Down The Rabbit Hole: A Review of Charles Harrell’s “’This Is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology”

Down The Rabbit Hole: A Review of Charles Harrell’s “’This Is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology”

Harrell - This Is My DoctrineTitle: “This Is My Doctrine” The Development of Mormon Theology

Author: Charles R. Harrell

Publisher: Greg Kofford Books

Year: 2011

Pages: 583

Price: $34.95 (Available for Pre Order at $23.07)

In the film The Matrix, Neo found out about something that gnawed at him so much, he began actively searching out more information about it in such a way that resulted in his becoming highly disoriented from life as he knew it, feeling a bit like Alice caught in Wonderland. He eventually comes across Morpheus, who is known to have a pretty significant key to understanding Neo’s questions.

But before going ahead and answering, he gives Neo an option – to take the Red Pill, or to take the Blue Pill.

image

If you take the Blue Pill, Morpheus says, “The story ends. You wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to.”

It’s a somewhat attractive option. It embraces the ‘ignorance is bliss’ mentality.

However, the other option still stands: you take the Red Pill, and, Morpheus says, “I show you how deep the Rabbit Hole goes.”

Many members of the Church are used to a completely internally consistent prophetic historical narrative from Adam through Thomas S. Monson, where all prophets knew explicitly of what was to come, and all scriptures speak in the same doctrinal language as our Correlated Church Manuals of today – all the while meaning and knowing the exact same things we mean and know today.

This is the story one can easily come away with if their only substantial interaction with the scriptures are the bullet point interpretations given in Gospel Doctrine Sunday School classes, and the doctrinal references to scriptures given in correlated manuals like Gospel Principles.

There’s something beautiful and attractive about such a worldview – it makes it very easy to see one’s exact place in the Grand Prophetic Narrative. We can easily place ourselves in another scriptural character’s shoes if we know that they knew what we know, and if we feel that those who opposed the prophets in all ages have the same knowledge being preached to them that the Missionaries are going door to door teaching today. It makes it easier to judge both the righteous and unrighteous in black and white terms.

If something in the scriptures seems to contradict the current understanding, it’s easy to cite the 8th Article of Faith, and note that the conflicting concept must not have been “translated correctly” –  whatever that means.

In fact, that’s exactly what the Seminary Manual does when it comes to events attributed to King David. Instead of accounting for historical socio-religious context, the explanation given is, “The story in 2 Samuel 21 is either not translated correctly or shows that David truly fell deep into apostasy.”1 – present day values and doctrinal concepts are retrojected into the narrative. Either some scribes wrote the story wrong, or David was disobeying the Restored Gospel. There is no other option presented, or explanation offered.

But that’s the only possible way Inspired Scriptures written by Inspired Prophets can be understood, right?

If the Gospel is Eternal, everyone inspired by God must have known the same things, and no erroneous historical concepts or theological and cultural ideas would have been allowed to creep into the record. There would be no development of doctrinal concepts, no trial and error, and every time a prophet interprets a scripture, he must know and be explaining the Original Intent of the original prophet.

Right?

If that’s how you want to understand the historical scriptural narrative, then it may just be that the Blue Pill is for you.

For the rest, Charles Harrell has produced a Red Pill in his book “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology, of which I was able to read an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

The name of the book may appear to be somewhat misleading for some – it’s not a chronological or exhaustive exploration of all influences and actual developments in the course of Mormon doctrine. We may have to wait for Terryl Givens’ forthcoming 2-volume work on Mormon Theology for something approaching this.

It’s actually sort of hard to describe very succinctly what this book is. I like to think of it, in one way,  as the Snopes.com of Scriptural Prooftexts. A guide to clearing up misapplication and misunderstanding. A prolegomena for further study and application.

