Title: Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations
Author: Steven C. Harper
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Scripture Studies
Year Published: 2008
Number of Pages: 601
Binding: Hardbound in perfectbound signatures, not sewn, which I discovered when I closed the book one day then looked at it. It seemed a little askew. Opening it again I found it had split all the way down the middle between pages 314 and 315, right between two signatures. And I treat my books gently.
Price: $35.95 (But on sale just now at 60-75% off at Statebird Book.)
Listening to the State of the Union address the other night (OK, three months of other nights ago) I asked myself a question I asked two years ago. I wonder why none of Salt Lake’s micro breweries have brewed up a celebratory Barack Ale? And the answer was the same: But who would get it?
If you get it, if you know that Shederlaomach is not a low-calorie mickeyrooney and shiz meal in the frozen foods aisle of Ahashdah’s ozondah in Shinehah, if, indeed, you find yourself substituting Shederlaomach every time Rough Stone Rolling mentions Frederick G. Williams, or think Ahashdah when you hear of Newell K. Whitney, or think of Kirtland as Shinehah, or “my servant Gazelem” as Enoch, or know that Pelagoram is not a form of dermatitis associated with niacin deficiency, and want to know why “it was not always desirable that the identity of the individuals whom the Lord addressed in the revelations should be known by the world,” so they were called by code names, that is, want to know why Baurak Ale and his Lord didn’t want the identity or location of Ahashdah’s ozandah or the land of Shinehah known, you’ll want to open this book as soon as you get it (or your library does) to section 78 and read the Origin section.
At least that’s what I did when Deseret Book sent me a review copy in December 2008, then I sat down and wrote a brief enthusiastic note for AML-List, based on the first few sections, promising a fuller review when I finished the book. One of the things that first delighted me was Harper’s portrait of the gospel as objective, that is, grounded in objects and people rather than Ideas, objects as varied as Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod and the world we live on, which also contains the spirits of the dead in their spirit bodies, as physical as our mortal bodies, only more refined, and the real beasts of John’s Revelation:
“John saw beings there, that had been saved from ten thousand times ten thousand earths like this, strange beasts of which we have no conception might be seen in heaven. John learned that God glorified himself by saving all that his hands had made, whether beasts, fowl, fishes, or man,”
Joseph said in an April 6, 1843 discourse (quoted on p. 276, the last paragraph about section 77).
Joseph’s physicality challenged nearly 2,000 years of Christian tradition which had abstracted God from the physical language of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The God who prepared Moses to go before Pharaoh with objects–a rod and snake, a hand made leprous then whole, water poured out as blood from the Nile–and a brother gifted in working with the rod, likewise sent Joseph a helper skilled with the divining rod. And many in Joseph’s generation refused to believe as did those in Pharaoh’s court.
Consider this passage from The Book of Commandments, the object rescued in 1833 by the Rollins sisters, hiding in a corn field with the printed pages, while the mob tried to find them. The revelation to Oliver Cowdery in Chapter VII, verse 3 reads:
O remember, these words and keep my commandments. Remember this is your gift. Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God; and therefore whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, that you shall know.
For the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants Joseph changed the passage, so D&C 8:6-8 now reads:
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
Harper says perhaps Joseph revised the wording for the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants because the Protestant tradition had developed a hostility toward the idea of physical objects as a means of revelation. True, it wasn’t simply revelation the Protestants didn’t think of as physical, and it wasn’t only the Protestants, but I’ll save that for another time, and simply note here how unusual it is that Joseph edited the revelation he had received. Or maybe we just think it was unusual because we don’t have the envelope on which Paul wrote his first draft of the letter to the saints at Gettysburg.
Or perhaps editing the revelations seems unusual because we understand the Greek yearning for perfection, because we agree that perfection involves unchanging ideals. But the revelations Joseph received don’t talk about the realm of Ideas, and he never suggests that he is the perfect unchanging vessel to receive revelations in an unchanging form. Indeed, in a Nov. 27, 1832 letter to W. W. Phelps he talked about “the total darkness of paper, pen and Ink and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.” Harper introduces this quote on p. 5 and refers back to it frequently. He also says that it was more important to Joseph that the revelations be true than perfect.
