Joseph, Abraham, and the Gifts of Tongues

Sam Brown is a friend of the blog and author, most recently, of Through the Valley of Shadows: Living Wills, Intensive Care, and Making Medicine Human, and In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.

When I was young, tongues gave me the creeps. Not so much the muscle itself, which made sense to me. We have to eat and talk, and we need some flexibility in our upper aerodigestive tract to accomplish those tasks. The muscle I was fine with. It was the word: Tongues. Too weird. I preferred not to say it. When I learned that there was a gift of tongues, the story just got stranger. Who wants a box full of tongues as a gift? It took a while for me to realize that tongue was a kind of synecdoche for linguistic connection. As an adult, I’ve managed to overcome my aversion to the word and its gifts, mostly by living long enough to be actually curious about the practice and its history.

The gift of tongues is a complex phenomenon with a rich history across millennia. It comes in two broad flavors: glossolalia and xenoglossia. Although they both fall under the banner of “tongues,” they are radically different in how they conceive the gift, the worshiper, and even God. Xenoglossia is probably the variant we Latter-day Saints know best. It’s the story that many of us who have studied a foreign language for some greater good have heard or told. I experienced it myself in an encounter in Oklahoma after my freshman year of college. A Russian immigrant couple were curious about the Church and I felt my sparse year of undergraduate Russian flowing into easy communication that allowed us to make a spiritual connection. I spoke better Russian than I had rights to expect that I would. I saw that as the gift of tongues. There’s something immensely practical about xenoglossia, almost business-like. It’s predictable, task-oriented, and doesn’t ask too many questions. It’s the spirit heightening a natural ability in order to encourage human communication. Nothing terribly mysterious there, and nothing to fear.

Glossolalia is another phenomenon entirely—singing in wholly unknown language(s), often thought to be the language that angels speak and perhaps the one that our first parents spoke in the primordial garden. Initially a somewhat pejorative term—mimicking the sing-song la-la-la of the worshiper—glossolalia is used by professional observers to describe an act of ecstatic worship. Outsiders hear a kind of cosmic hymnody, songs sung in syllables beyond human language. For those of the right age and musical taste, such sounds may be familiar from the songs of Cocteau Twins or Sigur Ros, who perform this-worldly versions of the holy experience. If we can step back long enough from late-modern smugness, we can see glossolalia as a more voluble variant of meditation and mindfulness. These latter practices are also methods by which we seek to liberate our minds from the incessant chatter while we seek rest and inspiration in the world beyond human language.

For worshipers, glossolalia has two main components. There is the initial ecstatic encounter with the world beyond human language. And then there is the act by which that revelation is disseminated to others. The first is in no known human language; the second is in the most familiar language. For our purposes as Latter-day Saints, that destination language was predominantly English. Our spiritual ancestors, especially our foremothers but also our forefathers, worshiped through glossolalia for many decades. It’s a practice that we only stepped away from in a serious way in the early twentieth century, hoping to distinguish ourselves from what we saw as the wildness of the Pentecostals. Whether that transition away from the gift of tongues was good for us overall or bad, I’ll leave to more knowledgeable people.
What occupies my interest here is the possibility that the gift of tongues could help some of us make sense of what I’ve called the “Egyptian project” in the past but more recently have called Joseph Smith’s “Egyptian Bible.” I’m probably being too precious, but the risk seems worth the clarity of the point I’m making. By Egyptian Bible, I mean the published Book of Abraham and the associated hieroglyphic grammar documents, all of which are concerned with remaking the Bible in a revelatory key. The gift of tongues may play a crucial role in understanding ongoing controversies about the nature of that temple scripture.

First, a confession.

I’ve never personally believed that the Book of Abraham is a traditional linguistic translation of the funeral papyri that Joseph Smith bought from Michael Chandler in 1835. When I was an atheist, I believed the standard anti-Mormon account, that Smith was a charlatan who pretended to translate Egyptian in order to impress his followers. When I experienced my unfaith crisis (a year or so during which I gradually understood my late-modern atheism as an ornate delusion that I would have to abandon if I were ever going to see clearly), I saw the Book of Abraham as a revelation occasioned by Smith’s encounter with the papyri. Early in my career as a believing Latter-day Saint, I was happy with the “catalyst” theory, by which the mummies and the papyri “catalyzed” the revelation. I’ve since come to think that framing is too mechanistic, too indebted to the reigning metaphors of bland scientism. But there’s a basic insight behind the catalyst theory that matters—something vast, wild, and holy was happening when Smith encountered the mummies, papyri, and the glyphs. Something strange. Something glossolalic.

