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

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Book of Mormon Verse That Brought Me Back to My Parents, Just in Time

I had a busy travel schedule in front of me a few days ago, starting with a flight from Shanghai on Friday through LA to Boise to attend a wedding there, then travel to two other parts of the US and then further travel in Europe, partly for work. Given the constraints we had on when we could leave and when we needed to be in various places, we didn't think there was any way to stop in Utah to see my parents. But last Monday I learned that my father was having increased health challenges, and when I awoke Tuesday morning, I wondered if I should try to find a way to add a few hours in Utah on my way to Boise (I had just spent time there two months ago). I prayed about it and felt that I should take a look at the Book of Mormon for possible guidance. I picked up my English/Chinese printing (a volume with three columns, one in English, one in Chinese characters, and one in Pinyin, the Romanization system for writing the pronunciation of the Chinese characters with the Latin alphabet) and flipped open to a random verse and read the Chinese of 1 Nephi 5:7, which in English reads:
And when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full, and my mother was comforted. 
In light of what has happened these past two days, I can't think of a more perfectly relevant verse in all of scripture to help me do what I needed to do. Finding that verse seemed a bit eerie, or rather, almost too direct, and made me feel that I needed to explore the possibility of making a change in my travel plans.

I quickly gave Delta Airlines a call. I normally would have given up when I heard that wait times to reach an operator were around 40 minutes. But I persisted.  Since the first few days of my travel to the US had been done using frequent flyer miles, there were a variety of restrictions on what I could do and what kind of changes I could make. I learned that changes had to be made more than 72 hours in advance of the first flight, and I was several hours too late. Mercifully, since that change was motivated by the desire to see an ill family member, a supervisor waived that restriction. There would be two other barriers to making the changes I wanted that required further approvals by a supervisor, but in the end, I was able to add a day in Utah and it only cost my an extra $5 in taxes.

I arrived Friday night, stayed overnight with a relative, and then walked into my parents' home at 9 AM on Saturday. I had previously told them I would show up Saturday, but they apparently were not clear on when. Moments before I showed up, a medical emergency had begun. My parents had just begun discussing whether to call 911 or to find someone else to take my father to the hospital. Their children in the area were either out of town traveling or had a funeral to attend that day and were unavailable.  Right as they were fretting over how to get to the hospital, I walked in. They saw this as a real blessing. I was able to get my father to the hospital and later bring my mother there several times.

Things looked pretty serious, with surgery as a possibility, so felt I needed more than a few hours in town. Delta again was extremely gracious in rerouting me. Wait times for this second call were said to be between 24 and 43 minutes, but proved to be 62 minutes--aargh! But I persisted, and once I reached one of the far too few humans manning the phones in customer service, they were extremely helpful again and helped me change my flights at no extra cost (customer service is awesome there, but I suspect that the beancounters don't value that service enough to hire the number of people needed to take the calls they get). I chose to skip the wedding completely while my wife was there to support her niece, and would just go directly from Salt Lake to our next family reunion stop in the Midwest. Meanwhile, I was able to help my parents in a variety of ways and felt that my time here was extremely worthwhile. My father repeatedly told me and others how happy it made him that I was able to show up as if on cue and be there to help and comfort both of them.

Today the health problem was largely under control and we were elated to learn that no high-risk surgery would be needed. My father will return home tomorrow, and I'll have a little more time to work on some other issues to help them here. Given that we didn't even think we would be able to stop in Salt Lake at all, to me it was a great blessing to be able to be here for a few days right when additional help was greatly needed. How kind of the Lord to help me stumble across a perfectly worded verse that would not only motivate me to make changes but would prove to be remarkably applicable to what would happen here.

The scriptures are not meant to be used as Ouija boards to make decisions, but on the other hand, when we prayerfully look for guidance, verses can take on new meaning as seek to apply them to ourselves, and sometimes the applicability can be very direct and helpful. Seeking for guidance from the Lord through scripture study is a wonderful companion to prayer and has blessed my life in many ways. In this case, a simple verse helped clarify what I needed to do and eventually helped my be in the right place at exactly the right time to bring comfort to my mother and my father.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Secret Combination That Saved China

One of the important parts of the Book of Mormon that many Mormons try hard to overlook or downplay is the content regarding secret combinations and their destructive role in several ancient American societies (Nephite, Lamanites, and Jaredites). I think there are some vital lessons and prophecies that need to be applied and mined for guidance in our day. I also think that viewing such content as Joseph's response to Masonry comes nowhere close to accounting for the highly nuanced and accurate treatment in the text. I also feel that examination of the various forms and business models of secret combinations in the world over time can provide evidence for the wisdom, prophetic accuracy, and ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

