What does the Book of Alma mean?

I’ve been reflecting on the structure of the Book of Alma1 , as well as what the Book of Alma means. What is its message? What did Mormon intend us to learn from it? What did Mormon intend us to learn from its structure and narrative?

The Structure of Alma

First, structure. The Book of Alma might be described in 4 narrative cycles, framed with a prologue and epilogue. Here’s my working outline:

  • Prologue (Alma 1-3): The stage is set. We meet Nehor and Amlici–whose legacies will haunt the remainder of Alma’s record. The Amlicite Civil War is recounted.
  • Movement 1 (Alma 4-16): The Nephite Reformation: the story of Nephi’s efforts to reform the Church of God, ending with the terror at Ammonihah and their subsequent destruction at the hand of the Lamanites.
  • Movement 2 (Alma 17-26): The Lamanite Mission, led by Ammon and his brethren, and the eventual (though short-lived) war between Ammon’s converts and the other Lamanites.
  • Movement 3 (Alma 30-44): The Zoramite Mission and ensuing Zoramite war, with Alma’s counsel to his three sons sandwiched in between the two events.
  • Movement 4 (Alma 45-62): Helaman’s (unsuccessful) reform, the ensuing Amalackiahite wars, and the military leader’s constant reform efforts
  • Epilogue (Alma 63): The effects of the war on the Nephite people, including the passing of a generation.

Importantly, each of these cycles is a kind of repetition, a “variation on a theme,” that includes these similarities:

  1. Reform. Each section begins with an attempt to reform the people
  2. Preaching. Each reform effort involves preaching and sermons centered on Christ
  3. War. Each section ends with a war precipitated by the reform attempt, usually involving a secession or separation.
  4. Covenant Victory. Each war involves a victory by God’s covenant-keeping people

A couple of notes and nuancing.

First, the prologue sets up some major players: introducing the Amlicites (who will return later during the Zoramite war) and Nehor, who directly influenced the people of Ammoniah (and may have set precedent for the Zoramites’ conduct).

Second, the preaching and sermons that make up the reform effort are a dominant note in every cycle except for the final one, which is instead dominated by the war (flipping the emphasis of most sections)–possibly a long war because of Helaman’s initially unsuccessful reform, and Moroni’s repeated attempts to bring his people to obedience.

Third, most of the cycles–including the prologue and epilogue–involves separation and fragmentation: the Amlicites, Ammonihahites, Zoramites, and followers of Amalickiah separate themselves politically or spiritually from the Nephites, and (more importantly) from covenant faithfulness, while the Anti-Nephi-Lehites separate themselves from the Lamanites and join with the Nephites.

Fourth, all of the wars are won by God’s people, the one difference being the destruction of Ammonihah, which is accomplished by the Lamanites (fulfilling God’s promise in 1 Nephi 2:16, that the Lamanites will be a “scourge” unto Nephi’s children, and showcasing that God is the one fighting the battles).

In addition, there are original chapter breaks at each of the division markers.

If this outline is correct–at least in the broad strokes–what does this suggest? What meaning are we supposed to take from the Book of Alma?

The Meaning of the Book of Alma

As a preliminary note, I think two obvious themes emerge. The first is the more obvious one: the covenant, and specifically, the covenant God had made with Lehi (2 Nephi 1:20) that ties keeping God’s commandments to prospering in the land, with God’s protection denied those who disobey. This theme is obvious in the church’s efforts to humble and discipline the Church of God, and in the subsequent wars and consistent victories by the righteous. Commenting on Alma 50:17-23, Brant Gardner specifically links Mormon’s emphasis on war with demonstrating the covenant:2

Mormon is not narrating Nephite history in these verses, he is using it to demonstrate the fulfillment of Lehi’s promise for the land. He specifically invokes Lehi and then emphasizes the contrast between the prosperity of the Nephites and the conditions that “brought upon them their wars and their destructions.” While many readers of Captain Moroni’s exploits in Alma see in them a glorification of that military chief captain, Mormon saw him restoring proper Nephite obedience before the Lord, having removed the contrary elements. Thus, “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni.” Mormon was correct that many readers might miss this message, so he made it explicit.

