in terms of Revelation and Church Doctrine on one side and Mere Speculation on the other. Whatever the ultimate truth of this taxonomy, however, it is the case that there are certain strands of Mormon thought that grapple with some moderately well-defined questions over a period of generations. Furthermore, there are Mormon theological “schools” if you well, various theological positions that travel in opposing packs. Elder McConkie was very much in the Joseph Fielding Smith, Joseph F. Smith, Orson Pratt line of Mormon thought. I tend toward the Brigham Young, B.H. Roberts line of thinking myself, but being able to see Elder McConkie’s theologizing as part of a proud tradition of Mormon thought rather than simply as personal dogmatism did much to soften my heart toward him.