The Real World of the Book of Mormon

February 2, 2012 | 7 comments
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This is the fourth in a series of posts taking a broad look at the Book of Mormon. This post continues the discussion of the prior post, The Book of Mormon as Narrative, by considering verisimilitude. This term refers to how faithfully a text represents the real world or, to various degrees, depicts events that do not conform to the readers’ view of the real world.

First, a tighter definition of verisimilitude [Note 1]:

The semblance of truth or reality in literary works; or the literary principle that requires a consistent illusion of truth to life. The term covers both the exclusion of improbabilities (as in realism and naturalism) and the careful distinguishing of improbabilities in non-realistic works. As a critical principle, it originates in Aristotle’s concept of mimesis or imitation of nature.

The verisimilitude issue presents two questions, one for the author of a text and one for its readers.

The Problem for Authors and Historians

To what extent does an author intend for the text to offer “truth to life” or an “imitation of nature”? At first glance, this question seems more pressing for fictional works: some genres by convention allow departures from the real world known by the author (science fiction, magic realism) while mainstream fiction typically presents events and characters that are true to life in the sense that they are not out of place in the reader’s world or, for historical fiction, in the period depicted. But journalists and historians face the issue as well. How does a journalist report an observer’s experience of a UFO sighting or a seemingly miraculous recovery? How does a historian deal with historical sources that report events that conflict with the historian’s understanding of the real world?

Historical sources cannot be accepted at face value. Historians must weigh and evaluate the value of any historical source, determine whether it is reliable, and attempt to compensate for any bias in that source. The older the source, the more likely it recounts events that the modern historian will not consider plausible. The issue is particularly pressing for modern scholars of religion who use ancient religious texts. When should a modern commentator dismiss a reported event (say the discussion Balaam had with his donkey at Number 22:28-30), accept an event as reported but not necessarily the interpretation offered in the source (perhaps dreams recounted by many biblical writers), or accept an event more or less as reported (the narrative in 2 Kings recounting the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and deportation of the leading citizens)?

The Problem for Readers

Just as an author of fiction or nonfiction has choices to make, so too does the reader make an implicit evaluation of any book, story, or article. If a novel introduces too many coincidences, the reader might at some point dismiss the events. Even genres that allow departures from reality will lose a reader if the departures are inconsistent or do violence to the plot or story. Readers evaluate nonfictional narratives as well. If the content of a news report appears to reflect a journalist’s bias rather than the actual events, a reader rebels. If a historical account appears to accept questionable sources, ignore credible sources, or accept the occurrence of events that a reader refuses to accept as plausible, a reader may dismiss the history as lacking credibility.

What about religious texts? Does a reader evaluate a biblical passage with respect to the real world as a secular observer would understand it in 2012? As a religious believer would understand it in 2012? As the original author of the text appears to have understood it? What rules should a modern reader apply when evaluating ancient texts, in particular the Bible? This really is the key question for modern readers of the Bible.

A secular reader may simply dismiss events recounted in the Bible that are inconsistent with his scientific or naturalistic understanding of the world as of 2012. But a believing reader has trickier choices to make. Even modern readers who accept the biblical account of events as stated have a hard time accepting the biblical three-tier view of the cosmos: waters above the dome of the sky or firmament, our earthly landscape in the middle, and sheol and more waters below. What do we make of the “windows of heaven” if there are no windows and there is no dome? How do modern readers understand accounts of demonic possession and healing by exorcism when the symptoms described appear to be a case of epilepsy rather than possession? Were there demons?

These examples are given simply to point out that verisimilitude is a complicated issue for a modern believing reader of an ancient religious text. Which departures from “truth to life” do we allow, and why? In terms of verisimilitude, what world is a scriptural narrative true to?

The Problem for You

You are a modern reader. You read the Bible and the Book of Mormon. To what world do you relate these texts? What world do you live in? We relate texts to our world (or to some world) without thinking about it much. Here is a passage from Robert Alter that sketches out the magnitude of the task we unwittingly perform when we read and understand ancient religious texts. His comments are aimed at literature but can be profitably applied to historical texts and religious narrative. [Note 2]

Literature is a representational art, but the relation between the literary text and the world it represents has always been something of a puzzle, and recent trends in literary theory have compounded the puzzlement. The objects of literary representation belong to a wide range of heterogeneous categories, material, conceptual, emotional, relational, personal, and collective. They include states of feeling, moments of perception, memories …; buildings, neighborhoods, industrial processes, social institutions …; world-historical forces and theological ideas ….

