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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

David and the Psalms in the Book of Mormon: Weakness or Strength?


A 2016 graduate thesis from Kevin Beshears at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "Davidic References in the Book of Mormon as Evidence Against its Historicity," proposes an intriguing new means for discerning if the Book of Mormon is historic or not. By looking at Book of Mormon references to David and the Psalms, Beshears concludes that the "paltry" references to the great King David and the general absence of material from the Psalms in the Book of Mormon reveal that it cannot be the historic product of an ancient Jewish people who would have referred to David and the Psalms much more frequently. Beshears finds that not only is the Book of Mormon ahistoric for its failure to be like the Bible in abundant references to David, but contends several of its references to David in Isaiah material and some possible references to material from the Psalms proposed by John Hilton are simply the result of Joseph Smith's "plagiarism" from the Bible and other sources. Overall, the Book of Mormon is said to be hopelessly lacking in evidence and readily determined to be ahistoric.

My responses below include the following points:
  1. Beshears shifts his inquiry midstream from asking if the Book of Mormon contains adequate references to David and the Psalms to denying the merit of potentially relevant passages since their similarity to the King James Bible shows "plagiarism." In doing so he departs from scholarly inquiry.
  2. In his analysis and dismissal of John Hilton's work, the only LDS source considered (of many excellent candidates) on the relationship between the Psalms and the Book of Mormon, Beshears appears to neglect the strongest aspects of Hilton's work, the detailed analysis of how Jacob used Psalm 95 and how Nephi used numerous Psalms in crafting his own impressive psalm. 
  3. Indeed, the absence of any treatment of the Psalm of Nephi in 2 Nephi 4, an important concept in Book of Mormon scholarship for over 50 years, is unfortunate, especially since analysis of Nephi's Psalm formed a significant portion of the John Hilton article that Beshears treats in his thesis.
  4. Beshears' tool for testing the historicity of a text purportedly from ancient Hebrews is flawed and would condemn many legitimate ancient Jewish texts which refer to David infrequently or not at all.  
  5. The Book of Mormon has slightly more content relative to David (Nephi's usage of the David and Goliath motif) and much more influence from the Psalms than Beshears recognizes. The many references to the Psalms are not scattered randomly in the text, but are concentrated among those writers who had the most familiarity with the brass plates, particularly Nephi and Jacob. Indeed, the details of usage of the Psalms as well as Nephi's detailed allusion to David is not easy to explain as mere fabrication by Joseph Smith. 
  6. The Book of Mormon's willingness to criticize King David for his polygamy (ironically, a troubling issue for Beshears in his role as an evangelical critic) and its lack of emphasis on the David covenant or the greatness of King David is actually consistent with scholarship since Joseph Smith's day on pre-exilic religion among the Jews, the divisions in religious belief among them, and the impact of the Deuteronomist reforms under King Josiah initiated. What Beshears sees as a hopeless weakness in the Book of Mormon may actually be one of its strengths.

A New Reason for Rejecting the Book of Mormon: Too Little of David and the Psalms to be an Ancient Semitic Text?

Among critics of the Book of Mormon, all is not unity and consensus. For example, one can find critics sharply divided on questions such as this: "Is the Book of Mormon a fraudulent work loaded with horrific blunders from an ignorant farm boy, or the crafty work of a clever con man aided with advanced scholarship from a hefty range of books, magazines, rare maps of Arabia, and expertise in Hebrew?" It's a difficult question to answer correctly because, like many of our most controversial questions in life, it's the wrong question.

A related and more succinct question is the topic of a recent scholarly investigation: "Is the Book of Mormon false because it is too much like the Bible, or too little like the Bible?" Thanks to the latest scholarship from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we may have a definitive answer: "Yes!"

Kevin Beshears' Critique: Setting the Stage

"Davidic References in the Book of Mormon as Evidence Against its Historicity" by Kevin Beshears is a 2016 thesis from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY). Beshears, a graduate student pursing a master of theology degree, takes an interesting approach in rejecting the Book of Mormon for not emphasizing David as much as the Bible does. He raises some interesting questions which, though intended to criticize the Book of Mormon, can be helpful to Book of Mormon students seeking to better understand the work. I am grateful for his questions, though troubled by the approach.

Apart from this primary and rather interesting critique, he provides a reasonable background review along with a variety of other criticisms of the "mormonic" text ("mormonic" is his preferred term, an unnecessarily strange and non-standard term, IMHO, that strikes me as conveniently too close to "demonic"). Of particular interest is the objection that the Book of Mormon is too much like the Bible in its use of KJV language and heavy citations of Isaiah, which he errantly and repeatedly calls "plagiarism" (e.g., pp. 33-37). I"ll address that issue more fully in a later post.

