The thing about arguing religion is that sooner or later it comes down to my lunacy is better than your lunacy. If you can’t intellectually concede this simple truth, then you’re not just religious, you’re dangerously fanatical. Religion is based upon faith. If it were based on demonstrable fact, it would be science, or history. But then again, those are also based mostly on faith these days.
Mormonism didn’t crawl out of a grove of trees from the misty the blue in upstate New York spontaneously on its own. Joseph Smith was the product of American frontier Christianity. American Christianity has its own unique flavor, a distinctly woodsier, smokier tang that cuts the faith down to a couple of essential boasts and then beats you over the head with them. In 1820 or so Joseph Smith’s head was indeed being slapped around by American Christian proponents from within and without his family. First from his parents, and then his girlfriend, fiancé, and finally wife, Emma Hale/Smith and her family.
When Joseph Smith was 12 or so, encouraged by his parents to investigate Christianity and come to Jesus in his own way, he went into the woods to pray about it. As they say, the rest is history. But you can’t understand that history unless you literally know where Joseph Smith was coming from.
Christianity is not one history, it is many histories. There is no Catholic and Universal Church and never was. It was never all that cut, dried, clear and easy to see. Even Jesus of Nazareth, whom many of us consider to be their Savior and Messiah, responded to the criticism of his disciples by telling them to leave alone the several other itinerant preachers that were springing up in the wake of His mission: “He That Is Not against Us Is for Us …” He advised.
The most obviously false myth in American Christianity, if not Christianity in general, is that there is one, most-correct, undisputed Holy Bible written and preserved by the Hand of God and translated perfectly into our modern language. There never has been anything of the kind. Never. And this isn’t even disputable in an educated, historical sense within the Church itself. There is no Divine Providence that purely preserved just the exact scriptures in just the right order. That’s not a fact. That’s not provable. That’s a very convoluted issue of faith. There are no factually provable faithful survivors from the original saints who passed their wisdom down unbroken to one particular sect in God Bless America who now have an inerrant, infallible, literal instruction book from God and an exclusive lock on Light, Truth, Knowledge.
The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, if not invented in the wild frontiers of a young United States, was certainly set up as a brick-and-mortar Christian institution there. But it is a fairly recent notion. It is also a notion set in concrete only after American frontier preachers ended up with the American version of the King James English “Authorized” Bible through two-thousand years of translating, interpreting, scrounging, adding, subtracting, approving and disapproving of its final contents by scores of so-called “authorities” and “scholars” in as many countries and Christian sects and denominations as there ever were on the planet. Oddly enough, while condemning these selfsame ancient Church fathers and scholars and Biblical researchers as completely errant, and describing their primary religious tradition, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, as the Whore of Babylon, at the same time they worship the final product of their study and labor, as completely inerrant and the pure, literal, untarnished Word of God.
The Puritans who founded the United States indeed were kicked out of England for being far too annoying and fixated on their “purified” interpretations of the Bible. And they didn’t really flee to America for religious freedom, except for their own freedom that is, to enforce their own Biblical codes upon everyone within their jurisdiction. America’s Christian founding fathers shunned out slackers and backsliders and fornicators or adulterers or users of profane language into the wilderness to die. They put people in stocks in public squares to be mocked and spit upon for missing church services. They hung witches too by the way. Several of them. It was very popular at one time in early Christian America to stage their own little inquisitions and Church-State show trials, ironically, just like the ones they fled in Europe. Only now they got to run them.
One of the latest revised American notions in Christian political activist circles is the reinvention or reassertion that America is by Constitutional mandate an exclusively Christian nation. Close to this bold assertion is the contention that our laws and Constitution are based upon a mythical “Judeo-Christian heritage” combining the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. But, as Dr. A.H. Barton, of the “Christian Jew Hour,” a national radio program once said: “If all you’ve got is the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments, you’ve got nothing.”
Even then, if we pretend America is and always was a Christian nation, what does a “Christian nation” mean in the minds and hearts of those making the claim? The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are not the central doctrines or documents of Christianity and never have been. That’s just a theocratic selling point. The Decalogue and the Beatitudes ( Be-Happy Attitudes ) remain almost entirely superfluous to Christian salvation. What Christianity is about, and has been about in America and around the world since the original saints were slaughtered or died out, is a collection of other beliefs entirely that take precedent over those simple concepts. In fact, the American evangelical movement–starting in Joseph Smith’s time–continues to try its best to clarify just what American Christian orthodoxy is supposed to be with only partial success. It certainly isn’t going to have anything to do with Old World Catholic/Protestant authority issues. Those are both out the window. It’s down to the Bible and a call from God. Or a Doctorate of Divinity from an accredited institution of higher learning. Preferably both.
But what does God really have to say to us here in America? Is the American Christian hung up on proving he’s in the line of authority to speak for God or interpret the Bible? Not really. That’s an Old World battle for the professional clergy to slog through.
American Christianity has evolved so far away from even caring about proving unique claims to priesthood authority or even insights into the purest Biblical injunction, that there is a movement now calling themselves “Red Letter Christians” who consider only the words of Christ Himself, highlighted in red letters in some Bible editions, to be absolutely reliable doctrine.