The term "secret combinations" is always negative in the Book of Mormon. That term is possibly a derivative from older brass plates material related to the Book of Moses, where the term "secret combinations' is presented (Moses 5:51). But while Book of Mormon secret combinations are murderous groups pursuing "works of darkness," a broader definition of secret combinations can include some secretive efforts that are noble and enlightened. In fact, China's current success and well-being is partly due to a brilliant secret combination. I'm not talking about the one founded the Party in China, beginning with a secret pact here in Shanghai not far from where I live. Rather, I'm talking about the later secret effort where a group of brave men put their lives on the line to fight starvation, and won. That story took place close to Nanjing, home of the impressive Nanjing Branch in the Shanghai International District of the Church, a branch I have visited often. Next time I go, I'm planning to visit the site in neighboring Anhui Province of the founding of the secret combination that saved China, a little known treasure that I can't wait to see, based on what I recently read about it rise and viral success.

One of my favorite books on life in China is Michael Meyer's In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015). He shares his experiences living for a while in a tiny village actually called "Wasteland" in the challenging northwestern section of China. In the midst of his book, he recounts the vital story of how China overcame its problem with starvation and bloomed to becoming the booming success that it is these days, in spite of a slowing economy.

He introduces some of the challenges China faced in the 1950s, when the visions of socialism met the reality of poverty and hunger:
"Nineteen fifty-six," I said reflexively, quoting the village Stone. By 1958 all of China's co-ops had become "people's communes." The policy triggered the Great Famine, killing at least 20 million people; some estimates go as high as 45 million. Officially, the deaths were blamed on natural disasters and the period was labeled the Three Years of Bitterness.

"All our personal food was confiscated during the collective times," Auntie Yi said. "We used to grind soybeans mixed with barley in secret at home. Everything was supposed to be for the commune. We didn't even have money. We were paid in work points. At the end of each workday, you had your score assessed and entered into a little handbook for each family. It was casually decided, actually. It wasn't a true commune: whoever had the power to decide the score earned the most points, or rewarded his family and friends. You knew the standard. If you did hard labor, people would murmur, 'Give him six points.' If it was really hard work, you could earn up to ten, even twelve. But the 'rich peasants' could only earn up to eight, and every night they would be reminded it was because they had exploited people in the past. That was our family, you know: my grandfather hired people after he migrated here on foot, starting out hauling grain on his back. And my father ran a granary out here. So I was marked. But really, I was lucky. The people who collaborated with the Japanese in Manchukuo got it the worst." (p. 214)
 Then comes the story from a secret combination formed in Anhui Province in the obscure village of Xiaogang:
When Chairman Mao died in 1976, so did his dream of collective agriculture. By decade's end, farmers were allowed a small, personal plot to supplement crops raised by the village team. The work points system was abolished. "But at every turn, people were unhappy!" Auntie Yi said. "It's in people's nature to complain. But very few people complained when da baogan was introduced.

The term meant "the complete allocation of responsibilities," and the policy meant that individuals, like the hungry Pilgrims, no longer had to farm as a team. The change was born not in a ministerial meeting but in a farmer's home in the central China province of Anhui, where The Good Earth had been set. A corn-growing village named Xiaogang was starving, suffering under the nation's quota demands. Its residents dug up roots, boiled poplar leaves with salt, and ground roasted tree bark into flour. Entire families left their thatched-roof, mud-walled homes and took to the road to beg.

A farmer named Yan Hongchang, whose studies had ended at middle school, was the deputy leader of the village work team, overseeing production. But there was no production that autumn of 1978. During the Great Famine, a quarter of the county's residents had died. "We knew what it was like to starve, and we would rather die any other way," Mr. Yan later recalled.

On the night of November 24, Mr. Yan summoned the heads of the village's twenty families to a secret meeting. The village accountant was deputized as a secretary, and on paper torn from a child's school exercise book transcribed a seventy-nine-word pledge to divide the commune's land into family plots, submit the required quota of corn to the state, and keep the rest for themselves. "In the case of failure," the document concluded "we are prepared for death or prison, and other commune members to raise our children until they are eighteen years old." The farmers signed the document and affixed their fingerprints.

Thus began China's rural reform.

Today a large stone monument to the pact greets tourists to the village But in the spring of 1979, a local official who learned of the clandestine agreement fumed that the group had "dug up the cornerstone of socialism„ and threatened severe punishment. Thinking he was bound for a labor camp, Mr. Yan rose before dawn, reminded his wife that their fellow villagers had promised to help raise their children, and walked to the office of the county's party secretary. But the man privately admitted to Mr. Yan that he knew, since the pact had been signed, the village's winter harvest had increased sixfold. The official told Mr. Yan he would protect Xiaogang village and the rebellious farmers so long as their experiment didn't spread.

