Faith—since it is faith we are primarily hoping to have Alma 32 teach us about—has the last word in Alma 30-31, in fact, quite literally: the word “faith” does not appear in these two chapters at all until the very last word of the very last verse of chapter 31. That the word subsequently appears in chapters 32-34 some twenty-six times (by my count) highlights how really odd this singular appearance in chapters 30-31 is. Its placement as the very last word of these otherwise faith-less chapters sets up a kind of teleological reading (please don’t read anything metaphysical into the word “teleological” here!): Alma 30-31 not only can (in light of chapter 32’s heavy emphasis on faith), but also ought to (in light of the subtle teleology of Alma 30-31), be read as working toward the question of faith.
The contextual emergence of the theme of faith on this reading imposes on the reader a particular framework for approaching chapter 31 at least: because 31:38 ties faith to “the prayer of Alma” specifically, faith must be understood as emerging through a contrast of prayers, of Alma’s prayer with that of the Zoramites. Whatever will have to be said about faith in the process of reading Alma 32-34(35), it must be said that it emerges first through a contrast of prayers.
Of course, it is hardly a unique interpretive approach to this chapter to take it up in terms of two contrasting prayers. Perhaps little has been said about Alma 31 besides that it sets up a contrast between the prayer of humility and the prayer of pride. But already the common interpretive approach is deepened, complicated, or radicalized: rather than taking the difference between the two prayers as a question primarily of humility/pride, the chapter presents the difference as a question primarily of faith/infidelity.
Two interesting differences between the two prayers immediately strike me in light of this. First, the Rameumptom prayer constantly employs the verb “to believe,” while Alma’s prayer never uses it. Second, the Rameumptom prayer is explicitly a prayer of gratitude (it never petitions), while Alma’s prayer is explicitly a prayer of petition (it never thanks). Each of these points deserves closer attention; I’ll take them in turn.
First, then: Why does Alma’s prayer of faith consistently avoid the language of belief, while the faithless prayer of the Zoramites uses that language constantly (the verb appears five times in the Rameumptom prayer)? At the very least, this anticipates or decides in advance on a distinction between faith and belief that will be vital in chapters 32-34. But more, obviously, needs to be said than just that. The five instances of the verb “to believe” in the Zoramite prayer are all conjugated in the present and in the first personal plural: “we believe” four times, and “we do not believe” once. This confessional flavor, combined with the mantra-like repetition of the phrase, gives the Rameumptom prayer a kind of creedal spirit, and perhaps, then, the distinction between the prayer of faith and the faithless prayer can be said preliminarily to be grounded in a difference in attitude towards (the) creeds.
Of course, it remains to be said what it is about creeds as such that seems to be at odds with Alma’s prayer of faith. A couple of quick points, then. The five creedal statements here are all, as are most statements in most creeds, statements about transcendent facts: whereas Alma simply talks in his prayer about what he has seen immediately before him, the Zoramites make claims about things that have not—indeed cannot have—experienced personally. Moreover, the creedal prayer lays a heavy emphasis on the communal or collective, while Alma’s prayer has a manifest focus on the (I hate this word) individual—or let me say: on the subject. Thus while belief would seem to be grounded in a collective appeal to transcendence in a desperate attempt to guarantee the current status of the present political state by drawing on the unknowable, faith would seem to be primarily a question of a subjective dissatisfaction with the state of the situation in which one finds oneself. In a word, belief would seem to be a politically motivated attempt to cover over the gap in the current state of knowledge by claiming special relation to some kind of transcendent power (the five statements of belief are followed by a privileged case of knowledge in the Zoramite prayer: “thou has made known unto us,” etc., in verse 16); while faith would seem to be an apolitical (almost anarchistic, though the word has far too much baggage to be of much use) wager with regard to the situation that is undertaken by a singular subject (might the word “fidelity” be interchangeable with “faith”?).
