Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Utah Internet Filter Company Blocks Mormanity, JeffLindsay.com

After a nightmarish install experience, I finally tried out the ContentProtect Internet filter software from the Utah firm, ContentWatch. I was quite surprised to see that this software blocks many of my Web pages and periodically blocks this blog as well. Sometimes it classifies my work as "Adult/Mature" (no way - it's highly immature!) and other times I get nailed with the "Intimate Apparel" block. I think everything I've written is remarkably tame. The word "underw3ar" (the "3" = "e" to prevent a block on this post!) occurs a few times on my Mormon Answers page for facetious questions to deal with questions about garments, but that's about the only thing that might logically cause an alert - but it's still an incorrect classification, IMO.

While the Adult/Mature blocks came when I had my filter sensitivity up a notch, I was using the default sensitivity setting for Intimate Apparel. Mormanity is frequently blocked as an Intimate Apparel site with the default setting (especially when I administer the blog and try to add a post). This kind of thing really get und3r my skin.

Oh, and my tongue-in-cheek social issues page, National Lawn Care Now!, gets blocked under the "Hate/Violence" label. Same for my Politically Correct Physics page. Eh???

It bothers me that Internet filter software would block what I believe to be wholesome pages. I've had other filter services misclassify my site before, and have found the services (e.g., NetContent, I think, and one other) to be responsive when I explained the problem. ContentWatch doesn't seem to be set up to do that, so I'm worried that some people who might want to access my site might be blocked - by a Utah company, of all things.

Webmasters and bloggers, you may be surprised what some filters say about your site.

Do any of you have family friendly Internet filters that are also LDS friendly?

Monday, September 27, 2004

Mesoamerican Connections to the Book of Mormon

The latest FARMS Review from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies has a wide variety of excellent articles, many of which are available for free online. One that still requires a subscription is interesting enough to easily justify the low price for FARMS membership: Kevin Christensen's Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel's Approach to the Book of Mormon, a review of an anti-Mormon work that provides many insights into the Book of Mormon along the way. Nice job, Kevin!

One interesting portion of Kevin's lengthy article includes a quotation from the writings of Brant Gardner, who LDS materials on his Website are among the most valuable on the Web (see, for example, Gardner's essays or his extensive commentary on the chapters of the Book of Mormon (a great resource for teachers and students of this sacred text). Here is the Gardner quotation, which I feel may be valuable for those who are interested in evidence for the Book of Mormon, or for anyone who has been told that "there is not a scrap of archaeological support for anything in the Book of Mormon." Here is the quotation (I've left out the footnotes - please look at the FARMS PDF file for them and the rest of Kevin Christensen's excellent article):

A discussion of geography is critical because there is so much geographical description in the Book of Mormon that a failure to locate its settings anywhere in the world would be a serious problem. There are two general locations in the Book of Mormon, the Old World and the New.

The Old World description concerns the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful, and three major geographic markers have been correlated to this part of the narration. The first is the river that continually runs to the sea. A plausible location for the river that fits both the travel distance from Jerusalem and the requirement that it continually flow to the sea has been found.

The second geographic marker, Nahom, also fits into the travel parameters of Lehi's group. A location called NHM belongs to the correct time period, and all indications point to its being located in the right place.

The third location to be identified is Bountiful. Several characteristics are required of this location, and a plausible site has been identified. In addition, the descriptions of the travel fit. For example, S. Kent Brown sees evidence of night travel in the Book of Mormon text, which is the preferred time to travel in that area.

The Old World geography places these key geographic markers in the correct locations to match the descriptions of travel given in the text. The geographical descriptions form an interrelated set of conditions that must all be met, and they are. Troy was found with such a set.

A discussion of New World geography, however, must begin with less surety because we don't have the beginning point, such as Jerusalem, to tie the geography to the text. However, the text provides a rather consistent internal map. I defer to John Sorenson here, as his geographic analysis is extensive, and I have never seen it seriously assailed. The typical disagreement is the location of Cumorah, and that is minor in the total assessment of the geographic correlations. The Sorenson summary discusses the following points:

1. Consistent determinable distances

2. Consistent topographical descriptions

3. Correlation to a known geography, including mountains, valleys, and rivers

4. Plausible correlation to known topographical relationships ("up" and "down" are consistent with physical directional movement and fit with the topography of the area)

5. Plausible archaeological remains for many of the named cities that C-14 tests (and sometimes Maya Long Count) date to Book of Mormon times

6. Parallels to the known distribution of cultural groups, particularly linguistic groups (and regions of interaction) Cultural Correlation

Having a plausible location now requires the examination of the text of the Book of Mormon to see whether or not it fits into that cultural area. In this instance a few more operating assumptions need to be specified:

1. Based on known history of the New World and known modes of cultural interaction, it is expected that the Book of Mormon people (who entered with relatively few numbers) would have been absorbed into the material culture that already existed. What is more, they also would have absorbed the local languages as the common spoken language.