Villagers gossip; farmers talk about their fields. Soon neighboring hamlets copied Xiaogang's model. News reached the provincial authorities, who were unwilling to punish farms that were, at last, producing food. Thus, they did not brand the abandonment of collective farming as counterrevolutionary but instead endorsed it as "an irresistible wave spontaneously topping the limits once enforced by the state.

In Beijing, three years after Chairman Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping was opening China to foreign trade and liberalizing the economy. Yet originally he ruled against allowing "household farms," afraid that critics would again label him a "capitalist roader," for which he had been purged during the Cultural Revolution. However, the grassroots movement that began in Xiaogang made the decision for him. In a series of policies issued between 1978 and 1984, China formalized the Household Contract Responsibility System (colloquially called chengbao). It allowed families to farm their own allocation of land in exchange for turning a portion of their crops over to the state. What remained was theirs to eat, and to sell at unregulated prices. China's communes, brigades, and production teams were renamed as townships, villages, and hamlets, respectively.

Xiaogang was made into a living patriotic education base where a small museum displays a replica of the farmers' pact, since the original was lost' Exhibits praise the bold wisdom of its ringleader, Yan Hongchang, his cosignatories, and the Party. But not everyone bought the high rhetoric. "My father signed that paper because we were starving," Mr. Yan's son told "There was nothing heroic about it. He had no other choice. It was human instinct, trying not to die. It's strange the leaders want to celebrate survival."

The reforms continued: in 1984, fifteen-year leases were introduced for family farm plots—then extended to thirty years in 1993. The state stopped requiring grain procurement in 2001 and abolished all agricultural taxes in 2006. (pp. 215-217, viewable at Amazon.com)
 I thought about Xiaogang and the daring secret combination tonight as we just completed a move (our 4th in 5 years) to a new apartment in China in a marvelous, lively neighborhood in Gubei, where we walked into a fruit store next to our complex and found some of the best, freshest fruit we've had. What abundance we enjoy in China! How much we owe to the farmers and many others who make this possible. How much we owe to the very brave, starving farmers who helped officials look at China in a new way and opened an era of prosperity.

Xiaogang was in the news recently as the President of China visited it and recognized it as the epicenter of the reforms that have made China so prosperous.

The photo and caption below come from a 2016 story in Qiushi, an official organ of the Chinese government:

HEFEI, April 27, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the family of Yan Jinchang (3rd R), who was a leader on implementing the "household contract responsibility system", at Xiaogang Village of Fengyang County in Chuzhou, east China's Anhui Province, April 25, 2016. Xi made an inspection tour in Anhui from April 24 to 27. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

My thanks and love to the brave families of Xiaogang who showed the world that simple incentives to produce can result in a boom in production. Amazing stuff!

Also amazing is the experience of food in China. One thing China has taught me is to value and cherish food. Food matters so much here, as it should. Food here is about more than just not being hungry. It is about relationships, joy, love, and the quality of life. Food is something to never take for granted. We need it, and it can vanish so quickly due to drought, disease, overabundance of government, whatever. Having food storage is vital to be ready for the disasters that surely will come. May your food chain remain intact without the need to risk your life with secret combinations in your own country! May we be grateful to those who have done so much to make our current abundance possible.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"Under This Head Ye Are Made Free"

One of many recent discoveries regarding ancient wordplays in the Book of Mormon is presented by Matthew L. Bowen in "The Scalp of Your Head: Polysemy in Alma 44:14–18," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 20 (2016): 39-45. He treats a couple examples where Semitic wordplays involving concepts like "head" and "chief" appear to have been used for additional effect in the Book of Mormon.

According to Bowen:
Alma 44:12–14 recounts a prophetic threat uttered by “one of Moroni’s soldiers” to the defeated Lamanite leader Zerahemnah and his soldiers after Moroni’s soldier had taken off a part of Zerahemnah’s scalp with his sword. His soldier’s prophecy and its reported fulfilment verses later in Alma 44:18 turn on the words “chief” and “head.” Both “head” in the anatomical sense and “head”/“chief” in a sociological leadership [Page 40]sense are represented by a single word in Hebrew (ʾš)1 and Egyptian (tp),2 both languages that the Nephites themselves said they used.3
In this brief note, I propose that the intensity of the fear aroused in the Lamanite soldiers and the intensity of Zerahemnah’s redoubled anger are best explained by the polysemy (i.e., the range of meaning) of a single word translated “chief” in Alma 44:14 and “heads” in Alma 44:18. Mormon’s use of the latter term in Alma 44:18 completes the fulfilment of the soldier’s prophecy, a polysemic wordplay initiated with his use of a term translated “chief” in Alma 44:14.
In response, I offered this comment to Matthew:
The “head” under which we are made free in Mosiah 5:8 always seemed like an odd phrase to me. Understanding its apparent Semitic roots is now quite helpful.

Mosiah 5:
7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.

