In Tents #76 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives

The Friday before I post I usually get a note from Jonathan Langford: “You’re up for Tuesday.” Instead, Friday after work I opened up my email and saw a whole bunch of letters with the ominous subject line “Jonathan Langford.” My phone shows the first few words of each letter below the subject line, so I saw the word heartbroken in Margaret Young’s letter, which confirmed the omen. (I wondered if anyone had told my brother Dennis, then found out from my sister that Dennis was in the hospital after back surgery.) So I’ve been thinking about Jonathan off and on all weekend. On the bus Monday morning I realized I’ve probably also been waiting for someone to say, “April Fools.”

This column was a gift from Jonathan. Continue Reading →

In Tents #75 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 4

Birth is a universal experience. All living things have received or given birth, or planted seed, or witnessed birth, or helped. So if you want to write about a birth what details will you include, besides things like name, height, weight, date and time? What details will make this birth worth reading about?

To My Blossom‑Headed Boy

Andrew Jeremy née Clark
Born December 22, 1984, 9:16 a.m.
7 lbs 9 1/2 oz  20 1/4″

“One deft stroke and the head appeared,” I’d written of your birth.
“How’s that?”  I asked her.
“It’s three a.m.,” she said,
“And it’s not true; I had to push like hell
before it came.”
Continue Reading →

In Tents #74 How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, Part 3

Sometimes it can be useful to read things in a new form, format, or translation. For some reason my MP3 player treats anything after the first digit as a decimal, following the order 1, 10, 100, 101, 102, . . . 11, 110, 111, 112 . . . 2, 20, 21, und so weiter. So last year year I decided to listen to the Doctrine & Covenants in that order, and it was interesting to hear the early and late sections juxtaposed.

Later, when I got to the Tanakh I decided to listen in the Jewish order rather than the Christian. Tanakh is an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim:

  • Torah (Instruction): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
  • Nevi’im (Prophets):
    • (Former) Joshua, Judges Samuel, Kings
    • (Latter) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel
    • (The Twelve) Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
  • Ketuvim (Writings):
    • (Poetical Books) Psalms, Proverbs, Job
    • (Five Rolls–Hamesh Megillot) Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes
    • (Historical Books) Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

According to Wikipedia the order of the Ketuvim has never been quite set, but this is the most common. Harold Bloom says in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine  that the Ketuvim ends with Chronicles because Chronicles ends with the rebuilding of the temple and the invitation to return to the temple. Christians changed the order, elevating Daniel to a major prophet and giving Malachi the last word, because Daniel was so important to Christian eschatology and Malachi prophesied about their Lord’s forerunner. Continue Reading →

In Tents #73, How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, part 2

Happy New Year, everyone.

To start the new year out on a cheery note about new beginnings, consider the following scenario. A king finds out there are other pretenders to the throne. To clear the title and quit their claims he has them killed.

An occurrence not unknown in the ancient world (or the modern). The example that comes to mind first for me is Abimelech killing his three-score and ten brothers in Judges 9:1-5  (mirrored by Jehu killing the 70 sons of Ahab in II Kings 10),  but you may think of the central section of Ether with its “apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions.”

Now change the scenario a little. The king learns about his rival through a prophecy, and orders the rival killed, but the rival survives. Clearly we’re in mythic territory now, Oedipus, MacBeth, Snow White, Harry Potter. And yet, one of Abimelech’s brothers did indeed survive, and the author of Judges surely hadn’t read The Trojan Women or Oedipus Rex, or even The Aeneid.

george_washington_greenough_statue_300So here’s the question. Does an archetypal element in a historic account render the account archetypal rather than historical? Consider that painting of George Warshington in a toga that the Duckduck can’t find for me, but brings back instead a bunch of busts and Horatio Greenough’s statue of Washington as Cincinnatus

Now, some future critic who objects that Greenough’s statue can’t possibly date from 1840 because that was long before the age of toga parties would be missing the point. Greenough wasn’t claiming that Washington actually wore a toga (or even visited Cincinnati). Continue Reading →

In Tents #72, How Infancy Narratives Behave Rhetorically, part 1

Here’s the beginning of a story. It takes place at Halloween, but think of All Hallows Eve as a prelude to la Nochebuena.

