Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Spiritual Experiences and Generational Dissonance

Posted by BrianJ on June 2, 2008

Benjamin gave a powerful sermon that left his people “with no more disposition to do evil.” I’m sure that we’ve all had similar experiences—that we have felt at some time that we would never sin again for as long as we lived. I’m not sure whether this conviction endured with the Zarahemla Nephites, but several chapters later they still seem strong in the faith.*

Which makes the problems highlighted in Mosiah 26:1-3 so surprising:

“There were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ. And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.”

How do you go from intense belief to total disbelief in one generation?! Some possibilities:
  1. The parents neglected to teach their children.
  2. Social circumstances changed; i.e., the children grew up in a far more worldly—and therefore, less faith-promoting—environment.
  3. Mormon is using hyperbole: the new generation had some rebellious years, but they eventually came around.
  4. Benjamin’s sermon simply could not be repeated without losing nearly all of its power; i.e., you had to be there.
I think we can safely dismiss #1 as simply absurd, though we can still ask about how effectively the parents taught. Trying to teach and actually teaching are different things.
Option #2 is also very unlikely. The only thing in the text that suggests a major social change is the return of various groups to Zarahemla—and, of course, all those who returned were believers, thus bolstering the numbers of the church and making it easier (maybe?) to be a believer.
Verse 4 shoots down any possibility of accepting option #3:
“And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God.”

Option 4 probably holds some truth to it, but I want to reject it simply because it makes me question why the speech was even recorded. Also, not everyone who originally “heard” the speech heard it from Benjamin’s lips: the speech was written down and taken to people out of earshot, and they (apparently) had the same reaction.

I’m left without a good answer and that is why I am posting. If I had to propose a hypothesis to be tested it would be a sort of combo of #1 and #4. King Benjamin’s people (the parents) tried to teach their children the Gospel, but did so in terms of this incredible experience they had had; the children were not able to grasp the meaning of the spiritual experience which, as a consequence, made the whole sermon seem irrational; the generational dissonance was a result of teaching/bearing testimony of the spiritual experience of the sermon as opposed to doctrine of the sermon. (A lot of speculation in the hypothesis, but like I said, I’m throwing it out there “to be tested.”)

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* This post isn’t meant to be about whether or not Benjamin’s people stayed faithful, or to what degree, but if you have something to say on that then please do.

11 Responses to “Spiritual Experiences and Generational Dissonance”

  1. robf said

    I think maybe there’s another possible source of trouble: The Mulekites never really bought into Nephite political and religious leadership. Its interesting how we are first told that the Mulekites united with the Nephites in the time of the first Mosiah. Then, in Benjamin’s talk, he tries to unite the two peoples by giving them one name. In Mosiah’s time, he is still trying to unite them (Mosiah 25:4).

    But it doesn’t seem to hold. I’ve been wondering if it isn’t best to see the Nehors and the Amlicites/Amalakites as the religious and political offshoots of the Mulekite population. I’m basing this on some similarities in names and how key people are described, most of which I’ve put on the wiki. Notice how Nehor is described in similar terms to Ammon and his royal Mulekite brothers. One of those brothers is Amaleki–perhaps the same Amlici mentioned 30 years later as the founder of the Amlicites (lots of spelling issues there, which are discussed on the wiki).

    In short, I think that we’ve too quickly glossed over the ethnic and religious and political differences between groups sometimes lumped together in the narrative as Nephites.

    In addition, by the end of the Book of Mosiah, you have the first mention of new villages and cities. Its possible that as the population expanded, they didn’t just set up new villages and cities, but may have moved into areas where other populations were already established, and taken over leadership of those areas. The intermixing with other local peoples is probably another source of alternative religious and political aspirations.

