Nephi’s Lament and the Perils of Historiolatry #BOM2016

Nephi Son of Helaman lived in a world turned upside down. During the course of his lifetime, the Nephites went from being the good guys who had the Church of Christ in their midst to being the bad guys controlled by secret combinations, robbers, wealth-getters, and other doers of dastardly deeds. The Lamanites, on the other hand, had become the righteous ones—the ones who had to warn the Nephites to return to God. So it is certainly understandable that Nephi longed for better days:

Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated,  firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord—Yea, if my days could have been in those days, then would my soul have had joy in the righteousness of my brethren. But behold, I am consigned that these are my days, and that my soul shall be filled with sorrow because of this the wickedness of my brethren. (Helaman 7:7-9)

Nephi’s Lament is both tragic and poignant, but like most such tributes to times past it is also historically problematic. The original Nephi did not spend a lot of time rejoicing in the righteousness of his brethren, as two of these brethren kept trying to kill him. HIs was perhaps the most divided generation in the Book of Mormon—the time when the people of Nephi split into the warring factions that persist throughout the text.

But Nephi’s lament is understandable. We all like to look back to a time when things were better. I once had an institute teacher tell the entire class that the 1950s were the high point of American righteousness. He was remembering Wally and the Beaver, praying in school, and movies where nobody swore. He conveniently forgot the Klan, the lynchings, and the rampant persecution of anyone who didn’t look or act like a member of the Cleaver family. But I do it too. I will never agree that anybody making music today can compare to Queen and Styx. My dad felt the same about Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis.

There is something deep in our cognitive architecture that causes us to idolize past times and deprecate present ones. We tend to filter out the bad stuff in our memory and remember everything being better than it really was. Conversely, we tend to filter out the good things in our current line of sight. I suspect that this has an evolutionary basis. Keeping track of threats is much more important to our survival than smelling the roses. It is only in memory that our Pleistocene forbearers could afford to take their eyes off the lions, tigers, and bears. Natural selection does not care whether or not we are happy, and pessimism is a much more adaptive outlook than hope.

But historiolatry has its discontents. For one thing, it is almost never accurate. Past times were never as good as we imagine them, and the present day rarely sucks as much as our Facebook feeds would suggest. If Nephi were really reading the plates of his namesake, he might have realized that the time he was longing for was an era of bitter conflict and great unrighteousness. And if he were looking around his own society a little bit more, he might see that the mass conversions of Lamanites to the Church of Christ was one of the most significant things to have happened in his world since the original divide.

Furthermore, using an idealized version of the past to denounce the sins of the present traps us into a destructive narrative of perpetual decline. It is a narrative that religious people have always loved, despite its fundamental hopelessness: the world was once almost perfect, and it has been getting steadily worse ever since. The high point of civilization—be it King David, Charlemagne, the time of Lehi, or the Eisenhower Era—has passed, and all we can do is continue our slide into suckitude until God decides to wreck the place and start over.  In the meantime, the best we can do is criticize “the world” and thank God that we are the only righteous ones in it.

In this way, generations of human beings have deprived themselves of hope in anything but a cataclysmic end and have let their misplaced nostalgia for a golden age that never was blind them to the beauties of the present world–which is, in every way that matters, a precious gift from God.


  1. Great post, Mike. We like to think that things have never been worse, but the truth is that there is nothing new under the sun.

  2. Given the number of Zeppelin, Queen, Rush, and Floyd fans among those of us born in the decades after the 70’s, I’m not convinced your music comparison holds up. The 70’s really were the best decade for radio music. What other decade of music is still relatively popular among teenagers forty years after it happened?

  3. Our priesthood lesson last Sunday was about honesty and integrity, I questioned whether “marriage is under attack, and the ever darkening world” were true. I was told we would not discuss that.
    I think we connect these sayings into marriage was better in the 50 to 80s. Some of the facts suggest that it was patriachy that was healthiest then.
    A woman I know was abused physically and emotionally as a child, by her parents, to the extent of being hospitalised on 3 occasions. After a few days in hospital to heal she was returned to her abusers. Police did not interphere in domestic affairs then. There were no refuge shelters, and no reporting laws.
    As a young adult this same woman got a job as a private secretary to a manager who felt entitled to fondle his secretary. When she reported this to HR they knew, his last secretary left because he got her pregnant, if she didn’t want it she could leave.
    She finds the idea that life was so much better then than now extremely problematic.
    Do we think what we are defending?

