Alma 1

And so on to the book of Alma. The first chapter details the attempts of one Nehor to spread his false teachings (namely a version of universalism – the belief that everyone will be saved, and so consequently, that no one needs to repent – and of priestcraft: the idea that priests and teachers should be “popular” and be financially supported by the people), and his consequent trial and execution after he murders Gideon. His career is thus short-lived, although his teachings will have far greater staying power.

What stood out to me upon reading this book, however, emerged from the book heading (remember that – unlike the chapter headings, which are mere aids and not part of the text – most of the book headings are part of the scriptural text):

The account of Alma, who was the son of Alma, the first and chief judge over the people of Nephi, and also the high priest over the Church. An account of the reign of the judges, and the wars and contentions among the people. And also an account of a war between the Nephites and the Lamanites, according to the record of Alma, the first and chief judge.

(Heading to Alma, my emphasis)

As I read the header today, the repeated mentions of war really stood out to me. The book of Alma is notorious for spending quite a bit of space and time describing the wars that take place at this time, and I understand that some find the resulting “war chapters” hard to read or less interesting (I actually quite like them, but there you go), or even at odds with what they expect scripture to speak about. Funnily enough, these won’t be the most destructive conflicts in the Book of Mormon (that easily belongs to those in the books of Mormon & Ether), but the accounts in Alma are far more detailed, covering deployments, fortifications, equipment, strategies, logistics, propaganda, moral conduct in war and leading commanders and so on. And while the wars haven’t begun yet (don’t worry, one will start in chapter two!), the header warns us it will be a prominent topic.

Of course, that raises the question of why. I’m not the only one to make suggestions along these lines, but there’s several reasons I can think of (there may be yet more none of us has thought of yet!):

1) The war chapters can be read symbolically. There’s a variety of episodes in these chapters that readers over the years have read in a symbolic fashion as applying to us, even if we’re not involved in a physical war. Thus episodes like the stripling warriors, or Captain Moroni’s fortification efforts, or Amalickiah poisoning “by degrees”, have been read almost allegorically as either approaches we apply spiritually or warnings against possible dangers. I think much of this may be deliberate: the note at the beginning of Amalickiah’s plot amongst the Lamanites that he was “a very subtle man” (Alma 47:4) strikes me as a deliberate echo of Genesis 3:1. making Amalickiah a type of the serpent, and thus of Satan, much as other scriptural figures are types of Christ.

Why would war be a particularly good setting for such symbolism? I think perhaps because of the particular threat that wars represent. There’s a number of things that can present a collective existential threat to human beings aside from war: earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorite impacts, famine, floods, and disease of course. But only in the case of war is there an active mind guiding the actions of the enemy that wishes to do harm. But this is the best analogy for the situation we face spiritually: on a spiritual level we all face an existential threat – one that wishes to do harm to our very souls – and moreover one that is not simply a random act of nature, but which is guided by cunning, indeed “subtle” minds who wish to make us eternally miserable. Indeed, this conflict, even before it was extended to Earth, has already been called a war. This threat, of course, is principally spiritual, not physical, and so must many of our defences be. Yet just as victory in physical war requires courage, determination, vigilance and and all-out effort, so will victory in this spiritual war we all face.

2) War is an extreme situation. The true test of our commitment to any principal, including the gospel, is not when the situation is easy, but when it is hard. War is an extreme situation, compared to the every day lives most of us have been living, and so it is a crucible in which we see people’s determination to hold to and live the gospel be really tested, a refiner’s fire in which some “become hardened”, and in which others “humble themselves before God” (Alma 62:41). Many of us may not face war in our every day lives, but we will face situations which are far more challenging than our typical lives, points in which we get tested in extremis. Knowing that some have managed to live the gospel in similarly challenging times, and seeing how they did it, can be instructive.

3) We may face war one day ourselves. Much of the Western world has had a comparatively easy life for the last few decades: we have lived in unimaginable prosperity compared to most of our predecessors, while the threat of war has been remote. Oh, war has taken place, but largely at a remove from our own lands: it has affected many abroad, and also many servicemen who’ve gone to serve in those conflicts, but aside from acts of terrorism has largely left our own lives untouched.

Both history and the Book of Mormon would teach us not to assume this will always be the case. It’s funny that we speak during the present coronavirus pandemic of things “getting back to normal”, but while the lockdown is weird (and probably unsustainable in view of human nature), our lives beforehand weren’t “normal” compared to most of human history. They may never quite come back in that way. We face an economic crisis first; war is a frequent companion. Even if things recover swiftly at this stage (and perhaps they might), we cannot assume the comparatively idyllic period we have experienced will always remain the case. At some stage, war will affect people in our own lands. It is a human phenomenon, and as scripture is given by God to addresses all the challenges we humans face, I expect war to feature within.

And war does bring its own specific challenges. I think it no coincidence, for example, that the Book of Mormon – particularly in Alma – talks about moral conduct in warfare, for instance. War brings unique moral challenges, and a situation in which one could very easily lose their way. There is more in these chapters that I am sure those faced with such a situation can and will find value in. So if perhaps we’re amongst those who don’t find these chapters especially relevant right now, perhaps we should count ourselves fortunate. We should not assume that this will always be the case.

