The Greatness of Their Stumbling Block

January 8, 2008 | 23 comments
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And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches; nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning

Second Nephi 26:20. This is another post about the Feldman article. But if you want to sing Feldman’s praises and take issue with his Mormon critics, go here. If you want to defend his observation that from the secular standpoint mainstream Christianity has its share of the “ridiculous”, go here. This post is about Feldman’s observation that Mormonism seems more “ridiculous” because its less in the distant past; and this post argues that’s a feature, not a bug.

Here’s Feldman’s observation:

There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

I got Rough Stone Rolling for Christmas. And while I have my criticism, I appreciate it very much. It scrapes away the thin patina of myth that the early Mormons have acquired in even less than two centuries and lets me experience them as mundane men in whose lives God erupted.

That’s harder to do with the New Testament. the patina is pretty thick. During New Testament times themselves there was no patina, of course. Christ was an offense to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles, and as a stumbling block his edges were sharp. But time wears down those edges. After 2000 years the resurrection becomes easier to accept in a gentlemanly way as something remote and pleasant; it also becomes easier to dismiss as a superstitious survival from old times.

This Christ will not have. So when his other purposes are ready he calls a yokel to offend the world. To break us on the Rock so we can be remade. These times are sacred, mythic times.

29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
34 ¶ Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:
35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

Matthew 23:29-35.

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23 Responses to The Greatness of Their Stumbling Block

  1. TT on January 8, 2008 at 10:40 am

    “Christ was an offense to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles, and as a stumbling block his edges were sharp. ”

    Of course, this is the patina. It is a particular interpretation of the events from a believer’s pov.

    That said, I am not sure what the criticism of Feldman is here. He says that people don’t take Mormonism seriously because it is not ancient (the same thing happened to early Christianity, btw). You say that these are sacred times. What exactly is your point?

  2. steve on January 8, 2008 at 10:53 am

    I thought that the article was very very well written and well reasoned as well. He did a good job of describing various ironies about Mormons and Christians, etc. He helped explain why Mormons might be mis-trusted both from a historical and doctrinal point of view. I thought it was an excellent article.

    [Ed.- We appreciate your comment. Other comments of this sort might be better, however, in KW's more general post].

  3. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 11:03 am

    If I and many others claim to you that we saw God during stake conference a month or two ago, and he gave us a message for you that requires a lot of change and sacrifice on your part, you can’t accept that as a nice, old story. Patina is what accumulates with time. Christ had no patina to Paul.

    I’m not criticizing Feldman in this post and I don’t know why you think so. My point is obvious.

  4. Dave Kitchen on January 8, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    During the last few months, I have been struck by several ways in which I believe the church is pushing forward the Lord\’s work apart from what we generally think of (missionary work, humanitarian aid, etc.). Your post brought one of the those to mind; namely, that because the church\’s claim to the miraculous are so recent, the church serves as a shield for the more historical claims we hold in common with the rest of christianity.

    This idea is akin to the attack waged by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Jacob Weisberg – they believe that the modernity of the church\’s claims evidence a lack of reason in mormons that exceeds the lack of reason attributable to adherents of other, most \”distant\”, and thus less assailable, faiths.

    I am coming to believe that the defenses we raise for our modern claims – be they apologetic or just Q/A with our neighbors – also serve to defend christianity in general. So long as Moroni stands, so too does Gabriel. So long as the Kirtland temple stands, so too does the day of Pentacost. So long as the Book of Mormon stands, so too does the Bible.

  5. Y Stephenson on January 8, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you Dave.

    I dislike the kind of article Feldman wrote because it comes in a guise of the positive. There is no name calling, just faint praise. It is so full of factual errors, misunderstanding and half truths that nothing of real value can be learned from it unless one wants to see us through others eyes.

    The enemies of of Joseph Smith were out in force long before anyone had heard anything about temples, or polygamy or any of the other doctrines that are allegedly the root of the distrust and even hatred that some of the citizens of this country live with.

    But, time will take care of things because if Romney’s religion denies him the nomination, the Church my by continuing revelation may shift is theology and practices to minimize its “outlier status in the culture”.

    Give me a break.

