These two chapters are loaded. First, we encounter the third member of the Unholy Trinity of antichrists in the Book of Mormon. First was Sherem (Jacob 7), then Nehor (Alma 1), now Korihor.
I highly recommend this Ensign article on Korihor, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophy.” I first encountered I as a missionary, and was so impressed I wrote next to the Alma 30 chapter heading, “Ensign July 1992.” (E. Lund’s discussion is taken up further here.)
This article introduces terms and concepts like “epistemology,” “empiricism,” and “corollary.” As a missionary, it was heady stuff, and raised all kinds of questions. How do you know what you know? Do you really know it? Are there different kinds of knowing and different kinds of knowledge? What is real, and how can you tell? A whole host of films and books plays on these questions- The Truman Show, The Matrix, Memento, The Silver Chair (I’m thinking of the scene between Puddleglum and the witch wherein she tries to convince him there is no sun), 1984 (one of my favorites books), various Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes, etc.
Now, we tend to read Korihor in a doctrinal way. However, Korihor also does a fantastic job modeling something practical which we’d like to avoid. And so I present,
Some Notes on Ineffective Missionary Work
-by Korihor (Antionum Press)
Remember, Korihor is essentially evangelizing for a different belief system. How well does he do?
- v. 13-14 Don’t insult or be arrogant; realize that beliefs that may seem illogical or even crazy to you… are completely normal to them. People have different worldviews, and your beliefs may seem entirely crazy. Here I cite comedian Dave Barry on religion.
The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes. So I am going to be very sensitive, here, which is not easy, because the thing about religion is that everybody else’s always appears stupid. For example, if you read about some religious sect in India that believes God wants people to drink their own urine, you don’t say to yourself, “Isn’t it amazing, the diversity of belief systems man has developed in his never-ending quest to understand and cope with the intricate moral dilemmas posed by a complex and uncertain world?” No, what you say to yourself is, “These people have the brains of a trout.” Meanwhile, over in India, the sect members are getting a major chuckle over the fact that some American basketball players cross themselves before they take foul shots. “As if God cares about foul shots!” the sect members howl, tears streaming down their faces. “Say, is this my urine or yours?”
Religions often look very different on the inside than they do from the outside. Anthropologists call these perspectives emic and etic. This is because beliefs stem from fundamental assumptions that are often unstated and unconsciously held. See my comment below on v. 53, and how you can have a devil and angels without a god.
- v. 16 Don’t assume thoughtless tradition, i.e. they only believe the way they do because that’s how they were raised. Sure, some people in every tradition are thoughtless automatons, including ours! But most of us by our 20s and 30s are thoughtful independent adults and have probably thought a good bit about our own religious inheritance vis-à-vis others. On the other hand, the more you live in a place dominated by one kind of thought (whether religious or otherwise), that can become more of a civic/cultural background assumption than authentic and thoughtful tradition. This could apply to Utah as well as places like Saudi Arabia. Groupthink isn’t uncommon.
- v. 23, 35 Don’t assume shady or impure motives on behalf of their leaders. Most religious leaders, especially the day-to-day local ones, are sincere people, concerned for their flock, and doing the best they can.
- v. 24-25 Try to understand where they’re coming from, their beliefs and traditions, before making eye-rollingly incorrect claims about what the other person believes. This happens all the time to us, so we of all people should be particularly aware of how easy it is to do.
- v. 36-41 Don’t get sucked into debates. Debates rarely convert the person you’re debating with. On the other hand, a good debate (where the debaters are sincere, and not merely trying to score points with their constituents) can reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a particular position to interested third parties. It’s possible someone else may get converted indirectly, like Alma Sr.
How well do our missionaries do on the Korihor bad-missionary scale?
Alma 31 introduces a new section. A “Dream Team” of Nephite missionaries descends on Antionum, to take on the Zoramites. According to 31:6, this includes Alma, Amulek, Ammon, Aaron, Omner, Zeezrom, Shiblon, and Corianton.
And what of the Zoramites? They are Nephite dissenters, according to 31:8. This is the hardest class of people to evangelize because they have known the gospel already and rejected it in some way. It’s not new to them.
The Zoramites are good people, in a sense, not so much in another.
The wickedest people in the Book of Mormon are the Zoramites, a proud, independent, courageous, industrious, enterprising, patriotic, prosperous people who attended strictly to their weekly religious duties with the proper observance of dress standards. Thanking God for all he had given them, they bore testimony to his goodness. They were sustained in all their doings by a perfectly beautiful self-image. Well, what is wrong with any of that? There is just one thing that spoils it all, and that is the very thing that puts Israel in bad with the Lord, according to Isaiah. ….”and yet . . . they cry unto thee . . . and yet” they are really thinking of something else.
“Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, . . . all their precious things . . .; their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.” (Alma 31:27, 28; italics added.)” Hugh Nibley, “Great are the Words of Isaiah” OTRS, 221-222.
So as you sit there thinking, “hey, I’m prosperous, patriotic, attending strictly to my weekly religious duties with proper observance of dress standards…” I want to remind you of the observations of Todd Compton, also based on these and the next chapters. Compton concludes his article “the Spirituality of the Outcast in the Book of Mormon” by saying that the Book of Mormon
pattern shows that if we are affluent, well-educated, part of the racial majority, urban, and have easy access to the true church, we are in particular danger [of apostasy].
So take warning, and take stock.
- Note that the Zoramites pray with upraised hands (31:14). This posture of prayer is common in the ancient Near East. Among the Israelites, it seems to have been a physical expression of judgment; that is, it exposed the hands and heart to God, inviting him to judge the actions and intentions of the one praying. For the Zoramites, then, this was physical hypocrisy. More on this here.
- In Alma’s pray in 31:35, he says, “Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren…” Wait, “many”? Not all? Who are these Zoramites that they are not related to?
- In 31:5, “Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.” In recent years, “virtue” has become a synonym for “chastity,” which is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it’s not how the scriptures use it. Consider, for example, the story of the woman who had been bleeding for years who touches Jesus and “virtue went out of him” in Mark 5:29-30. “Virtue” there means “power, strength.” Or consider Proverbs 31, with the famous “Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.” As the Proverb elaborates, her virtue is not chastity (which is assumed), but competence, capability. She is intelligent, proactive, handles business such as evaluating and purchasing a field, plans for the future. This “virtuous wife” is an ‘eshet chayil, a competent/powerful woman, and this is a good thing. So the equation that “virtue= chastity” wrests the scriptures. Second, it creates problematic social dynamics, about which much has been said elsewhere. I can’t find the post I’m thinking of, so try this one (which isn’t as good, but you’ll get the idea.)
- Some people get confused at an apparent inconsistency in v. 53.
the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God;
How can you have angels and a devil, but no God? That doesn’t make much sense to us moderns. But both in the ancient Near Eastern modes of thought and (as far as I understand) Mesoamerican, there are multiple tiers of supernatural beings below the level of “god, deity” like angels and demons, and even different tiers of gods. Indeed, the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible runs to almost 1000 pages. Amazon, Logos. So this is yet another place modern assumptions simply don’t map well onto the general assumptions of the ancient world.
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