Book Review: As Iron Sharpens Iron.

By proving contrarieties truth is made manifest. –Joseph Smith, Jr., 1844 [1]JSmith_Iron_cover_1024x1024

Without Contraries is no progression. –William Blake, ca. 1790 [2]

[I]t must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. –Lehi, ca. 588-570, B.C. [3]

As iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. –Attributed to Solomon, recorded ca. 8th Century, B.C., by the scribes of Hezekiah [4]

As Iron Sharpens Iron: Listening to the Various Voices of Scripture, is a collection of 17 fictional dialogues between men and women in the scriptures addressing topics on which the interlocutors seem to have different viewpoints. The title is taken from the proverb that as one piece of metal can be used to sharpen another, debate with a friend sharpens a person’s wit, insight, and perception (Proverbs 27:17).

Julie Smith edited the book, and also wrote the dialogue between Mark and Luke on the roles of women in their gospels. The other authors include other familiar bloggernacle voices, as well as other writers.

There are 17 dialogues in the book:

  • Abraham & Job on suffering and submission to God’s will.
  • Jacob (Nephi’s brother) & Joseph Smith on the licitness of polygamy and on the broader question of the relationship between rules and exceptions to rules.
  • John the Evangelist & John the Revelator on the divinity of Jesus.
  • Joseph (of the famous coat) & Nephi on sibling rivalry and reconciliation.
  • Job & John (the Revelator) on the role of adversaries and of the Adversary.
  • Alma & Abinadi on success in missionary work and in prophecy.
  • Tamar & David on the role of personal righteousness in the letter and spirit of the law and justice.
  • Moses & Paul on the role of the law in reconciling humanity to God.
  • Mark & Luke on roles of women in the gospels.
  • Amulek & Alma on the theology of the atonement.
  • Balaam & Daniel on the role of a prophet and the nature of revelation.
  • Solomon & Josiah on the difficulties of writing and reading history.
  • Jeremiah & Jonah on the attitude that God’s servants take when their prophecies of doom are fulfilled or go unfulfilled.
  • Hannah & Sariah on complaint and praise for answered and unanswered prayers.
  • Mormon & Israel on the relationship between righteousness and wealth.
  • The Master & A Disciple on the meaning of the counsel to “let thy communication be yea, yea; nay, nay.”

These are my encapsulations of the topics, but they are all richer than can be summed up in a few words. Rather than address individual dialogues in this review, I’m going to instead focus on the project as a whole.

Julie lays out the purpose and character of the project pretty well in her introduction. She compares the dialogues to the Jewish tradition of midrash. As I would put it, midrash is basically fan fiction, written in such a way that it generally does not contradict anything in the canon, but goes beyond it, as a non-canonical mortar to fill the interstitial gaps between hewn stone blocks of the canon. Like fan fiction, midrash not only explores gaps, but can also retcon inconsistencies in the canonical record.  “But,” Julie notes, these dialogues have “one very significant difference [from midrash]: we tried not to invent anything that would ‘solve’ the differences between texts,” because “[o]ur goal was to explore those differences, not explain them away.” (p. 5).

Why take this approach? As Julie explains it, there are several reasons.

First, this approach is faithful to the scriptures because the scriptures do not always agree. This may be because of the inadequacy of language to perfectly contain revealed truth (she quotes Joseph Smith’s lament in his letter to W.W. Phelps on the “little narrow prison” of written communication in a “crooked broken scattered and imperfect language” (p.2) (quoting Letter from  Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps dated Nov. 27, 1832, in Joseph Smith, “Letter Book A,” 1832-35, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church History Library)). But it may also be because the scripture writers actually take different stances on certain issues. And, Julie argues further, that divergence may be “not a bug, but a feature,” (p. 2), because seeing those differences opens us up to the possibility that a single event or principle in the scriptures can have multifaceted meanings.

Second, this approach is necessary in order to avoid cherry-picking, or buffet-style scripture reading. Because the scriptures do contain genuinely divergent voices, reconciling them “generally requires silencing part of scripture,” because often it requires us to pick sides, to privilege one voice over another. (p.3). Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, all believers engage to a greater or lesser extent in this cafeteria-style kind of religion. And we Mormons are no exception (just observe how often James gets quoted in sacrament meeting as compared to Paul, for example, or think of the last time you heard a sermon on the Song of Songs). I’m not sure I agree that reconciliation necessarily means privileging one voice over the other, but I agree with Julie that it can often mean that in practice, and that it is good to resist the tendency to declare victory rather than explore the conflict.

