Archive for March, 2019

How Mormons Abuse Paul’s Use of Pagan Sources in Acts 17:28

A marble bust of Cleanthes

compiled by Fred W. Anson
The Gospel According to St. Cleanthes
One of favorite responses when a Mormon cites Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”) is to simply ask, “Oh, and since you think that Paul was endorsing Cleanthes’ ‘Hymn to Zeus’ by citing from it in the latter citation (“ For we are also his offspring“)1 are you also suggesting that he was endorsing it as divinely inspired scripture?” Then I give them the entire poem. Here it is, with the text that Paul cited italicized for emphasis:

Hymn to Zeus
by Cleanthes (c. 300 – 220 B.C.)
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree
Controls all, hail, Zeus, for unto you
Must your creatures in all lands call.

We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.
Wherefore with songs of praise your power I will proclaim.

Look! yonder Heaven, that round the earth is wheeled,
Follows your guidance, still to you does yield.

Glad homage; your unconquerable hand
Such flaming minister, the heftless brand,
Wields, a sword two-edged, whose deathless might
Pulsates through all that
Nature brings to light;
Vehicle of the universal word, that flows
Through all, and in the light celestial glows
Of stars both great and small.

A King of Kings
Through ceaseless ages,
God, whose purpose brings
To birth, whatever on land or in the sea
Is wrought, or in high heaven’s immensity;
Save what the sinner works infatuate.

No, but you know how to make the crooked straight:
Chaos to you is order; in your eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did harmonize
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One word through all things everlastingly.

One word – whose voice alas! the wicked spurn;
Insatiate for the good their spirits yearn:
Yet seeing see not, neither hearing hear
God’s universal law, which those revere,
by reason guided, happiness who win.

The rest, unreasoning, diverse shapes of sin
Self-prompted follow: for an idle name
Vainly they wrestle in the contests of fame:
Others inordinately riches court,
Or dissolute, the joys of flesh pursue.

Now here, now there they wander, fruitless still,
Forever seeking good and finding ill.

Zeus the all-bountiful, whom darkness shrouds,
Whose lightning lightens in the thunder-clouds;
Your children save from error’s deadly sway;
Turn you the darkness from their souls away:
Vouchsafe that unto knowledge they attain;
For you by knowledge are made strong to reign
Overall, and all things rule righteously.

So by you honored, we will honor thee,
Praising your works continually with songs,
As mortals should; nor higher reward belongs
Even to the gods, than justly to adore
The universal law for evermore.

A bust of Epimenides.

The Gospel According to St. Epimenides
The first pagan source cited in Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live and move and have our being.’”) is Epimenides (c. 7th or 6th century BC). The passage is from Epimenides’ “Minos and Rhadamanthus”. Unfortunately, none of Epimenides’ works have survived, but thankfully a passage has been found cited in the Syrian lectionary Garden of Delights and in a 9th-century commentary on Acts by Isho’dad of Merv. Translated into English, it reads like this. And again I have italicized the text that Paul used for emphasis:

A grave has been fashioned for thee, O holy and high One,
The lying Cretans, who are all the time liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
But thou diest not, for to eternity thou livest and standest,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

By the way, the “O holy and high One” being referred to is Zeus, just so that there’s no misunderstanding. Clearly, this provenance is too complex to use effectively with Mormons in short, conversational discussions. However, you can refer them to the following article (which I used as my primary source for this section on Epimenides) for a full explanation if you wish to: “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament” on the “Is That in the Bible?” blog site.

The Gospel According to St. Paul
So with that background let’s consider how Paul actually used these pagan sources on Mars Hills, with the text discussed above italicized for emphasis:

Acts 17 (KJV)
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33 So Paul departed from among them.
34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

As the text clearly states, Paul’s audience was wholly pagan. Therefore, given the underlying nature of the citations combined with the nature of his audience, he clearly was simply using a common point of reference to make his point. As William MacDonald notes in his commentary:

17:28b To further emphasize the relationship of the creature to the Creator, Paul quoted from some of their Greek poets, who said, “For we are also His offspring.” This is not to be interpreted as teaching the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. We are the offspring of God in the sense that He created us, but we only become sons of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

17:29 But Paul’s argument continues. If men are the offspring of God, then it is impossible to think of God as a gold or silver or stone idol. These are shaped by art and man’s devising, and therefore are not as great as men. These idols are, in a sense, the offspring of human beings, whereas the truth is that human beings are the creation of God.
(MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary (p. 1625). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

To use a modern equivalent it was like when Billy Graham cited the secular song lyrics “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” (from a Dione Warwick song) and “The answer is blowing in the wind” (from a Bob Dylan song) to make his point in sermons during his 1969 Anaheim, California Crusades.2 In both cases, the intention wasn’t to endorse the sources, simply to establish a rhetorical connection with the listening audience from their cultural vantage point. To suggest anything more than that is exegetically unsustainable.

“Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens” by Raphael, 1515

NOTE
1 The other pagan work that’s often cited as a source for this latter citation is Aratus’ (c. 310-245 B.C.), Phaenomena from the opening lines which are as follows:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring…
(Phaenomena 1-5)

That poetic text is, in my opinion, is too long and complex to use effectively with Mormons in a conversational type discussion, but if you would like to refer them to it, they will find a good English translation here (click on link).

Further, since it’s generally believed that Aratus and the other pagan sources that use the “we are indeed his offspring” were glossing on Cleanthes. Therefore, and in my opinion, it’s better to just go to the short and simple original source rather than those who quoted from him later.

2 I was at these crusades and I recall him using the lyrics something like this in his sermons, “Popular culture tells us that what the world needs now is love, sweet love. I couldn’t agree more because what we need now more than ever is the sweet love of the Savior.” He used the lyrics of the Dylan song something like this, “I agree with the singer who said that the answer is blowing in the wind. That wind is God’s Spirit. And if you’re listening, really listening, you will hear Him calling you to come to Him.” I’ve paraphrased both from memory, but to the best of my recollection that’s how I heard them used back in the day.

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Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
But nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
planet earth.
—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 (The Message)

by Paul Nurnberg
Accepting the Labels
I’m a quester. A seeker. I accept those labels, because “he who seeks shall find.”1 Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Ecclesiastes renders the Hebrew qoheleth as “quester” (typically preacher). This word choice highlights a reality that surprised me as I completed graduate studies at a Christian seminary. Namely, many of my fellow students—often vocational ministers—were also seekers. That is, they were intensely interested in seeking and knowing God’s truth and had passed through crucibles of doubt and suffering that ultimately drew them closer to God. Such is true of most of the believers I count among my spiritual mentors. Petersen’s rendering of the opening verses of Solomon’s realist musings powerfully capture the tragic quest of seeking to know and grow closer to the heart of God and the disillusionment one feels when one’s faith universe implodes.

In 1984, Mormon thinker, professor, literary critic, and yes, theologian, Eugene England published his first collection of personal essays, Dialogues with Myself. In the first essay in that collection, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest” England quotes from and shares his thoughts on an essay  entitled “Tragedy as Religious Paradox” by the former chairman of the English Department at BYU, P.A. Christensen:

. . . the emerging and unifying element in the richly diverse tragic tradition is the focus on that ultimate desolation, available to us all, when by accident or our own questing we come to feel “the universe has lost its meaning, its moral bearings, its spiritual security.” Tragic man, the subject of our greatest literature, unwilling to rest with simplistic and thus secure conceptions of the universe, pushes at the paradoxes of his mind and experience uncover, “lives precariously on the growing margin of knowledge,” and challenges—or obeys—the Gods of his conceptions in ways that bring, in either case, suffering and loss out of all proportion to his actions. Yet tragic man persists in testing the paradoxes and enduring the suffering. Perhaps he does so because that is the process of all significant learning, of breaking out of confining concepts, out of old seed husks into new life, the process of dying in the old man so a new one can be born; perhaps he does so because it is the ultimate way of courageously confronting the real universe.2

England’s life and letters have been celebrated by a certain subset of progressive and liberal Mormons since he co-founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought at Stanford in 1966. Since his death in 2001, younger generations of progressive Internet Mormons have paid homage to England through blog posts and podcasts.3

Mormon thinker, professor, literary critic, and theologian, Eugene England.

I learned of England’s writings posthumously. As a young LDS return missionary in 1999, I began a long quest of seeking and discovery. I began discussing Mormonism online—debating my beliefs and epistemology with others of similar disposition. In 2002, as my religious views began to lean towards the unorthodox in Mormonism, I was in spiritual turmoil. The universe was reeling. It was no longer a secure place. A friend recommended England’s book of essays Making Peace, which I purchased and devoured.

My journey has taken me out of the LDS Church, but the drawing of God to his Son, supported by the evidence for Christianity, has continued to be compelling and convincing to me. I’ve since found a new spiritual home. The tragic nature of being a quester is that one risks losing everything. Just ask Job! As an ex-Mormon, I’ve experienced my share of loss—of friends, of trust and intimacy in family relationships, and of community. Over the years, I’ve witnessed many other young Mormons go through their own quests, a few were family, friends or mission companions, some were merely online acquaintances—all tragic. Some have lost spouses and children to painful separation and divorce, some have lost their sense of community, and many have lost faith in God altogether.

