Some (or perhaps even many) of you may know that Rachel Held Evans has been doing an “Ask a (Blank)” series: “Ask an Atheist”, “Ask a Catholic”, “Ask an Orthodox Jew”, “Ask a Humanitarian”, and “Ask a Mormon”. So far, the “Ask a Mormon” post is my favorite, on account of its refreshing honesty. The Mormon who is answering questions about her religion is Jana Riess, who has a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. She has written a number of books (see here), and she has a blog on BeliefNet, Flunking Sainthood. There are a lot of jewels in Jana’s post, but here are my favorites, primarily because they may offer me insight on how to approach the Bible:
1. “I imagine that I have a more human view of prophetic inspiration than some Mormons do, since I am a historian who sees prophets as very much creatures of their times as well as people who are inspired by God – much like the prophets of the Old Testament. I also think that prophets can sometimes be wrong, and that this was the case with the refusal to grant blacks the priesthood until 1978. That was a profound moral injustice, period. And interestingly, it wasn’t even true to the wishes and example of founding prophet Joseph Smith, who ordained a black man, Elijah Abel, to the priesthood as early as the 1830s.
“So even though I don’t think the priesthood revelation was about God changing his mind, I do take exception to the idea that God could not in theory change his mind about something. What would be so bad about that? In fact, isn’t that a beautiful thing? From a Mormon perspective, God’s desire to communicate those changes about various questions is the essence of the need for continuing revelation. This is a deeply biblical idea; God ‘changes his mind’ numerous times in the Bible, whether it’s listening to Abraham’s and Moses’ pleas to halt divine plans for destruction or God’s decision to undermine the same Davidic dynasty that he had put in place and consent for his chosen people to be scattered in the exile. I think it would be pretty arrogant of human beings to imagine that God can’t have Plan B, C, and Z. I think it’s our job to stay open to those times when, as it’s said in Isaiah, God is ‘doing a new thing.'”
2. “I would say that most Latter-day Saints see the Book of Mormon as a historical record, and that this view is encouraged by LDS leaders. There are also some Mormons who see the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired book that is intended to guide and instruct but not to be interpreted as a historical record. It’s not just archaeology where historical questions have been raised; it’s also the lack of DNA evidence to verify the longstanding interpretation that contemporary Native Americans and Mesoamericans are descended from ancient Israelites. Mormon apologists have offered some very helpful and challenging counter-arguments to address these controversies – you can see some of them here.
“What I wish is that more people would actually read the darn book and try to understand it on its own terms. There is some beautiful wisdom there, which can and does change lives. It changed mine. Check out King Benjamin’s sermon in the Book of Mosiah, or the discussion of faith in Alma 32. Some great supplementary books are Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon, which is a cultural history of the book and its reception, and Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, which is a literary interpretation of the text. Both are from Oxford University Press and are available on Amazon.”