(a) belonging to the emperor (b) embalmed (c) tame (d) sucking pigs (e) sirens (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs…

Today’s Priesthood lesson promoted genealogy and vicarious ordinance work. The topic only provides two interesting topics for discussion (that I could think of). First, the mystical vicarious ordinances, which are powerful theological concepts and really only yield to purely religious reasoning; Second the creation and consumption of family history for its own sake, which yields to more secular analysis.

I. Vicarious work

First, vicarious work. I spent some time wondering what is the mechanism by which vicarious ordinances work. It turns out that Heber J. Grant correctly reduced that problem to just an extension of another big theological question — the mechanism of the atonement. He says,

“The world asks, how can that be, that one can be baptized for another? But if we believe in the vicarious work of Christ, we must believe that one can do work for another, and that we also may become ‘saviors upon Mount Zion.’”

True enough. That’s a convincing argument. Once you’ve accepted the atonement, our own vicarious work seems very reasonable. That is particularly true given our view that humans can progress to be Gods. That still leaves the mystery of the mechanism of Christ’s atonement. I’m never able to make much progress understanding how it works. Skousen’s “A Personal Search for the Meaning of the Atonement” has the benefit of acknowledging the problem, but his solution no redeeming qualities. (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve read his boneheaded writing, but we all have our skeletons.) I find it useful to make it explicit that we have no idea why either kind of vicarious work is necessary or effective.

II. History

Part two is the real implications of “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers.” To me, family history is the real modern heir of history in the sense of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. That book, inspired by the classification of animals of my title (which Borges quotes from a fictional Chinese encyclopedia) explains the transition from the logical classifications of the eighteenth century to the functional classification of the nineteenth century. He treats three examples. 1. Language: general grammar to phonetics and syntax. 2. Natural History: classification of species to biology 3. Money: Analysis of wealth to economics. It’s classic structuralism and postmodernism and social theory of the Continental kind.

I’m not a postmodernist because I believe that many things are not subjective — particulary physics, biology and chemistry. But postmodernism certainly scores some direct hits when it comes to history, sociology, and economics. The history of wars and great men and a historical narrative thread (postmodernists call it meta-narrative) is unconvincing. First, it’s difficult to create a theory of history that is useful, meaning it successfully predicts. For a dramatic example see the predictive failure of Hegel/Marx. And even if one of these predictive theories turns out to work, which one. Second, ignoring the experience of the average person leads to unethical rhetorical uses of history. For example, consider the historical justification for the recent Russian economic shock therapy and the state in which it’s left Russians.

If family history were given value starting today, in a few hundred years we’d have a much better history. We’d focus on individuals. So in my mind family history is the new history. The great men and wars or history of ideas is just fuzzy background. It seems to me the church’s focus on dates and heredity naturally expands to include stories and narrative and that that in turn changes the way we think about history for the better.


  1. “I find it useful to make it explicit that we have no idea why either kind of vicarious work is necessary or effective.”

    We were all faithful eager believers in the premortal world. In mortality, we have been given vicarious work because it makes us take a leap of faith over and over. I say I believe but am I willing to submit to a kooky ordinance to prove it? It’s effective precisely because it is so bewildering. You have to be humble to submit yourself to something that doesn’t make sense…to do it just to be obedient. And when you have humbled yourself, you are most open to the instruction of the spirit…that’s the real reward.

  2. Ah Yes. I just figured out how to post under my full name to avoid confusion. The byline should be clearer now.

    As for “family history”, I think I both respect journaling more and history less than you do. The problem with plain old history (POH) is that the subjectivity is in what’s left out. I admit that journals may often be garbage, but as the businessman says “they make up for it in volume.”

  3. Back to the history comment. It seems to me that the usefulness of journals as “history” depends on the type of history you are studying/writing. As far as social history is concerned, journals are incredibly important. i.e. Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale. Arguably more important than any historian’s account–given the context.

    However, I think that with political history, journals really aren’t enlightening. The attempt at objectivity is incredibly important there, especially considering the effect that time has on tempering political biases. As political consumers we are already so inundated by and affected by propaganda. A little hindsight, combined with the broader understanding that time provides, produces a much more reliable history than would the opinions of one political consumer contemporary to the event in question.

    As to the atonement–and sorry to superimpose a Sunday School answer here–but it seems to me that the operative question is not *how* the atonement works, but how we use it. When it comes down to it, the mechanics of repentance and forgiveness and comfort in times of trial is really the more difficult topic. How do I repent of X? how do I forgive others? how do I forgive myself? How do I clear out my head enough to feel the Savior’s love in times of serious emotional upheaval? Maybe those are some of the unanswerable questions that we should be focusing on trying to answer.

  4. BTW. Just so you don’t accidently believe me without realizing I’m A LIBERAL.

    Economic Left/Right: -6.50
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.72

  5. Kristine says:

    But Steve, your valorization of personal histories suggests that there’s no meta-narrative in journals. Aren’t you just replacing the considered (well, sometimes at least) meta-narratives of historians with the (possibly) naive meta-narratives of “ordinary” journal writers? Sure, you get less hero worship and less privileging of wealth or whatever other status markers are important, but you also get lots of un-self-critical and poorly digested religion, sociology, political theory etc. You’re just letting a thousand meta-narratives bloom. That may or may not yield better ones.

  6. Hmm. I guess I don’t see how journaling escapes the weakness of POH as you’ve described it. I can, however, see how using them as a source of history, or at least endowing them with a little credibility, would be a positive step. What’s missing from journals, IMHO, is the effort and discipline to make them complete and logical.