If the above resonates with you, if the universe has lost its meaning, bearings and spiritual security; my hope is that you will decide to continue the tragic quest with me through this series of posts. I understand the pain, loneliness, fear, and rejection that comes from deconstructing one’s faith. I also know the comfort, companionship, assurance, and intimacy that comes from renewal of faith. I hope that you will one day find the words of my apostolic namesake to be as affirming of your journey and transformation as I do now— “. . . whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”4

Pinned to the Spot Where I Stood
My mind screamed: RUN! FIRE! GET OUT! For a moment, I stood there in the darkness—pinned to the spot where I stood by fear—however irrational it seemed. Smoke swirled around the neon green exit signs, glowing brightly, but providing no reassurance. I’d been to enough local rock concerts to recognize the unmistakable smell of artificial smoke and the hiss of smoke machines, but I should back up a bit.

When I was a sophomore in high school, the LDS Seminary teachers at my school in West Jordan, Utah planned a special devotional. In the days leading up to it, we were told that rather than meeting in our classrooms, we would meet in the large subdivided room that was used for devotionals. When the day arrived, I left the school building, crossing the parking lot to the seminary building.

The side entrance was locked, which was unusual. A seminary teacher standing nearby told me that I must enter through the front doors. This change in routine was confusing, but I made my way to the front of the building where a line was forming and waited with my classmates to get into the building.

The glass double doors were obscured. Smoke drifted from beneath a heavy black curtain, which was hung to block our view inside. The whole experience had an ominous feeling. Near the door stood another of the seminary teachers, admitting students one at a time through the curtain. I watched the teacher speak briefly to each student and admit one every thirty seconds or so.

I soon realized that whatever devotional the teachers had planned would not be completed in the fifty-five minutes allotted for third period, especially if they kept up the pace of one-by-one admittance. I wondered about the purpose of this exercise. When it was my turn to enter, the “seminary bouncer” greeted me and asked me to extend my right hand through the curtain. I was told that I would feel a guide take me by the hand, that I should trust the guide, and do as he instructed.

It was a surreal and somewhat unsettling experience, but I followed the instructions and reached my hand through the curtain. As soon as I did, someone inside grasped my hand and gently drew me into the building, which was smoky and dark, and my eyes struggled to adjust. My guide placed my hand on a cold railing, wrapping my fingers securely around it. He gave some brief, whispered instructions. “Hold fast the iron rod,” he said. “It will safely guide you through.” Then he left me. And that is when I stood in place, illogically terrified, before finally moving.

I lumbered through the dark, holding onto the rod, which led to the devotional room, where I was instructed to sit quietly and ponder the experience. A CD loop played Joseph L. Townsend’s Mormon hymn based on 1 Nephi, chapter 8 in the Book of Mormon:

Hold to the rod,
the iron rod;
‘Tis strong and bright and true.

The Iron Rod is the word of God;
‘Twill safely guide us through.5

At sixteen, I couldn’t really grasp the significance of that experience for my spiritual life. It was, at the time, a direct and physical experience with fear and despair—one paradoxically tied to my religious experience. Since then, it has come to be a formative event in my life of faith. Not because anything transcendent happened that day, but because of the experiences I’ve had in the ensuing years.

“Hold to the rod, the iron rod; ‘Tis strong and bright and true.”

Theologians Don’t Know Nothing
The seminal Wilco song Theologians begins with these enigmatic lyrics: “Theologians / They don’t know nothing / About my soul / About my soul. / I’m an ocean / Abyss in motion / Slow motion / Slow motion. / Inlitterati lumen fidei / God is with us everyday / That illiterate light / Is with us every night.”

That indecipherable Latin line leaves the listener deliberating just what Jeff Tweedy is lashing at. On one hand, he seems to be conveying a post-modern approach to truth, which disdains the idea that God has revealed propositional truths of the type that theologians discuss and define—or even that there is a God to reveal propositional truths. On the other, he seems to be suggesting that the light illiterate is with us every night as it was with the ancient Israelites.6

It’s a fascinating line, given that the title for their album A Ghost is Born is taken from the lyrics to this song and the lyrics contain a reference to Christ’s ascension. Perhaps, one should consider the text from the album’s cover design (Wilco ≤ A Ghost is Born) in light of John 8:12, the way Jesus in John’s gospel uses the theme of light to point back to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness by night, and John Lennon’s controversial statement to the effect that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus now” to fully grasp what may be going on here.

