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In the Book Episode 9: "In the Burning Book: Jason Olson"

Episode Transcript

“In The Burning Book” with Jason Olson

[00:00:00] Jason: I felt to a degree like I know God, and I know God is the author of the Torah, and there are some books that are God's books and there are some books that are just written by human beings.

[00:00:20] It was an impression that the Book of Mormon is a book on par with the Torah, and I need to take it seriously. And I felt a voice that said, “Do not burn my book.”

[00:00:42] Rebecca: The anecdote of the book about to be burned didn't end in the backyard of Jason Olson’s Arizona home. It was just the beginning.

Jason Olson is a Navy Foreign Area [00:01:00] Officer and serves as Defense Policy Officer at the US Forces Korea. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and has served as a teaching assistant for the Summer Institute for Israel Studies.

He is the author of America's Road to Jerusalem: the Impact of the Six Day War on Protestant Politics, and together with James Goldberg, co-authored his memoir, The Burning Book.

 I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.

This is a podcast where we flood the earth with testimonies of the Book of Mormon.

Growing up, Jason wasn't so curious about the Messiah as much as he was about focusing on the first five books of Moses. In fact, he was [00:02:00] studying to become a rabbi.

In addition to school during the day, Jason attended Hebrew High School. It was similar to early morning seminary, except that it was in the evenings and at the synagogue.

[00:02:11] Jason: We had a missionary come to the synagogue where I went to Hebrew High School and he introduced himself as Mitch, and he had a Jews for Jesus t-shirt on. And that was really shocking because none of us had ever listened to Jews for Jesus. And we were taught to stay away from them because they had gone astray. He began preaching and I listened to him and he was quoting Isaiah 53 and some other scriptures that he argued Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.

So I started just thinking a lot about Jesus, and I had never thought about Jesus before. I had never thought about the Messiah before either. I was just thinking that God made a covenant with the Jewish [00:03:00] people and gave us all these commandments.

[00:03:02] Rebecca: Later, the missionary revealed himself to be another rabbi who was just trying to show the students the counter-argument.

Still, it fueled Jason's questioning about this Jesus

Jason: I need something conclusive. Is Jesus the Messiah or is he not? It's gotta be one or the other. And that's what leads me into a deep study of the Bible. And of course all I have is the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Malachi, but it also leads me into discussions with my Latter-day Saint friends.

Rebecca: Unbeknownst to Jason or to the other teenage boys, their friendship was about to be a hinge point in his personal history.

[00:03:45] Jason: So I had known Shea Owens before my bar mitzvah and Shay was really supportive when I had a bar mitzvah and and then now it's 1999 and we're all freshmen in high school but we [00:04:00] never really talk about religion. But now I’m asking questions about the Messiah.

David Thaxton moves to our neighborhood that freshman year, and so I'm asking them at lunch about the Messiah. And all I can remember from those days was a conversation in the lunchroom where I'm trying to show that Jesus did not fulfill all these different messianic prophecies, especially about the restoration of the Kingdom of David - the literal kingdom of David. One of the most basic Jewish messianic beliefs is that the Messiah, at the very least, has to restore the kingdom of David, including the sovereignty and the peace.

Jesus hasn't fulfilled these prophecies.

[00:04:47] Rebecca: So how could Jesus be the Messiah?

He never ruled any nations while he lived on earth.

The Kingdom of David wasn't restored, and if anything, persecution, not peace, had befallen the [00:05:00] Jewish people for thousands of years.

[00:05:02] Jason: So the idea is, how could you believe in the Christian Messiah when Christians have been the worst oppressors of the Jews in all of the Jewish history.

But what Shea and Dave say is that the Messiah's gonna come twice. And that was really new to me. And he says the first time he comes as a lamb, but he will come the second time as a lion.

And so all these prophecies of the restoration of David's kingdom, that's gonna happen in the Second Coming.

[00:05:35] Rebecca: One discussion after another led to one question after another. Finally, his friends wrote their testimonies in a copy of the Book of Mormon, and one day Dave gave it to Jason in the library during lunch.

[00:05:49] Jason: He offered it and I looked at the cover page and it said Another Testament of Jesus Christ. And that made me very uncomfortable. [00:06:00] But I accepted it and I understood that it was sacred to him, but to me it felt like missionary propaganda.

I think I opened and I saw their written testimonies and thought, “Wow. My friends actually took the time to write what they believe in this book.” And then Dave - and I think Shea had helped - they highlighted all these passages in the Book of Mormon that actually answered questions that I had.

[00:06:30] Rebecca: Since Jason wasn't willing to give it back to his friends or keep it at his house, he said it was exiled to his space between; deep enough to stay out of sight at home, but still within arm's reach if he ever decided what to do with it. But he put off that decision for long enough that the book, he said, was practically a part of his backpack.