Other Latter-day Saints—people I love and affirm as fellow travelers on the path to God—have felt a greater need to understand that Smith was engaging in traditional translation as the modern Egyptologists would understand it. They have, in other words, needed the gift of tongues that midwifed the birth of the Book of Abraham to be xenoglossia. Just as I was allowed to speak Russian beyond my native abilities to teach that Russian family in Oklahoma City, so did Joseph Smith suddenly know ancient Egyptian.

If I’m totally honest and not trying to score rhetorical points, I’ll acknowledge that such a view, while unlikely, is in fact possible for at least portions of the Book of Abraham. While I personally find the view unpersuasive, I don’t think it’s worth anathematizing. The world is a surprising place; stranger things have happened than what is posited by the “missing papyrus” theory, by which a text wholly unrelated to the funerary texts we do have will prove to contain something that modern Egyptologists would acknowledge as an Abraham story. For some, this explanatory model provides reassurance that God’s workings can play by many of the rules of the late-modern mode of being in the world. Honestly, I get it. There’s nothing vicious or vile in that. I’m aware that this last comment may sound condescending, but it isn’t meant to be. I’m hoping to acknowledge that for different Saints, different models of the nature of scripture may matter. There is no zero-sum game here as we grapple with scripture and belief in general and Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Bible in particular. To believe otherwise strikes me as partisan fervor. There is room for many models of the non-ordinary process by which Smith brought the Book of Abraham into contact with our day.

I find myself in middle age—having seen much beauty and much sadness in my professional and personal lives—less content with a God so easily corralled and corrected by modern Egyptologists. I find myself less interested in the kind of miracles that stack certain facts or evidences in favor of (or against) particular hypotheses about what happened in history. I find myself more drawn to the possibility that the world is vaster, wilder, and holier than we give it credit for. So while I acknowledge the modernist, xenoglossic model as perhaps both possible and potentially useful, I find myself hungry for other explanations.

I confess too that the more I read and think and see, the more I believe that Joseph Smith was connecting with Abraham in some real way as he struggled to make sense of the revelation made possible by those ancient papyri. I am confident that—as all of our Restoration scriptures—the Book of Abraham scintillates at the seams between antiquity and modernity. This is true at two levels. First, the book is itself antique and modern, containing both ancient scripture beyond Joseph Smith and aspects of Smith’s own sensibilities as a vessel of revelation. Second, it calls to its readers in an antique mode of thought and being. The Book of Abraham asks us to understand that objects and words can hold and channel more truth than late-modern thinkers are prone to allow. It asks us to ease the late-modern chokehold on our understanding.

To the old question, is the Book of Abraham ancient or modern? My answer is emphatically and consistently yes. It’s the same answer I give to the much more important question—is the Book of Abraham scripture? Yes. Really and truly.


  1. Matt W. says:

    This is radiant. Thank you.

  2. Sam, you are generous with the “modernist, xenoglossic model.” I find myself wanting a similar generosity with the catalyst model. Because I would (before this) have labeled myself in the catalyst camp, but if called upon to play out what that means to me, my explanation would read as a poor man’s version of your penultimate paragraph.

  3. Sam,

    This is a wonderful, thoughtful, and deeply humble post; a great bit of writing. But unless I am misunderstanding Christian Kimball’s point above (” I find myself wanting a similar generosity with the catalyst model”), then I find myself in critical agreement with him. At the presentation you gave during the secularism at BYU, you introduced “scintillates” as an ontological category: the God revealed by Joseph, as an actor, is simultaneously beyond and within our own realm of existence, with “Light” serving as your description of that which God’s being and/or God’s actions interpenetrates. (My apologies if I’m getting you wrong here.) That’s a fascinating argument, one which I was unfair towards in my questions, and I apologize for that. But nonetheless I remain perplexed at how you ground this argument in the Book of Abraham.