Second difference: Why, in this text, is petition associated with faith, while gratitude is associated with faithlessness? I immediately think of Derrida here: thanks or gratitude cancels a gift by economizing it, by subsuming it within a calculus or by making it a kind of wage. Might it be that in order to be gifted, in order to be a given-to, it is necessary not to raise a prayer of thanks, but rather always to be asking for something? Indeed, might the very position of gratitude not be always dangerously close to self-satisfaction, to being at ease in Zion? This difference between the two prayers—one that entirely caught me by surprise—radically reworks the meaning of faith. To be faithful to what God is or does or reveals, etc., is not to recognize it in some kind of “mere” mental assent, but to give it place, to allow it to enter into the situation by subjectively assuming a radical position (or a position of radicalism?). Faithfulness or fidelity is a question, then, of being (subjectively) inflected by the (God’s) truth rather than merely to give some kind of cognitive assent to an unknowable “fact.” The faithful prayer would then always be petitionary. Or so, at least, Alma 31 here would suggest.
Korihor and Zoramite Idolatry
This preliminary analysis of the distinction between the two prayers of Alma 31 lays a heavy emphasis on the relationship between the singular subject (here: Alma) and the situation in which s/he finds her/himself (here: the encounter with the Zoramites). This calls for something besides theoretical abstractions, to which I have primarily given myself here thus far: I would like to turn, for the remainder of this post, to the details of the situation of Alma and Amulek’s preaching (in chapters 32-34) as provided by chapters 30-31. Whatever narrativity can be read into the scene of preaching (again, in chapters 32-34), it ultimately must be grounded in as thorough a knowledge as possible of the situation as presented in chapters 30-31. I would like to write up, then, a kind of encyclopedia of the Zoramite situation.
The last verses of chapter 30 and the first verses of chapter 31 make it abundantly clear that the Zoramites cannot be thought apart from Korihor. Not only are there a few striking parallels between the doctrines of Korihor and the doctrines of the Zoramites (at least as embodied by their creedal prayer), but a few textual hints clinch the connection, as well as the narrative interconnection that is laid out explicitly.
After Korihor’s confrontation with Alma, the text tells that he “went about from house to house begging for his food” (30:56), “begging food for his support” (30:58). One of the places he goes, of course, is to the city of the Zoramites, “a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram” (30:59). While begging there, “he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead” (30:59). The event’s description is remarkably ambiguous, but the violence of the Zoramites toward the (now) poor Korihor is at least a foreshadowing of the political dynamics of the Zoramite people that will set up the preaching situation at the beginning of chapter 32. If this would seem to align Korihor in his beggarly condition to the rejected of Zoramite society, however, there is a hint in the first verse of chapter 31 that seems to give him a rather different relationship to the Zoramites: “Zoram, who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb idols.” The appearance of the word “dumb” here is significant because it is so obviously an echo of the curse that had only just before come upon Korihor: even as the Zoramites kill Korihor through a collective act of violence, they bow down to worship his image.
Two points of clarification. First, I’m not at all suggesting that there were actual Korihor statues among the Zoramites! I mean, rather, that the text draws a connection between the Zoramites objects of worship and the cursed figure of Korihor. Second, my language above purposefully draws on the theory of Rene Girard: Korihor’s death, though the event is described rather elliptically, clearly involves a kind of collective murder, and, as Girard points out again and again, collective murder is almost universally associated in the ancient world with a kind of double regard for the victim—the victim is guilty (Korihor the cursed, the poor, etc.) and deified (Korihor the object of worship, the dumb idol, etc.). This double relationship, as laid out by Girard, is especially helpful here because of the explicit mention of idolatry: the idol inspires a horror that is intertwined with veneration and honor.
Nephite and Lamanite idolatry is, for the most part, an unexplored topic. In part this is because the subject appears (in explicit references, at least) quite infrequently in the Book of Mormon. But here it is, at the very turning point from the Korihor story to the Zoramite encounter, and it marks, as I hope I have shown, the very connection between these two stories. It also serves as a major aspect of the situation in which Alma and Amulek will be preaching: they preach to an idolatrous people. How might this idolatry be approached?
