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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thumbs Up to Mormon's Codex (But Buy the Physical Book, Not Deseret's Flawed Ebook)

I'm nearing the end of John Sorenson's monumental tome, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book, and highly recommend it. There is a lifetime of serious research from a good scholar in this work. Book of Mormon students will find numerous details from the geography, geology, archaeology, anthropology, and natural science of Mesoamerica enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon and even its message. It's worth the weeks that it may take you to get through this very large book.

 It's not an easy read, especially if you buy the electronic version from Deseret Book and try to read it on an Android device. Abandon hope. Deseret Book is aware of the failed execution of their ebook and is giving refunds to those who are experiencing trouble. Stick with real paper--it's healthier, easier on your eyes, easier to read, and being made from a carbon-dioxide-removing renewable resource, is actually better for the environment than using coal-powered electricity from destroyed mountain tops in West Virginia, but that's another story. The main thing is you can read it and enjoy it far better as a physical book than an ebook. However, it appears that Amazon is now offering a Kindle version. If that's really a Kindle version and not an ebook that must use Deseret Book's unfortunate Deseret Bookshelf software, then that should work. Actually, the Deseret Bookshelf version was fine when I was reading it on my old iPad 1, but after moving to a Samsung Android device, I was pretty much unable to read longer chapters, make notes, or add highlighting. Sad.

I've got a lot to say about the book and some of the gems I've found in it. More on that later.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting Nuclear with Doubt: Lessons from a Sixth-Grade Nerd

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher taught a science section on the nature of the atom. In our classroom we had a physical model with some wooden balls glued together to represent the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus, and some other balls on a metal wire tracks representing electrons and their orbits. I think most of us realized that real atoms weren't made of wood, but beyond that we had no idea just how technically inaccurate and even misleading almost everything about this physical model was. The horrifically wrong relative dimensions, the portrayal of components as solid particles, the nice fixed orbits instead of fuzzy orbitals, and other aspects were already thoroughly "wrong" based on what was known in that day, and things have only gotten more complex since then. Taking the gross oversimplification of the Bohr Model of the atom, we learned about the building blocks of the material world: a neat kit of protons, neutrons, and electrons in their precisely fixed orbits gave us the foundation for everything.

My confidence in this young new teacher was not high (this is the same teacher who gave me a shocking 0%, an F, on a math test involving monetary sums even though all my calculations were correct, for I had not put a needless dollar sign in front of every answer), so I wondered if he was teaching us correctly. I went home that night and dug out an old encyclopedia that we had picked up at a garage sale a few years before. It was thoroughly out of date already, yet it had enough information on the atom to make me realize that what our teacher was passing off as science was just a tiny piece of the picture. I learned that there were more particles and entities to consider than just the three we had learned about. I didn't understand what I read, but I learned about particles (actually classes of particles) called baryons and leptons. I think the article may have mentioned neutrinos and mesons as well. Mercifully, the encyclopedia was too old to mention the existence of quarks, gluons, and the intricacies of quantum chromodynamics, or what happened the next day in class could have been an even bigger headache for everyone.

In a few moments of superficial study, I had learned for myself that the world of physics and the nature of matter were much more complicated that what our teacher had said. Well! I rubbed my hangs together with glee as I pondered an embarrassing question or two I would ask the next day as he wrapped up the science unit and asked, "Are there any questions?"

At that age, I struggled with the dual affliction of being both a nerd and a smart aleck. Students, if you are suffering from this as well, please get therapy before it's too late. As I would gradually learn, this combination usually does not win much respect from teachers or from the cute girls I sometimes tried to impress. There are better ways, so I've heard.

The next day the magic moment came: "Are there any questions?" Hah, he has played right into my trap! My hand sprung up. "Yes, uh, I'm wondering if you could tell us about some of the other subatomic particles that are important parts of matter. You know, particles like baryons and leptons."

"Uh, what?"

