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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Searching for Cumorah—All Over Again

[The following post is easily the longest post I have ever made. But don't be discouraged—it may also be the most important. It began as a footnote to one of the chapters of my current Tennis Shoes book, but it seems to have grown into something else, something more. I don't think I've ever written anything quite so iconoclastic or controversial—at least insofar as established paradigms are concerned. Either this article will incite the ire of many of my friends and colleagues in Book of Mormon research, or it will be the first time that I have ever genuinely contributed to the literature of Book of Mormon scholarship. Or both! Or hey, it might just be completely ignored. In light of the possible ramifications, I might just as happily accept the last alternative. Those genuinely interested in this subject might reread this article in a couple weeks as feedback and additional insights may inspire changes and improvements.]

The debate among Latter-day Saints regarding the locations of the ancient cities and events of the Book of Mormon—in particular the debate regarding the location of the ancient battleground known as the Hill Cumorah—sometimes seems more curious as a matter of human psychology than a matter of archeology. Of course this statement excludes non- and anti-Mormons who have decided that such a search is folly in the first place. It speaks strictly of the internal debate among faithful Church members—those who proclaim a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, and the book's origins. Many of these faithful saints will abjectly confess that issues of geography are of minor consequence beside the larger question of the book's truthfulness, and then, practically in the next sentence, engage in zealous rhetoric regarding a personal conviction as to whether the Hill Cumorah is in New York or Mesoamerica. The phenomenon might be humorous if feelings involved weren't so passionate and visceral. The debate is sometimes generational, pitting "old school", lifelong, culturally-entrenched saints against younger or more formally-educated saints who may feel more comfortable applying a stricter scientific litmus to propositions once regarded as matters of faith.

Deferring such a debate to the internet is generally futile and tends to illustrate the weaknesses of open discussion forums and websites like Wikipedia.org, especially with regard to any subject that has some level of controversy. Either it becomes a virtual-reality "slapping contest" where advocates of opposing opinions battle it out by erasing and altering each other's posts. Or it becomes an arbitration by inexperienced and over-taxed editors and admins who, in the interest of "fairness" and "objectivity", give equal time to crackpots whose theories are often supported by footnotes from self-published, obscure, and/or disreputable sources.

However, it remains a fact that until the 1920s or 30s most Latter-day Saints had never contemplated the idea that the Hill Cumorah, as described by Mormon and Moroni, was anywhere but western New York. After all, the glacial drumlin in the vicinity of Palmyra has been called the Hill Cumorah by Latter-day Saints for almost 200 years. Some wonder: What more does a faithful Church member need to know? Any other suggestion as to the hill's location is perceived (understandably) as "messy," complicating what some view as a succinct and logical dénouement to the story of the Book of Mormon's origin.

Even today, some eighty years after alternative perspectives began to appear, proponents of the Great Lakes/New York viewpoint remain convinced that any other view besides the traditional 19th century model can be dangerous, heretical, secularist, and sometimes even anti-American.

The anti-Americanism is the most curious, and comes from the basic notion that the United States, as the world's first modern democracy, most suitably, and perhaps exclusively, fits the description of a Promised Land or "land of liberty" as denoted in 2 Nephi 1:7, 10:11, Mosiah 29:32, Ether 2:9-12, and Alma 46:17. In their view, placing significant Book of Mormon events "south of the border" disrespects our Constitution, its inspired Founders, and American nationalism—a concept to which other republics of North and Central America just might take serious objection and offense, even if their democracies, by certain standards, are not yet as successful as the United States. Hey, I'm about as conservative and flag-waving as a person can get. I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads "I was anti-Obama before it was cool!" and I deeply cherish my freedom to display such a thing! I love this country and thank the Lord for my blessings of living here and pray daily for its success. But even I find disturbing from a fellow saint any kind of overzealous nationalism that might place other freedom-loving peoples on a different level or tier.

Look at it from Mormon's point of view! Compared to the Middle Ages, and especially to the time-period of Mormon or Ether, these Ancient American visions of today's New World would have revealed an incomparable bastain of religious and social freedom--from Argentina to Alaska, Brazil to Cabo San Lucas (with the possible exceptions of Cuba and the current state of Venezeula). The point is that even if America rightly deserves the honors and prestige of being the FIRST to receive our inspired constitution, that constitution has become a model across the globe for many republics, especially in the Americas, and Mormon assuredly viewed the remarkable circumstances of our current situation without borders.

In the modern age New York/Great Lakes proponents have attracted few, if any, supporters with PhDs or backgrounds in the disciplines of archaeology or related fields of study. Most of these proponents rely upon obscure (and often 2nd or 3rd-hand) quotes from early Church figures, outdated science, and/or pseudo-science to support their geographical models. Frequently they assert that those who believe alternate theories willfully reject "authoritative" statements from Church leaders in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. A lengthy history and discussion of such statements is presented by Matthew Roper in an article for FARMS (now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute). For the honest investigator, Roper's presentation is worthy of close review. It can be found online at: Link

The skinny of it is, the Lord does not appear to have revealed the location of any ancient Book of Mormon city or event to a single (authorized) human being! And honestly, I think Latter-day Saints have been enormously blessed because of it. Oh, we're still terribly curious. We very much want to know the location of Zarahemla, Cumorah, and Sidon. The search itself--and the associated pondering, praying, exploring, puzzling and dicovering--has proven an extraordinary gift to many Church members. If the Lord had handed us this info on a silver platter (by revealing it to the only soul (truly) authorized to receive it--a Church President), I would have personally missed out on the meticulous, often tedious, and always miraculous opportunity of searching this magnificent and complex scriptural volume. I feel that God knows exactly what He is doing by keeping mum on this issue. And we should thank Him for remaining so. However, His resolute mum-ness does not mean that the puzzle cannot be solved through reason, intelligence, and serendipitous enlightenment. And so we persist...

Almost since the inception of the Restored Gospel the importance of other regions of the New World in regard to Book of Mormon events has been proposed by Church leaders, including Joseph Smith (Times and Seasons, 1842; 3:92 7). Serious inconsistencies associated with physical descriptions found in the scriptural text when compared to the landscape of the eastern United States and New York (especially the final battleground of the Nephites and Jaredites) have been noted by scholars and Church leaders for numerous decades (see B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses, 2:200, 3:502-3, Janne M. Sjödahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, 1927). But until the 1970s no Latter-day Saint had ever proposed a viable Mesoamerican alternative.

However, in the '70s an alternative and viable location for the last battles was finally suggested by John L. Sorenson, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Brigham Young University. This location, subsequently publicized in 1985 in his seminal volume An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, is a hill near the western end of the Tuxtla Mountain Range in southern Veracruz, Mexico called El Cerro Vigia, or "Lookout Hill." Few locations in the annals of Book of Mormon geography have received more notoriety than Dr. Sorenson's proposal of the Hill Vigia as the central location for the final battles of the Nephite and Jaredite nations. The proposal has been adopted and applauded by the majority of Book of Mormon researchers for the past thirty-five years, including David A. Palmer (whose book In Search of Cumorah predates Sorenson's book by four years, though he freely admits that Sorenson's model was his inspiration), V. Garth Norman, Joseph L. Allen, Richard B. Hauck, Bruce W. Warren, and a score of other university-trained scholars and thoughtful, disciplined Book of Mormon enthusiasts.

However, a few LDS researchers in the past couple years have pointed out significant problems with Sorenson's El Cerro Vigia proposition. Having personally visited this hill on three occasions, I confess that some of these reservations have also occurred to me. But before examining these issues I believe it's important to establish what I consider an appropriate frame of mind. I have often found it a fascinating—and disheartening—reality to observe how so many of the most brilliant researchers in the area of Book of Mormon scholarship are also the least teachable when it comes to adopting new perspectives. This, I am told, is the case in virtually all sciences and academic disciplines, not just an isolated niche like Book of Mormon geography. I've heard younger scientists proclaim that in certain fields of study it actually becomes necessary for the older generation of scholars to "die off" before new ideas are considered and advanced. This seems to be a tragic and all-too-common failing of humanity and has been acknowledged as a genuine flaw in the scientific community by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is still required reading for up-and-coming scholars at many universities.

Dr. Kuhn's contention that the progress of science can be a slow and painful process applies quite accurately to the current state of Book of Mormon geography. Long ago I acknowledged that any hope for the current generation of LDS scholars to come to a consensus regarding their perspectives on Book of Mormon cities and lands is utterly naive. I have observed numerous PhD-level researchers, many with decades of field experience, become utterly intractable when faced with adjusting personal theories which may have taken a lifetime of blood and sweat to formulate. These LDS scientists cling to their ideas and maps the way Gollum clings to the "One Ring of Power," sometimes hoarding private research for fear that it might be pinched or looted by another scholar before it can be organized into a proper presentation. To say the least, serious disagreements still exist about Book of Mormon geography, even among those who acknowledge that by far the most viable scenario for Mormon's record is the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory," which places most locations and events within several hundred miles on either side of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The reality is that the current generation of scholars only agree on about six essential points: 1. That the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is the narrow neck of land. 2. That the land of Nephi is generally the highlands of Guatemala. 3. That the land of Zarahemla is generally the Chiapas Basin and/or the lowlands of the Usamacinta River. (this area of "consensus" is admittedly fudged a bit since, for many scholars, this is an either/or proposition which actually covers a great deal of real estate. But even the fact that it's "either/or" is, I believe, a notable agreement) 4. That the narrow strip of wilderness from the Sea West to the Sea East (Alma 22:37) comprises the Sierra Cuchumatanes which extend from the Pacific Ocean near the Guatemala/Mexico border to the Bay of Honduras on the Atlantic side. 5. That the Land of Desolation comprises the northern parts of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including portions of the Mexican states of Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, and possibly Oaxaca. 6. That the archeological dates and sites corresponding to the rise and fall of Olmec culture in Mexico closely parallels the dates and sites of the rise and fall of the Jaredites.