Without getting too involved in another theoretical aside, I will say that I see idolatry as best approachable by drawing on the work of three different thinkers: Marion, Lacan, and Girard. Marion, of course, has a great deal to say about idolatry, having written several studies of the idol (versus the icon). The best way of summarizing Marion’s work on the idol is to point to his description of the idol as the invisible mirror of the visible: to worship an idol is to worship one’s own image (the reflection of one’s own gaze), but in essential ignorance that that is what one sees. Lacan essentially agrees with his (incessant!) discussions of the mirror stage: idolatry (narcissism) is to believe that one is encountering the Other (or the other guaranteed as the other by the Other) while one is really only looking in a mirror (the other as myself inverted so as to be an other). For Lacan, this is an imaginary (or image-inary) relation: my neurotic relation to the mOther makes it impossible for me to realize that I am only dealing with myself. Girard also takes up the theme of the mirror, though perhaps somewhat less rigorously (because anthropologically). For Girard, idolatry is a political affair by which the perpetrators of collective violence allow the deified victim to reflect the stability or security of the state, though the image they worship is only a mirror image of their own violence.
What all of this implies, I think, about the Zoramite situation is this: Alma and Amulek are preaching to a people that cannot see what they are doing. Because the mirror of the idol is, as a mirror, invisible (that is, they cannot see the mirror as a mirror), it is almost impossible for them to understand what Alma and Amulek are saying. In Lacanian terms: the Zoramites cannot disambiguate between the imaginary and the symbolic, between language that is caught up only in itself (the way they speak and the way they therefore assume that everyone speaks) and language that has real referentiality (the way Alma and Amulek speak). Perhaps this means that Alma and Amulek essentially have the task, in chapters 32-34, of psychoanalyzing the Zoramites. (Indeed, perhaps this is the best way to read 31:5: it is not the violence of the real or the blanketing imposition of the law that will cure the Zoramites of their neurotic relationship to God, but the word, a sort of talking cure that will have a “powerful effect upon the minds of the people.”)
If all of this begins to lay a foundation for thinking the Zoramite situation, it does not at all really even begin to grapple with Korihor, who seems to play the part of the Zoramite god! And indeed, I spent the great majority of my time with Korihor over the past week. What follows, then, is something between an exegesis and a hermeneutic (as brief as possible!) of Alma 30, followed by a few simple thoughts attempting to connect the Korihor narrative back up with the Zoramite situation through the connections laid out above. My apologies for the length of this post!
Alma 30 deserves a series of seminars in and of itself: it is a remarkably complex chapter, ridiculously rich in philosophical themes, frighteningly revelatory for someone interested (like me) in Lacanian psychoanalysis, obviously vital for the unfolding history of the Lehite peoples, and profoundly contemporary with us in its concerns.
The narrative opens with an account of burying the dead. This is not, it should be noted, the arbitrary effect of later arrangement of chapter breaks: not only does the break between chapters 29 and 30 correspond with a chapter break in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, the “Behold, now it came to pass” with which chapter 30 opens marks an essential break. Moreover, the broad parallelistic structure that can be read into the entire Book of Alma breaks itself into two parts at precisely the gap between chapters 29 and 30. There seems to be no real reason to doubt that the Korihor narrative is “purposefully” introduced by the account of the burial of the dead.
This way of introducing the story has several effects on what follows. First, Korihor’s teachings are situated in relation to war, in fact, to a particular war: one in which the difference between the righteous and the wicked is materially obliterated by the universality of death (see Alma 28:10-14). Second, the Korihor narrative begins with the work of mourning (to use a Freudian phrase), with the response to a fundamental loss. Third, because the response to the deaths is said to have involved fasting, an inclusio is set up that connects the mourning/fasting of the people at the beginning of the Korihor narrative with Korihor’s own depraved “begging for food” at the end of the narrative. Fourth, the extended discussion of the burial rites allows the editor (Mormon?) to complicate what will become the first narrative point of the Korihor tale proper: the place of the law. Each of these four points is vital.
Let me begin by fleshing out the second point mentioned above: the Korihor narrative begins with the work of mourning and is thus grounded in a loss (in “the lost object”). The Nephite work of mourning, the text makes clear, has a kind of stabilizing effect: “And thus the people did have no disturbance in all the sixteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi” (30:4). This language is curiously psychological: it is not that everything goes right, but that there is “no disturbance,” no neurotic episodes. The object mourned, of course, remains lost (the work of mourning is the slow process of coming to grips with this loss), and that means that the Nephites remain, so to speak, collectively neurotic, though they manifest no visible signs or symptoms of their being oriented by the lost object.