In several ways, this song and the album cover art is a microcosm of my walk with God. Paul Nurnberg ≠ Jesus (see 1 Cor 2:2). Now seems like the right time to finally begin this series of posts that have been rattling around in my head and taking shape for two decades.

There’s the younger, Mormon me, who spent two years in a foreign land, wearing a white shirt and black name badge—peddling Mormonism’s unique brand of Christian Restorationism to the Hungarian people. The one who was serious and conscientious about his beliefs, while also a bit naïve and laissez-faire about his theology. The one crippled by doubt and feelings of unworthiness. The one who came back to the United States and spent well over a decade discussing and debating the merits and pitfalls of Mormon theology and culture in online forums before finally walking away—setting aside with full knowledge and agency the faith, the community, and the beliefs of his birth, all of which he’d once cherished. The one who understands the deconstructionist, “burn it down” skeptical nature of John Lennon.

And then there’s the middle-aged, non-denominational Evangelical Christian me, who watches with bewilderment and sadness as others, seemingly in increasing numbers, take a similar—and sometimes not so similar—path to mine, only in more public forums, and from more faith traditions than just Mormonism. The one who has graduated with an MDiv in Biblical Studies from Cincinnati Christian University. The one who loves the Bible and affirms it as God’s inerrant Word. The one who loves the writings of St. John of the Cross about darkness and spiritual growth. The one who understands the reconstructionist “find what’s burning inside me” nature of Jeff Tweedy. The one who is passionate about living the examined life; about integration and wholeness—the abundant life given me by that illiterate Light.

Ben Shahn, “Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher”

Enemies to That Illiterate Light
There is something to Jeff Tweedy’s insistence: “that illiterate light / is with us every night.” Theologians aren’t the other. We’re all theologians. When we think about God, we’re all doing theology. The question is whether or not we do it well. Tweedy’s lyrics lead me to conclude the truth of this statement: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”7

Integrating the Tragic Quest
What is conceived here is a series of posts on reconstructing faith that I’ve named Dialogues with My Former Self. Part of reconstruction is integration. In these posts, I will seek to integrate every part of my mind, heart, and soul. They will include creative writing, philosophical and theological arguments, and personal experience; an integrative whole. After this first introductory post to kick off the series, we’ll tackle a simple subject: God. In the meantime, enjoy this poem I wrote to encapsulate my journey—my tragic quest.

Nightwatch
Wolves at the cave’s mouth snarling,
but how wolves,
if Nothing?

Childhood fears
soothsaid and smothered by pious lines,
Faith is standing at the edge of the darkness,
and taking one
faltering footstep forward,
only to find the way lighted
one step ahead.

Such is not
faith! If every step were lighted,
too soon,
you would know.

Where the Mystery?
As if,
no one ever took that uncertain step, only
to be shadowed in blackness,
crowded, shrouded in deep
despair, crushing the soul.

πάτερ εὶ βούλει παρένεγκε τοῦτο τὸ ποτήριον ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ . . .
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me . . .”

As if,
no one has ever mouthed that pleading prayer, only
to carry a cross, one
faltering step after another, through
a darkened wilderness, lighted only
occasionally but brilliantly by
lightning striking on
the distant horizon;
beaten, broken by the empty
air surrounding their bed.

St. John of the Cross taught me
of the beauty, the healing
found in darkness.

And St. John the Beloved of
the Light to come,
Who has, and ever will,
everything illuminate,
all shadows
cast aside;
every crevice
of the small cave
thrown into radiance.

Every shaky aleph, every rounded
omega, each faltering figure,
arms upstretched, that I
scrawled on the rock
wall with the tip
of a branch
blackened in the fire
I light
to keep the wolves at bay—
because God loves
a madman.

Waltham St. Lawrence, “Ecclesiastes, or The Preacher Ecclesiastes”, book illustration.

NOTES
1 Matthew 7:8
2 Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,” Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), 1-2.
3 For blog posts, see for example Shawn Larsen’s article at Mormon Matters, “Why Eugene England Still Matters” from 2008, or Boyd Petersen’s article at his blog Dead Wood and Rushing Water, “Eugene England and the Future of Mormonism” from 2016. For podcasts, see John Dehlin’s four-part tribute at Mormon Stories “Eugene England’s Life and Legacy” from 2011 and Gina Colvin’s podcast episode at A Thoughtful Faith from 2015, “The Life and Writings of Eugene England.”
4 Philippians 3:7-8a
5 Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985, 274.
6 See Exodus 13:21
7 For the morphology of this oft-used phrase, see https://humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/the-morphology-of-a-humorous-phrase/

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