The Visit of Christ in Third Nephi, 5 – As If
Posted by joespencer on September 14, 2013
3 Nephi 11 opens with a voice from heaven interrupting Nephite conversation. Or so we likely summarize the story. There’s a curious detail, however, that we’re too quick to overlook in the account of this event: “And it came to pass that, while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven . . .” (3 Nephi 11:3). What’s to be made of this as if in the middle of this otherwise straightforward description of an event. The next few verses won’t be so skittish about placing things in heaven. Verse 5 will refer to “heaven, from whence the sound came.” And verse 8 will say that “they saw a man descending out of heaven.” In those instances, the “as if” construction doesn’t appear at all. Heaven is heaven, the source of both the Father’s voice and the Son’s person. We might note further that the phrase “as if” appears only twice more in the account of Christ’s visit (3 Nephi 17:5; 19:14), and the similar phrase “as though” never appears at all. Given its infrequency, it’s a bit strange that it appears in this first introduction of the heavenly voice. What’s to be made of this?
First, we might say something about the way the “as if” formula is used in scripture. It turns out that it has three not entirely dissimilar uses, and we’d do well not to conflate them—at least not without care. First, the “as if” formula sometimes marks a text’s metaphorical nature. A good example is 2 Nephi 27:13: “the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.” The point here is pretty clearly to mark the metaphor as a metaphor. Something takes on the guise of something else, and apparently in order to help us as readers to get a clearer sense for things. Second, the “as if” formula marks a certain attitude assumed by a person being talked about. A good example is 1 Nephi 8:25: “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast they eyes about as if they were ashamed.” The point here is pretty clearly to mark the fact that the people took on a certain orientation to the world. Someone takes up a certain attitude, and it’s apparently surprising or unexpected in a certain way. Third and far less commonly, the “as if” formula marks a certain skepticism. A good example is 2 Nephi 20:15: “Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? . . . As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up!” The point here is pretty clearly to make the sheer unlikeliness of something, the merely imaginary nature of what’s being described. Something is presented as an extremely unlikely possibility, in order to illustrate something.
What unites all three of these rhetorically distinct uses of the phrase is the basic structure introduced by the appearance of “as.” Martin Heidegger, especially early in his career, discussed what he called the “as-structure” of language, the way that language presents what is through a linguistic doubling that makes what is be as something (even if it’s present as what it is—Heidegger’s basic notion of assertoric truth, which he borrowed from Edmund Husserl). What we have in the three sorts of use laid out in the previous paragraph is a series of ways in which language or expression (in the broadest sense) doubles what is with a certain imaginative overlay. The three uses, of course, employ this notion in distinct ways, but the nature of the “as” is sustained throughout: one doubles the way things are with a metaphorical way of understanding the way things are; one doubles the way things are with a certain orientation or attitude that gives the way things are a new directedness; or one doubles the way things are with a merely imaginary possibility meant to be rejected. In my opinion, the really interesting use here is the second one, the assumption of a certain attitude or orientation that not only expressively doubles the way things are, but ultimately introduces change or transformation into the way things are. The second form of “as if” uses the overlay of the “as” to introduce a kind of internal distance into the way things are, such that being can give way to becoming. Change becomes possible as the way things are is set against itself through a certain orientation.
In the end, I don’t think it’ll quite be any of these three uses of “as if” that’s relevant. The one I’ve just highlighted is perhaps the most relevant, but even it doesn’t seem to be quite what’s at work in 3 Nephi 11:3. Why? Because while there’s a certain orientation or attitude assumed (the voice comes as if from heaven), the emphasis in the text seems to be on the fact that the people regarded this “as if” with a bit of skepticism. We’ll have to see what that amounts to in a moment.
