The oldest known work of German literature is called Heliand, meaning “Savior.” It’s a retelling of the Gospels as medieval German war poetry.
As you might guess, the author had to make a few changes. So the “shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” turn into warriors guarding the war horses. The disciples become Christ’s soldiers; the apostles are captains: “earls,” “thanes.” In the Gospels, when an army came to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, a disciple “smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear”—and that’s all the synoptic Gospels have to say about it; Luke covers the whole thing in seventeen words. Heliand goes on for seventeen whole lines:
Then plenteously wroth grew he,
The swift swordsman | Simon Peter.
It welled up with his heart
. . . .
Bloated with anger, the bold-minded
Thane strode ahead | stood before his liege,
Hard by his Lord | nor was his heart e’er in doubt
Fearful in his breast | but he drew his bill,
The sword at his side | and with the strength of his arm
He struck the first of the foe
. . . .
So that, sword-gory | cheek and ear in mortal wound
burst asunder | and blood did spring forth,
welling up from the wound (Mariana Scott translation).
Really, you’ve got to read it out loud to get the flavor—or chant it, like you’re preaching to a half-Christian chieftain raised on heroic sagas and you want to hook him with the good parts.
Heliand is a masterwork, and even a brief perusal like mine turns up beautiful and moving passages. It also turns up flaws, from the predictable anti-Semitism to, perhaps, a slight lack of emphasis on “Blessed are the meek.”
I believe All Things New, by Fiona and Terryl Givens, is something like Heliand: an incomplete and imperfect expression of the Gospel in the inevitably misleading terms and concepts of a particular culture. That’s not an insult. If I think All Things New breathes too much the spirit of our age—preaches too much the truths our culture likes to hear and not the ones it needs—then I don’t imagine my writing is immune to the same sort of criticism. Even Joseph Smith despaired of his ability to express Gospel truth, complaining that his “crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language” felt like a “prison, almost as it were total darkness.” The apparent paradoxes in scripture are not meant to make us choose sides…or puzzles we can solve once.
The apparent paradoxes in scripture are not meant to make us choose sides…or puzzles we can solve once.
In other words: the natural mind is an enemy to God.
In All Things New, the Givenses argue that Latter-day Saints should be more willing to question scripture. They acknowledge questioning can be dangerous: “We run the risk of presentism, personal subjectivity, and finite perspective when we dismiss out-of-hand biblical depictions we find uncomfortable.” “Our canonical scriptures bear the imprint of God’s inspiration, and we should treat them with reverence.”
And yet the Givenses reject the idea that …
everything [in the scriptures] is a true and accurate account of God’s nature and dealings, including God’s murder of the “lads” who mocked Elisha, God’s massacre of the Egyptian children, and His explicit directive to stone to death the Sabbath stick-gatherer. Can we actually reconcile Jehovah’s genocide of the Canaanites—and his smiting of thousands because David took a census—with that same Jehovah’s compassion for the sparrow? Are we also content to accept God’s killing of Uzza, who tried to protect the sacred ark from tumbling and was killed for his efforts?
The Givenses recommend that we should “matur[e] into the recognition that scriptures, like prophets, are fallible” and that we should leave behind such “golden calves” as scriptural inerrancy.
If we’re to start questioning scripture in this fashion, then how should we separate the true, inspired scriptures from the “corruption” that has apparently crept even into the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations? According to the Givenses, “We do have at least one revealed litmus test for truth; it comes from the greatest of Joseph Smith’s revelations, Moses 7. There we encounter the Weeping God of Enoch. …” Any scripture that contradicts Moses 7’s compassionate image of God, they argue—in particular, any scripture that teaches of God’s wrath—cannot be true.
Here I should pause for a moment of praise. The Givenses call Latter-day Saints to work, to approach the scriptures earnestly, ready to suffer “the pain and stress of mental effort.” “Thy mind, o Man!” they exclaim, quoting Joseph Smith, “if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity.” (The Joseph Smith quote continues: “thou must commune with God.”) On this point, I wholeheartedly share the Givenses’ desire.
But if that is our desire, are we likely to achieve it by dwelling on the scriptures’ fallibility? I think we are not, for reasons All Things New itself demonstrates.
Consider the Givenses’ treatment of Judges 11 and the story of Jephthah, who vowed that if the Lord gave him victory in battle he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house when he got home. It turned out to be his daughter. He balked, horrified, but his daughter, his only child, insisted that he keep his oath.
Here’s what All Things New says about it:
[O]ne can read in the story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter for victory in war … a “version of God who can and must be bargained with; a God who considers unquestioned obedience to be the highest good—not just the means to goodness but goodness itself; a God who causes suffering in the innocent and also authorizes theology that fosters it” (quoting Francine Bennion).
The Givenses use Jephthah’s story as evidence that some scriptures are false—and then they discard it. The same is true of every passage they suggest is uninspired: the story of Passover, David’s census, Uzza steadying the ark. All Things New never inquires more about what a careful disciple might learn from any of them.
And why should it, if those scriptures are just corruptions?
In my view, the real “pain and stress of mental effort” comes if we assume with 2 Timothy that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God.” (Which is not the same thing as assuming all scripture is a factually correct literal history—some isn’t, and some was never meant to be.)
Offended by the idea that God would demand human sacrifice, we’d look closer at Judges 11 and realize that throughout the chapter God is silent. He gives no commandments and expresses no opinion about Jephthah’s vow. We are not told how He reacts when the vow is fulfilled.