It begins with a powerful stand-alone essay in Chapter 1 that introduces (for many) the concept that Mormonism, believe it or not,  does not actually hold a doctrine of Inerrancy of Scripture, or even of its leadership. It explains (in a of-necessity extremely brief overview )the general context and worldviews of the Old Testament, New Testament, 19th Century Christianity, and Early Mormonism. It introduces the concept of “Proof-texting” – using an out of context Scripture to prove a doctrinal point – and shows how this practice was used in each of those historical and scriptural contexts to further express the then-current theological message.

It’s a very gentle – but necessary – introduction for what’s to come. It’s a slow ramp down into the rabbit hole. Harrell uses quotations from well-known General Authorities, and popular BYU Professors – individuals who would be recognized as safe, and trustworthy. These are not elite fringe Intellectuals, or Faithless Apostates. He lets them present the concepts that may be new to many, and shatter preconceived “unwritten order of things” communally held by many members.

And then the Rabbit Hole becomes steep.

The chapters are arranged in a logical topical progression that mirrors in many ways the Gospel Principles manual. Looking down the Table of Contents, you could easily think you’re looking at a standard Topical Guide, or a teaching tool such as True to the Faith, or the Missionary lessons of Preach My Gospel.

The first few chapters cover what is generally the narrative of the First Missionary Lesson:

  • The Great Apostasy.
  • Joseph Smith and the Restoration.
  • The Restoration of the Priesthood and the Church.
  • Doctrinal Truths Restored.

It then goes into exploration of the Godhead, and other supernatural beings:

  • The Godhead and Plurality of Gods.
  • God the Father.
  • Jesus Christ.
  • The Holy Ghost.
  • Satan.

Then comes the standard points of the Plan of Salvation:

  • The Preexistence.
  • The Creation.
  • The Fall and Nature of Humanity.
  • The Atonement.
  • The Gospel Plan.

Following are the principles relating to the End Times, Eternity, and Life After Death.

  • Salvation for the Dead.
  • The Priesthood.
  • The Gathering of Israel and Establishment of Zion.
  • The Second Coming and Millennium.
  • The Resurrection. Final Judgment.

Most chapters follow a simple pattern, where general observations about the doctrine or principle are given, followed by an exploration of how scriptures often used to teach those principles were understood in their original context. What will be quickly seen is that a great many of the scriptures of earlier canonical records did not mean at all what we often by default assume them to mean today. In fact, sometimes the original meaning is presented to mean something distinctly opposite.

Due no doubt partially to publishing cost restrictions, each topic is not exhaustive. Books could – and have – been written exploring most of these doctrinal concepts and scriptures separately in each of these historical settings. But I know of no place where the different schools of thought have been placed together in one setting – and the effects can be quite jarring for someone who is not familiar with modern scholastic biblical criticism, or even modern Mormon Studies.

The book isn’t perfect. Some of the chapters are perhaps a little too myopic. For example, the chapter on Atonement ignores some important schools of thought concerning the historic development of Atonement Theology – especially  in the post-exilic period –  and dismisses those that seem to have any sort of continuity with early Christian thought.

In fact, many significant aspects of post-exilic texts, thought and theological development seem to be unknown by Harrell, and this shows in scattered assertions – and deletions – throughout the book. In the chapter on Jesus Christ, for example, he cites as definitive James Dunn saying “there is no evidence that there existed prior to Christianity a belief in a heavenly Son of Man… as far we can tell it was Christianity…who made the first identification of the ‘son of man’ in Daniel’s vision as a particular individual” (p 172). This is a very sweeping assertion, and, while perhaps technically accurate, does not allow for the important discussion concerning the Son of Man material in 1 Enoch, the dating of which is still heavily under debate, with a growing consensus acknowledging a pre-Christian writing being recognized as the likely conclusion.

While there are other assertions and deletions that I also have a few quibbles with, the vast majority of the book is very well put together, and I see myself using it as a fantastic reference resource.

The book ends with another  essay-style chapter asking, essentially, “Okay, what now?

