Here are some reflections on the second session, “Joseph Smith and the Recovery of Past Worlds.” (web archives on lds.org) I have tried to give just enough summary to support my reflections on how it went as a dialogue.
Main speaker Terryl Givens described Joseph Smith as an explorer and re-discoverer of ancient worlds. In the 19th century, modern methods of historical inquiry and scientific explanation were deeply unsettling the way humans understood their place in the world. Joseph collapsed the gap between empirical history and meaning-giving myth as he met face-to-face with the prophets of past ages and continued their story in his day. Emphasizing that true religion is a process, not merely fixed content, Joseph has much in common with the Romantic movement that flourished in his time. In the first session, just that morning, Richard Hughes had tied Joseph Smith to the Romantic movement, as though to place him firmly in a 19th-century context. Yet Givens portrayed Joseph’s Romanticism as precisely a transcending of the 19th-century context, to the point of transforming our understanding of the whole history of the world. Everything Givens said could have been appreciated by both Mormons and non-Mormons.
Margaret Barker discussed what extra-biblical ancient texts suggest about the ancient world, and how this fits with ancient texts Joseph claimed to restore. She described striking harmonies, welcome news for Mormons. Sometimes it seemed a bit too perfect: surely there are also some extra-biblical texts that clash with Joseph’s revelations? However, the picture she painted does challenge the Mormon status quo by suggesting the Old Testament as we know it may have been shaped more deeply by the purposes of apostate Jewish priests than we would usually suppose.
Whereas Margaret Barker compared Joseph’s revelations with the Old World, John Clark compared them with the ancient New World, through archaeology. Clark gave an overview of puzzles to be examined, and progress toward solving them, concluding that there is strong and growing consistency between New World archeology and the Book of Mormon. The talk received a good audience response and was probably welcome to the many non-specialists in the large audience. Clark’s sweeping overview would probably have been frustrating to skeptics of the Book of Mormon, however, because it provided little basis for the listener to draw her own conclusions.
After Barker’s and Clark’s empirical arguments that supported the Book of Mormon, Jack Welch’s talk was very timely. He pointed out that on questions that carry so much religious weight, it is often difficult to establish scholarly consensus even on what counts as sound reasoning, on what is “enough” evidence to establish a claim. Hence partisan disagreement is likely to continue indefinitely.
I think the realism Welch urged about the outcome of academic discussion is essential to preserving the sense of common purpose that productive and continuing dialogue requires. The discussion may lead some people to change their minds about whether Joseph was really a prophet, whether he revealed authentically ancient texts, etc. However, any presentation that focuses too much on one or another answer to these questions risks alienating half of the audience. Just as importantly, focusing on these questions will tend to bog the conversation down, reducing the progress in understanding on either side. Someone who is already persuaded that Joseph is a prophet may benefit from hearing more reasons to think what she already thinks. But she is likely to benefit more from a talk that focuses on expanding her understanding of what Joseph actually did and said, and understanding this is essential to deriving any benefit at all from the idea that he was a prophet. Someone who is already persuaded that Joseph is not a prophet is likely to be annoyed, and question the reliability of the speaker, when hearing more arguments that he was a prophet, after all. As for arguments that Joseph is not a prophet, these are even more boring for someone who is already persuaded that he is not, since in that case it is not clear why he is worth the time to think any more about. Again, much more interesting is a talk that expands one’s understanding of what he did and said, and why it was compelling to so many people, right or wrong.
There is thus a lot to be said, then, for talks that do not explicitly draw any conclusion on whether the Book of Mormon is true or not, or whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or not, and presentations may alienate their audience if they are too much organized around such a thesis, even implicitly. There is a lot to be said for illuminating what Joseph said and did, then letting the audience draw what conclusions they will, hopefully with the private guidance of the Holy Spirit. That said, though, I think overt partisanship can be done well, without eroding dialogue. I think the third daytime session (Saturday morning) was an excellent example of this. I hope to write about it soon.