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The Crucible of Doubt

Many religions are losing adherents to atheism, or people a simply choosing to abandon organized religion.  Mormonism is no different.  Deseret Book has recently published The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens in order to address those Mormons who doubt truth claims made by the church.  I liked some of the points that the Givens discussed.

Boring Church (page 42)

We know that the main purpose of Sabbath observance is to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  But we sometimes grow frustrated with all the peripherals with all the peripherals.  Lessons and talks are to some Mormons what cafeteria food is to teenagers–not just in the way they can be bland and boring, but in the way that they sometimes bring us together in mutual griping rather than mutual edification.  But what if we saw lessons and talks as connections to the sacrament rather than as unrelated secondary activities?  What if we saw them as opportunities to bear with one another our infirmities and ineptitudes?  What if we saw the mediocre talk, the overbearing counselor, the lesson read straight from the manual, as a lay member’s equivalent of the widow’s mite?  A humble offering, perhaps, but one to me measured in terms of the capacity of the giver rather than in the value received?  And if the effort itself is negligible–well, then the gift is the opportunity given us to exercise patience and mercy.  If that sounds too idealistic, if we insist on imposing a higher standard on our co-worshippers, if we insist on measuring our worship service in terms of what we “get out of” the meeting, then perhaps we have erred in our understanding of worship.

Use/Abuse of Scripture (page 49-57)

The root of the word canon suggest a standard of measurement.  A canon represents a rule of guide that is authoritative, especially in matters of spiritual life.  Church laws ans statutes are part of “canon law,” and by “the canon” we understand a set of holy books.

A cannon is a different thing altogether.

The etymology of cannon refers to a large barrel of tube through which objects are propelled to deadly effect.  It can be used offensively or defensively, but it is a weapon, meant to bludgeon unto submission.  Some people use the scriptural canon with the first meaning in mind.  And some with the second.

Henry VIII saw “cannon” when he read “canon”; he used the scriptures more as a weapon than as a spiritual guide….For reasons of political expediency, it was thought a good idea for Henry, next in line to the throne, to marry his brother’s widow.  So the Tudors petitioned the Pope for a dispensation, or an exemption from the rule.  The had a useful scripture to suit their purposes:  The Deuteronomic law had stipulated that “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die,…her husband’s brother shall…take her to him to wife.”  The dispensation was granted, and Henry married Catherine.

Some years later, Henry had tired of his wife….So Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment.  Once again, he found a perfect scripture to suit his purpose.  Leviticus 18 had commanded that “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of they brother’s wife,” which most commentators took to mean, you shall not wed your brother’s widow.

For the next several years, bishops, lawyers, theologians, and king’s counselors furiously contended over the contradictory verses…What is clear amidst the havoc that followed is that the kind was not…using the Bible as a spiritual guide….Cannon, not canon was the operative term….

Some are dismayed that a supposedly loving God is sometimes portrayed in scripture as wrathful, vindictive, and unfair.  They might quote verses to their purposed, invoking the Lord’s own words regarding persecutors of the Saints…What kind of God, one might protest, punishes children for unrighteous ancestors?  Searching for a God who is merciful and just, others point to verso 20 of the “cursing,” which notes that “they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them, ” indicating that God is describing the natural consequences of life of perfidy, not acting as an agent of retribution….

These examples suggest that many scriptural contradictions are only apparent, evaporating upon closer or more contextualized reading.  But other examples, like those employed by King Henry, are more resistant to reconciliation.

Abrasive Language (page 85-87)

Many readers of Joseph Smith’s First Vision account feel the sting of a wide-net rebuke, with its reference to the Christian creeds as “an abomination” in God’s sight.  Harsh to modern ears, however, Smith’s language fits right into his cultural milieu.  Religious discourse of prior ages was a vigorous and, by modern standards, shockingly abrasive and nasty hurly-burly of insults and slurs….And so it is no surprise that we should find Martin Luther calling Jews “venomous serpents” and full of “devil’s feces…which they wallow in like swine.”  John Knox, father of the Scottish Reformation, called the Catholic Church “a blasphemous beast,” and Calvin wrote that Anabaptists were rightly condemned for their “ravings and slanders.”

In Smith’s own day, one Mr. Edwards of Christ Church attacked Baptists as “notorious seducers” and “Willful abettors of abominable errors.”  The Methodists, wrote someone else in early nineteenth century, were “anti-Christians” characterized by “insanity,” “frantic ideas,” and “anti-Christian” delusions….

While Smith’s language was typical of the era, the “abominations” he alluded to were not, contrary to general assumption, in reference to the Catholic creeds. Indeed, Smith felt it was the Protestant creeds that were the root of Christianity’s most lamentable errors….

The colorful language of condemnation in Smith’s account has contributed to a particularly pernicious myth that has had tragic influence on Mormon thinking.  This is the notion that Mormonism has a monopoly on the truth, that other churches and traditions have nothing of value to contribute, and that the centuries between the death of the apostles and the events of 1820 were utterly blighted and devoid of truth….the idea of Mormonism’s monopoly and God’s inaction during the pre-Restoration centuries would strike Joseph Smith and the likes of John Taylor as absurd as well.

Recognizing Answers to prayer (p 126)

It is also possible that God’s answers are sometimes too indirect, too oblique, for us to recognize because we are looking for something more palpable.  During a relative’s interview upon completing his mission, his president asked if the elder had anything remaining on his mind.  “Yes,” he said.  “You promised us as new missionaries we could have, upon completing, the spiritual witness that our sacrifice was accepted of the Lords.  I have prayed and fasted and worked earnestly for such a confirmation, and I have felt nothing.  The heavens have been utterly silent.”

The president heard these words with something close to weariness.  “How do you feel about your mission?” he asked.

“I feel great,” the missionary answered.  “I have loved the people and the work.  I go home knowing I did my best, and feel happy about my two years of service.”

“And you don’t think those feelings are an answer to your prayer?  Your problem is you wanted something more dramatic to consume upon your lusts,” the president said.

What do you make of some of the insights of Brother and Sister Givens?

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