Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Context Counts--D. John Butler Explores the Book of Mormon

D. John Butler. Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religiion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men. Illus. Jeffrey V. Brimley. Kindle Edition. February 2012. 256 k. $4.99. ASIN: B007F5DU14.

I finished reading Butler’s Plain and Precious Things this afternoon while sitting peacefully in a local fast-food restaurant, outwardly enjoying the calm and my refillable soda, inwardly increasingly frustrated.

Not by the book, though.

No, I was frustrated because as I came closer and closer to finishing it, I knew that I wanted to write about it for “Collings Note”—but I couldn’t decide between two partially exclusive ways of getting into it. Driving home, still conflicted, I finally decided on this approach:

Why shouldn’t the opening pages of The Book of Mormon read like the Enûma  Elish or The Epic of Gilgamesh?

On the surface, that question would seem to have little to do with Butler’s study. The product description at Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Precious-Things-Visionary-ebook/dp/B007F5DU14/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331077784&sr=1-4) summarizes the book as follows:

Nephi's small plates are a time capsule from the sixth century B.C., containing a “loser’s eye view” of religion that strongly contrasts with the ideology of the Jerusalem establishment of the time. Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s interpretive vision are visionary-literary accounts of the two temple ordinances at the heart of the worship of Lehi’s ‘visionary men’the Peace Offerings and the Day of Atonement. Learning to understand those visions opens up the rest of the Book of Mormon, and ancient scripture in general.

The ‘ancient scripture’ referred to is primarily the Old Testament, although Butler’s exploration of Temple imagery extends to the New Testament and several apocryphal works as well. Throughout Plain and Precious Things, he emphasizes the point that the imagery and symbolism he discusses becomes in essence a further witness for the truth of the Book of Mormon, or rather, that the Book of Mormon is precisely what it claims to be…a volume of ancient Scripture, written by people vastly different from ourselves for an audience equally different from ourselves. Along the way, he answers a perennial complaint voiced by non-members: if Temple work is so important to the Mormon Church, why doesn’t it show up in the Book of Mormon?

Butler’s study argues that Temple and Temple imagery imbues the Book of Mormon…for those who are willing to watch for it. When Book of Mormon prophets preach or recount visions, they are simultaneously and symbolically re-creating Temple worship.

Interesting enough, but that does that have to do with ancient myth-making and storytelling?

The Enûma Elish, or Babylonian Genesis is a poetic rendition of a Creation-epic, detailing in part how Marduk became King of the gods, and dating from perhaps as long ago as 1800 BC. It was first ‘discovered’ by modern scholars and critics in the late 19th Century, when a series of clay tablets taken from a seventh-century B.C. library were finally deciphered, revealing the richness and magnificence of the poem. The latter date is suggestive, since it comes within a century of Lehi’s time; this is not to argue that Lehi knew the poem—although it had survived throughout the Middle East in various copies and versions  for over 1100 years by then, and was most probably even better known through oral transmission—but rather that he and his children may very well have been familiar with the mode of narrative, of story-telling, as it were, that the Enûma embodies.

Similarly, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was originally transcribed in the eighteenth-century B.C., was spread throughout the Middle East by word-of-mouth and by a large number of copies, and was also preserved in the library of Ashurbanipal during the seventh century B.C. It is the story of the hero-king Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third human, his friendship with Enkidu, their battle with the monster Humbaba, and—following the death of Enkidu—Gilgamesh’s ultimately futile search for the secret of immortality, guided by the words of Utnapishhtim, the survivor of a universal flood.

From these wholly inadequate summaries, it is difficult to see how the stories they tell have any connection to the Book of Mormon at all.

In fact, the connections lie much deeper than the overt tales involved. Both the Enûma Elish and the Gilgamesh—regardless of their enormous popularity over a span of some 1500 years (judging by the dates assigned to various copies)—were essentially religious texts, religious rituals, intended to be repeated as part of annual Creation/Coronation ceremonies in ancient Mesopotamia. As they were recited by the high priest, the various actions would be symbolically represented by other priests and, ultimately, the King would emerge from the Temple/Ziggurat, verifying that Creation itself had been renewed, that the enemies of the people—embodied in such monsters as Humbaba, who might originally have stood for drought and starvation—had been defeated, and that all would be well for the next year. Along the way these religious epics would answer questions critical for humanity: how did the Earth come to be, where does a King get his authority and power, why is there Death?

It is not so much the surface stories that become important to this essay as the fact that they contain within them symbolic parallels to the central beliefs of the Mesopotamian civilizations that treasured them enough to reproduce them for centuries. Yet at the same time, the very act of speaking both literally—telling a rocking good adventure story, complete with gods, monsters, and other villains—and symbolically—telling, for those who are ‘in the know’, for the initiates, the core stories that supported religion, society, and civilization itself, gave such stories the power to endure.

