Beginning Again

In recent months I have kept my distance from the Book of Mormon, torn between the memories of power, love, and knowledge I found it the book’s pages and the distaste left by my recent faith journey. How does this book, the origins of which have become more, not less, shrouded in mystery, fit into the new narrative of my life. Do I still believe the Book of Mormon to be an actual historical account? If I do, how do I reconcile the many historical inconsistencies and inaccuracies? If I don’t, then does the book still hold any meaning for my current and future spiritual life? Can I trust the product and promises of a prophet whose infallibility in my life has shattered into pieces?

Try as I might, I cannot put these questions to rest. Like my children, they keep me up in the night, asking to be acknowledged, to be fed, to be comforted and held. In my soul I know that these questions, and more, are central to my journey to claim my own Mormonism, my own relationship with God.

Li Zijian - Fairy Tales:
Credit: Fairy Tales by Li Zijian

As a child I was immersed in love my mother has for the scriptures, mostly the Book of Mormon. The stories and doctrines of the book were part of our everyday lives. I learned and modeled that love for scripture and consider it one of the most precious gifts my mother has given me. I was the child who, in Sunday School, always knew the answers and could always tell the scripture stories. As I read, learned, and grew, I developed personal relationships with the characters in the scriptures. I loved “likening” the scriptures to my life.  

I arrived at the MTC with scriptures marked, corresponding to the missionary lessons contained in Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual that would become like another book of scripture to me. Through the course of my mission I read and re-read the chapter in Preach My Gospel, “What is the Role of the Book of Mormon?” This chapter explains how the Book of Mormon is not only a powerful witness of Christ and an essential part of an individual's conversion, but that it is literally ‘true’ in every sense of the word. Missionaries challenge investigator to pray to know if the book is ‘true’ and make powerful promises regarding the outcomes of those prayers.

In fact, the text sets up what I now see as a spiritually precarious dichotomy with an excerpt from President Ezra Taft Benson’s book A Witness and a Warning: “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true—and millions have now testified that they have the witness of the Spirit that it is indeed true—then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it”   

Faced with such all or nothing declarations from church leaders, what happens when an individual loses faith in some basic truth claims, as I have? Must I necessarily reject everything else about the gospel that I love? Does the whole value of the Book of Mormon rest on its literality? I fear this is a dilemma many face today. We were taught, as Armand Mauss explained in his book The Angel and the Beehive, “to take a literal, proof-texting approach to scripture study, and to believe that loyalty means blind acceptance of whatever leaders have ever preached.” This leaves us, Brother Mauss believed, “highly susceptible to disillusionment, either from anti-Mormon critic in other religions or from secular sources. For people taught to think this way, each new anomaly discovered … becomes a crisis of faith.”

As I ponder these questions of truth and value, I am reminded of an article by President Boyd K. Packer in the journal BYU Studies, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” often used by critics to illustrate their perception of the church’s suppression of honest inquiry. In the article President Packer shares his belief that, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” I have never felt comfortable with this position as it seems to contradict other church teachings about the supreme importance of truth in our eternal journey toward exaltation. I have turned this idea over and over in my mind and finally settled on a subtle but radical reordering of President Packer’s sentiment. I have to believe, for the sake of my faith and soul, that not everything that is useful is true.

Francine Van Hove:

I aim to embark on a study of the Book of Mormon, to go deeper both in the text and in myself than I have done in the past, looking for what is of value, what I can hold on to. I have of course, the book itself but I’ve also placed a bunch of books on hold at the library and filled up my podcast queue with episodes on different facets of the Book of Mormon. I hope that by prayerfully studying not only the source, but other’s words, I can come to some peace and clarity about who and what to believe. I am putting my trust in the words of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants, that for those of us who feel like we are lacking in faith, we may “seek diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study and also by faith.” I only hope that when I find myself I will also find that there is still a place in Mormonism that will welcome me.         

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