The Wanderer

If you chart the course of the planets through the stars there’s a point during the year when they start to move backwards. You can look at the whole history of physics as an attempt to solve this riddle, the retrograde motion of the wanderers. That’s what planet means, wanderer. That was what the branch president told me not long after we met.

But he wasn’t an astronomer. He was a retired English teacher and he had come down to the care center to help the residents write poems, to listen to the way people talked and write their words down as poems. Then he was called as branch president.

Now, if you’re not from Utah you probably think the branch president is the guy who sits in the corner office over at Wells Fargo. I got out one time. Went down to the corner, crossed State St and went a couple of blocks down Main street, past the city park, and Smith Brothers grocery, and then I stopped because it stopped looking familiar. The branch president across the street at Wells Fargo happened to see me, saw me standing there, saw me unable to go forward or back, and brought me back.

But our branch president wasn’t a banker, he was a poet who used to come down and help people write their memories as poems. One woman would listen to people’s sacrament meeting talks and turn them into poems. Sacrament meeting, now there’s another Utah term. It’s our worship service. We have two wings in the building, but just one meeting–in the locked wing–so the wanderers can’t get out. There’s a dining room for each wing, but we have our sacrament meetings in the alzheimers ward so the wanderers won’t wander away.

Hey, what a great title for a book. Now I just have to write the stories to go with it. So, a couple of years ago at the branch leadership Christmas social Continue Reading →

In Tents 71 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part XI

Imagine receiving a generous prize from a Jewish organization on condition you spend three weeks in Israel. What would you do? Stephen Mitchell took it as a sign that now was the time to write the book on Jesus he had long wanted to write. That book became The Gospel According to Jesus, but he didn’t find what he need at first, he says in a young adult version called Jesus, What He Really Said and Did.

Until, that is, he went into Egypt with his Israeli guide-like Joseph, I think-and met this Bedouin man, their guide, a true patriarch from the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And when the Bedouin man stopped to pray, praying with his whole body, his prayer was so pure, so whole, Mitchell wanted to bow with him, but he didn’t know how his Muslim guide and his Israeli guide would understand “a Jew bowing to Allah,” (xviii) so he bowed in his mind.

Meeting Musa and feeling the purity of his prayer was what Mitchell needed to feel he was ready to translate. But how to proceed? From his introduction to the Gospels in a Protestant grade school he had recognized that some of their words seemed full of light, and others full of anger. He decided to follow Thomas Jefferson’s example and pick out the words of light.

(The Church quoted Jefferson in two pamphlets, a tri-fold called something like “Apostasy and Restoration of the Gospel Foretold by Ancient and Modern Prophets,” and a 1983 piece called “Apostasy and Restoration”:

The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers. . . . Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger persons to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages. (Jefferson’s Complete Works, vol 7, pp 210, 257 quoted here)

Of course neither pamphlet said that Jefferson included all that nonsense about Jesus being the son of God in the deformities and caricatures. I wonder if the pamphleteer wasn’t exercising a bit of postmodern irony in standing Jefferson on his head.) Continue Reading →

In Tents 70 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part X

41htbpmoillThe Title caught my eye, “Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in The Book of Mormon.” Not unusual, my eye was scanning the table of contents to catch something of interest, and I’m open to any poetic diction that would make my poetry less paltry. (Praise be to the Orem library for stocking its sales shelves with interesting titles like Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4:2 (1995)) I read enough of the article to get the general concept and learn that word pairs are a common feature in Hebrew poetry. A few weeks later we were visiting my wife’s sister in northern Idaho and I noticed a framed psalm on the wall in her son’s furniture store. There’s a word pair, there’s one, there’s one.

I’d seen and heard word pairs before, particularly in the Psalms and Isaiah, but didn’t have a name for them, as I did for situations where the first and fourth lines rhyme and so do the second and third. It’s so common that we’ve schematized it as ABBA. Once I had a schema for parallel word pairs I could see how common they are and notice how they often appear in sets of two or three.

