Exploring Mormon Thought: Christ

May 2, 2012 | 13 comments
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I haven’t any real idea who or what or how—or even when!—Jesus Christ was. And is. And will be. As odd as I’m sure it sounds, I’m not terribly interested in changing that situation. I suspect that, in large part, my ignorance and feeling of content concerning that ignorance are more a side effect than anything else, a side effect of the Pauline commitments that were created, nurtured, and cemented in me through my obsessive work on the Book of Mormon. The Christ to whom I have declared undying fidelity, of whom I consistently testify, concerning whom I couldn’t feel love more deeply—that Christ—is the one who died and rose again, who worked out a concrete, material immanent critique of death he then committed in theological form to Saint Paul, who came to Lehi’s children with pierced hands he used almost exclusively to turn the pages of Isaiah, Micah, Malachi, and who knows what other Hebrew texts.

The Gospels? They’re interesting, as all scripture is. But do they teach me about Christ? To be a bit frank—a bit too frank: not really. I find in the Gospels somewhere between four and a dozen different views of who Jesus was, about the implications of his having walked among us, and I find all those views compelling. I let—I try to let—them shape the way I think and act. But I don’t know that they shape me much more than any other books of scripture. I’ve never seen any terribly compelling reason to privilege the Gospels. They’re beautiful. And they’re true. But the Christ who has delivered me from death is seldom, almost never, on display in the Gospels. Or rather, he’s constantly on display there, but more in the structures of the narratives, the brilliance of the reworked Old Testament texts, and the theological implications of the occasional teachings and sermons than in the person or immediate doings of the Jesus whose story is told there.

My Christ is the Christ of the Book of Mormon—not of Third Nephi alone, but of the Book of Mormon as a whole. The Christ who is glimpsed simply as “the Messiah” for the first part of First Nephi and who seems to be little more than an apocalyptic figure on the horizon of history; the Christ who suddenly emerges as a clear figure in Nephi’s vision, but more as the divine figure behind the history of the covenant than anything else; the Christ who is then taken to be a kind of vague horizon of belief while the details of Isaiah’s views on a God-directed history have to be worked out; the Christ who Jacob then takes over, at seemingly strategic points in and beyond Nephi’s writings, as the center of an enormous plot to change the nature of the flesh and so to allow for the possibility of doing good; the Christ who is forgotten, more or less, for several centuries while everyone is busy fighting; the Christ who comes back into Nephite consciousness with the fanfare that accompanies the angel’s words to Benjamin, subsequently conveyed to the people, according to which Christ is a king with the task of sorting out the possibility of justice in judgment; the Christ who, as the center of a community of preachers and preached-to’s, becomes the horizon of all Isaianic prophecy in the hands of Abinadi; the Christ whom Alma then made a part of an all-too-political revolution by forming a non-statist community on the fringes of an oppressive society; the Christ in whom a whole people could then put their blind trust when a whole army came knocking at the doors of their paradisiacal Zion; the Christ in whose name a whole repentant people could be baptized when they left the sad history of war and bondage in the land of Nephi to come back to the land of Zarahemla; the Christ whose church then led to the complete collapse of the Nephite monarchy and led to a still-more-problematic governmental organization that nonetheless allowed for a certain freedom of religion; the Christ who sent an angel to Alma’s son and set him up to do the most remarkable circuit preaching in history, leaving behind the sermons of Alma 5, Alma 7, and Alma 12-13; the Christ that for whatever mysterious reasons kept Alma from stretching his hand out to stop the suffering of so many women and children in Ammonihah; the Christ a Lamanite servant woman, Abish, believed in and so effected the turning point in Lamanite history while her fellow-servant Ammon lay in a swoon; the Christ to whom an old, reprobate Lamanite king promised to give all his sins; the Christ in whom Alma and the sons of Ammon were still brothers when they met after fourteen years of work; the Christ denied by a short-sighted Korihor and then preached by a far-sighted Alma; the Christ who, as the Word, could be compared to a seed in the most beautiful of scriptural metaphors; the Christ who served as the ideological plug for a Nephite generation attempting to feel good about the lives they were taking in defense of their way of life; the Christ in whom two thousand largely clueless put their trust as they gave themselves to the most horrific of pursuits; the Christ to whom a wayward Corianton returned; the Christ who was forgotten as the Gadianton robbers spread the gospel of prosperity and wealth through the Nephites, launching the era of Nephite and Lamanite progressivism; the Christ who let his voice be heard by so many Lamanites as they sought to abuse two Nephite prophets, turning the tide of a very long history of Nephite spiritual supremacy; the Christ who helped a lonely prophet out of false accusations only to make him still lonelier before giving him the keys of the kingdom; the Christ who spoke to a Lamanite prophet who then dared to occupy Zarahemla with a message of remarkable severity; the Christ who was born just in time to keep the struggling believers in the New World from being massacred by a society gone mad; the Christ in whose name a too-emotional display was offered after the Gadianton robbers were destroyed for a time; the Christ whose death was connected with the most destructive geological upheavals and the death of far, far too many Nephites and Lamanites; the Christ who was willing to speak to those suffering in the wake of such destruction in pleading terms, hoping for the possibility of general redemption; the Christ who then came and healed so many thousands of Lehi’s children while providing them with the tokens of the sacrament and the key to the scriptures; the Christ who was recognized as king for two centuries about which we know almost nothing; the Christ who was forgotten thereafter while everything in Nephite society fell apart; the Christ in whom faith, hope, and charity are to be placed; the Christ who was almost unknown to the Jaredites, but whom the brother of Jared saw in startling materiality; the Christ in whom we can be perfect, whose grace is sufficient, who asks us to ponder on the mercy of the history of the world before confessing to God that we know the Book of Mormon is true—that Christ is the Christ I worship.