Now that you’ve gone through the Rabbit Hole, now that the Standard Narrative of Prophetic Consistency (“The Matrix”) is shown to have some serious cracks, what is a Good Mormon to do?

The question isn’t fully answered, but a few options and suggestions, and questions are presented to ponder.

Harrell, a faithful and practicing member of the Church, asserts that a belief in a seamless story isn’t necessary to maintain faith in God, Jesus Christ, or Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, and the authority of Restored Church. What he does suggest, in part,  is that sometimes our understanding of key assertions and definitions (and especially attitudes of arrogant exclusivity) may need to be adjusted.

For example, he says, “If, in fact, many of the passages used to support LDS doctrines today had other meanings in their original context, how does this affect the validity of these doctrines? Does it mean that they are unfounded and therefore false, or could it merely suggest that we need not always expect to find scriptural justification for every belief taught in the Church?”

Harrell argues for the legitimacy of a dynamic and pragmatic religion that is not held captive by former dogmatic theological assertions. It embodies the principle that living “prophets” are more valuable than dead ones when it comes to expressing and understanding our dynamic religious heritage.

This book is going to have a mixed reception. There are some on the very doctrinally conservative wing of Mormonism who will view this book as heretical, and, based on a lack of hand-holding and apologetic buffering, their misunderstanding of Harrell’s intent may be interpreted as “Anti-Mormon”, and designed to destroy faith, and break down trust in the Lord’s Servants and Scriptures.

Some in the middle may view it a a breath of fresh air, acknowledging and validating their own self-discoveries and frustration, hoping it will have the effect of the Lutheran theses being nailed to the Correlation Department’s front door. Others will recognize the  need for this type of book, but perhaps feel uncomfortable about the way the material was presented.

However, the other end of the spectrum, the traditional so-called Anti-Mormon crowd – especially those from Evangelical camps – would be unwise to champion this book in their cause, because without the principle of continuing revelation and allowance for theological, textual, and historical error to be found in scripture, this book would be far more damaging to their claims than it would be for the core of Mormonism.

It’s a mixed bag with a message for everyone. But it’s not a pill to be unwillingly forced down anyone’s throat. A little more time in the Matrix may, in fact, be necessary and beneficial for many.

But when they’re ready for it, it’s here.

Available for Preorder at Amazon.com

  1. Old Testament Seminary Manual, http://seminary.lds.org/manuals/old-testament-seminary-student-study-guide/ot-ssg-5-2_sam-21.asp []

6 thoughts on “Down The Rabbit Hole: A Review of Charles Harrell’s “’This Is My Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology”

  1. Thank you for your very unique and insightful review for this book. I liked your analogy of the blue and red pills as a characterization of how this book may be viewed. I ordered the book on Amazon today and was given an expected delivery date of June 20 to 23 …

  2. I know I read your review when it came out, but it appears that some of my concerns about the volume were realized; not so much that it gives a diachronic view of change, but that the scriptural treatment is not as deep or thorough as it should be.

  3. Ben, it’s a key reason why, on amazon.com, I gave the book 4 stars instead of 5. I do think it does an admirable job of presenting enough information to justify the premise, and his raised questions. I agree with you that it is not as deep or thorough as it could have been, and as I would have liked it to be, but I do think it serves as a useful prolegomena to further discussion. I do think the general premise of the book is sound. I do feel that, because of its being not as thorough as it could have been in addressing and pre-empting some concerns and arguments, it will be easy enough for many to write it off without engaging some of the further issues it legitimately raises. This book could easily have been twice its size – but, as others have noted, with its current format, it can already be pretty intimidating. I’m wondering what a longer length would do to its approachability and readability, and if a complete restructuring with some meditative essays that have us step back and examine the material between thematic sections would have been useful, and perhaps help counteract the ‘fire hose’ effect I’ve seen some get out of the book.

    Of course, it’s quite possible (and maybe even likely) that the ‘fire hose’ effect is exactly what Harrell was going for.

Leave a Reply