    As for the effectiveness of the Atonement, no one (to my knowledge) has been able to advance arguments or even theories as to how Christ can remove our sins. The only thing I’ve heard is that it’s miraculous, done by virtue of him being the Son of God. Not incredibly satisfying, I’ll admit. But at the same time, I’m not sure how Christ’s ability to take on our sins opens the door to all manners of vicarious performances. I mean, there are plenty of things Christ can do that the rest of us can’t, right?

    I guess that the challenge in the scriptures is to become like Christ. Perhaps that’s how you get from Christ’s atonement to us as “saviors upon Mount Zion.”

  7. Hmmm, and I can’t apparently handle what I’ve got. :o)

  8. I think that’s exactly right, Kristine. There’s no guarantee that abandoning our historians will yield “better” results.

  9. I would just point out that this post is by the illustrious Steve Cannon, or Steve C. It’s getting to be like the Spice Girls around here with Steve E., Steve C., etc.

    Steve Cannon, how do you want to refer to yourself? I’m OK with Steve E/Steve C if you like.

    Speaking of which, Steve Cannon, how are you using the term “Family History”? Are you using it in the pejorative church sense of individual journals, books of remembrance, etc.? Can those highly skewed personal narratives really take the place of overall theories of history? As a student of rhetoric I know that all histories are intended to persuade the reader to one end or another, but at least with the more popular approaches to history we’re preserve the illusion of objectivity… you suggest that the new history is an aggregation of personal narratives?

    Thanks for a highly interesting and challenging post.

  10. I’ve never tried to understand the mechanism by which the atonement works because it seems like a fruitless exercise. Christ seems to have given us all the explanation on the subject that we are likely to get when he said in response to the query of who can be saved: With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

    Steve–an excellent inaugural post. For more on the limitations of history, read War and Peace–if you haven’t already read it you probably aren’t aware that a third of the book is dedicated to explaining why it is improper to seize on any one person or group of people as an explanation of why things happened. Tolstoy felt that you could get just as good an understanding of the War of 1812 by looking at a family history. Like you, he didn’t see that as a superior method, but he didn’t think it inferior to learning about Napoleon.

    I’m not convinced that abandoning histories won’t hurt us however. Don’t historians do a better job that journal writers of preserving some objectivity and drilling down to facts that have some predictive value. Europe gets very uneasy when there is political unrest in the Balkans–of course no one knows that war in Kosovo will spill over into neighboring states, but the problem is addressed, it seems to me, because professional historians point out that a lot of conflicts originate in this area and posit plausible reasons as to why it happened in the past and could happen in the future.

  11. Karen,

    point taken about social history — Claudia’s post on T&S about Pepys’ journal made that same point.

    And forgive me for saying this, but somehow, I think that knowing how the Atonement works and knowing how it works for me aren’t completely separate issues.

    But you are absolutely right in terms of prioritizing the questions — figuring out how best to apply the atonement in our lives is the most important thing in the world. Just sometimes, I want more!

  12. Mat,

    I agree, I guess, with the spirit of what you were saying about the Atonement: “I’ve never tried to understand the mechanism by which the atonement works because it seems like a fruitless exercise. ” God seems to be keeping quiet about how exactly it works.

    It is really useless to talk about it though? How effectively can we apply the atonement if we have no idea how it functions? That question’s wrong — I guess I know that it does, in fact, function, even though I don’t know how. I guess I wish I could figure it out, though, since we say the atonement is the center of our religion.

  13. Steve Cannon,

    Recent discussions of postmodernism in the church may interest you. James Faulconer has a very interesting paper on this topic, from a few years ago: http://www.nd.edu/~rpotter/pomo.html

    And you may notice that the The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology also just addressed these ideas: http://www.nd.edu/~bhuff1/smpt.org/firstprogram.html

  14. Steve E.

    I wish I could understand that too–but since there doesn’t seem to be any answer that any amount of thought will yeild, and since it apparently isn’t necessary, I prefer to think about Rule 10(b)-5. [a securities law regulation for you non-lawyers out there]. I guess an response like that could get me kicked off my own blog.

  15. Well, it can’t hurt to try and figure out the Atonement, I think (well, unless you’re talking about Blood Atonement). I think most people out there with the paper, “Did Christ Pay for Our Sins”. See http://www.nd.edu/~rpotter/pay.html .

    It’s an interesting paper and I love it, but it largely serves to dismantle atonement cliches, not construct a theory of how vicarious performances work. What’s more, I don’t think the “empathy theory” Potter favors really works in light of BoM/temple teachings on sacrifice/justice etc.

    Maybe you’re right, Mathew, that it’s not worth it to try and figure it out. That feels disappointing, though.

  16. Steve Cannon says:

    Wow, this has accrued some great comments while I was away taking care of a little one with strep. Taking only the history aspect for now I have three points of response.

    First, it’s interesting that a number of you have stepped up to defend traditional history. I didn’t expect that and my initial feeling is that I’m not qualified to give a defense of postmodern history. The issue has been debated ad nauseum in academia and I’m only up to saying that I come down on the postmodern side. I can only refer you to something like The Postmodern History Reader edited by Keith Jenkins. (I haven’t actually read this.)

    Second, I will clarify and say that I see personal history replacing the history of nations and leaders. I don’t see it replacing analytical history. There is still a need for professional historians (like Claudia Bushman) to interpret and comment on these journals. Perhaps you need professional historians even more than before to help make sense of the individual testimony. The difference is that the professional addresses the experiences of the average person as recorded in journals, rather than the events that made the papers.

    Third, all the history comments addressed the truth value of personal history, none the ethical value. The ethical aspect is a critical component of the argument for microhistory and postmodern history.


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