In fact, Julie goes so far as to suggest that attempting to prematurely reconcile differences and end debates can not only silence the human voices of scripture, but may even deafen us to the voice of God  as well, because “what if the inspiration is in the divergence?” (p. 4). To make this point, she quotes Peter Enns’ at some length, arguing that God reveals himself not just through the dialectic process between the various individual voices in the scriptures, but in the process itself. “The back-and-forth with the Bible is where God is found,” says Enns. “Enter the dialogue and you find God waiting for you, laughing with delight, ready to be a part of that back-and-forth.” (p.4) (quoting Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (N.Y. HarperCollins, 2014, at 242-43). [5]

Third, Julie notes that “each dialogue also models civil, respectful discourse,” which is “something of a lost art” in today’s “current political climate.” (p. 5). On this point, I wholeheartedly agree.There are those on both sides of almost every political or theological question imaginable who take the position that any compromise is capitulation; that putting a higher priority on understanding the other side with charity on its own terms than on being right is an attempt to introduce moral relativism, erase all boundaries, and remove all doctrinal content from the gospel. The result is a kind of take-no-prisoners style of discourse. In my view, this has profound theological implications as well as cultural ones. In politics this leads to the sins of gridlock and of increasing polarization, in religion, to the sin of pride and other sins against charity. Civility and respect for an adversary is not just good manners, it is how we do charity. If you listen only to the opinions of those you agree with, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? Respectfully seeking to understand an adversary (not just respond) need not imply weakness, capitulation, or agreement. We sorely need more models of this kind of charitable, but thorough disagreement.

Fourth, Julie contends that this approach  can “enliven and invigorate scripture study,” because “there is something inherently intriguing about wrestling through the contours of a conflict.” (p. 5). That may be true. It’s true for me. I’m not sure whether it is true for everyone.

Finally, Julie contends that this approach can serve as a sort of inoculation against faith crises. “Knowing that multivocality has always been a part of the program,” she says, “prepares a Saint to wrestle with today’s challenges.” (p. 5). Faith crises, though, come in many varieties, and no two are necesarily exactly alike; understanding the many-voiced nature of scriptures is not a magic formula that will solve the problem of faith crises. But I think Julie is right that it “prepares a Saint to [at least] wrestle” with the challenges of faith, even if it does not guarantee victory in those wrestling matches.

In short, the many-voiced nature of the scriptures is a riddle or koan to be pondered, rather than a problem to be solved. Julie’s introduction does an admirable job of offering a defense of the view that such multivocality is feature to be celebrated, not a bug to be fixed. And then the rest of the book, which works out that premise through fiction, acts as a celebration of that feature.

Is that celebration a party worth joining? For my part, my answer is an unqualified yes.

All the dialogues raise important questions that are worth pondering. Some of them hit me harder than others, but that’s probably more a matter of personal temperament and experience than any substantive judgment on the merits of the various dialogues: Jason Kerr’s dialogue between Tamar and David raised new questions about the letter and spirit of the law, or in other words, law and justice, that I had not considered before, or at least raised old questions in new ways that shed new light on them. Michael Austin’s dialogue between Abraham and Job points out and illustrates parallels between the two stories that I had not considered before. And Miranda Wilcox’s dialogue between Hannah and Sariah is not only great on its own, but when read as a companion to Michael’s dialogue between Abraham and Job, it deepens both dialogues. Steven Peck’s dialogue between Abraham and Thomas was not only insightful and profound, but aesthetically beautiful as well, and was one of the highlights for me. Ronan Head’s dialogue between Job and John not only illustrates the different ways that the old and new testaments treat the role of “a satan,” but also offers a meditation on the roles of adversaries in general, which is particularly resonant in the context of a book devoted to the premise that God reveals his word through a respectful dialogue between adversaries. I also especially enjoyed Walter van Beek’s dialogue between Jeremiah who laments the destruction of his wicked unrepentant people in fulfillment of his prophecy against them, and Jonah who laments the salvation of his wicked, but ultimately repentant, enemies, which leaves his prophecy against them unfulfilled.

All the writing is good, and some of it is excellent. Fan fiction, of course, is the better the closer it hews to the character of the canon even while addressing points that the canon does not. And by that measure, these dialogues are very good fan fiction. The characters generally speak with a versimilitude that seems faithful to the scriptures.

This is a book worth reading.  But it should be a beginning, not an end. It should be an invitation to go back to the scriptures and reread these speakers’s stories in a new light, a model on how to search out, approach, and celebrate additional disagreements in the scriptures, and an invitation to practice disagreeing without letting conviction rob charity.

