Restoration

Angie C AKA Hawkgrrl returns with a post sure to please our DC Universe fans.

What does it mean that the church is a restoration? As I grew up in the church, I always thought of restoration as implying stuff fell out that had to be put back in. Things that fit into this category included:

  • the role of prophets and apostles, translation capabilities (including that pesky Urim & Thummim that someone mislaid a few thousand years ago)
  • “original meanings” restored through the JST (those careless, woman-hating, medieval clerks!)
  • ordinances
  • temples
  • the idea of people being Christian before Christ was born (makes them more relatable I suppose)
  • *gack!* polygamy (this one was certainly out of left field)

But it could also mean that impurities are removed, as in restoring the finish on a piece of furniture or restoring a historical building by removing modern embellishments. This might include things like:

  • canons and creeds that post-date what we consider to be the apostasy
  • celibate priesthood
  • repetitious prayers (which we then quickly replaced with our own versions: “grateful for the moisture we’ve received,” and “that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies“)
  • generally any beliefs that originated between 100 AD and 1830 AD that we don’t believe are original

It’s also interesting to note, with all the things we did restore, some of the things we didn’t:

  • female prophets (like Deborah)
  • certain books of the apocrypha (somehow Song of Solomon – the Barry White album of the Bible – made the cut, Job got declared a real person, and we embraced James’ “works” focused gospel; we also kept epistles of Paul that scholars now agree weren’t written by him)
  • circumcision (while I have no dog in this fight so to speak, it could get ugly in such a convert-oriented church)
  • animal sacrifice (I’m pretty glad about this one, especially with the white shirt culture)
  • Law of Moses food restrictions (I’ll take lobster and bacon rather than coffee any day!)

If you’re about to say, “But wait a minute. Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses,” consider that other things that were “restored”: polygamy, creating a personal application of the Abraham covenant by becoming part of the house of Israel, and ordinance linkages to the house of Israel; they are chronologically from the same era, demonstrating that we are somewhat arbitrary in the things we’ve restored and the things that didn’t make the cut. Just sayin’.

Here’s a dictionary definition of “restore”:

  1. to bring back into existence, to reestablish.
  2. to bring back into a former, original, or normal condition.
  3. to bring back to a state of health, soundness, or vigor.
  4. to put back to a former place, position, rank, etc.: to restore the king to his throne.
  5. to give back; make return or restitution of (anything taken away or lost).

In the church, I think we mostly consider definitions 1 and 2 which leads to the idea that we are literally doing things like they have always been done anciently. We can easily imagine Adam and Eve teaching Family Home Evening, Alma reassigning Home Teaching routes, and the sons of Israel playing a little six-on-six hoops. Obviously, this is not a very realistic image. Many of our restorations fail the “literally historical” sniff test on closer inspection. Perhaps definition 3 is a better way of looking at it. Christianity was no longer healthy, sound or vigorous (I believe the word “dead” was thrown around to contrast with “true and living”).

Rebooting

Another analogy for restoration might be a reboot. My experience with rebooting is that your system stops responding properly, having gotten gummed up over time with too many free downloads or kids’ programs left running (you people know who you are). You finally throw your hands up and say “I give up!” and possibly a few choice curse words, and then you shut the whole thing down and start again, hoping against hope that the thing will actually come up and work again. The definition of rebooting is to restart or reload an operating system.

What I like about this analogy is that it seems to me that all religions run a certain course from pure to impure to dysfunctional over time. Even our own church has downloaded a few bad programs since its inception in 1830. For example, the Ham doctrine was like a viral spam attachment we opened that some Protestant converts sent to us. Converts are often found trying to run their old programs on their new PC. Over time, maybe all churches go through this same cycle, starting with purity, and ending at dysfunction. This of course would imply that eventually there would need to be another restoration, unless we have such a great anti-virus system (ongoing revelation) that this stuff just doesn’t get through or quickly gets taken out if it does.

Retcon

A third way of looking at restoration is retconning. For those who are comic book or sci-fi fans, this term will be familiar (or its longer version: retroactive continuity). The definition is to retroactively revise, usually by reinterpreting past events, or by theorizing how the present would be different if past events had not happened or had happened differently.

