Voices from the Dust: Part One

When the Book of Mormon came to light in the early 1800’s, literally from out of the earth, it fulfilled poetic prophecy that it would be a voice from the dust (see Isaiah 29:4) [1]. The Book of Mormon is actually a record of many unique voices crying as one that Jesus is the Christ. As a receptacle of a legion of voices, the Book of Mormon is an intimate book.

Recently I was on a work trip. On one of my calls home, my daughter answered my wife’s cell phone, I quickly greeted her by name. She quizzically replied, “how did you know it was me?” I said simply, “I know your voice.” Our family relationships are personal and intimate. We know each other in ways no one else will know us.

When I say the Book of Mormon is an intimate book, I mean it is intimate like how we are intimate with our families. When you read it, you can clearly see that it is meant to be intimate and personal.

In the opening chapter, Nephi, the first author, in our extent Book of Mormon, tells us his name, what language he is using, how he is writing his record, when his story takes place, and why he is writing. All the major authors and editors are also personal [2]. They are aware of a future audience that in some cases they have seen in vision. They write to you and me. Hearing a personal voice is a unique situation for a reader of an ancient text. It is something that should be appreciated in the Book of Mormon.

Because each of the Book of Mormon authors and editors are so personal, they are easily discernible and individualized. In fact, in certain cases, they are so unique, their singular voices appear to scream out at us from the pages of the Book of Mormon. For example, you can quickly differentiate a new tone when you move from Nephi to his younger brother Jacob [3], who is one of my favorite authors in the Book of Mormon.

John S. Tanner has explained some of the unique qualities of Jacob’s voice. In his recorded speeches, Jacob is “intimate, vivid, vulnerable. He used words about feelings—like anxiety, grieve, and tender—more frequently than any other Book of Mormon writer. For example, half the book’s references to anxiety occur in Jacob, and over two-thirds of the references to grieve and tender (or their derivatives), as well as shame, are Jacob’s. He is the only person to have used delicate, contempt, and lonesome. Likewise, he is the only Book of Mormon author to have employed wound in reference to emotions; and he never used it, as everyone else did to describe a physical injury. Similarly, Jacob used pierce or its variants frequently (four of the ten instances in the Book of Mormon), and he used it exclusively in a spiritual sense.”[4]

Jacob is an emotive wordsmith. Consider “the concrete words in the phrase: ‘Instead of feasting upon the pleasing words of God [they] have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds’” (Jacob 2:9). Or consider, “The sobbing of their hearts ascend up to God…Many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds” (2:35)[5]. Jacob’s singular sayings are so significant they are echoed by later voices of the Book of Mormon[6]. Jacob’s willingness to be vulnerable with his feelings allows us to develop a personal connection with him.

As intimate a speaker as Jacob must have been, he is not the only Book of Mormon author who is personal with the reader. Mormon, who is often the detached editor, also has moments of personal engagement with the reader, where his singular sentimentalities whisper around the ink to us. For example in Mosiah chapter 18, as Mormon describes a critical moment in the history of the Nephite people, he mentions the name Mormon no less than 12 times. Here is verse 30 as an example:

“And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.” (Mosiah 18:30)

This seemingly excessive repetition of the name Mormon is not an error; it is an individual, personal, and even desperate attempt on Mormon’s part to reach out thousands of years to tell the reader, “I was a real person. This is the origin of my name”. Mormon who knew of the impending destruction of his own people, also knew that his record would be preserved for another people far into the future. In the same way that this sacred place called Mormon could have been so significant that a family would name their son Mormon some 500 years later (Mormon 1:5), so too can the words of the Book of Mormon affect the lives of modern readers with similar poignancy.

Not only is the Book of Mormon intimate in the way it is written, but it is intimate in how it describes Christ and his infinite atonement. In fact, the popular Mormon term “infinite atonement” is first found in the Book of Mormon, coined by the prophet-poet Jacob (2 Nephi 9:7). The Book of Mormon doesn’t just describe Christ to you, you discover Him with the authors. You are there as the first prophets in the Book of Mormon pray to God and are shown Christ and learn of His atonement.

In the opening chapter, you discover Christ with Lehi, the first Book of Mormon prophet, as “the One descending out of the midst of heaven” (1 Nephi 1: 9). Lehi sorrows as he sees in vision the future destruction of Jerusalem, but he also sees the mercy of God, Christ’s atonement. And Lehi’s “soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled” (1 Nephi 1: 15). You are a fly on the wall when Nephi, Lehi’s son, has a vision of Jesus, his birth, his ministry, his suffering, and death (see 1 Nephi 11).