    As I read you here, it is your judgment that Smith had an ecstatic experience with the Egyptian papyri, an experience that produced, on the written page, a kind of textual glossolalia? In which case, we best understand the actual, particular content of the Book of Abraham as kind of irrelevant (because, like glossolalia, it is fundamentally incomprehensible without an additional, secondary “translation”), and rather we appreciate the text itself as a revelatory vessel, which represents an interpenetration between ancient and modern, the divine and the human? In which case, two comments. One, that sounds very much like Givens’s (and others’) now broadly accepted account of the Book of Mormon as important at least as much, if not more, for the fact of its existence and the dialogical encounters its existence prompts, as for whatever doctrine it teaches–and the actual history of the production of the Book of Mormon, I think, is far more amenable to such an interpretation than that of the Book of Abraham. Two, and more importantly, what distance, exactly, exists between your suggestion and the catalyst model which Christian asked about? I suppose one traditional catalyst reading is, as you note, the idea that Smith was connected through revelation to an actually existing Abrahamic text somewhere, and he translated that. But your argument, on my reading, is that Smith connected through revelation to the actual Abraham, or the actual God of Abraham, and wrote something which he (or He) would, or could, have wanted to write. So how much difference, from this perspective, does your scintillating model introduce over the catalyst model, I wonder? Both suggest a material prompt for a religious experience, and it seems to me that that’s the controlling variable.

    It probably should be noted, for the record, that I write this as one who, in regards to the Book of Abraham, is mostly where you were before your crisis of unbelief; I find it perfectly reasonable to assume that Smith had some ideas that his work on the Bible and other thinking had left him with, and he saw the papyri as a great opportunity to make up a story that laid out those ideas. What do I think he actually, personally, believed himself to be doing when he saw that opportunity? Receiving revelation, being inspired, using his native gifts, pulling a fast one? For me and my house: don’t know, don’t care. But none of that takes away from this well-written, intellectually challenging post.

  4. your food allergy is fake says:

    Thanks for this. Do you think any differently about the Book of Mormon’s origin and function?

  5. This is really good and thought provoking, Sam. It’s like a better version of the post that I would have eventually written after mulling over similar thoughts I had while writing my glossopoeia post ( and Bill’s observation in the comments that those ideas seem to have some connection to Joseph Smith’s translation efforts.

  6. Sam Brown says:

    Thanks for the lively and intelligent engagement. I will do a much better job of engaging the catalyst theory in future versions of this work. I should have taken the time to be clearer: what bothers me about the catalyst theory is NOT that it points toward a revelatory encounter with the papyri that is extra-linguistic but that it uses the mechanistic metaphor of catalysis–rule-bound, generally monotonic if not wholly linear, a story about how proteins interact in space. The modernist metaphor isn’t open enough to the wildness of the encounter. (In addition, as you note, there’s something about Smith’s theology of scripture that is tied to individuals in the past, live and deep interpersonal connection across space and time, which to me is lost in the catalysis metaphor). RAF, I like your response. I think you misread Givens and me on this point. Givens’s argument (which I think is itself a misinterpretation of the evidence for the earliest LDS, as I argue in my chapter 4 in the forthcoming translation book) was that the BoM figured as a relic more than as a text. He wasn’t arguing that the text was actually irrelevant or wholly un-moored from American antiquity, just that he sees C19 LDS as using it as a relic. For my argument, I’m not suggesting that the second step of glossolalia, interpretation, is arbitrary, uninspired, or irrelevant. On the contrary. Just that it is partial and provisional and imperfect. I believe that the text of the BoA–clothed in flesh as it is–is an actual revelation rather than an irrelevant collection of words.

    JKC: I agree, lots of resonances. I’ve been trying to argue this for almost a decade ( ) but for some reason it hasn’t really caught on just yet. I do a pretty involved treatment of this in chapter 6 of the translation book (due to OUP in August, so probably Summer-Fall 2020 for publication).