 

 

Their reward lurketh beneath

Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled. But wo unto such, for their reward lurketh beneath, and not from above.

Doctrine & Covenants 58:33

Was just reading this verse today, and was struck by the imagery in the last sentence. It’s not uncommon in literature for something to be described as lurking beneath, although that’s usually literally (beneath the waters) or talking of something hidden, such as unsavoury personality traits (lurking beneath the surface/facade etc). Here, however, you have the notion of a “reward”, which otherwise sounds pleasant, juxtaposed with the threatening “lurketh beneath”, beneath here meaning in hell. In contrast to those rewards offered “from above” (the heavens), the reward beneath lies in wait, ready to pounce on its unwary prey.

The Atlantean Sword

Music has never been a big part of my life. That may seem very weird to most people, but it’s true. I never owned any music CDs, and the total cumulative time I spent listening to music as a teenager may be best represented by the Arabic numeral that resembles a circle (namely 0). In later years I’ve tried to experiment a little, and perhaps one of the things that has best helped me to understand and appreciate the role of music have been film soundtracks. Coming across the Alan Smithee cut of Dune helped immensely, demonstrating that it was no use having extra scenes if the mood of the movie was mutilated by a mistimed and mangled soundtrack.

Which takes me onto today’s scene. It may not be a popular opinion, but I genuinely believe Conan the Barbarian is a work of art, something that stands far above the standard Sword and Sorcery film of the 80s (I enjoy many of those too, but they are guilty pleasures). That’s not to say it doesn’t have have silly and schlocky stuff in it, as well as several scenes that are perhaps best skipped over. But I do not think the film as a whole has received the critical reaction it has deserved. Its cinematography is amazing (and from what I understand actually rediscovered some lost camera techniques), the battle scenes are clear and exciting, and there are a number of good performances (including – at least some of the time – from Arnold himself).

But perhaps one of the reasons it has been so under-appreciated (but one of the reasons I love it) is that its approach to story telling is so different from that of most films made in the West. There’s very little dialogue. Rather the burden of the story telling falls on the occasional monologue by the really good actors (Max von Sydow, James Earl Jones and so on), and upon the soundtrack itself. Basil Poledouris created for this film what I think is the greatest film soundtrack of all time, not least because how well integrated it is to the story telling in the film itself.

But since it is better to show rather than tell (or in this case, show and tell), here’s one particular scene that stands out, coming shortly after Conan has been freed by his slave master:

There’s so much I could say about this scene. It starts off with some silly patented Arnie sounds as he falls down the hole, which I’m sure connoisseurs of “eeaaarrrggghhh” really appreciate. After that however, as Conan finds himself in this tomb of the ancient world, the scene becomes achingly beautiful. The ability of this scene to evoke such a particular atmosphere – one filled with awe and mystery – dwarfs what I’ve seen in any other comparable fantasy film. It’s common for youtube comments to make statements like “they don’t make films like this any more”, but the truth is that few people made any films like this at all. And underpinning the scene, creating the atmosphere and telling the story is Poledouris’ soundtrack, for only one word is actually spoken in the entire (“Crom!”).

It’s such a wonderfully evocative piece. The low notes seem to me as if they could be the actual voices of the dead kings, speaking low out of the dust. There is an air of long-forgotten, long-dead power and grandeur. Then Conan finds the sword, which seems fitting, considering the role of swords both in mythology generally, and especially the role of steel as a motif throughout this film.  As Conan attempts to uncover the sword, the skeleton of the ancient monarch moves. In a more generic Sword and Sorcery flick (indeed, possibly in the original short stories), the skeleton would attack. But here it does not: it slumps over, its helm falling to the ground, its head bowed. The movement is ambiguous: it could simply be coincidence, the result of disturbing the body. And yet at the same time it appears as if the ancient king is paying respect to Conan, passing on the sword to its new inheritor. The soundtrack shifts, almost to one of mourning and of lost glories. It is at this point Arnold says his one line, but “Crom!” here is not simply an exclamation. Conan is being reminded of what his father taught him before his village got wiped out: of Crom, deep in the earth, of the riddle of steel and how men learned its secret.

Up to this point, Conan has still been a slave. While he had been freed by his former master, he did not actually want to go, and had to be driven away. While instructed in many arts, his will has been forgotten, and so it is fitting that to this point his still has his shackles on him, for he still wears slavery’s shackles on his mind. But with this sequence, claiming the sword also seems to be a reclamation of his identity and will. “What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” asks the villain, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) later in the film, and here the sword appears to be a symbol of strength of will and character that Conan now reclaims. As the music moves to a triumphant note, it is fitting that as Conan now emerges from the tomb he uses the sword to strike the remaining shackles from his feet, a slave no longer. All this, in a sequence that has but one spoken word. One may almost not notice how the breaking of the shackles is perfectly choreographed with the soundtrack.

And rather hilariously, we see the wolves move to attack, Conan give a determined look… and then in the next scene (not shown above), we see him wearing wolf-skins… I honestly love this film.