  6. Gilgamesh on January 8, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Adam,
    I appreciate this post. I am wondering when our latter-day patina will be removed again. Discussion of visions and otherworldy experiences has all but disappeared from General Conference unless they are speaking about Joseph Smith. Those were things for his time, nowadays if it makes it through correlation, itis the word of God. When was the last time a modern prophet started speaking direct revelation over a pulpit the moment it was recieved? Even OD 2 was recieved in consort with the 12 before it was made public. There is a patina over the latter-day church and there are fewer and fewer edges. The more people try to make us “Christian” like all other Christians, our edges become ground down even more.

    I liked Elder Holland’s talk at General Conference. He made sure the “trinity edge” got sharpened.

  7. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Gilgamesh,
    the problem is that if the prophet started imparting revelation over the pulpit, we’d have the ‘wow, cool!’ reaction, which God doesn’t look highly on.

  8. NorthboundZax on January 8, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    With all due respect, Adam – whaaaa? Joseph Smith did that all the time. I can’t imagine God thinking “aaah! quit it, Joseph! that’s too cool for the congregation”. As missionaries we used the prophet’s accessibility to God as a selling point. Why is it suddenly too cool for that access to be tapped like it was in the past? In fact, there is a high ‘coolness’ factor in Mormonism whose edge has been blunted over the years as the King Follett Discourse and other edges have become peripheral. I’m with Gilgamesh, let’s sharpen the edges again.

  9. Adam Greenwood on January 8, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    You’re completely missing my point, sir. With respect. The scriptures are replete with examples of people who want miracles because miracles are good spectator sport and who are condemned for it. There is a righteous way to want miracles, but it isn’t that.

  10. Kirk Reid on January 8, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    we’d have the ‘wow, cool!’ reaction, which God doesn’t look highly on.

    There’s also the ironic risk of a startled discomfort reaction.

  11. Ray on January 8, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    #5 – That’s one view.

    #4 – I have believed for years that the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon, as stated in the Title Page, is only finding fulfillment as more and more Christians start to reject the actuality of Biblical authority. Granted, the opposite (evangelical infallibility) also is happening, but those claims of infallibility are driving away many who are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Teaching that Jesus really is the Christ is getting more and more important every day.

    Overall, there is an axiom in many fields: An expert is someone who has to travel more than 100 miles to speak on a topic. The same holds true of texts. There are a lot of books that are studied in schools that really are quite bad (with newer books and authors still ignored) – but the older ones are “classics” specifically because of their age.

  12. Brad Kramer on January 8, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    “The enemies of of Joseph Smith were out in force long before anyone had heard anything about temples, or polygamy or any of the other doctrines that are allegedly the root of the distrust”

    Not sure where you’re coming from here. Plural marriage, allegations of which began to surface almost from its inception, and treasure-seeking — which Feldman also highlights as a source of bigotry — were major driving forces behind anti-Mormon prejudice, persecution, and hatred.

    I agree, Adam, the patina was profoundly diluted by Bushman’s volume and we could use quite a bit more of it. Such sentiment has put me in the habit of reading, con granis salis, scholarship on the Historical Jesus and 1st-century christianity.

  13. Clark on January 8, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    When was the last time a modern prophet started speaking direct revelation over a pulpit the moment it was recieved?

    You’ve never had a visiting Apostle inspired to bestow an Apostolic blessing? It isn’t that uncommon. It’s happened in at least two Stakes my parents have been in.

    Just because it doesn’t happen in Conference, which is rather public, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

  14. Jared on January 8, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    #6 All of the gifts of the spirit are available to the Apostles and Prophets and the average member of the church. But generally speaking the membership of the church don’t seek for them. And when they do show up the recipient quickly learns it causes a slew of problems for them so they keep it to themselves. I am such a person. A few months ago I attempted to share experiences on the bloggernace and was meant with pure hostility. I couldn’t believe it.

    The Book of Mormon sums it up in a nutshell:

    …if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief. Moroni 10:24

    Prosperity has become the enemy to the things of the spirit. See Helaman 12

  15. Gilgamesh on January 9, 2008 at 12:39 am

    #13

    I see an Apostolic Blessing as a bestowment of priesthood blessings. A promise that is made by man which God will honor. To me it is not the same as recieving new doctrine.

    #14

    I am sorry to hear about your negative experience. In my opinion it is the idividual prophetic gifts that each individual inherits by virtue f the Holy Spirit that makes our faith invigorating. We don\’t share them, nor honor them enough. They are sacred, but they should not have to be secret. It is what binds us together as a people.

