The Gospel is Crude

March 11, 2009 | 33 comments

The temple, we are told, is where the most sacred gospel rites occur. Brigham Young explained the meaning of those rites this way:

[they] are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens

So, the deepest, most mystical, most mind-blowing things are . . . passwords? Secret handshakes? Door codes? Jon Stewart says, “Really, Brigham Young? Angel security guards. Really?”

How crude. How earthy. How unspiritual. Its like God is some kind of man and salvation is a thing and the Kingdom isn’t a metaphor. Really.

Mormonism is the deal God makes us:
Less vanity, more reality.
Less discussion, more answers.
Less everywhere, more somewhere.
Less theology, more God.

A prophet has no honor in his own country, Jesus says. In Mormonism, God asks us to honor a prophet from our own country. He asks us to honor a God from our own country.

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33 Responses to The Gospel is Crude

  1. PV on March 11, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Stewart is demonstrating his ignorance. The mystery rites, as historians and anthropologists call them, originate deep in antiquity, and if Stewart thinks that Brigham Young is the source of all this he doesn’t know the first thing about comparative religion (or about Mormonism, but that’s a given.)

    [Ed.--Mr. Stewart never really said that. My apologies, I should have been clearer.]

  2. visorstuff on March 11, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Very profound. Thanks for sharing,

  3. Kent (MC) on March 11, 2009 at 9:49 am

    The condescension of God is truly remarkable.

  4. Bryan H. on March 11, 2009 at 10:14 am

    As much as I hate it when other people disagree with an idea for no good reason other than they don’t like it, that’s basically where I’m at with the way you’ve used the BY quote here (I completely agree with your greater point, however). In my opinion, virtually nothing in the temple is literal, even though Brother Brigham doesn’t give us any wiggle room in this statement. See here where someone smarter than me has said my thoughts on this exactly.

  5. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Brian H.,
    you might be right. But the way I understand the gospel, it would make sense for the real meaning of ‘signs’ to be non-literal, while still having them embodied in literal signs that we literally use with literal angels.

  6. Bro. Jones on March 11, 2009 at 10:26 am

    We never use tokens in modern life, so we forget what they mean. A token is like a postage stamp: it’s just a representation of the idea that you’ve paid for services from the postal service. The post office doesn’t care if you use a stamp featuring Mickey Mouse, Black History Month, an American flag, or Love–they just want to know that you’ve paid.

    Likewise, the Lord (and/or any sentinel angels) will be more concerned if we’ve kept the covenants associated with temple tokens, rather than our actual grasp of the tokens themselves.

  7. Bryan H. on March 11, 2009 at 10:34 am

    #5 – That hadn’t occurred to me. I can dig that.

  8. Alex Valencic on March 11, 2009 at 10:37 am

    I find it interesting that a frequent criticism I hear of Mormonism is that it is too “me”-centered. That is, there is a lot of focus on personal action and accountability. On the other hand, I find that many others adhere to a rather vague, mystical notion of God’s relationship with man.

    And yet, it is the very fact that LDS doctrines present such a tangible relationship that I find most appealing. The Atonement of Christ applies to me in specific, understandable ways. The Plan of Salvation is possible and it makes sense.

  9. Alison Moore Smith on March 11, 2009 at 10:44 am

    #5 & #6: I concur.

    It’s rather problematic to think that the only thing you need to “get in” is a couple of secret gestures. Since they aren’t secret. That would make Mormon “salvation” pretty much like the idea many have of being “saved.” Mormons merely have to go through the temple once to find out the signs, others only have to stand up in church once and claim Christ.

  10. PV on March 11, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Bryan, you may be correct, but compare the baptismal ordinance; as a symbolic rebirth, it does not portend a literal repeat of the birth sequence, but still does portend a very real event, namely the resurrection. So while the ordinances should be understood as symbolic, it does not change the fact that they can potentially represent real events yet to occur (albeit those events could be significantly different–there is no indication that the resurrection involves being immersed in water, for instance.)

  11. marta on March 11, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Sure hope my memory improves when I am dead, because after nearly 30 years of temple attendance I still need to be prompted at the veil and it is not improving with age.

    And yes, AMS, remembering tokens is the least of my concerns. Need to learn to be kind first.

  12. Alison Moore Smith on March 11, 2009 at 11:26 am

    …but compare the baptismal ordinance; as a symbolic rebirth, it does not portend a literal repeat of the birth sequence, but still does portend a very real event, namely the resurrection.