Mormon’s military descriptions have a specific purpose in his envisioned project; they carry a larger message about the literal fulfilment of Lehi’s promise… here was a promise given to Lehi that had two prongs. Nephi recorded the Lord’s promise to his father: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). At times, Mormon emphasizes the positive aspect of the promise. In this case, he emphasizes the negative side. In addition to pointing out that they invoked the curse through their rebellion, he emphasized that it was due to their own actions.

This seems right. The wars are a feature not because the Book of Mormon is obsessed with violence for its own sake, but because it demonstrates the covenant. (Additionally, our human author–Mormon–has fought a war himself. As Ben Spackman notes, the focus on these wars might be an “alternate history” for Mormon: “Imagine [Mormon] sitting there, surround by plates and destruction, thinking “this could have all been different, if we’d had a Moroni.”)

The second theme, I think, is found in the sermons. While the sermons vary, all of these are linked to the Nephite anticipation of a suffering Messiah, who would take upon Him the sins of all people, and covenant faithfulness to this Messiah. Alma explains this to the people of Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah; Amulek preaches to his native city of Ammonihah and later to the Zoramites; Ammon and Aaron both preach Christ and repentance to the Lamanite dynasty; and Alma’s counsel to his sons, especially to Corianton, is centered on this Messiah figure.

Christ and Covenant. Covenant and Christ. These are the two main themes of the Book of Mormon. Mormon’s son, Moroni, says as much in the title page:

Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever
And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.

With this lens in place, the Book of Alma begins to make some sense. Every movement involves reform and war. Each reform effort is initiated to bring the people–the Nephites, the Lamanites, the apostate Zoramites–back to their Lord, and observing the covenant that promises them the Lord’s protection. Those who do “prosper in the land,” and those who don’t are “cut off from my presence.” Blessedly, each movement includes some individual instruction as well, helping outline and illuminate the figure of the Lehite Messiah, Jesus the Christ–the very Lord who prospers them–so that the people can better trust God and His mercy.


  1. Inspired in part by watching the Bible Project videos, and my reading so far in the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions. Both resources are incredible. ↩︎
  2. I’ve long had this issue with the Book of Mormon: the book’s emphasis on war. This emphasis, that runs throughout the Book of Alma and culminates in “the war chapters,” has long bothered me: why would a God of mercy place so much about war in a book ostensibly about Christ? The idea in this quote has begun to help me answer that question, and I think it can sort-of generalize to the Hebrew Bible’s similar emphasis on violence (especially in Joshua). ↩︎

Interpreting Scripture, Unity, and Charity

I spent part of the morning reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters, on Ben Spackman’s recommendation (here).

It’s a really, really good book about an issue near and dear to my heart: what is Genesis 1-11? This issue originally became near and dear to me because I love science, and I wanted desperately to know how I could accept the best parts of science, scholarship, and scripture. How do we bring together the best findings of “Biblical criticism” (which often consists of very good, Christian scholars trying to read scripture closely) and the amazing scientific findings of the last several hundred years, and make sense of them in light of the best parts of the Restoration? The Book of Moses and the JST, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple–God’s word to us in these Latter-days? For me, this has always felt essential: synthesizing all these approaches to truth–revelation, reason, authority, observation, and science–without letting one overwhelm the other.

As I’ve been trying to “get” Genesis 1-11 for myself, and synthesize these approaches, I’ve also been concerned with the pastoral side of things: how do I discuss this kind of thing with fellow church members? Is it even important? (I believe it is.) And how do we do it in a way that doesn’t diminish faith, or cause contention, or fracture our church? How do we discuss issues like this in a way that fosters unity? And how can we, if unity simply means–we all believe the same thing?

In the spirit of these questions, a particular section of this volume of “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?” really stuck out to me. In the conclusion, and after reviewing the positions of each of the volume contributors, Charles Halton (the editor) tries to describe the relationship between the debate about Genesis 1-11 and the church. He writes:

[In talking about these different viewpoints]… this is not to say that questions of genre and historicity are unimportant for the study of the book of Genesis. These are topics that concern many within the contemporary church and, accordingly, we should think deeply about them. In doing so, it is vitally important that we should take care to not let these issues become impediments to Christian unity. Christians have a very long and deeply troubling history of division, rancor, exclusion, and fratricide over a myriad of issues, including the ways in which Gen 1 – 11 is understood. The root of these conflicts–whether they split churches, get seminary professors fired, or even lead to bloodshed–is a lack of charity.

