Monday, October 31, 2005

Today my subject is the Book of Mormon. This topic has occupied my thoughts for some time. Mostly I regret that very few people are interested in the Book of Mormon as a cultural artifact, as a text, and as an important work in the history of modern Christian movements. Mostly people prefer to occupy themselves with the question of whether it is true or not. "True in what sense?" is an excellent question. I think they generally mean whether it is "of God" and constitent with Christianity. The conflict over these problems has sparked a heated debate that began in the day the book first appeared. The minister Alexander Campbell, contemporary of Joseph Smith, was one of the book's first critics.

These days another conflict over the book has emerged. The central issue of this debate is the historicity of the book, i.e. does the book describe events that actually occurred in the time and setting described therein. In addition to the usual split between Mormons and other Christians over this issue, Mormons are at odds with other Mormons over it. A Mormon scholar of Biblical Studies, David P. Wright, was ex-communicated from the LDS Church over his contention that the book was not historical in this sense (or at least he claims this). Recently a bio-chemist from Australia, Simon Southerton, who had written on the lack of evidence for Hebrew DNA in Native Americans was ex-communicated for other offenses that occurred years ago. Some have construed that there was a connection between the ecclesiastical action taken against him and his writings on Native American DNA and the Book of Mormon.

I have found the various conflicts over the Book of Mormon curious for some time. Part of the reason for my bewilderment is my increasing awareness of biblical scholarship. Once I became aware of the possibility that many of the books in the Bible were not authored by the people whose names are attached to them (these works are called pseudepigrapha), I began to wonder why people were so exercised over books bearing the name Nephi and Mormon. If men living in the Roman empire could place their imprimature of authority on books of scripture that were not strictly speaking historical by today's standards, why not a modern Christian church with additions to its own canon? Still Christians demand, and for reasons that are understandable, that Mormons and their scriptures not be considered Christian largely because Mormons do not satisfy a standard for Christianity that took hold in the fourth century CE.

Mormons apologists defend the Book of Mormon both as a Christian text and an ancient text. They fight the contentions of both Mormons and non-Mormons who would challenge either position. There are a number of apparent hurdles that they confront. First, archaeology has not confirmed the existence of any artifact or site that can be positively identified as belonging to the ancient civilizations of which the Book of Mormon speaks. Still, these apologists, men who are generally brilliant, and who have availed themselves of some of the best scholarly training the American academy has to offer, have presented many intriguing theories and have added many insights into the Book of Mormon, other LDS scripture, and apocryphal texts. You can access their work through either the FARMS or FAIR websites. What they succeed at handsomely is in making Mormons more aware of the texts they have in their canon, and aware of how one can adopt an LDS viewpoint on other subjects in the area of ancient scriptures and religious practices. The accomplishment is not negligible.

Then there is the crowd who propose the 19th century argument. Apologists often cite the need for those who forward this view to debunk the ancient evidence before they proceed with an inquiry into the Book of Mormon in its immediately discernible historical context. It is as if to say one can study Genesis only by looking at the events of 4000 BC to the time of Joseph the patriarch, and only after "debunking" this evidence turn to the context in which the first extant manuscript evidence appears. It should go without saying that both avenues of research should be pursued. Some scholars will focus on the most ancient evidence, while others will pay closer attention to the context in which those first extant manuscripts appear (these two courses are not, obviously, the only options). The field as a whole will benefit from both approaches, and some scholars will try to account for the big picture. Without both approaches, the bigger picture might never emerge.

The problem, as I see it, is that the academic study of the Book of Mormon (as opposed to devotional study) is locked in a paradigm in which the critics and apologists each bring their perspective to the table, and grant little value to the other point of view. I would like to see more people approach the Book of Mormon outside of this apologetics/polemics paradigm for the sake of understanding the book as a text, period.

More later . . .

Friday, October 28, 2005

There are scores of Mormon blogs, far more than some people would say are warranted by the subject. This "Mormon" blog will be a little bit different. First, I want to apply a special definition to the word Mormon for the purposes of this particular blog. "Mormon" as I am using the term here, refers to movements and individuals who locate their cultural or historical origins with the teachings of Joseph Smith between 1820 and 1844 and the descendants of Smith and his followers (both contemporary and subsequent).

Many who belong within the definition of Mormon operative herein do not identify themselves as such. The largest exception would be the members of the Community of Christ, the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I respect the choice of some not to associate themselves with the name Mormon, in spite of their obvious debt to the teachings and writings of Joseph Smith. I hope they understand my special use of the term for this blog. I could have called this place Restoration Spectrum, but there are Restorationist groups this blog will not focus in great detail upon (for example, Campbellites). Mormon works well because of the role the Book of Mormon plays at the foundation of Joseph Smith's work, and because it is easily recognizable as a name associated with Joseph Smith.

Having said all of that, I get to the important question. What is this blog for? Well, this blog will concern Mormon issues of all types from all different angles for the sake of understanding the many kinds of significance that Mormonism has. Other blogs are dedicated to discussion of Mormonism from one dominant perspective: faithful Mormon, anti-Mormon, ex-Mormon, apologetic Mormon, etc. This blog is unique in its aim to discuss and explore Mormon-related subjects from as many perspectives as possible. It is inspired, in part, by a Yahoo Group, and a podcast.

The Yahoo Group is "Loyal Liberal Mormons" which was started in 2000 and was designed for discussion of Mormon things as widely as possible, from a liberal perspective. The catch was that anti-Mormon and apologetic agendas were not welcome. The podcast is Mormonstories, by John Dehlin, the most recent appointment to the board of Sunstone, an unofficial Mormon publication. For the Mormonstories podcast, Mr. Dehlin interviews people with wide-ranging experiences and opinions of Mormonism in order to give them the opportunity to tell their own story. His hope is that by hearing these stories, as told by the people themselves, bridges of understanding can be built where once only chasms of criticism and mutual distrust existed. I highly recommend both the newsgroup and the podcast for those interested. They are not affiliated.

It is my hope that the "I"of Mormon Spectrum can become a "we" very soon, i.e. that other people who believe in the agenda laid out here will get involved in this blog. I also have a goal of initiating a Mormon Spectrum podcast in the future. This podcast will bring the special approach of this blog to the spoken word, and thus be distinct from the other podcasts out there in its aims. This blog, and the future podcast, will include all kinds of voices, but the perspective from which it operates is not one that belongs within a devotional, apologetic, or anti-Mormon paradigm. In other words, the perspective will emulate a "World Religions" or academic tone by treating things Mormon as one would any other religious movement of interest. Still, the goal will be to maintain a congenial tone, even when the perspective articulated does not agree with the convictions of an adherent to any particular worldview.