Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Book of Mormon Debate - We're Doing it Wrong


"The Book of Mormon is the most remarkable book in the world from a doctrinal, historical, or philosophical point of view. Its integrity has been assailed with senseless fury for over 170 years, yet its position and influence today are more impregnable than ever." - Elder David B. Haight1 

Ever since it was published in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been one of the most hotly-debated books in the world. The big issue is its origin story. Did Joseph Smith really translate it from an ancient record, or did he somehow make the whole thing up? The debate rages on and there's little anyone can do to stop it. The book is the keystone of the Church and as missionaries continue to testify of its truth, critics continue to decry its "falsehood." Long after you and I are dead there will still be people locking horns over whether the Book of Mormon is the word of God or a total hoax. Utah is home of the most educated Book of Mormon scholars in the world (as well as some of the most vehement detractors) and so here the debate can get especially intense. It's not uncommon to hear people in heated discussions about the physical evidences of the Book of Mormon or supposed lack thereof. Chiasmus, DNA, and FBI word-printing all get thrown into the mix as each side puts their best foot forward to either defend or disprove the Book of Mormon.


To be honest, I love this. If there's a nice debate about Book of Mormon evidences going on some place, I want to be there. I also love to hear about the latest Book of Mormon research and see what clues archaeologists can dig up about the Nephites and Lamanites. It's a fun discussion, and one where I honestly think we have the advantage over our critics. There are plenty of credible, well-researched evidences for the truth of the Book of Mormon out there for the world to see. 


But as much as I love all the historical evidence, I have to admit that it tends to eat up more than its share of the debate. It's not our fault. When critics start attacking the Book of Mormon, it seems the first thing they go after is something like how Joseph Smith must have been a phony because the book mentions horses in the Americas. It's a game they play: pick a facet of Nephite history and then talk about how that discredits the origin of the whole book. 


But as church members, we usually play into this game pretty well, don't we? Some naysayer will come along and attack some detail about the book's story and so we put on our scholar's cap and take out our best anthropological Book of Mormon evidences to knock some sense into that jerk. Over and over our critics will harp on some detail of the Book of Mormon story and over and over we members will defend that detail. What we so often forget is that these things we're arguing about are just that: details! Why do we spend so much time rehashing these issues, when they're really just footnotes in the larger work? 


Let's face it: we still don't actually have physically conclusive evidence on the Book of Mormon, for or against. There's some pretty compelling evidence, but we have yet to dig up a stone sign that says "Welcome to Zarahemla" from the jungles of Costa Rica. Yes, there's evidence, but not enough to finish the debate. (Besides, even if we had something like that we couldn't finish off our critics completely. There's plenty of evidence for the Bible's truthfulness, but that doesn't compel everyone to be Christian.) 

"Yeah, Mr. Mormon Dude. I know what you're going to say." 
Oh, really, rhetorical heckler? What am I going to say?
"You're going to say the only way to know for sure if the book is true is to read it and ask God. I've heard it a hundred times before." 
Well...yes and no. Yes that is the only surefire way to know that the book is true. That's absolutely right. But no, that's not what I was going to say...

If you're discussing the Book of Mormon with people on the fence, like an investigator or a less-active, by all means extend Moroni's challenge! An appeal to the Lord is always the best avenue for verifying the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. But when dealing with hard-nosed, dyed-in-the-wool, never-gonna-change critics, I think there's another way we can take back the conversation and start debating on our own terms. Critics tend to dwell on the facets of Book of Mormon history, geography, and science. They pick on the little trees instead of dealing with the whole forest. So why don't we broaden our gaze? The question we, as Book of Mormon advocates, should be posing is this: does the Book of Mormon make good scripture? 

In their thoroughly sensationalized article on Mormonism published in 2012, the New Yorker had this to say about the Book of Mormon: 
"One expects the tale of Nephi’s emigration to America, for instance, or of Jesus’ visit to Missouri to be at least soberly vivid, like Early American folk art; but the writing is so compulsively Biblical that all the action seems to take place underwater, and you have to thumb back through the pages when you realize that something cool—Israelites travelling in a boat to these shores—has already happened."2 
What I say to the New Yorker I say in the nicest way possible: Duh! Of course it seems boring and unimpressive as history. That's not actually what the book's about! (By the way, I don't know what version they read. My copy says nothing about the Savior appearing in Missouri.) 