…Each of the contributors to this volume is a respected and senior scholar of biblical studies. Each of the contributors wrote their essays with deep insight and expertise that came from a lifetime of study. And all of the contributors share a concern that their work benefit the theological understanding and practice of the church. Nonetheless, each contributor offered different conclusions regarding the genre of Gen 1 – 11. This should give all of us who read their essays a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexities involved in this topic. If they cannot come to a consensus, this must be a thorny question indeed. Even more importantly, this fact should join Christian readers together even more deeply and make us all the more reticent to fracture the body of Christ when we have disagreements regarding issues such as this.

Charles Halton, “Conclusion”; emphasis my own

He goes on, and I’ll quote this in full (because it’s do dang good):

Let me make what might strike you as a startling claim. Actually, I’m not the one making it — I am repeating what St. Augustine has said: avoiding errors is not the primary task of interpretation. In other words, when we are reading Scripture, our primary goal should not be to prevent ourselves from making a hermeneutical mistake. To put it differently, the thing we want most from our reading of the Bible should not be to attain its correct interpretation. Augustine was not saying that correctly understanding Scripture is unimportant. Arriving at proper interpretations was important for him but more paramount within the act of Christian reading is for the reader to interact with Scripture in a way that builds up charity. Augustine said: “[I]f he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.” For Augustine, charity is what God most wants to foster, not correctness of belief. In his understanding, charity was such an essential component of Christian devotion that he said this within a sermon on 1 John: “But there is nothing to distinguish the sons of God from the sons of the devil, save charity. They that have charity, are born of God: they that have not charity are not. There is the great token, the great dividing mark.”

One might rejoin Augustine with Paul’s desire that the church be united in “one mind” (Romans 15:6) and, accordingly, argue that uniformity of belief and correct interpretation are marks of the true church and are the goals for which we should aim. However, Ephraim Radner points out that in Romans 15 Paul links this one mindedness with “contributing to the needs of the saints,” being “hospitable,” “blessing one’s persecutors,” “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,” and not being “haughty” or “conceited.” In other words, Paul does not mean that Christians have one mind when they are united together in uniform doctrinal understanding and biblical interpretation. On the contrary, “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others.” Christians are united together in a way of life that points toward Christ. Of course, this implies that we share in common a few bedrock ideas (such as, who is Jesus?), but Paul sees this one-mindedness as an interconnected way of life and not as unitary belief structure. This way of life is centered around deference to others, or, as Augustine may have put it, charity.

Christians [and Latter-day Saints] are not a people who should fracture easily, particularly over the highly complex issues that we confront in Gen 1 – 11. Where there are areas of disagreement we must take pains to extend charity and deference to others, to recognize our own limitations, have patience with one another even as we work for change, and also rejoice in our agreement on the fundamental characteristics of the Christian faith. In Christian understanding, regardless of whether the events of the primeval history happened or not (or happened in the ways they are described), Gen 1 – 11 ultimately points toward the Christ in which Christians are rooted together and the person whom they are called to emulate. This shared way of living with one another not only unites us together when we disagree over the genre of Gen 1 – 11 but it also unites us together with Christians of all times and places — Christians who had tremendously different outlooks on their faith than we do today. This way of life unites us with the likes of Augustine and Charles Wesley and Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Calcutta. But this way of life also unites us with Origen who, along with being one of the church’s greatest apologists and influencer of early trinitarian formulations, also denied the resurrection of the body and was denounced as a heretic by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. This way of life unites us to Martin Luther in spite of his, at times, virulently anti-semitic rants. And it unites us to the Anglican Church that profited from directly owning and managing slaves on the Codrington plantation where punishments for slaves in the West Indies included being pinned to the ground and slowly burned from heel to head for rebellious behavior and for lesser crimes, castration and feet chopped in half. Before we start withholding charity from our brothers and sisters because they embrace a different idea regarding Genesis we would do well to contemplate the fact that if Origin, Luther, and the Anglican Church could stray so far, it is almost certain that generations from now Christians will look back on our ethics and beliefs with a mixture of horror and amusement. This should cause us to extend charity most generously to those with whom we disagree, particularly when it comes to topics as challenging as the genre of Gen 1 – 11.

