More than two years ago, the Holy Spirit began insisting that I re-read the Book of Mormon. Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize the impulse as anything but a good idea originating within my own intellect. That’s what I do with anything – process it intellectually first. I knew spending more time reading scriptures would be the spiritual equivalent of walking more for my heart, so I put it on my to-do-list. You know all about the to-do-list that never seems to get any shorter because of emergencies and recurring requirements.
So, re-reading the Book of Mormon stayed on the to-do list for a while. But then the press became more persistent and insistent: “No, you REALLY need to re-read the Book of Mormon,” and the very persistence began to get through my blocks of rationalization. So I kept moving it up the to-do-list until it was high among the emergencies and the recurring tasks, and I began to read.
I had not gone cover-to-cover since I was in elementary school. I still have my first Book of Mormon given me as a baptism gift, and almost every verse in it is underlined: I didn’t know what went with what back then, and figured just about everything must be terribly important and interrelated. So I absorbed the story for a story important in my religion, and soaked up any theology unconsciously in the process. In the decades since, I used the Book of Mormon many times in preparing sermons; you preach a lot when you live in a denomination of mostly small congregations where priesthood is not the province of all worthy males. I taught many individual topics in classes or missionary efforts. I even had a few verbal jousts on my front steps with LDS missionaries before I learned that was fratricide that wasted everyone’s time. But the focus on the immediacy of my assigned tasks didn’t convey the global oversight of that first boyhood reading. In the later readings, I had the theology, both from the Book itself as well as from a deeper understanding of the other scriptural sources of Christian theology, but had lost track of the story as story.
From this perspective, as I began to read I began to understand overarching themes I’d missed before because they hadn’t been “on task”. Among them, I began in particular to see the books of 1st Nephi through the Words of Mormon as sort of an “old” Old Testament concerned with the overwhelming question of the first generations of Nephites: “Is there still a place for us with God?”
After all, in 600 BC, Judea was the “church”. You didn’t think of personal salvation outside of the structure of your Jewish tribal identity, and keeping the covenant kept your identity guaranteed by the only true God. I mean, look what had happened to the Northern Kingdom. Just gone! Conceptually to the Jews then, it didn’t matter whether individuals in the 10 tribes had been obedient or disobedient, just or unjust. The Kingdom of Israel had been judged unworthy of God’s continued protection as a whole kingdom. The fate of the people as individuals simply was not a question that had any place in the mental landscape. What did God care about a just Assyrian or Egyptian compared to a Jew?
What does it do to your mental landscape, then, when God starts telling you that you are to leave your tribe, and you aren’t ever coming back? You are being further told that the tribe itself is about to be conquered and won’t be there if you do change your mind. You are amputating your culture, and you have little to replace it with, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. There is beyond the wilderness and the sea a “land of promise” to fill the physical hole, if you cling to your faith, but what replaces everything else?
Lehi and Nephi had their visions. They went, but you can see their frustration and anger at the Jews in their writings over the sheer stupidity of the disobedience of the covenant that was bringing the Babylonian disaster upon them. Laman and Lemuel turned their anger toward their father instead. Everybody was supposedly committed to going into the wilderness, but they all kept forgetting things (like wives) and finding reasons to have to go back to Jerusalem to get them. They seem to have been in shock. Stay! Go! Make up your mind!
And so the scriptures about the ultimate fate of Israel/Judea, as discussed by Isaiah or Zenos, become dominant concerns in this Book of Mormon “old” Old Testament. It is not an abstract theological debate to the Nephites; much of their personal focus and records are devoted to testifying that God has promised a reconnection of their seed (and even the seed of their rebellious Lamanite brethren) to the Israelites in a future time. Acceptance of Christ is seen as the means of this reconnection as well as the means of personal salvation. In fact, personal salvation is the newer, more revelatory concept which is increasingly emphasized as the story moves toward its historical climax. Even at the time of Christ’s appearance, this societal reconnection is on the minds of the people, and Christ takes time to reemphasize it along with his teachings about personal salvation. Indeed, “convincing of the Jew” of Christ’s divinity is as important as “convincing of the Gentiles”; the land of promise is not just a promise for the Nephites, but a means of keeping a promise by God for everyone else.
Many of those who come to this site feel either their “sense of the Spirit” or the “sense of their intellect” calling them into the “wilderness”. Whether it is because the church is not found to be as-advertised, because it changes too slowly, or because it changes too much, the shock and the anger are real and pretty much the same for all. They often no longer can support parts of the culture, but have nothing clear in their sights to replace it. They leave, miss something they left behind, go back, and try again to follow one direction or the other. Some fraction of them experience rejection by the community because they are perceived to be rejecting the norms of the community first. And sometimes they don’t know whether to be angry at others or ashamed of themselves.
They are reenacting this great dilemma of the early Nephites. How are they and their families to be connected to the purposes of God, when they have previously experienced their “tribe” as the only authorized means of connection? Yet, if the call is genuine, it will keep persisting and growing more insistent. There will be a land of promise for those who follow that call, and if the Nephite example holds, it will not just be a land of promise for those “wandering Mormons”. It will be a land of promise of those who come after them, and, in the long run, a blessing for the tribe they left behind as well. Experiencing being called into the wilderness isn’t a strange thing in Mormon history; it’s sort of what makes you one of the tribe in the first place.