Rocks In A Hat, Dumbo’s Magic Flying Feather, and the Changing Significance of Symbols

Rocks In A Hat, Dumbo’s Magic Flying Feather, and the Changing Significance of Symbols

Matt W. has a great post over at New Cool Thang about Finland’s theory of Revelation Driven Human Evolution. I highly recommend checking it out. Some of the concepts there are directly relevant to my thoughts here.

Last night, I joined the local Elders in a Missionary lesson with a great guy, with some great questions. He had been doing his due diligence, and had been studying both pro-Mormon, and Mormon critical material online. Through the course of the conversation, it was very clear he was willing to acknowledge the legitimate claims of both, although he was very clearly siding on the Pro-Mormon side.

But he still had some questions. And they were legitimate searching questions, and not posed as “Gotchas.” – in other words, questions worth addressing.

For example, at one point, when talking about the Book of Mormon, he said, “Okay, I have a question. Why did Joseph stick his head in a hat when working on translating the Book of Mormon?”

joseph_smith_hatThe senior missionary companion blanked. “Umm…hat? I don’t understand.” – It was clear he had either never heard of this aspect of Joseph’s translation process, or had no idea what to say about it.

But I had something to offer. That’s why I was there, right?

“Because that’s what worked for him,” I said.

Going further, I volunteered how I understood the process of revelation to work in general: God leaves the process mainly up to us, letting us work through things, and then may either confirm our methods or conclusions in some form or another, or, for all intents and purposes, give the impression that we need to, “Keep working on that.”

I invited him to imagine Joseph having these plates in front of him, and the directive coming, “Now make something out of it.”

Now what would you do? How would you go about doing it?

It went into a discussion of how God makes allowances for our own culture, wisdom, and knowledge, and often “consecrates our efforts” to give old understandings and experiences new meanings or significance.

To Joseph’s 19th Century New England culture, which often mixed aspects of protestant religion with folklore, the legitimacy of magic stones being a source or conduit of uncovering the hidden was not very far from many enlightenment-resisting families’ minds and hearts.

God didn’t require Joseph to re-invent the wheel to get the revelation/enlightenment process going in his case. He took what he knew, and went with it. It wasn’t even the first way Joseph attempted to get meaning out of the plates. He used the process of trial and error until he found a method – a symbol – that worked for him. In time, Joseph stopped relying on the rocks for inspiration.

I introduced the investigator to the Book of Mormon example of the Brother of Jared trying to figure out how to light up the Jaredite boats. When he went to the Lord and asked him how the darkness problem was going to be dealt with, the Lord basically responded by turning it back over to him: “Good question. How would you do it?”

The Brother of Jared made a rather folksy recommendation, that still relied on supernatural assistance – I’ll get some stones, and you touch them, and make them shine! –  and the Lord went with it. “Great idea. Let’s do that.”

It was sort of the like the story of Dumbo’s magic flying feather. The feather given to him by his mouse friend didn’t make Dumbo fly, nor did it appear to have any inherent power. But it was a catalyst for giving Dumbo the courage and drive he needed to fly on his own – without the feather. So in a very real way, the feather did have power. But when it was no longer useful, that power was transferred out.


I’m positive that the process of revelation/enlightenment practically works the same way today.

We run with what we have culturally and intellectually available to us, and eventually, through a process of revelation/enlightenment, we may realize we’ve gone past the use of that symbol, leave it behind, or give it a new meaning. The power is either transferred from the symbol to another, or it is simply altered within the symbol.

Yet I don’t feel that if I have come to a new or changed understanding of the feather through a recognition of some form of personal enlightenment that I should also feel the need to yank the feather out of others’ trunks before they’ve gotten what they personally need out of it. Because when they have, they’ll be the ones dropping the feather.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to acknowledge that others may be learning different lessons than what I’ve learned from that same symbol, and that I’d be doing them a disservice to take that very useful and legitimately practical (and possible spirit filled?)tool away, just because it has acquired a different meaning for me.