In a word, I worship neither the Christ of faith nor the Jesus of history, but the Christ of history, of a history we can’t recover archaeologically, the Pauline Christ of the Nephites and Lamanites, the Christ who needs no narrative apologies because we ought to be spending our time apologizing to him for all we do with and in his name.

Now, what has all this to do with Ostler’s chapter 13? Not that much, perhaps. This is more confession than anything else—confession of which Christ needs to be explained by theological reflection, on my account. Ostler’s discussion of “conventional” Christology is alienating, but less because they get the philosophical details wrong, and more because they’re simply not looking in the right place. What can they say about that Christ?

More importantly, what can we say about him? We’ve said far too little, whether by way of theological reflection or simply by way of genuine praise. Perhaps we can get to work. I’m eager to see what work Ostler himself has done in this regard in chapter 14 . . . .

13 Responses to Exploring Mormon Thought: Christ

  1. Jacob on May 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I resonate a lot with this Joe and it was extremely well-said. I think there is a Mormon encounter with Christ, a “third way” that cuts through theological, historical, philosophical, religious dichotomies because Mormonism is (or was originally) meant to be the fulfillment of Paul’s universal “all things to all people,” so in a way it is never concretely there but can be applied and instantiated everywhere (one reason I think Nibley as a theologian was Joseph’s theological successor. Nibley as a historian doesn’t work very well). In other words, the essence of Mormonism is neither here nor there but forever elsewhere, forever signifying something else, someone else, some place else, some other way that needs love and attention, a kind of signifying that attempts to point beyond itself to Christ through the world instead of over it or around or other than it.

    As to your OP, I do rather wish you had discussed Chapter 13 more. There is of course a point to be made about how your confessional essay comments on the substance of Chapter 13 in a way that mere exegesis cannot, but it feels like there should be some sort of “appendix” to the chapter that meets it on some sort of analytical level.

