Brant Gardner has kindly agreed to offer some comments on the recent Church essay on Book of Mormon geography. He’s a research assistant with Book of Mormon Central and arguably one of the top experts in the question of Book of Mormon geography. I’ve enjoyed discussing the Book of Mormon with Brant going way back to the 90’s when I ran the old Morm-Ant mailing list to discuss ancient history as it related to Mormon scripture. Since then Brant’s published some groundbreaking work. I think his The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon is the main sustained overview of the underlying translation process of the Book of Mormon. That is not just the actions of Joseph Smith but what we should say about the nature of the text itself as a translation. There are few books I’d characterize as “must reads” in Mormon theology but I think this is one of them. He also has the excellent The Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History engaging in issues related to a mesoamerican historical setting for the text. He’s also has an well received commentary on the Book of Mormon text itself that tries to bring in insights from a purported mesoamerican setting.
Just a quick post on the current kerfuffle over wordprint studies. Wordprint studies are a type of stylometry that look at certain connective words that aren’t main words in a sentence. The claim is that they can determine the authorship of a text. Now I’ve always been skeptical of this, even back in its heyday in the 90’s. The main problem is of course that depending upon how you slice up the text you get very different answers. More significantly with the text from Mosiah through Mormon the author is primarily Mormon. It’s basically impossible to tell, even if a figure is speaking first hand, what is Mormon summarizing in his own words versus what the original speaker said. I’ve also always have in the back of my mind the worry you see in econometrics. There sometimes the data is sliced and resliced until a desired result appears with an appropriate p value. Of course this isn’t quite the same, but in the back of my mind that’s long been my worry. There’s a lot of subjectivity to most of these studies of the Book of Mormon.
Helaman 12:15 reads, “according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” If you’re like me you’ve always just read that as Mormon (or possibly Nephi) just having a knowledge of heliocentric astronomy (everything orbits the sun rather than the earth). The author appears to be alluding to Joshua 10:12-13 where the moon and the sun stand still. The last week I’ve been discussing the verse with some other people which have made me rethink the verse.
Not the big screen, just lots of small screens. From the LDS Newsroom: Filming Begins on New Book of Mormon Videos. It will not be a beginning-to-end depiction; the project will select certain episodes and events, producing “up to 180 video segments three to five minutes in length, as well as up to 60 more running 10–20 minutes each.” These will no doubt become a go-to resource for Primary teachers, Sunday School teachers, and seminary teachers.
One of the most striking features of the Bible is its division into Old and New Testaments, which present not only substantially different sets of religious beliefs and practices, but very different portrayals of God. The God of the Old Testament is a judgmental, jealous, and vengeful God, who destroys sinners without remorse, whether of his own people, the Hebrews, or even entire nations such as those of Canaan. God’s love and compassion are also visible in the Old Testament, but the harsher side is displayed quite dramatically. This judgmental conception of God is reflected not only in descriptions of God himself and his behavior, but also in the attitudes and behavior of his prophets and of his chosen people. There is quite a contrast with Christ in the New Testament, who is gentle with sinners and teaches that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and turn the other cheek when others treat us badly. Christians explain the major differences between the Old and New Testaments as partly a reflection of the fact that the Law of Moses was offered to prepare the Hebrews for the new law, which was delivered by Christ. This account explains the differences in worship practices and in behavioral commandments, but it does not explain the different portrayals of God. I suggest that part of the difference we are seeing is precisely the difference in perspective between a people who are…
We’re all familiar with Alma 42 and the notion that mercy can’t rob justice. I was reading this today at church and was struck by a context that often doesn’t get mentioned. In the ancient world relationships often determined actions. This meant special treatment for friends and especially relations. In Greek philosophy and plays you often see the key tension being between familial relationships and justice. The idea is that justice is what one should do if one wasn’t related. It’s the idea of being no respecter of persons. The very notion of justice in the middle east starting during this era is this more objective treatment.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. (Ex. 22:18) I recently read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History (Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997). How could a bunch of dedicated Christians become convinced that their neighbors, some of whom were acknowledged to be fine citizens and exemplary Christians, were actually in active league with the devil to inflict harm on others? How could trials conducted by leading men of the colony solemnly conclude that dozens of men and women were in fact witches, then haul them a mile or two out of town and hang them? Right here in America? These remain troubling yet fascinating questions for most Americans, with new books on the topic coming out every year. Mormons in particular can learn something from Salem.
I love doing close readings of scripture. The normal way to do this is reading linearly through the entire book of scripture. An other great way is to study by topic. Each helps you see things you might miss using only the other method. While I’m glad our gospel doctrine has encouraged reading all scripture, part of me kind of wishes there was something akin to the Gospel Principles class. Just with broader topics and focused on reading our key texts rather than simple answers. My goal here is to do that sort of thing with a particular focus on the Book of Mormon. It’ll take time and may follow a somewhat circuitous route. With luck I’ll make a post each week in this series. I’ll be mixing the two methods I mentioned slightly as I’ll typically pick a few texts related to the topic and then do a close reading of them. I was kind of encouraged by a recent BCC post on Nehor and Universalism. It was that best kind of post: one that made me think for several days about the mentioned passages.