Meanwhile, I hope readers will recognize that openly quoting from a source without intent to deceive is not plagiarism. Indeed, the Isaiah passages that Beshears condemns as "plagiarized" are typically expressly stated to be quoted from Isaiah, something we usually don't get from the New Testament. The polemics around "plagiarism" and the failure to appreciate how KJV language can be a deliberate style choice in translation to be used when "good enough" is a weakness in multiple parts of Beshears' thesis, and again often boil down to condemning the Book of Mormon for being too much like the Bible.

Turning to his primary argument, Beshears explains that the Book of Mormon lacks historicity because it fails to give enough attention to the great king of Israel, King David, and fails to rely on the Psalms as much as we would expect from an authentic ancient Semitic work. His approach is declared in the opening paragraph:
Contemporary Mormon scholarship—more appropriately, Latter-day Saint (LDS) scholarship—seeks to validate the historicity of the Book of Mormon (BofM) through textual criticism by presupposing its historic authenticity, then combing the text for evidence of ancient literary devices such as chiasmus, parallelisms, and thematic elements that may suggest ancient Hebrew authorship. However, given King David’s nonpareil influence over the Hebrew cultural and religious identity, the BofM’s scant and peculiar nature of references to the fabled king produces a competing testimony against the book’s historicity. (Beshears, p. 1)
First, I must thank Kevin Beshears and his faculty advisor, George H. Martin, for considering the issue of Book of Mormon historicity from a scholarly perspective and from taking some efforts to understand the text of the Book of Mormon and some related LDS scholarship. He cites Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, Grant Hardy, John Welch, Louis Midgley, Donald Parry, and others. Chiasmus is mentioned. This is progress compared to the neglect of LDS scholarship that often occurs in critical writings. Beshears review of past work, though, at times becomes a caricature as he describes LDS scholars in the hopeless position of having no external evidence to offer any kind of support for the Book of Mormon tale, thus having no choice but to dig instead within its pages for imagined textual evidence.

The unawareness of any external evidence relevant to the Book of Mormon is unfortunate, and if he wishes to update his work, I hope Beshears will consider the significance of, say, the many hard evidences (non-LDS archaeological evidence included) from the Arabian Peninsula described in, for examples, Warren Aston's Lehi and Sariah in Arabia, or works related to the New World such as John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex, Brant Gardner's Traditions of the Fathers, Jerry Grover's Geology of the Book of Mormon, and Brian Stubbs' works on Uto-Aztecan language and relationships to Hebrew and Egyptian such as Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now.

Getting back to Beshears' argument, already in the opening paragraph, one can see trouble with his  approach and a failure to appreciate what LDS scholars have written and why they write. What he describes is not a fair overview of the state of LDS scholarship about the Book of Mormon, but its caricature. In my experience, LDS scholars dealing with the Book of Mormon are frequently motivated not by a desperate desire to find any scrap of purported evidence they can, but a generally cautious quest to understand the meaning of the text, including its context, its applications, its allusions to other documents, the possible influence of its cultural or geographic setting, and its relationship to other sources. That scholarship may sometimes yield unexpected gems of evidence, but combing for evidence is not essence of the large body of scholarship related to the Book of Mormon. Grant Hardy's analysis of the voices of the Book of Mormon, for example, is far less driven by an apologetic impulse to prove anything rather than a desire to understand, but the remarkably distinct voices and agendas he uncovers with literary analysis perhaps unintentionally provide strong evidence in favor of authenticity of the document. See Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 11–25, 62–65, 84. See also Daniel Peterson’s review in “An Apologetically Important Nonapologetic Book,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16 (2016): 52–75.

True, once interesting evidence is identified, such as the existence of chiasmus, some of us may rush too far and too fast in zeal as we sift the text as Beshears suggests looking for numerous additional examples, only to later be restrained by scholars, including LDS scholars like John Welch who has explained that many purported examples of chiasmus fail to meet key criteria for assessing their validity. He and others have proposed useful tools to gauge whether a chiasmus is really and intentionally there, though these tools still leave much room for debate.