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Well music actually was better in the past. With a few exceptions things started going to heck in the late 90’s and then just got worse. There is good stuff out there but far less innovation. Rap, hip hop and pop sound pretty similar to the 90’s (although the fashion is different). But compare say the range of music in 1993 to 1973, 20 years earlier. Or 1985 to 1965. But comparing 2016 to 1996 and it gets embarrassing.

    That said I think a lot of people *do* tend to make judgements about whether they were better off in the past rather than people as a whole. Honestly by almost any metric things are vastly, vastly better although the news keeps trying to portray it differently.

    Of course sometimes things really were better in the past for some groups. I bet people in Aleppo yearn for the (admittedly still not great) days in the 80’s for instance. Given all the turmoil of the period before Christ comes, I’m not sure but what they weren’t right too.

  5. As I grow older the past looks ever rosier. Part of it is that I find myself experiencing something I saw in my father as he aged, a frightened feeling that I cannot help what is happening around me but must live through it somehow. My power is lessened both physically and emotionally so coping is harder. There is also a deep sense of loss for treasured values and ways of living that it never occurred to me would disappear. There were background, wallpaper, but now they are gone and younger people, who never experienced them feel free to mock them. While I appreciate much that has been invented and changed, much just seems silly, the latest over-hyped new gadget.

  6. Today I went on Amazon shopping under womens gifts. Things have changed for the much worse if some of these items are being given as gifts to women or else people know a lot of vulgar women these days. A friend told me she called Amazon to complain earlier and the two worst items were taken off. Think the worst kind of porn pictured on friendly household objects. So some things really are worse, much worse. And do not order my mother’s day gift from Amazon!

  7. It’s a tangent to Mike’s excellent post, but music was definitely not inherently better in the past. (Well, Bach was in the past, and Bach was arguably the best composer ever, so there’s that …) The problem is, as Mike hints at, we sometimes quit experiencing all that the present has to offer.

    Famously, recent researchindicates that lots of people quit listening to new music in their early 30s.. But I can say unequivocally that, the greats of the past notwithstanding, there’s never been jazz like today’s. I discover stunning new albums on a monthly basis, at least. And there are plenty of schools of hip-hop (including the Chicago scene, largely surrounding Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar) that sounds very little like what was happening in the 90s.

    But Mike’s absolutely right that, at the point when we stop living in the present, the past starts to look really good. In Nephi’s case, it may have been that, even reading about the conflicts, he didn’t actually experience them. In my case, it’s that in the 90s, I could do whatever I wanted without worrying about a mortgage and food and clothing expenses. That’s not to say that food and clothing and mortgage expenses didn’t exist in the 90s, but they weren’t my responsibility, so the world looks that much rosier, even in a past the I (partly) experienced.

  8. The thing about the past is: we know the outcome. They lived, they had a few problems, but things ultimately held together for them.

    But they didn’t know that then. They lived with the same unbearable tension we live with today.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    “Those were the days, my friend…”

  10. Riffing on Sam’s music tangent, I find the music analogy quite applicable to me. I finished high school in 1985, the zenith of music (I mean, C’mon, new wave had finally matured!). I then went on a mission, then school, marriage, kids, and music seemingly went progressively downhill. I resorted to playing my vast CD collection (looking at you Columbia Music) and lamented the end of good music. When my kids hit their teens I was reintroduced to current music, and in my attempt to stay connected to my kids I started listening without my preconceived ideas of the good old days. Much to my surprise I discovered that their music was actually quite good.

    I’ve done the same with life in general, and once I stopped looking back at the good old carefree days, I’ve discovered a beautiful world. For example, I’m currently at the Affirmations conference in Provo, surrounded by so much love and positivity, which could not have happened back in whatever “golden era” we’d want to choose.

    To live in the present is one of the greatest gifts God has given me. Thank you, Michael, for the reminder.

  11. Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.” (KJV)

  12. It is somewhat remarkable that most people will concede the superiority of Shakespeare to John Grisham and Jane Austin to Danielle Steel, but decline to make similar comparisons when it comes to music. For the majority, music is largely a matter of taste, no one composer or genre being superior to another. This mindset, I believe, is largely due to a lack of understanding of music theory and the elements of composition.

    During the time of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, there were popular songs very similar to the ones we hear on the radio today. They are based primarily on the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords, with an occasional minor sixth and major seventh, and employ repetition to a considerable degree. Although copies of some of these songs from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras do survive, they are rarely performed for one simple reason: they exhibit very little creativity and originality.

    To understand what constitutes great music, you must first have a fundamental grasp of the “language” composers use to write it. Just as an understanding of how the masters developed plots and characters in their novels and plays is essential to appreciating great literature, a similar effort is required to appreciate great music.

    This is not to say that there is no great music being written today—Sam’s point about exceptional new jazz music is well taken—but the vast majority of today’s popular music would likely be relegated to the dustbin of history (and rightly so) but for modern recording technologies.

  13. Thanks for the post Mike. Off-topic, but, Sam Brunson, what new jazz have you been discovering? (Robert Glasper? Joey Alexander?) I’m interested to try to expand in that area.

  14. Mark A Clifford says:

    Great post.
    Too bad Joseph did not remember how messed up he had made Nephi’s relationship with his brothers when he wrote this soliloquy for Nephi2.
    That guy could keep track of any number of things (timelines/characters/geographies/peoples/languages/literary motifs/etc.) but not this foundational plot point.
    Oh well… can’t win ’em all.

  15. For this reason, I really loved President Hinckley. He had seen “the good ol’ days” – lived through a lot, but as I recall, he was perpetually optimistic about the future. Not to say that he ignored the problems that exist “today” – but he seemed to approach life both poetically & practically. We can romanticize the Gospel on a Sunday night, but we still have to get up on Monday and get back to work.

  16. It’s certainly problematic to say that new music is not as good as old music. Today’s pop is equivalent to 70s disco. In both cases most of it is/was trashy. I think people who lived through the 70s forget just how many bad disco songs there were, probably because most of the songs don’t make it to oldies station today. Similarly, most of today’s pop music will pass on without remembrance, but there are certainly songs that will make it to the oldies station of the future. And people will listen to those rare hits and falsely generalize about how good music was in the 2010s.

    As for literature, I actually think that Eminem is at least on par with Shakespeare as a poet. There. I said it. Call it heresy, but Eminem’s rap captures emotion in ways that Shakespeare’s mildly clever puns and innuendos can’t. I like Shakespeare. I understand how and why he’s so important for the English language. But Eminem is more masterful with rhyme.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not saying there’s not good music out there. There is. Some really fantastic stuff keeps getting made even by older artists like Eric Clapton or Radiohead. It’s more the variety of styles and innovation that was in popular music that’s missing. That’s mainly due to a pretty significant change in how radio was done in the late 90’s with most stations having the same playlists and selection being determined by computer and large corporations. This then pushed music that fit marketing needs and inherently was tied to what worked before with slight variations. The music that was popular but also good while still around, tended to be less risky and also less common.

    With the shift to streaming audio with Apple Music and Spotify that may change a bit again. We’ll see since in many ways both have to pleas the existing labels who are still being driven by those older models. Apple tried to bring the older radio aggregation style back with Apple One. I’ve not heard if that’s having much, if any, of an effect.

    It’s also the case that if you want great music there’s huge libraries to draw from. If you want punk, why listen to wannabe imitators when you can now listen to most of the stuff from the 70’s and 80’s instantly. Want classic rock or bluesy rock? It’s all there. Sure you might find a contemporary band like the Black Stripes that’s good, popular and in that general genre. But why look when the classics are there? There are decades of amazing music which perhaps makes it all the harder for the good new stuff to stand out. The market has become so fragmented it’s hard to have that common music that people in the 50’s through 90’s had. There’s a little bit today like Beyonce but really you look at the big stars of any of the decades prior to 9/11 and it’s like a completely different world.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Bro B if you want a good listen to great new Jazz Apple’s Jazz channel is fantastic. There really is amazing stuff out there right now. Although Jazz listenership has been dropping quickly. It’s kind of surprising how good the music is while almost no one is listening anymore.

    While it’s much more a throw back and fusion, I came upon a surprisingly great album by Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis doing this fantastic New Orleans style Jazz fused with classic blues. Been listening to it over and over of late. Not new or innovative but what a great album. (Went on my mission to Louisiana so it brings back memories plus who doesn’t love Clapton?)

  19. You make some good points. And I should add that my favorite two bands are the Stones and Creedence, so I thoroughly enjoy some classic rock. But I think your focus on the classics is probably a little lopsided. Sure, go back to the classics, but there’s a lot more richness in music inspired by the classics than I think you’ve allowed. For example, if you like Queen, take a listen to Mika. If you like the Beach Boys, try out the Black Keys. If you like Creedence, check out Kings of Leon. Heck, if you like Mary Hopkin, try out Regina Spektor (though whose lyrical content might be more PG 13). You could call the latter band of each grouping an imitation of the former, but that probably is a little unfair to the freshness and variety they have brought to the genres they’re working in.

    btw – I suspect anyone reading this will wonder whether the bands I’ve linked really ought to be compared. Creedence and Kings of Leon have a lot of differences, but there are enough that I think the former can bridge to the latter, which then can be enjoyed for its own sake.

  20. I go back farther. The music of the 30s, 40s, and a little beyond. Great Broadway songs and some from films of the same era. In the 2015 Pioneer Day Concert by the tab choir, the guest soloist, Laura Osnes sang the great Jerome Kern number, All the things You Are. It was beautiful, melodic with great words with orchestral accompaniment. Check out that program on YouTube. Osnes sings that number about 29 minutes in. Of course I downloaded it.

  21. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I remember the “good old day.” Often living in a home with no running water or bathroom. The outside toilet was hot and smelly in the summertime and would freeze your butt in the winter. No phone, sometimes no lights when we could not afford to pay a fifteen dollar electric bill. Walking to church because the transmission in the car was broken. Living with the constant fear of a nuclear war.
    I am living now better than I ever dreamed I would. Things are better now, and worse than when I was growing up. I could walk to school when I lived in town, or go to the school bus stop alone without fear of being kidnapped or molested. I could go to school without fear of anyone coming in and murdering scores of students and teachers.
    But there was more violence in the world that I was not aware of. I felt safer then than I do now. That part I do look back upon as being better. Other things, not so much.
    As to the music, I’m not even going to get into that. I like what I like, and my musical tastes have expanded over the years. Anyone else can like and listen to what they wish. If I don’t like it, most of the time I don’t have to listen to it. Sometimes music that I do not like can become intrusive since some people are putting humongous amplifiers and speakers in the automobiles.
    And I can find music that I like just about anytime I wish now. I don’t have to wait and hope that my newest favorite song will be played by the local DJ on his top forty show (on A.M. no less). Carly Simon said it best, “These are the good old days.”

    Sometimes I have to agree with Michael, although it’s against my religion. (Insert smiley)


  22. I am with HDP. I started listening to current music a few years back as I was screening the music for a Stake dance. It’s been a great way to bond with my first born. The new twentyonepilots album is amazing, the way the Lumineers play with meter is a lot of fun, and Panic at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor is poptastic (even if none of the songs can be played at a Stake dance). And my wife and I feel parental pride when our 6 year old walks around singing, “I’m not thowin’ away my shot!”

  23. I’m not really a fan of jazz, but I am a fan of Caro Emerald and she’s classifying her work as jazz.

  24. The “_time_ of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms”? But, what’s 200 years among friends? Why not talk about the music of Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin and Paul McCartney in the same breath too?

  25. A good reflection. I know if I were the Lord I might feel hurt if my children could only see what was going wrong in the world. Evil increases in the world today (as it has always done) alongside increasing good and righteousness (as it has always done).

    I think sometimes what were yearn for is a time when life’s inconvenient things weren’t our responsibility to deal with. Every era in human life is hard though – being a baby is only easy if that baby has an adult or child’s understanding – but they don’t. They understand the world as a baby, which means they are constantly learning and struggling. Nothing is easy.

