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

Monday, January 05, 2009

Stupid Stories in the Book of Mormon that Make Sense Today: Insights from Mesoamerican Studies

Brant Gardner, an aficionado of Mesoamerican studies, has some carefully considered thoughts about New World evidence pertinent to the Book of Mormon. I recommend all five parts of his video (a hat tip to Robert). If you only have a few minutes, see Part 5 (or Parts 4 and 5). The concluding reference to "seeing the dog" is about a partial image of a Dalmatian provided as an array of dots and blobs, shown in Part 2. Once you recognize that they are taken from an image of a dog, it's easy to see the dog - otherwise it can just look like random noise. Piecing together evidence from the past is often that way.

In this video, he discusses the "stupid story" of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies burying their weapons of war, and the response of the Lamanite army after attacking them. Why do they have to go attack a Nephite city 3 days away to have a real battle and get some prisoners? What good does burying weapons do? Why do the converts - women included - all feel that they are "murderers" based on the involvement of the men in war? When viewed at without the "lens of faith," it really is a puzzling and even bizarre story - until you bring in modern knowledge about the ancient culture, religion, and practices of Mesoamerica. Then it's a remarkably sensible story. There are several "stupid stories" of this nature in the Book of Mormon which make little sense when read in the context of 1830 or our modern culture, but which make much more sense when understood to be occurring in ancient Mesoamerica. Enjoy.

Here's Part 5 of "New World Evidence for The Book of Mormon." Enjoy.


Here are links to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

20 comments:

Zera Pulsipher said...

I really wish he'd have had the time to go over everything in as much detail as he did with the Anti-Nephi-Lehi's. I really enjoyed this thanks for posting it.

jdionlds said...

Those of us must remember to read all of the scripture as if we are living during that era. History is fascinating, only if we are able to understand the writers of these text. Their belief can be ours.

Anonymous said...

First thing that comes to mind as I watched Part 5...

As a person struggling in the mormon faith and for a while really giving it an honest shot (now maybe less than a 100% effort) I watch this and think...

Mormons see this as history and everyone else sees this as fiction.

Bookslinger said...

anon @ 6:48pm Jan 6:

Do you visit Muslim and Hindu blogs and tell them their sacred scriptures are fiction?

Didn't think so.

TheNastyOne said...

The challenge with reading scripture as if we are living during that era is that we know very little about the BOM era so it is difficult to put the stories into context. The speaker has discovered a few interesting convergences, as he calls them, that color the BOM text but only after devoting many years to researching Mesoamerica. Hopefully, more knowledge of Mesoamerican culture that sheds light on the BOM will be forthecoming.

Personally, I am beyond the "Book of Mormon, Literal History or Inspired Fiction?" debate, though I hope it is indeed historical. My belief in the BOM has always centered on its spiritual message that has resonated in my life. I accept its message as truth, if not necessarily literal history, in much the same way I accept Jesus's parables as truth even if the parables are not literal history.

Many feel the "BOM, Inspired Fiction" theory threatens Joseph Smith's prophetic calling and subsequently the Church's position, to which I disagree. Anyone who can dictate that book in 2 months with his head buried in a hat is working with more than his own intelligence.

I sometimes wonder if God does not intend for us to have concrete evidence of its historicity; to have that evidence might even be counterproductive. The book is filled with truth and stands on its own as a spiritual guide for our journey in the latter days.

quandmeme said...

Thanks for the post. I've listed to the five presentations and will look at the other fairldsorg lectures.

Just a warning, Brant comes across as really self-satisfied--almost arrogant. Just take what you like, cool thing is that you don't have to believe HIM.

Robert said...

Thanks for the hat tip. I recommend the article Brant Gardner mentions in another video by Orson Scott Card, where he analyzes the Book of Mormon as a very experienced author, giving his opinion on the possibility that someone in the 1820's could construct it. I wrote a post about it here. I'd love to hear some of Mormanity's readers thoughts on this amazing speech/article.

Robert said...

Nasty One,

I somewhat disagree that treating the Book of Mormon as fiction is acceptable. Sure, it has some great moralistic tales, but if God made it up, then that seems somewhat patronizing. After all, he can construct a story that fits just what he wants, which seems to cripple (if not totally remove) the notion of agency. If Nephi didn't really exist, and Captain Moroni didn't, either, then it diminishes the story to a great novel. There are plenty of those available to teach us important life lessons, but the gospel is truth, and that means truth in the sense that it happened as much as truth in the sense of what it teaches.

I don't think we need evidence to believe the Book of Mormon, though. I agree that faith is what is needed to know it is true. However, knowing more of the context of the stories can't hurt our appreciation of them. As Brant Gardner would suggest, it actually gives us a deeper appreciation of what it teaches, which is beautiful.

quandmeme,
I follow what you mean about him seeming arrogant, I suppose. I just think he speaks confidently because he feels sure what he is sharing is true. Such confidence can be inspiring.

TheNastyOne said...

