Friday, April 2, 2010

Prophecy for Dummies

In my quest to popularize the advancing science of comparative mythology and plasma physics as they relate to the Restored Gospel, it occurred to me that the popular “… for Dummies” series, relating to everything from auto repair to brain surgery, might be helpful. A nuts-and-bolts approach to prophetic interpretation that employed an analogy about learning to read might help others better understand my approach. The following is the result. – A.E.L.

While we’re definitely not dummies, we all previously thought that one needed a prophetic calling or a PhD in order to interpret prophecy.

But I have found that not to be the case. Anyone who has learned to read—dummies like me and you—can also learn to understand prophecy.

This is done by simply following the clues throughout history, like Hansel and Gretel followed the breadcrumb trail through the forest, tracing the images or metaphors of prophecy to their source in Earth’s ancient heavens. Then, moving forward in time from antiquity to the present, one can map out their use as the prophets consistently employed them in various epochs and in a variety of cultures.

So, reading prophecy is not all that difficult. It’s learning how to understand it that’s a bit hard. That’s because we’ve never been properly schooled in prophetic imagery, a skill once known to all the prophets that has been lost to us over the eons.

And even though Joseph Smith clearly learned that skill, properly employed it and sought to reinstate its imagery in the minds of Latter-day Saints as part of the Restoration, the membership failed to grasp his meaning. (See “The Keys To Prophecy, #1-#12" and “What Joseph Knew.”)

Yes, reading the imagery of prophecy is an acquired skill, just like riding a bike or reading. In fact, the best analogy for learning to read prophecy comes from your own experience as you first began to read.

Think back to when you couldn’t read, before you learned your ABCs. Do you recall what the printed letters on a page looked like? I can. It looked like so much meaningless gobbledygook. There was no way you or I could make sense of it no matter how long we stared at it. Flipping the pages was futile. Trying to find meaning in it was pointless.

Well, that pretty much describes the situation where prophecy is concerned. You can understand the words, but the message is strange gibberish. Try as you might to find meaning in it or make sense of it, you cannot. Instead, your head begins to hurt. Reading various prophecies only further complicates the matter. It all seems to deal in that same bizarre imagery. Even reading books on the subject by supposed ‘authorities’ on prophecy leaves you no closer to understanding the stuff. And there are whole chunks of prophecy that the 'experts' all seem to avoid. Soon you despair, thinking that making sense of prophecy is going to be nearly impossible.

To teach you how to read, the teacher first started with the alphabet and letter recognition. Each letter had a name—A was “aee,” B was “bee,” and so on. And you learned to recognize them and identify them by name. Once you mastered the alphabet, you took your first step toward reading. But you still could not read.

The same is true of prophecy. To understand it, your teacher must take you back to the basics—stars, planets and plasmas. Why stars, planets and plasmas? Well, that’s where the language of prophecy came from. Earth’s ancient heavens were once alive with planets (the ancients called them stars, not planets) and electrified, glowing, lifelike plasma phenomenon. These impressive elements riveted the attention of ancient peoples the world over and sparked an explosion of imagination and imagery in all cultures.

Just like the letters of the alphabet, what the ancients saw in those long ago skies became the building blocks of all religious tradition and culture.

As analyzed elsewhere (See "A New Heaven and a New Earth," “The Saturn Myths and the Restored Gospel,” “The Saturn Epic: In The Beginning,” “The Saturn Epic: Mythmaking,” "The Polar Configuration and Joseph Smith," “Prophets and Plasmas” and “The Electric Universe”), with a little effort you’ll discover the reasons for believing that Earth’s ancient skies were vastly different than our own today. You’ll learn of the objects and images our ancestors saw in the astronomical theater, and we’ll give names to those planets and plasmas. This will be the prophetic equivalent of learning your ABCs.

The next thing our reading teacher did was to show us that each letter had one or more sounds. That further complicated things, but we were told that it would all become clear if we just persevered. So, we went down the now familiar alphabet assigning sounds to each of them. We learned, for example, that the letter C could have an “sss” sound as in “see,” or a “kay” sound as in “cat.” This was further complication and confusion for our struggling young minds.

Unlike today, where planets are little more than bright, distant stars in the sky, these planets and plasmas were very close.They were overwhelming and imposing because they were close to the Earth. They actually appeared larger than the moon does today. Brilliantly lit, dynamic and magnificent in ancient skies, these planets and plasmas were reverenced as gods or primeval powers.

And ancient onlookers assigned distinctive characteristics or personalities to these nearby planets and plasmas, based on their appearance, movements and changes. They were considered gods, supernatural powers that ruled the heavens, their sole habitat. The “theater of the gods,” then, was the ancient firmament overhead. In the cultures of antiquity, these planets and plasmas became human-like or animal-like gods who acted out their epoch stories on that grandiose stage.

