This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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In mythically promoting our history we risk undermining it—at least we do so in today’s information age. But this chapter with Laman and Nephi sparring makes me think that perhaps this is always the case. We glorify and mythologize our founders so that they can carry the weight of our cultural superstructures—to make them worthy of our adoration and emulation. Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammad and Joseph Smith all become mythical figures, embodiments of perfection, superlatively superlified, something far greater than what we experience in our everyday—and consequently, something worthy of adoration and emulation. The end result, however, is inevitably what Jesus discovered: that no prophet—not even the Messiah—is considered a prophet in their own country. The mythologizing removes our heroes from the everyday, from the mundane, from humanity, from earth—and consequently whatever we discover on earth is conspicuously less, patently does not live up to our implicit or explicit expectations, our mythology-spawned standards. Ezra Booth was converted by the magnificent power and spirit of the Restoration. He was quickly unconverted by Joseph Smith who didn’t even meet the standards of an educated or culturally refined person in his day, let alone the super-standards of Protestant notions of prophethood.
Today we’ve either wed the Protestants’ notions or otherwise generated our own historically false notions of what a prophet is. Consequently, we have a lot of Ezra Booths among us—or leaving us—today.
Nephi is of course savvy with his reference back to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt. Laman obviously knew of Moses, and we have every reason to think that the story of Moses was foundational to his own theology. Laman exonerates Jerusalem from Lehi’s (and the other prophets’) criticism specifically because Jerusalem kept the law of Moses. Jerusalem is the Promised Land, the land of their inheritance. These beliefs of Laman assume the divine nature of the Exodus. Even moreso, Nephi’s contemporary (New World) audience believed in the Exodus, and here Nephi legitimizes his own efforts by recalling the mythological Exodus and uniting it with the narrative of Lehi’s exodus, in turn creating a new founding narrative. I suspect that this worked well with the contemporary audience—those Nephites living in or near the land of Nephi, those who either had no personal experience of Lehi’s exodus, or had experienced it decades previous, allowing for it to gain the mythical status of a capital-E Exodus. At the same time, I suspect it didn’t do much for Laman and Lemuel in Bountiful who could easily discern the difference between the mythologized Exodus of Moses (which they believed in) and the filthy, wretched, suffering-infused exodus of Lehi (which they lived).
We particularly struggle with this scenario today. One common reaction to the mass proliferation of historical information concerning our founding generation and its miracles—warts and all—is to retrench and proliferate fairytales about the Restoration and the perfection of our heroes who carried it off. This approach doesn’t work.
I think we have two choices. We will either need to come to grips with the fact that God calls mortals as prophets and so become reconciled to their bumbling about in like manner to any other mortal (despite the divinity of their call and ultimate success of their work), while at the same time developing the spiritual eyes to see the divine in both the warp and the weave as well as the larger tapestry of the Restoration. Or else we, like Laman, like the Nazarites, like so many of our sisters and brothers nursing empirical wounds on exMo sites and in coffee shops, will ultimately be disillusioned by the same myths created to bolster our faith.