Let us discuss matters such as the genre of Gen 1 – 11 and debate them vigorously if we desire. But if Christians are united together with the people and organizations that committed moral atrocities and who believed twisted and aberrant theologies, then how we regard Gen 1 – 11 should not come between us. May our God forgive us if this topic and even this book spur division in place of unity and strife instead of love.

CHARLES HALTON, “CONCLUSION”; EMPHASIS MY OWN

As the Lord’s people, we’re commanded to be united. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I’ve written about it before, but what does this mean? I’m inclined to say, with Charles, that it does involve some basic, shared beliefs. While we’re not a creed-loving people, but it does involve some basic ideas, perhaps best encapsulated in the temple recommend questions: do I believe in God, our Heavenly Father? In the resurrected Christ? In the reality of their appearance to Joseph Smith? But beyond this, we can believe many things.

I think sometimes those things can tend to distract us from what “unites us”: we get caught up in whether certain ideas are “conservative” or “progressive.” And we worry, with some reason, whether certain ideas will undermine the faith of the Church. But the Church is, and must be, a big tent: a collection of various people from various countries speaking various languages, all with various histories, but united by our covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” This unity does not emphasize orthodoxy, but “‘contributing to the needs of the saints,’ being ‘hospitable,’ ‘blessing one’s persecutors,’ ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep,’ and not being ‘haughty’ or ‘conceited.'”

Further, in the Book of Moses, it says that “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” The result was not that everyone believed the exact same things: no, it was instead “that there was no poor among them.” This lines up with the above quote’s summary of Paul’s teaching on unity: “Agreement is bound to a way of living with one another that is rooted in the heart or form of Christ Jesus and that grows out of a certain bondedness whereby deference is made to others”–or in other words, charity.

In light of Mormon’s emphasis on charity (which paraphrases Paul’s language), and the scriptures from the books of Moses and Mosiah, this certainly seems to align with our faith. Certainly, as a church, we can tend towards orthodoxy: and we have apostles to keep doctrine pure, and doctrine is the purview of prophets and apostles, and it is important. But as long as we’re aligned in the key things, then this unity-as-charity seems to make the most sense. We are not united in believing the exact same propositional statements about the nature of God (though a certain orthodoxy is necessary); and a quest like that is probably hopeless. No, we’re instead believers united in their allegiance to a loving Heavenly Father, and to His call to bless the nations. This unity leaves room to focus on what is most important, and leaves an allowable space for us to make the best sense of scripture, history, and science as we see fit.


I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine. It looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter-day-Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

Joseph Smith (Discourse, 8 April 1843, as Reported by William Clayton)

Meaning, Significance, and Silencing the Prophets

This week, the Bible Project podcast finished their series on parables. On the most recent episode, “Finding Meaning in the Parables,” Tim Mackie (the host) talked about something that really stood out to me: the difference between meaning and significance.

“Meaning” (in the way he’s using it) is what’s intended. It’s what Jesus meant when describing the parable of the prodigal son, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, in the original context. It’s focused on the person preaching or writing, on the authorial intent.

“Significance” is what stands out to the listener. It’s what we get out of it, what strikes us as poignant or important. It’s oriented around the hearer, “the eye of the beholder.” It’s what we take out of a parable or sermon. It’s likening the scriptures to ourselves.

Their point in the podcast is to say that while searching for significance is good, it’s vital to find the meaning first.

This happens with my wife: she’s telling me something, and I’m somewhat distracted, until something stands out that’s relevant to me, or something wakes me from my stupor. I tune in, and occasionally, admit, “Honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t really listening. Can you say it again?” And with a kind eyeroll (and the occasional dirty look), she sweetly repeats, allowing me to focus on what she means.

As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes focus more on the significance than the meaning. I do this all the time. I’m sitting in General Conference, or reading scripture, and I’m searching for answers to my questions. I’m searching for significance: what does God want to say to me? In doing so, I’m asking what this means for me, without asking what this means–period. I should be searching for both what the prophet intends, and for its significance to my life and world.

In thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Joseph Spencer’s discussion of First Nephi:

Nephi has purposes we ought to let guide us. That’s perhaps something we don’t often reflect on as we read scripture. We read a little every day, mostly looking for something to touch us, to speak to our everyday life in a way that will help us press on as disciples of Jesus Christ. And there’s of course nothing wrong with that. But if it’s all we do with scripture, we’re likely to find that we’ve silenced the voices of the prophets. Part of what it means to have faith in the prophets is to trust that they have divinely ordained reasons for speaking to us. They aren’t just another means to the end of feeling the Spirit and receiving direction for our lives. They’re messengers with things we’re supposed to come to understand.

Joseph Spencer, “1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction”; emphasis my own

I’ll admit that during conference, I was probably more focused on finding significance for my own life than trying to come to terms with “prophetic priorities,” with the “divinely ordained reasons [they had] for speaking to us.” By doing so, have I “silenced the voices of the prophets?”

It’s a heavy question that’s been weighing on my mind. As I go through Benjamin’s words this week, and conference talks too, I’ll be thinking about it.

Read, Read, Read

Reading is obviously where our scripture study must begin. We cannot study and come to understand what we are not already familiar with. We cannot study 1 Nephi thoroughly without knowing the rest of the Book of Mormon. The prophets have admonished us to go beyond reading to study, and though reading is different from careful study, it is an essential part of scripture study. It is not something that can be done once and then forgotten; it must be done over and over again. Thus the repetition of the advice: “Read, read, read.”

James faulconer

Female Anointings and Women’s Prayer

My friend Marissa is going to Harvard Divinity School, studying the stories of holy women. She recently posted a meditation on female anointings, and in it, described her encounter with a prayer that LDS women used to say as they anointed and blessed their pregnant sisters. Here is the prayer she found:

Recorded in Oakley Second Ward Relief Society Minutes, 1901-1910, Church Archives, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Also cited by Maureen Beecher in Volume 14, Number 4 of Dialogue.

I love this prayer. In her post, Marissa adds the following:

I love the parts of my religion it [the prayer] reminds me of. I love that, in our early church when things were so theologically creative, women laid their hands on each other and pronounced blessings, the way we still do in the temple. This prayer sounds a lot like those temple blessings. It uses some of the same words, it has the same tendency to dart back and forth between the spiritual and the physical, nearly scientific, with its talk of marrow and ligaments, its attention to the details of the body. I love that about my religion too—the insistent mixing of the mundane with the divine, the assurance that the body is permanent, is part of our soul, is a necessary part of salvation, and therefore worthy of our theological attention and love.

Terryl Givens has said that “One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance–the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.” This prayer, with “its talk of marrow and ligament, its attention to the details of the body,” is a prime example of that. It’s also a testament to the enduring faith of Latter-day Saint women. I hope my children–should God grant me children–know about prayers like these.

Journeys, Feasts, and Predicaments

We all use metaphors to describe our lives, things like: “Love is a battlefield.” “Life is a highway.” “All the world is a stage.” It turns out, though, that political philosophers get really dark about it. Here’s political philosopher Michael Oakeshott on why that is:

… it is characteristic of political philosophers that they take a sombre view of the human situation: they deal in darkness. Human life in their writings appears, generally, not as a feast or even as a journey, but as a predicament; and the link between politics and eternity is the contribution the political order is conceived as making to the deliverance of mankind. Even those whose thought is most remote from violent contrasts of dark and light (Aristotle, for example) do not altogether avoid this disposition of mind. And some political philosophers may even be suspected of spreading darkness in order to make their light more acceptable. Man, so the varied formula runs, is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both … and the civil order appears as the whole or a part of the scheme of his salvation.

The precise manner in which the predicament is conceived, the qualities of mind and imagination and the kinds of activity man can bring to the achievement of his own salvation, the exact nature and power of civil arrangements and institutions, the urgency, the method and the comprehensiveness of the deliverance — these are the singularities of each political philosophy. In them are reflected the intellectual achievements of the epoch or society, and the great and slowly mediated changes in intellectual habit and horizon that have overtaken our civilization. Every masterpiece of political philosophy springs from a new vision of the predicament; each is the glimpse of a deliverance or the suggestion of a remedy.