Korihor essentially takes advantage of this condition. Korihor understands the belief in Christ to be the neurotic response to the lost object: the “foolish” and “vain hope” that binds them is for him their ultimately unhealthy way of dealing with death (and especially with a death that does not seem to regard the distinction between the wicked and the righteous). The first point outlined above is thus obviously closely connected with the second I am here discussing: Korihor’s teaching that “when a man was dead, that was the end thereof” amounts to a call to the Nephites to come to a very different understanding of the loss they have experienced. More will have to be said about Korihor’s concept of death below.
If all of this would seem to suggest that Korihor is more or less right in his critique of the Nephites, it must be said that it is the theme of eating/fasting—the third point mentioned above—that helps us out of the dilemma. Not only does this theme set up an inclusio that defines the boundaries of the narrative (an inclusio, in fact, that makes the last couple verses of chapter 30 more a part of chapter 31 than a part of chapter 30’s Korihor narrative), but it also plays on the theme of loss and death: to fast is to refuse fulfillment or enjoyment in order to perfect it (as in D&C 59:13) and is thus a kind of death that anticipates resurrection, a loss that anticipates restoration (as in, say, Job). It is this refusal of consumption that has the potential to disambiguate between the idol and the icon or between the imaginary and the symbolic: fasting disrupts the demand-fulfillment relation in order to restructure it as a desire-fulfillment relation. Korihor does not see this.
In fact, Korihor’s not seeing this is vital: it makes it clear that even if the Nephites are collectively neurotic, he has absolutely no idea how to solve their problem. He suggests to them a kind of American version of Freud (which could just be called hedonism): (sexual) demands must be satisfied. There are, then, three ways of approaching the situation illuminated by the mourning rites. First, one can see the fasting as a good full-blown rejection of fulfillment. This seems to be how Korihor sees the Nephites understanding work of mourning, and he may be right (the remarkable success Korihor has may be evidence that they did indeed see the Law of Moses as a kind of rejection of fulfillment as such). Second, one can see the fasting as a bad full-blown rejection of fulfillment. This seems to be how Korihor himself understands the work of mourning, and it is against this that he makes his criticism. And third, one can see the fasting as a reworking of fulfillment, as a disentangling of fulfillment from demand to associate it with desire (which can only be created through some kind of postponement or disruption). Giddonah and Alma seem to see the work of mourning this way (Giddonah refers in verse 22 to the people’s “rejoicings” rather than their mourning, and Alma speaks in verse 35 of what “causes such joy in their hearts”).
This typology of interpretations of fasting aligns the Nephites in Zarahemla, taken collectively, more or less with Korihor: they together miss the restructuring of fulfillment, and so they together are bound by two dialectically intertwined forms of idolatry (the Nephites worship the idol while Korihor philosophizes with a hammer, but they are both determined by the idol). The fourth point mentioned above bears out this intertwining: it is the keeping of the law that binds Korihor and the Nephites in Zarahemla together textually. This intertwining is effecting by the continuity of the discussion of “the law” in verse 3 with the discussion of “the law” in verses 7-12: both the Nephites and Korihor keep the law, remain within the legal as such.
This continuity between the Nephites and Korihor is fascinating. It implies at least that Korihor is essentially Nephite, that he is a continuation of, rather than a break with, their way of structuring the world. In a sense, then, Korihor is less an independent figure in this narrative than he is a facet of Nephite collectivity: he is their flaw, the whole in their logic, the gap in their structure, the revelation of their weakness. This way of seeing things here sets up Alma’s relationship to Korihor in a different light: Alma’s battle with Korihor is less a one-on-one struggle with an outlandish apostate figure than it is a grappling with the situation of the Nephites. Alma is working against the dialectical unfolding of Nephite law, rather than with it against the singular apostasy of a flamboyant Anti-Christ. (Again, the remarkable success of Korihor in Zarahemla is a confirmation of this.)
In the actual confrontation between Alma and Korihor—now understand as a subjective confrontation on Alma’s part with the logic of the legal (system)—two (intertwined) themes emerge as central: immanence/transcendence and grace/economy.
