Faith, Fiction and Going Beyond First Impressions
“I had the same good feeling while reading scriptures and while watching a fictional movie, how is that possible?”
I have heard this question or something like it asked time and time again. I’ve heard this example used to illustrate how ’emotions should not be trusted,’ which, I actually agree with. This question makes a valid observation if you are working under some kind of assumption that the Holy Spirit only confirms specific spiritual things as ‘true’ and shouldn’t ever be showing up during something like a movie (only if it’s a church movie though, right?)
Without proper context, people can be led to conclusions that are incorrect because the foundational assumptions are problematic to begin with. I’m not blaming the person who has the question, I’m not sure we do a very good job at really teaching how the Spirit works and what the relationship is between the truth we have and the truth possessed by everyone else.
Emotions themselves are a tricky because they are simply reactions to things we are exposed to. If someone punches you, it hurts and you feel mad, if someone scares you, you feel terror for something that isn’t really terrifying once you realize it. If someone says sweet things to you, you feel good, even though they may really want to take advantage of you. Reading something inspiring, it can also make you feel good.
There’s nothing wrong with all that, but where we do go wrong is in making hasty judgments based on initial reactions. Emotions are not the Spirit, but emotions can manifest themselves when spiritual or physical influences provoke them. I’ve had spiritual experiences where there wasn’t any emotional reaction, much like admiring the beauty of a sunset. I’ve never cried at a sunset, but I love to see, appreciate, record and remember some of them. That said, I have been physically overwhelmed by certain spiritual experiences on rare occasions.
Faith from fiction?
Have you considered how often Jesus used fictional stories to teach? He inspired people with his parables that are by nature, fictional tales using real or familiar characters and objects. They are crafted, like most fiction, to be vehicles for real principles that impact real people in real ways. Though they are fake stories, they contain real principles placed into a crafted framework for the purpose of delivering the greatest impact to the mind. This way, individuals can go and create real and lasting experiences on their own.
A person may legitimately be purely emotional when reading scripture while legitimately receiving Spiritual revelation from, say, a Pixar movie – it’s possible, and the reverse may also be true. For example, if you get a good feeling watching Toy Story, that doesn’t mean that toys really come to life. However, the Spirit can sustain the principles of loyalty, friendship, and forgiveness that may be expressed in something originally created only for entertainment. A spiritually-minded person can extract a truth from anywhere.
Parables and symbols point to truths higher than themselves, but we can sometimes be confused as to what exactly the Spirit is trying to tell us. In my experience, the first intimations of the Spirit are merely highlighting that there is something good there, something that deserves further pondering and study. Unfortunately, I think many people stop at that point, begin drawing conclusions and end up conceiving “testimonies” out of mere belief and expressing them as knowledge. Belief may be justified upon such impressions, but the journey must continue to knowledge; belief is essential, but it isn’t knowledge.
For me, it is important to maintain a distinction between what I believe and what I actually know while never ever confusing the two. Beliefs are unproven ideologies, perspectives that may contain false notions and lack the information to be considered facts, otherwise they wouldn’t be beliefs.
Someone may genuinely have the Spirit touch them deeply through a verse in the Book of Mormon, but that alone doesn’t simultaneously establish that the Book of Mormon is a real history or that Buzz Lightyear is a real space ranger. It may only mean that the principle you have just encountered is true and good, independent of everything else that surrounds it, kind of like finding a priceless diamond in the worthless proverbial rough.
Other times, however, you might not be looking at just a diamond, but a single facet of a much larger jewel that you do not yet know the dimensions of. Further study, excavation and effort on our part can reveal the context of what we have discovered.
Historicity does have its place though, and so my position is clear, I do believe that the Book of Mormon describes events that actually happened. I don’t believe that it is wholly a work of fiction like many do, but I recognize that it does bear the fingerprints of the modern hands. I don’t think the ‘translation’ or ‘transmission’ of the text was a clean process, but I think that’s how God intended it.
In an age where we go to refrigerators, open them at will and pull out ready to eat delicacies, we forget that before everything got to that point, it had to grow or be gathered first. Anciently, if you wanted something specific to eat, you had to acquire the seed, plant it, wait, nourish and protect it, and eventually you got to sink your teeth into that fruit and experience the sensory explosion of juices and flavors. We must look for seeds that God has provided for us rather than thinking God works like some kind of drive-thru window where he’ll ask if we ‘want fries with that’ after we placed our order.
God is a farmer, not McDonald’s. There are no spiritual Big Macs sitting under a heat lamp waiting for us.
We must gather, grow, cultivate, combine and then apply the fire of the Spirit like a divine recipe that creates an amazing feast of God’s words. (Man, I’m getting hungry) It is in eating and digesting those truths that they nourish and change us – we become what we eat. I think that’s roughly how it works.