Fictional character is probably the crucial test case for the link between literature and reality. Very few people will take the trouble to read a novel or story unless they can somehow “identify” with the characters, live with them inwardly as though they were real at least for the duration of the reading.

You might reject the three-tier conceptual scheme of the cosmos presented in the Bible yet accept Genesis 1 as a claim that God created the cosmos as we now view it. You likely identify with some of the individuals you encounter in the scriptures, even if you don’t identify with how they saw the world in some of the ways Alter notes above. I think we do a lot more work when reading the scriptures than we generally recognize.

The World of the Book of Mormon

So, to now return to the opening question, how do we describe the “truth to life” or “imitation of nature” that Book of Mormon narratives undertake? My suggestion is that the primary reference world for Book of Mormon narratives is not the natural world of 2012 or the natural world of 1830 but the world of the Bible. Jaredite barges are plausible not because of maritime technology but because Noah had his ark, so it makes perfect sense that Jared can have his barges. The descent from the sky of Jesus Christ narrated in Third Nephi is plausible in view of his ascent into the sky and his promised return “in like manner” at Acts 1:9-11. Nephi and Lehi’s prison narrative in Helaman 5 is plausible because of a similar narrative concerning Paul and Silas in Acts 16, and so forth. The fact that about ten percent of the Book of Mormon is textual quotation from various biblical texts only highlights the tight link between the world of the Book of Mormon and the world of the Bible. They are the same world.

For the first generation of Book of Mormon readers, that relation was entirely natural. Those first readers were much more familiar with the Bible than modern readers of the Book of Mormon. Those first readers lived before critical reflection on the Bible had matured, so they likely read the Bible in a more straightforward fashion than we do. Not all of those first readers accepted the Book of Mormon as divine or authentic, of course, but those who accepted the Bible were unlikely to reject the Book of Mormon because of implausibility. A reader who accepts biblical accounts of floating axe heads, God stopping the Earth’s rotation for a few hours so the Israelites could win a battle, and young Jews thrown into a hot furnace later emerging unscathed is unlikely to reject the Book of Mormon for containing implausible or impossible events.

But the second decade of the 21st century is a much different world than the fourth decade of the 19th century. How do we modern readers relate the world of the Book of Mormon to the world of the Bible or to our own world of 2012? Or do we perform that operation in reverse, instead relating the events of our own world of 2012 to the world of the Book of Mormon? Does a deeper understanding of biblical books and events change our reading of Book of Mormon events? Or does the Book of Mormon commit readers to a fixed and unchanging traditional view of the Bible?

Earlier posts in this series:

Notes

1. “Verisimilitude,” in Chris Baldick, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, OUP, 2d ed., 2001.

2. Robert Alter, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 49.

7 Responses to The Real World of the Book of Mormon

  1. Eric Boysen on February 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

    When I read the Book of Mormon, I am challenged by the language, but not so much for the King James word usage. I have internal conflicts between 19th century American interpretation of the pre-Columbian world and King James phrasings. Take for example the designation of kings. From my vantage point I do not think of the leaders of meso-American polities as kings. It is probably the right word, but it conjures in my head images of 18th century european leaders. I get the same disconect when I read Esau’s sons termed dukes, so this is not something unique to the Book of Mormon, yet somehow it is more striking to me in this book than any other.

  2. Jettboy on February 3, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I see, and believe it to be in the world of, ancient Meso-America. That is the vantage point in my reading. The Biblical Near Eastern world comes in a close second, especially at the very beginning with Lehi and Nephi. Only tangentially as a subtext “written for the last days” does it register as relating to our own generation. I have never been impressed with the arguments for its 1830s production other than language usage. Of course its going to read like an 1830s translation. The King James Bible reads like a 16th Century production. Compare it to any other 1830s production, even similar ones that critics have said were used as a template, and they have no real relationship to the structure and narrative. You can tease it out of them, but only by using prooftext. Subject matter is problematic as well because again the language is 1830s, but the ideas of that time period often seem as if forced an unnatural to the whole.