The theme of transcendence versus immanence emerges in the first set of teachings attributed to Korihor (verses 13-18), but it becomes central in his response to Giddonah (verses 23-28): Korihor describes the transcendent God (god?) he sees the Nephites worshiping when he speaks of “some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or know, who never was nor ever will be” (30:28). That this “unknown being” is paired with the verb “to offend” (the people fear that they might “offend some unknown being”) makes this question of transcendence doubly important because it ties this critique of the Nephite God to the (almost Foucauldian) power structure Korihor critiques: “Yea, they [the Nephite people] durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests” (30:28). Korihor’s interpretation of the Nephite Church as a power structure meant to keep the people from claiming authenticity is thus rooted in his claim that the Nephite religious elite transcendent-ize themselves through “their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries” (30:28 again). Korihor’s critique would seem to pit an obviously correct immanence against the Nephite transcendence.
Importantly, Korihor again and again ties the theme of transcendence/immanence to knowledge: the transcendent is precisely what cannot be known and it is precisely as such that the religious elite among the Nephites employ it in order to maintain their power of the Nephite common folk (see the variations of the word “know” in verses 24, 26, and 28, all negative—a question of not knowing—and thus tied to the theme of transcendence). Korihor’s critique is essentially that this assumed transcendence, with its abrogation of knowledge, grounds an economy: “that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands,” all of this a question of “that which is their own” (30:27-28). The Nephite religion, as Korihor sees it: transcendence, as a rejection of knowledge, secures economy.
Alma’s response to this is amazing. He employs variations of the word “know” in his response and ties them in every instance to immanent facts (he always employs the word in a positive rather than negative sense): “You, Korihor, know x, y, and z.” He thus uses knowledge itself, with its undeniable connection to immanence, in order—here’s the surprise—not to argue for or against transcendence, but to point out that the economy Korihor describes simply isn’t there: “Then why sayest thou that we preach unto this people to get gain, when thou, of thyself, knowest that we receive no gain?” (30:35). Rather than addressing the question of transcendence, he thus assumes an immanent pose in order to show that Korihor’s economic reading is simply wrong.
What this does: rather than meeting Korihor’s implicit argument about transcendence—namely, that the very presence of any kind of transcendence in Nephite religion implies its economic nature and hence its essential falsity—Alma reduces the phenomenon Korihor critiques to its essential givenness. That is, Alma reveals the complete lack of economy at the heart of Nephite religion (as Alma practices it, at least) and so reveals the grace that “governs” it through and through. And this reveals what it is that Korihor (and the Nephites as a whole?) can’t deal with: grace, or, indeed, immanent grace (to drop the title of a recent book . . . ). Why immanent? Because Alma, so soon as he has clinched the graceful nature of the phenomenon under discussion, says: “For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come” (30:39).
Then the confrontation turns to the question of testimony and signs, and I can do little more than point to Adam’s remarkable little paper, “Testimony and Atonement,” published in the latest issue of Element, and to mention by way of anticipation that Alma still seems to be obsessed with Korihor’s desire for a sign when he talks to the Zoramites in chapter 32.
All that remains after that is the actual deliverance of the sign and the curious “scene of writing” that follows—a scene that is perhaps the richest part of the entire chapter! The curse/stroke part of the narrative forces us to grapple with the essential difference between speaking and writing, a difference that is highlighted in the curious fact that Korihor for the first (and only) time use the word “know” in a positive sense when he writes (verse 52). This is all the more important when Alma goes on to tell Korihor that the curse must not be removed because he would go right back to teaching the very same thing he had been saying all along: Korihor can only grapple with immanent grace in writing.
I think this sudden ability to recognize immanent grace is tied to what happens when one writes, what has often (but definitively by Roland Barthes) been called “the death of the author”: to write is to divorce oneself from what one has to say because the text takes on a life of its own, independent of the author. In that the author’s presence is stripped in the work of writing, it becomes possible for immanence to be disambiguated from (the metaphysics of) presence: Korihor’s being unable to speak, but able to write, at last allows him to recognize a distinction his failure to recognize which has destroyed him. This distinction is also, I think, the distinction between Lacan’s imaginary and symbolic: one speaks with an imaginary voice, but one writes symbolically, and once Korihor is stripped of the former, he can at last recognize what is really (real-ly) at work in the latter.