Another point that needs attention before an interpretation can be offered, however, is the relationship between this “as if” and a series of “as ifs” that appears in Helaman 5. That might seem an odd point suddenly to introduce, but there’s a tight connection, it turns out. For whatever reason, “as if” appears a dozen times in Helaman 5, in the story concerning the mass Lamanite conversion in the prison where Nephi and Lehi are contained. Nephi and Lehi are “encircled about as if by fire” (5:23), with the Lamanites left standing “as if they were struck dumb with amazement” (5:25), and when Nephi and Lehi try to calm the crowd, an earthquake makes “the walls of the prison . . . shake as if they [are] about to tumble to the earth” (5:27). Darkness then overshadows the whole crowd, and a voice “as if it were above the cloud of darkness” is heard (5:29), a voice “as if it had been a whisper” (5:30) that nonetheless causes another earthquake so that “the walls of the prison” are again “as if it were about to tumble to the earth” (5:31). When the voice sounds a third time, the earth itself shakes “as if it were about to divide asunder” (5:33), and this sets things really in motion. A Nephite dissenter sees Nephi and Lehi “in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being whom they beheld” (5:36), and he draws everyone’s attention to it—which in turns leads to prayer and conversion, such that all the Lamanites in the prison end up “as if in the midst of a flaming fire” (5:44) and “the Holy Spirit of God” affects them, filling them “as if with fire” (5:45). Finally, they hear the voice once more, again “as if it were a whisper,” announcing peace (5:46), and the people “cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came,” and angels descend to minister to them (5:48). It’s quite a series of “as ifs.” But what’s really striking is how similar the story is in many ways to what takes place in Third Nephi: a voice that speaks three times, and that in connection with earthquakes, the earth (almost) dividing asunder, a blanketing darkness; and then all this culminating in fire coming down and encircling the converts while angels minister. The story of 1 Nephi 8-19 is anticipated quite remarkably in Helaman 5. And Christ Himself, in the form of His voice in the darkness, explicitly makes a connection between the two events in 3 Nephi 9:20.
The relationship more generally between Helaman 5 and 3 Nephi 8-17 is suggestive, but the frequency of “as if” constructions in Helaman 5 is, for present purposes, especially suggestive. How might the “as ifs” of Helaman 5 help to clarify the stakes of the “as if” of 3 Nephi 11:3, one of very few “as ifs” in the story of Christ’s visit?
The voice from heaven comes as if it were what it is—a voice from heaven. And that as if is rather clearly an echo of the many as ifs that structure Helaman 5. What’s to be learned from all this? At the very least, I think the following might be learned. When the voice comes to the people, and they receive it as if from heaven, they look everywhere but to heaven to decide its meaning and importance: “they cast their eyes round about” (verse 3) and not (until later) “towards the sound thereof, . . . steadfastly towards heaven” (verse 5). The point of the “as if,” it seems, is to note that the people assumed at first that they had misunderstood the source of the voice, that they believed the voice was coming to them from somewhere beside heaven. They looked everywhere but upward as they tried to understand it, and they wouldn’t understand it until they finally attuned their bodies to the true source. The point, it seems, is to mark their lack of trust in their own experience (“as if”), even though that experience was exactly true to the way things actually were.
With the “as if,” then, the narrative marks a certain natural skepticism regarding the miraculous, the people looking to the horizontal when the vertical presents itself to them in truth. And that, it seems, is what’s so important about the link between this “as if” and the many “as ifs” that appear in Helaman 5. I’ve already mentioned that Jesus Himself refers to the connection between Helaman 5 and 3 Nephi 8-17. Now note what He says about the events of Helaman 5: “Whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi 9:20). The “as ifs” in Helaman 5 might, in general, mark the same kind of willing distance from direct experience, a certain kind of skepticism that “this sort of thing” could be happening. The point is force us to see how much we resist reality when it presents us with the transcendent. Everything that’s about to happen in Third Nephi simply can’t be happening—or so we feel. So we feel until we finally attune ourselves in a completely different way: ears and eyes and all of us directed to what’s presenting itself to us. And then we find ourselves face to face with the resurrected Christ, who shows Himself to us.
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