Beyond these areas of consensus, the opinions of the most distinguished LDS researchers are literally all over the map. But wait a second . . . Stop the presses! When you think about it, these areas of consensus are actually quite extraordinary! In fact, they may even be unprecedented in the history of Book of Mormon research. Perhaps Book of Mormon geography has made serious forward strides after all!

Until a year ago I might have included the Hill Cumorah and Sorenson's proposal of El Cerro Vigia in the category of general consensus. Now I'm afraid I would have to remove it. Keep in mind that I do so at no small sacrifice to my own body of work. Several of my novels have plotlines dependent upon the Hill Vigia scenario, especially Gadiantons and the Silver Sword. However, I would hope the highest criteria of human intelligence is the ability to maintain an open mind despite whatever personal sacrifices and stings of pride must be endured in the cause of advancing knowledge. I would like to remain in that category of "open-mindedness" despite the possible impact to my life's work.

Having said this, let me reiterate that I have not entirely abandoned the Hill Vigia as a viable candidate for Cumorah. It may be that holes can be found in the logic that I am about to present, pulling us right back to Sorenson's 35-year-old proposal. Frankly, it would be much more convenient for me personally if Sorenson was right. But I believe that in light of certain weaknesses in this theory that we should be willing to reexamine all the evidence in hopes of achieving greater understanding and ultimately adding to the compendium of Book of Mormon knowledge.

In order to illustrate some of the problems with the Hill Vigia as a candidate for the Hill Cumorah we must return to the text of the Book of Mormon and reexamine verses in Ether as well as the nine chapters that Mormon attributes to his own memory of things "both seen and heard" (Mormon 1:1).

One of the better verses that helps us understand Cumorah in relation to other prominent landmarks is Ether 9, verse 3:

"And the Lord warned Omer in a dream that he should depart out of the land; wherefore Omer departed out of the land with his family, and traveled many days, and came over and passed by the hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward, and came to a place which was called Ablom, by the seashore, and there he pitched his tent..." (Ether 9:3, emph. added).

The seat of Omer's kingdom was the Land of Morōn and the city of Morōn (I generally add the phonetic long "ō" when I write Morōn as an aid so that it is properly pronounced, assuming the name is the root of the name Moroni, although this "aid" is not in the text of the scriptures). In summary, Omer presumably traveled many days from the land or city of Morōn, passed by the Hill Shim, passed by the Hill Cumorah, and then went eastward to a place called Ablom on the coast. It could be that Omer traveled eastward for the entirety of his journey, or that he turned "eastward" at Cumorah to reach the seashore. In any case, it's clear that his itinerary first brought him to Shim, then to Cumorah, then to the ocean. Thus we are presented with our first problem regarding the Vigia/Cumorah proposal.

The scriptures consistently identify two prominent hills whenever discussing repositories for plates or last battles—Shim and Cumorah. A candidate for the Hill Shim was presented almost simultaneously with the proposal for the Hill Cumorah. In fact, in the literature of Sorenson, Palmer, Allen, Hauck, and others the candidates are generally mentioned side by side. The Hill Shim, it is suggested, is a hill on the shores of Lake Catemaco in the Tuxtla Mountains called Cintepec. Cintepec is about 35 miles east-southeast from Vigia. Sorenson and others have outlined a convincing argument that the word "Cintepec" in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language means "Corn Hill" and that this corresponds to the Yucatec Maya word "Shim" or Ixim which also means corn. In other words, as a new culture dominated the Tuxtla Mountains, the name of this hill remained the same, only transposed to a different language.

Linguistics and pronunciations are often complex, so it's difficult to verify the accuracy of such a transposition, but in any case the evidence is probably insufficient if this is the only criteria for concluding that Cintepec is the Hill Shim.

The problems for this theory may not relate to linguistics. They may relate to direction. As I have already stated, Cintepec is principally east of Vigia. This would mean, according to Sorenson's proposal, that King Omer, in his journey to the seashore, first traveled east (or north) to the Hill Shim, then turned west to reach Cumorah, then turned eastward again to reach the ocean. The unnatural and illogical sequence of such a journey is illustrated (albeit unintentionally) in Joseph Allen's 2nd Edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, pg. 436. Dr. Allen, who has presented much insightful Book of Mormon research over the years, appears to push the probability envelope in this instance. His proposal for Ablom is not really "eastward" of Vigia/Cumorah at all. If anything, it's north.

Dr. Sorenson has long proposed the idea that the Nephites may have altered cardinal directions according to the orientations of their Israelite homeland (allowing for the possibility that northward sometimes means eastward). However, Allen has long disputed that directional shift, so it's uncertain why he apparently adopted it here to explain the journey of King Omer. Dr. Allen, because of his longtime tour business to Central America, understands the highways and travel routes in this part of the world perhaps better than any other LDS scholar, so it's possible that his scenario was designed with established routes of travel in mind. But if the course of the journey suggested by Allen, Sorenson, and others is accurate, the question remains why King Omer, if his ultimate destination was Ablom by the seashore, would feel he had to travel to the Hill Shim, then go west to the Hill Vigia, and then turn eastward again (northward?) to reach the ocean. Such a journey, without a corroborating explanation, doesn't appear to make sense.

This issue makes even less sense when we consider that the Hill Vigia has at its southwest base a significant archeological site known as Tres Zapotes, which dates to Olmec/Jaredite times. If King Omer was on the run and attempting to hide from his homicidal son, Prince Jared, is it likely that he would willingly pass through a heavily populated district? Is it likely that Ether (or Moroni) would have failed to mention such a city? Also, would his retreat to Ablom have been sufficiently far away from known population centers to successfully "hide" this Jaredite king (whose head likely had a price)? Admittedly, various scenarios can be speculated to resolve some concerns (such as the notion that the city at Tres Zapotes was not really part of Omer's kingdom), but so far no explanations have been explored or suggested. Tres Zapotes remained occupied for 2000 years prior to about 900 AD (Pool, Christopher A. (2007). Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, pg 250). The deafening silence of the text regarding this "city" (no city is ever mentioned in association with the Land or Hill Cumorah) brings up other questions, such as who might have lived here when the armies of Coriantumr and Shur marched in to wipe each other out? No significant population change for Tres Zapotes is discussed in archaeological literature from 500-300 BC. Also, no significant changes are noted for the time period around 486 AD. If two major battles decimating millions of people took place at or near this location, archaeology has not yet revealed evidence of it. Field studies, especially from the strata of Mormon's time period, should reveal earthworks, ditches, walls, and other defensive structures. Mormon was so enamoured and descriptive of such earthworks when he discussed other Nephite generals that it seems unfathomable that he did not build such defenses for his own forces. After all, he had four years before the final battle to do so. But as of yet, no such defenses (such as those found at other Mesoamerican sites, like Becán and Dzibanché in the Yucatan) have been reported. However, we must allow for the possibility that such detailed surveys have not yet been concluded. In reality, we've barely scratched the surface on so many archaeological sites that such an argument may be patently unfair. It might be better to say that no "obvious" defensive earthworks have been detected.

The issue of other prominent landmarks that exist in this region of the Tuxtla Mountains may also cast doubt upon the hills Vigia and Cintepec being Cumorah and Shim. In the Book of Mormon the Hill Cumorah is often mentioned in direct correlation with the Land of Cumorah (see Mormon 6:4). This gives the impression that the hill itself is a free-standing landmark with relatively little competition (for dominance) from other landmarks in the immediate vicinity. Such a condition does not readily describe the area around El Cerro Vigia.

In 2001 I visited Vigia with Ryan Williams, a longtime tour director for Dr. Allen in Central America. Our bus had traveled from Veracruz along the coast and across the Papaloapan water basin (proposed by Sorenson, Allen, and others as the waters of Ripliancum (Ether 15:8)) until we reached the town of Santiago Tuxtla, nestled in the foothills just east of Vigia. During one moment, as Ryan and I looked out across the landscape in all directions, I recall that we simultaneously voiced the same basic question: "Why this hill and not the hill in that direction or the one in that direction?" The point was that despite the Hill Vigia being the westernmost nub of the Tuxtla Mountains, it really did not seem distinguishable from other visible hills in the area—some of which are actually larger than Vigia.

This naturally leads to another question: Even if Vigia is the Hill Cumorah, then what is the Land of Cumorah? It seems strained to identify this hill as also being associated with a "land." It just stands too close to other landmarks, many that are arguably more prominent. One possible explanation would be that the Land of Cumorah encompasses the hilly plains directly south of the hill, placing the Hill Cumorah at the northern end of the Land of Cumorah. But still, the essential awkwardness of the association does not entirely disappear.

This kind of ambiguity was even more pronounced when we were shown the Hill Cintepec during a land excursion and subsequent boat ride across Lake Catemaco. The shores of this lake, as well as the entire landscape of the region, are so pocked and knotted with mountains and hills that it was hard to envision why Mormon, Ether, or any other ancient historian would have viewed Cintepec or Vigia with any particular prominence. Granted, Cintepec is a basaltic outcrop and was a quarry for some of the massive basalt heads found at nearby Olmec archelogical sites. But this archaeological discovery seems unrelated to the claim that Shim is also a record repository. To my knowledge, no one has ever reported that Cintepec has caves of any significance. I could be wrong here, and I would happily stand corrected. But no one has ever written of Cintepec's caves. Yes, Vigia has caves--lots of caves--but not Cintepec. Every presumption from Ammaron and Mormon is that the Hill Shim contains a record respository large enough to house (and protect) Mormon's massive collection of historical writings (later physically moved to Cumorah), and obviously secluded enough to remain hidden from those working the local basalt quarry or from any other intruders. Cintepec just does not seem to satisfy these requirements. My suspcian is that Dr. Sorenson heard about the hill because of the basalt quarry surveyed by the noted archaeologists of his day (like Michael Coe and Matthew Sterling), discovered the correlation with the name "Corn Hill", and never investigated the matter much beyond that. If this is untrue or inaccurate, I would welcome enlightenment.