A simple example of a retcon from Star Trek is the change in the appearance of the Klingon race. The change was so dramatic that the show constantly referred to it as an incident from the past that Klingons would not discuss as a matter of honor (wink, wink). The obvious answer for viewers was that the budgets got a lot bigger, and the

make-up technology improved greatly in the 20 year lapse between Original Series and Next Gen. It points to one of the biggest issues with retconning: suspension of disbelief.

There are many reasons retcons are done (these were listed in Wikipedia):

  • to accommodate sequels in which new authors or creators can revise the in-story history to allow a course of events that would not have been possible in the story’s original continuity (the Book of Mormon)
  • to reintroduce popular characters (we tend to like Adam with a whole new extended backstory, Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah is also getting a lot of play in our universe)
  • to resolve errors of chronology (pre-Christ Christology, anyone?)
  • to update a familiar series for a modern audience (US is a chosen land, look here’s a Nephite named Zelph and the New Jerusalem will be in Missouri!)
  • to simplify an excessively complex continuity structure (much easier to consider all temples the same: tabernacles, synagogues, and modern day temples)
  • to purge unpopular or troubling elements from a storyline (infant baptism, celibate priesthood, papal authority)

Often proof-texting is used to prove the new story is a valid alternative that fits in somehow with the original story line. For example, there are scriptures that are important to Mormonism that nobody else gives a fig about (JWs do this a lot also). Consider these:

1 Corinthians 15:29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

1 Corinthians 15:40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Exodus 29:21 And thou shalt take of the blood that is upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him: and he shall be hallowed, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons’ garments with him.

Revelation 2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

Galatians 4:7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ

I can’t help but think there is an element of retconning in this picture of Adam who clearly just walked out of a SuperCuts wearing a suede 1970s wrap dress. Speaking of Adam, there’s this line: “Adam was a prophet; first one that we know . . .” We have redefined the word prophet to mean leader of the church on earth at a given time, although Adam is never referred to in this way in any of the historica.

So, do religions retcon? Absolutely! For a quick non-LDS example, consider Handel’s Messiah, using the words of Isaiah to refer to Jesus Christ. It’s one interpretation, but most Jews would disagree. Another example of retconning is when Constantine converted to Christianity and wanted to identify the original Christian sites. Did he actually find the house where Jesus was born, hundreds of years later, or the exact site of the crucifixion? Probably not, but it gave believers a contemporary tangible touch point to make their faith real. And as I’ve said elsewhere, you could build a briar patch out of all the supposed crowns of thorns that are out there in cathedrals.

As Hugh Nibley illustrated in his book Temple and Cosmos, the temple is a retcon. In showing the similarities of all temple rites, he also showed the differences between ours and those of ancient Israel and the impossibility of ensuring that the rites are identical from era to era. We don’t have a clear read on the origins of the modern temple session (which wasn’t even documented for the first 30 years), but we sure do all we can to tie it to practices from Solomon’s temple or the tabernacle, whether it is actually the same or not.

Grant Hardy, in his book Understanding the Book of Mormon, points to the problem of the unreliable narrator. One example he gives is that Moroni essentially retcons Christian faith into the story of the

Jaredites in Ether. He does this by adding his own commentary rather than actually fabricating what is recorded, but if you separate his statements from those he takes from the record, you can see that the Christian worship is his own insertion, not explicit in the record.

In my view, we’ve got elements of all three at play in the church: restoring, rebooting, and retconning. And all three have worked to varying degrees, but there have been some slip-ups as well. We’ve restored some things we shouldn’t have. We’ve not restored some things we should have. We’ve got security risks due to strange bedfellows and new converts. And we’ve convinced ourselves that some of what we’ve retconned was historical when it wasn’t, which results in suspension of disbelief issues.

But ultimately, I’m left with that 3rd definition of restore: to bring back to a state of health, soundness, or vigor. Whichever method we’ve used, we’ve definitely invigorated Christianity with our version. Even if it’s not been perfect, it has been restored.

Discuss.

Comments

  1. On your final paragraph before the “Discuss” hortativeness, Stephen Webb has a fascinating essay in a recent BYU Studies about ways practicing Christians (he’s a convert to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism) could invigorate their faith by considering Mormonism. I played with this theme in Paul Reeve’s and Ardis Parshall’s Encyclopedia of Mormon History for ABC-CLIO and agree with many of the points you make (though I confess I lack your serious scifi cred).

  2. Hawkgrrl! What a treat to find your post this morning. What a cleaver way to think about restoration. I’ve been doing a bit of this sort of restoration with evolution and your framing it this way is very useful. Plus! You used Star Trek! (A few of us believe that in the Millennium the entire Star Trek franchise (save Enterprise which was part of the great falling way prophesied by Gene Rodenberry) will be canonized as scripture.) But great thoughts. It’s nice to see a useful expansion of what restoration means.

  3. I really like this, Angie – and the 3rd definition works best for me as an umbrella concept.

    I would add the idea of grafting and pruning as a uniquely Mormon view of restoration.

    Taking stuff from other sources, inserting them into our own “tree”, watching to see what happens, cutting out the bad stuff (often more slowly than we’d want, in order not to cause major harm to the tree itself when it is removed – for example, the difference between the radical surgery that removed polygamy and pruning the Priesthood ban) and letting the good stuff grow , etc. I believe Jacob 5 says we will continue to prune in this way right up until the end, all in order to “restore” – and “to bring back to a state of health, soundness, or vigor” fits that picture really well.

    “The Vineyard Still Is Being Pruned” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2011/02/vineyard-still-is-being-pruned.html)

  4. Hawk,
    Proof-texting by a modern prophet or scribe is not exactly a new practice. I am sure that Matthew, Luke, Paul and others used similar analysis of existing OT scriptures. It is clear that Jesus reemphasized ancient teachings in ways that had been minimized or even forgotten in His time. I hope that very modern retcons will continue to be used. One of the best came from Elder Packer in explaining the verses in the D & C showed that seventies could or should be general officers and above or included in the office of high priest. The reemphasis of councils is another positive. Now if we can just get the Roberts/Talmage philosophy more fully adopted….

  5. Fun post, Angie. That description of the Adam and Even image is classic.

  6. Of course, not every verse cited in support of something is necessarily a proof-text. The question is whether history and context support or undermine the usage to which the verse is put.

  7. It’s also interesting to note, with all the things we did restore, some of the things we didn’t: female prophets

    I don’t think that is true in the least. Every person is to be a prophet. The authority of regular people as they act in a prophetic role is limited. Typically only the President of the High Priesthood acts in that role of full authority. But each of us is to be a prophet. There are numerous examples of female prophets in the official LDS lesson manuals. (I can think of an example from my lesson last week in the CTR manual) Also one needn’t read much of Eliza R. Snow, Zina Huntington or other great women to recognize they were prophets just as those one reads about in the OT or NT.

  8. BTW – I do like your idea of restore as bringing back to health. I think we have a cultural want to understand both apostasy and restoration in absolutist terms. I don’t think that justified though.

  9. I am sure that Matthew, Luke, Paul and others used similar analysis of existing OT scriptures. It is clear that Jesus reemphasized ancient teachings in ways that had been minimized or even forgotten in His time.

    Very, very, very true. The old Bible (before the new one that replaced so many footnotes with links to the topical guide) had direct links to the scriptures being quoted. Reading them makes it pretty obvious.

    As for prophets, I’ve written about how to become one (with a small “p”). ;)

  10. SteveP, I must say that your willingness to discard Enterprise from the StarTrek Universe is obviously just proof-texting based on ideology. Why, the entire Klingon genetic mutation is CLEARLY addressed, along with the ability of Humans and Vulcans to procreate; making Spock possible. Enterprise fit superbly into the Universe. I’m surprised you’d let something as trivial as lyrics in the theme music distract you from the obvious truthiness of Enterprise as an integral part of the Trekiverse’s continuity.

  11. The geek-girl in me is giggling with delight at retconning the gospel, but it works so well! Nice post with an interesting angle.

  12. This is a great post. It sums up some of the problems with the mainstream Mormon definition of “restoration” pretty well. The idea of retconning, which was new to me, since I’m not a sci-fi aficionado, is a great way of explaining some of the things that Joseph Smith did, but if you follow that logic, what you’re really saying is that he made things up (i.e. wrote fiction and passed it off as fact) in order to create a “better” narrative, or at least a narrative that was a better fit for his own ideas.

    With the mountain of evidence against the historicity of the Book of Abraham (unless by “historicity” you mean 19th century historicity), the Book of Abraham would be a prime candidate for the retconning theory. In other words, he made it up to teach some principles that were important to him, but placed it in an ancient context to give it some gravitas, even though it didn’t come from an ancient context… unless you count the things that Joseph was learning at the time from his Jewish Hebrew instructor, who undoubtedly shared some Jewish interpretations of scripture with Joseph that eventually made their way into the Book of Abraham.