Edit: And for a critical take that does engage with the film as more than it is often caricatured as, I’ve come across this article here: A Critical Appreciation of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian by David C. Smith

Jacob 5

Everything I said about Jacob 4, in terms of being able to mention all sorts of things, applies even more to Jacob 5. Most of chapter four of my thesis is a detailed examination of Jacob 5, and I can confidently say after that exercise that there’s a lot to examine. I’ve also happened to post about Jacob 5 before in part, in commenting on an article that I felt was inadequate in its approach to the allegory. So there’s a lot that could be said, and a lot that I have said elsewhere.

What struck me reading through it this time though was the very first few verses (Jacob 5:1-3):

Behold, my brethren, do ye not remember to have read the words of the prophet Zenos, which he spake unto the house of Israel, saying:

Hearken, O ye house of Israel, and hear the words of me, a prophet of the Lord.

For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.

Aside from the incongruity of a olive tree in a vineyard (something I do happen to discuss in the thesis), this opening reminded of thoughts I had when I was first writing the chapter, and unravelling the vast number of ways in which Jacob 5 connects to biblical passages that use olive tree imagery. It’s one of those things where the more you dig down, the more complex the issue actually gets. Scholarship tends to be very focused on the issue of where such ideas came from, and Jacob 5 has attracted similar commentary. But who first used the Olive Tree to symbolise Israel? The deeper one digs the more it seems like a chicken and egg scenario where it’s not quite clear what influenced what (assuming direct contact at all). And of course, Zenos does not attribute this image to himself but directly to the Lord.

It’s while I was thinking of this chicken and egg issue that my mind turned to a couple of other scriptural passages:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

(2 Nephi 11:4)

And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.

(Moses 6:63)

From these verses we learn that all things given by God typify Christ, and that all things are created – both spiritual and temporal – to bear record of God, Christ and the plan of salvation (see Moses 6:62). With these verses in mind, I wondered if this whole thing went even further? Perhaps it’s not an issue of ascribing who first used the olive tree to represent Israel to any one author, even God? With the above verses in mind, is it not possible that the Olive Tree was purposely created and permitted to have the traits that it has, precisely so that it might serve as such a symbol (for God would know of the destiny of Israel)? In other words, is it the symbol that came first, before the actual tree and even the world itself was created?

2020 Edit:

Ah, Jacob 5 my old friend. I’ve written and published extensively on Jacob 5 elsewhere, so for a more exhaustive look at the chapter, I’d refer you to chapter four of The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible.

While reading over it the past couple of days, however, what stood out most in my mind was the perseverance the Lord of the vineyard (who symbolises variously the Father, or Christ; symbols in this allegory should not be taken as referring to one and only one thing) displays in his care for the trees of his vineyard. Facing the corruption of the initial tree he works diligently upon it, and when it becomes clear that main branches are continuing in their corruption, he implements the plan to remove the corrupt branches, plant the young and tender branches elsewhere, and to graft wild branches into the main tree.

When at a later stage – after lengthy labour on his part, and a period in which the main tree and the satellite trees have all borne good fruit – he finds all the trees have become corrupted, he expresses his lament, his frustration at their corruption despite all his labours evident:

And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?

Behold, I knew that all the fruit of the vineyard, save it were these, had become corrupted. And now these which have once brought forth good fruit have also become corrupted; and now all the trees of my vineyard are good for nothing save it be to be hewn down and cast into the fire.

And behold this last, whose branch hath withered away, I did plant in a good spot of ground; yea, even that which was choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard.

And thou beheldest that I also cut down that which cumbered this spot of ground, that I might plant this tree in the stead thereof.

And thou beheldest that a part thereof brought forth good fruit, and a part thereof brought forth wild fruit; and because I plucked not the branches thereof and cast them into the fire, behold, they have overcome the good branch that it hath withered away.

And now, behold, notwithstanding all the care which we have taken of my vineyard, the trees thereof have become corrupted, that they bring forth no good fruit; and these I had hoped to preserve, to have laid up fruit thereof against the season, unto mine own self. But, behold, they have become like unto the wild olive tree, and they are of no worth but to be hewn down and cast into the fire; and it grieveth me that I should lose them.

But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh. And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire that they should be burned. Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?

(Jacob 5:41-47)

Yet while he suggests there is now not much more to be done than to “hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire” (v. 49), and it is the servant who urges him to spare the trees a little longer (v. 50), it is the Lord of the vineyard who introduces the plan of another lengthy programme of labour to save all the trees (vv. 51-69): returning the natural branches to the mother tree; grafting branches from the mother tree onto the satellite trees; pruning, dunging and digging about the trees; and plucking off and burning the branches with the most bitter fruit in a careful fashion so as to not overwhelm the remaining branches.

I’m sure the Lord would be justified in being most frustrated with us, individually and collectively, for how despite his aid, blessing and invitations we continue to go astray and do wrong. And yet, again and again, he is prepared to perform a lengthy work in us, in order that we might be spared and might bear good fruit.