8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.
Bowen then responded:
I agree that it is helpful to see Mosiah 5:7-8 in terms of Helaman 13:38, as well as the polysemy of Alma 44:14-18. And I wonder if there might be even more to this.
 Helaman 13:38, mentioned by Bowen, gives a title of Jesus as "our great and eternal head.”

I thought of Bowen's closing words, "I wonder if there might be even more to this," this morning as I was reading Brant Gardner's excellent book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), pp. 270-271, where Gardner discusses the Mesoamerican tradition of kings representing deity in ritual settings that often involve wearing a mask of the head of a god:
The living Mesoamerican king became, in ritual circumstances, the living and present deity. There were rituals where the king not only put on the mask of deity but, for ritual time and in ritual space, became that deity—commonly called god impersonation or “deity concurrence.” In deity concurrence, a ritual specialist, typically the ruler, puts on an engraved mask or elaborate headdress and transforms himself into the god whose mask or headdress is being worn. There is a glyphic formula that essentially says, “His holy image (u-b’aah-il), [that of] God X, [is upon] Ruler Y.” The Maya used the head metaphorically as a mark of individuality, and it stood as a representation of the whole body. In their minds, they were not playacting—they would actually become that god, acting as he would act and performing the godly duties pertaining to that particular deity. As Houston, Stuart, and Taube state, “There is no evident ‘fiction,’ but there is, apparently, a belief in godly immanence and transubstantiation, of specific people who become, in special moments, figures from sacred legend and the Maya pantheon.” There are many situations where deity concurrence takes place and a wide variety of deities are impersonated, such as wind gods, gods of incense burning, gods of ball playing, even major gods such as the sun god or the supreme creator deity, Itzamnaaj.50 This practice goes back to the Formative period (1500 B.C.–A.D. 200), as cave paintings in Oxtotitlan dating to the eighth century B.C. attest.51 Against that context, Alma’s question “Have you received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14) and its rhetorical companion, “Can you look up, having the image of God [Jehovah] engraven upon your countenances?” (v. 19), become highly nuanced. Alma may have been referencing a concept that he expected his listeners to understand and attempted to shift that understanding into a more appropriate gospel context. The masks and headdresses that deity impersonators wore were literally graven; numerous ancient Maya ceramics depict artists in the act of carving them. [footnotes omitted]
Coming back to King Benjamin's speech, note the double use of head: "And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free." Christ is the head that frees us, and there were apparently competing "heads" that Mosiah warns against, for none of those other heads have power to save.

While the Hebrew and Egyptian use of the word "head" seems similar to the range of meanings we give it in English, in my vernacular at least, "head" feels like it should be followed by "of," as in "head of the Church," "head of our faith," etc. To speak of Christ simply as "our head" or "the head" feels odd to me. I'd rather say "our leader" or use some other noun. But if King Benjamin is speaking from the perspective of a culture in Mesoamerica, familiar with kings who represent and act as gods by placing the mask of a god's head upon their head, then this phrase seems more meaningful and natural. 

There are numerous examples in Gardner's work where considering  Mesoamerican culture adds insights and depth to the Book of Mormon text. It seems like there is always more than meets the eye in the Book of Mormon.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Two Green Apples

I like faith-promoting stories that are more than just rumors but come from sources I know and trust. Recently in talking with the mother of a missionary currently serving in Russia, I learned of the experience of one of his investigators with the principle of tithing. With the kind permission of the family, below is the story, straight from the missionary's letter home. Out of respect for Russia's laws on privacy, he has withheld the name of woman, and I am likewise not sharing the name of the missionary or his specific mission.
Friday, we met with one of our investigators.... The last lesson we taught (tithing) was not the best. She was crying the whole time and our member present was less than helpful. We planned just to watch the restoration video and have a lighter lesson. She walked in and declared that she wanted to pay tithing right then. When we explained it was only required after baptism, she didn't really care and demanded to pay. When we asked what caused her to accept the law of tithing, she told us an awesome story. She said after the previous lesson, she walked home crying and praying for faith to accept tithing. She walked into the store and looked at her favorite green apples, saw the price, and walked distraught out of the store. She couldn't afford them, even not paying tithing. "How will I be able to live if I pay tithing?" she asked God. Then, on the way home, she looked down into a nearby snow bank to see two shining green apples. After asking around, finding that nobody had lost them, she took them home as a testimony to her that if she pays tithing, God will provide. What a miracle! We then watched the restoration video and she asked to be baptized finally.
Two green apples in the snow. What a kind and simple gift to let someone know that He understands and loves her. And what a beautiful image to remind us that we can live the law of tithing without fear.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

The Straight and Narrow Path, the Rod, the Spacious Field, and the White Fruit: Further Thoughts on Lehi's Dream

Not to beat a dead Nephite horse, but I'd like to say a few more things about Lehi's dream and the lessons learned through exploring hypermodern theories of modern fabrication for Nephi's record. Some of these issues touch upon questions raised by commenters in my recent posts on Lehi's vision where I feel further information is needed. Other topics are areas for further exploration.