    I’m not sure I understand this comparison. Birth is also a “very real event.” And baptism doesn’t “portend a literal repeat” of the resurrection sequence, either. Could you clarify?

  13. busracer on March 11, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I wonder how uniquely Mormon these ideas are. I remember as a child hearing and telling jokes about how someone appeared at “the pearly gates” where some dialogue with “St. Peter” ensued before the person was admitted to heaven. I don’t know the theological origins of these jokes, but I got the sense that Mormons aren’t the only ones who believe in “angel security guards.”

    Does anyone know of sources besides Brigham Young (scriptural, apocryphal, or from other churches) that support the idea that the deceased will have to pass by angels before entering into heaven? One from our own canon that I am familiar with is D&C 132:19, which says we will have to “pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there.”

  14. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I agree that baptism is like the signs and tokens. By itself, getting immersed in water doesn’t do anything. Its the symbolic meaning and priesthood power that matter. But you still have to get immersed in water.

  15. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2009 at 11:34 am

    lots of uniquely Mormon ideas are ideas that most everybody has at some level but that we, uniquely, aren’t embarassed about.

  16. passer-by on March 11, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    The idea of Peter admitting or not admitting people into could have come from Jesus giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16:19. I agree, it’s a common Christian image.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 11, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Back in college when my Western Humanities class was studying Dante’s Divine Comedy, it struck me that in Dante’s understanding of the hereafter, the resurrection had no real point. You would leave whichever circle of hell or level of purgatory you were in, go get your body, and then go right back to suffering or exulting. And most Christians seem to believe that “resurrection” will not be physical in any way. One can see how it doesn’t bother them that the Trinitarian Christ seems to have put his body into a storage locker at the Celestial Airport to be pulled out on special occasions. It seems that the Gnostics have won after all: physical, material things are part of the fallen world, but not part of heaven.

    Thus, when Anglican Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright asserts in his book “Surprised by Hope” that the New Testament teaches that we will in fact be physically resurrected, and that our home will be a transformed earth, he is attacked for being a follower of Joseph Smith’s radical ideas instead of embracing the “beatific vision” of adoring God for eternity, where a body and a planet to stand it on is irrelevent.

    The physicality of Christ and his resurrected body is of a piece with our physical resurrection. Emphasizing that the “real Jesus” is some kind of avatar of a bodiless God means that his risen body has no significance other than as a performance to assure us that God has power over death. It takes all the point out of our own physical resurrection. If God doesn’t need a body, why should we? No wonder the Jesus who spoke to Joseph in the grove condemned the man-made ideas of the creeds.

    It was made clear by secular critics of Mitt Romney and Mormonism that they can (barely) tolerate people who keep their God in a “virtual reality” which does not touch our material universe, but they have no patience whatsoever with Mormons who assert that God is fully engaged with the material universe.

    Along with offense at physical angels who place hands on heads, we have those which carry artifacts that can be seen and handled. We have God providing artifacts like lamps for ships and real-time intelligent compasses and information utilities that display text and scroll as a voice reads the display. Oddly enough, 170 years after Joseph translated the Book of Mormon using such an appliance, we have working facsimiles that can shine for thousands of hours, display the full text of that scripture, and tell us precisely where we are located and how to go to reach our destination. In Joseph’s day an object displaying such functions was called “magical” and therefore preposterous. Apparently our technology has advanced sufficiently that we are approaching precisely such “magical” devices (passim Arthur C. Clarke), made of silicon and metal, with the largest difference being in battery life. In 2009 they are the commonplace tools of everyday life. How much faith do we need to believe in the existence of devices almost indistinguishable from something in our own pockets? Just as Joseph’s description of the golden plates foreshadowed the discovery of hundreds of ancient records on metal, the devices he worked with or described also foreshadowed our present reality. It is almost as if he could see into the future.

    In a universe where 80% of the matter, by gravitational mass, is something otherwise invisible and undetectable, and the galaxies are being accelerated toward inifinite distance and light speed by an energy equivalent to the total matter-to-energy conversion of five times the known matter in the universe, in which the only way to make sense of reality is to assume as many as ten dimensions of space, there is plenty of room for God and his “sufficiently advanced technology”.