But back to the dominance/prominence issue...Keep in mind, this area is the Tuxtla Mountain Range. This range includes at least two active volcanoes—one of which (San Martín Tuxtla) last erupted in 1793 and reaches an altitude almost three times that of Vigia. Also, it encompasses hundreds of extinct volcanic cones, of which Vigia is one. Allowing for the fact that I am not a geographer, cartographer, or even a frequent visitor to the area, distinguishing these hills as notable landmarks when compared to neighboring hills I believe demands additional evidence or explanation.

To view a wonderful slideshow that better illustrates the complexity of the topography of the Tuxtla Mountains (and frankly, the awesome beauty of the region) go to the following link and scroll down a bit: Link

If Sorenson and others have pegged these two hills correctly, the question must also be asked why Moroni, in citing the details of Ether's tale of King Omer, would only mention three singular landmarks—1. Shim, 2. "the place where the Nephites were destroyed," and 3. Ablom by the seashore. Even allowing for the fact that Shim and Cumorah are important in Jaredite and Nephite history, why deliberately ignore so many other striking and notable landmarks that would have stood in Omer's path on the way to the ocean?

I confess to being no expert in ancient military tactics, but one also has to wonder why, if Vigia is Cumorah, would Mormon have believed that at that location "we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites" (Mormon 6:4). Tactically, one wonders why Mormon wouldn't simply lead his nation of as many as 750,000 people (230,000 warriors, plus non-combatants, women, and children) further north and deeper into the wilderness of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas. Arable land and feeding such a vast population is certainly an issue, but this whole region has no shortage of fertile ground. In addition, many parts of the Tuxtla Mountains are remote and rugged. It entails one of the most lush, jungle-covered wilderness areas of Central America. In the face of extinction, heading into that rugged wilderness should have been a very attractive alternative to a large number of vigorous and healthy Nephites. Recall that Gadianton robbers who took up residence in similar mountainous terrain requried more than a generation to destroy. Nephites taking refuge in such a region would have been equally difficult to flush out and exterminate. And yet Mormon reports that deserters (clearly distinguished from turncoats or dissenters) at the last battle fled southward, not northward (see Mormon 6:15, Mormon 8:2). Considering the relative safety of the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, such a strategy of escaping to the south countries seems impractical and illogical.

In recounting the events of the tragic civil war that ultimately destroyed the Jaredite nation, Ether cites numerous landmarks that are not named in any other verses of the Book of Mormon. It can be assumed that all of these landmarks are either within a few hundred miles of, or possibly enroute to, the Hill Ramah/Cumorah where Generals Coriantumr and Shiz fought to the bitter end. Such landmarks (in chronological order of their appearance in Chaps 13, 14, and 15 of Ether) include:

Valley of Gilgal
Plains of Heslon
Wilderness of Akish
Land of Morōn
"Borders upon the seashore"
Plains of Agosh
Land of Corihor
Valley of Corihor
Valley of Shurr
Hill Comnor
Waters of Ripliancum
Place called Ogath
Hill Ramah

Of the names and places on this list, only the Hill Ramah is identified by its Nephite counterpart, Cumorah. We can safely presume, I think, that the other landmarks have all been identified by their Jaredite names, not their Nephite names. So either Mormon did not feel the need to provide correlating Nephite names for these locations or he did not know their Nephite counterparts. But there is also a third possibility: Except for Ramah/Cumorah, many of these lands had very little direct association with places where other significant events of the Book of Mormon took place, especially events witnessed by Mormon and Moroni. It's interesting to note that as Mormon describes his own clashes with Lamanites and the armies of the Gadianton robbers, he only names cities, lands, and two hills (Shim and Cumorah). Unlike Ether, he does not describe or name specific plains, valleys, wildernesses, or waters.

Mormon often generalizes by speaking of the land northward or the land southward. He frequently mentions the land and city of Desolation and certain cities within (or very near) that land. But at the end of his personal history Mormon describes what amounts to a Nephite rout by the armies of the Lamanites, and probably also armies of the Gadianton robbers (see Moroni 2:7-8), through numerous unnamed cities and villages. But except for Ramah/Cumorah, he does not equate any location with the places or landmarks mentioned by Ether. The impression is that the Nephite army and Coriantumr's army may have been driven to the same region by different paths—two distinct courses that did not bypass mutually identifiable locations. This argument is further augmented by the fact that when Nephite and Jaredite paths did cross, Mormon and Moroni (Ether's editor) seem inclined to inform us so. So it's possible that, whereas the Nephites were driven north to Ramah/Cumorah, the Jaredites may have been driven south or east.

Few scholars of the Book of Mormon have made a serious effort to match any particular geography with the orderly succession of place names and descriptions presented in the 13th, 14th, and 15th chapters of the Book of Ether. This is undoubtedly because very few helpful details are provided. But it may also be that no scholars have made progress here for the last 35 years because they have been satisfied with Sorenson's proposal of Cumorah and Shim in the Tuxtla Mountains. In order to make better progress matching the geography and place names of Ether it may be necessary to look elsewhere for Ramah/Cumorah.

I'm perfectly aware that rejecting El Cerro Vigia as Cumorah represents a new paradigm for Book of Mormon scholarship, and that new paradigms are often met with considerable resistance. But if Vigia is not Cumorah and Cintepec is not Shim, where else should LDS scholars begin to look?

The most fertile possibilities for such a search are likely in the lands north of the Tuxtla Mountains, and potentially north of the city of Veracruz, upward through the fertile hills and coastal plains of Mexico's "bread basket," and perhaps as far north as the port of Tampico. As with all of Mexico, this area is rich in archaeological sites, many which date to the time period of the Jaredites, and others which date to the time period of the Nephites. Recently the site of Tamtoc in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi revealed one of the northernmost connections to the Olmec (Jaredite?) culture that has ever been found (see Link).

For too long this region of Mexico may have been ignored by LDS researchers, possibly because it is generally considered northward of the Nephite/Lamanite heartlands. But it may be that this land encompasses at least one major Nephite/Lamanite stomping ground—the battlefield where Mormon made his final stand about nine years after his people began to be "swept off by [the Lamanites] even as a dew before the sun" (Mormon 4:18).

The rout described by Mormon begins in AD 375 at the land of Desolation in "a city which was in the borders, by the narrow pass which led into the land southward (Mormon 3:5). If, as has been proposed, this "narrow pass" is located near or within the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, then it seems safe to presume that the Nephites' desperate retreat began here and ended somewhere much farther north, in an area which Mormon identifies as his childhood home. The first time the Nephites fight at a location which may actually be north of the land of Desolation is at a city called Boaz around AD 375-376 (Mormon 4:20). Afterwards the Nephites fled from before the Lamanites "taking all the inhabitants with them, both in towns and villages" (Mormon 4:22).

It's worth reminding the reader that during this time period Mormon did not lead his people in battle. He had actually abandoned the front lines of conflict in order to return to his homeland to retrieve from Shim all the records entrusted to him by Ammaron. Shortly thereafter, however, he "repented" of his oath not to lead his wicked countrymen and helped them stage another brave defense (also presumably north of the land of Desolation) at a city called Jordan (Mormon 5:1-3).

Mormon 5:4 mentions that there were "also other cities" held by the Nephites, and that these "strongholds" prevented the Lamanites from completely destroying the inhabitants of the land. This statement begs a geographical question: What tract of land would have included key strongholds of such tactical significance that, had they been infiltrated by the Lamanite armies, would have destroyed the Nephites five years earlier than when they were ultimately destroyed?

Despite Mormon's scant details regarding Nephite losses after AD 379, it becomes clear in Mormon 5:5-7 that the city of Jordon, along with these other key strongholds, were completely overrun, and that a multitude of Nephite settlements and villages were burned. Moreover, Mormon reports that only those who could flee more swiftly than the Lamanites managed to escape with their lives. In any case, by now both soldiers and refugees are moving very swiftly and likely covering a great deal of ground.

Sorenson defines his "narrow pass" as near the modern city of Minatitlan in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Sorenson, pg. 347). This site is approximately 90 miles from El Cerro Vigia. Allen proposes the city of Desolation, where the Nephites were defeated in AD 375, as at or near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, 60 miles from El Cerro Vigia (Allen, 2nd Ed. pgs. 464-465). Assuming that either of these locations is accurate, common sense seems to suggest that Mormon's vivid description of the Nephite rout places El Cerro Vigia too close to the narrow pass or the city of Desolation. In this instance the Limited Tehuantepec Theory seems a bit too limited.

One of the traditional rationales for proposing El Cerro Vigia as the site of the last battlegrounds is because this area is physically isolated or cut-off by a series of rivers, lakes, and marshes known as the Papaloapan water basin. The assumption has been that this swampy district along the Veracruz coast was impassable in ancient times to a large army. Therefore Lamanite chieftains would have been more than happy to allow their enemies four years to gather at Vigia knowing that they'd have no route of escape. By itself this concept seems to contradict Mormon's sincere belief that gathering to Cumorah would give his people a distinct military advantage—a genuine fighting chance (see Mormon 6:4). Would an army commander of Mormon's stature and abilities really allow his army to be "boxed in" by inescapable terrain?

However, the overall idea that the Papaloapan basin is an impenetrable swamp has possibly been exaggerated over the years by various LDS scholars. Commonly, publications on Book of Mormon geography will present maps and illustrations that inflate the nature of this watery barrier. Few have more respect than me for the invaluable contributions to Book of Mormon research offered by Dr. Joseph Allen. Nevertheless, his 2nd Edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon is particularly guilty of perpetuating this misconception. A map of the Papaloapan water basin can be found on page 400, but then on page 463 he uses the same map to represent numerous Olmec archeological sites. Many of these Olmec ruins are located directly in and around these exact same rivers, lakes, and swamps! This area is not impassable. In fact, it can sometimes be quite hospitable. Using the mileage guide on these maps one might presume that the delta of the Papaloapan and San Juan rivers is fifteen miles wide! Having actually been to this region I can attest that it is not. Despite numerous rivers, lakes, and marshes, this region is by no means impenetrable, especially during the dry season. Ancient and well-established trade routes neatly circumvent the marshier sections (much of which are seasonal), and the rivers themselves are no more numerous or foreboding than other areas of the Tehuantepec Isthmus or the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tobasco. Mormon certainly dealt with rivers and other watery obstacles for most of his military career. Undoubtedly he used similar methods for traversing them as other great generals throughout ancient history.