  2. James Olsen on May 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I can’t tell whether I agree with you or not – that is, I can’t quite tell whether you’re acknowledging the multiple Christs of the BofM or merely pointing out that different prophets in the BofM have variously contributed to your understanding of Christ – the Christ you worship. Your shoulder shrugging at the various Christs in the gospels suggests the latter. I’m of the former opinion. And quite thrilled when I see what are to me irreconcilable Christs in the Book of Mormon. It’s both a breath of fresh air and fruitful theological “paradox.” But perhaps that’s merely salve for my own conscience.

    I can say, however, that the “apologetic narratives” (by which I simply mean the narratives) do far more for me than the apologetic theology of Paul – however creative and interesting it might be.

  3. Jared on May 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Wow, what a bold and thought-provoking piece. I admire that. So what you are describing in essence is a beneficial relationship with a literary character. You don’t dwell on who Jesus really was, when he lived, how theology developed, but just how one book describes him and how that makes you feel. I am deeply utilitarian so I am fine with that…the benefit is what matters, but I think the neglect of history presents vulnerabilities.

  4. Jeff on May 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    I would say that the Book of Mormon is a most excellent second witness to Christ, but that statement would infer clearly that the Old and New Testaments also are witnesses of Christ. Indeed it is those two books that provided the insight Joseph Smith needed to reach out to Christ in order to seek wisdom. I cannot no longer ignore those witnesses than I can the Book of Mormon. All three converge to provide a clear picture of Christ through the writings. Though in the end, our knowledge of Christ in His truest character can only come when we ourselves seek Him out with all of our heart, might, and mind. Whether it be 3rd Nephi, or Corinthian’s discussion of charity, we are blessed to have so many witnesses to help us in order that the Lord may also touch our hearts and minds for further revelation.

  5. J. Madson on May 4, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Im sort of the opposite. It is the narratives that matter to me. To ignore those smacks too much of making Jesus an Icon to me or as one reformist put it ‘this is to know Christ, to know his benefits’ (Melanchthon, 1521). I think the point of having Jesus at the center of a faith is that he is a real person with passion and parts. When Jesus says he is the way or if you’ve seen him, you’ve seen the father, that matters. Im less concerned with the benefits and more with the demands of discipleship and what it would mean to follow the way, take up a cross, etc. The Christ you seem to be describing is an abstraction of sorts to me. Im not sure it even matters that he is a person in such a scenario. I guess my fear is that we have said too much about that Christ as you say and not enough about the man who became at one with us in blood and flesh in this earthly realm.

  6. joespencer on May 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Jacob #1 – Thanks, and I largely agree with you. I’m a little nervous (as you know) with what sounds like a fusion of Badiou and Deleuze in your words, but they likely reflect something a similar fusion in my original post. As for chapter 13, I agree that it needs engagement, but I’m simply not the person to do that. (Oh, and re: Nibley—isn’t the best way to read Nibley to take him as always being a theologian, even when it looks like he’s doing history?)

    James #2 – Actually, I’m with you: I’m affirming the first of your two possible interpretations, not so much the latter. My shoulder shrugging regarding the gospels isn’t to dismiss the similar tensions there (which I love and embrace right alongside you), but to point out how much more interested I am in the Christ of the Book of Mormon (and of Paul) than I am in the Jesus of the gospels. Another way to put that is to say that I read the Gospels through a profoundly Nephite lens.

    Jared #3 – Not exactly. It’s not that I dwell on how one book describes Jesus; it’s that that book has taught me to bother more with Christ than with Jesus, but also to recognize that Christ is as much a matter of history as is Jesus. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’m neglecting history here. Rather, I’m trying to suggest that I’m more interested in the punctuated history of encountering Christ than I am in the linear history of the earthly Jesus.

    Jeff #4 – I don’t disagree with you. Indeed, I wonder if I’m not saying more or less the same thing you are. The Christ I know is the Christ of the Book of Mormon—in all the messiness of that history and presentation. He’s barely on offer in the person of Jesus in the gospels. But I find Christ in the gospels in other ways, as I state in the post.