  26. I regret that this is the first time I’ve left a comment on one of your Book of Mormon essays, Michael, since my husband and I have had many intense discussions this year based off your posts. Your readings have been thought provoking, except for one about race in the Book of Mormon, which after you stated it, seemed so self-evident that there was nothing to argue about. (Darn.)

    Personal note aside, this passage is curious. Shouldn’t any reader who’s paying attention disagree with Nephi? Mormon must have had some idea about the veracity of the statement. He had the whole history of these civilizations in his immediate memory, so why did he include the passage?

    Rather than assume that it was an error, as a previous commenter suggested, perhaps this is Mormon’s idea of comic relief.

    Then again, maybe not.

    What do we know about Nephi son of Helaman? He was one of the greatest of the prophets in the Book of Mormon. An Elijah figure. After a career in government he retired to preach the gospel full time. He conversed with angels. Drew down fire from heaven. Prophesied. Closed the heavens. Reopened the heavens.

    If someone that close to the heavens could have cultural or historical blinders, what things am I wrong about, since I live somewhat more distant from the angels? I’m surrounded by information. It’s abundant and always present. If I want to know about ninth century China (for example), I go to a computer or cell phone and seconds later have access to volumes of information. Although I may be prone to the Nephi Fallacy — I’m listening to Bach right now — does the constant stream of information and entertainment lead to its own set of errors, and, more important than historical errors, am I so surrounded by information that I commit doctrinal errors? Does my society bind me into a prison like the one Nephi and his brother found themselves in? If so, how do I come out of that prison? And if I come out, like those two, surrounded by pillars of fire and earthquakes, what do I do afterward?

  27. Amy T, I view the inclusion of Nephi’s Lament more as an affirmation that humans always want this return to the good ole days, whether or not they were actually all that good. Helps me to know that no one is completely immune to it *and* that it’s important to know about that universal pull when someone uses it to support an argument for/against something. I won’t agree with someone solely because I loved my 90s childhood that we need to return to the 90s – I’ve been there and learned things since that make me certain that forward is the direction I want.

  28. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    People absolutely dressed better before the 1960’s. Unassailable fact.

  29. Like Somewhere in Time, but much better. says:

    Our guest Gospel Doctrine teacher for this lesson was a young millennial. When he lamented his (and my) generation complete with ironic air quotes referring to us as “the greatest generation” before expressing his wish that he had been part of an earlier, nay, the real “greatest generation” I reflexively whispered to my wife, “…said every generation ever.”

    I think the best takedown of wistful romanticizing of the past is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”

    Owen Wilson plays a writer swept up in the romance of Paris to the extent that he time travels every midnight to the time period he thinks was most pure and heady only to find Parisian intellectuals wandering around romanticizing Paris before their time. Yesterday was always better. Even entropy isn’t what it used to be.

  30. Sorry, Michael, but Queen and Styx and Belafonte and Mathis can’t hold a candle to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkle. Just sayin’.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    Amy, I’d imagine that any careful reader would immediately question Nephi here. Again this argues against the text being a simple “good guys versus bad guys” – there are constantly hints about unreliable narrators. The more interesting question is why Mormon included it since he, of all people, ought to know better. But perhaps Mormon did know better and included it for some specific reason.

  32. Great post Michael — just seeing it now. It makes me think immediately of Novalis’s 1799 essay Europa (oder die Christenheit) (“Europe (or Christianity)”), which takes this historiolatry to the next level in pining for a medieval Christianity in response to the barbarity of the French Revolution.

  33. And by the way if anyone — from Church leaders on down — thinks that things are worse today than ever before, then seriously, they don’t know much about the French Revolution. Just imagine living through that and then try to convince me that gay people wanting to live in committed monogamous relationships labeled as marriages is worse than that.

  34. john f, comments like that need an Amen button. AMEN!

  35. John, great point. I have had similar thoughts about the Black Death, the Fire of London, and the Napoleonic Wars.

  36. Last night I was reading about the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. During WW2 his area was occupied by Germans, his family’s house seized, and the family moved into a 10 by 10 mud hut in their backyard, where they lived for over a year. His two older brothers were sent to Poland as slave labor for two years. When you’re just trying to survive, our culture war issues just seem so pretty. Like Paul says, having food and clothes, let’s be content. We have problems, but compared with the past, they’re mostly first world problems.

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