Originally, Christ is referenced only as the Messiah, the anointed one in Hebrew, in the beginning of the Book of Mormon (600 years before Christ). As a reader, you are a covert witness when Jacob discovers another name for the Messiah, because he shares this moment with us. He writes “it must needs be expedient that Christ-for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name-should come among the Jews” (2 Nephi 10: 3). I remember as a youth coming upon this sacred scene for the first time and sharing this moment with Jacob. From this moment onward, the Book of Mormon authors talk of Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach of Christ, prophesy of Christ “that [their] children may know to what source they may look to for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25: 26).

Some of these moments with Christ are so personal, you feel like an intruder of sorts loudly crashing through a jungle of a narrative before coming upon a private scene. Even if we are a “mood apart” from the intimate scenes frequently painted in the Book of Mormon [7], our mood can be linked to the text by an additional personal voice. The spirit’s voice creates the farthest reaching link to the intimacy of Christ’s love portrayed in the Book of Mormon. Despite all the textual evidence that begs the reader to adopt the idea that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, it is the voice of the Spirit that orchestrates the union of the book’s individual voices to testify of its own authenticity in the heart of the reader. It is the spirit’s singularly personal voice that witnesses to each individual of all truth.

Notes:

[1] This phraseology from Isaiah 29:4 is also found in 2 Nephi 26:15; 2 Nephi 27: 13; 2 Nephi 33:10; Mormon 8:26.

[2] There is a lot of literature that talks about the voices of the Book of Mormon, but one of my favorite books about this is Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010).

[3] For an interesting comparison of Nephi and Jacob, see Marilyn Arnold, “Unlocking the Sacred Text”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8.1, 1999, p. 52 or click here.

[4] John S. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1991), p.59 or click here.

[5] Tanner, p. 59.

[6] see John Hilton III, “Jacob’s Textual Legacy”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, 22. 2 (2013), p. 52-65 or click here.

[7] The phrase “mood apart” is from a Robert Frost poem not surprisingly entitled, “A Mood Apart” in The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, Edward Conner Lathem, Ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969), p. 385.

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This is a semi-academic post; it does not document the extent of what is known on this subject nor explicate ideas previously unknown. For the real scholarship work being done on the Book of Mormon, please check out the publications of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship or click here. There are many groups engaged in scholarly research on the Book of Mormon, I am just partial to this group. I also like the Interpreter, click here.

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Admiration, Emulation, and Memorialization


My prized April 1997 issue of the Ensign, the official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, limply lays in my appreciative hands, time-tattered and weathered by touch. In hindsight it seems providential that by opening this magazine almost a couple decades ago, I would be opening up a new path in my life leading to a greater appreciation for and a more intense interest in the atonement of Jesus Christ. The soaring sensation of having my unvoiced questions about life, suffering, and the Savior answered by a stranger was a startling discovery that is made new again every time I pick up this old copy.
 It was the article “Enduring Well” in that 1997 Ensign that fundamentally altered my perception of the gospel and the tenor of my developing discipleship to Christ. The author, Neal A. Maxwell, has always been a stranger in the sense that I never met him, but his influence upon me, starting with this masterfully written article, has had the impact of a close friend.

Elder Maxwell, Elder is a title for a general leader in the LDS church, made me responsible for my own trials:

“Rather than simply passing through trials, we must allow trials to pass through us in ways that sanctify us.” -Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”

I can expect trials, prepare for them, and understand the purposes for them:

“So often in life a deserved blessing is quickly followed by a needed stretching. Spiritual exhilaration may be quickly followed by a vexation or temptation. Were it otherwise, extended spiritual reveries or immunities from adversity might induce in us a regrettable forgetfulness of others in deep need.”-Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”

I gained greater appreciation for Christ’s suffering through the perceptive and wisdom-concentrated phrase the “awful arithmetic of the Atonement”(Elder Maxwell, “Enduring Well”). On multiple occasions, the implications of this phrase have yanked the reins on my otherwise galloping thoughts and forced me to ponder in reverence the infinite suffering of the savior.

Since 1997 I have been a voracious consumer of Elder Maxwell’s writings, particularly his official sermons from the Church. Soon my admiration of his literary aptitude turned to emulation as I started a journey to find my own style with his as my training wheels. Eventually, my emulation of his language became my memorialization of his world of words that went dark upon his death in 2004.

