Elder Holland’s “Safety for the Soul
The last talk (perhaps) that I’d like to discuss from the October 2009 LDS General Conference is Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s Sunday Afternoon “Safety for the Soul.” This is the big one (and so my post will be big…at least twice as long as I’m usually comfortable with writing). This is the topic that many people, if they took only one talk home with them, took. And so, in light of the many bloggers who have addressed this topic in detail or in short, I wonder if I can do so adequately. I wonder if I can provide anything new, or if I can find something of value within it.
It’s about the Book of Mormon (surprise surprise!) But more importantly, how the Book of Mormon is true and no one will be able to get around that without taking drastic measures.
Members in the church must be careful, because:
The Savior warned that in the last days even those of the covenant, the very elect, could be deceived by the enemy of truth.1 If we think of this as a form of spiritual destruction, it may cast light on another latter-day prophecy. Think of the heart as the figurative center of our faith, the poetic location of our loyalties and our values; then consider Jesus’s declaration that in the last days “men’s hearts [shall fail] them.”2
Is there any way against this? Elder Holland would tell us there is.
In light of that, it has always been significant to me that the Book of Mormon, one of the Lord’s powerful keystones3 in this counteroffensive against latter-day ills, begins with a great parable of life, an extended allegory of hope versus fear, of light versus darkness, of salvation versus destruction…
So this is why the Book of Mormon is important. If we want hope over fear, light over darkness, salvation over destruction, we must uphold the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness…or so Elder Holland believes.
Elder Holland writes that no other explanation can hold.
For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather, who said simply enough, “No wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.”10
Many commenters on Elder Holland’s talk (from the nonbelieving side, of course), have been nonplussed over this message. So, Holland will just say all alternative theories of the Book of Mormon’s origin have failed? The only answer suitable is the one Joseph gave? What a remarkably bold comments, even as apologists still struggle with yet other issues! As they even must acknowledge other issues and perpetually adjust their expectations and basic positions. As even general authorities distinguish true from useful.
But I haven’t found myself feeling much discontent over Elder Holland’s message. I actually see Holland’s message here as an unwarranted turnaround of the burden of proof. Holland assumes that the default position is to believe that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be — and so alternate positions must overcome this default. But his faith position requires a subjective confirmation for it to work — he takes the default position that the Book of Mormon is true because something about it makes him feel that way.
Quite simply, it isn’t up to detractors to show that it is false. Rather, it is up for the book to manifest that it is true. It is up to its defenders to show convincingly that it is true. But this can’t just be done for Elder Holland (although it probably has). It must be done for every individual on a subjective, personal level.
I’m not saying that defenders have to show that the history or anthropology is in favor of the Book of Mormon. Elder Holland wisely (and refreshingly — I actually don’t want to hear a talk that’s all historical apologetics) avoids most of the historical issues and issues of fact regarding the Book of Mormon.
Instead, what defenders and Elder Holland have to show is that the Book of Mormon is personally, subjectively persuasive. That its fruits are good. And indeed, this is what the church, the book, and Holland attempt to do. The book does challenge us to read it and pray if its words are true. We are challenged to plant the word as a seed and see if that seed is good. So, I actually see the church as beginning with a general message that is reasonable: test things to know they are true. Where I disagree is that the church, the Book of Mormon, and Elder Holland already have what they feel is the answer for everyone. His specific conclusion is that the Book of Mormon is and must be true because it provides the wherewithal for hope, salvation, and light against a prophesied era that is quickly approaching where “men’s hearts [shall fail] them.”
But what if we are unconvinced? What if the Book of Mormon does not pierce us with hope, salvation, and light? What if instead, the Book of Mormon and the church are misery, enslavement, and blindness?
Elder Holland boldly states (bold emphasis added):
I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: “a stone of stumbling, . . . a rock of offence,”11 a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work.
To the bolded, I simply ask…what if one clearly and demonstrably does not experience peace and comfort from the Book of Mormon or the church? If this is the case, then I believe that no matter what the origins of 531 pages of that text are (and no matter how complex or simple it truly is), and no matter what others may experience regarding “profound spiritual impact,” it cannot be the centerpiece of that individual. After all…in every other religion, we have 531 (or more!) pages of heretofore unknown texts teeming with complexity…in every other religion, we have millions who have had profound spiritual witnesses and experiences, and yet, for every other religion, we do not attempt to account for the origin of their pages and more importantly, we don’t even have to…because these texts do not speak to us!
I am actually unconcerned with Elder Holland’s final line I have just quoted. Will the Book of Mormon be a stone of stumbling, a rock of offence, a barrier? Yes. But is it that way because one wishes not to believe in it? No. It can be a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, a barrier, regardless of desire. Because ex-mormons and non-believers are not those who “wish not to believe.” It’s not that we secretly intuit that the church is true, but want to avoid responsibility for this inconvenient truth. No, we are people who desperately wanted the church to be true…who desperately wanted it to bring peace and joy in our lives…but came to realize that for us, it could not sustain.
The Book of Mormon was and is a stone of stumbling. The church was and is a stone of stumbling. That is why many are angry. We are dealing with a sort of post-traumatic stress from this stone of stumbling that made us miserable. Only recently have many of us realized that we could try to walk away from it. We could try to elevate ourselves above it. We could try to seek peace and joy, rather than forcing ourselves to fit into the Mormon framework. Yet even today, we must grasp with our residual and cultural Mormonism — which lingers as a stone of stumbling. We may never live it down.
In the end, I don’t feel any ill feeling toward Elder Holland or his talk. His talk doesn’t seem to be about me. His talk seems to imply that the Book of Mormon will obviously seem true to any who read it, and anyone will get a testimony of its truthfulness. Anyone who diligently partakes of the Gospel will experience peace and joy from adherence to the teachings of the church. So how can people like these leave, just because of historical or scientific issues? If one has been changed for the better by the Book of Mormon, how can one toss that? One must recognize that there is something within the book…even if they do not accept it as historically true or accurate…and this something within the book is worth striving for communion with.