I’ve been thinking about Levi Peterson’s The Backslider lately (SPOILERS AHEAD).
The 1986 novel tells the story of Frank Windham, a Mormon cowboy from southern Utah. Frank struggles with his faith and finding his place in Mormon culture. Topics including sexual sin, backsliding, self-mutilation, and guilt have made this novel pretty controversial in many Mormon settings. Despite being beautifully written, I’ve always thought that the true genious of the novel is the way Frank envisions God & Jesus.
Something happens during the transmission of Heavenly knowlege from God into the human mind. We are terribly incapable of understanding or comprehending God. And this means that our visions and revelations, as sacred as they may be, aren’t actually visions of God. They’re human interpretations of glory beyond our understanding. We have visions of God – glorious visions – real visions – but they’re filtered through an earthly lens colored by our personal circumstances. We understand God based on who we need Him to be. This isn’t to denigrate the authenticity of visions, but we should be careful when trying to make categorical statements about God based on an earthly vision.
At one point in the novel, Frank is feeling guilty because of his backsliding and he imagines God pointing a gun at him, calling him to repentance. For some this is absurd, but for Frank, it was as real as any other heavenly vision. His understanding of God is shaped by his experiences. Whereas God communicated his wrath to Adam through banishment, to Noah through flooding, to Moses through serpents and plagues, He communicated his wrath to Frank through a rifle.
By the end of the novel, Frank imagines Jesus as a Cowboy, riding a horse with cigarette in hand. It’s an account that is sure to rub many Mormons the wrong way, but it’s who Frank needed Jesus to be in order to have faith in Him. A merciful God wouldn’t send Frank anything less than Cowboy Jesus.
So we can talk about who God is, what He looks like, or where He came from, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that He is.
I don’t know much about God, but i’m pretty sure Jesus rides a bicycle.
“Happiness is a full bike rack!” –Yehuda Moon
So attentive MM readers, won’t you tell me a little about YOUR version of God?
Hmm… I’m pretty sure God LOVES musical. Sweeney Todd in particular.
Im not joking here – I think God and Jesus must love rock and Roll for sure!!!
Lynryd Skynrd Free bird
Hm… interesting thoughts. I see God as being kind-hearted and funny. (He created me, didn’t he? He must be a bit comedic.) I also see him as enjoying the outdoors and nature through recreation. Anyone who created this BEAUTIFUL and diverse world, knows and understands the outdoors through experience.
I agree, I think we have no clue how God really is. (Well, maybe a tiny clue.) That’s why there are so many religions. God gives to different people different aspects of His nature according to what they can handle. I think Joseph Smith said something along these lines, just can’t remember where.
Your statement of one’s vision of God being “filtered through an earthly lens colored by our personal circumstances” is very poignant. I believe my vision of the character of God is clouded by a lifetime of experiences with my father, as well as my experiences with my children as their father.
Very thought-provoking post, James. John M. summed up pretty well what I was thinking as I read it.
James – Free Bird will be played at my funeral/memorial/something, along with a number of my other similar favorite songs. And wherever I am, I hope I can see it.
God for me… Interesting, because the first and strongest thought I have is that he absolutely has to understand what it’s like to be me. I have my own baggage, plus a few health issues and fight with some pretty unpleasant stuff, sometimes daily. Luckily we have that little thing called the atonement. For me the struggle comes not with faith that God exists, but with faith strong enough to fully utilize the gift of the atonement.
I look at everything wonderful around me, at nature and the miracle of human life that is both fragile and resilient, and have no doubt that God exists. Right now is a period of my life where I’m very seriously trying to immerse myself in my faith, and things that will build my faith. Without it I have very little.
“We have visions of God – glorious visions – real visions – but they’re filtered through an earthly lens colored by our personal circumstances. We understand God based on who we need Him to be.”
“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Mor 10:4-5)
I call this the conduit of revelation. There are three personages in it: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. What is the function of this conduit? To impart the truth to mortals. The truth does not change for anyone or anything under any circumstance.
I agree that we might not understand everything we receive by revelation. Joseph Smith still needed to study his scriptures. Some visions are far beyond the knowledge scope of the person receiving the revelation. Ezekiel didn’t have a chance understanding aircraft – if that’s what he really saw but maybe he shouldn’t have stopped there.
“For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord…” (1Nephi 11:1)
Notice that, in his original request, he wanted to KNOW the things which his father had seen. Part of that request is that he saw the filthiness of the river his father had missed. In the same way Ezekiel might have comprehended aircraft long before their invention.
If you see Jesus as a cowboy with a cigarette in his hand, then get rid of the filters. You do that by divine revelation – and you do that by inquiring to know. I don’t think Nephi was satisfied by merely what his father said. By divine prompting he was led to inquire further. Remember to stay focused – the main purpose of divine revelation in imparting truth. Truth is that knowledge which will lead one to salvation. It makes you free. It is not showing airplanes before they are invented. We won’t need airplanes to get to the Celestial Kingdom but sometimes God will give us knowledge like this.
Don’t create God in the image you want Him to be. Instead, gain a knowledge of who He wants you to become. Go for the truth.
Rich, prophets and apostles throughout time (and even in the modern Church) have understood and described God in strikingly different ways. Are you saying that everyone will understand and describe God exactly alike if only they are in tune with the Spirit?