Lamanite: An increasingly dated term that now rubs many people the wrong way when heard in public Mormon discourse. But the category lingers on despite LDS attempts to move toward a post-racial approach to priesthood and salvation. Lamanites, Nephites, children of Lehi, Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians — whichever term you choose, it’s clear the doctrinal category is still with us. There is still a racial component to the Mormon view of past, present, and future history. Let’s explore this a bit.
One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?
One of my favorite parts of Christmas is sitting in the darkened living room, gazing at the lighted tree. There is something magical and transfixing about the warm, gentle light, the fragrance of pine, and the palpable presence of nature that fills my home with its incongruous beauty. I have many memories of reading Scripture by the light of the Christmas tree. Usually we read from Luke, with Matthew’s bit about the Wise Men added in; sometimes we expand into Isaiah, either spoken or set to Handel. This year, though, when I stole a moment of stillness out of the hectic holiday rush to sit beside the tree, the words that came to my mind were Nephi’s: “I looked and beheld a tree . . . and the bbeauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the cwhiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” It had never struck me before how much meaning the Book of Mormon adds to our celebration of the Christmas tree. Scripture is rife with references to the Tree of Life, and the notion of everlasting life certainly accords well with what I was taught as a child: that the evergreen Christmas tree was a symbol of the eternal life brought to us by Christ. But Nephi’s education about the interpretation of the tree in 1 Nephi 11 is more specific. In answer to his query about the meaning of…
Early in the Small Plates of Nephi, Ishmael and his family join Lehi and his family in the wilderness. In spite of their likely close proximity, though, we don’t know much about Ishmael.[fn2] Nephi and his brothers found favor in Ishmael’s sight. Although at various times Ishmael’s sons and daughters act for or against Nephi, we don’t have any sense about where Ishmael falls in the Laman & Lemuel/Lehi & Nephi continuum.
I could see them before I crossed Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. There were probably five of them, holding big yellow signs with blocky letters, Bible verses. It seemed out of place, fifty feet in front of the entrance to the Chicago Blues Festival, but maybe I just didn’t understand the logic behind it. I don’t remember the verses the signs promoted, and the picketers seemed nice enough, holding signs but not harassing the passersby, passersby who, like me, basically ignored them. Maybe they’d picked out verses of scripture with special applicability to fans of the blues; then again, maybe these were just generic holy protest signs.
I’ve been curious what a word cloud of the Book of Mormon would look like, so , just for fun on a Friday, I finally made one. I don’t have a lot to say about it, other than that “unto” seems to be a very popular word (which doesn’t really surprise me, but I didn’t expect, either). “Lamanite” shows up more than “Nephite,” though the usage of both is dwarfed by “people.” I took the text from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, and I copied it from here, and I made the cloud using WordItOut. (Note that I actually prefer the look of the Wordle cloud, but I couldn’t get it in the post at a decent size. That said, I’ve included it below.) Update: Ardis pointed out that, in many ways, the word cloud would be more useful if some of the dull words came out (really, other than an interesting look at word choice, having “unto” as the biggest word doesn’t tell us anything interesting about the themes of the Book of Mormon). So, in the interest of a more telling word cloud, I’ve run it again, taking 11 words out. And, thematically, I think it is a better representation of the Book of Mormon. So below is the Book of Mormon word cloud without unto, ye, came, pass, yea, even, thou, thy, saith, said, or thee:
I spend the morning with my children at the cemetery. The high school band played, the mayor placed a wreath at the war memorial, and servicemen, including a veteran of Pearl Harbor, spoke to us. We bought red paper poppies to pin to our shirts. We didn’t talk about Memorial Day in sacrament meeting yesterday. The only mention was that the scouts would be placing flags on lawns. It seems that we should want to remember and honor those who have fought and fallen in our worship services. How many times in the Book of Mormon are the people exhorted to remember and always retain a remembrance of the the faith of their forefathers and the mercies God has shown to them? I am not a huge fan of the war chapters of the Book of Mormon; I’m not terribly interested in battles and strategy in general. But I do love the passion of Captain Moroni and his bold and heartfelt reminder to the people that there are things worth fighting for: our God, our freedom, our religion, our peace and our families. I love the sincere repentance of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, their abandonment of war, even to the point of death. Their story of non-violent acceptance is powerful and heartbreaking. I love that the Nephites took them in and protected them, sacrificing their lives for the new converts to their faith. I remember these stories, and my heart breaks. I…
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…
This is the third post in a series taking a broad view of the Book of Mormon (first, second). In this post I will discuss aspects of narrative encountered in the text. Not all scripture is narrative: consider the lengthy legal codes in the Torah and the moral exhortation found in James. Not all historical accounts are in the form of a narrative, although most history books written for the popular market are narrative histories. Most novels are in the form of a narrative, including historical fiction, which adds authorial speculation to large chunks of authentic history, often mixing fictional characters with actual historical figures and events.
