Natalie Brown: The Book of Mormon makes it clear — faithfulness does not guarantee safety, prosperity and bliss

The message instead is to be prepared for hard times, divided families and frequent sorrows.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) As the only surviving Nephite, a people of the ancient Americas, Moroni finishes writing about his people’s destruction in this scene from the "Book of Mormon Videos" series.

Apocalyptic prophecies have a long history of not coming true.

Yet while humanity as a species stumbles along, local extinctions are familiar. Genocides, colonization, wars, diseases and natural disasters continue to erase specific people and communities off the map.

Less monumentally, we routinely experience losses that reshape our individual worlds: deaths and divorces; technology shifts that extinguish careers and identities; health crises that alter our bodies or minds.

As Americans, we struggle with the most polarized politics of my lifetime, an affordability crisis that is particularly detrimental to younger generations, and a climate crisis that is all too visible in the smoke we breathe each summer. For those of us raised white and middle class during what was (for our demographic) an unusually stable and optimistic 1990s, it’s easy to feel that the world is on an unstoppable downward trajectory and tempting to retreat into what remains of our privileges.

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the general prosperity of the 1990s perhaps also made it easier to lean into the promise of eternal families as well as selective strains of our culture that comfortingly implied safety and happiness in exchange for keeping the commandments. Members would not dodge hard times, the thinking went, but instead be comforted in spiritual and material ways as long as they stayed faithful. We rarely questioned the premise that the gospel should and would lead to happiness.

The rise of social media in the early 21st century further amplified Latter-day Saint cultural imperatives of safety, happiness and prosperity. In a media now heavily shaped by influencers and monetized domesticity, the faith’s ideal family is portrayed as rich, grateful and dwelling in a great and spacious building surrounded by posterity. Church magazines, of course, depict members more diversely. But, in many ways, the maintenance of this Instagrammably happy family is Mormonism’s most widely recognized cultural product.

Against this image, it is easy to feel unmoored when we fail to find happiness, family and prosperity despite our obedience. A narrative that construes religion primarily as a bargain with God for protection poorly equips us to deal with life’s inevitable tragedies. Yet this paradigm was always more a product of our desires than a reflection of what the Book of Mormon actually says.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A scene taken from the early pages of the Book of Mormon during shooting of the second season of the "Book of Mormon Videos" series.

The faith’s foundational scripture charts the fall of a group called the Nephites as they repeatedly succumb to family jealousy, racism, bad leadership and economic inequality. Nephi, the unshakably faithful founder of this civilization, must flee first his homeland and then the brothers who try to kill him. He learns in a vision that his descendants will die, while the descendants of his opponents will live. Today, he might be judged a failure in the home. Just as significantly, he spent most of his life without a home, fleeing from one location to another. His situation in Jerusalem apparently was more prosperous than anything he found in the “promised land.”

Nephi passes his prophetic mantle to his brother Jacob. His account similarly suggests that the promised land falls short of what we might hope. He puts his sorrow bluntly: “[O]ur lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” By the time Mormon compiled these accounts, he had “witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.” When he writes son Moroni regarding their destruction, he hopes that this news will not “weigh thee down unto death.” These are not happy prophets dwelling with their righteous families in comfortable homes. These are people who endured what surely felt like apocalyptic times.

The Book of Mormon suggests that living through upheaval is more usual (or at least worth telling) than dwelling in security. More often than not, the volume depicts families ruptured by violent disagreement rather than parents and children united on a covenant path or holding to an iron rod. And, yet, these prophets worked, wrote, persisted and fought despite knowing the temporal futility of their efforts. They acknowledged bleak realities, but they did not quit. They maintained hope for people of our generation (strangers with little connection to them).

The Book of Mormon suggests that we will be disappointed if we expect following the commandments to necessarily lead to safety, united families and happiness in this lifetime. So perhaps it is time to deemphasize these objectives as the measure of gospel success. Instead, we should ask what gospel understanding motivated these ancient prophets to press forward. As we look at the ways they survived and served as devout custodians and teachers of their history and faith, can we find narratives of greater resilience as we stare down our own version of apocalyptic times?

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.

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