    The whole Zelph episode which you mentioned is another candidate for retconning. That one has always seemed so far-fetched as to be beyond believable to me. Try as I might, I can’t see it as anything other than an entirely fictional faith-promoting rumor.

    But it would be selling Joseph Smith short to reduce all of his efforts to fanciful faith-promoting fabrications. There’s no question that Joseph Smith did his best to re-invigorate Christianity. I think that sums up his best-intentioned motives pretty well, from what I can tell, polygamy and polyandry notwithstanding. At his best, Joseph Smith was an incredibly talented and visionary leader with ideas more expansive and grandiose than anyone else around him. In fact, he has few peers in the recorded history of the world, really. He commands respect for what he accomplished and for the devotion that he inspired.

    I do wish that the modern church took more of Joseph Smith’s approach to heart and made a better effort to re-invigorate Christianity, rather than just canonize Joseph Smith’s work as if the “restoration” or “re-invigoration” were a finished product. For all the talk of ongoing revelation, we don’t have much to show for it as a church. We’ve got Family Home Evening, correlated block church schedules, and lots of talks about pornography (and other subjects, of course), but even if these are all good things, they don’t restore anything. Maybe they re-invigorate a bit, at the personal commitment level, but they don’t create new avenues of thought at all, so in the grand scheme of Christianity, they really don’t accomplish any kind of restoration or re-invigoration.

    The part that I’m glad the modern church doesn’t take to heart about Joseph Smith’s approach, though, is the whole concept of making up stuff, pretending it’s ancient, and passing it off as literally true. And yes, I realize that this comment is irrelevant to those who believe that he really did restore ancient documents. There will probably always be debate about that point.

    In any case, my compliments to the author of the original post for being able to provide such a concise and effective discussion of the different ways to think about what the Mormon idea of restoration really is all about.

  13. “What does it mean that the church is a restoration?”
    This means the return of authority to act in the Name of God through the Priesthood as given to Joseph Smith by Angels; nothing less and nothing more. Concepts, practices, teachings, and revelations are direct and necessary appendages to this and may or may not have a connection to what we envision as restoring the ancient Church(es). Without the restoration of the Priesthood, and therefore the Gospel (meaning the everlasting covenant of Christ’s Atonement), we are no more a restoration than Baptists or Campbellites.

  14. Enterprise had some potential, and Ann Porter makes a valid point about the Vulcan/human mating precedent. I also thought the doctor’s culture with 8 marital partners was an interesting one. But the theme song, all the time traveling / retconning within the series toward the end (lazy storytelling, IMO), and water polo being the sport of the future (?!). What is that sport playing on? ESPN Ocho, wedged between badminton and ping pong?

    I like Ray’s pruning analogy as well. It fits nicely with the health restoration meaning as well as introducing new things not there previously.

    Ben S – valid point about citing scriptures other faiths don’t care about as evidence. They came from somewhere. We proof-text them to bolster our doctrine, but we didn’t write them in there. It’s hard to say what the original meanings were and whether they specifically inspired our restoration (by inspiring the questions that revealed our doctrine) or merely bolstered it after the fact.

    J Stapley – in his defense, Adam is working that dress.

  15. Really interesting post, I love the concept. I think Clark’s comment about female prophets is a bit euphemistic, though. You can nitpick the semantics all you want, but look at the leadership of the church. We obviously do not have female prophets.

  16. The point about certain scriptures not meaning anything to outsiders hit home. Two or three went over my head, and I’m as close as Community of Christ.

  17. David Packard says:

    Retconning is much better than restoring for me, provided that they are equally valid to God. I don’t really have a problem (in principle at least) in a God who inspires prophets to retcon, rather than merely restore. If the value in the prior stories, documents, rituals, ordinances, etc. was found within the symbolic value to begin with, then an “invigorated restoration” (i.e., retcon) makes more sense.

    Retcons that insist on a new literal interpretation often lose credibility, however. So there’s where the problems lie for me. A retcon needs to remain in a safe place, either far enough from empirical observation to be falsified, or primarily metaphorical, to bequeath its greatest benefits.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,820 other followers