Consider the beginning of Psalm 106 Continue Reading →

In Tents 69 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part IX

In every ward we’ve lived in my wife and I have served in the Primary, so when we moved into my parents’ basement in Provo, we were called to the Primary, where we had also served in Seattle. One day the Primary workers were discussing activities, and my ears perked up at the name of Harvey Fletcher, since my father and I had home taught him. (Long retired, he had had a distinguished career at Bell Labs, “the father of stereophonic sound,” then served at BYU as the first dean of the College of Physics and Engineering Sciences.)

leapSeems he had come to visit the Primary one day to tell about his experiences in Primary, where the teachers had taken the children out to a creek, sang “Who’s on the Lord’s Side, Who?” then helped the children jump the creek to the Lord’s side. The activity had impressed him enough that he had remembered it for about 90 years, but his teachers were not the first to create an activity they hoped would help children establish their commitment to the kingdom of God.

Nor was Moses the first when he instructed Joshua to take the camp of Israel into the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, with “Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin” on Mount Gerizim to shout the covenant blessings, and “Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali,” on Mount Ebal to shout the covenant curses. Continue Reading →

In Tents 68 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part VIII

The morning after posting last month’s blog I was reading Avraham Gileadi’s The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation with Interpretive Keys from the Book of Mormon on my way to work. I had ended the post by commenting on Stephen Mitchell’s claim that ecstatic experiences are common to all cultures and can be produced given the right conditions of sensory deprivation and deep concentration. I suggested that perhaps Mark had another rhetorical purpose in the baptismal story than trying to show a spectacular sign of Jesus’ divinity, so that was on my mind when I read Gileadi’s comment about how Isaiah begins by calling heaven and earth as witnesses:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth

Maybe that’s what Mark is doing, I thought, calling on heaven and earth as witnesses, or declaring them as witnesses, and indeed he quotes Isaiah and Malachi to open his gospel. We can see heaven and earth in call and response in Matthew and Luke as well, and John goes beyond the birth of Jesus, back to the beginning.

If Isaiah’s words are a trope or rhetorical convention the Evangelists’ opening scenes are words made flesh.

No they’re not, I can hear Stephen Mitchell say, they’re stories created by the early Christian church to embody the mythic truths of their worldview, which is quite separate from Jesus’s central teaching, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

As Mitchell says, “sky opening, heavenly voice acknowledging Jesus as the divine Son” are heavily mythological elements. If I try to tease out the logic behind Mitchell’s comment I get something like this: These are elements common to ancient mythology, therefore when we come across stories that have these elements we need to read them mythically or metaphorically, not literally.

But maybe “A uses the elements of B so A must be a variant of B” is not Mitchell’s logic. Continue Reading →

In Tents 67 How Prophets Behave Rhetorically, or Don’t Part VII

Isaiah Reads The Book of Mormon, continued

Garbage has always fascinated me, things that get left behind, ruined, discarded. Trips to Hovenweep and Mesa Verde were highlights of my childhood. In junior high my archaeological interests turned to The Book of Mormon, pictures mostly–the words didn’t hold my attention, unlike the words in Robert Payne’s biography of Heinrich Schliemann, The Gold of Troy.

My father cautioned me one night that fascinating as the books were they were not a sufficient basis for a testimony of The Book of Mormon. He may have been remembering “The Archaeological Problem,” Appendix 1 to Hugh Nibley’s 1957 Melchizedeck Priesthood manual, An Approach to The Book of Mormon. But he was also saying a testimony needs to be based on familiarity with the book itself, on study and prayer.

(Incidentally, one of the surprises in Charles C. Mann’s 1491 was that the ruins whose pictures I had been looking at were closer in time to the Conquistadores than the Nephites and Lamanites. Indeed, the most ancient ruins he talks about barely got back to AD 400–the end of their civilization, let alone going back a thousand years earlier to the beginning, or two thousand to the early Jaredites.)

My father wasn’t the first suggest that external confirmation is not sufficient, and Stephen Mitchell, whose comment on the baptism of Jesus I recently came across in The Gospel According to Jesus won’t be the last.

Continue Reading →

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