The last few days of December are rich in important anniversaries. Apart from the popular one on the 25th on December 29 we recall the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 which provoked one of the most truly dreadful poems in the English language by William McGonagall. Of more significance to more people perhaps was the birth on 23 December 1805 of Joseph Smith Jr, the future prophet of Mormonism. It is something of a tribute to his impact upon the world that most articles about him and his religion can be written by numbers. The things his critics say being as awesomely predictable as the words of his defenders. It is with a sigh of relief that we can turn from such articles, pick up our Mormon Bingo card look at the below the line comments and quickly tick off "polygamy", "sacred underpants", "Mountain Meadows Massacre" and so on and so forth.
Does there remain anything meaningful to say about this figure, who's influence upon America and the world has not been trivial, which goes beyond the boundaries of the preferred narratives used by those who have already made up their minds about him? I think there is. Discussions about his life confuse the two categories of saint and prophet as if they were interchangeable. In the commonly accepted sense of the word Joseph Smith was no saint. His critics harp on his failings and Mormons deny, minimise or ignore them. But so what if he was unreliable, sinful and flawed? The same could be said of most scriptural prophets. Balaam accepted money to curse the Hebrews but God used him to bless them instead. Jonah was a bad tempered old sod who tried to run away rather than prophesy something that never came to pass. And the greatest prophet of them all, Moses, was a runaway murderer who got his brother to do the talking for him. A prophet does not have to be full of virtue, he or she only has to be a channel of communication between God and man. They have to convey a spiritual or theological truth, they do not have to embody it.
In that sense a prophet is more like and artist than a saint. Caravaggio was a notorious street brawler and outlaw but his paintings convey something much greater than himself. Also it is rather beside the point to complain that his depiction of the Supper of Emmaus or the Ecce Homo were inaccurate because the actual participants in the original events would not have looked or dressed the way Caravaggio portrayed them. His painting allow the character of the persons and events to shine through the mere details of the canvas. Similarly it doesn't really matter that much if Joseph Smith really was guided by an angel and some seeing stones to reveal the Book of Mormon or whether those were just the canvas he painted upon to give a context to his work. It is the ultimate source of the inspiration not the technicalities of it that matter most.
How does one judge whether a work is part of God's revelation to man or a human invention? Ultimately the judgement is a subjective one. What impact does the work have upon ones heart and soul. Here perhaps the analogy is more with the poet than the artist. The words of the poet enter the mind and then percolate throughout the person. Byron was famously mad, bad and dangerous to know but his poetry changed lives because it spoke truth about life itself. The more deeply you enters upon the words and they upon you then the more impact they have. For Latter Day Saints the Book of Mormon conveys information not so much about the ancient history of America but about the relationship between people and God and that to them continues to speak to today's lives and relationships. The message is important the messenger less so. For non-Mormons, of course, the position is different. Those who feel the need to get beyond the articles by numbers realm and into reading the actual text make an uncomfortable discovery. If prophets are like poets then Moses is probably the Byron of prophecy and Joseph Smith Jr certainly the William McGonagall of the genre.