1. The Straight and Narrow Path: Evidence of Plagiarism or of Translation?
Some critics see evidence of plagiarism or modern origins in Nephi's language about the "straight and narrow path." First, I must say that I agree with John Welch's very thoughtful and intelligent discussion of the confusion around "strait and narrow" versus "straight and narrow" in John S. Welch, "Straight (Not Strait) and Narrow," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/1 (2007): 18–25, 83–84 (link is to text only, but the article is also available as an attractive PDF). He argues convincingly that the word should be "straight" as it was printed in all editions of the Book of Mormon until 1981.

Whether "strait" or "straight," the direct combination with "narrow" does not occur in the Bible, but does occur in Pilgrim's Progress, a widely known Christian tome published by Paul Bunyan in 1678. In a dream, Goodwill tells the protagonist, Christian, that there are many ways that go down, "and they are crooked and wide; but thus thou mayest distinguish the right from the wrong, the right only being straight and narrow." Did Joseph plagiarize from Paul Bunyan?

The phrase is actually older than Pilgrim's Progress. The use of "straight" near "narrow" is, of course, found in Matthew 7:13-14:
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Welch explains that "Had the Lord said, 'Strait is the gate, and straight and narrow is the way,' it would have been more descriptive but less poetic." But there is really no need to specify the shape of the path in this bit of poetry. Crooked, winding paths are already ruled out in the scriptures His audience would have known (e.g., Deut. 5:32-33; see also Ps. 5:8 which asks the Lord to "make thy way straight before my face" and Isaiah 40:3, "make straight in the desert a highway for our God").

Bunyan was not the first to see that Lord's narrow path was also straight, not just strait take the Lord's words and move "straight" and "narrow" a little closer together. According to Welch:
Cyprian, a church father of the third century, in an apparent paraphrasing of Matthew 7:13–14, wrote, “How broad and spacious is the way which leadeth unto death, and many there are who go in thereby: how straight and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it!” He also wrote, “We must persevere in the straight and narrow road of praise and glory.” (Cyprian Treatise 12.3.6, “Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 534, and Epistles of Cyprian 6.3 (in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:284), both as cited by Welch).
Origen also wrote of the "the straight and narrow way, which leads to life" (Origen, Commentary on John 10.28, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 10, ed. Allan Menzies [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969], 408, as cited by Welch).

Welch attributes the popularity of the phrase to Bunyan's influence. However, a search of Google Books shows it was also in use in modern English, or rather, Early Modern English, before Bunyan's day, when the Early Modern English era was nearing its end.  For example, the opening page of John Dee's 1591 "Dr. Dee's Apology" sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks of the "true, straight, and most narrow path" of Christians. Two examples from 1632, both in a Christian context,  include a work by Richard Hooker et al. and a work by Robert Chetwind, have "straight and narrow." Examples are easier to find using a database of Early Modern English such as Early English Books Online proximity search at the University of Michigan. There, I can see, for example, a poem published by Robert Albott in 1600 with "For straight and narrow was the way that he did showe." In 1608, Thomas Bell wrote, "First, that the way to heauen (that is to say Gods commaundements) is very straight and narrow, not wide and long, or easie." I also see examples of "straight and narrow" in non-religious contexts, indicating that the pairing was more useful than just paraphrasing scripture. There are many dozens of examples to consider, with many obviously referring to the way to salvation.

One noteworthy point is that "straight and narrow" was not only part of English vocabulary in Joseph's day, but was also part of the vernacular of Early Modern English (which still includes Bunyan, though he was near the end of the period). I mention this because an important observation about the language of the Book of Mormon--not a theory that we Mormons need to buttress our faith, but a fact-based observation that we are struggling to understand--is that much (not all) of the language of the Book of Mormon shows strong influence from Early Modern English in ways that are not readily derived from the KJV Bible, almost as if there were tight control to give an English text that was often moved away from the English of Joseph's day or from KJV English into something slightly earlier and strangely different, yet plain and familiar, readily understandable to English speakers (unlike some Early Modern English). With this came grammar that is bad by modern standards by acceptable in EModE, a story we've covered here before. For now, the important thing is that "straight and narrow," though related to the KJV, is not a direct KJV phrase, but was an established phrase before Bunyan came along While its presence in the Book of Mormon may come from Joseph's own vernacular, as we would expect with a translation, it is also consistent with the unexpected observation that there are many times of possible tight or "semi-tight" control giving text laden with an Early Modern English approach.

One skeptic who objected to the idea that "straight and narrow" could not be explained by being part of Joseph's vocabulary if I also think that there was tight control with words given to Joseph Smith. "You can't have it both ways!" But I have it both ways all the time when I translate, as do many others in translation work. I turn to automated tools or Chinese friends who give me words directly, but I may edit those myself or do translation in my own words at other times. Normal translation is a complex process and the Book of Mormon itself shows much complexity in the language used. If any mental effort was required from Joseph, and it appears that it was, then his mind and language was not entirely separated from the text. The fact that he edited parts of the text after it was dictated and copied in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon, often taking out some of the best Hebraisms or Early Modern English characteristics, suggests that his mind was involved to some degree.

Further, using a well-known phrase that has entered into the common vocabulary of a language is not plagiarism. Those who speak of quantitative easing, global warming, a black swan event, a utopian society, etc., are drawing upon recently developed phrases that can legitimately be used in an original work because they are part of our language now, as "straight and narrow" was in Joseph Smith's day, and as it was in the Early Modern English era. Whether the account of Lehi's dream was dictated with tight control using an Early Modern English base text or "setting" of some kind, or whether it was translated more loosely in Joseph's own vernacular, as a translation drawing upon either modern or Early Modern English, "straight and narrow" can be used to describe the path leading to eternal life even if that is not literally how the straightness or strictness of the way was expressed on the gold plates themselves. It's a plausible term to use in a translation and is not a sign of "plagiarism."

2. A Rod or a Railing? Active or Static?
Joseph was presumably familiar with railings and fences. Why not describe the rod as such in the text? "Rod" is not a common way in modern English to describe the function of what we perceive as a common railing in Lehi's dream. But it is a terrific word for an ancient Semitic text. "Rod" conveys the meaning of authority and divine power. In the Old Testament, the word "rod" is introduced in Moses' encounter with God on Sinai, when the Lord asks a significant question: "And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod." The rod of Moses would become a tool for smiting enemies or overcoming the barrier to liberty and bringing the Israeilites to the promised land, just as the rod in Lehi's dream brings us to the tree of life. The rod can be used as a weapon to thwart enemies of God, as does the rod of iron in Psalm 2:9, and the smiting rod in Isaiah 10:24 and 11:4. In the latter verse, the Lord "shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth," showing a connection to the role of the rod as the "word of God." Similar action against the wiles of the adversary is a also function of "the word of God" (in context, implicitly the rod, IMO) in Helaman 3:29.  The rod from the stem of Jesse is a Messianic symbol (Isaiah 11:1). All these uses provide relevant context for the significance of the rod, as it might have been understood in Nephi's world. (It is often said that Psalm 2 came after the exile. For evidence of a possibly more ancient origin, see William H. Brownlee, "Psalms 1 - 2 as a Coronation Liturgy,"  Biblica Vol. 52, No. 3 (1971): 321-336.)

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi first uses the word rod in an interesting scene in 1 Nephi 3:28-29, where the rod is used both as a tool for smiting and implicitly as a symbol of authority:
[28] And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me, and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers, and they did smite us even with a rod.
[29] And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands.
The angel not only spares Nephi's life, but challenges the use of a rod by the wicked brothers. The question isn't merely "Why do ye smite your younger brother?" but why do they smith him with a rod? This is followed by a challenge to their leadership status: "Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you and this because of your iniquities?" The right to wield the rod is Nephi's, not his elder brothers'. Here the rod is a misused symbol of authority as well as a smiting tool.

With that context having been established, I suggest it is improper to neglect what Nephi and other scriptures already have told us about the symbol of the rod when we encounter it again in Lehi's dream. Obviously the rod, however it was portrayed, was much longer than a typical scepter. It extended along a bank and led to the tree of life. But that doesn't make it a modern railing. Those who gained the benefits of the rod "caught hold of the end of the rod of iron" and then pressed forward by "clinging to the rod" (1 Nephi 8:24), and finally reached the tree of life by "continually holding fast to the rod of iron" (1 Nephi 8:30). The interaction with the rod seems to be one of grabbing and not letting go. This could be advancing along the rod, one grip or handhold at a time, but the language leaves open the possibility that the rod might have been extended toward people on the bank to then pull them toward the tree of life if they would but grab the end and hold on, contrary to the image we tend to have of moving along the rod as we do with a conventional railing. Perhaps the rod as "word of God" played a more dynamic role in leading, guiding, and shepherding people (see the quote from Margaret Barker below on this idea), while also being able to "divide asunder" the cunning, the snares, and the wiles of the devil as does the word of God in Helaman 3:29, and to "land their souls" in the kingdom of heaven (Helaman 3:30).  In any case, it's a dream and elements don't have to have normal dimensions and properties.

