Tuesday, March 25, 2008

China connections

I clipped a column from the paper today about historic trade relations between China and the U.S. One paragraph grabbed my attention, as it bears most interestingly upon the history of the LDS Church.

"U.S.-China trade began in 1784, when the ship Empress of China set sail from New York, bound for Canton -- now Guangzhou -- with a cargo of fur and ginseng, prized in Asia for its healing properties.

"It turned a handsome profit," said [Craig] Canning, historian at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "And right away, other Americans went out to seek their fortune."

One of those Americans, was Joseph Smith Sr., father and namesake of the future Mormon prophet.

Writes Richard Bushman, in "Rough Stone Rolling," a biography of the prophet, p. 18:

"It was a fateful turning point in the Smith family fortunes."

The man entrusted by Smith to transport his ginseng, one Stevens, turned out to be a rascal who fled to Canada with all the profits. The Smiths, who had been getting by relatively well until this time, were unable to pay their debts and were reduced to destitution. They were forced to move several times during the next few years, finally settling in Palmyra.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Theosis

My dear wife and I visited the local Christian bookstore yesterday, hoping to find an Easter tie for her father.

Ah, you know what's coming!

On the way out, I glanced briefly at a book about defending one's faith. I don't remember the title or the author. But of course it had the obligatory chapter about "the Mormons."

I really am not quite sure why the rest of the Christian world so vehemently recoils from the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis: becoming like God. That it is taught in the LDS church is considered by many to be one of our greatest sins, right up there with believing that God can still write scripture.

The last time I read the Bible through, it was full of statements such as the command for us to become perfect; the promise that we would be heirs of the Father and joint-heirs of Christ; that we are the offspring of the Father, and that ultimately we would become like Christ, who is, let us note, fully God.

The author of the aforementioned book said that many Mormons he met did not understand/defend/present consistent statements when asked about said doctrine.

Is that not to be expected? Could every "traditional" Christian one meets, possibly be expected to understand/defend/present consistent statements on any given permutation of "traditional" Christian doctrine, such as, say, the definition of the Trinity?

It was not one of the finest moments of the late Gordon B. Hinckley, our recently passed-away prophet, when he said, "I don't know that we teach that [that as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become]. That was during an interview several years ago with Larry King. But I understand why he didn't want to become embroiled in theological technicalities that the show's format would not have allowed him to properly explain.

We do not need to back away from or be ashamed of this doctrine. We are the children, the very offspring of God, heirs to all that He has. We certainly won't ever dethrone Him. An earthly father does not cease to be a father when his son becomes a man and begets a child.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Re the Facsimiles

When I attended college a few decades ago, I discovered a wonderful literary invention called an anthology. Inside two covers, selections from the works of dozens of authors could be sandwiched. You might start with the Epic of Gilgamesh at one end and wrap up with the writings of Maya Angelou at the other.

So it is not hard for me to understand, although critics of the Church apparently cannot grasp the idea, how the remaining fragments of a certain papyrus roll once possessed in fullness by the Prophet Joseph Smith could contain a text different from that which he translated as the Book of Abraham.

Last night, I learned a new Hebrew word. I am working my way slowly through the text of Genesis and “firmament” was my subject for the evening.

Transliterates to “rawkeya.” Something about that word struck me as familiar so I pondered for a while, then it hit me. I opened up those curiosities of the Pearl of Great Price, the facsimiles.

Sure enough, Facsimile 3 had it. It is the scene of a person on a “couch,” with another person beside him, a winged being above him, and symbols inscribed beneath. On that, all can agree.

The Prophet declared that the person lying down was Abraham, about to be sacrificed on an altar by the person standing up. The winged being was the angel of the Lord. Beneath him, the crocodile represented the god of Pharoah, and the four jars represented the nations surrounding Egypt, Canaan, Libya, Cush and Anatolia. A series of small rectangles represented the pillars of heaven, above which was, of course, rawkeya, heaven, or the cosmic expanse, the firmament, in which the crocodile god of Pharoah was wont to swim. (The Prophet wrote the firmament word as “rawkeyang,” for some reason.)

Traditional Egyptologists declare that the person on the altar was Osiris. But Osiris and Abraham both were messianic figures and one could quite comfortably stand in for the other in the bounds of Egyptian religious ritual. Standing in for a god was a basic part of those rituals.

The winged being, they state, was Horus, the hawk god who protected Osiris. The Prophet does no violence to the text to call him the angel or messenger of God.

It annoys me when people who know nothing at all about Egyptology simply shrug off the Prophet’s work in this field because the name Abraham doesn’t appear in big Hebrew block letters on top of these facsimiles or in a fragment of the papyrus that once accompanied them. It would be different if we still had the whole papyrus that Joseph Smith once owned. It would be different if the ancient Egyptian language lent itself more easily to translation. And it would be different if his translations weren’t quite so plausible.