Posted by: Ascentury | Monday, 7 July 2008

Miles to go before we sleep…

To finish my undergraduate degree, I took an art appreciation class in which we had to submit a final project embodying some conceptual message.  The following is what I prepared.

I chose to create a conceptual work, in which what is absent is more important than what is present. This is rooted in my thoughts as I listened to the Sunday School lesson on Jacob 1-4 a few weeks ago, in which I could agree with almost nothing said about Jacob 2. The implications of the doctrine taught there were either ignored or misconstrued—but more on that in a moment.

The Book of Mormon contains many unique doctrines, but unfortunately there is often a large gap between our professed belief and our practice. This has been continually pointed out by the Brethren and the scholars in the Church, and we’ve made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. One of the most complex and far-reaching doctrines of the gospel is the law of consecration, and there is no clear consensus on what exactly it entails (although it is named in the covenants several times). I wish to address the sad difference between the Latter-day Saint profession to care for the poor and downtrodden (which is often met) and the direct implications of the gospel to eschew wealth entirely.

Mormon culture in Utah seems to be heavily rooted in the Calvinist doctrines of the pioneers’ forebears, and it shows nowhere as clearly as in the Utah attitude towards wealth. Jacob admonishes, “…before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God” (Jacob 2:18). The logic runs thus: (1) before we seek for riches, we need to seek for the kingdom of God; (2) many members of the Church are seeking for riches; (3) therefore, those members have already found the kingdom of God.

We have often replaced the gospel doctrine of charity with institutionalized service or occasional donations—a direct result of its redefinition. While these are necessary, they do not replace modest living and compassion. We use the business notion of “creating wealth” as an excuse to hoard it, as if the fact that since we were involved in its generation entitled us somehow to the lion’s share. Most of the Sunday School class on this chapter was spent by the participants trying to clarify how what Jacob was talking about didn’t apply to their own ambitions—surely the Lord wants us to be disgustingly rich!

The most popular reading at BYU includes Ayn Rand, whose books such as The Fountainhead and Anthem extol the virtues of selfishness and self-centeredness. It is a doctrine often used to justify political attitudes, but it is frankly anti-Christian and opposed to much of what Christ teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. When this philosophy is mingled with the doctrines of Deseret, we end up with such surprising paradoxes as Zion’s Bank, whose express purpose for existence is not to care for the poor of Zion but to accumulate further wealth for the already rich stockholders.

The only prophet in all of history who we might characterize as wealthy was Brigham Young, who had dozens of wives and children to care for! The gospel is a gospel of renunciation, not of acquisition, whatever the Marriott School may say. We justify capitalism with the solemn proclamation that anything else leads to an end of human freedom; by their fruits ye may know them.

Well, enough for the ideas behind the work—I obviously feel quite strongly about this. I also do not wish to slight the considerable amount of charitable contributions and work done by members of the Church; I merely wish to dispel rationalizations (including, especially, my own).  Much lies ahead of and around us.

The work itself consists of a Book of Mormon opened to Jacob 2:8-33. Large portions of Jacob’s discourse have been cut out, representing the parts of The Book of Mormon which make us uncomfortable—the difficult doctrines of caring for the poor and avoiding excess. For instance, the injunctions to “be free with your substance” (Jacob 2:17) and to “seek them for the intent of doing good” (Jacob 2:19), the latter of which is not condoned but merely tolerated by the prophet. Admittedly, the work loses some of its impact for those who do not remember these passages well enough on their own, but it invites a deeper consideration of the harder things of the gospel rather than a glib reading and a superficial rationalization.

The following figures show the altered text. May we consider carefully these and all passages in The Book of Mormon and take them to heart—they are solemn warnings to our day of plenty, and to no other.

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