Friday, July 13, 2007

Explaining the Book of Mormon to Ross

Three weeks away from blogging, I finally get some free time to blog on stuff that, as usual, has piled up...and then my plans are thrown for a loop by a request from one of the big names of the blogosphere, Ross Douthat, to say something smart about the "seemingly fantastic beliefs about the prehistory of the Americas" which are presented with the Book of Mormon, a text which we Mormons take to be scripture. What can I say? Thanks for the compliment, Ross; I'll try to help you out.

I'm a philosophy and political theory guy myself (and a long-winded one at that; as evidence, consider my long blog-essay on Mitt Romney and Mormonism from a while back), and so I won't pretend to pose as an expert on how completely the Book of Mormon's narrative does or does not contradict settled interpretations of Mesoamerican history. That it seems perfectly outrageous to many is indisputably true...but I think that, if you actually take the time to do some reading, and are open-minded about the hermeneutical and theological issues involved in the sort of interpretative claims which Joseph Smith originally made (is it a literal translation? an expansion of an ancient source? how are we supposed to think about the idea of something being revealed in modern times by God, anyway?), what you'll find is that most of what seems outrageous to historians of the ancient Americas is not, for the most part, what's actually in the book itself, but what people say about the book (and here I include Mormons and non-believers alike).

That's why you need, when looking for a "smart" defense of the Book of Mormon, to look also for an author who can set those defenses into a historical context, thus showing how Mormon readings of their own scripture have changed over the decades. Pretty much the standard book to read on what Mormons today make of the claims about ancient America presented in the Book of Mormon is John Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. The book itself is over twenty years old (though a new edition came out in 1996), but it permanently changed the way the Book of Mormon is read by Mormons, and so that's the place to start. For example: Matt Yglesias claims in the Bloggingheads video that the Mormon church teaches that "the New World, in pre-Columbian times, was dominated by two vast rvial empires." (Those would be "the Nephites," the people who carried on the family name and traditions of an early prophet named Nephi, and "the Lamanites," a group named after his brother and enemy, Laman.) While the history of Book of Mormon interpretation over the past 180 years is actually pretty complicated, the basic facts are that Matt here is correctly describing what most Mormons who read the book believed...up until about 20-30 years ago, that is. The Book of Mormon itself never suggests the existence of massive, continent-wide, roaming empires; rather, serious readers have come to recognize that in fact the book talks about a couple (or actually more than a couple) pretty densely populated yet nonetheless localized tribes, and nearly everything presented in the book as fact takes place, according to its own narrative, within an area that a person on foot could cross within week, if not less. This is what we Mormons called the "limited geography" thesis: specifically, that the book isn't telling us the whole history of the Native Americans (which many Mormons admittedly thought the primary purpose of the book was for decades), but rather telling the story of some relatively restricted groups, whose story God thought important enough to make certain it would be preserved and brought forth in our day. The introduction of this thesis, and the conceptual changes it has wrought in how the text as a history of (a small part of) Mesoameria is read by Mormons, has had a huge impact in Mormon thought; probably the best synthesis of these changes, combined with the latest scholarship on the origin and details of the book, can be found in Terryl Givens's By the Hand of Mormon, which I've written a bit about (again, from the perspective of philosophy and political theory) here.

Now, if you're looking for a stone with someone's name from the Book of Mormon carved on it ("look, it says 'Nephi'!"), providing indisputable evidence of the truth of the BoM, then you're not going to be satisfied (at least, not yet; people interested in the subject know that Mesoamerican studies is actually filled with plenty of fluid, always contested, not-yet-proven claims: it's not nearly as clear-cut as Matt makes it out to be). But even the absence of definite proof doesn't mean there isn't at least a fair amount of circumstantial evidence out there (both in the text itself and in the ground around Mesoamerica) to make the Book of Mormon's claims--or at least certain interpretations of them and of Joseph Smith's actions in production of the text--quite plausible. I would recommend checking out Book of Mormon Authorship, as well as its much better (and 15 years more recent) sequel, Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited. Of course, there are plenty of books, articles, and websites out there which challenge most everything said in the BoM's defense in these and other studies, and there are those which take pretty unique approaches to explaining the material as well. But you said you wanted some smart, mainstream Mormon defenses of the Book of Mormon; these will give you plenty of places to start.


