When Your Calling and Election is [in Doubt]. III. Fundamentalism (part 2).

There is a contradiction between a Church tightly held together by a strong hierarchical authority, which will nevertheless be filled with practitioners of heartfelt devotion. There are, of course, people whose devotional life is enhanced by the sense that they live under this kind of authority, but for the masses who do not respond this way the choices are either to knuckle under, or leave, or live a semi-clandestine life.

So far this peripatetic series has wandered from the Jerusalem Bishopric to Intelligent Design, and now to 20th-century Physics™ and Conservative Christianity (see part 1).

I’m afraid it’s nothing this interesting.

Election has been a Christain puzzle for two thousand years since Paul and then the Johannine community and all these posts hover around it with one or another valence. This post is part 2 of a previous post on Christian fundamentalism mostly conceived in terms of biblical literalism. This time I’m really wandering, with seemingly unconnected dots—to evoke Steven Peck.

There are various sorts of what I’ll call partial literalists, the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, are literalists in certain segments of the Bible, not all, but those passages (the Adam-Eve stories, Abrahamic tales, the Exodus, and so on are key foundation stones of the logic of belief. For Mormons, that fundamental positioning makes the thought that such literary personalities and events might be symbols, summaries, derivations, an uncomfortable one, a chipping away of the boundary walls and footings of belief in a world of Nehors and Spacious Buildings. There is an attraction in such security, perhaps. Perhaps this is a part of the historic growth in Mormonism. Looking at early Mormon documents like the Articles and Covenants (D&C 20) we see Mormonism’s early purpose as a bulwark constructed to shore up the Bible: belief in its historicity, the reality of its narrations like resurrection, miracles, visions of heaven, parting the sea, conversing with God, predicting the future, the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, a Cross, a Tomb, a Stone. Derivative of this, Mormons have tended to ignore the rest of the Christian world as lesser, not able, handicapped by uninspired creeds, suffused with too much historical-critical meanders or too rigid beliefs on the adequacy, ability, perfection of the [Protestant] Bible.

For most of the twentieth-century, Mormonism was a self-sufficient form of religion in the United States. But it was biblical. Even with the trend to effectively ignore reading the Bible (and for that matter, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price) in Mormon homes starting in the mid-1980s and the continued challenges by LDS leaders to make the Book of Mormon the centerpiece and essentially the only piece of home reading and study, Mormonism is yet highly biblical. But that biblicism is strictly “historical” and narrow. I put historical in quotes because Mormonism in its official stance doesn’t subscribe to the history of the text in either a modern historian’s sense of the text or an inerrantist’s sense of it—indeed, it makes all the elites of the Old Testament into full-blown baptized Jesus-knowledged Christians—that’s a bit unusual at least. In all these ways and more, Mormonism was an outsider among fundamentalists. But it has one foot inside the ring too. And everyone knows about the swaying pendulum between Beehive and Angel.

Twenty-odd years ago Robert Orsi wrote about the way many of his students reacted to his narrative of the Bronx Lourdes.[1] The Bronx Lourdes is a mimic of the countryside of Lourdes. Catholic residents near St Lucy’s in the Bronx have constructed a replica of the grotto where the Virgin appeared to Bernadette in 1858.[2] The stream that exits the faux grotto comes from City water supply but parishioners and others see the “copy-water” as holy and the water that comes from the hidden pipe as sacred with healing properties. Some motorists collect the water from the grotto of St. Lucy’s and put it in their car radiators, believing that it will ensure mechanical hardiness and safety on a forthcoming journey. Many of Orsi’s students saw such practice as something other than religion. This was the claim of nineteenth-century critics of Mormonism. It wasn’t religion and hence outside any constitutional protections of such. It was too earthy (polygamy, fearful dominance by the “Priesthood”). Uses of Mormon “consecrated oil” were once close analogs of the Bronx Lourdes “spring.” It all seems so close to the story of Jesus and the woman who sorted Jesus’ power by constructing a faith built around just touching an edge of his clothing. Luke tells us it worked.

I’m getting around to physics, I promise. Relativity was certainly a major breakthrough (1905, 1915-ish). It changed the state of how “we” thought about the universe. It would take astronomers time to catch up, but when they did, things exploded (pun intended). The 1920s brought major reunderstandings of the world of the atomic and subatomic where probability rules. Men (and some women!—it was still hard for women to break through) in their early and mid-twenties were making breakthroughs every day it seemed (it was all happening in Göttingen).