Alma explains important principles concerning truth-seeking
In Alma’s sermon about the seed, he talks about this initial reaction we might experience when exercising faith, “when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.” (Alma 32:28)
These first intimations should not stand as our answers. Alma warns against this and says, “neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.” (Alma 32:36)
Initial inspiration may only be suggesting that you found something good that you might want to look into further. I think it is foolish to build a paradigm around these initial bursts of light and call that a “testimony” while neglecting study and faith to more fully understand and taste that fruit of pure knowledge.
Alma says that, “if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out. Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.” (Alma 32:38-39)
One must go beyond those initial swelling motions and truth must be given time to take root and produce fruit.
Elder Richard G. Scott and going beyond first impressions
My own experiences have been very similar to this particular account shared by Richard G. Scott in a 2009 General Conference:
“I visited the Sunday School class in our ward, where a very well-educated teacher presented his lesson…It seemed to me that the instructor had purposely chosen obscure references and unusual examples to illustrate the principles of the lesson. I had the distinct impression that this instructor was using the teaching opportunity to impress the class with his vast store of knowledge. At any rate, he certainly did not seem as intent on communicating principles…”
First, I would like to point out that here you have an LDS apostle pointing out that, yes, often church people can cause us frustration, but that doesn’t destroy our ability to still obtain divine instruction as we will see next.
“In that environment, strong impressions began to flow to me again. I wrote them down. The message included specific counsel on how to become more effective as an instrument in the hands of the Lord. I received such an outpouring of impressions that were so personal that I felt it was not appropriate to record them in the midst of a Sunday School class. I sought a more private location, where I continued to write the feelings that flooded into my mind and heart as faithfully as possible. After each powerful impression was recorded, I pondered the feelings I had received to determine if I had accurately expressed them in writing. As a result, I made a few minor changes to what had been written. Then I studied their meaning and application in my own life.”
Elder Scott is still able to have spiritual experiences in an environment that wasn’t ideal because he owns his spiritually. He goes so far as to get up and leave the class to prevent any distraction from the revelation flowing to him. He followed through with more pondering and then perhaps most importantly, he studied the meaning and application of his impressions. You might think that after so much work and positive experiences with the Spirit that you might be satisfied and seek no further, but Elder Scott doesn’t stop there.
“Subsequently I prayed, reviewing with the Lord what I thought I had been taught by the Spirit. When a feeling of peace came, I thanked Him for the guidance given. I was then impressed to ask, “Was there yet more to be given?” I received further impressions, and the process of writing down the impressions, pondering, and praying for confirmation was repeated. Again I was prompted to ask, “Is there more I should know?” And there was. When that last, most sacred experience was concluded, I had received some of the most precious, specific, personal direction one could hope to obtain in this life. Had I not responded to the first impressions and recorded them, I would not have received the last, most precious guidance.
What I have described is not an isolated experience. It embodies several true principles regarding communication from the Lord to His children here on earth. I believe that you can leave the most precious, personal direction of the Spirit unheard because you do not respond to, record, and apply the first promptings that come to you.”
There’s a lot to be learned that I’m sure I’ve missed. But notice how he is receiving all these impressions and information but still prays for confirmation, he doesn’t just accept a spiritual experience on its surface, he seeks for greater understanding and confirmation that he is interpreting what it means correctly. Most important here is the fact that he responded to the first impressions. Again, he responded to first impressions. Rather than privately interpreting them and risking misinterpretation, he carefully sought for higher wisdom to guide his understanding.
How would adopting some of these principles change your own spiritual experiences? Why not ponder some of these things and try them on your own? I know that many times I have not been that thorough and have had to rethink and revisit many old revelations and impressions (because I write them all down). Yes, we can still do that, even if many years have past.
All good is inspired by God
I’ve noticed that the Spirit tends to embrace all true principles regardless of their origins. If you read the scriptures, watch a movie or hear a sermon from a religion other than your own and you sense the Spirit in what is being presented to you, then there’s probably some good there for you to collect because all good is inspired by God.
“But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.” (Moroni 7:13)
We shouldn’t be surprised to find truth outside of “Mormonism” because Mormonism isn’t just Mormon truth, it is Muslim truth, Catholic truth, Hindu truth, Buddhist truth, scientific truth, and secular truth, it is any and all truth where there is truth to be found.
Joseph Smith taught it:
“Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” (Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54; spelling and grammar modernized.)
Brigham Young taught it:
“It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion.” (DBY, 248)
If you took just a few initial ingredients that are tasty on their own without considering the entire recipe and the specific instructions, you might end up combining individually tasty things into a collectively disgusting mess. It’s important to take initial impressions and see them through the process of investigation and faith rather than drawing hasty conclusions.
I’ll leave you to ponder all of this and close with some of Joseph Smith’s words:
“The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity — thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 267-68)