    As re: BoM and BoA similarities. I tend to use a similar interpretive framework for understanding both (in the translation book I think I call them the American Bible and the Egyptian Bible respectively). My piece in the UUP volume (due out 2020, extends my argument from the USU Symposium) argues that visions may have played a role in BoM. My piece in the OUP Americanist volume (supposedly out this year, although I haven’t seen any galleys) argues for hybridity (oral and written + ancient and modern) in the BoM as a function of the BoM’s self presentation.

    Thanks, all, for helping me think about these topics more clearly. I’m probably putting together a BoA symposium in the next few months and eager to understand the real axes of differentiation for the various views, as well as their contexts and valences. This feedback helps.

  7. Sam Brown- Could you be a little clearer about your future publications? What and where?


  8. I’m reacting to the “mechanistic metaphor of catalysis–rule-bound, generally monotonic if not wholly linear.” It’s a wonderful (to me) example of the different meanings we bring to metaphor.

    On the one hand, I can understand “rule-bound generally monotonic” by back-filling. But I am not sufficiently steeped in the science of chemical interactions to ever get there on my own. From my rather basic high school chemistry point of view, “catalysis” is an exciting process started or encouraged by a catalyst but where the product is not the sum of the parts, is something quite different than one would expect by examining the catalyst alone.

    As a personal reflection, I don’t come to “catalyst theory” by metaphor or chemistry sets. Rather, from early on Joseph Smith has figured in my imagination as a visionary who, among other characteristics, was stimulated or provoked or inspired by physical objects. And/but for whom the “truths” of his writings have little or nothing to do with the objects themselves. From that backdrop, independently arrived at, the “catalyst” idea is an obvious even if imperfect fit when trying to place myself within the discussions going on.

  9. As a physician would you be willing to consider the Book of Abraham as the product of a period of highly productive hypomania? Or to the phrase the question a different way, is that a possibility you can definitively exclude? There is the requisite family history with Joseph Smith’s son David Hyrum Smith spending the last thirty years of his life in an asylum. Among male descendants of Joseph Smith there has been an unusually high incident rate of manic depression, schizophrenia, and suicide ( page 10, footnote 20 )

    Click to access Dialogue_V26N04_19.pdf

    In a hypothetical scenario as an ER doctor trying to make a preliminary diagnosis would the following count as acute mania warranting hospitalization? : “During the last year of his life, to mention only the most well-known examples, Smith served as mayor of Nauvoo and head of his own private army, became “king” of his secret Kingdom of God that he anticipated would eventually encompass all of North and South America, ran for president of the United States (that effortwas cut short by his martyrdom), and was the “husband” in some sense ofdozens of wives.”

    It’s textbook grandiosity and hypersexuality. The speech component is also intriguing. Well known symptoms include pressure of speech, clanging, etc.

    I have in mind the same type of mechanism that worked for Lowell and many, many others:

  10. Sam Brown says:

    Anon (does this mean unidentifiable or occurring later?)
    This is an example of what William James called “medical materialism.” It’s a kind of superstition in the name of science that gets deployed against religious experience.
    It turns out it’s a combination of begged questions and stigmatization that doesn’t really explain anything. I agree with James on this broad point.
    In terms of specifics, hypomania per se wouldn’t really apply here in any meaningful way. Most of what you’re hoping to explain would be as mania rather than hypomania. It also wouldn’t explain why–of the millions of variants of hypomania–we see Joseph Smith doing what he did. You first have to decide that what Smith did is _merely_ a mental illness manifestation before you can describe it away as a mental illness manifestation. (this is the circularity/begged question)
    If what you’re hoping to do is say that Smith was a particular vessel for a particular revelation, I think few would object, but that doesn’t require the medicalization and stigmatization that’s being invoked in your proposal.
    More broadly on the stigmatization front, I’d be thoughtful about the bias implicit in your proposal that says that people with mental illness can’t see clearly, find access to God, or provide important information.
    I think even for individuals operating from deep within late-modern secularist worldviews, this stigmatizing application of medical materialism is unlikely to be productive.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    I find myself more drawn to the possibility that the world is vaster, wilder, and holier than we give it credit for.

    Well said, sir.

