The Gospel Litmus Test

746 words

© Anthony E. Larson, 2005


A chemist can determine the pH of any substance by dipping a bit of colored paper into it. Called “litmus” paper, its color changes depending upon the acidity or alkalinity of the compound in question—one color if it is acidic, another if it is basic. It’s a fundamental and uncomplicated test.

There is a similar such test to determine the extent of our gospel comprehension, to determine how well we read and study the scriptures.

It’s called prophecy.

Most Latter-day Saints are likely to dismiss such a notion out of hand, since they consider prophecy to be a rather esoteric and narrow part of the gospel and thus the least likely candidate for such a gauge or standard. After all, prophetic symbolism seems to have little to do with the day-to-day, practical application of our religion.

So, how can one possibly construe prophecy to be a test for anything, much less the depth of our gospel understanding?

It is precisely because the colorful and peculiar imagery of prophecy permeates all of scripture, not just prophetic visions. It is the symbol and imagery-laden language of the prophets.

The beasts seen in Ezekiel’s and Daniel’s Old Testament visions as well as those seen by John in Revelation are the same beasts that are seen on Joseph Smith’s facsimiles and those described in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price.

The ‘miracles’ of the Exodus are the same as the ‘signs’ in Revelation, and they corroborate and illuminate Joseph Smith’s statements about the nature of latter-day signs in his journal, History of the Church.

The planets, stars and other enigmatic symbols that adorn our latter-day temples are also found in our sacred texts, and the explicitly symbolic nature of the rituals and fixtures found within those hallowed walls point us to the lofty value that latter-day prophets placed on that imagery, however obscure it may seem to us.

Perhaps more telling is the fact that after the heavens were effectively sealed for centuries, of all the choice scripture that the angel Moroni could have chosen to quote to the young Joseph Smith when he first appeared to him in 1823, he quoted prophecy—Malachi, Isaiah, and Joel. Its message is that important.

Prophecy is at the heart of our religion, though we seem reluctant to acknowledge that truth. The gospel was restored and the church was subsequently founded on the notion of Adventism, the doctrine that the second coming of Christ, in the wake of a worldwide destruction called the apocalypse, is near at hand.

Instead, we almost universally focus on the spiritual message of the scriptures, disregarding the imagery as mere poetic affectation. In doing so, we overlook fully half of the information in the scriptures. Like the proverbial forest in the trees, it is virtually invisible to us.

As a result, our gospel comprehension suffers. We cannot make sense of the bizarre imagery of prophecy. We also fail to see much of what the sacred texts were meant to convey. We go through temple sessions without grasping the profound enormity of the message that the imagery we see there represents. When we look at Joseph Smith’s facsimiles, we see them only as oddities and curiosities that once entertained the passing interest of a prophet rather than the very keys to gospel comprehension.

In making all these omissions, we dismiss as inconsequential the message God and his prophets have carefully placed before us. We dismiss a vital part of the gospel of Jesus Christ as mere decorative glitter.

If the spiritual message of salvation is the gospel’s heart and soul, then the imagery and symbolism are its bone and sinew. That’s why it’s found everywhere in the restored church, from the scriptures, to the temples, to the discourses of modern prophets.

This is our litmus test: To the extent to which we do or do not understand the imagery of prophecy, we also fail to understand the rest of scriptural imagery.

Our casual acquaintance with our own gospel betrays a lack of study and dedication to its comprehension. We do not “search the scriptures,” as we’ve been counseled to do. We skim through them. We read, but without comprehension.

Hence, we get repeated pleas from the Brethren to read our scriptures—the most recent: Read the Book of Mormon.

Thus, our comprehension of prophecy is a clear indication of our overall gospel understanding. This being the case, most of us fail the gospel litmus test, since for most Latter-day Saints prophecy is a mystery, wrapped in a conundrum, couched in an enigma.



The Last Lecture

1870 words

© Anthony E. Larson, 2007

The last lecture

(A speech outline.)

Years ago at BYU, a new lecture series was instigated. Called the “Last Lecture,” it was formatted to give the lecturer the opportunity to speak as though it were the last address he or she would give before dying—a sort of gospel last will and testament, if you will.