2. "Nephite" and "Lamanite" are polity designations, not lineage designations (there is ample textual evidence for this as people move from one group to the other).

3. While the Nephites attempted to preserve a Mosaic religion, that was not the case for the surrounding cultures. It is in the conflicts with those outside cultures that we have the opportunity for the best information about the nature of the majority culture of the New World.

Beginning with that foundation, here is a set of cultural correspondences and explanations that come from the Mesoamerican cultural context in which the Book of Mormon may be plausibly placed:

1. The Lehites entered the area during the middle of the Preclassic period, a time of broad changes in the Maya civilization. City size was increasing and society was growing more complex. The general trend was toward greater social differentiation and the beginnings of kingship in Maya city-states. This trend is mirrored in the conflicts witnessed as early as the book of Jacob. The twin evils against which Jacob preaches--polygamy and acquisition of wealth (when it leads to social differentiation)--have both been identified in this time period in Mesoamerica. (Interestingly, polygamy is directly linked to one of the mechanisms of accumulation of wealth at this time, and the function of wealth is to create social differentiation.)

2. The early description of economic matters is enigmatic in the Book of Mormon unless we have the Mesoamerican background. In particular, Jacob speaks against costly apparel (Jacob 2:13). This is a situation that should not exist in a society where everyone makes their own clothing from local materials and dyes. However, it fits into the trade context of Mesoamerica, where clothing was one of the most obvious modes of displaying wealth and social differentiation. Thus this Book of Mormon emphasis on the evils of costly apparel has a direct explanation in the cultural pressures of Mesoamerica at this time.

3. In multiple instances, a Nephite describes the Lamanites as lazy and uncivilized. These negative portrayals occur along with descriptions of Lamanite cities that appear more powerful than Nephite cities. This pejorative catalog even gets repeated by Mormon in his abridgment, when it is obviously incorrect. However, the presence of the pejorative characterization is anthropologically accurate for time and place. Rather than attributing it to authorial error, it can be viewed as an accurate replication of typical in-group prejudices that occur in most human populations.

4. The Book of Mormon describes a political situation that fits Mesoamerica but is not universal to other areas of the world (though it is not completely unknown). Mesoamerican cities had their own governments, but they were typically grouped into spheres of influence. In particular, we have descriptions of kings ruling over kings among the Lamanites. This is precisely the relationship of Mesoamerican cities as the king-forms were developing. The various fissions and fusions of the Book of Mormon hegemonies accurately reflect the nature of Mesoamerican politics.

5. The shift from king to judges in Zarahemla reflects an institutional implementation of a political structure that already existed in those kingships that did continue. Even in the king-led polities, there were kin-group leaders who served as the judges and intermediate rulers. These appear to function as do the judges in Zarahemla and in some later cultures did replace the kings. Thus the process and presence of judges in Zarahemla is a parallel of known culture. To this it should be added that the mechanism described in the Book of Mormon reflects the more Mesoamerican mode of "judges" in that the position was hereditary. In spite of the critics' occasional assertions of a voting democracy in the Book of Mormon, it did not exist.

6. The nature of economics in the Book of Mormon fits the Mesoamerican cultural setting. The lack of a monetary system shifted the nature of wealth accumulation. This is apparent in the constant problem in the Book of Mormon of wealth directly leading to social hierarchies--this is because wealth was defined in terms of displayable goods, not monetary accumulation. In addition, the relationships between conquered cities fit the Mesoamerican model of the establishment of tribute payment rather than political domination. When a city is conquered, there is no real effort to acquire territory, but rather to secure the tribute. Thus the Book of Mormon emphasizes the nature of the taxation--which again is the relinquishing of material, not money.

7. Descriptions of warfare in the Book of Mormon fit the Mesoamerican model. This includes seasonality of fighting, weaponry, tactics, defensive structures, body armament, and the nature of the conclusion of the warfare.

8. The descriptions of daily life fit a Mesoamerican context. Amulek's description of his household (Alma 10:11) corresponds nicely with a Mesoamerican home compound. And when Nephi's compound is described (Helaman 7:11), it fits the description of the home of a powerful person living in the city center--including a personal pyramid ("tower"), a walled court, and a location near the highway leading to a main market (multiple markets were known to exist in single cities).

9. The description of the events of Benjamin's speech fits not only the cultural climate but explains the anomalous base of a temple built in the plausible city of Zarahemla at the time of the speech.

10. Mormon's description of a land north of Nephite lands that is devoid of trees, has buildings of cement, and is in a land of large lakes and many rivers points directly to Teotihuacán, which fits all of those qualifications during the required time period.

11. The particular destructions described at the time of Jesus's death fit the description of a highly explosive volcano (and no other phenomenon). Correlations include the length of time of the tremors and the thickness and duration of the darkness. Mesoamerica is along the ring of fire, one of the most volatile volcanic areas in the world, and we know of at least two major volcanic explosions at the time of Christ. Dating volcanic explosions that far back can be difficult, so there might have been more. The fact does exist, however, that the descriptions in the Book of Mormon fit volcanic activity, and volcanic activity is known for that area of the world and for that time.