"Yes," I said knowingly, perhaps even a bit triumphantly, "it turns out that there are quite a few other particles besides just electrons, protons, and neutrons, so maybe we should learn about those, too."

"Well, Jeff, maybe you'd like to tell us a few things about them." Hmm, he didn't crumble as quickly as I hoped. 

"Sure. Baryons are heavy subatomic particles, and leptons are light subatomic particles, and their are neutrinos and muons and many other things. So I just think we should include these, too."

"Uh, right. Let me look into that and get back to you later. But today, it's time to move on to our next subject…."

Smelled like a cover-up. Totally evasive. I had exposed the weak underbelly of 6th-grade science education.

My silly and rather ignorant question may have been perceived as hostile and annoying, and that would be accurate. However, deep down there was a sincere desire to understand, not just to criticize and show off. I wanted to know more and not have my questions blown off. He never got back to me on my questions--I would have respected him much more if he had even tried.

I was put off by the grossly oversimplified model that was being presented, but in my ignorance failed to appreciate why it was useful for both teaching and even actual scientific calculations. It was far from complete, but useful. Teaching it was not the result of dishonesty or a cover-up, though I feel it would have been much better had the teacher added a disclaimer like this:
In reality, for those of you who care, the atom is much more complex than our little model shows and things like electrons and protons aren't really nice round particles at all, though they sometimes act like particles, and other times don't. The details are way beyond what we can cover in this class, but if you want to know more, I can suggest some books to read. 
I loved science and would go on to study it more over the years. Later I would learn about quantum chemistry and the bewildering more advanced models we have for the nature of electrons and other components of matter. I would take a graduate-level class on quantum chemistry that still makes my head spin when I think about it, though I somehow managed to get a decent grade. In later readings I would learn of string theory, multiple dimensions, dark energy and dark matter, and a host of other bewilderments that make me feel that today I know much less about the nature of matter and the universe than I did in sixth grade.

The universe is a complex place, and so is the Gospel and Church history. History can be profoundly complicated as we struggle with conflicting accounts and inadequate documentation, not to mention our lack of psychic skills understanding the real motives for apparent actions. As for matters of doctrine and the things of God, we have models to describe concepts like the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, the nature of sin, godliness, spirits, the spirit world, and Eternal Life, but we know so very little and can easily import numerous incorrect assumptions into our models and into what we teach and into the questions we formulate as we struggle to understand. Once we detect that some things are more complex than we realized, we may mistakenly interpret the gaps as the fruits of deception, when they may be the result of sloppiness, mistaken assumptions, or a good faith effort to simplify in order to teach basic principles. Or other times just painful mortal blunders.

In reflecting upon my sixth-grade experience, I see an analogy to the Gospel and the issue of dealing with doubts and tough questions about our faith. My antagonistic stance before the teacher sometimes resembles those who throw out seemingly hostile questions, the kind we sometimes view as "anti-Mormon." Yes, there may be hostile intent with a loaded question or criticism that might embarrass or weaken faith. At the same time, many who ask these questions still have, to some degree, especially initially, a sincere desire to know and not just belittle. Some are learning and are simply troubled when they find out that Church history or other elements related to our faith are much more complicated than the simple models they learned in Sunday School or seminary. When these questions come, we would be wise to take them seriously and not belittle or ignore the person who might actually be asking with a touch of sincerity, or even deep and obvious sincerity. We may not have the answers, but we can help. We can help that person know that we care, that there may be answers, and there may be people who have those answers, and try to actually get back to them with something more useful than just saying "pray about it" (though that is, of course, an essential component in dealing with doubts and in building our testimonies and our relationship with God).

There are legitimate questions and legitimate doubts that we may face. How can it be any other way given how little we know and how much there is yet to be learned and revealed? How can we not face troubling questions as we expend out knowledge to break past oversimplified models and touch upon the bewilderments of a "quantum faith" with its spiritual quarks and all their strangeness, charm, and unseeable color? For some of these questions, we can only wait and hope for more to be revealed or learned. But for many questions, there are great answers and people who can help us face them. We must let those who doubt know that we care and will get back to them. We can help them turn to resources like those at The Mormon Interpreter, the Maxwell Institute, FAIRMormon, LDS.org, and other resources, along with the writings of many authors who tackle tough issues related to our faith, sometimes even with brilliance.

People with tough questions may discover, as I have discovered, that many of the weaknesses in our faith have, with time, become strengths. For example, many once challenging attacks on the Book of Mormon have not just been blunted by further research and discovery, but have become pillars of strength for the case of Book of Mormon plausibility.

I could mention things like the many recent discoveries related to the journey of Nephi's group through the Arabian Peninsula, including archaeological finds from Lehi's day supporting the case for a rare place name mentioned by Nephi being exactly where and when it was supposed to be. I could mention the many discoveries pointing to the plausibility of ancient writing on metal plates, or the use of cement in the ancient Americas, or intriguing little details like the once laughable use of Alma as a man's name in the Book of Mormon--when everyone knows it's a modern woman's name--now confirmed as an ancient Jewish male name from records unearthed long after Joseph Smith's day. The Book of Mormon today is truer than ever, with a growing array of evidences to help overcome objections and give room for faith and the Spirit. In many areas where the Book of Mormon once had big question marks, we now have answers, and sometimes very impressive answers, turning weakness into strength. The Book of Mormon doesn't just withstand study and scrutiny, it invites it, it urges us to study, ponder, and dig into to the text. Take it seriously. Don't blow it off as an annoyance now worthy of a response.

When we are willing to apply both faith and patience, the quest for more knowledge and the challenge of dealing with doubts can lead to journeys that uncover many treasures that steadily strengthen our testimony. That testimony isn't just fuzzy emotions. It involves the mind and serious intellectual processes. One of the things I love about the Gospel is that we are invited to think, to ponder, to study, and to reason, and even to apply a form of the scientific method in gaining knowledge about the details of the Gospel. That is the point of Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, a chapter addressed to those with a high level of doubt because they were just on the verge of believing. Alma challenged them to experiment with the word and to put principles of the Gospel to the test, scientifically, and observe the fruits of the experiment as people apply and live those principles. He speaks of true principles causing not just spiritual feelings, but intellectual enlightenment as the mind expands. In the Doctrine & Covenants, we are also reminded that revelation involves both hearth and mind (D&C 8:2,3). Our minds should expand and grow in knowledge as we pursue the things go the Spirit.

While I have more questions than ever about the nature of the universe and about the nature of God and the Gospel, there are some core things that we can grasp and know to be real. Just as we can know that there is a nucleus inside the atom with real properties, whatever it may be and however it is held together, we can also identify and know some core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am confused by the complexity of matter and space, I can marvel and rejoice at the intricacy of the design of the cosmos and its very fabric that gives us such remarkable physical properties to enable the majesty of stars and galaxies, of planets and our ecosystem, and the glory of things like the carbon atom that enables the machinery of life. The more I learn about matter and physics, the more I marvel that a solution was even possible to enable this wondrous existence of ours and the glory of the heavens. The more I learn about the Gospel, in spite of all my questions, the more I can appreciate the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and their love for us. And the more I can appreciate the power of the Book of Mormon, even with its puzzles and warts, as a witness of Jesus Christ and an authentic ancient document that can bring us closer to God--if we'll let it, if we'll press forward with patience and faith, and if we'll never stop learning and seeking to understand more. May we press forward with patience, and add to our own patience a little patience for those who annoy us with their seemingly ignorant questions, who triumphantly toss out information that might be meant to embarrass, yet who may have a willingness to grow and learn if only we can get back to them with helpful answers to what may have at least started as a sincere question. Some critics are just out to attack no matter what, but some doubters really need the benefit of a doubt in order to move on toward more intelligent faith.




Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relaxing to the End?