    J. Madson #5 – I like the incarnation. I really do. But I don’t know how much it would have been worth without the resurrection. (Note that I didn’t say it would be worthless, but that I don’t know how much it would have been worth.) Moreover, I can’t make any sense of the claim that this Christ sounds abstract. In what sense is it abstract?

  7. Jacob on May 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Joe, regarding Nibley, that’s pretty much my point, though I probably didn’t communicate that very well. I might even go so far as to say _especially_ when it looks like he’s doing history.

  8. Adam G. on May 4, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    The Jesus of the gospels is a man. It rubs the contradiction of the incarnation more in your face. This isn’t true of the Book of Mormon deity, not enough.

  9. Meldrum the Less on May 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Hats off and applause for this fine piece.

    Perhaps i am a bit thick between the ears. But what I hear at the ward level from week to week is a leanness and paucity of teaching on Christ. Since certain family members are constantly dragging me off to other Protestant meetings this contrast is perpetually jarring. Most of the time I do not detect any significant difference in theology, unless the same spoken words mean different things to me and the preacher. I might actually hear a sermon of the same caliber as this treatise at another church, but never in my ward.

    My question is how do we drown out the drum beat that seems to be displacing the central Christ message. It goes something like this in my ward: obey and pay, keep the commandments, follow the prophet, only true church.

  10. ji on May 4, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Meldrum (no. 9) — I understand and appreciate your thoughts — the original posting is beyond my understanding. I wish I had an answer to your question, but what I try to do is to always include the Lord Jesus Christ wherever possible.

    For example, in a very simple example, one could say that the Prophet Joseph Smith restored the Church or he or she could choose to say that the Lord Jesus Christ restored his church through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I try to choose the latter.

    I also remember saying in a priesthood meeting a while back that in my testimonies, I try to bear witness of the Lord Jesus Christ — I often don’t bear witness that the Church is true or some of the other standard statements, even though they may be true, because almost everyone else does it — I choose to bear witness of the Lord Jesus Christ because almost no one else does it.

  11. Meldrum the Less on May 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Ji: Amen and amen.

    Years ago I developed a simple grading system applicable to any testimony, sermon, talk, lesson, comment, or article. (in defiance of “judge not…”).

    Grade 1- No mention of Christ except maybe ritualistically. “In the name of….
    Grade 2- Perpherial reference but not close to the main point.
    Grade 3- Some significant portion of the message is Christ centered.
    Grade 4-An entirely and undeniably Christ centered message.

    I found this system consistent and reproducible among certain like-minded friends. I don’t pretend to recommend what average grade a series of messages should be. But the numerical results were generally shockingly low. We could go through 20 testimonies on fast sunday with maybe 1 or 2 at the Grade 3-4 level. Months with lessons at that same low level. Applying the grading system to the evangelical Protestant services i visited and the difference is obvious. No complex statistical tests are needed to account for random variation.

    What ji suggests might raise a grade 1 to a grade 2 remark. But that is not enough, if we are to lay claim to our rightful heritage as The Church of Jesus Christ. In my opinion 90% of the lessons and talks need to be reworked from the ground up, consciously and flagrantly putting Christ front and center.

    Disclaimer: Just my perspective that might be distorted by watching dear family members file off to these other churches for this very reason.

  12. Wesley Dean on May 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Meldrum, isn’t the solution that we as members have to gain our own overflowing testimonies of Jesus Christ?

  13. Dub on May 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    For me it’s the appendage issue. As Joseph essentially said, all things in the Chuch and its teachings are an appendage to Christ and his atonement. We need to be instructed in all the basic doctrines, but we need to be able to show their connection to the atonement. If we can’t legitimately do that, then we have more personal work to do in our understanding or perhaps the connection is tenuous and time should be spent on more important subjects.

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