12. The incident of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies has a direct and complete explanation in a Mesoamerican context, a cultural explanation that even explains the lightning raid that destroyed Ammonihah (Alma 16:1-3)--otherwise an anomalous event in the Book of Mormon.

13. The location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva River valley not only fits the geography and topography, but it links the major linguistic groups. The Nephites entered a Mayan-speaking area. The Mulekites entered a Mixe-Zoque speaking area. The movement of the Mulekites/Zarahemlaites up the Grijalva valley parallels the known movement of Zoque (a daughter language of Mixe-Zoque) up that valley. This explains why the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites spoke different languages when there was insufficient time for an unintelligible divergence from Hebrew to have occurred. (In only four hundred years some vocabulary would change, but the languages would still have been mutually intelligible.)

14. The Book of Mormon places the Jaredite civilization north of Nephite territories and earlier in time. The geography and time-depth match the geographic and time distribution of the Olmec. The Jaredites would have participated in Olmec culture just as the Nephites participated in later culture.

15. The rapid increase in militarism noted at the end of the Book of Mormon parallels the known historical rise in militarism in all of Mesoamerica at the same time period. As I have noted before, the important facet of all of these key points is that they all stem from a single explanatory model. Each of them is dependent on a single geographic area and a particular time period.

Against these correspondences, what do we have that might be counterindications? We have the specific descriptive problems of swords, silk, horses, chariots, etc. I find it much easier to explain these as labeling problems than to find an alternate explanation for the type of detailed correlation listed above.
Conclusions
Some critics contend that the Book of Mormon was Joseph's attempt to describe the Mound Builders or other Native Americans in North America. Others try to fit the Book of Mormon in the Great Lakes area known to Joseph Smith. Such models fail miserably and cannot account for any of the above parallels. Christensen raises these questions: "Given that knowledge of Central America and the Ancient Near East was meager in Joseph Smith's day [see "What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?"], why does present-day understanding offer so much? Why do aspects of the Book of Mormon that especially outraged Joseph's educated contemporaries like Alexander Campbell turn out in light of recent research and discoveries to fit so well into the ancient world?" They are questions worth pondering.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Glad that Genesis Is NOT in the Book of Mormon

My family has begun reading the Old Testament during family scripture study and we're nearly done with Genesis. During this read of Genesis, I've considered it in light of the attacks that are hurled against the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. Boy, am I ever grateful that Genesis was NOT part of the Book of Mormon. If Genesis were introduced to the world as restored scripture from the Mormons, the critics would have attacks ten times as powerful as anything they've levied against Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon so far.

Think of what the anti-Mormon critics could do with the story of Abraham. They could easily spin the story to shock readers about his attempted human sacrifice of his second son, getting his wife's handmaid pregnant, later throwing out the handmaid and his first son into the desert with just a bottle of water, lying to others about his relationship with his wife, and so on. Whew!

Then we have his son, Isaac, the patriarch and prophet. If he were a Mormon prophet, what fun the critics would have! Why, if he were a real prophet, they would ask, why was he so uninspired" that he couldn't see through the trick that his wife Rebekah played on him by sending in Jacob disguised as Esau to steal the blessing that Isaac wanted Esau to have. And Jacob offers even richer material for mockery by critics. It's bad enough that he started by stealing the birthright and patriarchal blessing of his elder brother, but then comes shameless polygamy and a family rife with sin - children that murder, sell a brother into slavery, commit fornication, and so forth.

Today we read about Joseph. I know he was an inspired man of God, but the same attacks that are used against our modern Joseph Smith could be turned against the ancient Joseph as well. The critics could charge that he was involved in the occult, telling fortunes through dreams, using a cup for divination, etc. And they'd be sure to let everyone know that he was convicted and jailed for a sexual assault against Potiphar's wife - what kind of depraved beast was this man? But with his crafty ways, conspiring with other inmates, he was able to get out of jail and use his occult skills to gain the confidence of the Pharaoh. Rather than standing up for truth and individual liberty, he used the power of big government to tax the people and create vast stores of grain. Then, when natural disaster struck and there was famine in the land, Joseph exploited the famine to sell grain to the people at exorbitant prices, eventually forcing everybody to sell all that they had, even their land, to Pharaoh, resulting in a massive growth of power and wealth for a pagan dictator. If Joseph's story were told only in the Book of Mormon, LDS apologist would provide reasoned defenses, but the public would only hear the charges: con man! convict! pervert! occultist! conspirator! dictator's right-hand man!

Our most vocal critics already believe Genesis, so we don't have to waste too much effort defending Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Thank goodness their stories were not lost to the world, only to be restored by the prophet Joseph Smith. That would just make things too easy for the critics - yet they would still be wrong.