Michael Oakeshott on thomas hobbes

After re-reading this a few times (it’s a hefty statement), it seems that Oakeshott is making a few points:

  • To some, human life is not a feast or a journey, but a predicament
  • Political philosophy is the study of the predicament, and how to find a way out
  • Different philosophies pose the predicament in different ways: man “is the dupe of error, the slave of sin, of passion, of fear, of care, the enemy of himself or of others or of both…”
  • How this predicament is described, and how the solution is achieved, is what distinguishes each great work of political philosophy

Now, let’s be clear: I’m no political philosopher. Nor will I ever be one. But I find these ideas incredibly interesting, especially the first point about the metaphors we use to describe our existence. Why? Because it matters so much. Think about it:

Is life a feast or a journey? A war or a test? Are we soldiers or students or pilgrims?

If it’s a feast, what are we feasting on? If we’re students, what is the lesson we’re supposed to learn? If we’re pilgrims, what is our journey–our starting point, our waystation, and our final destination? If life is a war, what are we fighting against, and who is on our side, and who is on theirs?

If it is a predicament, what is the predicament? Are we ancient humans stuck in a modern world, waylaid by our biological drives and evolved habits of mind? Are we sinners saddled with depraved souls, with grace as the only way out? Are we, as the Hebrew Bible envisions it, the creation of God inclined toward idolatry–to the worship of anything but God? Are we students in a classroom, sent here to learn? Are we, as Socrates taught, rational creatures beset by ignorance? Are we, as Terryl Givens like to point out, children of God wounded by the world and by each other, requiring the grace and healing that comes in the arms of Christ? Or are some kind of all of these?

Or is all of these an exercise in climbing the wrong ladder? If we are not, in fact, in a “predicament,” is some other framing device better?

Journeys, feasts, predicaments–these are the metaphors we use, and I think they matter a lot because they shape our approach to the world. But I wonder why we all use different metaphors? And I wonder if one metaphor is objectively more right than another? Or if all of these metaphors get at some aspect of life?

A few thoughts.

First, Oakeshott suggests that political philosophers think in terms of predicaments. This requires they take a “sombre view” of the human situation. Are we, as Latter-day Saints, required to take a “sombre view” of the human situation? I’m inclined to say… yeah. Yes we are.

As Latter-day Saints, we’re generally sunny in our outlook. We believe everyone will get a shot at heaven. (I’m thinking of the book title, “Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exalted.”) But we also have a pretty dark and tragic book at the heart of the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, which for all its optimism, ends with the godless Nephites being wiped out by the godless Lamanites.

I’m reminded of Bible scholar Gordon Wenham’s statement: when talking about the first part of Genesis, he said that the book “declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic…” Why? Because, in short, God has made covenants to Abraham to save the human race. This could describe the Book of Moses equally well. (Think of the scene where Enoch sees the wickedness and suffering of mankind, and weeps with God–but then leads a whole city into God’s rest and loving arms. He sees mankind without God; and works to turn mankind to God.)

Second, journeys and predicaments both suggest a storyline, a narrative. All of these narratives invite us to act, to move, to launch ourselves forward. And perhaps that’s enough? Without a conflict requiring resolution; without a journey needing completing; without a “what-is” requiring a “should-be”; we would be static, frozen in place.

Third, Adam Miller has talked about the questions being asked today, while both Terryl Givens and Nathan Oman have talked about finding new language to celebrate the restoration–new ways to answer today’s new questions. Perhaps to find the “right” metaphor and image, we need to know–what questions are being asked? What metaphors best make sense to this generation, and to the questions they’re asking, and draw from the Restoration?

the argument became a part of the adventure

What happened then: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it is very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time–especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other.

from the mixed up files of Mrs. BasiL E. Frankweiler, p. 39

On Turning 30, and How Much Can I Really Change Now?

I remember reading, some time ago, a tweet from a journalist I follow. He was about to turn thirty, and another journalist had given him this counsel: “Before you turn thirty, you’re full of promise. After you turn thirty, you are who you are.” William James, the eminent psychologist, said it another way: “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” I remember sitting back at the time, a bit stunned–I was 28 at the time–wondering: is this true? Am I set, doomed to live what what I’ve got–a decent personality mixed with some pretty big character defects?

Another memory. On my mission, a prominent Seventy came to our mission. In a talk on agency and responsibility, he made an offhand comment that a missionary will never rise above the level of commitment and dedication they show on their missions, after their missions. The “never” really stunned me, as I didn’t consider myself the best missionary. But could I change? And would I ever change, if I didn’t now?