Many scholars, including Palmer, Sorenson, Allen, and others have equated the Papaloapan water basin with the "waters of Ripliancum" mentioned in Ether 15:8. Moroni, in his abridgment of Ether, interprets Ripliancum to mean "large, or to exceed all." Because Ether does not say ocean or sea in this reference scholars have speculated that Ripliancum was a large and possibly "ill-defined" body of water, perhaps akin to a marshland like the Florida Everglades. This is not outside the realm of possibility. However, keep in mind that Ether did not use common Nephite terminology like West Sea, East Sea, South Sea, etc., in defining oceans or gulfs (another reason to assume that the Jaredite heartland was quite different from the Nephite/Lamanite heartlands). The waters of Ripliancum are mentioned after Ether reports a succession of military confrontations in various lands, valleys, and hills (see the ordered list earlier in this article). Therefore, these waters meaning "large, or the exceed all" might more reasonably designate an ocean. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico.

One of my objects in writing the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series, and celebrating the Book of Mormon in other ways, has always been to inspire a new generation of young and disciplined LDS researchers to take up the torch of those brilliant Book of Mormon scholars who have come before. Thus, we must expect that all proposals and scenarios of the previous generation will be meticulously re-examined. It is my belief that this is a very healthy thing.

So the question remains: Have any scholars offered other viable candidates for Ramah/Cumorah besides El Cerro Vigia? The answer to that is a qualified yes. I use the term "qualified" because such proposals and speculations are in a developmental stage. Much work is still to be done. But the basic list of qualifications for Cumorah presented in 1981 by David A. Palmer still applies. Any candidate must pass this test of scrutiny, even if some qualifications are "tweaked" based on refined and improved understandings (see Palmer, pg. 53).

With this in mind, a possible alternative to El Cerro Vigia has been suggested by Dr. Lawrence Poulson, an LDS researcher living in Austin, Texas. Poulson is a scientist with a PhD in biochemistry. This is not exactly a degree in archaeology, nevertheless he very much understands the disciplines of proper scientific analysis. A longtime enthusiast of Book of Mormon geography, Dr. Poulson has spent a good portion of his last nine years of retirement from the University of Texas pursuing ancient American studies.

As a possible candidate for the Hill Cumorah, Dr. Poulson has proposed a large hill about 300 miles north of Allen's proposed location for the city of Desolation (San Lorenzo). This hill, which is still within the state of Veracruz, is known as Otontepec. One of the features which makes it an intriguing candidate is a city situated near its southern flank called Tepetzintla. This word may have the exact same meaning in the Nahuatl language as Cintepec. In other words, it means "Corn Hill"—the same as the Yucatec Maya word "Shim." (see a general definition and description of Tepetzintla here: Link)
Coincidentally, this town also sits in close proximity to a smaller hill that Dr. Poulson has proposed as the Hill Shim.

Otontepec itself is more "free-standing" than El Cerro Vigia, situated in the middle of Veracruz's northern plains, about twenty-eight miles east of the Gulf of Mexico. I've noted several internet references which suggest that locals commonly denote it in a plural form--"Hills of Otontepec". Despite having the appearance of a single mountainous unit, there are numerous peaks with altitudes ranging from 2000 to 4000 feet. The landmass itself encompasses about five square miles. Several sizable rivers have their headwaters on its slopes and surveys from the State of Veracruz report that it provides the water supply for dozens of villages and communities in the region. As with most sites in Mexico, the area is rich in archaeological sites, with unexcavated mounds and pyramids nearby.

Another interesting feature of this hill is a C-shaped bowl or valley facing south surrounded on three sides by a high ridge. This bowl appears to have certain military advantages that El Cerro Vigia does not, especially if the objective is to defend a population of women and children. I also like Otontepec as a candidate because it seems a much stronger match to the description mentioned in Ether 9:3. Take another look at the wording of this verse: "...[Omer]traveled many days, and came over and passed by the Hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward..." Moroni (editing Ether) doesn't bother mentioning Cumorah here by name--just reminds the reader that this was the place where the Nephites were destroyed. This gives the impression that Shim and Cumorah may be side by side, or at least much closer in proximity than Vigia and Cintepec. Moroni's description reinforces the idea that Shim and the "place where the Nephites were destroyed" are sufficiently close to each other that mentioning Cumorah in this reference must have seemed redundant.

However, this argument has one twist or tangle, and that tangle is offered by Ammaron himself. He identifies the land where the Hill Shim is located as being called the "land Antum." This name seems very Jaredite (Cori-antum-r). He also, when identifying Shim, seems to indicate that this particular hill was known even to the ancient Jaredites as Shim. Read Mormon 1:3 where Ammaron tells Mormon "..when ye are of that age go to the land Antum, unto a hill which shall be called Shim..."

"Shall be called"? That's rather unusual phrasing, almost as if the hill, and possibly the "land Antum" were ancient names that didn't have much distinction among the Nephties when Mormon was a child, but that this "Jaredite" hill will be known later as Shim because the name will be re-popularized by Mormon himself. There's seems to be a mingling of Jaredite and Nephite nomenclature here that makes the issue confusing. A wonderful solution would be that Nephites called it the "land of Cumorah" and the Jaredites (or other locals of the area) called it the "land of Antum", but archaeologically this does not (yet) have correlating support. However, additional information regarding the possible racial and/or religious complexity of "Mormon's homeland" is discussed in another article from Ainsworth and Miner found here:Link

To understand all that I have described, one has to actually see the location. So for various views and additional information regarding Otontepec and Tepezintla, please visit the following web pages and websites:

This link will take you to a page of Dr. Poulsen's website: Link (In this image keep in mind that the white line represents five miles.)

This is a second page on Dr. Poulsen's website with a different satellite view: Link

This last website is a promotional website for tourism written in Spanish, but the images are compelling. Besides the main image of the hill, scroll down for additional images of waterfalls, etc.: Link

Again, it must be stressed that this candidate for Cumorah is very preliminary. Immediate causes for skepticism are that, by any modern standard, Otontepec ought to be called a mountain and not a hill. In fact, modern maps call it Sierra de Otontepec, ("sierra" being the Spanish word for mountain, whereas "cerro" is hill). However, this is despite the alleged local custom of calling it a hill (or hills). Maybe interviews with the locals, especially the Huastec (Teenek) natives, would better reveal its traditional designation, (not to mention a possible wealth of other unique information.)

Obviously this region is much more suited to being identified as a "land" as well as a "hill" when compared to other Cumorah candidates. Yet it remains to be investigated if Otontepec can qualify as a "land of many waters, rivers, and fountains" (Mormon 6:4). Mormon was quite explicit in this description and such a feature cannot be overlooked. However, I was never quite clear why Vigia had earned this particular distinction over other areas of Veracruz and Tehuantepec. Mormon's description might make more sense if it means that Cumorah has considerably more abundant water supplies by comparison to other areas in the region. In that regard Otontepec may already qualify (see pictures on the last listed website), but further investigation is still warranted. Personally, I'd like to find a Cumorah about a hundred miles closer to the narrow neck than Otontepec, but I confess that this may be because I've been indoctrinated for so long by the limited geography of current Book of Mormon thinking that it's difficult for me to reset my brain.

Certainly we've only scratched the surface of what needs to be done archeologically and anthropologically if further investigation of Dr. Poulson's candidate for Cumorah proves promising. But that task, or the task of finding an entirely different location, or even the task of buffering and strengthening the current candidate of El Cerro Vigia must be left in the hands of those far more qualified than myself.

So here's the challenge to the current generation of LDS researchers: GO THERE! We readily confess that no field survey has ever been conducted in this region with the object of correlating it to Book of Mormon geography. Neither myself, nor Dr. Poulson, nor any other LDS researcher (as far as I am aware) has ever visited this area with such an objective in mind. (From what I'm told, there really aren't any hotels! One might have to stay in a resort closer to the ocean.) This candidate was discovered principally because of the time and energy that Dr. Poulsen has devoted to the technology of satellite imagery. This technology was unavailable to Book of Mormon researchers only a few years ago. Now it has become (admittedly) Dr. Poulsen's obsession. Still, it remains to be seen whether Otontepec can qualify as a "land of many waters, rivers, and fountains." Perhaps more importantly, it remains to be verified if there are defensive earthworks or ruins that date to the time period of Mormon or Ether. This is fresh, fertile territory for research! The prospects should ignite the imaginations of any disciplined LDS scholar. If nothing else, go there and prove the location wrong. Eliminate Otontepec as a candidate so that we can move on, or move back to former candidates, as the case may demand.

The goal, as always, is an open-minded search for truth. And by the way, this does not mean a search for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. That objective remains a spiritual one, and completely independent of any archaeological or geographical criteria. My personal belief is that even if Latter-days Saints were to find an ancient road sign that read "Zarahemla", it would do little to alter the cause of the Adversary in trying to undermine the work of the Lord. Additionally, it would do nothing to alter the responsibility of each individual to gain the kind of spiritual witness outlined in Moroni 10:3-5.

But for those whose testimonies are sufficiently established, I would extend a hearty invitation to continue the quest of Book of Mormon research. Personally, the search for Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites has been one of the most exciting pursuits that I've undertaken as a Latter-day Saint. It's proven a sincerely rewarding way of celebrating the spirit and heritage of the ancient record, as well as honoring the memory of those magnificent peoples who once lived in this hemisphere and devotedly worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Tennis Shoes" Bombshell

Hey, I'm about to polish off yet ANOTHER chapter of this latest Tennis Shoes book! So things are coming along swimmingly, and I'm still able to post the occasional philosophical/spiritual blog. But this post is more for fans than philosophers.