For those that are bothered that Joseph Smith ran for president, or that President Hinckley isn't doing enough to fight political evil or that he kindly shakes hands with modern political leaders rather than condemning them, they would do well to remember the story of Joseph. For those who are bothered that President Hinckley doesn't instantly see through every lie or forged document that has been presented to him, it would be wise to consider the story of Jacob. For those who are bothered about charges against the character of Joseph Smith or other prophets, it would be a good idea to read Genesis and understand just what it means to be a prophet of the Lord. Prophets are human, they make mistakes, they have character flaws, and critics can always find many things to spin to make them look bad, even vicious.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Daniel C. Peterson on the Risks of Naive Archaeology

There's a great article by Daniel C. Peterson in the most recent issue of The FARMS Review. It's title, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," may seem odd to those who have not heard of T.S. Ferguson, but it's well worth reading. It explores the fascination of anti-Mormons with a lawyer and would-be LDS apologist/archaeologist whose testimony of the Church appears to have become weaker after a couple of naive attempts to dig up proof for the Book of Mormon [note: this post initially said he left the Church, but that was an error - I've also corrected the name of the author of the article]. Along the way, in the latter half of the article, we learn some interesting things about common alleged problems in the Book of Mormon - plants, animals, metals, etc.

In exploring the frustrations of Thomas Ferguson, there are some lessons for us now, including the folly of expecting evidence to directly "prove" scripture. In the Middle East, where a hundred times more archaeology has been done than in Mesoamerica, nothing has been found that "proves" the Bible to be true, though interesting insights and paradigm shifts have occurred. But it still requires faith to accept Christ as the Son of God, or to believe that Joseph Smith was called by Christ to be a prophet, no matter how interesting the evidence is (now or in the future) for the authenticity of either the Bible or the Book of Mormon.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Straight Facts on Homosexuality and Same-sex Marriage

I received e-mail from Dr. Warren Throckmorton in response to my page, "Responding to Gay Activists: Homosexuality Can Be Changed." He kindly informed me of a useful resource that he has put together at DrThrockmorton.com. Lots of excellent material, including information about the soon-to-be-released movie, I Do Exist. I've already placed my order for the DVD since this is an issue I really care about.

I'm disappointed that I didn't run into DrThrockmorton.com earlier. For those of you interested in social policy regarding the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Dr. Throckmorton looks like a source for well-reasoned and well-written information, though I've only scratched the surface of his site. I'd appreciate your comments.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Why Missionary Work is Slow in the Midwest

The Appleton, Wisconsin newspaper, the Post-Crescent, ran the announcement shown below in today's paper (Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004). No wonder missionary work is so difficult out here.

How can the Mormons compete?

I've written Salt Lake and asked for some polka-trained missionaries to be sent, but the most polka-fluent elders tend to go to Ghana. Go figure. And even if we get the polka expertise we need, I don't think we'll ever get permission to do a polka mass of our own or to even offer a healthy, low-cost breakfast at our Sunday services. It's just not fair.


Saturday, September 18, 2004

Mormon Dating Advice Makes a Lot of Sense...

The Church has long counseled young people to not start dating before age 16, and to not rush into steady dating. A lot of young people don't like this, but those who show a little faith in this matter are often blessed in many ways. Further, those in the Young Women program are often warned against dating boys who are much older, largely based on the disaster that we adults often see when younger girls date older boys. Along these lines, there is an interesting article at CNN.com about a new study on dating and behavior: "Study finds older boys are bad influence." An excerpt from the article:
"We found a tight connection between teen sexual behavior and dating and teen risk of smoking, drinking and using illegal drugs," said CASA chairman Joseph Califano, a former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare.

The study found that 58 percent of girls who had boyfriends two years or more older drank alcohol, compared to 25 percent of the girls who dated boys their own age or not at all.

Fifty percent of the girls who went for older boys or men smoked marijuana, compared to 8 percent of the other girls, and 65 percent of these girls who preferred to date someone older than themselves smoked, compared to 14 percent girls who stuck to younger boys.
I think the advice of Church leaders on dating (including advice from typical local leaders) makes a lot of sense.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

New Statistical Study of Chiasmus: Chance or Design?

Even wonder what the probability is that a given chiasmus occurred by chance rather than design? A new publication applies careful statistical analysis to help resolve this issue. The work is Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004). The entire article and many supplementary materials - including software for you to explore the statistics of chiasmus yourself - are also available online at http://byustudies.byu.edu/chiasmus/.

The authors find that some often-cited examples of chiasmus in the Book of Abraham and the Doctrine and Covenants are likely to be due to chance, but several well-known examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon appear to be intentional with a high level of confidence. They take into account factors that have been used to suggest that Book of Mormon chiasmus was accidental, and apply what appears to be a fair and reasonable approach. They also provide useful background information and other insights. Well worth reading!

Naturally, I have updated my page on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to include links to the work of Edwards and Edwards.

A final note: by providing the software they used in their study, the authors imply that they aren't afraid to have others check out their approach in detail. I would love to hear your results if you take up the challenge.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Joseph Smith and the Comoros Islands?

An LDS Website, Gerald Smith's LDS Evidences, provides useful information in responding to an interesting question: Did Joseph Smith copy the names "Moroni" and "Cumorah"? It is interesting that the capital of the obscure Comoros Islands (sounds close to "Cumorah") is MORONI. It's a fact the nearly every Ken-Jennings-wannabe farmboy savant is bound to know, so doesn't it stand to reason that Joseph Smith would have known this? Finally, we've got solid proof that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized.

Well, not so fast. Gerald Smith's response points out that Moroni did not become the capital until 1876. It appears that maps and gazetteers of Joseph's day (which he probably never had access to anyway) often neglected the Comoros Islands, and didn't show Moroni at all. The case for plagiarism doesn't make much sense.

On my mission in Switzerland, I ran into a couple of Italians with Moroni as their last name. (No, I didn't accuse them of plagiarizing from the Book of Mormon.) It was a reminder of how similar words can crop up by chance in various parts of the world. Coincidences happen - and it was fun knocking on Moroni's door.

When two names seem to match, some sort of plausible connection or nexus still needs to be established before one can assume there is any relationship.

Now if you want to explore another interesting match, how about the ancient Mayan city Lamanai in Belize? (Sounds like Lamoni, a Lamanite king in the Book of Mormon.) I read somewhere that is one of the few Mesoamerican cities that has kept its ancient name, but I'm not sure about that. Is this another chance coincidence?

Update, March 2006:On the issue of Lamanai, I have received email with an interesting quote from the Journal of Field Archaeology:
Our choice of the site for intensive investigation was based on the presence there of a 16th-century secular Catholic church, the existence of which was first noted by Castells, who incorrectly identified the structure as Pre-Columbian. Castells' description of the church was, unhappily, the basis for Thompson's mention of a structure with round portal columns at the site, possibly reflecting Central Mexican influence in Western Belize. Though the church had been the source of some confusion, its presence demonstrated that Lamanai was inhabited in early historical times, and the possibility clearly existed that the occupation in that period represented the upper end of a continuum from the Classic (3rd to early 10th centuries A.C.) or earlier. There was ample evidence, in the form of obviously complex, large structural remains, to indicate that the site had probably been an important center during the Classic, so that excavation could be expected to provide insights into developments in the Central Maya Lowlands over a considerable period. Though the locale is generally known in Belize as Indian Church, a name apparently coined in the early 19th century, Lamanai is in fact one of the very few Maya sites for which the ancient name is recorded. It appears on a church list of 1582, and the site was visited and very sketchily described by Fathers Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita in 1618. (David Pendergast, "Lamanai, Belize: Summary of Excavation Results, 1974-1980," Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 8 No. 1, [1981) pg. 29-30)
David Pendergast was involved in excavations at Lamanai beginning in the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Problems with Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon

I have recently updated my page on questions about plants and animals in the Book of Mormon to include some new information about silk and honeybees. (I guess I should change the title of the page to include insects.) Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Are Mormons a Cult? Sure!! - For the Same Reasons Early Christians Were

The word "cult" refers generally to any system of worship, and by golly, we worship, and we've got a system, so I guess we're cultists. However, in popular use, the word has been given frightening overtones, and is thus a favorite term for our critics to use in describing Mormons. When critics tell me I belong to a cult (usually as a pleasant way to begin their conversation), I generally ask for their definition of "cult." Typically, the definitions they give would also condemn Christ and the early Christians as cultists. (E.g., a cult is "generally considered to be false by religious experts," [those Pharisees sure had a problem with Christ], a cult "has a dynamic leader that people follow," a cult "requires major sacrifices by the followers," a cult "has beliefs that differ from accepted mainstream views," a cult "introduces new scripture" - hey, anybody ever wonder why they call it the NEW Testament??) For more details, and a rebuttal of the common reasons for calling us a cult, see my Mormon Answers page, "Are Mormons a Cult?"

Some people are pretty surprised to find that their definition of cult would also condemn Christ and His disciples. When they know why we're asking for their definition, it's interesting to see how creative they can get in crafting a definition that nails Mormons without nailing early Christians, but these definitions become arbitrary, illogical, and unhelpful. Frankly, it all boils down to this: a cult is anything they disagree with, or more particularly, a cult is those darned Mormons and several other specific groups they disagree with, and that's just the way it is. Their use of the word "cult" is sometimes more about feelings than logic (sort of an anti-testimony). But for you who tell others that Mormons are a "cult," I'd like to challenge you to think more carefully about what you are saying. It's fine to disagree with us and engage in frank discourse, but the use of the emotionally-charged epithet of "cult" to scare the gullible may not be the most Christian way to deal with us. But a little name calling isn't all that bad, relatively speaking. Historically, we cultists have been through much worse.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Beware Faith-Promoting Hoaxes

SHIELDS.org has exposed an Internet hoax about an ancient steel knife found embedded deep within a Giant Sequoia tree. According to the hoax, the tree rings occupied by the knife date to 350-400 A.D. and appears to have a style from the Middle East. The story is a complete fabrication.

While I firmly maintain that there is fascinating evidence consistent with the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, there have been several hoaxes relevant to Book of Mormon issues. Latter-day Saints need to be cautious about believing faith-promoting rumors, even when they are dressed up with impressive details. Just because you got some story from somebody via e-mail or saw it on a Web page does not make it true. It's wise to wait for external confirmation or publication from a reputable source.

One of the earliest hoaxes aimed at Mormons was the Kinderhook plates. Many people claimed that Joseph was fooled by these forgeries, based on sloppy journalism in 1856 that resulted in a comment from William Clayton being made to appear as if it were from Joseph Smith. But the reality is that Joseph did not take the bait. If he had thought the plates were authentic, why pay them no attention? Why not purchase them or publish a translation or preach about them? It was a hoax that failed to snare Joseph. (See "The Kinderhook Plates" by Wade Englund for more information.)

One story that I refused to believe at first was the account of Gertrude Specht and her conversion, in which a scholar thoroughly familiar with early Christianity recognizes the evidence of the Apostasy and the Restoration as preached by humble missionaries, then converts and uses her mastery of history to boldly testify to others. I first received it as e-mail without supporting details, and it just sounded too good to be true. Months later I found that somebody I knew and respected knew her and could verify the story. Check it out!

{Jan. 2009 Update}
Regarding the popular Gertrude Specht Story - it is not entirely a faith-promoting rumor - but I have recently learned (Jan. 2009) that the more sensational aspects may not be correct. A more accurate overview of her story is given by Jonathan Green in "Gertrud Specht" on the Times and Seasons Blog, 2008. He contends that the high drama of the popular version does not hold up. Thanks for the clarification, Jonathan!
{End update}

For details on a variety of other LDS hoaxes and other hoaxes as well, see LDS Hoaxes and Myths at SHIELDS.org.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Questions about Book of Mormon Evidence

While a lot of you have used my page on Book of Mormon evidence, many of you have not seen the companion "Mormon Answers" page of frequently asked questions about Book of Mormon Evidence. I hope that it may be helpful to some of you.

On a different topic, I just updated my "Mormon Answers" page on the First Vision to include a link to "Moroni: Angel or Treasure Guardian?" by Mark Ashurst-McGee in Mormon Historical Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 2001. (Thanks to Kevin Christensen for sending e-mail about it.) This article refutes the charge of some anti-Mormons that Joseph initially claimed that he encountered Moroni as a "guardian" of the gold plates, in a way consistent with folk-lore and magic, rather than encountering Moroni as an angel of God. The critics say that the angel story came later as Joseph dressed things up. But the evidence suggest that the revisionism in this story comes from anti-Mormon critics, not Joseph Smith.

Extinct Indian Tribe Challenges "Asia Only" Theories for Origins of Ancient Americans

In the heated controversy about DNA and the Book of Mormon, critics have insisted that science has "proven" that the origins of ancient Americans were exclusively from northern Asia via the Bering Strait. Part of the typical LDS response has been to point out that a scientific understanding of the origin of ancient Americans is still in its infancy and far from complete. We have also pointed out that genes from ancient immigrant groups can vanish from the collective gene pool or be overlooked, and that some ancient groups may have come from other places even if the majority of ancient Americans came from Asia. The accuracy of such statements has just been underscored by news about an important discovery: a portion of ancient Americans may have come from Australia, southern Asia, and the Pacific rather than from northern Asia. This is reported in a BBC news story, "Tribe Challenges American Origins" by Paul Rincon on Sept. 7, 2004 (also see First Americans May Have Been Aussies from Reuters). This does not directly relate to Book of Mormon issues, but does underscore the inconclusive state of studies on ancient origins of the Americans, and shows how inaccurate our critics have been in their interpretation of science.

The article discusses evidence for the theory that some of the first inhabitants of this continent came "from Australia via Japan and Polynesia and down the Pacific coast of America." (Say, doesn't that imply boats were used?) A portion of these ancient Americans survived as the Pericues tribe of Baja California, but they died out in the 17th century.

If the claims about Australian origins for the earliest Americans are correct, it would seem that a significant source of genes in the ancient Americas has been missed by DNA analysis. Studies of mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes among Native Americans and in remains of ancient Americans have highlighted Australia as a source of origin for ancient inhabitants. How could the Australian connection have been missed in previous studies? It could easily happen. The genes of a minority group may be spread all over a continent without any of the mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome surviving. These two types of DNA are passed along purely maternal or paternal lines, and can easily be lost due to intermixing, even though other genes from the minority group persist. If you go back 10 generations in your own ancestry, your genealogy tree will have 1024 slots for all the ancestors who contributed to your genetic makeup, but your mitochondrial DNA came from only one woman out of that group, and your Y chromosome (if you are male) came from one man. Testing your mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome only tells you something about 2 people out of 1024. The others have essentially "vanished" from the test results.