Julie is posting detailed commentary and Kent is providing literary reflection; I’m afraid all I have to offer on the Book of Mormon is general observations. This week let’s talk about situating the book as a whole, not so much in terms of content and form (which I’ll address in later posts) but in terms of function and use. How does the Church use the Book of Mormon? How do you use the Book of Mormon?
The 2010 poverty level in the U.S., we learned on Tuesday, is the highest it has been since 1993. In 2010, about one in six Americans lived below the poverty line.[fn1] In June, 14.6% of Americans received food stamps.[fn2] To some extent, the high poverty rate is probably related to the high unemployment rate, which was 9.1% in August. I throw out all of these numbers to suggest that, as a society, we have a problem. That problem needs to be fixed. And we, as Mormons, undoubtedly have something that we can bring to the discussion of how to fix it. As I think about how we can fix poverty, though, I’m hugely influenced by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill’s book Creating an Opportunity Society.[fn3] Haskins and Sawhill point out that Americans care about desert.[fn4] That is, as Americans, we want those who have the ability to work for a living. And I’m interested in this idea of desert. Because I’m not convinced that we have a religious dispensation to withhold assistance from those don’t somehow “deserve” our help.[fn5] Still, as a practical matter, irrespective of whether we have religious dispensation or not, we care about desert. And no social program that is blind to to recipients’ refusal to work is going to go anywhere. As a pragmatist, then, I have to confront desert. But, as we consider how to provide aid to those to whom we have the political…
Every semester, one of my principal goals in my tax classes is to get my students to engage with the Internal Revenue Code. And it’s harder than you might think: often they don’t read the Code itself, focusing instead on the explanations in their casebook.[fn1] And their aversion to reading the Code is completely understandable: unlike court decisions, the mainstay of law school, there is no narrative flow, no character, no imagery, nothing that we traditionally latch onto in order to immerse ourselves in a text. And frankly, using the casebook isn’t a bad short-term decision. The casebook explains what the Code provisions mean and how they’re applied, at least in simple situations.But in the longer term, relying on the casebook’s explanation does my students a disservice. While it helps them be able to answer my questions in class, and while it likely helps them do decently on my exams, if they rely on the casebook at the expense of reading through and struggling with the Code, they don’t develop their skills in reading and understanding the Internal Revenue Code. Ultimately, while their casebook helps them understand the tax law on a surface level (and, for that matter, provides a necessary starting point), if they’ve read the casebook at the expense of reading the Code, they’re going to be in trouble when my final asks them to read and apply a Code section that we never read in class.[fn2] In…
Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of the Book of Mormon simply ignore the book’s style altogether. Grant Hardy, in his new book Understanding the Book of Mormon, wants to uncouple the problems of historicity and literary merit. He brackets the first, setting aside the apologetic debates that have dominated Book of Mormon studies over the past four decades. Instead, he turns his attention to the content of the book, and in particular to its peculiar stylistic qualities—and on this matter if he is no apologist he is nevertheless a bit apologetic, conceding the book’s literary deficiencies but pleading on its behalf that, to borrow a Twainism, the Book of Mormon is “better than it sounds” (273). Hardy seeks to rehabilitate the literary reputation of the Book of Mormon by drawing attention to what he calls its “organizing principle”: “the fact that it presents itself as the work…
Last month we posted Royal Skousen’s discussion of his work on recovering the earliest version of the Book of Mormon, along with some updates. Unfortunately, that post garnered some annoying formatting problems — mostly due to the new format T&S adopted this year. We’re happy to now present to you mark III of Royal Skousen’s 12 questions interview. Royal Skousen’s book, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, was published last month by Yale University Press and yes, you can order it at Amazon.
5 years ago we published one of my favorite “12 Questions” posts, in which Royal Skousen discussed in some depth what he has learned from his extensive work on the earliest editions of the Book of Mormon. His book, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, is being published in September by Yale University Press (and yes, you can order it at Amazon right now). To mark this milestone, Royal was kind enough to update his “12 questions” discussion, which we have posted below, for the benefit of those who did not catch it the first time. Enjoy!
I’m not, by nature, a pacifist.
A recent DNA study has gotten some attention, both on our sidebar and in a post by J. Nelson-Seawright at By Common Consent. The Mormon question that inevitably comes up from such a study is does it cast any light on the question of whether Lehi really landed in the Americas long ago? J. Nelson-Seawright discusses some possible ramifications if the study (or ones like it) do matter. Let me make clear that, for those who think Lehi landed in an already populated America, this study is basically irrelevant.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I should talk about in my inaugural post on this blog. Quite honestly, when I agreed to do a stint as a guest blogger, I thought it would be pretty easy. But, lately, it seems that all my Mormonism-related thoughts have been trite and meaningless. For example, I considered drafting a post complaining about one of the teachers Elders Quorum and his refusal to teach out of the manual. But, honestly, I think that post would have just ended up being a rant about a quorum discussion outlining the evils of facial hair (true story, by the way) and I don’t think that’s what the faithful readers of this blog are looking for.
This looks like the sort of conference that makes me sad at times that I don’t live in Utah: