Ben Spackman, a scholar of religious and scientific history who's been very influential on my thinking in recent years, wrote a blog post last month on why you should ignore the 1980 (and current) Institute Old Testament manual for teaching Genesis. I have a personal grudge against that manual. I've never been taught from it, but I read from the copy that my parents had laying around, and between the General Authority quotes that it implies to represent an official stance of the Church, and the "scientific" arguments in the Seventh Day Adventist tract that it excerpts at great length, it persuaded me to become an evolution denier for a couple years. Despite not understanding how Adam and Eve could be reconciled with other early hominids, it had never occurred to me that there was any great unbridgable gulf between the Bible and modern science. This manual assured me that there was. And despite this kind of anti-evolution rhetoric disappearing from other church publications and venues, in this instance it hasn't been revised in forty-two years. I've heard rumors here and there that multiple attempts have been made to update the manual but people couldn't agree on what to say or hesitated to throw Joseph Fielding Smith under the bus.
Despite my strong disagreement with everything in this part of the manual, and my distaste for its lack of honesty in not disclosing any of the quotes more favorable or agnostic toward evolution that also exist in church history, I would have assumed that its author was a decent guy of reasonable intelligence. Come to find out from Spackman's post, which discusses research that he'll publish in a paper later this year, that its author was in fact the biggest crackpot church leaders could have found. He has some stiff competition for that title, but I bestow it because he thought women shouldn't vote, long after that debate was settled. So this guy was buddy-buddy with some prominent Apostles, he got to write a section of a church manual that would influence millions of people for decades to come, he got to remain anonymous so nobody could hold him accountable for his personal views - keeping church manual authors anonymous is standard practice, but it didn't used to be, and I don't think it should be anymore either, because it gives the erroneous impression that these manuals are all written by a faceless monolith known as "the Church" - and then Correlation let it through with just one change, and then it was left in place unchanged for four decades and counting. To be blunt, although Ben Spackman is in no way hostile to the Church, I hope his airing of these facts will be embarrassing enough to make it finally update the damn thing.
I shared his post in a group "where people may ask challenging questions with a view of expanding our knowledge and faith." This is a group specifically set aside for intelligent discussions, not faith-promoting memes and quotes, though those have their place elsewhere. So of course some people appreciated the post. But even here, I met with pushback from people who considered Ben Spackman an untrustworthy source, or just didn't like him, or wanted to know why he didn't share his own research and perspective on the quotes and issues raised in the manual even though within the body of the post he linked to dozens of resources doing exactly that, including some of his own blog posts. One apparently senile woman told me "Stop attacking the gospel and start living it!" but then I don't even know what she was referring to, and neither did she, because her comment (a response to my response to someone else) started with the words "What manual?" People will believe what they want to believe, obviously. And the issue here isn't even the validity of evolution as a scientific theory (which, spoiler alert, is enormous and not up for serious debate among people who have actually studied it), but epistemology, scriptural interpretation, and whether a guy who thinks that women shouldn't vote sixty years after they got the right to vote should be given free reign to write whatever he wants in church manuals.
I also shared the post with a friend who left the Church a couple years ago, because we had discussed that section of the manual once. She had mentioned that she shared it with a friend who had questions about evolution, and then I kind of flipped out and explained all the reasons why it was wrong, and then she apologized for getting so heated but she wasn't mad at all. Now she doesn't remember that, but said she was glad she had shared something with her friend that would probably result in him leaving the Church. And then she called me and talked some more about her reasons for no longer believing in the Church. I just listened and didn't try to argue. Some of them, in my judgment, are good and understandable reasons; others not so much. Like "the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon." You can count the significant changes on one hand. Most of them are punctuation. But she already knew that. Did I know, she asked, that the original manuscript didn't even have punctuation, and the punctuation was just put in by some guy who wasn't even affiliated with Joseph Smith? In her mind, this makes it impossible that the Book of Mormon could be "the most correct of any book on earth." I still didn't argue, but I was kind of baffled that she could think Joseph Smith was talking about punctuation when he said in the same sentence that "a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."
It was just so interesting to me to observe this kind of dogmatic and fallacious thinking on both sides, in belief and in unbelief. The kind of thinking that says "If the Church is true, its manuals must be written by the finger of the Lord" (yes, the senile woman asked me "If the Lord wrote with his finger on the wall, would you still doubt?") or "If the Book of Mormon is true, every comma must have been in the right place the first time." I probably still fall into that kind of thinking in some ways that I'm not aware of yet because if I were aware of them, I would change them. These are obvious examples. More subtle ones probably abound.
I also argued with a family member who was upset by my post about "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" a few weeks ago. It was a very Ben Spackman-influenced post, though I make no claim that he would agree with everything I wrote. But one of his big points is that revelation or scripture never just speaks for itself. People think they can just read something as is without interpreting it, but they're always engaging in interpretation, always bringing their own assumptions that the author may or may not share. He also talks in detail about how God's perfect truth vs. people's imperfect opinions is in some ways a false dichotomy, because, again, when a prophet receives revelation and then when a prophet writes down or communicates that revelation to others, the prophet is engaging in interpretation. He does not become God's ventriloquist dummy. Even if he did, God would still have to speak to us in a way we could understand. The example of these principles that Spackman talks about over and over again, as you might guess, is how Genesis and other parts of scripture state things as fact that are not facts - e.g. the Earth was created in seven days (and he explains why the "The Hebrew word for 'day' can also mean 'time period'" explanation, while accurate, doesn't work in this context) - but the authors had different paradigms and priorities than modern readers, and God worked within their understanding of the world instead of trying to correct it. Another Biblical example would be how He said "Be nice to your slaves" instead of "Slavery is wrong."
I think this is really important stuff. It was implicit to my post on the Family Proclamation. Perhaps I should have made it more explicit. Everyone else seemed to like my post, though, and I was frustrated that this family member alone interpreted it as an attack. I don't want to make it sound like she's is the worst sort of fundamentalist by any means. But we kind of talked past each other. She thinks I don't have enough faith and I think she's not using her brain enough. She acknowledges the imperfections of scripture, the mistakes of past church leaders, and the changes in church teachings, but tries to downplay their significance as much as possible while I don't feel that's warranted. On the other hand, it's probable that I sometimes blow them out of proportion. In any case, she cited the "line upon line, precept upon precept" scripture as a defense of changes to gender roles in the Church like changing the definition of "preside." I don't disagree with that scripture at all. It's exactly the sentiment I conveyed in my post. I just don't see a reason to assume, especially in light of my knowledge of history and current events, that the lines and precepts stopped in 1995. She also cited "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection," and maybe I am too condemnatory of past church leaders and members, but that verse also says to "give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been." So pointing out that Gordon B. Hinckley totally snubbed the Relief Society general presidency was still the right thing to do.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.