If all of this—even the stroke and Korihor’s dumbness—are tied essentially to the unfolding dialectic of Nephite law, then every aspect of this story bears on the situation of preaching for Alma and Amulek (and the others whose words are never quoted): their task is to confront this same ambiguous understanding of the word (and it is precisely “the word” that will be the central theme of Alma 32). Korihor’s apparent influence on the Zoramites will perhaps prove to be key to interpreting the sermon to the latter.
The above is an attempt to deal with the text on the whole. There were many, many things I encountered in the text that deserve mention but that didn’t find their way into my attempt to write something logical and coherent. I offer them here as a collection of textual notes and questions. And they are only from chapter 30, with which I was able to spend a great deal more time.
30:2 — The Nephites do not number the dead. Does this call for a reflection on the infinite as such? And if so, why is it connected with death? Is this essentially an infinite loss?
30:7 — Belief enters the story here as it does later in the Zoramite story, but it enters here as being specifically under the protection of the law. It is thus statist by nature, and faith is non-statist, radical, etc.
30:8 — Nephite law is grounded in a hermeneutic? This deserves so much more attention!
30:13 — Hope is tied to “looking.” What is Korihor’s doctrine of hope? What does his critique of hope ultimately amount to?
30:16 — Korihor specifically mentions frenzied minds and mental derangement and in connection with one’s relation to one’s “fathers.” Is this Freudian or anti-Freudian?
30:17 — The editor (Mormon?) breaks Korihor’s initial teachings in two parts, direct quotation (verses 13-16) and third person summary (verses 17-18). How might this affect the meaning of the passage?
30:17 — The use of the word “crime” here is interesting: though it is a report of Korihor’s belief, it ties back to the statement in verse 11 that “men should be judged according to their crimes.” This tension deserves careful attention.
30:18 — Korihor’s teachings seem to lead specifically to sexual crimes. (Freud again!) Why is that?
30:18 — Korihor’s climactic teaching about death is phrased in a really curious way: “when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.” What can be read into this phrasing? See below at 30:59.
30:25 — Between two statements about the limits of knowledge, Korihor makes a direct argument against one point of Nephite doctrine: the meaning of the fall. What is interesting is that this question is profoundly (again!) Freudian: it is all about one’s relation to one’s parents. Moreover, it ought to be asked why Korihor retreats to the singular non-gendered term “parent” here, avoiding the incessant language of the fathers everywhere else in his critique.
30:28 — To have “brought them to believe” is an interesting claim Korihor makes. Again belief is tied to the state, though it is a non-existent state Korihor is talking about.
30:32 — Alma says he has worked with “mine own hands for my support.” See below at 30:58.
30:33 — The mention of law here deserves more attention.
30:42 — The “lying spirit” Alma mentions amounts to a counter-accusation: Korihor had claimed that the Nephites were given to pretended mysteries, etc., and now Alma points out that (self-)deception is actually what grounds Korihor. (The interesting thing is that Korihor accused the religious leaders of intentional deception, while Alma accuses Korihor of unintentional deception.)
30:43 — Signs are tied explicitly to power.
30:44 — God as such is tied only to “things” in this verse, while “a Supreme Creator” is tied only to motion (relations?). What is at work here?
30:46 — What is meant by the curious phrase, “the spirit of the truth”?
30:47 — There is an echo here of Laban’s death: it is better that one soul should perish, etc. And yet it is not clear why this needs to be mentioned here. Is it there only to tie this story to the Laban encounter? Is it important for this story to be tied to the (writtenness of the) brass plates?
30:58 — Korihor goes about “begging food for his support.” There is clearly a textual tie here to verse 32, where Alma works for his support: Korihor’s wrong claim that Alma did not work for his support is now ironic in that Korihor himself has to beg (not work) for his support.
30:59 — Korihor’s death is reported in a somewhat odd fashion: “trodden down even until he was dead.” But it thus echoes the odd phrasing of verse 18: “when a man was dead.” This is vital in light of what follows in verse 60.
30:60 — Following the echo of verse 18 in the last verse, there is another here: “And thus we see the end of him,” etc. The two verses together thus recall in its entirety the odd climax of Korihor’s Zarahemla teachings: “when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.” What should be read into this amazing connection?