Stayed tuned: there is so much that we have yet to learn about the origins of ancient Americans. One thing is for sure: the fact that many modern Native Americans may have genes pointing to north Asian origins says nothing about the possibility of a man named Lehi bringing a small group of people to this continent around 600 B.C. Book of Mormon critics are making far too much out of the molehill they are dancing on.


Friday, September 10, 2004

Basic LDS Resources

When people ask me about Internet resources with basic information about Mormons, I typically refer them to Mormon.org, a site provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If there are specific issues of interest to you, searching the many resources at LDS.org might be helpful. For real-life stories about members of the Church and the "Mormon experience," the Church News can be helpful.

Let me know if you have a favorite basic resource that can help others interested in learning more about the Church.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Euthanasia, Partial Birth Abortion, and Retroactive Abortion

The slippery slope of immorality can be surprisingly steep. Belgium, a citadel of "progressive" thought, is considering expansion of its liberal euthanasia law to also include children. A story in Reuters provides the surprising news. Here's my spin: it seems that the Flemish Liberal party, in their endless quest for compassion, has determined that some young children would be happier dead. Talk about cradle-to-grave care from the Welfare State! I bet the noisy ones go first.... (Yes, I am aware of the excuses given for euthanasia, and recognize the need for compassion for the terminally ill - but when we trade prayerful compassion for the "merciful" convenience of actively taking the lives of those who suffer, we begin to play like we are God, and it is not uncommon to find the taking of lives expands beyond just the terminally ill.)

Meanwhile, in the enlightened Unites States, federal judges have struck down attempts to prevent the murder of partially born children (preserving the fiction that the baby is not yet a person if not completely born, and thus fair game). The existence of partial birth abortion in this country is a sign of moral depravity that demands public outcry. With the partial birth abortion nightmare, we are aborting unborn infants that are far enough along in their development that many of them could have lived outside the womb - and in some cases, perhaps could have had very healthy and happy lives. For an admittedly unusual example, see the story of the teenager who was once the world's tiniest premature baby.

There has been a great deal of misinformation from the very liberal media on this topic. See Matt Evans' post, "Why Won't They Call it 'Partial-Birth Abortion?'" at Times and Seasons. As Matt indicates, we can forget about objectivity from the media: 97% of the movers and shakers in the media are pro-choice, and it shows. Some useful information comes from NRLC.org's page on partial-birth abortion, refuting some of the claims made by critics of the law banning partial birth abortions:
The bill bans "partial-birth abortion" and it legally defines a partial-birth abortion as any abortion in which the baby is delivered "past the [baby's] navel . . . outside the body of the mother," OR "in the case of head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother," BEFORE being killed. The complete official text of the bill being signed by President Bush, in a searchable format, is here:
http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/pba/partial-birth%20abortion%20Ban%20act%20final%20language.htm.

The bill would allow the method if it was ever necessary to save a mother's life. Such an exception has been part of the legislation since it was first introduced in 1995. Nevertheless, it is still not uncommon to see news reports that the bill would "never" allow the procedure, or to say flat out that it does not contain an exception to save a mother's life.

Given the nature of partial birth abortion, is there any real situation where it is needed for the physical health of the mother? I also believe that using a vague and indefinite term like "health" of the mother would totally undermine any law against partial birth abortion. If the mother wants the baby dead, she could claim to suffer emotional distress and thus adverse mental health if it lived. As long as some doctor signs a note saying that it was for "health" reasons, what could be done to stop partial birth abortion under such a law?

The previously cited NRLC.org page also has this about the health issue:
What new evidence has come to light since 1997 only reinforces the conclusion that some practitioners use the method routinely during the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy, and even later, and that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions do not involve any acute medical circumstances. For example, Kansas became the only state to enact a law that requires reporting of partial-birth abortions separately from other abortion methods. The first full year the law was in effect (1999), Kansas abortionists reported that they performed 182 partial-birth abortions on babies who were defined by the abortionists themselves as "viable," and they also reported that all 182 of these were performed for "mental" (as opposed to "physical") health reasons. See pages 10-11 of the Kansas Health Department report. See page 11 of www.kdhe.state.ks.us/hci/99itop1.pdf. Nevertheless, in recent months, NRLC has witnessed attempts to revive erroneous claims about partial-birth abortion that were thoroughly discredited in 1996 and 1997. Articles and broadcasts in major media outlets, including the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal, have adopted the premise the partial-birth abortions are nearly always performed to deal with serious physical disorders of mother and/or baby.
As I asked previously in a discussion at Times and Seasons, isn't partial birth abortion just a modern version of the ancient Molech Reproductive Rights Clinic? (Molech, of course, was the pagan god mentioned in the Old Testament to whom children were sacrificed). How long before we provide Retroactive Abortion Rights for those whose unwanted fetuses became children without the chance for an abortion?