By comparison the latest Tennis Shoes Adventure is right now as long as many of the other adventures that have been published. I might compare it to the length of The Golden Crown. And yet I know that I still want to add five or six more chapters before I can make an end, which will make it as long or longer than Kingdoms and Conquerors. How exactly does an author decide the length of a book? Well, in my case, I've never had a master plan for such things. I've just set out to write a story and however long that story ended up being, well, that's how long it was. My intention when I began Thorns of Glory was that I would finish up the story that began with Warriors of Cumorah. However...it now appears that this may not be the case.

So here's my announcement: There will be at least two more books before I complete the story that began with Warriors of Cumorah. It will mean that the tale that began with Warriors of Cumorah will be five full volumes in length. Why am I doing this? Well, it's kinda like when we make lasagna around our house. I always want to serve myself more than I can eat. And in the case of this latest adventure, the plot has become a bit more interwoven and complex than I originally anticipated.

See, I knew that this latest book would deal with the last week in the life of the Savior. I also knew that it would address the world of the Nephites in the days of the final battle at Cumorah. What I did not anticipate was that this latest volume would also deal with the third mass destruction that is documented in the Book of Mormon.

What? You didn't know about the third destruction??? Most people could easily name two of the mass destructions. The first is the end of the Jaredites as recorded by Ether, and the second is the end of the Nephites as recorded by Mormon. Most readers forget the third mass destruction. This is because it's passed over by the chroniclers rather hastily. But you'll read about this destruction in the 8th and 9th chapters of the Book of Ether. It was the destruction that took place in the days of the sorcerer, Akish. In Ether 9:12 we are told that only thirty souls survived.

Many of my fans have requested the first chapter of the latest Tennis Shoes book. If you haven't, you are welcome to do so. Just send me the request via my regular email at cheimerdinger@gmail.com. I will then reply with an attachment that includes the Prologue and First Chapter of the current book. Those who have read this opening chapter are well aware that Akish plays a vital role. Sooooo, in the course of telling my story, I suppose I should have realized ahead of time that I might find myself entwined in the details of the third mass destruction. But I didn't realize it in the beginning. See, I make this stuff up as I go along. And this fact didn't register until I was about eight chapters into the current novel. Then it became obvious, especially after I began to realize just how complex and fascinating this particular story in Jaredite annals actually is.

These events chronicle one of the most compelling royal "soap operas" in the history of the world. We begin in Chapter 8 of the Book of Ether with the story of Omer, son of Shule, ruler over all the descendants of Jared. Omer was only the fourth king since Orihah, the son of Jared. But the life of King Omer is one of the great (nearly forgotten) tragedies and triumphs in the Book of Mormon. He had many sons and daughters (Eth. 8:1), but one of those sons, a pesky fellow named Jared, rebelled against his father. He conquered half the kingdom and then finally gave battle unto his father, Omer. After defeating Omer, he placed his father into captivity. Ether tells us that Omer was in captivity "half of his days (8:4)". But the nature of that captivity was such that he was able to have two more sons, named Esrom and Coriantumr (a different Coriantumr than the one who is significant during the last battle of the Jaredites at Ramah/Cumorah). These sons won the kingdom back for their father. They were about to slay their oldest brother, Jared, but in the end they had mercy upon him. Jared then became very depressed, which earned the sympathies of one of his daughters. Although this woman is unnamed, she is one of most influential and conniving women in history. She resurrected the evil oaths and combinations contained in the records carried across the ocean by Jared. Why Jared and Mahonri Moriancumr would even bring such evil records is unfathomable. Perhaps such records were simply part of the overall "history of the world" that the brother of Jared (Mahonri) later compiled into what is considered the greatest book ever written by the hand of man. This record is contained in the "sealed" portion of the Book of Mormon. It comprises fully two-thirds of the breadth of the entire stack of gold plates. As far as we are aware this sealed portion has never been translated, and to this day mankind has not been judged worthy to receive it. However, one day we will receive it, which will certainly be a great day indeed.

In any case, we are not told how the daughter of Jared got her hands on these evil oaths and combinations. What we are told is that the daughter of Jared conjured a scheme whereby she could reinstall her father to the throne. To acheive her ends, she enlisted the help of one Akish, son of Kimnor. NOW we begin to see how the story comes together! Akish was promised that if he killed Omer and put Jared back on the throne, the daughter of Jared would marry him (apparently she was one foxy mamma!) (8:12). Akish used these evil oaths to introduce secret combinations among the Jaredites. He called together all of his kinsmen and made them swear allegience to Akish and promise by heaven and earth never to divulge whatever secrets Akish made known to them.

However, despite the death plot that was brewing against Omer, Omer was forwarned by the Lord in the dream and fled to safety. Despite Akish's failure to actually kill Omer, Jared's daughter nevertheless followed through and married Akish.
It then seems that the daughter of Jared got more than she bargained for. Yes, Akish did install her father, Jared, back to the throne, but then Akish got jealous, and like so many tyrants, he decided he wanted all the power for himself. He had Jared beheaded while he sat on his throne (9:5) and then laid claim to the kingdom. Not only that, but Akish later became jealous of his oldest son, tossed him into prison, and had him starved to death (9:7). One can only imagine how the daughter of Jared now felt about her husband. In any case, another son of Akish named Nimrah became angry with his father, gathered up a small army, and fled to dwell with his great-grandfather, Omer in a land called Ablom. But the court intrigue doesn't end there. Akish's other sons also rebelled against Akish. The whole kingdom erupted into years of bloody civil war, a situation that finally ended with a great battle between Akish and the sons of Akish, destroying all but thirty of the kingdom's original subjects (9:12).

Now how can a historical fiction writer resist such an intense story of court intrigue? Besides, the destiny of Akish is something very much demanded in the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series. It is in my effort to fulfill this demand that I have made the decision to split the remaining story into two volumes. So here's the other bombshell: The next book in the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series, which I expect to complete sometime early next year, will not be entitled Thorns of Glory. This title is much more appropriate to the final volume of the story that began with Warriors of Cumorah. (If you notice, I'm always careful to say "story that began with Warriors of Cumorah". This leaves open the possibility for more Tennis Shoes Adventure Volumes in the future, but as part of a new and unique storyline.) I'm not quite sure what Volume 11 will be titled. I'm toying with the notion of calling it Seers and Sorcerers but I'm not yet certain.

So here's my promise: I'm fully aware how annoyed and impatient my readers have become waiting for the next Tennis Shoes volume. Therefore, after the publication of Volume 11, I have no intention of making my readers wait so long for the next volume. I will continue with Volume 12 uninterrupted and hopefully Vol. 12 will be released 6-12 months after Vol. 11.

Is that acceptable? I hope so.

I don't think anyone will be disappointed with the story itself and the intriguing, heart-pounding, and fascinating events that take place. Hey, if the author genuinely enjoys the story that he is creating, he can only hope that the readers will feel the same. In any case, I have the opportunity to bring to life aspects of the Book of Mormon that no other author has attempted. This is an incredible honor, and I can only hope that my efforts will be judged worthwhile by my readers.

By the way, if my current plan with this series comes to fruition, it will mean that the storylines of the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series follow a perfect Fibanacci numbers pattern. I assure everyone, this was not my intention. But it's kind of cool nonetheless. I'll leave it up to the readers to look up what a Fibanacci sequence is, in case you don't already know.

Copyright (c) 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

For those who are interested in signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff there are still a few available from Ebay. See: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Mystery of Conversion

I really debated titling this article "The Miracle of Conversion." The words in this context are interchangable. But I'm not a General Authority. I'm not your bishop. I'm a writer. A storyteller. I really didn't want this blog to read as if it was a talk by a Church leader, even though, I suppose, in the end the objective to inspire, motivate and edify is exactly the same.

The word "mystery" is, admittedly, a more provocative word. But I don't really think it was my intention to provoke. I was more interested in exploring the genuine mysteries--that is, concepts and phenomena not easily expressed in words--that underlie the conversion experience for a Latter-day Saint. Besides, the subject seemed particularly apropos considering that my last blog was on apostacy. Sooooo, I'd like to explore the opposite side of that spectrum. Thank you, D. Atkinson, for inspiring it.

I recall that when I was young--particularly when I was on my mission--I was guilty of over-analyzing and over-defining the conversion experience. (Maybe this article is evidence that such a tendency in me still thrives!) What I mean is, when I was personally converted to the LDS faith it seemed to me a very real, physical and spiritual event. I would concur that even today this phenomena is not really that easy to explain. Nevertheless, I was convinced that anyone who sought to know the Truth (captial "T") of our religion, or of the Book of Mormon, or of any other aspect of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, needed to undergo an experience similar to mine before they could proclaim to have received a "testimony."

In the LDS culture we may have burned out such words as "testimony" and "truth"...just a little. Not because the words are inappropriate or because they fail to accurately express the depth of our convictions. But because they may be perceived by some as cliches. When a word or expression becomes a cliche, it means that it may no longer have the emotional or intellectual impact that it once had. Thus, a saying like "I know the Church is true" is sometimes satirized by people--sometimes even by ourselves! It's certainly not uncommon for an LDS comic to stand behind a podium and (with mock tears) say things like "I know my roommate is true. I know my ipod is true", etc., and we chuckle because we are all-too familiar with the kind of thing he is poking fun at. By the way, this is harmless. I'm not criticizing the need to satire the overtrivialization of such things. However, it may be useful for saints to be aware that using such phrases as "I'd like to bear my testimony," or "I know the Church is true," may not have the same impact on a non-member--or even a fellow Latter-day Saint--as it had twenty-five or thirty years ago. Even we, as saints, often don't mentally "hear" the phrase anymore. It sort of whooshes over our heads; we find ourselves subliminally or unintentionally awaiting the next sentence before our brains "kick in" and we pay attention. (The same may be true of such phrases recited in prayer as "We thank Thee for this day..." or "Bless this food that it may give us nourishment and strength..." or "Bless the instructor that we may take this lesson into our daily lives...") Sometimes these sentences are like "warm-up" phrases for our brains so that we can get the wheels turning and begin expressing what is truly in our hearts. The only time I worry is when a prayer consists of nothing but cliches--no heartfelt sentiments whatsoever. It's important for us to be aware of how these phrases are sometimes received by our listeners. They may not have the intended impact. They aren't really all that different from the memorized liturgies of other Christian denominations. One consequence of this is that the pseudo-intellectuals among us start to think that our convictions and beliefs are not heartfelt, or that we function by rote, or even that our members are brainwashed. (I say pseudo-intellectuals because true intellectuals don't get caught up in such hasty and shallow judgments.)

