By now you’ve probably all read, or tried to read, last week’s incoherent grumblings of Harold Bloom, a man well past his intellectual prime. If it isn’t yet time for a granddaughter to take away his keyboard and find him a lawn chair in some safe resort with sunshine and early dinner service, it is at least time for institutions like Yale and the New York Times to stop providing him a platform to disgrace himself, and them. If Bloom has an intellectual counterpart in Mormon history, it may be William W. Phelps, whose magnificent ability to turn a colorful phrase remained intact throughout his life, masking his slide from noteworthy early achievement into undeniable incompetence, irrelevance, and “scurrility, mistaken for wit.” (I apologize for the comparison, W.W. – your best words will live on long after Bloom has been deservedly forgotten.)
Ahhh … that felt good. I don’t know how much of that I really meant (I’m disgusted with Bloom and the Times, not upset by them), and good taste (if I had any) would probably dictate that I delete those opening paragraphs – but I prefer to think of them as honoring Bloom’s exercise of the Golden Rule: Surely he was asking us to do unto him as he did unto us, no?
Without tackling a rebuttal of this recent bit-o’-nonsense, I’m still attracted to isolated phrases in Bloom’s essay –
… the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is … Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor … “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy … little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith … betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage … the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect … Latter-day Saints no longer openly describe their innermost beliefs … so much of [Joseph Smith’s] legacy, including plural marriage, had to be compromised …
I can’t be certain what Bloom meant by any of those phrases, or whether they mean anything more than that Bloom’s dinner disagreed with his aging constitution – gassy emanations from either source defy rational and prolonged study. But if there is meaning there, it seems to run along this line:
Mormonism in 2011 is different from Mormonism in 1991, or 1844, or 1830, or whatever moment in time Bloom fantasizes as the “real” Mormon moment.
Wow. Really? Who could have anticipated that startling news?
When a people’s religion and faith have as the foundational premise that God continues to speak to prophets, revealing new truth and inspiring guidance for changing times, evolution is inevitable. The surest sign of the death of such a faith would be a static, stubborn refusal to receive new direction. While Bloom – or more properly, someone who believes in contining revelation – might legitimately debate whether any specific change is the will of God, the expectation of change within such a faith is undebatable: it lies at the heart of the faith. Mormonism2011 wouldn’t be any kind of Mormonism if it were a fossilized Mormonism1830.
What too many observers don’t understand is that they are looking on the outward forms only, generally missing the point of those forms. A man like Bloom looks at polygamy, and gathering, and missionaries traveling without purse or scrip, and the communal life of the United Order, and building the Kingdom — or whatever his particular bugbears are — and sees only abandonment, betrayal of the vision of Joseph Smith, a “dwindling … into just one more Protestant sect.” What we see, though – what you respond to when you read a post on Keepa – is the reason Latter-day Saints of the past lived as they did. That internal motivation carries on in our lives in real ways, even as the outward forms of marriage and missionary work and interactions with our fellow Saints develops under the guidance of leaders we sustain as being as inspired as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and John Taylor, or whoever was leading the Church at whatever date an observer considers to be that vanished perfect past.
Keepa’ninnies – and Mormon readers of Mormon history in other packages – have no trouble in recognizing a common commitment with the Saints of the past, living the commandments, building eternal families, sharing the gospel, caring for our fellow Saints and others – even while the visible manifestations of those commitments change. It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, which attracts our eyes and ears and imaginations; the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls. The appearances by which Bloom sets so much store are novelties; the internal qualities which he does not comprehend are what animated the 19th century Saints, and what animate us today.
We change and adapt and grow because we are a living Church, a living people. Our covenant is “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart.” We are “ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Corinthians 3:3, 6) We recognize that, even when observers do not.
I would prefer that comments focus on Mormon history, why you read it, how you respond to it, and related ideas, rather than correcting Bloom’s misstatements of Mormon doctrine or character or motivations, or debating politics. If there is something about Bloom’s essay that you just have to get off your chest, though, be my guest.