Thursday, May 11, 2006

Living Apocalyptically

"The Spirit of God"
(Text: William W. Phelps, 1792-1872.)

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning!
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies of heaven,
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given
Henceforth and forever, Amen and amen!

The Lord is extending the Saints' understanding,
Restoring their judges and all as at first.
The knowledge and power of God are expanding;
The veil o'er the earth is beginning to burst.

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies (etc.)

We'll call in our solemn assemblies in spirit,
To spread forth the kingdom of heaven abroad,
That we through our faith may begin to inherit
The visions and blessings and glories of God.

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies (etc.)

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
Shall lie down together without any ire,
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in Zion,
As Jesus descends with his chariot of fire!

We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies (etc.)

Now imagine this beloved and often sung Mormon hymn translated into Persian--and then retranslated into English for our consumption. As anthropological evidence of the kind of beliefs that those people we're very worried about hold.

Don't want to imagine it? Okay, click through and read me imagining it.


The first thing that any responsible analyst would notice is that the general narrative here requires armies first, then peace. Of course we also note that Jesus descends in a chariot of fire, which doesn't sound all that pacifistic, but that's perhaps a secondary characteristic since we over here don't acknowledge their Messianic figure.

We could also notice these people's naked ambition to control all formally secular organizations of human society. Judges, assemblies, and kingdoms: if we gloss that latter as "executive," we've comfortably covered all three branches of American government, but, as the "kingdom of heaven" will be "spread forth" "abroad," it's clear that their spiritual ambitions will not be contained to their country's borders...

Notice the game of tenses. The first two verses suggest that this process is underway at the present time: "is burning, "begins," "are returning," "is extending," and so forth. The third verse admits that what is being discussed is simply the plan for the future, not what is happening in reality, while the fourth verse retreats to a general, wishful, unconjugated exclamation ("how blessed"). This pussyfooting around with temporal categories means that the plan is always ready to be enacted, the deluded always ready this day with That Day--and, of course, always ready to start up that singing and shouting.

But since this is, in fact, a nicely bouncy march of a song, believers already are singing and shouting in the moment they recite these words; they need only to start marching to finish the transformation of the Sunday choirs into the "armies of Heaven." It should go without saying that those armies would represent the lion rather than the lamb in the final peace. The lambs of the world might not enjoy the terms the lions offer.

Of course people who hold these beliefs are delusional whackjobs, but the threat they pose is very real. Unless the lambs of the world take this threat much more seriously, those "armies of heaven" will begin to claim that world "inheritance"--and reduce all of civilization to their primitive, ideological vision.


I sang this hymn with great gusto probably once a month for years. The chorus section's music is written in the exuberant mode: four-part chords, syncopation, and it's usually sung fast. "We'll sing and we'll shout" = "Hey, I'm shouting in church!" If you run through the full four verses at full voice and the proper fast pace, you're slightly giddy by the end. (Oh, no! Apocalypic songs are mood-altering!) Why did I sing this hymn once a month, when there are some 300 hymns to choose from in the standard Mormon hymnbook? Because everyone knows and likes to sing this one, that's why.

Without my hymnbook open, however, and despite having just typed out and pseudo-analyzed the song, I can pretty much remember the first verse and the chorus, and I'd lay money that most current Mormons couldn't promise much more. Someone looking at this from the outside will perceive the quasi-argument that what's-his-face part into the four-verse structure, but if singing that quasi-argument regularly has had any deep influence on my worldview, it's certainly not accessible to me.

I mean, now that I look at it as an outsider, there's some pretty weird stuff in there. That stuff about Ephraim being crowned in Zion I don't even want to joke about. According to some of the more obscurantist Mormon doctrine holds that your average white North American belongs, in some spiritual sense, to the tribe of Ephraim; I supposedly do, for one. That went straight over my head for years, meaning I didn't even notice the mention of Ephraim in this hymn until I typed it out for this exercise. And I think I last sang it only a couple of months ago.

So, yes, there's an apocalyptic strain to Mormon faith. But what does it mean to real people's lives and motivations?

I always return, when thinking about this, to one episode in my life. A recent President of the church--an office also known, omniously enough, as the Prophet--directed the faithful, who were able, to stock a year's supply of food in their homes. I've forgotten how the Mormon end-times scenario was supposed to play out since it didn't get much airtime at my church or in my home, but I think it involved some shortish period of tribulation, so that directive dovetailed with that eschatology. When my mother casually mentioned to me shortly afterwards that she'd stocked maybe 4-6 months of very basic supplies, I wondered whether she was obedient (mostly), or whether she really believed the world was about to end. She reminded me that our house was located across the street from a major faultline scheduled to slip any time now. Effectively, she'd come up with a pragmatic justification for not entirely ignoring a direct suggestion from the guy who's supposed to speak in God's voice for the faithful.

But from the outside: my mother stores six months of food because her Prophet told her that Jesus is coming really soon and there'll be shortages!!

So, to summarize, I agree with Jim Henley.


Anonymous Anonymous:

nicely bouncy


5/14/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

You found the Easter Egg!

5/14/2006 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

No one tell Paul Cella about this hymn. We'll be assaulted with ominous clotted prose.

My grandfather and my father-in-law believed in putting aside some months of foodstuffs, ammo, etc.

Schlepping all of that stuff out of the basement and finding someone to take it was a pain after each of them met their own personal apocalypse, which they went to unprovisioned.

5/15/2006 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

It would be awesome if we could still pile the provisions they'll need on their longboats and set them afire to float off into the horizon.

5/15/2006 04:18:00 PM  

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