The fact is that any individual's conversion experience (i.e. their time of personal communion with the Holy Ghost) is a very sacred thing. But not so sacred, I think, that we cannot discuss the nature of the experience in general terms. I have previously written that using words to describe a spiritual event--i.e., an instance wherein we are touched by the Holy Spirit--can be a difficult challenge. Sometimes I think this is on purpose! In other words, expressions that we employ to define the experience may be inadequate to really communicate what those seeking a similar experience should expect. This may serve to compel an individual to seek the experience for themselves rather than rely upon the experience described by others. Or at least I hope this is the result.

A common phrase that is used when describing someone being touched by the Holy Ghost is a "burning in the bosom." This phrase is also scriptural (see D&C 9:8). Others might describe a "tingling sensation" or simply a "warm feeling" that envelops the heart or the entire body. The most common description--and the most poetic--is that of a "still, small voice" (see 1 Kgs 19:12, 1 Ne 17:45). My personal favorites are descriptions like the one found in Doctrine and Covenants 85:6: "Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest..." Also the description in 3 Nephi 11:3, just before the Savior makes his appearance, wherein the people "heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn."

What magnificent descriptions of the Holy Ghost! And yet for some the description is so beautiful and sublime that they are left to wonder if they could ever experience such an event for themselves. Yet I believe this is what a person seeking conversion should expect. A manifestation "by the power of the Holy Ghost (Mor. 10:5)" is precisely what a truth seeker is promised! However, for some people the typical and traditional descriptions may be inadequate. As I said before, the reason that the Holy Ghost is sometimes difficult to describe to another person may be to ultimately prevent us from relying upon the testimony of others. It must be personally experienced. Afterwards a verbal description is no longer necessary. We know what we felt. We know what happened. Nothing can replace it. And few things can convince us that it did not take place. I say "few" things because the Adversary does sometimes attempt to reduce the impact of a spiritual manifestion. He can do this by persuading us to allow a great deal of time to intervene between such experiences. This permits the mind to conjure alternate interpretations for what has taken place. Ebeneezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol offered an alternate interpretation of his vision of Marley's ghost. When the spectre asks, "Why do you doubt your senses?" Scrooge scoffingly replies:

"...a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Similarly, the Adversary may convince us over time that our own spiritual manifestations were the result of a similar bodily function. We start to wonder if what we experienced came about from over stimulation, or excessive excitement, or even that we wanted the experience to happen so badly that we merely convinced ourselves that it occurred. The Adversary whispers that it was all in our imaginations--just in our heads.

Even other Christian denominations (or agnostic "intellectuals") who see themselves as somehow competing with the LDS faith will sometimes go the great lengths to label an event wherein the Holy Ghost confirms truthfulness (of, say, The Book of Mormon) as a kind of emotional self-delusion. When I was first converted I recall making strides to separate out the "emotion" from the actual "manifestion" of the Holy Ghost. Certainly an emotional reaction is the result of a spiritual manifestion, but it is not the manifestion itself. Intense emotion is understandable! It is extremely humbling to realize that our Heavenly Father--a Being who purportedly oversees billions and billions of souls--would condescend and grant such a miracle to one as seemingly insignificant as ourselves. Who wouldn't react emotionally to such a gift? Who wouldn't offer up tears of gratitude and joy? But the tears do not define the event. I believe it is increasingly important to draw this distinction, particularly since those who seek to tear down or dissect an individual's spiritual manifestion usually try to define it as mere emotion. On occasion they will relegate it to some other physical anomoly resulting from the brain's complex soup of hormones or synaptic impulses. But most commonly they will boil it down to emotion. Such a snake dance of logic is often terribly hypocritical. Of necessity the scoffer must also deny God's ability or willingness to transmit intelligence to His children. They must conjure criteria that defines "good" spiritual feelings and "bad" spiritual feelings. (Remember Glenda from Wizard of Oz? "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?") But such criteria is often so ill-defined that it serves no practical purpose. So, ultimately, they must convince us that there is "no need" to seek spiritual enlightenment about something that "intelligence" can so easily dismiss--as if such criteria ever applied to the search for relgious truth! As if faith was not the primary tool deployed! So in the interest of preserving their own world view, an anti-Mormon must twist and transform spiritual confirmation into emotion or an "undigested bit of beef" in their goal of dissembling someone's burgeoning testimony. They have no alternative. All other options are expended. The transmission of knowledge from the Holy Ghost cannot be defeated any other way. But if the spiritual experience can be boiled down to emotion, the rest is easy. Emotions are unstable. They are immeasurable. They vary from person to person. They are forever the stuff of random stimuli.

However, in my own personal experience, the Holy Ghost cannot be dissected, reduced, or relegated to an alternative phenomenon. I suspect this is the same for most Church members who possess strong and stable testimonies. But for now I will speak only of my own personal experiences.

Over the course of my life I've now enjoyed spiritual communion with the Holy Ghost on more occasions than I could possibly recount. But it is still those original manifestations--the ones that I had prior to my baptism--that I come back to me when I seek to somehow "define" the experience. And it may be that the very, very first experience remains the most profound one of all--at least as far as illustrating the event for others. This may be because I was not expecting it. I was not seeking it. It wouldn't have occurred to me that such an experience was something that could be sought. It just happened.

I was about fifteen years old. I was visiting an old friend of mine from grade school who'd moved to the little town of El Jebel, Colorado. His family was LDS. Their conversion occurred about a year prior to moving away from Cody, Wyoming. During this Colorado visit the local LDS Stake hosted a Youth Conference in Glenwood Springs. The event included a rafting trip, a dance, and many other festivities. But also on the intinerary was a Church meeting called a "fireside." I might have contemplated skipping this event, but everybody else was going, so I reluctantly tagged along. The speaker was a man named Brenton Yorgason. As I said before, I was only fifteen. As an adult I've had many opportunities to meet and associate with Brent and his brother, Blaine, by virtue of the fact that we are LDS authors. But at the time I'd never heard of Brent or his books.

His talk was entertaining enough, as Church talks go. I'd been an active Lutheran for several years in Wyoming and had sometimes heard the heartfelt sermons of my local pastor, Pastor Hermsted. The only immediate difference was that "Brother" Yorgason didn't wear a white collar. I recall that the kids were very anxious to get on with a dance that was scheduled for later that night. There were a number of very attractive females in attendance, so I was no less eager than everybody else. But first we had to listen to this "fireside" speech.

It was during that talk that I felt the Holy Ghost for the first time in my life. It was something that I'd never experienced before. No physical sensation like it had ever occurred in my first 15 years. Now how can I describe it? First I suppose I ought to lay out the context. Brother Yorgason was telling the story of a young boy named Joseph Smith and how, at the age of seven, he had to endure a terrible operation where a diseased piece of bone had to be cut away from his leg. I can't recall if I'd ever heard the name "Joseph Smith" before or not. Perhaps I had. But it had never struck me as a name I ought to remember.

As I listened I felt a warm, tingling sensation. (Yup, my description would be almost the same--and no less inadequate--as descriptions I've since heard from others.) It began in my chest and seemed to spread outward to every limb of my body. My first reaction was surprise. I don't think it was alarm. The feeling was very positive; nothing about it made me feel afraid or apprehensive. Quite the opposite. But beyond the physical part of the experience, a distinct thought entered my mind. I wouldn't describe it as a "Voice," per say. Just a thought. But I was convinced it had come from outside myself. Where else would it have come from? The thought was: Pay attention. This man, Joseph Smith, is important. That's it. That's what I remember. The "burning" feeling lasted for about a minute. I remember I thought I was glowing. I vaguely recall looking around at others and wondering if they were feeling the same thing. It was apparent that no one around me was experiencing exactly what I was experiencing. And then it left. The feeling faded until it had entirely disappeared. I remember the emptiness left behind, and the disappointment. I remember thinking how badly I wanted to feel that feeling again. But since I had no explaination for how it had come about in the first place, I also had no idea how to bring it back.

It was three years before I felt this manifestation again. The next time was during my Freshman year at BYU as I prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true. Because my memory of what had occurred in Colorado was so vivid it made the recurrence of that feeling all the more profound. Not feeling the Holy Ghost for three years naturally caused me to ponder the event. I started to wonder what the point of it was. Oh, I never doubted that it happened, but I definitely wondered why. I even recall trying to tell my older brother about it shortly after I got home from Colorado. It must've been one of those "you had to be there" things, because I really couldn't describe it in any way that did the experience justice. However, for me personally, the absence of that sensation--that "burning in the bosom"--for three long years may have been part of the Lord's plan for me. He knew that when the feeling returned I would immediately recognize it as an answer to my prayers. More importantly, He knew that I would act upon that answer. Three weeks later, I was baptized.