The book is very good, as I’ve said, but it isn’t perfect. (And Julie is wise and gracious enough to anticipate that with her own Mormon-and-Moroni-style preemptive nostra culpa in the introduction.) I may have noticed a pair of very minor typos. There were places where I disagreed in minor ways with some of the choices of the authors. I thought some of the dialogues tended slightly toward reconciling differences in ways that I didn’t find wholly convincing. (But, I should note, this was only after wrestling through the issues; there were no wholesale victories of one voice over the other, nor were there any neat or facile reconciliations). And  some of the dialogue seemed the slightest bit contrived—with the differences put more starkly than I thought was a fair rendering of the positions found in the scriptures.

But the beauty of this book is that it does not demand or expect a reader’s agreement, because its premise is that it is in working our way—with charity—through the whirlwind and the earthquake of disagreement that we open our minds and soften our hearts to perceive the still small voice of God waiting to be found within and in between the many voices of the scriptures.

And that’s worth hearing.

 

 


[1] This is usually rendered “contraries” rather than contrarieties, because that’s how B.H. Roberts set it down in his published History of the Church. See B.H. Roberts, 6 History of the Church at 428 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News 1912). Here I take it from  Elder Roberts’ source, the Manuscript History of Church, which is now available through the Joseph Smith Papers project. See History, 1838-1856, volume F-1 [1 May 1844-8 August 1844]  at 70. The phrase comes from a letter to Israel Daniel Rupp, who had published a book in Philadelphia titled He Pasa Ekklesia, which was something of an encyclopedia of the different American Christian denominations. Rupp had solicited histories from each denomination, allowing each to put its history and doctrines in its own words, and had included Joseph Smith’s article describing his own life history, a the Book of Mormon, the church’s founding, and reciting the articles of faith. See I. Daniel Rupp, He Pasa Ekklesia: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States at 404-10 (Philadelphia: J.Y. Humphreys 1844). In June 1844, after receiving a copy of the book, Joseph Smith dictated a letter to Rupp praising him for letting each church tell its own story. In doing so, he argued that not all religions have equal truth, but that the truth can be found in the debate between them:”Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is sanctioned  with the so eternally sure word of prophesy, satisfying all doubt with ‘Thus saith the Lord’,  yet, ‘by proving contrarieties truth is made manifest’, and a wise man can search  out the ‘old paths’, wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted through obedience.” The quotation marks suggest that Joseph Smith was quoting some other source, but if so, I haven’t been able to figure out what source it is.

[2] William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at 3 (London 1790). As I read him, Blake’s approach to “contraries” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not just that differences should be recognized and celebrated rather than smoothed over, but that both sides of each pair of opposites lie within each human being, so that the very act of separating them into opposites is itself false. His theological idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Blake’s theory resonates, I think, with the approach of As Iron Sharpens Iron, in that they both resist easy reconciliation of opposites.

[3] 2 Nephi 2:11. Of course, we usually read Lehi as saying that bad, though necessary, is still bad, and that we need bad to oppose good. But what if, by saying that we need opposition in all things, Lehi is saying that we need not only bad to oppose good, but that we also need competing goods to oppose each other? What if he is saying that there are (at least) two sides to every good principle, and that to fully understand those principles, we need to approach them from both opposing viewpoints?

[4] Proverbs 27:17.

[5] If you’ve read Enns’ book, The Sin of Certainty, or Blair’s review of it, this idea may sound familiar. The notion is that being certain that what we have received, and that how we understand it is enough,  doesn’t bolster faith, but ultimately kills it, because it closes us off to receiving further light and knowledge. I don’t take this to mean that we shouldn’t seek spiritual confirmation of certain truths, and thus gain a measure of certainty in certain bedrock truth, such as, for example, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. I take it to mean, rather, that we should be careful not to be more certain than our knowledge actually justifies, and that when some questions are not definitively answered, then we should be content with the possibility of more than one answer without needing to definitively choose an answer. Keats’ admiration of Shakespeare’s “negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons,” is a similar idea. See Letter from John Keats to George & Thomas Keats, dated December 22, 1818. Julie is correct that on the surface, this kind of epistemological humility can be in tension with a religious culture that makes “strong truth claims,” but in my view, that tension should be tempered by the fact that one of those strong truth claims is the claim that God can always send new revelation to give the church new knowledge or change our understanding of old knowledge. In my opinion, the possibility of new revelation that can revise old understandings means that our knowledge, even if it comes with a degree of certainty, is always contingent and subject to revision.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I look forward to reading this. Thanks for the great revew.

  2. Thanks, JKC!

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