Anonymous said...

An excellent summary RAF.

Silus Grok said...

Excellent, indeed... though the limited geography thesis is still threatened by a committed old-guard — as evidenced by the Manti Miracle Pageant of just 10 years ago.

But, yes... the limited geography thesis is a mature (and textually appropriate) approach to the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

Really well done.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with the Limited Geo Theories is that even though you may be able reconcile many of the problems with the BOM, if you accept these theories you must then tackle the issue how God's prophets make so many mistatements regarding the events of the book.

Pick your poison.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks Nate. Silus, you're of course correct that there is still an old guard out there that operates on the basis of continental theories about the BoM's narrative. And their not just folks hanging on to beloved, popular stories and legends; some of it still hangs on in seminary classes all across the church. And this kind of leads into anonymous's (the second one's) point, which is substantively correct. I mean, sure, if you want to get really exact about it, one can in fact come up with a decent number of statements from leaders of the church over the decades that take an ambivalent or even a critical approach to the continental thesis. But honestly, we all know that, by a wide margin, such a thesis is pretty much what every student of the Book of Mormon, church leader and rank-and-file member, basically believed for well over a hundred years. And in a church where the members often genuflect before supposed prophetic statements a little more willingly than they should, that made it hard for the limited geography thesis to make headway for a long time. (The way I heard the story, Sorenson had come to his conclusions by sometime in the 70s, but had to wait over a decade until some general authority who was a real stickler was no longer in the picture, before he could publish his stuff in the Ensign and through Deseret Books.

As you can probably tell from the above, anonymous, I'm perhaps a little more willing to assume that prophets can get it wrong, that they can think they're giving inspired answers when they actually aren't, than the average Latter-day Saint. Maybe that won't be good for my faith in the long run, but that's the way it is. The fact that Prophet X once told a story or taught a principle by referring to something from the Book of Mormon which is clearly (or at least, by our latest understanding) incorrect is something I'm personally able to brush off pretty easily.

birdchaser said...

Russell, the current authority on the archaeological context of the Book of Mormon is John E. Clark. A very respected authority on lithic (stone tool) technology and the rise of complex societies in early formative Mesoamerica, Clark is very careful not to overstate the evidence, but also very clear in discussing the overwhelming support that Book of Mormon cultural history finds in the archaeological record of Mesoamerica. I was Clark's research assistant while he was finishing up his PhD and he's one of the smartest people I've ever worked with. If you haven't seen it, an easy place to start is here.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob, thanks for the recommendation. I've heard John Clark's name many times, but the only work of his I'm at all familiar with (and even that isn't very much) are the tours to Mesoamerica he runs; my father and some of my siblings went on one once, years ago. Or is that a different Clark? Anyway, I'll read the link.

Anonymous said...

Well, I must say it all sounds a bit like epicycles and special pleading to me. ("The prophet speaks for God, but doesn't always _know_ when he does, so sometimes he says nonsense", for example, is a pretty dubious explanation and a rather funny way for a God who supposedly loves people to work.) And does it not worry you that this same sort of revisionism is common in all religions when their founding myths are shown to be implausible? Is there any good reason (I mean, independent of what you want to believe otherwise) that this is rational here but not in other cases? It seems like a clear case of bad faith to me. And, of course, this 'limited geography' thesis doesn't help at all with the nonsense that was supposed to be the Pearl of Great Price, but again, if that was garbage, why should anyone think this is less so? I say this all as someone who thinks Mormons get a bad rap for believing _especially_ crazy things- it's mostly time and ignorance and tradition that make the Book of Mormon seems especially more crazy than other ancient texts (All the archeological evidence goes directly against the old testament stories, for example) but really, you'd not, I'd expect, except this sort of special pleading and adding of epicycles for anything else and it's sad to see it here.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Good challenges, all.

"Well, I must say it all sounds a bit like epicycles and special pleading to me. ('The prophet speaks for God, but doesn't always _know_ when he does, so sometimes he says nonsense,' for example, is a pretty dubious explanation and a rather funny way for a God who supposedly loves people to work.)