Because of my own personal conversion I've often tried to help investigators to seek a similar experience before they joined the LDS Church. Over the years, however, I've loosened up on that. The ways and means by which the Spirit manifests itself to individuals seems to be as varied as the number of individuals who are touched. I sense that the physical experiences are similar, but the circumstances have an infinite variety. I have personally known people who can't really name a specific conversion "event." They've simply always known--ever since they were very young children. The cumulation of spiritual experiences in their lives have made their testimonies virtually indestructible. Nevertheless, I still contend that communing with the Holy Ghost is a separate and distinct experience from the emotion that it may subsequently generate. Also, the "feeling" is not the result of any internal physiological or psychological mechanism. It comes from outside ourselves. It comes as a gift from God.

However, just because my conversion experience can be so strikingly defined it does mean that I have any particular advantage as I undergo the line-by-line, precept-by-precept education of the Spirit endured by every Latter-day Saint as far as making day-to-day decisions. I still struggle and concentrate and pray and fast to make sure that I can distinguish spiritual promptings at critical moments. And often I get it wrong, which usually serves to teach me a lesson that I would not have otherwise learned.

When it comes to conversion, it seems to me the most pressing challenge for people--especially LDS youth--is instilling inside them a core desire to even know Truth. How do you teach someone to hunger and thirst after a testimony? I teach Sunday School to 13-year-olds. A couple of weeks ago I asked bluntly if any of them had ever sought to know if the Church was true. I asked if they'd ever gotten down on their knees and requested such knowledge. No hands were raised. None of them had yet felt any pressing need to know.

Like many of us, I live in a fairly affluent area. The kids in my neighborhood live very comfortable lives. They've never known want (unless it was for a cell phone). They've never known hunger or experienced any kind of serious calamity or hardship. I have no doubt in my mind that the Lord "blesses" us with trials when we become too comfortable. Brigham Young once warned the Latter-days that they would shortly become wealthy, but he said that this wealth would be a greater challenge to their spiritual progress than poverty. I often believe I am witnessing a literal fulfillment of that prophecy as I observe some of the youth of this Church--and many older members as well. Maybe your Ward is the same. Maybe it's not. Maybe your experience is entirely different. But I think for many saints, they can relate to what I am describing.

How did we create this scenario? Well, I realize as parents that we want so badly to give our children better lives than what we may have experienced. It's only natural. We deliberately, if unintentionally, spoil our kids. Not because we want to hurt them, but because we love them, and giving to them whatever they ask for (especially if they ask again and again and again) is sometimes our haphazard (and lazy) way of expressing that love. Giving extraordinary gifts and opportunities can sometimes be a matter of personal pride--almost the same game as keeping up with the Joneses. But there is an obvious downside, and I fear that we are now beginning to reap it.

Personally, I am convinced that if the Lord's saints will just internalize gratitude or somehow foster valiance in building His kingdom on our own without having to experience serious trials and calamities, the Lord would not be as inclined to afflict us with such. The Lord wants to protect us. He wants us to be happy and succeed. But success to Him means returning to His presence. And for some reason, as a species, we do not spiritually thrive or excel without earthquakes, floods, famines, war, disease, and a whole range of other serious challenges. It seems that this is a stark reality of our eternal progression. So yes, I believe hurricanes and other disasters are often a direct result of God's love. It would be inaccurate to label such His "punishments." To me it's always sad when I hear somebody conclude that pain and disaster are evidence of God's apathy, or even His non-existence.
Exactly the opposite is true. Somehow the Lord must find a way to turn our hearts back to Him, drive us to our knees, and motivate us to learn the most serious lessons of what it means to be an eternal heir. Also, it is by these methods that the Lord judges the rest of us. Our willingness to sacrifice, to serve our fellow man, particularly in times of trial and disaster is the most basic lesson that Christ taught when He said: "If ye love me, feed my sheep (John 21:16)."

For me, as a teenager, no questions burned more profoundly in my mind than "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" and "Where are we going?" Nobody taught me a driving desire to know such things. It was an inborn thing, an integral part of my curious nature. Even Moroni 10:3-5 assumes that a desire to know truth is already in place before a person seeks an answer from the Holy Ghost. And yet I'm well aware (part of me is even shocked) that many people in the world do not share this desire or passion. They don't feel any need to know. Or perhaps they're simply convinced that they cannot know. So why try?

Nevertheless, it is my firm testimony that Truth can be known. To quote that silly show The X-Files: "The Truth is Out There." But not in some secret government lab. I believe God Himself desperately wants us to want to know. But the old addage applies: "You can lead a horse to water, but..." etc., etc.

I pray that for anyone reading this blog, if you have not already experienced the miracle of conversion, that it may become the most driving desire of your life. I am convinced that it is the first step to Godhood. And may all of us, as we seek to nurture this passion in ourselves, also figure out the "mystery" of instilling that passion in others.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

For those who are interested in signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff there are still a few available from Ebay. See: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Once Upon Apostacy

Just polished off another chapter in the latest "Tennis Shoes" adventure. Thus I can post a new blog. Sorry I can't post as much as I'd like. But I watch the number of "views" here increase every day and I am very pleased. Still, I wish more folks would leave comments or notes. I'm most definitely not the last word on any issue that I may address.

The novel that I am now writing has forced me to deeply ponder the concept of apostacy. In particular, the monumental lapse of faith experienced by Judas Iscariot. There's much to learn by closely reading the four gospels and understanding Judas' local environment that helps us to, at least, understand his actions. Understanding is not acceptance. His actions were unspeakably heinous. But they at least reveal that Judas, son of Simon, was a product of his environment, and more particularly, a product of human weakness that often reveals itself in many different settings of human experience.

Virtually every Latter-day Saint has had personal experience (i.e., witnessing firsthand) the apostacy of someone they respect, love, or care about. Quite often we are profoundly baffled. Sometimes we are angry and defensive. But mostly, we're just tremendously sad. A few of us may have even found ourselves caught up in the web of apostacy and somehow fought our way back to full fellowship in the faith. I'm not sure any lesser word than "fought" can be used here. Phrases like "intensely struggled" or "battled with all our might, mind, and strength" are likely to be more accurate and appropriate.

Every story of apostacy is tragic and depressing. But the most confusing kind of apostacy is always that which is seemingly accompanied by intellectual or theological concerns. I stress the word "seemingly" for good reason, because based on my own personal experience, an individual's lapse in faith resulting from things like Book of Mormon Geography or disagreements with the Church's stance on gay marriage never tells the whole story of an individual's long and slippery descent into apostacy.

I recently asked an older LDS scholar (who now works at BYU) how many times in his long Church experience has he watched someone fall away from the LDS faith strictly based on intellectual or theological reasons.

"Once," he replied. "But even then I think there were mitigating circumstances."

In his experience, whenever an individual seemed to grapple with intellectual matters that brought him or her to the brink of apostacy he was always cynically inclined to say, "So you have some problems with Church theology? All right. But first let's discuss your sins of immorality. Afterwards we'll discuss your concerns intellectually."

In his mind unrepented sins always seemed to preceed intellectual apostacy. I would have to say that this is also my experience. Usually intellectual or theological disillusion is merely the iceburg that an apostate chooses to reveal, whereas their real reason for leaving the Church is oftimes hidden beneath the surface.

Most of us could cite a thousand methods or tactics that the Adversary employs to deceive formerly faithful Church members. But I think virtually every case can be boiled down to two primary causes: misplaced expectation or the downfall of human pride. Misplaced expectation refers to an individual who has certain defined "expectations" about life--generally from their upbringing or culture--and how, inevitably, the Church fails to live up to those expectations. By the downfall of human pride I mean the kind of poisonous pride whereby the Adversary successfully transforms our greatest strengths into our most debilitating weaknesses.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke of this kind of pride when he said:

"The proud can hear only the clamor of the crowd, but a person who, as King Benjamin said, “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, [and] humble” (Mosiah 3:19), can hear and follow the still, small voice by which our Father in Heaven guides his children who are receptive" (Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Liahona, May 1995, pg. 10).

Pride that leads to apostacy is most often seen when a person is offended by another Church member. As a result, the offended soul decides to abandon Church activity altogether. Often the offended person does not abandon their testimony per say--just the responsibilities associated with that testimony. Apostacy due to personal offense remains one of Satan's most effective strategies. You'd think after all the warnings we receive from Church leaders from Primary age onward that we would develop a kind of indestructible shield against this kind of attack. But obviously it still works just fine for the Adversary. So as far as remaining a regular weapon in his arsenal, he seems to think, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Apostacy caused by unfulfilled expectation is closely related to pride, but seems to have its own subtle nuance or twist. It remains integrally connected to a person's inability to separate him or herself from certain long-established tenets about "life"--tenets often ingrained since birth, parroted by the media, and distributed across the entire spectrum of modern culture. Then, when the Gospel appears to come in direct conflict with these "expectations", the Gospel usually loses. An example of one tenet of expectation might be the concept that science is the most reliable means to gain an understanding of human existance. If this expectation is strongly entrenched--and admittedly, all of our formal education since Kindergarten seeks this entrenchment--then some will conclude that even religion must adhere to such standards. Many come to believe that the tenets of religion are to be judged alongside science, and if science appears to disprove some aspect of religion, cultural "expectation" demands that such religious tenets should be abandoned.

Another cultural expectation might be that modern morality, because it just seems so much more tolerant and easier to abide by than "old-fashioned" morality, must be a superior way of life. The foundation of this principal might be more simply stated as: "Tolerance is the ultimate noble attribute." After all, morality today often disguises itself as an issue of choice rather than a matter of right and wrong. The quest to elevate the attribute of "tolerance" as the pinnacle of desirable virtues defines much of the current generation. To the youth of today, anyone who professes constraint or who trumpets views which appear non-inclusive of those whose life choices conflict with traditional values must be labeled "intolerant". Actually, these days they are more often called bigoted or hateful. I'm guessing this view was born out of the racial conflict and prejudice that occupied our culture in the last half of the 20th Century. But now Satan has taken this genuinely just cause (of not judging one another according to our race or color) and tweaked it just a bit to serve very different ends. The objective now is, quite simply, to tolerate sin. As a result, much of the world feels they can intellectually reject the LDS Church on the grounds of its supposed "intolerance" alone. We frequently have to remind our critics that we didn't change--the world changed. Moral, social, and intellectual expectations have been radically redefined in this generation. And so it is often on these grounds that a soul will justify falling, or drifting, into apostacy.