    For other thoughts on some of this, see John Sorenson’s BYU Studies paper on the Mulekites (here)

  2. BrianJ said

    rob, I see the importance of Mulekite politics in the ways you describe, but I’m not sure that that it what is going on here. And I actually considered the Mulekites in ch 25 as I was thinking over this stuff. The reason I don’t think they apply here is that ch 25 points out that the Mulekites were never really united with the Nephites, and then the narrative seems to focus in on the Nephites for ch 26. It’s sort of like Mormon is saying, “Okay, so there was this Mulekite/Nephite split, but even worse there was this old Nephite/young Nephite split.” In other words, it seems to me that this “rising generation” of rebels were all Nephites and that is why their waywardness was particularly troublesome.

  3. robf said

    Brian, its a tough issue. And we probably don’t have enough info to go much further. For one, we don’t know about how much intermarriage there was. If there was a lot, you may well have had divided loyalties within families. For example, I think there’s a good chance the king Mosiah was married into the upper stratum of Mulekite society to help weld the kingdom together. Could the Sons of Mosiah have been influenced by their maternal uncles with other religious ideas?

    There’s always the argument about generational understanding and identity which might also be at play here. For one school of thought on how that plays out in the United States, see the Fourth Turning.

  4. jennywebb said

    Brian, I’ve been thinking about this recently. I don’t have anything definitive, but there is a possibility that I’ve been playing with that might work. I think it’s important to note that Mosiah 25:24 indicates that the people at Zarahemla were economically successful (“they were blessed, and prospered in the land”). 27:6-7 also makes the same point, also pointing out that another facet of this economic growth was actual population growth and expansion: “the people began to be very numerous, and began to scatter abroad upon the face of the earth, yea, on the north and on the south, on the east and on the west, building large cities and villages in all quarters of the land. And the Lord did visit them and prosper them, and they became a large and wealthy people.”

    Now, my understanding of economics is, well, pretty non-existent, but it does seem reasonable to hypothesize that part of this economic and geographical growth might be tied to success in things like trading. We have a prior yet related example in Mosiah 23:7, where it describes the net effect of Amulon (who would be operating under Nephite cultural traditions) teaching the Lamanites: “And thus the Lamanites began to increase in riches, and began to trade one with another and wax great … delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.” So it is possible that the same type of growth through trade (and the general economic and social complexity that accompanies it) was happening in Zarahemla.

    The next question, then, is who might they be trading with? With their own expanding colonies, to be sure, but the ending of Mosiah 23:7 above at least indicates the possibility that the Lamanites plundered people other than themselves. Which could be Nephites. But could also be simply that: other people. I think it’s possible (ok, for me I think it’s likely) that part of the growth experienced in Zarahemla is due to increased contact with other people, tribes, kingdoms, what have you. Possibly some with Lehite connections, but more likely people with a distinct cultural heritage and tradition.

    If this hypothesis is plausible, then it might be that the younger generation in Zarahemla does not believe the teaching of their parents simply because Zarahemla itself has increasing encounters with distinct cultural traditions, religions, and systems of belief as its economy grows. My anthropology is about as good as my economics, but it seems unlikely that in a society in relative cultural isolation an entire rising generation would suddenly on their come up with a new belief system. However, a rising generation constantly exposed to other (possibly more powerful, enticing, prevalent, etc.) cultures and belief systems may well have the majority decide that their parents were simply wrong.

  5. smallaxe said

    I’m not sure I could even provide a thoughtful critique of your position, but it seems that another piece of evidence that might tie into things is Mosiah 6:2-

    And it came to pass that there was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ.

    Although this certainly begs the question as to why they didn’t enter into the covenant at a later time.

  6. BrianJ said

    robf, interesting link. And I agree that we are probably missing too many facts to be too concrete in our conclusions.

    jennywebb, you seem to be supporting option #2 (or at least a variant). I already said why I’m reluctant to accept that explanation, but I concede that I might be overlooking just how much economic expansion was going on. As for the unlikelihood “that in a society in relative cultural isolation an entire rising generation would suddenly on their come up with a new belief system,” I think we have to remember what Mormon wrote in ch 25: that the Nephites (i.e., church members?) were not half as numerous as the Mulekites. If I’m interpreting Mormon correctly, then the young generation had plenty of non-believing examples all around them regardless of whether there was significant trade outside of Zarahemla.

    smallaxe, You really hit the question that burdens my mind: Why didn’t the children believe as their parents? (when I don’t see any compelling reason why they should not…) And, of course, this question is not academic: I wonder how I or we as a church might be making the same mistakes with our youth.