At its core, the Book of Mormon is not a history book, so it doesn't make much sense to debate it that way. The Book of Mormon is mostly devoted to theology, with history thrown in for context or to illustrate a moral point. So, if the critics really want to debunk the Book of Mormon, they have to prove that it's not good scripture! They've got to prove the Book of Mormon does not contain sound doctrine! That's a much harder battle to win. If you want to prove that the book isn't Christian, take one look at the words of Abinadi and you know you're beat. If you want to prove there's no good philosophy in the book, 2 Nephi chapter 2 is sure to foil your plan. No wonder the critics don't engage this issue! It's more challenging, more relevant, and one where church members hold the high ground.  

"Yeah, but there's plenty of Isaiah, Malachi, and Matthew in the Book of Mormon! Can't you still make the argument that Joseph Smith just copied and pasted most of the good stuff?" That does sound convincing at first. After all, what better way to add Biblical flavor to your fake book of scripture than to lift passages straight from the Bible? But think about this: of all the scripture Joseph Smith could have sprinkled in, why would he choose to tackle Isaiah of all things? Not only tackle it, but interpret it, as well? If Joseph Smith was a fraud, he was the smartest, gutsiest one I've ever heard of. 


Besides, some of the best scripture in the Book of Mormon is original. Jacob's allegory of the olive tree is the longest section of the entire book and consists of 77 verses of original and sophisticated allegory. Nephi's "Psalm" is a deeply moving Christian testimony on par with the Magnificat. Alma's counsel to his sons is well-crafted wisdom that beats any advice Polonius ever gave to Laertes. All of these are rich, original writings that are a lot more significant to the Book of Mormon's authenticity than whether or not Mormon ever rode a horse.


As a member of the Church, when you take the Book of Mormon debate to the area of theology, it gives you a definite leg up. Am I over-confident in saying this? Too sure of this mode of attack? I don't think so. Here's why: how many Book of Mormon critics do you know who have actually read the text? When Richard Dawkins made his televised ambush of active Church member Brandon Flowers on Norwegian television, he mentioned having "read the Book of Mormon recently" but that, conveniently, "he didn't read it all." He then, of course, went on to smear the book as an obvious fake. When the admirable Mr. Flowers told Dawkins he ought to actually do his research, Dawkins said, haughtily, "I think I have."3 You have, huh? Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but if I was your professor I'd have to give you a D, seeing as how you didn't read the required text before turning in your book report. Anybody can yammer on about something like how reformed Egyptian isn't really a thing, but disproving the Book by an appeal to the text is much more difficult (especially when you haven't read it). As a member of the Church, if you've studied your scriptures like you ought to, then you will be the greater authority on the Book of Mormon text in 99% of debates you encounter. Why not use this to your advantage? 


If anyone remains unconvinced, just look at page 1. Does it say the book was written "to the convincing of all men everywhere that there were elephants in the Americas"? Nope. It says the book was written "to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations." That's the Book of Mormon on its own terms.


So do I think this will end the debate? Of course not. The critics will continue to nitpick, and at the end of the day, there are some people who simply refuse to believe in angels or prophets and therefore won't accept the Book of Mormon no matter how sound the argument. All I'm saying is we should change the debate, and discuss the Book of Mormon more as what it is: a book of scripture. Take up the conversation from that perspective and the whole discussion is much more valid. When we are forced to engage those who criticize this sacred book, we should avoid being backed into a corner of details and force the naysayers to face the Book of Mormon as it was originally intended. And this is not to say I don't still love a good debate over the Book of Mormon from a scientific standpoint. Seriously, tell me where the next one is. I'll bring the popcorn.

What do you think? Have you had this debate with your friends and associates? How have you had success in defending the Book of Mormon to its critics? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

Notes:
1. Haight, David B. "Joseph Smith, the Prophet." Ensign, December, 2001, 28.
2. Gopnik, Adam. "I, Nephi: Mormonism and Its Meanings." The New Yorker, August 13, 2012.
3. Skavlan. Performed by Fredrik Skavlan, Brandon Flowers, Richard Dawkins. Norway: Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), 2012. Film.

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