[00:06:52] Jason: The Book of Mormon was underneath my geometry textbook and social studies textbook, you know - [00:07:00] huge heavy books. And over the next couple weeks, it got crushed. The cover was crushed and the pages were bent.

And Dave went to pull out a notebook one day during like social studies class and we’re freshen in high school, and he saw the Book of Mormon at the bottom, and how mangled it got. And he was just angry with me that I was treating it that way, but I got really defensive because I was in a difficult situation. I didn't want my mother to find it and I also didn't wanna read it, so I think I grew really angry at Dave after that and I realized I couldn't really just give the Book a Mormon back to Dave, so I decided I could throw it away or I could burn it.

That started to mull itself in my mind.

 [00:08:00] Very late one night, I took the Book of Mormon out of my backpack and hid it under my shirt and took a lighter from the kitchen. It was like midnight, and I went to the backyard in between our fence with the neighbors and our garage. It was a very tight alley. And I took out the book and the lighter, and as I was about to flick the switch, I felt something powerful come over me, and I felt a voice that said, “Do not burn my book.”

[00:08:46] Rebecca: Jason hesitated, wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him. He shook off the thought [00:09:00] and held the lighter up again.

“Go to your room and read my book. The same voice seemed to say.”

[00:09:07] Jason: And I stopped. And I put the lighter back in my pocket and I looked at the Book of Mormon and I just thought, “Wait a minute, this could be the word of God.”

[00:09:23] Rebecca: The boy who was trying to confiscate the book and then burn it in the backyard in full stealth mode had now just been stopped in his tracks because he had heard a voice.

[00:09:33] Jason: I knew it was in my mind and heart. There a voice that said, “Just to make it clear, hey Jason, this is God. Do not burn my book.” A still small voice is such a perfect description. It’s still and small, but it pierceth to the center, right? And the Book of Mormon later talks about that and how the Spirit speaks to us and how [00:10:00] it pierces our hearts. I felt just like my heart was broken open.

[00:10:05] Rebecca: Making his way back to his room, the book in hand, Jason turned on his lamp so it appear that his lights were off and began reading after midnight, and he could hardly put it down.

[00:10:18] Jason: And I began reading it and I saw the title page, of course.

The book was written to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord has done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever. And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the eternal God manifesting himself unto all nations.

So immediately the title page was so overwhelming and directed to me so precisely. I was thinking about [00:11:00] covenants; literally the covenants that God made with the House of Israel, of which at least I had a testimony that I was a part of the House of Israel, and that the covenants with the House of Israel - the natural House of Israel - is that the Lord has not cast those covenants off. And that's a theme throughout the entire Book of Mormon. It's adding something new that I don't know about. The First part reassures me. The second part challenges me: that Jesus is the Christ, and not just the Christ, the eternal God.

[00:11:33] Rebecca: Jason continued to read and read.

Early one morning when he got to the last chapter of the book, he came to a passage his friend Dave had highlighted.

[00:11:46] Jason: What really struck me was, “…by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” That part of it stood out more than anything because the possibility [00:12:00] of knowing the truth of all things was something I really wanted.

[00:12:07] Rebecca: Jason knelt down to pray.

In his memoir, he writes, “There are moments in life when God writes his will on us. When the flesh of our hearts become his tablet. I found myself closing my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.”

I remember a very gentle feeling of the Spirit slowly enveloping me. And I just knew that the book that I held in my hands contained the words of God in heaven.

Rebecca: Once a burden that he wanted to burn, Jason now had a book on his hands that was figuratively on fire.

What had he uncovered in the [00:13:00] book?

[00:13:00] Jason: There's a little bit concerned by many believers in scholars whether the Old Testament and the New Testament are actually talking about two different gods. It may seem that the character of God is so different in each of the two volumes of scripture.

Whereas in the Book of Mormon, it is a bridge testament, and you actually transition from the Nephites before the coming of Jesus Christ living according to the Torah and the covenant that they took with them from Jerusalem, and then you can actually see their transition into covenant teachings that Jesus Christ brought them.

In the Book of Mormon, God is not creating a new people. He's working with the same people.

Before Jesus is coming to Bountiful, they're living the law of Moses and they're building temples and we don't have that much [00:14:00] evidence, but it's clear that they're at least living the Sabbath and I can see patterns where they're living the holy days. I think there's pretty clear imagery with King Benjamin that they're practicing some form of Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles where they're in their tents, and their tents are pointing to the temple and they're hearing their prophet and their king.