Evidence also frequently comes when LDS writers are presented with critical attacks on the Book of Mormon and then are alerted to issues requiring further attention. The attention raised by critics often triggers new insights drawn from discoveries outside the LDS world, leading to unexpected evidence that sometimes causes a reversal, wherein a former weakness is not merely softened, but turned into a strength. An example is the frequent criticism of Alma 7:10, which identifies the "land of Jerusalem" as the future birthplace of Christ, not the town of Bethlehem. Since every schoolboy in Joseph's day knew Christ was born in Bethlehem, had Joseph been the author, he would likely have avoided this blunder. LDS writers quickly softened the attack by explaining that Bethlehem is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem and Jerusalem would be the logical place for distant Nephites to mention, just as Utahans in New York or China might say they used to live in Salt Lake City when, in fact, it was Sandy, Draper, or Midvale. However, once critics alerted LDS scholars to the issue, they were more likely to notice and apply relevant discoveries from non-LDS scholars who found ancient Jewish documents referring to the region around Jerusalem, specifically including Bethlehem, as the "land of Jerusalem," turning what was once a glaring weakness into a small but interesting piece of potential evidence of ancient origins that Joseph could not have extracted from the Bible.

Among many other examples, the very name of Alma may be considered, for it was long criticized as being "plagiarized" from a modern woman's name, not the male name used so prominently in the Book of Mormon. This blunder experienced a dramatic reversal in recent decades when a Jewish scholar discovered an ancient Jewish deed from Lehi's day showing that Alma was indeed an ancient Jewish man's name, a name transliterated from four Hebrew letters into exactly the same spelling used in the Book of Mormon.

The scholarship leading to recognition of the authenticity of "land of Jerusalem," the male name Lehi and many other Book of Mormon names, Royal Skousen's many intriguing discoveries from the painstaking research on the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, the historical analysis of the witnesses of the gold plates and the translation process, or many other issues such as body of evidence from the Arabian Peninsula related to Lehi's Trail, including three carvings found by non-LDS archaeologists giving hard evidence for the existence in Lehi's day of the tribal name Nihm or Nehem in the right region to relate to the place Nahom along Lehi's Trail in 1 Nephi 16, did not come from a panicked quest for any possible evidence per se, but from seeking to understand the Book of Mormon or to answer reasonable questions about specific aspects of the text. Beshears' repeatedly criticizes LDS scholarship for presupposing the text is true and then claiming to find glimmers of evidence, but this is not an accurate appraisal for some of the most significant work and most significant evidences we have.

In spite of his qualms about LDS scholarship on the "mormonic text," Beshears does review some important works and deserves credit for a reasonable discussion, for example, of the pros and cons of chiasmus and parallelism in the Book of Mormon. His review is hampered somewhat by repeatedly describing LDS scholarship in terms of trying to "prove" the Book of Mormon to be historical. Nevertheless, he does grasp the significance of the issue of historicity for the Book of Mormon and its role in the faith of many LDS people.

I was especially impressed with the cleverness of the closing section of his background review which beautifully draws upon the arguments of some LDS scholars to set the stage for his primary argument:
Consequently, considering both the amount of attention given to Moses and the Mosaic motif found in mormonic characters, Reynolds suggests, "the fact that Nephi and Lehi both saw themselves as Moses figures demonstrates their awareness of a recognizable feature of preexilic Israelite literature that has only recently been explicated by Bible scholars." In other words, mormonic people knew enough about preexilic Israelite leaders to honor and emulate them not only in the way they lived, but also in the way they wrote about themselves. They showcased their admiration for major biblical characters by crafting thematic motifs. For Reynolds, the appearance of beloved biblical characters through types in the BofM is evidence of its authenticity. He further argued the Hebraic literary tradition of the OT practically demands "that [Nephi and Lehi] presented themselves as antitypes for Moses." So strong is this evidence that Reynolds boldly proclaimed, "it would make sense to criticize the Book of Mormon had it not made these kinds of strong, natural comparisons."

These thematic nods and direct references to biblical characters in the BofM demonstrate that the New World Jews were not merely aware of their history as a people, but they desired to sustain their Hebrew cultural identity by referencing and describing their most influential leaders in terms of biblical history. Thus, according to BofM historicism, part of what makes the book authentic is its references and allusions to famous biblical characters, because they suggest continuity between Old and New World Jews. (Beshears, pp. 19–20.)
So if Book of Mormon authors were genuine ancient Hebrews who deeply appreciated archetypes from Moses and the Exodus and respected Abraham, shouldn't they also show great interest in King David and the Psalms? And if David is largely neglected, don't we have a problem? It's a fair question, and indeed, an interesting one, and Beshears is to be congratulated for asking it. The question, though, is whether this question can be packed with the rigor to yield meaningful answers, the kind that can properly distinguish bogus Semitic texts from real ones.