Nephi continues using the word "rod" in his writings. In 1 Nephi 17:41, he refers to a active use of the rod to "straiten" the Israelites in the wilderness as he juxtaposes the rod of Moses with the story of the brass serpent on a pole:
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.
The rod of Moses, famous for its association with serpents in Exodus 4, is linked here with the brass serpent on a (rodlike?) pole, and the overall effect is to "straiten" the Israelites, or to guide them on a strait (narrow) course that, like the yoke of Christ, is easy but often rejected. Here the rod, the Messiah, and the straight and narrow path are associated. Later uses of "rod" by Nephi are in quoting from the Old Testament, where the smiting action of the rod is mentioned several times (2 Nephi 20: 5, 24, 26; 21:4, 24:29, 30:9).

In 2 Nephi 3:17, the rod as a symbol of power is found in a prophecy of the Lord given to Joseph the ancient Hebrew and recorded on the brass plates, possibly in the Egyptian script or language that Joseph may have used: "I will raise up a Moses; and I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing." In this couplet, the rod and writing are linked, possibly drawing upon the Egyptian language wordplay in which "rod" (mdw) means "words," in line with the apparent word play in Lehi's dream where the iron rod is explicitly identified as "the word of God." See Matthew Bowen, "What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?," Insights 25/2 (2005). In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyph for "word" is the symbol of the walking stick, a rod, as you can see in Wikipedia's entry, "Walking stick (hieroglyph)." I find this potential word play to be highly interesting and not the kind of thing one would think up on the fly after being impressed by an aqueduct in Rochester, or even with leisurely study in 1829. These findings either support ancient origins for Lehi's vision or provide just one more case of Joseph making a lucky guess in his innovations. Let's at least give that lazy plagiarizer a little innovation credit.

Adding further credibility to the argument for ancient roots of the iron rod as portrayed in the Book of Mormon, non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker writes:

Consider as well the mysterious rod of iron in this Book of Mormon vision (1 Nephi 8: 20; 11: 25). In the Bible, the rod of iron is mentioned four times as the rod of the Messiah. Each mention in the King James Version says the Messiah uses the rod to “break” the nations (Psalm 2: 9) or to “rule” them (Revelation 2: 27; 12: 5; 19: 15). The ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) is significantly different; it understood the Hebrew word in Psalm 2: 9 to mean “shepherd” and it reads, “He will shepherd them with a rod of iron.” The two Hebrew verbs for “break” and “shepherd, pasture, tend, lead” look very similar and in some forms are identical. The Greek text of the Book of Revelation actually uses the word “shepherd,” poimanei, of the Messiah and his iron rod, so the English versions here are not accurate. The holy child who was taken up to heaven (Revelation 12: 5) was to “shepherd the nations with a rod of iron.” The King James Version of Micah 7: 14 translates this same word as “Feed thy people with thy rod,” where “guide” would be a better translation. Psalm 78: 72 has, “He fed them ... and guided them,” where the parallelism of Hebrew poetry would expect the two verbs to have a similar meaning: “He led them ... he guided them.” Lehi’s vision has the iron rod guiding people to the great tree—the older and probably the original understanding of the word. (Margaret Barker, "Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion," in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John S. Welch [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press: 2006], Kindle edition, section "White Fruit and a Guiding Rod.")

Let's don't make the mistake of projecting modern views of iron railings into Lehi's dream and then finding that the iron rod is too modern to be from an ancient text. Iron rods, pillars, and bars are attested in the Old Testament and could have been known and recognizable to Lehi and Nephi, with  symbolism and even linguistic aspects relevant to Nephi's usage in an ancient era. Lehi's dream and the rod of iron fits the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon better than a modern railing from Rochester in Joseph's day.

3. New Insights on a Temple Gone Dark: The Use of "Spacious" in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon's use of the term "spacious" is another interesting twist in this story. That word is not used in the King James Bible, but is consistently used in a negative context in the Book of Mormon. And in most cases, possibly all, it has an architectural connection (buildings). Thus we have "spacious buildings" (Mosiah 11:8-9), referring to Noah's "elegant and spacious buildings" and "spacious palace," and then Mormon's condemnation of Riplakish, who taxed the people to "build many spacious buildings" in Ether 10:5. But before we read of the great and spacious building, Nephi introduces spacious to describe a field, of all things. But there's something unusual about this field and the other words used to describe it in 1 Nephi 8, as Nephi quotes Lehi:
[9] And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
[20] And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
A large and spacious field? As if it had been a world? Huh? This always sounded very odd to me--until I read D. John Butler's book, Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men (2012), available at Smashwords or Amazon for a pittance.