This might lead us to wonder whether the daughter’s disastrous appearance at the door, far from depicting “a version of God who can and must be bargained with,” is actually God’s rebuke to Jephthah’s presumption and lack of faith—a lack of faith that we might, if we’re humble, find uncomfortably familiar. We might be further humbled, even shamed, by the startling example of Jephthah’s daughter, who refused to make her father a liar even to save her own life. Maybe we think she’s crazy; maybe no sane person would take a promise so seriously. But if that’s how we judge Jephthah’s daughter, then how might she judge us, who make and break promises so casually that we often don’t bother reading the contracts we sign?
Taking another tack, we might notice Judges 11 never actually tells us that Jephthah’s daughter died, and she mourns not her impending death but “her virginity.” From this odd detail, a minority of scholars speculate that Jephthah “sacrificed” his daughter by sending her away for a celibate life of service at the Tabernacle. (I have no idea whether they’re right.)
Do I mean, then, that “we can make all scriptures harmonize” as the Givenses critically put it—in other words, that with enough time and effort, every verse can be made to agree with every other verse and with our own notions of right and wrong so that we’ll be able to read from “In the beginning” to the Thirteenth Article of Faith without once being puzzled, troubled, or offended?
No. Our natural minds aren’t up to the task.
Part of the problem is our inescapably mixed motives. Maybe it’s a kind angel on one shoulder that tells us Uzza didn’t deserve his fate, but on the other shoulder, there’s someone who just likes steadying arks. He whispers, why should only priests get to touch the sacred vessels? Why should God give other people special callings He doesn’t give to us—why, when we could obviously do a better job? If that whisperer persuades me I’m the greatest, I’m going to be offended by the scriptures that don’t agree; if he persuades me to commit a sin, I’m going to be offended by the scriptures that call it sinful. If I start harmonizing I’ll be tempted to retune those dissonances into the chords I want to hear.
The scriptures are a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”—and thank God for it.
But even if our motives were pure, our natural minds are still too small. Think how huge, how complicated, how unfinished is the work of understanding humanity. Consider the academic disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, economics, political science, philosophy, literature, and so on—hundreds of thousands of highly trained, intelligent people working full-time to make sense of God’s strange children, uncovering countless valuable truths but still endlessly disputing each other’s teachings, passing their disagreements down the generations like priceless treasures. Think about that, and then remember the nature of God’s children is but one matter that scripture addresses, and the one closest to our grasp. Why should we imagine that God, whose thoughts are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth, is easier to understand than we ourselves are? That He can be summed up in a single, comprehensible, perfectly coherent treatise any more than we ourselves can be?
So scripture isn’t meant to be a single, comprehensible, perfectly coherent treatise. Instead, it gives us the truths on both sides of each seeming paradox and leaves us to ponder how they connect. It teaches over and over that “the natural man is an enemy to God,” as I argued in my first essay. According to scripture, we humans are less than the dust we came from, dogs returning to our vomit and sows returning to the mire; our heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” After seeing “all the children of men which are, and which were created,” Moses wasn’t impressed: “I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”
And yet, scripture also teaches that we enemies of God are also the image of God, for the moment only a “little lower than the angels”, and destined in the end for greatness we cannot imagine. Man is nothing, and yet the immortality and eternal life of man is the glory of God Himself.
Or as my second essay argues, God is just. He is unimaginably familiar with every one of our sins and looks on none of them with “the least degree of allowance.” He loves His children whom our sins injure: vengeance is His, and He will repay. “Repent,” He commands, “lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.”
And yet in the end not one of us will suffer more for our sins than He did on our behalf, He desires to save us infinitely more than we desire to be saved, whose love is the sun itself next to the flickering candle that mortal love will always be. As long as everyone searches for God’s inspiration in every scripture, even the ones they don’t like or understand…
As long as everyone searches for God’s inspiration in every scripture, even the ones they don’t like or understand…
Think back on those half-Christian warriors who loved Heliand. I might tease and joke, but they’re still children of God and still as important to Him as I am. We without them cannot be made perfect.
And yet, how are we to be made perfect with them, when their ways and beliefs were so incomprehensibly different from ours? Imagine you’re the one who has to teach them the fullness of the Gospel: how will you persuade them that Heliand, beautiful as it is, has misled them in important ways?
It depends on them. If they hear “turn the other cheek” and respond, “the scriptures are fallible”; if they trust their moral intuitions over the Sermon on the Mount; if they take the book of Joshua for their “litmus test” and dismiss Moses 7; then what faith, exactly, do you and they have in common? You’ll have to start from the beginning, and you might end at the beginning, too, when they quickly walk out.
But as long as the warriors accept that there are Gospels behind Heliand, and are superior to it—as long as everyone searches for God’s inspiration in every scripture, even the ones they don’t like or understand—then you can use the Gospels to show them Heliand’s errors. You can say, “Resist not evil” and “Blessed are the peacemakers”; you can teach them God’s kingdom is not of this world.
And the warriors will teach you right back, showing you your own scriptural blind spots, the commandments that you’d rather not believe in, the parts of your life where you’re not better than half Christian yourself. If everyone is humble and persistent enough, even before your disagreements are fully resolved, you and the warriors will come to love each other as Jesus commanded. Those scriptures of paradox, so hard to unite to each other, will help unite you in the body of Christ.
It is in that spirit, I hope, that I have offered these essays in response to All Things New, and in that spirit that I hope you’ll receive them.
Thank you for reading.