    If there are going to be multiple destinations for differently enabled resurrected beings, there is going to be some kind of mechanism or protocol for sorting everyone and sending them through the right wormhole to his or her ultimate destination. Being unable to believe in that is a failure of imagination, especially in an age when millions of people have to memorize new names and secret passwords just to do their work. If people reject the concept because it now appears too mundane, too earthly, they are looking beyond the mark, looking for special effects rather than effectiveness.

  18. PV on March 11, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I was thinking about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus; Jesus, in referring to the conversion process, called it being “born again”, which Nicodemus mistakenly interpreted as a literal repeat of the birth process. Jesus clarified that the birth imagery was symbolic; but as Adam already pointed out, even though being “born again” is symbolic, you still have to get immersed. I think what I’m trying to say is that the ordinances have symbolism, but that does not preclude their referring to things which have happened or which may happen.

    The concept of a divine being serving as a guardian to heaven who must be passed by testing is well established in ancient Christianity, particularly in “ascension” texts which describe the ascension of a prophet through the heaveans. One clear reference would be in the Ascension of Isaiah (ca. 150 CE), available here (click on English Translation, note chapters 9 and 10):

    Also in the (Gnostic) Apocalypse of Paul (ca. 200 CE), available here:

    In older writings, the guardian is an angel or the Lord himself; St. Peter appears to be a more recent innovation. Note also that these writings consistently have a guide (the Spirit or an angel) who assists the prophet in his ascension into the heavens and in passing the guardians.

  19. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    The Divine Comedy also fits the bill. Did Dante have access to those texts, I wonder, or is the kind of idea that’s in the air?

  20. James Christensen on March 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    The temple endowment ceremony is all about accepting the Savior and promising to follow his commandments. A fool who learns some secret handshake on youtube will reap no benefit from them, in this life or in the next.

  21. Lisa on March 11, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    I don’t know, maybe we really were born before (spiritually) and maybe it really will happen again (resurrection as an actual birth). We don’t really know how it happens.

  22. Richard Sopp on March 11, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    The discussion about Saint Peter at the gates reminds me of a joke a Catholic friend of mine used to tell. A Mormon dies and arrives at the gates but decides to wait to see what it takes to get in. He sees a Catholic friend approach the gates and Saint Peter welcomes him. Peter then asks what religion he was and he says “I was Catholic”. Peter says, “Fine, here’s a cup of coffee and come on in.” The same thing happens to a Jewish man the Mormon recognizes. The Mormon thinks, “Gee, this is way easier than I thought” so he approaches the gate. When Peter asks him what religion he was and he identifies himself as a Mormon, Peter says “I’m afraid you’ll have to go to hell. I haven’t got time to make hot chocolate.”

  23. Bookslinger on March 11, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    A mainstream Christian take on spirits in the pre-mortal existance waiting to be born can be seen in the 1940 movie “Blue Bird” starring Shirley Temple.

    You can get it on ebay cheap.

  24. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    In the story of Mohammad’s night journey, in which he is miraculously transported to Jerusalem, and then mounts into heaven from the temple mount, he passed by prophets guarding the entrance to each successive heaven, including Jesus and finally Moses, before entering the presence of God and receiving the command to have Muslims pray five times a day.

  25. MinJae Lee on March 12, 2009 at 11:39 am

    #17 – Raymond, I really enjoyed that. Thank you for taking the time. Well done.

  26. BPS on March 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I’m a lurker here from Via Media, from which someone named Jana linked to your site. Bookslinger, the pre-mortal existance of souls waiting to be born as portrayed in “Blue Bird” is NOT a mainstream Christian doctrine. In historic Christianity, the soul only comes into existance at the moment of conception. The book “Theology for Beginners” by Frank Sheed discusses this at length. The person fully alive is an ensouled body. After death, the soul is outside of time, in the same realm as God. All time is “now”. Before conception, the soul does not exist.

  27. Adam Greenwood on March 12, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    we’re aware, though how a soul can exist in the same realm of timelessness as God does but not exist “before” its conception is something of a puzzle.

  28. Bookslinger on March 12, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    BPS, Thanks for pointing out that pre-mortal existence of the soul is not Catholic doctrine, because I had assumed that many Catholics believed in the pre-mortal existence of the soul.

    But please also note that I wrote “A mainstream Christian take… ” not the (only), and not the Catholic.