  16. Jared on January 9, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Gilgamesh–I couldn’t agree more. I believe we are living at a time when it is easy for church members to rely on anything and everything except the Lord.

    Elder Packer recently asked a Stake President what the biggest problem in his Stake was. The Stake President replied, “Programs and activities of the church are becoming a substitute for testimonies.

    That’s an interesting example where church members become more active in the church than in the gospel.

    If we don’t fulfill our baptism covenant where we are commanded to receive the Holy Ghost, then we are building our foundation on sand instead of rock, and will fulfill the parable of the 10 virgins and find ourselves among the unwise instead of the wise.

    Click my name for more info on this subject if you’re interested.

  17. Clark on January 9, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Gilgamish, you seem to be equating inspiration with new doctrine. Might I suggest that a poor standard to use?

  18. Gilgamesh on January 10, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Clark -

    I am not equating new doctrine with inspiration. But, now that it is brought up, testimonies of being inspired are less edgy than testimonies of recieving visions, dreams and heavenly visitations. One is safe and the other is not.

    There was a time when stories were commonly shared of deceased loved ones appearing in the temple, mysterious strangers plowing fields, dreams about children waiting to come to earth. These would be shared in church talks and testimony meetings – not as hear-say, but as a first person witness to the reality that we are a people visited by angels and cared for by God. We used to be a people that not only accepted the visitation of angels, we embraced it. We bridged the gap between earth life and the other world.

    It seems we can accept when somebody says they are inspired, or have a feeling, but less accepting that somebody can be visited by angels. One is soft and fluffy, the other is edgy. Why things have changed, I can\’t say, but it makes us less unique in the general Christian tradition and less of a stumbling block to the world as a whole.

  19. Ray on January 10, 2008 at 12:39 am

    #18 – Fwiw, my reason for not sharing many of my experiences (or speaking only in generalities) is that I have felt impressed to take that approach. I don’t know why, but even in a setting like this I rarely speak of my most sacred experiences. Maybe there is a reason we don’t hear of the type of experiences you mention as much as our ancestors used to other than that they don’t happen anymore. I don’t know why, but I do know they occur – far more often for far more people than many people realize.

  20. Gilgamesh on January 10, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Ray -

    I appreciate your comment – and believe that we have lost something when we can’t share our sacred experiences amongst ourselves.

  21. Ray on January 10, 2008 at 2:21 am

    I agree that we have lost something – but I also think it might be the will of God that it be lost. I just don’t know, when it comes right down to it.

  22. Adam Greenwood on January 10, 2008 at 4:04 am

    Keeping sacred experiences private is nothing new. Joseph Smith mostly tried to avoid telling people about the First Vision. He didn’t feel it was God’s message to the world; he felt it was God’s message to him.

  23. Eric Boysen on January 10, 2008 at 9:52 am

    And yet, the First Vision is the foundation of Joseph Smith’s message to the world; it is the central point of his testamony.

    There are relatively few spiritual experiences in my life that are worthy of note, but when I bear testimony I always try to make clear not only what I know to be true, but how I know it.

    Joseph could say a number of things as a result of the First Vision, but more importantly he could tie them back to that experience. He could say, for example, “I know that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate beings because I have seen them both together.” Or he could say “I know there is no true church upon the earth in this [his] day, because Jesus Christ told me as he spoke to me face to face.”

    True testimony is neither a faith promoting story, nor even yet an “I know the church is true.” abstracted from the experience that proved it. I have many reasons that I can cite for knowing that the restored Gospel is truth from Heaven and that the Church to which we belong is the only earthly agency which holds the keys to administer the ordinances–the true church. The one firm and unshakeable basis for me, however, is the day the Spirit spoke to me and told me how I would know the Church is true and that I must join it. The events of that evening involved circumstance after circumstance that left me no room for doubt though I struggled mightily. Yet with Joseph, I know what I experienced and could not deny it without coming under the condemnation of God.

    The patina of age means nothing to me because it only adheres to dead things. It makes things slippery so that they are more easily lost. That is why museum pieces are kept in glass cases. Living faith must continue to receive its nourishment from the Living Source.

    Continuing revelation and personal revalation are the foundation of the Church. If they are a stumbling block for the gentiles as they walk blindly in the corridors of the ancients, they have merely to remove their blindfolds and the stumbling block would become a stepping stone to something much greater.

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