A boyish Robert Oppenheimer was a magnet for creativity in Gottingen. The tale of his life is worth reading: “American Prometheus” is the best work.

Those heady days made the 19th-century (and earlier) pictures of the universe, large and small, obsolete, and the theology that tinkered with those pictures lost its footings as well. It’s fascinating that Mormon science types like Talmage, Widtsoe, Pack and others never climbed aboard that train. At that stage, where Widtsoe was drawing parallels between aether and spirit, things might have gone an entirely different direction. Instead, the “new” Nature of the Universe never made anyone drill down to see if a still somewhat malleable theology might take a new direction and new interpretation, one that could accommodate other breakthroughs like evolution and a new materialism. Mormonism might have laid up some breadth of thinking about the physical world that could have translated into other areas. Election may have acquired a renewed patina this time around in a theology less trenchantly bolted to a God who lives on Kolob’s moon. And Higher Criticism anyone? The train left the station and no one has caught it yet.[3]

*Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 300-ish.

[1] Orsi, “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, Princeton UP, 1996.

[2] Years ago, about the time Orsi published his piece, I was on an evening train from Pau to Nice, France. As we passed near Lourdes, I could see a procession of lights moving up the hill. The picture has remained in my memory as a symbol of devotion.

[3] Outside of officialdom, there have been tries. One of the most remarkable is represented in Francine Bennion’s speech to an LDS women’s conference in 1996. I’ll be discussing her work (with you, hopefully) later.


  1. 1. Oh my . . . what fun!
    2. “makes all the elites of the Old Testament” — a nice capsule that I intend to reuse
    3. “everyone knows . . . Angel and Beehive” — time to break out the books (if only you hadn’t used ‘everyone’ . . . )
    4. Did we miss the train (physics and higher criticism)? Or did we step off? If the latter was it to preserve the truth or to preserve the hierarchy?

  2. Always love your posts, Bill, but the following sentence is a train wreck. Maybe a well-placed “who” and a couple of em-dashes might partially fix it. “There are various sorts of what I’ll call partial literalists, the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, are literalists in certain segments of the Bible, not all, but those passages (the Adam-Eve stories, Abrahamic tales, the Exodus, and so on are key foundation stones of the logic of belief.”

    On the topic, I’ve heard it on good authority that the next big faith crisis for young Mormons will revolve around the Bible, and we’ve done exactly nothing to prepare them for it.

  3. Michael H. says:

    Thank you for this. Lots of truth. Truth is good. I’ve opted for (or resolved myself to) the “semi-clandestine life.” Anything else–like stressing out anymore over the general LDS biblical illiteracy–is just too damned exhausting.

  4. Probably a lot of train wrecks in there Wally! Stream of consciousness and failure to edit and all that.

  5. Christian, re: #4. I think we could hop off (or never get on) because of failure to engage. The turn to fundamentalism was out of the perceived threat to the Book of Mormon historicity and Joseph Smith’s assumptions or Wittgensteinian “picture.” There are ways to get back on, but all involve applying similar tools to LDS scripture. I think it will eventually happen at least it will be acceptable to think “different.”

  6. WVS, to use the Book of Mormon as a way in, I would argue that the book is both a text and an artifact, and that it is as an artifact that the book supports the standard narrative on which the power and influence of the institutional church (the hierarchy) has been built. It is unclear that there is any way to take up the text, with its unavoidable 19th century context, without threatening the book’s value as an artifact.

    (I intend that as another or further way to agree that “applying similar tools to LDS scripture” is a problem or a threat.)

  7. “knuckle under” is flaming provocative, esp for a BYU prof, and contrasts brilliantly (your intention?) with our relationship w/ Christ – thus, it follows, in our rigid executive structure we have reiterated the heresy of Catholicism.

  8. correction: ” … contrasts (your intention?) brilliantly … “

  9. Christian, I’d say that Grant Hardy’s work, and in the future, Thomas Wayment’s, are ways into the puzzle of criticism over against artifact. I’m saying it’s camel’s nose in the tent in a good way.

  10. p, I agree we have followed some Catholic patterns. We are also very Protestant historically and in many respects politically too. Our recent re-emphasis on leaders never going astray in some quarters and its narrative of a practical infallibility is certainly Catholic in some partial theoretical sense. The place where neither of those things work is with Millennials and some Gen Xers.

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