Butler identifies numerous temple themes in Nephi's writings, and explains how the three parts of the ancient Jewish temple are reflected there, as I previously mentioned in a 2012 post, "A Temple Gone Dark," (before I noted the use of "spacious" elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, which strengthens the argument made there). Among the three parts of the Jewish temple, first is the ulam, often translated as “porch,” a room that may be roofless or very tall. Then comes the hekal, the main middle room. That word literally means “building” or “great building.” A high, lofting building. And then comes the debir, the holy of holies, representing the presence and power of the Lord.

As Lehi begins his travel in the dream, he enounters a “dark and dreary wilderness” that joins a “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world” (1 Nephi 8:20). The Hebrew word ulam for the first part of the temple is very close, almost identical in sound, to olam, the word that means “world.” In Butler’s view, there is a Hebrew play on words linking the great and spacious field, “a world,” to the temple’s ulam. If "a world" is a play on words linked to the courtyard of the temple, then "spacious" again could convey an architectural sense. There is a great and spacious courtyard, but dark and dreary from apostasy.

After the ulam comes the hekal, the “great building.” Recall Lehi’s words of what he saw after the spacious field/world/ulam, describing:
a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. (1Nephi 8:26-27)
The word “fine” is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to describe the clothing of the priests in the temple, not secular clothing. The people with the fine clothing in the great and spacious building include the priests of the temple in a sinister hekal, part of Lehi’s dark temple experience. Butler also compares the fumes of incense that are part of the hekal with the mists of darkness that lead people astray. The waters of life that are part of many temple scenarios in ancient literature are replaced with filthy waters that lead people astray.

Only those who resist the corrupt religious establishment of his day and the temptations and pressures of the adversary, clinging to the word of God (the iron rod) can make it past the dark ulam and sinister hekal and arrive safely to the debir and the tree of life, also rich in temple imagery.

As is so often the case, there is much, much more going on in the Book of Mormon than meets the eyes of a casual reader rushing through the text. There also appears to be much more going on that can plausibly be attributed to an unschooled farmboy rushing through many pages a day of non-stop dictation with no other documents before before him. Consistency, depth, intrigue, and even clever word plays seem to abound. In my view, this is not the kind of stuff anybody could make up on the fly after bumping into a four-story building near a river and an aqueduct. The most reasonable dating for Joseph's visit to Rochester in July 1829, after the Book of Mormon was already written, only slightly increases the overall implausibility of Rochester's buildings, bridges, aqueduct, river, books, and maps as the source for Lehi's dream, Lehi's trail, or anything else in the Book of Mormon.

4. The Whiteness of the Fruit
While Rick Grunder found an 1838 publication boasting of the abundant fruit in New York, nearly every state has fruit trees and regions that are well known for fruit (Washington apples, Georgia peaches, California and Florida citrus trees, Wisconsin's Door County for cherries, etc.). But finding fruit in New York to explain the fruit of the tree of life is hardly interesting, and doesn't address what really stands out in the Book of Mormon: the unique white fruit of the tree.

Grunder argues that the tree of life vision was created after a June 1829 (actually it was probably July) visit to Rochester, when Joseph was finishing the Book of Mormon as he translated the small plates of Nephi at the end of the translation process. This fails to account for the many references to the words and teachings from the small plates that are woven into the rest of the text, such as Alma 32 where the word of God is compared to a seed that can be planted in our heart and then grow, if carefully nourished, into a tree of life. Alma's description of the tree of life mirror's Lehi's, for it "is sweet above all that is sweet, and ... white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst" (Alma 32:42).  Compare that to 1 Nephi 8: 11-12:
[11] And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
[12] And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
Nephi also tells us in 1 Nephi 11:8 that "the beauty [of the tree of life] was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow." This is not a New York apple tree, unless there's been some kind of serious industrial accident.

Margaret Barker was impressed with Lehi's description. In the section "White Fruit and a Guiding Rod" of her above-cited chapter in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, she writes:
The tree of life made one happy, according to the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 3: 18), but for detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the noncanonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruit like grapes (1 Enoch 32: 5), and a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruit like white grapes. 21 I do not know of any other source that describes the fruit as white grapes. Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation that the Virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh (1 Nephi 11: 14–23).  This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 bce.
There's on old joke about a man on his hands and knees looking for something on the ground under a streetlight one night. A passerby asked him what he was doing. "Looking for a lost key." Where did you lose it? "About a block down the street, I think." So why aren't you searching there? "Because the light is better here." Searching for parallels in the modern era is more convenient, but it's not the right place to fairly evaluate the Book of Mormon.

As is often the case, when looking for parallels to a text in the wrong place, something can always be found, what is found may not be not as meaningful or informative as the parallels encountered when one searches nearer the source. The fake "keys" to the Book of Mormon from Joseph's environment don't really open the book to us. They don't fit the data. And in the case of Rochester and Pilgrim's Progress as purported sources of a major section of Nephi's writing, they fail on numerous counts and don't come close to offering plausibility or explanatory power for the riches that are there.