Both of these memories suggest that there may be a time in our lives when our character is somewhat cemented. (“Cemented”–what a word to use when describing our own nature.) And both memories have stuck with me, cemented in my mind. I’ve mostly refused to believe the latter quote I heard on my mission–after all, for the last decade I’ve been home from my mission, and I’ve refused to believe I can’t change! But now that I’m about to turn thirty (next month), the former quote has been weighing on me. Am I set in my ways? Am I fundamentally no longer “full of promise”? And what does that say, if anything, about the project of self-improvement–and the hold the Atonement ought to have over me?

Perhaps this last question is the scariest source of my anxiety: not only is there a concrete sense of anxiety that comes from an awareness of still deep flaws, flaws I’d really like to eliminate; but there’s the more-abstract-but-no-less-real question of, am I too set in my ways for the Atonement to have a fundamental hold on my character?

The answer to these questions are, I think, yes and no. And as thirty looms, this has been really important for me to come to terms with as I think about who I want to be in a decade. I want to make three points explaining my feelings.

First, agency is circumscribed. This is something I’ve become more and more convinced of: we have agency, but we cannot choose to change everything about ourselves, and what we can choose to change about ourselves.

First, what limits us? Think about all the things:

  1. Habits. For better and for worse, they’re difficult to break. This can be anything from mental habits (every time it’s crowded in the subway, I get frustrated) to physical habits (going to brush my teeth first thing in the morning), and much else besides.
  2. Genetics. There are genetic things that influence us (some would say determine us), like how the lipostat in our brain governs our weight. Weight’s easy to grasp, but things like happiness, our openness to new things, and even our political dispositions might be inheritable.
  3. Environment. We tend to “follow the scripts” set for us by the family we grew up with, our “family of origin.” For example, I’ve noticed that when I drive, I tend to mirror my dad in wanting to make comments about how bad drivers are. But knowing about our environment growing up can predict whether we believe in God, what our political party likely is, and how vulnerable we’re willing to be. And of course, our peers growing up, and our peers and environment now, can all influence us.
  4. Deep-set beliefs coupled with biases. What do we believe? How much do I believe that I control my own fate? (This is something scientists call the “locus of control.”) What do I think is involved in self-change? What do I believe about learning, about society, about religion, about people? Along with our basic beliefs, there are dozens upon dozens of cognitive biases–shortcuts that our brains make, that can trip us up if we’re not careful.
  5. Culture & Norms. Closely related to our environment, our society’s culture and norms can impact what we believe, and how we act. It’s difficult to act agains the norms, even if it’s healthy. For example, if our family has a culture of eating out indiscriminately and often, it can be difficult to break bad habits of eating.

The above list isn’t comprehensive, just suggestive. And the points overlap. But I think the overall point is clear: mortality is a mess. Some people are “luckier” in this constellation of environment, culture, beliefs, genetics, and habits than others. Some aspects of ourselves are probably more amenable to change than others. (For example, we might be able to change some habits, but not our entire personality.) And I think that warrants care when we set out to change ourselves and others.

I know a man who my family helped for a long time. This man–I’ll call him Rob–did not win the birth lottery. He was raised in a poor home; he did drugs for a long time; he had a criminal record that limited his employment; he had had several girlfriends; and was raising his son in joint-custody with his wife. His trailer was a mess, a fact I knew from spending time over there, helping clean it up. He always worked odd jobs. And he had been baptized a few years ago. We tried to help him change, and the church supported him for a while. But he kept making self-destructive decisions, no matter how much we tried to help him. I remember, as one of his home teachers, trying to explain the “Be Proactive” principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: the idea that he could change, that he just had to focus on what was within his influence. But he ended up, after all this help, back on the streets. Something fundamental about him could not, would not change. By thirty (or perhasp sooner), he was no longer full of promise; he just was who he was, seemingly fixed.

