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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Guest Post: I Challenge You To Read The Book of Mormon by Christmas!

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godasman served a mission for the Church in the Philippines and now has three beautiful children. Having taken seriously the injunction to study from the best books, he secretly carries with him to church a copy of Moby-Dick alongside his quad. For a long time he has considered himself a Mormon not in the traditional vein, though he has heretofore maintained a respectful silence about his less-than-orthodox views. Ever the self-justifier and amateur Church Historian, he has a ready defense for all of his oddities of opinion. You can check out his blog here.

The name of my Stake President has been changed.

At the conclusion of his remarks at Stake Conference this last September, President Clark dropped the bomb on us.

“I invite everyone within the sound of my voice to read the entire Book of Mormon, cover to cover, by Christmas. I promise that if you do, you and your family will be blessed. I make this invitation and offer this promise under the direction of the revelation and inspiration I receive as your Stake President.”

There once was a time when I took things like this seriously, eagerly accepting whatever new gauntlet my leaders threw at me; followed by a time when I rolled my eyes and only say the negative; now, at the third stage I guess, I smile and whisper to myself a rebellious yet reverential, “No, thank you.” I fancy that I understand the useful purposes of such challenges, though I respectfully (and silently) decline from participating. I knew in my heart that I was already fervently studying the scriptures, and I took it that those who felt deficient in their meditation on the word of God would take up this assignment with relish. (Though, it should be noted that I define “scripture” much more broadly than most Mormons. Lao Tzu, anyone?) The following is something like the thoughts I had at the moment he gave the challenge.

Three Reasons Why Stake Presidents Make Reading Challenges to Members, According to godasman:

1. To Lengthen Our Stride. It is a cruel yet infallible moral calculus which declares: “Whatever good you’re doing, you could always be doing more.” It is to the beat of this drum that we Mormons are able to move mountains of good works. We are fundamentally anxious when we contemplate our standing before God. We want to be obedient, but the above proposition throws us into deep and inescapable uncertainty.

There are two unfortunate symptoms of this spiritual illness we Mormons collectively suffer from. Firstly, we seek for small areas of our lives in which we are able to achieve perfection, in order to take our minds off of the many large areas in which we know we fall short. “I’m perfect in my home teaching! Yes! I am perfect in tithing! Yes! And now my Stake President wants me to read the Book of Mormon by Christmas. I can fulfill that assignment perfectly! Yes!”

Secondly, we are, for the most part, unwilling or unable to enter the Sabbath Rest of the Lord. Leisure, meditation, and peaceful contemplation of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful we Mormons tend to avoid, suspicious of its “easiness” and seeming purposelessness. As Elder Oaks correctly taught, righteousness is a state of being, not a sum total of good deeds. But deeds are much easier to measure than existence. So we bet the farm on what we can show on a chart. It is no wonder, incidentally, that Mormons misconstrue something as divine as temple worship as “work.” We are the modern incarnation of Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic.

2. Leaders Feel They Have to Be Leading Their Flock Somewhere. It is not enough simply to administer the programs of the church; they want to leave their mark. President Benson was the Book of Mormon Prophet. President Kimball was the Prophet to the Lamanites. President Hinckley brought Temples to the world. And my Stake President wants his flock to read the Book of Mormon by Christmas. For the next four months we will all hear how inspired this challenge was in Testimony Meetings, how lives are changing and miracles are happening, because we are all reading the Book of Mormon, as he has asked. This will in turn lead to the general reflection that we are led by a man of God. I don’t consider this a bad thing, by the way. Validation from others is the most convincing means by which we understand we are doing a good job. And nobody’s exempt from this. I am interested in building my legacy just as much as the next man, though by different means. So my guess is that such a motivation is probably part of the equation.

3. We Mormons Do Not Typically Read the Scriptures With Depth. We read, instead, like a vacuum cleaner, making an activity of pleasure into an activity of effort. We know we ought to be reading them, we just need a spur in our side, which was exactly what my Stake President was providing.

So there I sat, happily free of any obligation to take part in the Book of Mormon marathon. But then, to my surprise, my wife turned to me and whispered, “I think we should read the Book of Mormon as a family.”

“But he just said that’s over four pages a day, if we don’t miss any days!”

“I know. But I think it would be good for the kids.”

Not one to impede the spiritual progress of my children, however ill this assignment fit their needs, I relented. Do I need to rehearse the nightly ritual to you, or are you already too familiar with it? I read a page, then my wife did. Our children colored princesses and ninja turtles on the floor, not comprehending anything. Occasionally our oldest would raise her hand.

“What’s going on?”

“Since when? At what part did you become confused?”

“Since all of it.”

My wife and I would exchange tired looks; it was already half an hour past the children’s bed time, and we still had five more pages to go. (We had irresponsibly taken the weekend off from scripture reading, having visited my parents, so we were far behind the schedule the stake had printed out for everyone on thousands of little bookmarks.) In the beginning, my sweet wife would try to explain the story to our kids, so that they’d be getting at least something out of it. I mean, that was President Clark’s promise, that our children would be blessed, but how can they be blessed by hours of coloring and parental neglect? After a month, we just encouraged our children to not ask questions and to continue coloring so we could get through it by a reasonable hour.

It wore on my wife much earlier than it did on me. Yes, I thought the assignment was ludicrous. And the difficulty and stress I saw it was causing my family threw me into an unusually cynical mood. In fact, I was perversely enjoying myself. As we read, I imagined possible entries for this blog, such as: “Why Nephi was a Total Jerk, And How He Unsuccessfully Hid It,” or “Plain and Precious Truths: How Mormonism Creates the Unfortunate Expectation That The Bible Ought to Be Easy to Understand.”

Finally, one night after we had both lost patience with our children for interrupting the reading again by trying to engage in relationship-building conversation, my wife sent them to bed and threw her copy of the Book of Mormon onto the table.

“I hate this,” she said.

“Why? I’m kind of having fun.”

She started crying. “I just want to obey our Stake President, but it’s just too hard. We don’t have enough time, and it doesn’t fit the needs of our family.”

“Then let’s stop.”

“Should we do that? Remember the promise he gave us?”

“When President Clark extended this challenge to read the Book of Mormon, I don’t think this is what he expected would happen. I think it’s great that it’s working out for other people to read at this mad pace. It’s just not for us.”

We decided that, instead of reading four pages a night, we would teach our children how to share a spiritual thought from the scriptures, and every night they’d take a turn.

So, though we are adhering only to the spirit of our Stake President’s challenge, and not the letter, miracles are happening in our home. And now, lo and behold! I am happy to report that I believe our Stake President was indeed called of God and he was genuinely inspired to issue this challenge.

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