Robert -

Thank you for the comment. I think we will have to disagree that a non-historical Book of Mormon text diminishes its value to that of a great book. Nor do I understand how it might cripple agency. However, I do agree that it might be somewhat patronizing since we are culturally expected to accept it as literal. But that notion could possibly be our own misinterpretation as we sometimes do in the LDS community. Or not.

I should have substituted the term "inspired fiction" for "inspired myth" or "sacred myth". Whats the difference? "Made up" fiction's primary purpose is entertainment, which might or might not contain some truths. However, myths are largely symbolic, have been used throughout history for the purpose of teaching true principles and serving as guides for life, and are central to the human experience. So, in my opinion an inspired/sacred myth written by a prophet for our era is not problematic.

I have hope that the Book of Mormon is literal history but I have no testimony of that. I do however have a very strong spiritual testimony in its inspired message. I suppose my point is that if I someday learn it is not literal history, that will not shake my relationship with God or this church. If I someday learn that it is literal, my hope will be realized.

I use the same approach with Joseph Smith. I can believe in his prophetic calling while accepting that he might have fallen into error, possibly grave error, in some areas without it undermining my testimony. I recognize that idea is challenging to most LDS, so it is not a subject I discuss in public.

It is what works for me at this point in life, and I wanted to share my approach with others who grapple with the issue.

On a side-note, if you are interested in the role of myth in our lives, you might read "The Writer's Journey". I think you will find that the structure of myth dovetails quite nicely with the plan of salvation. Additionally, you might discover you have experienced the "hero's journey" at times in your own life. I did.

Best!

Robert said...

What I mean by the crippling of agency is this: if God made up a story where all the good guys did the good things and the bad guys did the bad things, then that lends itself too much to a people without agency simply because they are created. By knowing that the Nephites actually lived through these things, that their experiences and responses were real, we have an appreciation that we can live through such things.

Yes, myth has a role in teaching. Some historians believe that many myths stem from an actual event that was embellished. I loved Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus for the way its characters search through the past for the actual events that originated such stories as the great flood, the exodus, Noah, and so on. It's quite an enjoyable read - but only as fiction. I do not look upon the scriptures as something created. Sure, some stories might have been adapted from others or embellished somewhat by the writer, but for the most part they come from real events, for me anyway. I will not have my faith shaken by any evidence to the contrary - I believed the Book of Mormon to be scripture the first time I read it despite having read many attacks beforehand - but I do know it is a true account of a real people. If you don't, that's okay, though. You are right that we can agree to disagree. If you want some evidence, Jeff's site jefflindsay.com has a great deal of it compiled, as does FAIRLDS.org. I've posted some great videos (not produced by me) on my blog here and here and have a new one coming up tomorrow with more from Brant Gardner. If you're interested.

TheNastyOne said...

Robert -

Thank you for elaborating, you make a good point that literal experiences can be more powerful tools and lend greater strength than myths to those dealing with similar circumstances given that people actually experienced the struggle, though I don't think it has an effect on our agency; one may simply be more influential than the other.

Personally, I find literal scripture and scriptural myths equally valid and influential. Ultimately, whether the story is literal or mythical, I have to decide whether I can and want to apply the guiding principles in my life.

Thank you for the links, I am interested in hearing more of what Brant Gardner has to say.

Robert said...

I don't mean the story harms our agency. I mean it is a contradiction to agency. By having people do just what they should in a story, it somewhat removes the agency of the acting character - after all, they do just what they're told - and therefore is a knock on the idea of acting with our agency. Perhaps that explains my meaning better.

Great series I just watched (fifteen parts, so I won't list all the links here): video 1 and this particularly poignant one where the opening comment explains different elements of testimony: head, hands, and heart. I loved that comment. It also has the testimonies of all the scholars speaking on the videos, which I love. Enjoy.

TheNastyOne said...

I am familiar with those interviews, and I like Daniel Peterson's observation that either interpretation of the Book of Mormon's historicity is plausible and supportive, which is why I am at ease with the possibility that it might not be literal yet still have been directly inspired by God.

I don't believe Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in the traditional sense that he decided to write a story and received some divine inspiration along the way. I believe he dictated the Book of Mormon in the exact manner as has been described, one word or phrase at a time as it appeared in his stone (I think it was in his mind, the stone was just a method) through the spirit. If it turns out that the history is literal, that is fantastic. If not, the book of mormon remains sacred and its purpose remains unchanged.

I can envision the scenario, after all things are revealed, in which we learn the Book of Mormon was a sacred myth, and the Lord responds to our confusion by saying something to the effect "what difference does it make, did it not serve its designed purpose?".

D&C 19 strikes me as an example of this idea when the Lord is discussing "endless torment" and "eternal damnation". Essentially, the Lord is saying "don't take those terms literally, i use those terms for effect."

Ultimately, I believe that whether it is sacred history or sacred myth is of little consquence; what is important is it's sacred purpose.

Robert said...

Again, I think we'll simply have to agree to disagree. I don't like the notion that these stories are a crafted tale. Besides, evidence continues to grow suggesting otherwise.

TheNastyOne said...

I enjoyed the banter.

Robert said...