  12. Anon for now says:

    I sincerely apologize if inadvertently either by tone or phrase I came across as one attempting to stigmatize, belittle, demean, grossly simplify, or outright deny any possibility of a genuine religious experience. Quite the contrary. The Lawrence Foster article immediately addresses the question of why, and it is certainly a hallmark characteristic of manic depressives to be drawn to deep, difficult inconsistencies, and to obsessively search for patterns in an effort to come to some sort of resolution. Manic Depressive illness most certainly explains a big part of the why of what Joseph was doing, and every bit as important it explains the physical mechanisms of the how. I was struck by this passage in your Fair Mormon bio:

    “My work in biomedicine parallels my work in cultural history, in which I attempt to understand how worlds and ideas are interconnected, trying to envision the inner working of cultural and conceptual systems as people lived them in the past. I hope that my models will illuminate and expand our understandings of the human condition, that making rich conceptual connections explicit will allow us to situate our consciousness within a cosmic order. The same quest for connection and understanding motivates much of my religious life.”

    From Mapping the Mind, Rita Carter page 201:
    “It is the intuitive sense of meaning that binds our perceptions into a seamless whole and makes sense of our existence. Can that too be pinpointed? Astonishingly, it seems that it can. Meaningfulness is inextricably bound up with emotion. Those in a manic state see life as a gloriously ordered, integrated whole. Everything seems to be connected to everything else and the smallest events seem bathed in meaning. A person in this state is euphoric, full of energy and flowing with love. They are also in a state of high creativity – the connections they see between things, which are often overlooked by others, are often used by them to make new concepts. The area of the brain most noticeably affected in both depression and mania is an area on the lower part of the internal surface of the pre-frontal cortex – the ventromedial or subgenual cortex. It is extremely active during mania. The connections between this region and the limbic system beneath it are very dense, closely binding the conscious mind with the unconscious, and this configurement is probably what gives it its special status: it is, if you like, the part that best incorporates the whole of our being, making sense of our perceptions and binding them into a meaningful whole”.

    If one is looking for a physiological explanation for how one goes about circumscribing truth into one great whole, mania seems the most plausible.

  13. Anon again says:

    Also, I’m a bit surprised in using William James to discredit such an approach. On page 12 footnote 24 of the Lawrence Foster article, Kay Redfield Jamison is quoted: “Kay Redfield Jamison, in a letter to me on 7 May 1992, responded to the preliminary version of my argument in Women, Family, and Utopia, 161-66, by saying: “[Y]ou make a very convincing case. It has always seemed that Joseph Smith would be a likely candidate.”

    And how did Kay Jamison become enamored of psychology? Be reading William James, of course :)

  14. I confess too that the more I read and think and see, the more I believe that Joseph Smith was connecting with Abraham in some real way as he struggled to make sense of the revelation made possible by those ancient papyri.

    I suspect that if any one of us had happened to be in the Sacred Grove that spring day, in view of Joseph Smith in prayer, we would not have seen any part of the Vision, but only seen Joseph’s physical response to his spiritual manifestations (both demonic and divine). I’m convinced Joseph had an authentic connection with the divine that day, regardless. Your statement here about Joseph’s connection to Abraham seems the same to me — whether or not (and I think it’s “not”) we could ever see on the papyri what Joseph found there, I’m convinced he “saw” in some way what he dictated, something beyond pedestrian physical senses.

  15. Sam Brown says:

    Anon. I might step back to clarify what you’re hoping for. Are you trying to _explain_ Smith’s religious experiences and work as a manifestation of mania (or equivalent)? Or are you trying to flesh out aspects of Smith’s life that do not directly explain his religious experiences and prophetic work? If the former, my best sense is that you’re stuck in medical materialism (the connection with Jamison you adduced doesn’t meet scientific or historical standards of relevance). If the latter, I’m not sure what you’re hoping to achieve other than medicalizing historical figures. More broadly, I’m not sure you’ll find that Foster is much of a guide to credible history. He revised an at-best-average dissertation a few times. The essay you’re talking about has poor credibility at either a historical or a scientific level. The transient craze of psycho-analyzing historical actors has long since passed in my experience.