  7. NathanG said

    I have been thinking about this same issue, but can’t really add much to what has been said. However, I wonder what Mormon means when he uses phrases like they spoke with one accord. Was this powereful conversion equal for everyone. What does a congregation responding with one accord act like, sound like? Is the response that was recorded how everyone felt or just the most impressive response?

    I also puzzle as to how much time has passed for these differences to come about. Were the sons of Mosiah born after King Benjamain, before? Was this a change that took place over 30 or 40 years or over 10 to 15 years? Mormon was pretty vague in describing this, so what was it he was thinking about when he wrote this?

    Maybe there is some “Bishop’s child” syndrome going on. I don’t know how true the “bishop’s child” thing is, but supposed the bishop’s children rebel. Why do they rebel? Is it possible that people get so caught up in service in the kingdom that they forget to spend time with their kids? I say that’s absolutely a problem in the church today and could be a problem. So if parents and children have similar behavior then and now (not as certain, but possible) then perhaps the parents spent too much time outside of the home and the children rebelled for attention (and could very well include some of the cultural discussion from above).

    So enough blogging, better go spend time with the family.

  8. Bay T said

    understanding Mormon to be human, maybe he erred in not including in his abridgement the reasons/factors for generational dissonance. then again maybe the error was on behalf of the (inscribing) prophets who experienced denial/embarrassment about their wayward/disaffected children. (a similar case is a prominent elder in today’s church that i personally know of who’s child struggles with his openness of same – s * x attraction.)

    i had an interesting eye-opening experience one sunday evening last december. Being the EQ pres YSA ambassador i was invited to a regional town meeting hosted by the area general authority addressing dissonance among today’s YSA (18-30) and how to reactivate and retain them. They presented cold hard facts: overall activation rate for North American YSA is ~27%, for North American YSA sisters much lower @ ~23%. they then opened up the floor for a lengthy Q&A discussion. the first question to the Area Authority was an inquiry into what was the Presidency of the Church’s opinion/rememdy on the issue. he succinctly responded, “the Heavens remain guiet, for this is the purpose of the meeting: to learn from your input/observations and report back to them.” a good portion of the questions and comments (and even a couple of testimonies) were directed towards the internet (more specifically blogs and message boards) and its impact on the YSA generation. Various folks made the following point: between 0-18 the child is taught by (pre-internet era) parents and the church to believe one version of the gospel (including early-church history and historicity of the Book of Mormon), and at some point between 18-30 become exposed to a plethora of blogs and message boards, some pro-, some anti-, some unbiased, and learn about facts that where never represented or misrepresented to them in the prior stages of their life and being afraid of the responses/repercussions of discussing it with church leaders and even parents leaves them with the life altering experience of that of the young generations of the various Book of Mormon civilizations – Cognitive Dissonance.

  9. BrianJ said

    Bay T, thanks for the comment. I wonder which blogs the young Zarahemla-Nephites were visiting…. {smile}

  10. lxxluthor said

    I’ve always had the feeling that the lack of social (and particularly political) background to the BoM severely hampers any attempt to penetrate into these kinds of questions that the text raises. In this particular instance I have wondered if the Nephites made the gross oversight of not instituting a system under which the smallest and subsequent children would be brought into the covenant, much like baptism today. In any case, considering possible splits among the Nephites/Mulekites cannot fully answer the question as the subjects explicitly followed by the narrative were Nephites (Alma, etc.) unless robf’s thought is right. Which it could be but how would we ever know?

  11. robf said

    As I look around my own ward, its pretty obvious that we’ve pretty much lost a generation of folks in their late 20s and 30s. Most of the members of our ward in that age group have moved here from elsewhere. The children of long-time members here have mostly left the church, at least for now. My feeling is that we all need to be much more practiced in following the Spirit in order to know how to reach out to these people–and like Alma, to be able to draw upon the powers of heaven.

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