INSPIRED TEXTS: How a nonliteral view of Joseph Smith’s translations bridges the gap between religion and art

Recently the LDS church published a series of articles meant to provide more transparent information on challenging historical topics. One of these essays tackles the origins of the Book of Abraham and the implications it has on Joseph Smith’s claimed role of translator.

I found a place where the earth itself is a seer stone, by Daniel Embree

I found a place where the earth itself is a seer stone, by Daniel Embree

The timing of this essay fits into my own artistic explorations with this idea of translation and inspiration as it relates to recent and upcoming performances and a series of artist’s books that I am creating.

The Book of Abraham is a sacred text in the LDS cannon that Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from ancient Egyptian papyri he purchased in 1835. In his own words, it is, “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”1

These papyri still exist and have since been translated by Egyptologist. Mormon and nonMormon scholars agree that the papyri are a common funeral text from the Book of the Dead. They date to somewhere between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E., and they do not contain any references to Abraham or to any other biblical figure.

Previously the Church has done little to admit these historical facts, insisting on a very literal view of the Book of Abraham-that Joseph Smith translated actual Egyptian characters into English from a papyrus written by Abraham. To my knowledge, this is the first time they have published a statement that allows for a more metaphorical or symbolic interpretation of the text’s origins:

“Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.”2 (emphasis added)

Of course this proposition isn’t new. LDS apologists and scholars have suggested this historical point of view for decades, but this concession, published through such official channels, is a break from previous Church publications.

I have to wonder if, given the go-ahead to view Joseph’s translations of ancient documents in nonliteral ways, the Church will accept as believers those who similarly believe in the Book of Mormon as a nonliteral translation.

The Book of Mormon was translated from a set of gold plates that an angel gave to Joseph Smith. Unlike the papyri, we don’t have the gold plates–the angel took them back–so believers have to have faith to accept the sacred text. But that faith is in the book as a literal translation of an actual record–word for word–written by an actual people who lived in ancient America. What if believers were given the same freedom to accept the Book of Mormon as an inspired narrative revealed by God to Joseph Smith even if it does not directly correlate to a historical record or to actual peoples?

Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by adapting a folk magic tradition called scrying. He would take a seer stone, place it in a hat to block out the light, and then dictate the words he saw to a scribe who would write them down. The process is not a translation process, nor is it a literary process. Rather, the Book of Mormon is “the record of an extended oral performance3 (emphasis original).

When I look at Joseph Smith, I do not look at him as a magician or charlatan. I look at him as an artist. I look at the incredibly interesting and complex narratives of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham and I marvel at his imagination and creative power.

Here is a master storyteller.

Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, described the years before he produced the Book of Mormon as being filled with stories. “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.”4

The ease with which he could tell these stories continued long after the book went to print. Once in 1834 when he was walking with friends and encountered a skeleton on the ground, he excitedly declared, “[These bones belonged to] an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites” “His name was Zelph, a warrior under the Prophet Onandagus. Zelph a white Lamanite.”5 Without hesitation, Joseph gave his friends an entire definitive backstory to the discovery.

I look at Joseph Smith as someone who was deeply inspired, and I am fascinated by that.

I have included seer stones in several recent public and private performances. I began by looking at my own stone in an effort to have a vision like Joseph’s visions. I dictated the words that came to my mind and had a scribe write them down. In private performances I would stare into the stone and try to write and draw using free-association, allowing my mind to wonder. More recently I invited participants to look at my seer stones with me and together we would talk about what we saw or thought about. The stones were a starting point, focusing our attention and thoughts on certain colors, shapes, movements, or moods. From this inspiration, the viewer and I created new, often intimate, narratives.

I am interested in what it means to be inspired. Much of my work in performance art shows and festivals has revolved around one-on-one interactions with a viewer. Each experience is unique and spontaneous. In several of these explorations I have given blessings to participants, such as at the Supernova Performance Art Festival outside Washington D.C. These experiences were comparable to blessings I gave when I was a missionary in which I would place my hands on the person’s head and speak whatever thoughts and impressions came to my mind.

When I blessed strangers at Supernova and in other art contexts, I often had unexpected thoughts that I would share with the person. Afterwards they would approach me or email me and to say that something I had said was exactly what they needed to hear. One participant wrote to me, “some of the verbal blessings that you gave me were kind of to the point given what I have been experiencing recently in my own life as if you knew what I was going through.”

I feel inspired when I am making this performance art. I feel a quickening of my pulse, a rising sensation in my chest, a warmth in my gut. I feel new ideas rushing forward in my mind, and old ideas fitting together and suddenly making sense. I feel hopeful and optimistic about the future. I feel more comfortable with faith; I am slower to doubt and slower to criticize. I feel confident in myself and in the experience that is unfolding.

These are the same sensations and emotions I experienced when I was a teenager reading the Book of Mormon and praying and when I was a missionary ministering to people. It’s the same feeling I had in the temple when I would participate in the rituals and meditate. It’s something that I love and miss from my religion and that I seek to restore and recreate in my art.

Despite these similarities, I have been careful to draw a distinction between the art actions I do and the religious actions of Joseph Smith and other Mormons. I do not invoke the name of God, and I do not claim any sort of authority or priesthood. It is important for me to be creating art, and not religion. But in light of this newly sanctioned reading of Joseph Smith’s translation as being inspired by ancient documents and using these sources as “occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation”6 rather than literal translation, I wonder if there really is a difference between what Joseph Smith did and what I am doing.

When I began this kind of performative work, I told my mentor how uncomfortable I was when people took what I said during blessings literally. I was more interested in creating an uplifting feeling than I was in giving advice or divinatory counsel. I heard about one participant who had been deciding between two important life decisions and was able to make the decision after receiving an artist’s blessing from me based on something I had said unwittingly. This terrified me, and my mentor used this as an opportunity to open up a discussion about the kinds of trust and permission that are exchanged between viewer and artist–and between religion and adherent.

As my mentor explained, if art is meant to create a profound experience that could potentially change a person, then that places a huge amount of responsibility on the artist. How much am I willing and able to change a person through a work of art? Am I responsible for making that change uplifting and positive?

It is perhaps in the weight of that artist-to-viewer responsibility that I feel the most like Joseph Smith. His actions, and his definitive declarations and backstories, have affected millions of lives, including my own. The religion that springs from his inspirations changes people. They give him permission to enter their psyche and affect their thinking. I can only hope that the Church will approach that trust with the care and gravitas such a permission carries.

In reflecting on what it means to be inspired and what it means to create a text, image, or experience from a source like a magic stone or an envisioned document, I find the distinctions between art and religion harder and harder to find. Maybe religion has always been art (and vise versa). Maybe there is a crucial difference. Either way, I hope my explorations of these ideas give viewers something that is inspiring to think about.

1 Joseph Smith, The Book of Abraham, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1835, title page.

2 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Translation and Historicity of the Book of, accessed October 20, 2015.

3 William L. Davis, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Origins of the Book of Mormon, Los Angeles Review of Books, October 30, 2012.

4 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, Orson Pratt, 1853, p 85.

5 Donald Q. Cannon, Church History Regional Studies, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, Regional Studies, Illinois,-Zelph Revisited, p 97-109.

6 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Translation and Historicity of the Book of, accessed October 20, 2015.