    I wonder whether a reframe might help. Imagine the noblest or best or most beautiful achievements attributable to either you or someone you love/admire. Now imagine that someone tells you “oh, that’s because you [or they] have an interesting mental illness.” I suspect you would rebel because such a medical materialist interpretation just feels like it doesn’t capture what it’s being intended to capture. My sense is that many Latter-day Saints would have a similar response to the suggestion that Smith’s prophetic career was a manifestation of “bipolar disorder.” For me the concern feels more methodological–nothing is being explained except in a circular fashion with the medical materialist infrastructure for transhistorical psycho-analysis.

  16. Thank you for your kind and measured response. What I’m not trying to do is make assertions along the lines of: “Churchill was able to help win WWII because he fought the Black Dog” or “Lincoln was able to save our nation because of melancholy”. What makes cases such as Suzy Favor Hamilton confounding is that one can almost definitively say that the reason she sought out hundreds of sexual partners at great danger and expense to herself was due to mania. Lord Byron is similarly complicated. Can one adequately describe both his creative output and sexual conquests without viewing either at least thru the lens of mania?

    Foster’s reputation notwithstanding, the original idea is due to Dr. Jess Groesbeck, a well known LDS psychiatrist who has unfortunately passed away:

    The disdain that the general public, and other medical specialists have for psychiatry was voiced quite recently by one of your Utah colleagues, Dr. Larry Bushnell, someone who would certainly have insight into this very issue as the article mentions he’s treated several religious leaders over the years:

    Your sense that attributing any, some, most, or all of Joseph Smith’s experience to being directly influenced by manic depression as something most people would find offensive is a point well taken. It’s been fascinating to watch that they aren’t terribly happy either hearing about the possibility that the Book of Mormon doesn’t describe real people or events, that the Book of Abraham really doesn’t have anything to do with Egypt, and that some women might be able to look forward to an eternity as a polygamous wife.

    So, to be clear, yes – I am saying that Joseph Smith’s life’s arc from first vision, to translating plates, instituting temple worship, polygamy etc, etc, etc. deserve to be looked at thru the paradigm of manic depressive illness. While no one would ever want to hear that their most beautiful accomplishments can be easily explained away due to an interesting illness, there are plenty of instances where its mention as part of the explanation is inescapable. David Hyrum Smith was by all accounts every bit as brilliant, talented, and spiritual as his father. That he failed where his father succeeded was undoubtedly due to his illness. That Joseph Smith accomplished what he did was due in no small part to the same illness, and certainly in many cases in spite of it.

  17. Lastly, from my cursory reading of previous posts concerning translation issues with both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham it appears that the strategy appears to be to simply redefine the word translation beyond even the most charitably stretched definition imaginable so that one can say yes, those works were indeed translated. That feels much more circular and artificial to me. I suspect that the manic depressive illness explanation is more palatable when one uses the words Shaman, which was how it was done originally:

  18. “The transient craze of psycho-analyzing historical actors has long since passed in my experience.”

    You are, unfortunately, quite right:

  19. Sam Brown says:

    Ardis, I enjoy your thoughts. The interesting question for me is _given the likelihood of differential access to heavenly visions_ how does one avoid the modernist collapse into solipsism for spiritual truths? I’m not suggesting that’s where you’re heading personally, I’m thinking about the broader cultural context. I suspect that many late-modernists would see the fact of Smith’s special sight as a mark that the First Vision “didn’t happen” or “isn’t generalizable”. I think they’re wrong, instructively, and it’s worth flagging.

    Anon, I admire your persistence. I suspect I have little more of use to say here. I would flag the fact that my reservations about your model are not simply related to concerns believers have about attempts to dismiss their sacred encounters as markers of mental illness. My primary concerns are that I don’t see a credible scientific or historical path to your account. It begs too many questions, misuses inference, and relies on extremely low-quality data. I think you should feel free to be excited about your notion on personal-aesthetic grounds, but I doubt you have any credible access to any other grounds for this belief.

    On the question of (re)defining translation, I’d argue that I’m actually closer to the sources and their cultural context than the late-modernist and over-simplified readings of translation as merely linguistic. It takes a certain strain of culturally constrained blindness to imagine that translation can only be defined on twentieth-century terms. I’m not trying to read “charitably” (although my goal in life is to be increasingly charitable), I’m trying to understand the historical sources in their own terms. Their own terms are vastly more voluptuous than we late-modern folk seem able to readily imagine.