The Lord gave us an important commandment in Doctrine and Covenants 59:6: "Thou shalt not . . . kill, nor do anything like unto it."

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Remembering Missouri

An amazing book for those interested in LDS history is Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict, edited by Clark V. Johnson (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1992). This book provides primary sources on the terrible persecution that Latter-day Saints experienced in Missouri, leading to the infamous Extermination Order of Governor Boggs that threatened Mormons with death if they did not leave the state. The book contains hundreds of individual affidavits from victims of the persecution, listing what they lost and sometimes explaining the brutality they faced. There are also two eloquent appeals to Congress made by the Saints, and many other documents of interest. Some parts are difficult to read, such as the graphic eye-witness accounts of some of the killing and brutality that occurred.

In the face of such terrible injustice prevailing in Missouri, contrary to so many principles of the Constitution, we encounter the sickening cowardice and corruption of President Martin Van Buren, who told Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee, "Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you" and "If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri."

I also find it interesting to see the active role that so-called Christian clergymen played in stirring up and even leading mob actions against the Mormons, both in Missouri and Illinois. I don't know if we have ever received an apology from any of the churches that played a role in such atrocities, but I am grateful that the State of Missouri took the Extermination Order off the books in 1976 (sorry folks - it's no longer legal to shoot us on sight). And I'm grateful that the State of Illinois has officially apologized to the Church for what happened there. That's right--in March 2004, a resolution was passed by the Illinois Legislature asking for "the pardon and forgiveness" of the Mormon Church for persecution that led to the expulsion of 20,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1844 from Nauvoo, and for the 1844 vigilante murder of Mormon leader Joseph Smith. Thank you, Illinois!

Some further information on the Missouri conflict, with links to helpful resources, is provided on my Mormon Answers page about the 1838 "Mormon War" in Missouri.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

An Interesting Question: How Do You Know the Bible is True?

There's a line of questioning you might like to consider sometime when you're in a discussion with a fellow Christian who criticizes the LDS concept of testimony through revelation from God. Instead of trying to find answers to all their questions, try to understand where they are coming from with this helpful question: "How do you know the Bible is true?" Sometimes, I've found the answer to be rather circular: "I know the Bible is true because it says it is, right there in chapter so and so of . . . ." Try to help the person get past the dogma of "knowing" the Bible to be true because that's what they believe or because that's what their faith teaches, and ask them to think how they could come to know it were true if they had been raised in, say, China, and had never encountered it before. How could they read it and know that it was true? At this point, the answer sometimes refers to "the impressive evidence of the witnesses recorded in the Bible." Yes, the Bible records that many people saw Christ and so forth - but it's still a circular argument. How do we know that the reported testimony of the witnesses and the other writers was not fabricated? Perhaps the person will then refer to scientific and archaeological confirmations of the Bible. A gentle dose of reality can be helpful (this is not the place to bring up the problems with the idea of inerrancy in the Bible or the doctrine of sola scriptura), such as explaining that just because the story of the Bible refers to cities and places that still exist doesn't have anything to do with whether Christ was the Son of God or not. No artifact has proven that. How can you base your life and even your eternal fate on that ancient record and be sure you're right? How do you know?

This line of questioning, if gently and lovingly done, can help a sincere person realize that deep down, something has happened in their heart that gives them a knowledge or abiding faith in the reality of the Gospel message. (Or maybe they have no testimony of God and Christ yet and need to be invited to come unto Jesus and know Him through the power of a covenant relationship in His restored Church.) God lives, Jesus is His Son, and many of our Christian friends outside the LDS faith know these things because they have experienced revelation in some way, including answers to prayers, experiencing the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23), being touched in their heart and mind by the influence of God, and so forth. Yes, of course, there are intellectual evidences or other confirming factors that can strengthen that faith, but deep down, many of our Christian friends may know a little more about the LDS testimony that they have realized. I've even heard other Christians speaking about their testimony of Christ in much the same way LDS people do. If we can help them get past the anti-testimony propaganda of some of our critics, it might help them be more receptive to the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of revelation from God.

If they refuse to admit the possibility of such things and insist that true faith can only be based upon empirical evidence, your conversation isn't going to get very far, and it may be fair to wonder if they are being deliberately unreasonable.

Avoid contention in this process. And if the time is right, you may be able to let others know, as I have often done, that there are some things we really can know, things like the reality of Jesus Christ and God the Father, and the reality of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in these latter days. I know these things, though there are a zillion other things I don't know and can't explain, and other things that I am pretty comfortable with but not yet at the "know" stage. Thank heavens for the wonderful good news that many of us do know.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

My LDS Posts at Times and Seasons

For the past couple weeks, I had the pleasure of being a guest blogger at Times and Seasons, as I previously mentioned. The complete collection of my posts there is available at http://timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?author=24&poststart=1. The comments from others were very intriguing and often helpful. I especially enjoyed the discussion around my post on mental illness, "Mental Health in the Church: Suggestions for Leaders."

I hope the essays might be helpful to some of you.