Years ago, my colleague and friend Louis Midgley drew my attention to an anecdote related by the eminent Protestant church historian Martin Marty.
It conveys an important lesson.
Marie de Vichy-Chamrond (d. 1780), the Marquise du Deffand, was a famous 18th-century French hostess, as well as a friend of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other leading intellectuals of the day. She was also a notable cynic and skeptic.
Once, when she was discussing religious matters with the powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal de Polignac (d. 1742), he cited a purported ancient miracle. The martyr St. Denis, he told her, the first Christian bishop of Paris, had walked a hundred miles after his execution, carrying his head in his hand.
Madame du Deffand immediately replied that, "In such a promenade, it is the first step that is difficult."
Whatever one thinks of the tale of St. Denis and his supposed walk — for the record, I don't buy it — her response is very cogent.
She meant, of course, that it's not the claim that St. Denis walked a hundred miles that poses a difficulty. (Most sources describe a walk of only about six miles, incidentally, with the saint preaching all the way.)
The distance is immaterial, a historical quibble.
The fundamental question is whether, after his beheading, St. Denis walked at all. If he did, the rest is mere detail.
Martin Marty used the story to identify what is fundamental in the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly as those claims have come under the lens of what he terms "the crisis of historical consciousness."
This crisis, he said, has been caused by the skepticism and intense scrutiny of modern historical scholarship, which has been directed against virtually all traditional beliefs, religious and otherwise, around the world.
"By analogy," he wrote, "if the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis, then the rest of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story."
Whatever complaints there may be about women's roles in the church, same-sex marriage, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, attitudes on racial matters, church finances, the Indian placement program, imperfect leaders or any number of other topics that tend to distract us — matters on which (please don't mistake me) I'm confident that the church and its leaders can be adequately defended — the fundamental claims are really quite few.
But if they are granted, other issues are largely mere detail.
If — to borrow Martin Marty's two "first steps" — Joseph Smith's account of his First Vision is true, and if the Book of Mormon is genuine inspired scripture, many other important conclusions follow. There is, for example, a personal God. Jesus Christ is his atoning Son, who rose from the dead. The Bible is God's word. Life continues beyond the grave. We are morally accountable. Joseph Smith is a prophet, a credible and reliable witness to divine things. God's true church, accompanied by divine priesthood authority, has been restored to the earth. And so forth.
My strong conviction is that we fare quite well on the fundamental issues. We simply need to keep our eyes and — to the limited degree that it's possible, our critics' eyes — on the ball.
Not long ago, I reread the classic tale from the "Thousand and One Nights" commonly known as "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp." You may remember the story:
By means of the genie in his magic lamp, the impoverished young Aladdin has achieved unparalleled wealth and married the beautiful princess Badr al-Budur. But an evil magician from North Africa covets the lamp and, one day, while Aladdin is out hunting, comes to his palace disguised as a merchant who wishes to trade "new lamps for old." The princess, knowing nothing of the power of the lamp and regarding such a trade as an obvious gain, surrenders her husband's nicked old lamp for a bright and shiny new one.
We would, I firmly believe, be just as disastrously mistaken as she was to trade the lamp of the gospel for a different one that lacks its miraculous power.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.