    To reiterate, I read it like an ancient Near Eastern, Meso-American text translated in the 1830s by a person familiar with the Bible.

  3. Jonathan Green on February 3, 2012 at 11:44 am

    This is excellent, Dave, especially this passage: “My suggestion is that the primary reference world for Book of Mormon narratives is not the natural world of 2012 or the natural world of 1830 but the world of the Bible.”

  4. Blake on February 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Nicely done Dave. I have wrestled over this question a great deal –as evidenced in my work on the Expansion Theory. I suggest that we tease out the strata of the book through the very methods that biblical scholars have developed to sort through the various literary and historical strata of the biblical documents — analysis such as form critical assessment, source criticism, genre criticism and so forth. That is how I approached it after dealing at some length with the question you raise here.

    In the end, we have these strata it appears to me: (1) the strata of Joseph Smith’s vocabulary and horizon as the filter through which the entire work is sifted; (2) the strata of the KJV interaction through (1) and the next strata which is: (3) the underlying record that reflects genuinely ancient form critical knowledge of ancient Israelite practices such as Israelite covenant renewal festivals, prophetic call forms, Isralite legal or lawsuit (the rib form), and so forth. BTW there is a pretty well established consensus among believing scholars that these forms are present in the Book of Mormon and are not merely detectable but easily established. The non-believer will see these forms as the result of producing the text in the KJV saturated 19th century. However, I believe that proposed explanation stretches credulity (as if gold plates and angels didn’t already challenge crdulity).

    There are also strata of underlying texts that are then redacted in a new strata and synthesis of records by Nephi and Mormon and Moroni — with some extended references to records that considered scripture by Book of Mormon writers but not found in the KJV.

    Sorting it all out is a very complex task.

  5. Dave on February 3, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    A less involved way of asking about the relation of a text to external events is the simple question of genre. [See my Genesis and Genre.] While the genre question helps us understand the book of Job or the gospel of Mark, it is less help with highly edited books like the Torah or, as Blake details, the Book of Mormon. That difficulty with genre is related, I think, to the difficulty with the more general question of what world Book of Mormon events relate to.

  6. James Olsen on February 4, 2012 at 5:02 am

    Dave, this is a great series, I’m really enjoying it.

    In addition to Blake’s listed strata, if we’re to take the BofM seriously or examine it at face value, there ought also to be a strata consisting of the world and cultural practices of the ancient American context that the book claims for itself – particularly since most of the book is compiled after nearly a thousand years in the new world. While ancient Israelite practices, forms, and beliefs will still show up, they are not likely to have remained unchanged. Nephite culture/religion in 300 AD is going to look very different from the culture/religion of Jerusalem in 600 BC.

    This strata will undoubtedly get doubly distorted by Joseph Smith’s 19th century language/view, and the KJV biblical background prominent in Joseph’s view. I’m convinced, however, that when we read the book today, we often heighten this distortion by projecting a Biblical world back into the text – something very easy to do when, as you note, so much of the BofM consists of biblical quotes.

  7. Ray on February 4, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Great post – and excellent comments. Thank you.

    I only will add that I think there also needs to be a recognition of the need to separate what the book actually says about its world from the assumptions that have been made about it for so long – and more so with regard to the incorrect assumptions of the “faithful believers” than for the incorrect charges of the non-believers.

    When President Benson said that we need to understand the Book of Mormon better, I’m not sure if he meant to say that many members before that time had incorrect understandings of it that went all the way back to Joseph, but I’ve believed for a long time that Joseph really didn’t understand the details of the Book of Mormon all that well. That actually is a strong “testimony builder” for me, since every author I know understands the story she writes intimately – even including things that she considered including but didn’t. Joseph appears not to have cared all that much about the Book of Mormon as a proof-text or about the details of its account of its “world”; rather he saw it almost exclusively as a witness of his prophetic role. Thus, it appears that he didn’t bother at all with careful study of it (like happens in this post, for example) and, instead, went solely with the details provided by Moroni – and, from that point, his own assumptions about the details.

    Anyway, I think if we want to understand “the real world of the Book of Mormon” (especially if we want to do so in any way that allows for it to be what it purports to be – non-fiction in some way or another), we have to be willing to allow for that world to be subtly or even vastly different than anything we as a collective people have believed in the past.