And yet, “Listen to the rhythm,” Dennis Clark told me, “‘a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.’” Even Joseph’s lament of his poor use of language has the rhythm of poetry, the long loose Whitmanesque line Dennis finds throughtout the letter from Liberty Jail, which he discussed at the recent AML symposium.
Harper’s discussion of editing the revelations is particularly useful to writers who understand the value of seeking inspiration for their writing–and their revising. Making Sense of The Doctrine & Covenants would be useful just as a tool for allowing us to talk about inspiration and creation, but it is also valuable in giving us a way to think about how prophets work, how they function in a culture, how they respond to specific questions and circumstances.
We don’t usually think of revelations as coming in answer to specific questions or circumstances, partly because in the Bible the circumstances are usually part of the narrative surrounding the revelation, or the revelation is sudden, terrifying and certainly unwelcome news about “thy son, Isaac, thine only son,” or, “thy bride, Emma, thine only bride.”
The terror and violence implied in some biblical revelations may lead us to think that we ask for revelation at our peril. But not all revelations are momentous or shattering, not all contain a warning asking, in effect, are you sure you want to know this? “Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same,” followed by a further warning, are you really sure? “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory ” (D&C 132:3-4).
Revelations can be about mundane things, the things of everyday life, as well as the things of eternity. I have learned from this book that one of the unique gifts of the Doctrine & Covenants is that it shows us a prophet at work, and the education and growth of a prophet.
Harper doesn’t quite say that all revelations come in answer to a question, but it’s difficult to think of a revelation in the Doctrine & Covenants that doesn’t start in some kind of question. The only one that springs readily to mind is section 27, with the heavenly messenger warning Joseph not to buy “wine [or] strong drink of your enemies” (v. 3) And even that warning implies questions. Well, what do we use for the sacrament if not wine? If we want to use wine where do we get it? “Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you” (v. 4). The allusion to Matt. 26:29 “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” implies a further question, and the rest of the section is taken up describing the time when Jesus will drink the new wine with prophets of all ages.
The rest of verse 4, “yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth,” implies a question, how shall it be built up? which takes the whole Doctrine & Covenants to answer. Joseph returned over and over to discussions of how to administer the Church, and Harper’s discussion is illuminating. For each section he talks about the Origin, the Content, and the Outcomes. He discusses what circumstances called the revelation forth, gives a summary, then talks about what happened because of the revelation, and whether those it was addressed to accepted it or not, and how.
All this detail is very valuable, but how the book embodies the commandment to “renounce [culture] war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16) may be even more valuable. Harper deals with controversial issues throughout, but doesn’t treat them as controversies, doesn’t raise them in an argumentative fashion. Like the question of editing the revelations he simply presents them as facts and discusses the implications.
Early Christians believed, as Doctrine and Covenants 138 declares in verse 58, that the dead could repent and be redeemed through exactly the same gospel of Jesus Christ that saves the repentant living. The determinant is not death but agency. Individuals are saved or damned based not on when they live or die but on what they decide to do with Christ’s offer of salvation when they learn about it. But over the centuries, largely through the influence of Augustine, death had become “A firm boundary of salvation” in western Christianity (511-12).
Harper could have added that a lot of church members still believe that death is the determinant of salvation. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard other missionaries say that if the missionaries come to someone’s door and the people don’t join the Church they’re not getting another chance, that salvation for the dead is for people who never had the chance in life to listen to missionaries. But he didn’t say that, didn’t implicitly criticize or challenge members of the Church. He simply presents an idea, briefly traces it in subsequent paragraphs, and shows how modern revelation (Section 138) restores to the Church something the primitive church believed but the developing church lost.
“The determinant is not death but agency,” Harper says, drawing on a theme he has examined throughout, how the Lord makes us agents, and what it means to be an agent. Harper’s discussion of agency is illuminating, but Making Sense of The Doctrine & Covenants is also a fine example to people whose agency involves writing of how to use that agency well, from describing the specific objects of a culture to describing how the culture’s ideas affect the lives of those who embrace the culture or find themselves trying to divine the origin, content and outcomes of the culture.