I don’t see myself as the successor of his literary legacy; his legacy is his own. I also don’t feel like my attempts to write like Maxwell necessarily make the statement that I write as good as Maxwell; I don’t. I am just giving credit to a stranger that helped me find my voice and use it in the praise of Christ. The tag I use to highlight the posts that have benefited from Maxwell’s inspiration is “writing like Maxwell”.

This is the first part in a series of essays written to remember Elder Maxwell through narrating my journey to write like him. The posts in this series will have the tag “write like Maxwell”.

For more information about Elder Maxwell, see the biography:

Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Books, 2002).

A very comprehensive list of Elder Maxwell’s writings can be found here, at the website Radio Beloved.

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The posts on nathanwritesstuff.com are neither official publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints nor approved statements by the Maxwell family. I esteem both groups, but represent neither party in an official capacity.

Cell of Our Own Self-Esteem

Sometimes we incarcerate ourselves in the cell of our own self-esteem. We take our fears, insecurities, and sorrows and project them upon the actions and words of others including God. We read our own guilt into the silent glances of others and they appear to be judging us. We may feel that God is angry at us, when really we are angry at ourselves. We can become so defensive over our own issues that no matter the real motives behind what anyone else does or says, all we will see is offense. Like bars, these feelings prevent us from having real relationships, because we don’t see things or people “as they really are” (see Jacob 4:13), we see them as we are.

Seeing the world through the cell of our own self-esteem makes it difficult to see anything but ourselves. As we put ourselves in front of the correct focus it won’t matter how much light we have in our life, the world outside of us will blur from our developing myopia. Our own concerns are sharply in focus and overshadow everything else. In this way, it can become nearly impossible to see the sufferings or triumphs of those closest to us, because we cannot see past the bars of our own overinflated issues. We cannot be there for others, and it seems like no one is there for us. This extreme nearsightedness may also be termed as spiritual blindness, where we “walk[…] in darkness at noonday” (D&C 95:6).

Spiritual blindness is not a malady that is inflicted upon us, but something we do to ourselves; it is the equivalent of walking around with our eyes shut. This is not only foolish, but dangerous! Fortunately, it is part of Christ’s prophesied mission to “Go forth to them that sit in darkness” (1 Nephi 21:9), and he can free us from ourselves by revealing himself to us. If we allow Him into our lives, we will see His “goodness”, which should “awaken[s] [us]” to a deeper sense of the divine (Mosiah 4:5, see also Mormon 2:13).

Depending upon our circumstances, coming to know God can be an arresting, life altering, and a sudden stop on our own road to “Damascus” (see Acts 9). Sometimes repentance, our turning to him, can be as uncomfortable as the impact of a wrecking ball, a “mighty change” that can cause the walls to the cell of our own self esteem to “[fall] down” (Alma 5:14 and Joshua 6:20). It may also feel like a eucatastrophe, which J.R.R. Tolkien defined as a “sudden joyous turn”, a joy “beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” (*).

Although repentance is often portrayed in dramatic one-time occurrences in scripture, for many of us this mighty change happens, almost imperceptibly, in the “process of time” (Moses 7:4). The experience of coming to know Christ and His atonement through repentance and reconciliation is a singular experience meant to be experienced regularly. It is a personal experience of such spiritual intimacy that in the Book of Mormon it is phrased as having “tasted of His love” (Mosiah 4:11).

It probably does not need to be said, but to taste something you put it in your mouth, you touch it with your tongue. This is the poetic way of referencing how personal and intimate our relationship with God can be. It is also exactly what we do every week at the sacrament. We take the bread, a symbol of his body, and we take the water, as a symbol of his blood, and we eat and drink them in remembrance of Him. The portions are small, but enough for us to “feast upon his love…forever” (Jacob 3:2). Through the sacrament, we memorialize the day when, or perhaps more likely the process of time through which, “Christ hath made us free” from ourselves (Galatians 5:1). We can then step out of our self-esteem to love and be loved.

Endnotes

* J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) 153-157.

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A Call to Arms

The scriptures are rife with war metaphors and depictions of battles, so much so that when we read “put on the whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11, KJV), we may get overly excited. We may imagine ourselves answering a call to arms as a knight riding up, sword and armor immaculately shining, “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” ready to deal out judgment in holy battle (D&C 5:14). In our eagerness; however, we may not think thoroughly enough about the identity of the actual enemy of God.
We know that Satan is the enemy, yet our struggle against him is more focused on his influence than on a chest thumping, arms outstretched, “come at me bro” type of direct encounter. Our battle is not against “flesh and blood” either, like our neighbor, but against “spiritual wickedness in high places,” especially those mountains of pride built up in us (see Ephesians 6:12, KJV). It is the “natural man” inside us that could be the real “enemy of God” we need to fight (Mosiah 3:19, BofM).

Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable idea, one which we may “never had
supposed” (Moses 1:10, PofGP). Ironically, this uncomfortable idea was likely brought to us by the Comforter or the Holy Ghost. We have known the Comforter as the instrument of God’s “tender mercies”, but the Spirit could be called the Discomforter, because He is often prompting us to do things that are uncomfortable, like “be thou humble” (D&C 110:12).

As an integral part of the “whole” armor of God, the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17, KVJ) is often compared to “a two edged sword”. This comparison does not just emphasize the sharpness of the Spirit or its facility for slicing outward in multiple directions, but also the idea that one of those edges is to cut towards the wielder; to “prick [our own] hearts with the word” (Jarom 1:12, BofM). We may need a little snipping here and there to our pride, in order to bring us down to the right size. Otherwise, the call to arms could come, and our own armor might not fit, because we have become too “puffed up in the vain things of the world” (Alma 5:37, BofM).

We will need a spiritual diet to shed our excess pounds of pride. A diet where we “deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness” (Moroni 10:32, BofM) and “feast upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3, BofM). We must also “exercise [our] faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:17, BofM) “lay[ing] aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1, KJV), so we can “run, and not be weary” “…of well-doing” (Isaiah 40:31 and 2 Thessalonians 3:13, KJV). Our concerted efforts will enable us to go back to a time “when [we were] little in [our own] sight” (1 Samuel 15:17. KJV). Slim enough to fit in God’s armor and little enough for the Lord to “lead [us] by the hand, and give [us] answer to [our] prayers” (D&C 112:10).

As we approach the Almighty in mighty prayer, we will encounter his overwhelming and unfailing love. A love that, perhaps contrary to our expectations, we will often experience through chastisement and rebuke, for He has said, “whom I love I also chasten” (D&C 95:1). Enduring with humility the experience of repeatedly seeing our shortcomings allows God’s grace to “make weak things become strong unto [us]” (Ether 12:27, BofM). The ceaseless struggle against the worst in us builds us into a better us. Our defeat of the enemy inside us will make us a better friend to everyone. Like muscles that are broken down to become stronger, our faith is exercised and strengthened through trial. After all, we wouldn’t need an “anchor” for our faith, if we were merely meant to sail in smooth seas (see Ether 12:4, BofM).

The crucible of our sufferings reveals the integrity of our metal affording us the opportunity to refine compromises we have made against truth and recast our character. We demonstrate this newly recast character during our afflictions to set it*, to finalize “His image in [our] countenance” (Alma 5:14, BofM). Our trials, at times, will take us to our breaking point, where God’s atoning grace can multiply our last efforts to do what was previously impossible for us. We will see in His refining fire that although we are nothing before Him, we are everything to Him, and we can do anything with Him. We will see that God’s “marvelous work and a wonder” is us (Isaiah 29:13, KJV); we will see it not only because we have experienced His love for us personally, but we will also see His wonder in others. Our sufferings, when endured with faith, will create more compassion in us for the rest of humanity. We will be more suited to suit up in His armor and answer the call to extend our arms out in mercy.

The purpose of the refiner’s fire is to create in us the capacity to ignite a “hope for a better world” (Ether 12:4, BofM) in the heart’s of others. We will cease to merely consume, but begin to produce “the pleasing word of God” (Jacob 2:8, BofM), so we can enrich the lives of the “poor in spirit” and feed those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:3 and 6, KJV). We can speak a symphony of sympathy for those with secret sadnesses, while the word “healeth the wounded soul” (Jacob 2:8, BofM).

In the end, vanquishing the enemy within us frees up additional space for caring about and caring for others. God’s call to arms is to arm us with His love, so we, like Him, can “[go] about doing good” (Acts 10:38, KJV).

I am grateful to my friend Katherine for her editing suggestions and my friend Jason for the epic picture, which is of him. -Nathan

Endnote

*This principle was taught to me by a home teacher based on the teachings of Elder Scott, “Faith and character are intimately related. Faith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character available to you in times of urgent need. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is intended to be used.” Elder Richard G. Scott, “The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign (November 2010) https://www.lds.org/ensign/2010/11/the-transforming-power-of-faith-and-character?lang=eng&_r=1.

Scripture Key:

KJV=King James Version of the Bible;
BofM=Book of Mormon;
D&C=Doctrine and Covenants; and
PofGP=Pearl of Great Price.

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