I'm sorry if you feel that way; I'll grant that mine is personally not an especially emphatic, defiant, affirmative faith, and I recognize that my own nuances and doubts probably seems sometimes like mere compromises. But I would insist that my compromises are at least substantive ones; it's not like I dream them up, ad hoc, as the situation warrants. Yes, I really do suspect that the nature of communications between God and man (and then between those special, blessed individuals and all the rest of us) often involve misunderstandings, overreaching, and mistakes; and further, I do suspect that time and experience within a faith can suggest patterns for working out on your own that which really ought to be believed to be a direct statement from the Lord, that which might be more of a matter of "this is our best guess as to the meaning and will of the Lord," and that which is, frankly, mostly nonsense. I wouldn't presume that my judgments should necessarily be accepted as anyone else's, and I have a lot of admiration of (and envy for) those people for whom spiritual witnesses as to the truth or falsity of certain claims come through much more clearly. But that being said, for all the acknowledged weaknesses of my faith, I don't think that makes my solutions necessarily "dubious."

"And does it not worry you that this same sort of revisionism is common in all religions when their founding myths are shown to be implausible?"

But revision--or re-interpretation, or call it what you will--is also just a part of thinking. Sure, there is some revision that would make a complete hash of Mormonism: if I started to believe, "well gosh, maybe Joseph Smith was a fraud who made the Book of Mormon up out of whole cloth," then there'd be no reason to take anything in Mormonism seriously. But the limited geography thesis is hardly such an extreme revisionism; on the contrary, it just means that a bunch of non-canonical interpretative statements by different prophets over the years were wrong. I think Mormonism can survive that!

"And, of course, this 'limited geography' thesis doesn't help at all with the nonsense that was supposed to be the Pearl of Great Price, but again, if that was garbage, why should anyone think this is less so?"

Well, 1) the historical and textual problems and claims of the Pearl of Great Price are very different from those associated with the Book of Mormon, and 2) no one is saying--or at least I'm not that the Pearl of Great Price is "garbage"--I may address it in somewhat different interpretive way than I do the Book of Mormon, but if I believe (as I do) that God can work through and with human subjectivity in a variety of different ways, then it doesn't necessarily imply anything for one set of scripture if I end up explaining/justifying/interpreting another set of scriptures in a different way.

Anonymous said...

You guys sound like you're making a lot of vague attacks without providing hardly any specific examples of what you're saying. Your tone is somewhat bigoted and condescending, too. Are you experts in religion?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, Russell- it was certainly more polite than needed (not because I mean to be rude, but just because sometimes the street-fight style of philosophy is hard for me to lay off of.) I suppose I should not be surprised by that. I'd love to respond but I'm already massively behind on a huge amount of work and could not do justice to what would be needed so I'll leave it at this.

Aaron King said...

@ Matt concerning RAF's comment of "I'm perhaps a little more willing to assume that prophets can get it wrong."

I suppose a simple way to put it, is that Prophets of God are not puppets on God's metaphorical hand. A Prophet is an instrument of God chosen to be His voice when God needs him to voice. But, God isn't voicing to His people 24/7 and Prophets are still just men like you and me who live and have agency 24/7. So, unlike a puppet, a Prophet doesn't need God's control in order to move or speak. Thus they have many opportunities to offer their own opinion, while at that same time not speaking as revelators for God.

Also, more often than not, God doesn't give us ALL the answers and an example of that is with the Book of Mormon's PRECISE geography. But, we - as men of great curiosity - have an insatiable desire to discover, so we HAVE to seek out theories for that PRECISE geography and WILL make errors on how that precise geography should be mapped out.

Men aren't infallible and thus make these mistakes. Likewise, MEN who are chosen as Prophets aren't perfect just because they are active instruments of God on this Earth, they can also make mistakes.

Will God allow them to make huge mistakes that will destroy their opportunity to be worthy instruments for Him? No. But will he let us "guess" all we want about WHERE EXACTLY the Hill Riplah is today? Sure. Why not? :)

There is no harm to God’s plan in discovering where the Hill Riplah is actually located, and equally there is no harm to God's plan if we NEVER find out where it is in our mortal lifetimes.