At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t change. Now, older and maybe a little wiser, I think–“there but for the grace of God go I.” Rob was born into a constellation of factors that severely limited his agency and–though it’s not my place to say–he may never be able to fundamentally change. Me? My mind has not been addled by drugs; I haven’t been saddled by a criminal past; I have a strong belief that my own actions, not my fate, determine my future; I have an introspective nature; and I believe in a God of grace. Perhaps I’m lucky: perhaps I possess a constellation of these same factors more capable of allowing change. Maybe I’m not so static as I seem. Perhaps this suggests a second point: some people are more capable of change than others. The fact that I’m sitting here, writing a blog post about it, might suggest I’m more capable of change than others. (Then again, maybe not.)

Which leads me to my third point: agency is circumscribed, but grace can transform, heal, and conquer. This is less empirical than a priori: I’m not basing this on empirical evidence as much as I’m deducing this from the theory of my own faith. But my religion counts for something, I think: I firmly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ preaches that we can change. Maybe all the change I want and hope for will not happen in this life; maybe progress will happen in the world of spirits, and perhaps–just perhaps–we can even progress through kingdoms of glory, eternally. (There’s enough diversity of opinion among LDS leaders over time to warrant the belief.) But to whatever extent change can happen, eternal progression (and so eternal change) characterizes this life.

Is grace available to all? Well, in theory, yes: anyone can demonstrate faith and allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can pledge their lives to God through covenant, and open up those wellsprings and channels of grace. But in practice, of course, there may be people–like Rob–who has been injured by mortality to such an extent that, at least in this life, they may never be able to fully reach out in faith. (Can I make that judgment call? Perhaps, perhaps not: I don’t think we should easily give up on anyone, although I’m sure there are cases where it’s for the best if we do.)

Terryl Givens likes to quote the original translation of 1 Nephi 13:32, which originally read “Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of woundedness [now blindness], which thou beholdest they are in…” Rob–and many others, including myself–are wounded. Perhaps it is our wicked environment, our injured culture, our wrong acquired habits, our genetics, and our false beliefs that inflict these very wounds. I think that, in some part, it is. And so Christ is our Healer, reaching out to heal our broken hearts and minds.

To summarize my own conclusions: our agency is circumscribed by things like genetics, environment, and culture; some people are more set in their ways than others; and yet for all of us (maybe), transformative grace and healing is within reach.

I suspect some lessons that emerge from this might be: we can change, but not all at once. We can change, but not all in this life. We can change, but not everything about us (personality–as defined by a psychologist–seems to be largely set, for example). We can change, but it takes effort and prioritizing. And we can change, but perhaps–as it was for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”–we can’t always change what we wish we could, and some changes aren’t “meant to be” in this life.

Maybe the main lesson from all this is that we’re kind to others and to ourselves. Maybe that, and to recognize that deep and fundamental change is difficult, especially after thirty–and that any single change may require sustained attention, prayer, and thought. As I sit on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and prepare to enter my fourth decade, I wonder what transformative leaps I can make. I want to have a better relationship with food. I want to write more. I want to learn to concentrate on my work better, and not give in to distractions. I want to learn some languages. All of these things will challenge me. But fundamentally, I believe–because of Christ, and because of His promises–that change is possible. And for that, I am grateful.

Conversion of the Imagination

Here are some interesting quotes on the imagination, and what it means to convert the imagination.

To create a future, we need better imaginations, and for better imaginations, we need to feed them better ideas and better images.

Austin Kleon, January 31, 2019; “Images in the Head”

[What Paul is doing] is a difficult double task. It involves nothing short of that hardest conversion of all, the conversion of the imagination. But that is what is required if people are to understand where they are and who they are as the family of God.

Wright, N. T.. Paul: A Biography (p. 219). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Paul rereads Scripture with an imagination converted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. An imagination so converted will necessarily see the moral world in which we live and move through new eyes.

Richard B. Hays. The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Kindle Locations 111-112). Kindle Edition.

Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord—and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation—in a way that captures our imagination. If we act toward what we long for, and if we long for what has captured our imagination, then re-formative Christian worship needs to capture our imagination. That means Christian worship needs to meet us as aesthetic creatures who are moved more than we are convinced. Our imaginations are aesthetic organs. Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. As we noted in chapter 1, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures this well: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Smith, James K. A.. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And he shall be led in paths where the poisonous serpent cannot lay hold upon his heel, and he shall mount up in the imagination of his thoughts as upon eagles’ wings.

Revelation through Joseph Smith, Doctrine & Covenants, 124:99