One of my pet peeves in China is the lack of rush in rush hour. The biggest problem is the widespread use of electronic gadgets. People are texting, watching movies, of playing games on their devices as they move through the subway or stand on the escalators instead of doing anything close to the healthy rush that I would impose on the world if I reigned. The left side of escalators are supposed to be for movers: "stand right, walk left" is the rule, but gadget gawkers often block the moving lane for everybody below as they stare cluelessly their toy/ultimate productivity device. at least for us long-legged foreigners who like to walk fast through the streets and prefer to keep climbing on escalators.

Even when people are climbing up the escalator, I've noticed something strange: there is an almost universal tendency for people to stop moving as they near the top. It's like once the next level is in sight, their legs stop and they relax for the last part of their journey. Why stop then? It should be the easiest part of the climb, the one with the most gain per calorie expended, but they just stop moving. During crowded times, this causes a chain reaction, because the person behind them now has to stop even earlier than they normally would, and so on down the chain, and sometimes a long escalator out of a subway loaded with would-be climbers on the left stops moving completely because one person stopped climbing shortly before the end. The world would be a more productive place if we'd all just follow one simple principle: "Everybody get out of my way." Wait, no, I meant this: "Keep moving. Endure to the end." There, that sounds better.

Why do people relax before they reach their goal? Endure to the end, keep running the race, keep moving forward: these are basic concepts from the Gospel and sound principles for life in general. Sadly, I see some people who have lived faithfully for years feel like they can take a detour from the Gospel later in life and who abandon the path of service, charity, and building the Kingdom of God, instead choosing to relax or perhaps just stare at some productivity enhancing device. Don't lose your grip with the peak just around the corner. Don't lie down on the track and nap just yards from the finish line. Stay awake while driving. Floss daily. It all sounds so easy, but we too often slow down, let go, slip, sleep, whatever, before it's time to relax. Press on!

There's a saying from Confucius on this point: "Though in making a mound I should stop when one basketful of earth would complete it, the fact remains that I have stopped. On the other hand, if in leveling land I advance my work by one basketful at a time, the fact remains that I am advancing." May we all keep advancing, and go easy on the gadgets.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Gospel Topics Area at LDS.org Now Includes a Statement on Becoming Like God

One of the most controversial aspects of LDS belief is the concept of becoming more like God, or thesis as some early Christians called it. The Church addresses this topic in a statement, "Becoming Like God," one of several recent statements on heavy issues in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. It's also a topic I address on my LDSFAQ page, "The Divine Potential of Human Beings - or Do Mormons Believe They Can Become Gods?"

Other recent topics include:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Misquoting the Book of Mormon is Bad Enough; Don't Misquote Science As Well

The use of DNA evidence to attack the Book of Mormon often involves multiple errors, such as people getting the Book of Mormon wrong (e.g., assuming it explains the origins of all Native Americans) and making serious errors regarding what science actually says as well. Dr. Ugo Perego deals with a frustrating example of some people in an LDS publication seriously misquoting the science to conclude that "There is no longer anywhere for a successful population of Middle-easterners to hide in the Native American family tree." In his response, "Misquoting Science,"Dr. Perego brings clarity to this issue. His response, coupled with the Church's 2014 statement on DNA and Book of Mormon issues, should help members of the Church and everyone interested in the Book of Mormon to better understand what that sacred text actually says and what the science really shows. It does not rule out the Book of Mormon by any means.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

When Goats Fly

One of the Young Single Adults in Shanghai recently talked about her experiences in doing family history research. In learning about her ancestors, she had learned stories about their lives that made her enjoy and appreciate her heritage much more. One of the stories she had learned involved a flying goat. Here's what I recall from her story, based on my notes.

Her great grandfather, W.C. Bowman, was a miller working in a saw mill in the United States next to a river. The mill was fairly open, making it easy for the goats in the neighborhood to wander in, seeking a handout of food. The goats would occasionally make it up to the third floor of the mill where her grandfather worked. Company policy dictated how to handle the goats when they got up to the third floor, where I guess they would have been a problem. Instead of leading a goat all the way down the stairs to get them back outside, the mill workers would take the goats to the window and, uh, gently toss them into the river below. They apparently survived this process. Today, of course, we have different ways of dealing with such problems. At least the more advanced mills do.