In essence, this is what Butler claims for the Book of Mormon. It is, as he notes, a time-capsule, an historical record written by the losers in a theological war, that cannot openly assert itself but that covertly, as it were, constantly presents readers with at least two levels of meaning. There is the literal: Lehi has a dream, Nephi has a dream, both of these dreams contain specific elements that make sense just as they are written. Most LDS readers feel comfortable enough not simply talking about the great building, the stream, the rod, and the tree, but also identifying what those elements mean on an essentially one-to-one basis. The rod of iron is the Word of God, for example.

Butler suggests that such a reading is adequate—correct on a relatively literal lever—but that it is not the end. Just as the elevation of Marduk in the Enûma contains tantalizing hints about actual Kingship rites and rituals, or the relationship of Gilgamesh to his city, Uruk, suggests the evolution of an actual social contract between ruler and ruled—just so, the visions and sermons contained within the Book of Mormon are transcriptions of words actually spoken by various prophets and at the same time a confirmation and re-enactment in symbolic terms of the core beliefs and ceremonials of the Book of Mormon peoples…beliefs and ceremonials intricately connected with Temple worship but not to be spoken of directly outside of the temple.

Which leads me, finally, to my alternate opening for this essay:

We belong to a poor generation.

We have more in material terms than probably any other generation that has existed on the earth. We have so much that we can afford to waste both things and time. We have leisure, we have play. We have science, which assures us that what we can see is really there and that there is little if anything else.

What we have largely lost—and what previous generations, previous cultures and civilizations had—is the ability to see more than one meaning at a time.

During the medieval period, for example, a writer could assume that his readers (and almost all writers were men, priests, dedicated to that calling) would automatically understand his words on multiple levels. Briefly put, they included:

The literal level, i.e., what the words meant. A rose was a rose, a physical flower familiar to nearly everyone.

The Symbolic level, i.e., a meaning beyond the literal that invited the word to stand in place of something else. A rose represented love—a red rose symbolized passionate, carnal love; a white rose, a pure love-from-afar.

The Analogical level, i.e., how the word relates to the Truth of Scripture. A rose represented, among other things, the Virgin Mary, her purity and her worthiness to become the mother of God.

The Anagogical level, i.e., what the word represented in light of the Kingdom of Heaven, its mystical meaning. A white rose, as envisioned at the conclusion of Dante’s Paradiso, in some senses became heaven, each of its petals supporting a saint.

At best, we are aware of symbolic readings, although most of us probably are most familiar with the infamous symbol-hunts perpetrated upon us by otherwise well-meaning high-school poetry teachers, who were not satisfied until we poor students had found the same symbols in the poem that the teacher had, and interpreted them in exactly the same way. I recall with a shudder of relief narrowly missing enrolling in a class from a college professor (who should have known better) who stated at the beginning of his poetry course that no reading of a poem was complete until the reader had discovered, pinned out for dissection, and fully interpreted—in prose, mind you—its sexual symbolism.

Symbolic readings can be enriching…and they can be misleading. If we enter a work of words looking for specific symbols, we will most likely find them. Or, alternatively, in our world of letters (and more egregiously, perhaps, in film) authors consciously insert them to make sure readers get it.

What Butler engages in Plain and Precious Things is a level of symbolism that goes far beyond what we are used to discovering. The things—images, actions, physical constructs such as Temples—begin to reveal level after level of connections, with each other and with the world from which the Book of Mormon emerged.

I suspect—without being able to prove a word of it, of course—that somehow Lehi and Nephi understood that there were depths of meaning within the popular stories they most likely heard…including perhaps episodes from the Enûma and Gilgamesh. I suspect—without being able to prove a word of it—that they understood how important it was to preserve and protect secrets, the mysteries of the Kingdom¸ without making them inaccessible to others…to the initiated who would recognize the imagery and interpret it on all possible levels.

And I suspect—this time with a fairly solid decree of sureness—that when I read through Plain and Precious Things again, I will understand more fully the importance of reading carefully, of thinking deeply, of making connections.

One final point.

Many years ago, my wife and I were teaching the sixteen-year-old Sunday School class. The assigned topic for the day was Genesis.

The whole book, apparently.

We talked about it, and decided that anything we might ask about Genesis would probably elicit a stock response from most of the students. After all, they had been to earlier Sunday School classes, to Primary, to Mutual, to Seminary.

So we decided to try something different.

We wrote three words on the board: “In the beginning.” They we asked the class what that meant. The beginning of what? Of whom?

About twenty minutes later, we wrote the next word: “God.”

By the end of the class, we had barely begun discussing one of the most intriguing words in the chapter: “created.”

We never got beyond that.

But at least the students had the experience of delving beneath the standard answers, of looking at words as if they were actually important, as if they had more to tell us than their typical meanings. They began…in a word, to think.

Butler’s researches into Plain and Precious Things encourage readers to try the same things: delve beneath the typical and…think.

 Strongly recommended.

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