  20. your food allergy is fake says:

    Voluptuous terms of historical sources for the win!

  21. Sam,

    I’m coming back to this, though the blog has moved on (with good reason!), because of some thoughts which occurred to me while walking the dog this morning. No need to feel obligated to reply.

    what bothers me about the catalyst theory is NOT that it points toward a revelatory encounter with the papyri that is extra-linguistic but that it uses the mechanistic metaphor of catalysis–rule-bound, generally monotonic if not wholly linear, a story about how proteins interact in space. The modernist metaphor isn’t open enough to the wildness of the encounter.

    So, if I could flesh this out, you’re suggesting that the problems with the catalyst model of the Book of Abraham is not that the catalyst model suggests a revelatory experience that was prompted by an encounter with an arguably unrelated physical object–since you say the same thing yourself–but rather that you understand “catalysis,” in the case of the BoA, to mean that the papyri triggered in Smith an extra-linguistic, revelatory “reaction,” connecting him automatically with some actually existing Abrahamic text and/or some actually historically-warranted Abrahamic teaching. Whereas your more “wild” model eschews the idea of some kind of linear chain of reaction–Smith saw the papyri, the papyri connected him to other papyri or Abrahamic writings, the BoA is the result–in favor of the idea of something “scintillating”: Smith saw the papyri, studied them, and in studying them was opened up to an ecstatic state, and out of that state the BoA created. But (and this is crucial), what emerged from that ecstatic state, if I am reading your correctly, might not have been the BoA. It might have been (and here I make use of a silly example which I associate with Jim Faulconer’s teaching, whether he actually ever used this example or not) a recipe for bundt cake. You insist that you do not mean that, despite your projected wildness of the process and result of Smith’s encounter with the papyri, that “the second step of glossolalia, interpretation, is arbitrary, uninspired, or irrelevant,” but rather than the BoA is “actual revelation.” Nonetheless, if I am understanding you correctly, your model severs the result of the scintillating, glossolaliac, ecstasy of Smith’s encounter with the papyri from any necessary material history of Abraham with the papyri. If God, or Abraham, or Smith, had felt the need of the church to have a recipe for bundt cake to be revealed, then that was every bit as possible as whatever other (I think mostly goofy) stuff the actual, presently existing text of the BoA contains. It may be revelation, but it is also a “partial and provisional and imperfect” midrash, at the very most.

    I suspect this may be unfair, because perhaps I am continuing to fail to fully appreciate whatever kind of ontological game you are stalking in proposing this model. But I have to say that I don’t understand how your proposal–assuming we take the difference between a “catalyst” model of revelation and your more “wild” one which you insist upon seriously–could mean anything other than what I’ve written here. On my reading, you’re constructing a model which obliges those who want to believe in the revelatory value of the BoA to treat it the way Givens says 19th-century Mormons treated the BoM (though you apparently disagree with his reading of the historical data there). Which is fine! But the only take-aways I can find in my understanding of what you are saying here (and again, I may well be misunderstanding you), is 1) it allows for a kind of winking attitude towards the teachings of the BoA (“of course we don’t know the legitimacy of the historical claims made in the text, but we should assume God, on some level, wanted us to believe in them historically anyway”), and 2) it conflates the revelatory facticity of the BoM and the BoA in ways that makes the former less unique and the latter more impressive. As one who is inclined to believe that the trinitarianism of the BoM is an actually meaningful reflection of the universe God made, whereas the I-don’t-know-what-it-is of the BoA is not, that bugs me, but of course that’s just my own priors speaking there.

