I had a vinyl banner that hung in my bedroom—a gift from one of my Primary teachers. It was distressed to look like an ancient manuscript, and on it were printed the Articles of Faith. Next to each Article, a blank circle hovered. As I memorized each Article, I would check them off with my teacher and she would give me a sticky-backed button to place in the circle… each Article had a different button, and I remember the anticipation I felt as I waited to see the image on the button’s obverse. The whole affair felt like an ancient rite of passage, passed down to me by those who’d paved the way before.
I never completed it.
A few of the blank circles were never filled—their accusing eyes, staring back at me until I finally mustered the courage to roll up the roll and stash it in the bottom drawer of my dresser, next to my CTR box and other treasures from my short life.
The short ones were the easiest to memorize, so I quickly checked off the first three. The fourth one was pounded into our heads as part of our individual and collective path towards baptism. I don’t recall which other ones I checked off—well, I absolutely remember never checking off the thirteenth, but that’s an entirely different story—except for the eighth.
8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
It was an easy one to pass off. It felt like two different ones—the one about the Bible not being the word of God unless it was translated correctly… and then the one about the Book of Mormon being the word of God.
As a child, I initially had a one-dimensional approach to the first article of faith: God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost (whatever that was) were real. Duh. At the time, had someone said that they didn’t believe in God, I’d have starred at them blankly. That didn’t last long. Soon, I came to understand that some people believed and some people didn’t—I even understood that some some people only believed a little. My understanding of “God space” was two-dimensional… belief and unbelief—with a short thread of gossamer between them. From there, it was an easy jump to three, four, and more. I say “easy”, because my early conversations about God quickly laid bare an entire landscape of details—both grand and picayune—about God that people were willing to fight over. And most of these conversations happened at Church, where I was surrounded by people I loved and who loved me back. It was wonderful.
Most of the points of doctrine found in the Articles of Faith were also quickly moved from one- or two-dimensional space to a space of myriad dimensions.
The second clause of the eighth article being a noticeable exception. In class after class, thread after thread, and conversation after conversation, I’ve personally witnessed people I loved and who loved me back struggle as they engaged in multi-dimensional discussions about the Book of Mormon. I suspect that they savoir that folks have a litany of varying opinions on the Book of Mormon… but they don’t connaître it. For these folks, regardless of whatever else they know about the Book of Mormon, people fall into two discrete groups: believers and non-believers.
I know the Book of Mormon is true. François does not.
But “true”, in the sentence above, is nearly meaningless—or filled with so much meaning, that it’s nearly useless. Like me, after a night of sushi.
Because I love to teach, to comment online, and to engage in God talk, this state of affairs pains me. I want more from my lessons, online relationships, and conversations… and so I started talking openly of the multidimensionality of Book of Mormon belief. And as I spoke more about it I settled on three* dimensions: modern/ancient, factual/fictional, inspired/uninspired.
Was the Book of Mormon written anciently or was it penned more recently? I imagine most people will find themselves at either pole. But I bet you can think of some among us who have put forward ideas that seem to suggest that Joseph took ancient materials and crafted something new with them—a belief I would place somewhere in between.
Fiction is an important—vital, even—part of scripture. Christ’s parables, for example, are sacred fiction. We would laugh (okay, politely chuckle) if someone advanced the idea that there were ten actual virgins that Christ was referencing. So don’t let this axis make you uncomfortable (and if you’re like so many of the people I share this with, it does)… which is good, because I imagine most of you find yourselves somewhere in the middle.
As tempting as it is to think of this axis as being an all-or-nothing proposition, let’s not forget the care that the book takes to remind us—again and again—the book is filled with human error. So on one end, there are the people that consider the Book of Mormon wholly inspired—every word, every comma—even the em dashes—inspired. And on the other hand, we have people who believe God had nothing to do with the whole enterprise. I’d wager that most of you fall on the north end of this axis.
* * *
And now we have a three dimensional belief space—one that includes every person who’s ever had an opinion (or ever will) on the keystone of our religion. What do we do with it? We start, I suggest, with asking ourselves “where do I find myself”—that’s the big question, isn’t it? And it’s not an easy question. In fact, I submit, it’s one we’ll never fully answer—not if we are taking the text seriously.
This isn’t rocket science. If you’re in my class, it’s three lines on a chalk board. It’s just a way of describing something as more than—and, more importantly, bigger than—“true” and “not true”. It’s an invitation to give ourselves permission to explore the richness of what the Book of Mormon has to offer and to allow all others the same privilege—to take up the gauntlet thrown down by President Ezra Taft Benson to take the Book of Mormon seriously.
* There may be more, but I think these three are a solid place to start (for those who work with taxonomies, I would say that I think these three axes meet the requirement of being clearly defined, mutually exclusive, and collectively exhaustive). Of course, it’s probably not mere coincidence that the multidimensional space that I wanted to use in class and in other casual settings turned out to be three dimensions. After all, my subconscious mind—my great organizer-in-chief—knew that the people I was trying to reach would intuitively grasp a three-dimensional space with greater facility than, say, a thirteen-dimensional space.
** Authorship is an important question, but I didn’t include it as one of the axes. I think someone could argue that it would be appropriate… but it felt like an external rather internal attribute.
*** At the Sunstone 2016 Summery Symposium, this weekend at the University of Utah, there was a panel (session 351) that discussed “Four Views of the Book of Mormon”, and asked “Is the Book of Mormon an inspired history of ancient peoples? An inspired scriptural narrative? A work of great literature? Or a nineteenth-century plagiarism?”—a discussion fully immersed in the multidimensional space I describe here.