Hugh Nibley on Blashphemy

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In the context of the interaction between Jacob, son of Lehi, and Sherem, Hugh Nibley talked about what blasphemy is. I found this interesting in light of how sacred things are treated by much of the world and even by some people within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“What does the word blasphemy mean? What does it come from? What is blasphemia? To speak blapt?, which is what? It’s to treat lightly, not with contempt, but not seriously. It is not to damn something to hell. It is not to say horrible and tremendous things, but to treat lightly. It’s much worse to treat the gospel as trivia and laugh it off (you can’t reach people like that) than it is to attack it savagely and say, ‘I’ll show you where it is wrong,’ and really do some studying because then you are in danger. But that’s what blasphemy is. We get the impression that when a person speaks blasphemy, he has spoken terrible things. He has denounced and used vile language. That’s not it. Blasphemy is treating it lightly, ‘This is nothing; we’ll laugh it off.’ It’s laughing something off, which is the best argument if you want to crush something that you can’t answer. You just laugh it off and walk out of the room. They ask plenty of questions about the gospel, but they never wait for the answers.” (Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, Lecture 25).

So the problem of blasphemy is not, as I used to believe, a problem of profaning what is sacred (although that certainly can be a component of blasphemy) but rather a problem of treating sacred things lightly. This is precisely the problem with the recent musical called The Book of Mormon – it is blasphemous because its creators treat the LDS Church with the exact lightness that Hugh Nibley so aptly criticized. The creators of that musical want people to laugh off Mormonism and never give it the honest studying it requires and deserves.

This does not mean we are humorless about the Church or even some aspects of the gospel but there is a distinction between the Church and the gospel. There is also a distinction between honest humor and the levity of loud laughter and lightmindedness. It is difficult for many people to take something seriously when it is presented humorously, even if it is supposedly good-natured humor. That’s the tricky thing about blasphemy – treating sacred things lightly – it might appear all in good fun but its effects are precisely the opposite.