That’s what I would like to do today. If I knew I was going to be called home tomorrow, this is what I would want to say to you right now.

Over the last 40 years or so, I have dedicated my spare time—outside raising a family and earning a living—to an in-depth study of the restored gospel. That study resulted in a distinctive view, one that prompted me to become an author and lecturer—roles I had never previously contemplated in my wildest fantasies.

In so doing, I found myself breathing rather rarified air: None of my fellow Saints seemed aware of the information I had ferret out and then sought to share with them. In fact, it became apparent early on that most church members regarded my views with the same hesitation and scorn that they reserved for reports of UFO sightings, vanishings in the Bermuda Triangle and chance encounters with Big Foot or Yeti in remote regions of the world. They almost entirely discounted what I sought to teach, and they regarded me as nothing more than a purveyor of “odd knowledge” having little to do with their understanding of the gospel or the real world.

As time went on and my research progressed, this conceptual and perceptual gap widened. I discovered whole areas of thought and information of which most members were seemingly totally unaware. It was apparent that this traditional symbolism touched on more than simply prophetic imagery; it had sweeping implications for every aspect of the gospel, including temple iconography and ritual—perhaps one of the least understood facets of the restoration.

And this puzzled me as much as it perplexed others.

At first, I questioned my own conclusions. How could it be that everyone else had missed this information? Logic and reason suggested that I had probably shimmied out on a faux limb; otherwise, most members would already know these things. After all, we all belong to the one, true church, guided by inspired men. How could it be that with revelation in the church there would be gaps in our gospel knowledge? It just didn’t seem logical or possible.

Nevertheless, the evidence continued to mount as my research progressed. Thanks to a quiet revolution in the natural sciences, this information was notoriously obvious and readily available. There could be no doubt about the validity of the concepts I was learning.

Ere long, my research uncovered the indisputable fact that these ideas had been taught in the early days of the church by general authorities. Most reported that they had learned these concepts from the horse’s mouth: the prophet Joseph Smith himself.

So, I was confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, the modern church, with leaders who I knew to be inspired, seemed to know little or nothing of the things I had discovered. On the other, the evidence was overwhelming that the concepts were correct and had been taught early on in the restoration. How, I wondered, could this seeming dichotomy be resolved? What had apparently blinded the majority of church members to such information?

The answer was actually quite simple, but not easy to see and sometimes hard to acknowledge. It was we, the Saints, who had dropped the ball.

It’s not that I had discovered something heretofore unknown; I had simply discovered for myself something that every Latter-day Saint should also have learned in the course of a thoroughgoing study of the restored gospel. I was unique only in that I had followed that distinct trail of evidentiary breadcrumbs through the informational forest. I had gone without reservation where others feared to tread. They had elected to ignore those bits as irrelevant or misleading.

Let me demonstrate the indifference or apathy of the Saints for you. For example, how many of you have taken the opportunity to read through the Bible dictionary in your scriptures? (Hold up the scriptures.) There is a wealth of information there. Even though it’s only just about 200 pages long, most Saints have never taken the time to study those few pages. Or, what about Joseph Smith’s own diary, History of the Church? How many of us have read his views firsthand? No truly earnest member can claim they understand their founding prophet if they have not read his own statements on a myriad of issues, spiritual and secular. It’s a virtual treasure trove of gospel information. Yet, most members don’t even know it exists.

Some may say that they can’t be expected to do all that reading. My rejoinder is to ask, How long have you been a member? Five years? Ten years? Most of your adult life? How is that not enough time to do a little reading?

Most of us have read untold volumes in our lifetime: newspapers, magazines, manuals, books, etc. Yet, we’ve not found time to fully study the gospel, our virtual passbook to salvation and exaltation. Instead, like recalcitrant children, most of us balk at true study. Instead, we depend upon the general authorities and others to spoon-feed us.

And therein lies the flaw in our logic.

What the brethren have concentrated on, as the Lord charged them to do, are the basics: the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. It’s missionary work, all well designed, carefully orchestrated and calculated to reach out to nonmembers and new members alike, to get them solidly based in the fundamental principles of the restored gospel. What we hear in general conference talks and in church each Sunday is meant to support one mission and one mission only: convert the Saints and get them moving along the right path.