  22. Sam Brown says:

    RAF, I’m glad you’re pushing me for clarity. Sometimes in my attempts to be gentle and a little lyrical I may sacrifice some clarity. My problem with catalysis is that it’s using a “science” metaphor for a process that I suspect strongly is not driven by simple mechanisms analogous to the “tools” of catalysis (physical objects that behave in the same way no matter who is running the experiment). I am _not_, however, suggesting that the translation process I describe is ad hoc, made up, or non-reproducible. I’m also not intending to engage in any “postmodern” posturing. Mine is a pragmatic approach open to the bumps, curves, and varieties of a reality much more interesting than the physicalist account would like to allow. I’m not winking at BoA (or BoM). I love it, believe it, and affirm it as scripture. I don’t believe that it came to life as the gift of xenoglossia or as a pure product of Smith’s “genius.” My best sense is that it represents a collaboration (admittedly difficult to map simplistically onto physicalist or pseudo-physicalist accounts as someone on my LDS Twitter seems to hope/require) among Joseph Smith, Abraham, and God, a conversation among them that we are meant to participate in. On BoA and BoM, I do think they are part of the same revelatory/translating process, although I’m sure I could be persuaded that they occupy distinct niches along an ecological spectrum. I affirm both as belonging in the family of scripture. On BoM trinitarianism, I think you and I are probably pretty close. I find orthodox Trinitarianism beautiful and deeply insightful. I think LDS Trinitarianism is more complex than prior theological traditions have allowed and is friendlier to deeply Christian modes than once thought. I say that without hoping to merge us with Catholics, Orthodox, or Calvinists, more to understand what we jointly love. Thanks for pushing me for greater clarity.

  23. Sam, I’m barely able to understand you and RAF sometimes and certainly can’t discuss the matter at the same level. However, for those who do not have the scientific training or interest that you have, your objection to the catalyst understanding of the papyri relative to the BoA doesn’t work particularly well. “Catalyst” is not simply a word for a process “driven by simple mechanisms analogous to the “tools” of catalysis (physical objects that behave in the same way no matter who is running the experiment).” Instead, it has been used in other ways since before many of us were born. Merriam-Webster states: “Catalyst is a fairly recent addition to the English language, first appearing at the start of the 20th century with its chemistry meaning. It was formed from the word catalysis, another chemistry term which refers to a modification and especially an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction induced by material unchanged chemically at the end of the reaction. By the 1940s, the figurative sense of catalyst was in use for someone or something that quickly causes change or action.” And as it reports the usage, “causes” is even an overstatement here. Common usage includes ” 2 : an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action [as in] ‘That waterway became the catalyst of the area’s industrialization’ [or] ‘He was the catalyst in the native uprising.’ ” Neither of those examples implies a simple mechanism. Maybe acknowledging the well-established common use of the metaphor for matters that are not simple mechanisms will help reach clarity (for dilletantes such as myself) on what you do mean with your object to the catalyst theory of the BoA and your own theory of “scintillating” (or whatever, that I have not yet grasped). I think your latest comment does clarify your objection, but for those used to the second meaning of “catalyst” and who have long ago forgotten their high school chemistry, it didn’t seem to be quite enough.

    Thanks for the post. I’m going to puzzle over it some more.

  24. Sam Brown says:

    JR, I’m honestly grateful for the help in understanding where I’m communicating poorly. You’re absolutely correct that catalysis is often a metaphor. I’d say that’s probably the predominant mode of its use in these days since most of us aren’t chemists/chemical engineers. What worries me about the scientific notion and its metaphoric extension is what it says about how predictable and controllable a phenomenon is. There are absolutely parts of the world that are precisely that predictable. Others just aren’t. And my sense is that much of the encounter with God that matters is not that predictable. Does that make a little more sense? Thanks again for pushing me to be clearer.

  25. Sam, In its common metaphorical use, I don’t think “catalyst” implies predictability, but only something/someone that is an important contributor to setting a process or event in motion (if the process or event then actually happens) Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I in any event I agree with you that much of any encounter with God that matters is not that predictable. Further, it seems to me that success in obtaining or failure to obtain a desired encounter with God is also not very predictable

  26. Thank you Sam for indulging my insistence. If I may ask a favor? We may disagree about the origin and translation process of the Book of Abraham and perhaps the implications of its contents. On Wednesday morning read Chapter 3 before checking the news? For anyone wondering what it is like to see what Abraham may have been shown, Wednesday’s results will be a worldwide event:

    It has always been a mystery to me as to why the Book of Abraham has inspired legions of Egyptologists, linguists, arm chair psychologists and not armies of astronomers. I still have hope that Mormons will live up to their legacy. Thanks again.

  27. The Saints are indeed blessed to have Sam and Kate among their people.

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