But as I said before, it is rare, and perhaps non-existant, that this kind of apostacy is not accompanied by serious, unrepented sins. Not long ago I had a very dear friend in the arts who fell into this trap. We'd worked together on several of the songs that I composed for the movie Passage to Zarahemla. In such a setting he and I often found time to discuss the Gospel and wax philosophical about life and religion and the arts. I found that his philosophies were very similar to my own when it came to the challenges faced by today's LDS artists, LDS youth, and Latter-day Saints in general. However, a couple years later I found that his spiritual state of mind had altered dramatically. He revealed that he had left the LDS Church and no longer believed in the Book of Mormon or even Jesus Christ. I was astonished, to say the least. What had happened in thost few intervening years since we'd worked so closely together?

In particular I was struck when my friend proclaimed that he had fallen away because of articles that he had read about DNA research suggesting that Native Americans originated in Siberia and Southeast Asia and not in Mesopotamia. It seemed like such a silly reason for apostatizing that I immediately set about trying to pursuade him to a more rational perspective. At that time I wasn't particularly conversant on the science that he was questioning. And quite frankly, I didn't believe I had to be. I'd actually never heard of this particular objection before. Similar intellectual gymnastics against Church theology seemingly come along more often than a soul has time to keep up with. At some point a saint is forced to rely on his testimony--his faith in "things not seen that are true." Nevertheless, because it happens to be a driving hobby of mine to study out these kinds of matters, I've since done so. As a result, I've found this conflict more trivial than most others I've encountered. Much counter-research has been presented by faithful Latter-day Saints that dispell whatever concerns may have existed. A simple internet search can drum up all the arguments, pro or con. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. And in the case of my friend, it turned out that it didn’t matter at all.

What concerned me more than the issue he claimed had caused his downfall were things he told me, and things that I later learned from other sources, regarding choices he'd made in his personal life and with his family. His choices had clearly been in opposition to Church edicts and God's commandments for many years prior to his apostacy. Even when, for a period, he struggled and repented and fought to overcome his mistakes, he nevertheless drifted back into old patterns of destruction. Suddenly any desire to discuss issues of human migration and DNA became inconsequential. Something far more corrosive was at work here. As I said before, it wasn’t long before my friend confessed that he'd also abandoned his faith in the Savior and the Atonement. Oh, he professed that he still loved the LDS people and had nothing against those who still believed. He just no longer believed it for himself. Later he announced that he was getting divorced and that he might have to file for bankruptcy. If the pattern continues--the same pattern that I’ve seen play out more often than I care to count--he will soon become an outspoken enemy of the Church. That’s just how it seems to go. People with formerly strong testimonies don’t seem to just fall away from this Church. They fall AWAYYYYYYY from the Church--so far away that in time we hardly recognize them anymore.

But there was something else about my experience with this friend that I found interesting. I learned that he was living in opposition to the Church even during those months that we worked together on my project--even as we were philosophizing and expressing mutual positive belief and testimony. From this I concluded that there is sometimes a "grace period" offered by the Spirit wherein a person is given an opportunity to repent--a period wherein their testimony is not utterly stripped away. Despite everything, it remains, for a time, intact and vibrant and strong. During this time the individual still knows full well that they are doing wrong and must make changes. This grace period only seems to end when conscience dies; when guilt is sufficiently suppressed so that this spiritual gift (yes, guilt is a spiritual "gift") can no longer intercede. Only at that point--the point when the Lord is seemingly convinced that no change is forthcoming--does the Voice of the Spirt grow silent within a person's soul. (Though I should clarify, my personal belief is that the Spirit NEVER goes completely silent. For those who will finally open their ears, they find that the Voice is still there, and the Lord's arms ever outstretched to provide a welcoming embrace of love.) I don't know all the ins and outs of this sort of thing. I couldn't tell you how the time table works. I suppose it's different with every soul. But one thing is certain: Heavenly Fatherly is infinitely merciful and patient with all of us. In the end, even if we fall away, I believe we will one day acknowledge that whatever happened in our lives, it happened for our own good and was designed to help us progress as best as possible under the circumstances.

Infinite mercy. Infinite patience. These are attributes of God that never run dry. They are always abundantly available to the sinner, no matter how far they have drifted, with the possible exception of prohibitions expressed in Alma 39:6.

This verse speaks of denying the Holy Ghost. Every now and then I'll hear of some wayward soul who thinks he has committed this kind of unpardonable infraction and thus damned him or herself to Outer Darkness. However, it is entirely doubtful if anyone reading this blog even qualifies to commit such a sin. Such a sin requires such knowledge and light and understanding that few who have ever walked the earth even possess. Therefore very few people in world history could even qualify to commit sin against the Holy Ghost.

Judas Iscariot is a prime example of a man who committed a sin so heinous that some believe he ought to be destined to a state of Perdition. However, a closer look at all the circumstances reveals that he simply does not qualify. Judas is an enigma among the figures of world history. He is the only member of the twelve apostles who was not a Galilean. (This alone might provide a piece of the puzzle behind his disloyalty, but certainly not enough to satisfy most.) To some Christians Judas represents the ultimate antagonist—-the embodiment of evil, alongside Cain and Lucifer. Non-Christians or anti-Christians have, at times, portrayed him as a man misunderstood--a man whose intentions were noble or even heroic. An apocryphal text dating to the Second or Third century, and titled The Gospel of Judas, even claims that Judas was in cahoots with Jesus and committed his betrayal under the Savior’s direct orders. Most scholars conclude that this text was written decades, perhaps centuries, after the conclusion of the Savior's mission, and was motivated by Gnostic theology--an apostate movement which picked up steam toward the end of the First Century.

Looking at the facts surrounding Judas' betrayal, it seems clear that this man was terribly complex and troubled. Such an observation in no way justifies his betrayal, but it does present some interesting queries: How can anyone who basks in the presence of the Lord for three and a half years commit such a despicable act? What was the pivotal moment when Judas began to doubt his Master’s mission? What flaws in Judas’ character allowed Satan to “enter into him” (Luke 22:3, John 13:27)? And finally, what caused him to regret what he had done with such self-loathing that suicide seemed the only alternative?

In my latest "Tennis Shoes" novel I attempt to shed some light on Judas in the best tradition of historical fiction. In the end such speculations only amount to one author’s best efforts to untangle an immensely difficult conundrum. However, one of the advantages of fiction is that it can sometimes reveal motivations and psychology heretofore unconsidered or unexplored. As I said before, Judas was, more than anything, a product of his environment: its political, religious, and eschatological foundations. These factors above all others likely led him to commit the acts that he committed. It seems most compelling to presume that his disenchantment with Jesus was a symptom of the general misunderstanding and impatience felt by nearly all of Judea’s masses. They wanted a king and conqueror, not a spiritual “Savior.” Jews had been programmed all of their lives to look for a Messiah who would rule on earth, not in heaven. Expelling such concepts from one’s psyche and transforming it according to the Lord’s will is often no less challenging today than it was for the Lord’s ancient followers. Only after the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost that occurred on that day did Christ's Apostles and disciples finally begin to understand the breadth and depth of what their Master had done, and the ultimate sacrifice that He had taken upon Himself.

Judas is an example of someone whose entrenched expectations, internal flaws of character, and poisonous pride made him pitiably vulnerable to become the Adversary’s pawn in bringing about the tragic events that led to the Savior's crucifixion. Many of us, after undergoing our own spiritual self-examination, might conclude that in critical ways we are no less vulnerable than Judas. Only though continual repentance and unflagging, daily effort to realign ourselves with God’s will can we insure that the Adversary will not prevail in carefully leading us into similar destructive paths.

From President Joseph F. Smith we learn the following regarding Judas' status as a Son of Perdition:

"Now, if Judas really had known God’s power, and had partaken thereof, and did actually “deny the truth” and “defy” that power, “having denied the Holy Spirit after he had received it,” and also “denied the Only Begotten,” after God had “revealed him” unto him, then there can be no doubt that he “will die the second death.”

"That Judas did partake of all this knowledge—that these great truths had been revealed to him—that he had received the Holy Spirit by the gift of God, and was therefore qualified to commit the unpardonable sin, is not at all clear to me. To my mind it strongly appears that not one of the disciples possessed sufficient light, knowledge nor wisdom, at the time of the crucifixion, for either exaltation or condemnation; for it was afterward that their minds were opened to understand the scriptures, and that they were endowed with power from on high; without which they were only children in knowledge, in comparison to what they afterwards become under the influence of the Spirit
(Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, pg. 433)."

Rather than pass off Judas Iscariot as God's ultimate antagonist, a man who committed acts we would never dream of committing ourselves, we ought to strive to understand all of the factors that led to his downfall and possibly recognize some of those social, cultural or spiritual flaws and tendencies within ourselves.

Apostacy for a Latter-day Saint is generally not a sudden affliction. I believe it can be unknowingly nurtured for years, usually by allowing some caustic sin to fester inside us. The best advice? Cast off the sin. Repent. And finally, do not underestimate the Adversary.

Remember, Satan doesn't have to see us tossed into Outer Darkness to acheive victory over us. If we have the potential to become a Celestial heir with Jesus Christ and yet we allow Satan to knock us down to a Terrestrial inheritance, he wins.

So let us put on the full armor of God. Let us make right in our lives anything that might be amiss. Only by so doing can we defend ourselves against the Adversary's dark whisperings at that critical moment when our very exhaltation hangs in the balance.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger

If you are interested in signed Tennis Shoes and Passage to Zarahemla stuff for Christmas presents. See: http://shop.ebay.com/liahona10/m.html?_nkw=&_armrs=1&_from=&_ipg=&_trksid=p4340.