    By “mainstream”, I suppose I meant something that was not LDS and not fringe. Though “The Blue Bird” is fantasy, I wouldn’t consider the “spirit children in heaven waiting to be born” as heretical or offensive to any Christian believers, especially not to the Protestant majority in the US at the time the movie was made.

    If it’s not currently Catholic doctrine, I wonder how it obtained at least the status of possibility in the Protestant realm. Do you know if it ever was Catholic doctrine in the past? Or if it was dealt with by the Early Christian Fathers?

    It’s certainly hinted at in both the Old and New Testaments. And some would claim that some of the passages concerning it were pretty obvious in their meaning.

    I don’t think it was a new construct created during the age of Protestantism.

  29. Adam Greenwood on March 13, 2009 at 7:43 am

    I think the answer is that most any mainstream Christian theology will reject the notion of the soul’s existence before birth, but that many mainstream Christians are open to the idea.

  30. Bookslinger on March 13, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Adam, that’s a good way to reconcile things. However, now I’m curious as to the history of the idea. It’s not original or unique to LDS theology.

    It must have been in the primitive church (though non-LDS won’t necessarily agree with that), then lost at some point. But how did the idea stay alive through the ages to get into whatever folklore that the writer of that story picked up? Did any sects or corners of christendom, or other religions, maintain that idea? Or did it just float in and out of popular belief?

    Where did Wordsworth pick up the idea? Or did it occur to him independently?

    Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
    The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 60
    Hath had elsewhere its setting,
    And cometh from afar:
    Not in entire forgetfulness,
    And not in utter nakedness,
    But trailing clouds of glory do we come 65
    From God, who is our home:
    Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
    Shades of the prison-house begin to close
    Upon the growing Boy,
    But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 70
    He sees it in his joy;
    The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
    And by the vision splendid
    Is on his way attended; 75
    At length the Man perceives it die away,
    And fade into the light of common day.

    That part used to be quoted more often in the church.

    The soul’s existence before birth was one of the items I wondered about during my pre-LDS days, whether all souls pre-date Adam’s fall, or does God snap his fingers and create a new soul at “the quickening” point of embryonic or fetal development.

  31. Jim F. on March 13, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Bro. Jones (#6): The postage stamp is one kind of token, but the word has many other meanings, including “sign” (as “the sign of an inn”), “an ensign,” “a characteristic mark,” “a bodily mark indicating a disease,” “a vestige or trace,” “an omen,” “a signal given to attract notice,” and two which are quite relevant, “an act serving to demonstrate divine power or authority” and “a sign arranged or given to authenticate a person, a password.” Most of these are not reducible to “the representation of an idea.”

  32. BPS on March 15, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    Bookslinger, actually the theory of pre-existance is from Plato, and possibly some eastern religions. Woodsworth believed such things when he was young, but became more conservative and Christian as he got older. Pre-existance of the soul is inconsistance with orthodox Christian doctrine, and has never been accepted in the Church. I know of no other Christian communities (i.e. protestant) which accept it either.
    A word about orthodox Chrisitian doctrine. There are no such things as disgarded Christian doctrines. Doctrines may develop from a kernel of truth present in the early Church, but new ones are not developed out of nothing, and old ones are the ones held most dear. You could say the attitude is “once accepted as doctrine, always accepted as doctrine”. Practices (Mass in Latin, ordaining only the celibate as priests) however, change as the magisterium the the Church deem necessary.
    What passages in the Old or New Testament hint at pre-existance of the soul?

  33. PV on March 16, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Re: Bookslinger

    “It must have been in the primitive church (though non-LDS won’t necessarily agree with that), then lost at some point.”

    That’s correct, the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul was held in the early Christian church. Its most notable advocate would be Origen, who discusses it at length (in “On Principles”, I believe; he cites John 9:2 as evidence.) It was one of several doctrines he advocated that were later declared heretical by the proto-orthodox church (too lazy to look up the reference; I’m sure Nibley identifies which church council did the dirty work.)

    “But how did the idea stay alive through the ages to get into whatever folklore that the writer of that story picked up? Did any sects or corners of christendom, or other religions, maintain that idea? Or did it just float in and out of popular belief?”

    I’m not sure it did stay alive; after it was declared heretical, it seemed to have dropped out of theological circles. Its popularity over the years appears to be fundamental rather than theological. Any parent of a child knows that the even the youngest of children has a fully-formed personality; only the theologians (and recently, scientists advocating the “blank slate” theory) are still in the dark.


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