The last dozen or so posts have focused pretty closely on the actual text of the Isaiah chapters of 2 Nephi. We’re not actually done with Isaiah yet because, as we’ll see in the next few chapters, Nephi weaves the writings of Isaiah with strands from his own vision (as recorded in 1 Nephi 11–14) in order to liken Isaiah’s prophecies to latter-day Israel. But before we get to that I’m going to take a break from Isaiah (kind of) and instead focus on just a couple of verses from Nephi. In the opening verses of 2 Nephi 25, in order to explain why his own people fail to understand the prophecies of Isaiah, Nephi offers the following explanation:
Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews. For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations. (2 Nephi 25: 1–2)
A straightforward reading of this statement by Nephi suggests that he essentially taught his people a censored version of Jewish history. No doubt Nephi had his reasons for this, but if nothing else, such an approach to a retelling of history left his people unprepared to understand the prophecies of Isaiah. However, I think there are other risks associated with this approach as well, and so in this post I’d like to offer a critique of censoring history.
To highlight what I think is the main problem with editing out the unsavoury elements of history, I’ll use a story about a change in approach to how the Church maintains the Sacred Grove as something of an allegory.1
In 1998, the Church hired a horticultural firm to perform an extensive study of the grove. Following the study, Robert Parrot, a non-member specialist in forest management, was hired to take care of the Sacred Grove.
Parrot had been “walking in the grove since about 1961.” During those walks, he “began to look at it with a professional eye,” asking himself, “What in the world are they doing here? Do they realize what they are doing to this forest?” The forest was essentially being manipulated in such an artificial way that it was open and parklike and almost sterile. There was almost a complete absence of indigenous species or wildflowers and plant life; there was no decaying woody material on the ground that would support and shelter chipmunks and wild turkeys and woodpeckers and songbirds and all the creatures that we would like in a forest.”1
In the same article, Larry Porter, professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine at BYU, was also interviewed. He added, “I first came to the grove in 1968. When I walked out to the grove, it had more the appearance of a park. The forester at that time made sure that if a tree needed to come down, it came down. If a tree had problems, such as rotting on the interior, they would clean it out, put cement into the base, and use that to preserve the trees. It was a different philosophy of management of the grove at that particular time.”1
So Parrot set about changing the management of the Sacred Grove. He explained the new approach to caring for the woodland:
When we first started the program, of course, there was no downed organic material on the floor of the forest; everything was cleaned up and groomed and sanitized. Decaying organic matter from downed logs and that sort of thing is where the trees get their nutrients. That is why the forest was so lacking in natural vegetation and regeneration. When we first started leaving the downed logs, we would have visitors come in and complain that it looked messy—“It looks messy in there! You are not caring for the Sacred Grove!”—when in fact we were just beginning to care for the Sacred Grove.1
And the result? The Sacred Grove is now thriving because of the approach Parrot implemented. Death, decay, and decomposition has resulted in variety, growth and regeneration. “There has been a tremendous change in the appearance of the grove. It has become lush and green. There has been a return of indigenous species of wildflowers and plant life. The floor of the forest is mostly covered with green in the summer, whereas in the past it was just bare, brown leaves,” Parrot shared.
So what does this horticultural story have to do with censoring history? I would suggest that to censor history, as it seems Nephi did, is to care for the past in the way the Sacred Grove was previously looked after. It is to create an easy-to-understand history, with clean lines and virtuous heroes and malevolent villains. And at a surface level, in the short-term, that approach can work. We can still learn lessons by walking through the tidy, park-like versions of history. But ultimately, I think heroes from the past that have been hollowed out and filled with cement are of limited use. To the case in point, the sanitised Jewish history that Nephi told was insufficient to prepare the Nephites to receive and understand the poetic and nuanced revelations of Isaiah.
In order to deal with this fallen and flawed world of many complexities, and ultimately to know the God who created it, I think we must be able to handle the more rounded and fleshed out versions of history, especially our own Church history. To walk through forested history is more challenging. We might stumble on the decaying matter from the lives of leaders we thought were practically perfect. A fuller forest may seem at times to crowd out the light. But I think those elements from history that look like they mess things up, that appear as death or decay and may at first seem to have that effect on faith, can ultimately lead to newness and growth and regeneration.
I have touched on this previously with regards to how we see Joseph Smith. In that post I suggested that in His parable of the mustard seed, Jesus seemed to be teaching that the kingdom of God would not look like we expect it to. To extend that idea here, I would suggest that if we are expecting Church history to be a stroll in the park, or that the Sacred Grove and the prophet who walked out of it should look neat and tidy, I think at some point we are going to be upset.
I’m running out of space, but in closing I’d just like to reference an article that may explain the impulse to create a pristine Sacred Grove, and by extension a sanitised Church history. Thirty years ago, John Durham Peters wrote an essay entitled ‘Perfection: A Social Criticism and a Theological Alternative’.2 In it, Peters suggests that the age of mass production has brought about a fundamental change in our collective understanding of what perfection means. He says that mass production has led to perfection being defined not in terms of excellence, but rather in the absence of flaw. He states:
A “perfect” product was one whose imperfections did not exceed a predetermined level. Ironically, “quality control” came to mean the control of mistakes. Flawlessness overtook and absorbed any remaining sense of completeness that “perfection” had; the word came to be defined in terms of deficiencies rather than qualities.2
Peters goes on to state:
When one diligently shuns all that is bad in a perfectionist quest for flawlessness, one can no longer cope with the full, flawed world as a whole. [The crippling approach that follows from this quest] removes imperfections not from the world but from our experience thereof. Ignorance, not violence, is its weapon. It occasionally takes such forms as book-burnings or tirades against “humanism,” but its preferred mode of operation is blithe middleclass ignorance. The quest for flawlessness can thus culminate in a spiritual provincialism, when the quest for purity of behaviour turns into a quest for purity of experience.2
In conclusion, I think there is a tendency to assume that because Nephi was a prophet, his approach to how he taught his people Jewish history must have been right. But ultimately, censored history meant his people couldn’t understand the prophetic word. Similarly, if we can only endure the sanitised versions of our own history in which unspoiled prophets speak the flawless word of God in order to build a crystalline kingdom, I worry that we’ll break in pieces when we discover that like us, our prophets have feet of clay (or perhaps cement). If, instead, we allow the downed, decaying organic matter from our history to teach us, I think we may be better prepared to wrestle with the (at times) troubling word of God and to relate to Him who descended below all things.
Next week’s reading: We’re still in 2 Nephi 25