In other words, just because the meaning of a symbol has had its power and usefulness removed or significantly altered for me, that doesn’t necessarily mean that real power isn’t still very present in that symbol and associated understanding of that symbol for others.

Just because “the spirit jumped to a different vessel” for my own needs, doesn’t mean it doesn’t still reside there for someone else.

And I don’t think “who is at what symbol at what time” has anything to do with intellectual or spiritual superiority.

But that’s something I think I need to keep reminding myself, to keep myself humble. And to keep myself from yanking feathers out of happily flying elephants trunks.1

  1. Oh, and the investigator said, “Cool. That makes sense.” and then moved on. []

7 thoughts on “Rocks In A Hat, Dumbo’s Magic Flying Feather, and the Changing Significance of Symbols

  1. Interesting post. I agree with the overall thrust of your point.

    I do have a concern about a particular aspect of your point though: documentary sources that mention the hat in the revelatory process also tell us why he was doing it. He needed it dark in order to see the shining words that appeared to him during the translation process. There was an actual metaphysical aspect to the whole process that was simultaneously grounded in a practical need for Joseph to be able to see the shining words while also having enough light for the scribe to write the words down.

  2. Well, the sources about the hat are telling us come from sources speculating as to what was going on. There’s famously no reference from Joseph himself on the specifics. He alone knew what was going on inside the hat.

    But that is besides my point – the question I’m interested in is as to what led to using that device and mechanism in the first place? The sources also show that this wasn’t at all how Joseph initially began. He appears in the earliest stages to have started with the copy-down-characters-and-try-to-discern-their-meaning process. What on its surface appears to look like a form of attempted actual mechanical translation, rather than “pure revelation”. That didn’t work for him. So he moved on to something else.

  3. Excellent response! It’s even more interesting when we read that later in the process Joseph was able to translate without the stones or hat.

    I like your overall point. I personally struggle with this, as sometimes feathers can seem like stumbling blocks. It is hard to tell the two apart. Sometimes feathers can be dangerous (creationism, infallibility, nationalism, etc.) When and where do we draw the line? I don’t have a good answer to that.

  4. Well I don’t view creationism as a magic feather at all. But you’re probably talking about some version of creationism that I don’t believe in.

    The sources may have been speculating, but then again, they might have been spot on in their summation of what was happening. After all, some of them were actually in the room with Joseph. That’s pretty first hand in terms of eyewitness testimony. But you’re right, either way, we don’t know.

    As for the initial mechanistic procedures, he had to start somewhere. The very fact that he did so to me is a great point to authenticity. Nothing he did was easy; it’s a principle of revelation and a principle of heaven that we don’t just have stuff handed to us on a silver (golden?) platter.

    But again, and I’m not trying to be a pain here, the use of the hat is a function of his discovery that he could see words via some form of metaphysical “sight”, and that those words shined in darkness. He could see better in the hat.

  5. The sources may have been speculating, but then again, they might have been spot on in their summation of what was happening. After all, some of them were actually in the room with Joseph. That’s pretty first hand in terms of eyewitness testimony.

    I don’t doubt that the eyewitnesses saw Joseph with his head in a hat. What I’m pretty sure they didn’t see was what Joseph himself saw in the hat. Unless Joseph let them peek – which, if it happened, nobody decided to tell us. To be more clear, that would have been the speculation – what Joseph saw, and why. And again – the details are somewhat beside the point.

    I do agree that “He could see better in the hat” – and on a metaphorical and practical level, that’s what’s important, and what I’m talking about. It’s all about the process of discovering what methods – and symbols – allow us to “see better”, as it relates to the task (or principle) currently at hand.

  6. I was on vacation so I just now read your last response. I think we are in agreement on the basic issue of why Joseph used the hat.

    By the way, although you seem to approach doctrinal and theological issues from a different perspective than I do, I still enjoy reading your posts and appreciate the differences between us.

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