[00:14:24] Rebecca: Sukkot is a seven day festival that commemorates the 40 year period where the Israelites were wandering in the desert.

[00:14:32] Jason: Sukkot is a pilgrimage festival. The whole point was you're supposed to go to Jerusalem and bring your tent; bring your tabernacle to Jerusalem, set it up for the week, and then you go worship at the temple and you go back and you get food for your family it's a pilgrimage festival to the temple.

And the fact that they were pointing, their tents toward the [00:15:00] temple and toward their king and their prophet, it's all right there! They're doing some sort of Sukkot practice.

[00:15:08] Rebecca: I had thought of the tents facing the temple at the time of King Benjamin's speech as a sort of General Conference, which I suppose is like a modern day pilgrimage festival!

 Jewish life and law is scattered throughout the text of the Book of Mormon.

[00:15:27] Jason: All the evidence we have from the Book of Mormon is they didn't alter the law of Moses in any way. I mean, they say that they built the temple after the manner of Solomon. They did have sacrifices. They don't go in detail of what the animal sacrifices were like we have in Leviticus, but the Book of Mormon prophets just view that as a given.

From 1 Nephi til 3 Nephi chapter 11, I mean, that's all Jewish life. It's all Torah living.[00:16:00]

[00:16:00] I can really sympathize with the Book of Mormon prophets who had to leave the land of their inheritance, and you know, be wanderers in a strange land. They were commanded to build this kind of mosaic Jewish civilization in ancient America, but they still felt like strangers and exiles and wanderers.

Rebecca: If any group of people on Earth knows what it feels like to be exiles and wanderers, it's the scattered tribes of the House of Israel, and most especially the Jewish people. They have pled and yearned for the Messiah to come and help.

I wondered what it might feel like to find out that Jesus Christ is that Messiah and that though he didn't come wearing a crown as a king, he wore a crown of thorns and offers redemption and repentance.

[00:16:51] Jason: The Book of Mormon prophets capture perfectly the Hebrew concept of repentance; “Teshuva” = to return. [00:17:00] Repentance is returning to God and turning your heart toward God. And it's just replete throughout the whole Book of Mormon. And to me, that’s a concept that I see over and over again in Hebrew scripture.

[00:17:13] Rebecca: In Psalms 34:18 it says, “The Lord is nine to them that are of a broken heart and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.Jason connected that scripture to 3 Nephi:9, which he called the bridge chapter.

[00:17:30] Jason: And this is where you can see perfectly the transition from you could say Old Testament to New Testament. Jesus says, “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contract spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost.

Everything Jesus is doing is actually just taking [00:18:00] us further inward. So Jesus is getting rid of all the superficialities and he's going inside.

[00:18:09] He says, “Behold I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people, Israel. Therefore, the law in me is fulfilled…” In the Book of Mormon, it's very clear that Jesus is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who is seamlessly going through this pre resurrection, post resurrection and then the transition from animal sacrifice to sacrament, where Jesus implements and introduces the sacrament.

It's just so smooth.

And the prophets are very clear in the Book of Mormon what's coming.

[00:18:44] Rebecca: The Book of Mormon also acts as a sequel of sorts to other scripture, giving us a glimpse into the future of the covenant between God and his people.

What would it mean to consider that he has kept his covenant and will continue to keep it?

[00:18:59] Jason: [00:19:00] Jesus says, “I do not destroy the prophets for as many as have not been fulfilled in me, verily, I say unto you shall all be fulfilled. And because I said 'em unto you that old things have passed away, I do not destroy that which have been spoken concerning things which are to come.”

There is a future for the Jewish people, and that's really important to me. He says in verse eight, “…for behold the covenant which I have made with my people is not all fulfilled, but the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me.

And so the first time when I read that, it just gave me so much peace because I felt that this covenant is still intact and that he's a Savior, he's a Messiah who does not cancel covenants or break covenants.

[00:19:51] Rebecca: Back in his room before the breaking of dawn, Jason had received a testimony of the Book of Mormon. He went from aspiring [00:20:00] rabbi to full-time missionary a few years after he nearly burned the book.

[00:20:04] Jason: I gained an undeniable witness and so it drove me through a lot of opposition that was working against me being baptized but having that witness, I had to persevere because I wanted to act on what I knew to be true.

[00:20:23] Rebecca: I won't give away what happened next though. I'll let you read the rest in his memoir, The Burning Book.

Send your stories of how the Book of Mormon has changed your life or the life of someone you know to, If you're enjoying this podcast, send it to a friend and leave a review on Apple Podcasts.

This is a Scripture Central podcast directed by James Dalrymple, and I produced this episode with script contributions by Ryan Kunz. I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book. [00:21:00]