One day a few women were on the shore of the river near the mill having a picnic. One of the women looked up and to her horror saw a man at a window of the mill take a poor little goat and toss the creature into the river. The inhumane brute! She marched over to the mill, went up to the third floor, found the guilty man, and gave him a piece of her mind. As she was chastising the man for his inhumane treatment of animals, the man listened patiently. Before he had a chance to explain that he was just following company policy and give any other explanations for what they were doing, he couldn't help but notice what a charming and beautiful woman she was. He then said a few things that calmed her down, chatted a little more and asked if they could get together for lunch or something, and not long after that Emma became Emma Bowman, the great grandmother of one of our great Young Single Adults in Shanghai.

Stories from our ancestors help us know and love them better, and help us understand who we are. Sometimes our stories involve the most unlikely of events such as flying goats that lead to romance and marriage. How wonderful when they are recorded and shared. The incredibly rich resource, FamilySearch.org, now allows you to post and share your family history stories and photos for other relatives to access, ensuring that these precious items will be archived and preserved over time. Don't wait until pigs or goats fly before heading over there and uploading your stories, photos, and more.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Standard of Liberty in the Book of Mormon: Just Another Anachronism and Evidence of Plagiarism?

The list of works that Joseph Smith allegedly plagiarized or drew upon to produce the Book of Mormon continues to grow. In addition to the old standards such as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, Shakespeare, Solomon Spalding's writings, the sermons and essays of various preachers, and James Adair's A History of the American Indians, many more works have been identified by critics in recent years such as an obscure book on the War of 1812 (The Late War Against the United States) and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Golden Pot (for some details, see my LDSFAQ page on plagiarism). Most recently someone asked me if there could possibly be any rebuttal to an attack from Thomas Donofrio, whose zealous search for parallels has yielded another group of works that Joseph must have drawn upon, with Mercy Otis Warren's 1805 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution being at the top of the list. Is this the smoking gun for Book of Mormon plagiarism? While there may be no evidence that Joseph ever saw this book and, like many favorite candidates for Book of Mormon plagiarism, it does not appear to have been among the books in the Manchester Library where Joseph theoretically could have borrowed books during his translation of the Book of Mormon, it was still possible for Joseph to have encountered it. So does Warren's work succeed in explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon?

One Latter-day Saint thinker quite familiar with the details of parallels between texts explains that Donofrio actually greatly underestimates the number of parallels between the Book of Mormon and Mercy Otis Warren's lengthy work. In fact, there are thousands of parallels, many more than Donofrio's short list provides. See Ben McGuire's "Parallelomania: Criticism of the Textual Parallels Theories" (2007), where we see that there are over 7,000 three-word parallels between Warren's book and the Book of Mormon. Plus there are nearly 2,000 four-word parallels! Amazing! Or so it seems at first glance, until you do some actual analysis and explore the statistics with other texts as well, and then see that this is nothing unusual at all.

Common words and short phrases that are the building blocks of language will be used and repeated by speaker, writers, and translators, inevitably leading to numerous random parallels between texts in the same language, especially when writing about related topics such as war. Finding strings of words scattered in the text and claiming this as proof of pilfering is an exercise one can do with almost any two works, most easily with lengthy works like Warren's three-volume book. For an example of erroneous "proof" of Book of Mormon plagiarism, see my satirical but I think instructive analysis of Walt Whitmans' Leaves of Grass, which I suggest offers far stronger and more numerous parallels than anything Donofrio has conjured up with his sifting of texts. Until you can come up with better parallels than those random parallels, finding a few frequently used English locutions shared by Warren and the Book of Mormon is not particularly meaningful.