Unfortunately, Jesus never wrote a word of the Bible. Neither did any of the apostles or disciples or prophets supposedly narrating it. There isn’t a single existing “original autograph” as they call them in the business—an original letter of any sort signed even allegedly by Paul or Mark or Mathew or any of them. The first retellings of these “Gospels” and other stories started appearing lifetimes after the death of these alleged authors. The Old Testament was thousands or tens of thousands of years beyond its original alleged events before it began appearing in written form by anonymous penman or authors or journalists or whoever they may have been. We don’t know who wrote the Bible or when they wrote it and nobody ever did, including the Church Fathers who voted to canonize the stuff anyway because they decided it supported doctrines they already believed in so they had no problem crediting it to a prophet or apostle or even Jesus Christ. It’s material they figured sounded pretty reliable whoever wrote it.
In short, some three hundred and more years after the death of Jesus and his followers, there were a number of big committees the surviving saints put together and everyone just voted on what they thought sounded most likely out of all the hundreds and hundreds of stories and scraps and scribblings and tablets and scrolls that had been anonymously passing around the Church. The most popular or widely accepted were bound together into a single collection which we now call the “Bible,” which is really short for the “Holy Bible” which really only means “Holy Book.” The Book. It only means A book but it has come to mean The Book. Originally, there was a center section of this great volume called the “Apocrypha” which means, not “unreliable,” but for “further study or enlightenment.” Today we think of apocryphal as meaning, unreliable or rumor-like, but what it literally means is that the Church Fathers thought it to be very very important, something very vital to the history and doctrine of the Church, but not entirely clear or perhaps open to interpretation or discussion.
The important thing abut the Bible in America, is that most of the people who burned out Mormons and killed Joseph Smith had parsed Christianity out to an inerrant Bible being the absolute authority of God on earth. There was no further revelation, no further enlightenment. There was no tradition of a clergy or one true Church and priesthood that remained untainted through the generations: it came down to whatever the King James Bible said and whoever could argue it best from a local pulpit or off the top of a tree stump in a public square if it came to that. American Christianity in essence, skips the millennia and a half or so that led up to adopting, translating, and editing the King James Bible.
But the truth is, at the completion of Our Lord’s earthly ministry there was essentially no written or formally adopted creeds, codes, or documents explaining exactly how Jesus Himself would have proceeded. Or at least, certainly, there are no surviving evidences that this was true. The first serious attempts to reconstruct something like an operations manual began at the death of the original apostles and disciples some seventy years after Christ and later. By the third century after Jesus’ death, Christianity had started an open war upon itself within at least two worldwide clergies, both using and interpreting historical writings designed to forcibly pretend there was never any doubt what Jesus would have done or taught about anything. It was only then that our so-called “Bible” began to be scrapped and cobbled together to back-engineer proof of doctrines and priestly authoritative claims already being made for some three centuries.
Joseph Smith wrote in his now famous Wentworth Letter: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly” but even he missed the real point. Even Joseph Smith never understood, never questioned the notion that what he had been told was the Holy Bible, the Word of God, was really just a collection of very loosely documented stories already filtered and screened and inserted or deleted by a millennia and a half’s worth of human willfulness. It isn’t a matter of translation. It’s a question of what got decided to be canon in the first place, and who it was who decided it should be included. And beyond that, it’s an even bigger question of what was not decided to be canon, or even available to be considered for canonization.
Jesus did not sit down and write out the Holy Bible as a personal guidebook to His will for all mankind. Jesus Christ did not sit down and write out anything. None of His apostles or prophets did either. The only claim to any such manual even made by the Bible itself is the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and again, we only have the word of a lot of anonymous, generations-late human relays trying to remember what was said and who said it.
And even given the ruling Christian belief that as raggedy a process as assembling and preserving it has been, the Holy Bible still constitutes “All We Got, “ or “The Best We Can Figure” by the magical grace of some guiding hand of Divine Providence, it’s patently obvious that it just hasn’t been clear enough to prevent the Body of Christ from cutting itself off bit by bit and all the little parts running off to bleed and complain about the amputation process by themselves over the ages.
It is inconceivable to most Christians that Jesus Christ never scribbled out a single note saying, “My name is Jesus, I’m your savior, here’s what I want you folks to do after I die for your sins…” That fact remains that Jesus apparently made no such effort to record or even dictate a specific, orderly set of instructions, rules, and organizational principles. None of them did. Not Jesus. Not Mathew, Mark, Luke, or John. Not Peter. Even the Words of Christ we have from the Gospels were remembered and recorded much later, and probably a hundred and more years later by people who may have copied notes before them or just winged it together from memories of people who were remembering retold memories of other people.
American Christianity in particular insists that the Holy The Bible is a how-to manual. Historically, this is clearly not the case. It is at best a study resource. This was its original intent, and the clergies who put it together insisted that one of their big jobs was to help the layman interpret it and put its stories and teachings into the full historical and cultural context—in short, the Bible was always intended to be dependent upon external supplements to help analyze it. Even Joseph Smith was saying the same thing—only in his case he was saying it needed a modern prophet or two to speak authoritatively on its content rather than relying on a Church tradition or priesthood history. But those who formed the emerging orthodoxy of American Christianity in Joseph Smith’s day believed if you studied the Bible exclusively and dug out strictly its internally evidenced concepts and values, that alone was the real secret to getting to God’s True Will for mankind, and the only valid authority to speak for God on earth.
Oddly enough, even accepting the sole authority of strictly internal Biblical evidences as the most valid approach to understanding what Christianity should be about—just for the sake of argument–nobody can still agree on what it has to say about anything. Christians no sooner got over killing each other over claims to priesthood authority, than they started killing each other simply because the Bible told them to.