As did I, for the most part. I enjoy the exchange of perspectives that helps all of us to learn more about different perspectives.

Doug Forbes said...

OK, how about weird stories from the BoM. Read the following study by Towne and Hulse and then read 2 Nephi 21

“Generational change in skin color variation among Habbani Yemeni Jews” - Towne and Hulse, Hum Biol. 1990 Feb;62(1):85-100.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&uid=2323771&cmd=showdetailview&indexed=google

Bookslinger said...

Nasty One:

I respect your statement where you say that you don't have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is historically true. I find that easier for me to respect than if someone were to say that they know (or believe) that it _can't_ be literally/historically true.

Your statement that you _hope_ it's true conveys faith.

I can't help but think that those LDS members who claim/purport (IE, make a declarative statement) that the BoM _is not_ historical are making heretical statements clearly against the statements of the Brethren.

So I'm kind of in Robert's boat on that. But, just to clarify, I don't think you made any heretical or apostate statements, you merely said you don't know, but do hope.

But for those who do claim (ie, make positive statements) that the BoM is inspired fiction, that it came from God, but the written events did not actually happen... how do they reconcile the interaction of Joseph Smith with Moroni? How do they reconcile Joseph's claims of what an angel (who identified himself as Moroni) told him?

In the inspired-fiction paradigm, was the angel merely role-playing, or "acting" as if he were the fictional Moroni? Or were the encounters merely virtual reality for Joseph's sake? (In which case the Moroni character in the VR would still be "acting".) Or did JS just make up the whole deal of being visited by Moroni?

I believe this "inspired fiction" paradigm to be a dangerous thing. According to my view, if Joseph Smith was inspired of God, if Joseph Smith was indeed God's chosen prophet, had his First Vision, etc., then the whole story has to be true: that there really were Nephites and Lamanites, and that Christ did visit them, that the angel who said he was Moroni, really was Moroni, and was not play-acting.

I investigated many Protestant churches in my search before finding the LDS church. I leaned towards the Evangelical/Fundamental branch of Christianity because they did not deny the power of God, and the precious truths and miracles of the Bible.

What the "inspired fiction" crowd is doing to the Book of Mormon, is similar to the watering-down that "mainline" Protestants have been doing to the Bible for a few centuries, claiming that it's all "nice teachings, but didn't really happen that way." It is, in essence, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.

Robert said...

Bookslinger,

You have stated more clearly the point I was making about the danger of treating the Book of Mormon as a possible fiction. It throws so many doubts on the whole church. No, it is true, and it did happen. To say otherwise is definitely watering it down. And why should we? Plenty of critics already believe it is a fiction. We needn't add fuel to their fire.

TheNastyOne said...

Let me be perfectly clear that I am not an advocate for the "Book of Mormon, Inspired fiction" idea, nor am I a part of that crowd, whoever they are. And I certainly have no intention of persuading others to accept or even consider that school of thought. I was only explaining some of the reasons why I dont reject the idea that it might be sacred myth. That possibility is not yet spiritually falsifiable for me whereas my belief that it is truth, that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that God exists have been spiritually confirmed to me.

I didn't know there are LDS members who claim to have received a spiritual confirmation that the Book of Mormon is not literal, that would surprise me. Conversely, I don't know of anyone who has received a spiritual confirmation that it is literal history; not just that it is true, but that it is literal history. It sounds like there might be claims made from both crowds, which would lead me right back to my current position.

I am also not aware of any of the Brethren who have made doctrinal statements that the Book of Mormon is literal history, but maybe some have. If they have, it might not necessarily change my position; some formerly declared doctrines are declared non-doctrinal by later General Authorities, which raises the question of defining heresy. Not many, but there are a few. But those seemingly contradictory statements do not undermine my testimony, they make it more complex.

Reconciliation: therein lies the rub. I will try to explain my view.

First, let me also be perfectly clear that I do not deny the power of God, miracles or precious truths contained in the scriptures. While I cannot answer your questions about the Angel Moroni in any meaningful way, I can express my belief that Joseph Smith did indeed have the spiritual experiences he claimed.

From an early age and throughout my adult life, I am fortunate to have been blessed with many deeply-felt spiritual experiences that serve as a foundation for my testimony. When the time came that my testimony was challenged I was able to rely on that foundation to work my way through the storm, reconcile the inconsistencies and emerge with what I consider a healthier, more mature, deeper understanding and testimony. I no longer view doctrine/gospel/life through a black and white, all-or-nothing lense; there is plenty of room for grey. Essentially, I am able to view the structure from different angles without affecting the foundation. I consider that journey a great blessing in my life.

Though there was a time when I would have regarded the 'Book of Mormon, Sacred Myth' idea as dangerous as well, I no longer do. I recognize that some consider my views/opinions/questions "weak in the faith", confrontational, possibly dangerous and are not very welcome in the LDS community, which is why I dont discuss them. Quite honestly, it is relieving to have an outlet for honest and respectful expression. So thank you for listening and for sharing your thoughts. And particular appreciation to Jeff Lindsey for hosting the site.