The rest of the information is our responsibility, again, by divine design.

Yet, most of us are stuck in that early growth stage in our gospel progression. True, we fulfill our callings and even comply with church standards sufficient to go to the temple for the higher ordinance work. Yet, we do so largely without understanding what we see and experience there and in our reading of the scriptures as well.

Due to our almost complete failure to truly study the “fullness” of the gospel, we struggle with huge information gaps. Those are evidenced by our gospel blind spots: the imagery of ancient wisdom used in the metaphors of prophecy, the symbolism of our temples and the language of the prophets.

The notion that we can ‘read’ the temple, just as we do the scriptures, eludes us. Even for those among us who attend the temple regularly or work therein, the symbolism in its ordinances, rites and rituals as well as the icons in its architecture are a mystery to us, invisible and unacknowledged.

So, too, with the symbolism of the scriptures. We all know, for example, that the phrase used therein “the mountain of the Lord’s house” refers to the temple. But, we have no clue about the origins of such an odd metaphor. How is a temple equated to a mountain? We don’t even exhibit so much as a little curiosity about such symbolism, taking it entirely for granted.

This, too, is the case with prophecy. Littered with seemingly bizarre imagery, it appears far too confusing and unfathomable for the average member. So, we dismiss it as unimportant or too mysterious for anyone but the most inspired of prophets to interpret.

Therefore, we suppose that if it were truly vital to our personal repository of gospel knowledge, our church leaders would have repeatedly explained it in minute detail, just as they do fundamental gospel elements. We suppose that merely listening and reading a bit, coupled with sincere, prayerful supplication for answers, will yield all we need to know.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is key: The Spirit is not a teacher. He only confirms and comforts. This has been explained to us over and over. You must learn a thing first by research and study before the Spirit can confirm the truth of it to you.

We suffer from what I call the Oliver Cowdery syndrome: We think that truth will be given us without any effort on our part. Read about Elder Cowdery’s dilemma in D&C 8 and 9.

Think about it. How did you come by your testimony? It was necessary that you first inform yourself about the gospel before praying about it. Reading the Book of Mormon came before praying about it to get a confirmation of its truth from the Spirit. Likewise, Joseph Smith had to study the Bible to come across the notion that God would answer his questions for him before he could be given that first vision.

That’s the way it works: study first, ask second.

But, casual reading does not qualify as study. Study means work. It takes real effort on your part and true inquisitiveness to formulate a focused concept sufficiently well developed to pray about. And surprisingly, as often as not, the Spirit reveals the truth of what you’re studying or formulating before you ever get the chance to ask. He’s that anxious to lead you forward.

So, in summary, let me say that what I have learned is not peripheral to one’s gospel knowledge and understanding. It is essential. (Hold up the Bible.) Without it, we may as well tear our scriptures in half and throw one of the two halves away. (Tear the binding right down the middle and toss half of it on the floor.) We may as well listen to the gospel message half asleep. We are missing that much … and more. We set at naught the efforts of the prophets to enlighten us, and we disparage the fullness of the restored gospel. What a sad state of affairs.

So as I noted at the outset of this talk, this would be my last lecture, sermon or counsel to you: Study! Look closely, and you will learn what I’ve learned. I am not the keeper and purveyor of odd knowledge and irrelevant information you may have taken me to be. I’ve only found and followed the trail of breadcrumbs left there for us. I’ve diligently tracked it where it was intended to lead those who exercise due diligence.

I’ve documented my concepts in the statements of early church leaders from Joseph Smith on forward, and I’ve successfully and enlighteningly employed these concepts to make sense of temple symbolism and prophecy. It’s no mystery. There’s no magic. But like the obvious nose on your face, it’s nearly invisible to you.

Only through concerted effort and diligence will this wisdom become apparent to you. And no one else can or will do it for you—not your home teacher, not your bishop not your stake president … not even the prophet. It’s not the responsibility of the brethren to explain every nuanced detail of the gospel to you. That’s your job; get after it. As President Kimball was fond of saying, “Do it … now!”