Their identities included names, though those names varied from culture to culture. Even within a single culture, the same astral object acquired numerous names as it moved and changed over time. To modern eyes, this riotous nomenclature of ancient gods offers only confusion. To the ancients it made perfect sense since each name identified a unique aspect of their planet or plasma gods.

But the identities and attributes of those gods were strikingly similar in every cultural tradition because the look and behavior of those planets and plasmas was consistently interpreted the same way from culture to culture. This was due to the fact that the appearance and actions of these gods or powers suggested the same characteristics, natures or personalities in the minds of the ancients the world over.

For this reason, the ancients wrote and spoke of them as if they were living beings or creatures, and they so illustrated them in their sacred art. For example, Saturn (the largest of the planets seen in earthly skies) was the “father god” or “creator,” Venus came to be seen as the original “queen of heaven” or “mother goddess” and Mars became her “son,” the “hero” and the “warrior,” among many other designations. And the plasmas that were seen stretching between the planets took on a large number of identities: a connecting sky pillar, celestial tree, world mountain, astral river and ladder, stairway or path to heaven. Such commonalities allow us to identify each of the primary actors by their role in Earth’s ancient heavens and the traditions of mankind, no matter what name they went by in the various ancient cultures.

Returning once again to our reading analogy, we recall that our teacher introduced the notion that stringing several letters together produced a readable word. To read it, we used the sounds we had learned for each letter, and we were encouraged to “sound out” the more difficult words phonetically. And so we began to haltingly read our first words. “Look, Jane. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.”

This was a bit of a tricky process. Sounding out each letter and then stringing those sounds together didn’t always produce a recognizable word. We soon learned that there were more complex rules that governed the way some groups of letters sounded. The u-g-h in “laugh” or “tough” made an “fff” sound, even though when those three stood alone they said “Ugh!” Still more complexity to master.

The corollary in learning to read prophecy is the realization that prophetic interpretation assigned a number of roles or characteristics to each of the congregate powers in the sky. For example, Venus was not only the mother goddess, she later became Mars’ crown of light, the “hand” of god, the wife of Saturn and ultimately a raging, angry goddess. One plasma conduit, stretching between Mars and Venus, was described as a dragon, beast or monster because it writhed, undulated and twisted like a snake.

And the complexity of these cosmic forms only grows and multiplies as we survey the literature and traditions of ancient cultures. These original forms, prototypes or archetypes became the basis for nearly innumerable traditional and religious narratives, and their perceived behaviors became the stuff of sacred rituals in all ancient cultures.

Mastering the use of these archetypes by understanding their astral origins allows any reader to interpret them wherever they are found: in religious ritual, in narratives such as scripture, in hieroglyphics, monumental architecture, petroglyphs or sacred symbols.

In our reading analogy, we eventually discovered that words could be grouped into sentences to complete a thought. And several sentences comprised a paragraph, a tidy group of thoughts that, when grouped together, made a summary or conveyed a concept.

In prophecy, we learn that a few simple symbols can convey whole narratives. In some cases, only one ideogram or hieroglyph invokes whole paragraphs of text.

Conversely, we learn that scriptural or religious metaphors have symbolic equivalents. This was a two-headed coin. On one side we have the symbol, and on the other we have its metaphoric equivalent. This allowed the ancients, most of whom could neither read nor write, to depict, read or relate a whole story with just a few symbols or a single ritual.

In reading, with practice came proficiency. After years of work, we mastered reading sufficient to extract meaning from any text. We were finally readers.

So, too, with deciphering prophecy. With some dedicated time and effort, we can train ourselves to read prophecy as easily as we read the morning paper.

But that was not all there was to reading. We soon learned that there were other languages. Some even used ideograms instead of an alphabet. That is, just when we think we’ve mastered it all, we discover that there are new horizons to explore.

So it is with prophetic language. Once we master the basics—the archetypes—once we learn the imagery those basics gave rise to, we can “read” any prophetic metaphor or arcane symbol as easily as we read the letters on a written page.

Of course when we reach that level, we discover to our amazement that what we have learned is only the tip of the iceberg. We quickly find that the imagery or language of prophecy is also the key to the vision of all the prophets, not just prophecy per se. And that includes the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith. We realize, too, that it is the key to temple symbolism and ritual, both in ancient cultures and in the modern church.

We should have guessed that learning to interpret prophecy, like learning to read, would ultimately reveal sweeping vistas of knowledge and understanding beyond anything we could have imagined at the outset of our quest.

I guess we’re not dummies after all.

©Anthony E. Larson, 2009