First note that McGuire's initial link to Thomas Donofrio's initial article on Book of Mormon parallels is broken, but you can see the archived form of the original article he refers to using these links: "Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Parts 1 & II" and "Early American Influenceson the Book of Mormon, Part III."

Ben McGuire understands "intertexuality" (the manifold connections between a text being studied and other texts) and is skillful in applying computer tools to analyze documents. For valuable background, see his recent and quite relevant works at the Mormon Interpreter: "The Late War Against the Book of Mormon" (2013) and, for a good foundation in the problems of parallels, see especially his "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part One" and "Finding Parallels: Some Cautions and Criticisms, Part Two"(both 2013).

More recently, Donofrio has authored "Book of Mormon Tories" (the link takes you to a hostile "post-Mormon" website) which attempts to partially explain the Book of Mormon as a derivative of Warren's book. (Wish it had been entitled, "No Man Knows His Tories." Missed opportunity--oh well.) Reading that article and the dramatic response from some of the guffawing critics made me shake my head. These people are impressed with parallels such as "safety and welfare," "[his or our] little army," "power and gain," "flock to their standard" and "the cause of liberty"? As if people haven't been writing for millennia about safety, welfare, war, the use of standards and ensigns to gather and organize troops, and the too-frequent need to defend oneself from captivity?

The lead example Donofrio gives particularly left me wondering. Joseph Smith apparently had to draw upon this little gem from page 623 of Warren's massive book:
"...they were responsible for all the additional blood that had been spilt by the addition of their weight in the scale of the enemy…"
in order to somehow regurgitate a fragment of Alma 60:16:
"...were it not for these king-men, who caused so much blood shed among ourselves..."
Plagiarism Joseph Smith-style just looks like an awful lot of work, whereas simply blaming someone for a tragedy is the kind of thing anyone can do without having to dig through volumes of other books to get one fragment of a verse at a time. In fact, it's something that has been done for millennia. Warren's fragment on page 623 gives nothing close to a plausible explanation for anything in Alma 60.

I find it puzzling, even bizarre, that a muddled parallel for part of Alma 60:16 would be the lead example when, with a bit of perseverance, Donofrio surely could have come up with much more interesting and even unsettling parallels similar to those that I have shown from a truly impossible Book of Mormon source, Walt Whitman. The many parallels I found illustrate the kind of things that happen due to luck and a touch of creativity from a persistent critic. Thomas, really, you could have made your Tories piece much more interesting. I suggest you contact Ben McGuire for assistance in using electronic tools to create heftier and more impressive but equally meaningless list of parallels.

Some people might find Donofrio's parallel "the standard of liberty" to be especially meaningful, since that is a fairly well-known Book of Mormon term that we sometimes feel is "owned" by the Book of Mormon. Finding it in Warren's book should be unsettling, no? No. You can find it in numerous sources in Joseph Smith's day. In the English language, the phrase "standard of liberty" shows widespread use for many settings other than the Revolutionary War. See for yourself searching Google Books with a time range of, say, 1400 to 1830. The "standard" of the Book of Mormon is also hardly a modern concept. It is usually used in its military sense in the KJV also (see search results for "standard" from BibleGateway.com). Standards are used in war to rally, gather, and organize. Having people gather to a standard or to an ensign is hardly a modern innovation, and rallying to protect one's liberty from invaders or rebels is also not a modern notion. Liberty is also something one finds in the Bible and numerous other sources, not just the Revolutionary War.

You can see how the term "standard of liberty" grew and waned in popularity over time using Google's Ngram viewer. It was definitely used more commonly in Joseph's era than ours. Look at an example from Joseph's era describing Greeks in a recent war, or another describing events during the Roman empire. Or consider an example describing much later events in Italy in the 14th century.

There are many examples of this phrase being used in diverse settings because it's a part of the English language and a useful term to describe a widespread phenomenon, that of stirring people up to defend themselves from captivity. Though the words in the translation are modern, the usage is not. Donofrio and his Tories tell us nothing about the origins of the Book of Mormon, no more than random parallels in Whitmans' writings do.