Beshears' New Tool for Evaluating a Text Allegedly from Ancient Hebrews

Beshears introduces an intriguing new tool for separating authentic ancient Semitic writing from fraudulent imitation. He argues that the great Jewish king, King David, played a monumental role in ancient Jewish culture and thus we should expect him and the Psalms, many of which David wrote, to be emphasized in the Book of Mormon, if it were historic. But Beshears finds that the Book of Mormon only has seven "paltry" references to David and ignores the Psalms, many of which were by David, which he feels is hardly compatible with a historic Jewish text:
Readers of the BofM familiar with the immense stature of David in the biblical Jewish identity may find themselves nonplussed at the paltry seven references to Israel’s greatest king, especially considering the numerous Abrahamic and Mosaic references. (p. 20)

If the mormonic people were truly Jewish, why has King David essentially absconded from their historical and prophetic records relative to biblical Judaism? Is it really possible that the BofM, a text that prides itself on incredibly descriptive prophecies of the coming messiah, could neglect to feature one of the most prominent figures in the messianic lineage? (p. 21)

Of all David’s contributions to the Hebrew religious identity, two stand out as being particularly influential: his Psalms and the messianic expectation that grew out of his reign. The NT writers seem most interested in these two aspects of David, referencing him almost exclusively in the context of psalmic material or arguments that portray Christ as David’s descendant and heir to his eternal throne. At the very least, one would anticipate quotations of Davidic psalms and the hopeful anticipation of an eschatological, Davidic king in the BofM. However, its sermons, prophecies, and epistles never quote Davidic psalms, and almost entirely exclude him from their messianic prophecies. (p. 22)
And then his conclusion:
If the BofM was written by pre- and post-exilic Jews, why are its references to David so rare and atypical when compared to other Jewish texts such as the Old and New Testaments, intertestamental writings, and Qumranic literature? The mormonic treatment of David is inconsistent with what would be expected, given the religious background, texts, and culture from which they claim to have arisen. The venerated Israelite king is nowhere near as prevalent or, in the case of Jacob, esteemed in the BofM when compared to his monumental significance in the Bible and other related Jewish texts, especially in self-consciously messianic movements like those in Qumran or the NT. Consequently, I contend the BofM’s peculiar treatment of David in particular testifies against the BofM historicist hypothesis— that it is the product of a historically authentic, Hebrew culture—because it so radically truncates and departs from the known Hebrew literary tradition concerning the great Israelite king. It appears highly suspect that the mormonic prophets and preachers and kings, seeking to continue the heritage of their Old World cousins and promote a messianic tradition comparable to the NT tradition, all but exclude David from their national, historio-religious records, nor situate him honorably among their cultural heroes.
In the absence of any convincing evidence for these incredible BofM historicist claims, we are nevertheless asked to believe that sometime in the sixth century BCE a lost Israelite tribe emigrated from Palestine to the New World with the intent of preserving OT Hebrew messianism, yet without the type or frequency of Davidic references found with their ancestral, Old World cousins. In the end, this desperate search for internal evidences in support of an underlying Hebrew tradition to BofM, as with the search for corroborating external evidences to its supposed ancient historicity, is destined to amount to unproductive digging in the sand. Consequently, I predict that pressing the BofM further in this way will yield similar results. (p. 46)
Is this critique valid? Can this new gauge properly discern bogus texts from real ancient Semitic documents?

One of the things I would have expected in a scholarly treatment is some evidence that the metric being used to evaluate a text actually works. Beshears asserts that an authentic ancient Jewish test from after the days of David should naturally speak of David and quote from the Psalms, and cites other scholarship on the general importance of David as well as examples of references to David from the Old and New Testaments and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this tool seems to lack evidence that it can give reliable results. Citing cases where David was mentioned, for example, does not address the question of historicity when mentions of David are absent or, in the case of the Book of Mormon, relatively few.

Has Beshears applied his tool to other ancient or allegedly ancient texts to evaluate its usefulness? Has he made any effort to establish a threshold frequency for mentioning David to distinguish between authentic and bogus ancient Jewish writings? Is there a reliable threshold for separating authentic Jewish writing from forgeries or non-Semitic texts based on statistics relate to the name David or passages that draw upon the Psalms? The answer, clearly, is no. This can be demonstrated by applying this tool to the books of the Bible itself, the most obvious collection of documents attributed to ancient Jewish writers whose texts can be treated with Beshears' methodology.

While Beshears speaks of the thousand-plus times David is mentioned in the Bible, the vast bulk of these occurrences are in the historical books that deal with the story of David, his rise, his rule, and the aftermath of his rule (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles). Numerous mentions also naturally occur in the Psalms, and then things taper off quickly with a handful of mentions in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The illustrious King David is mentioned only once in Proverbs, where he is merely identified as the father of Solomon. The same thing occurs in Ecclesiastes: just one mention as the Preacher's father. The only mention in the Song of Solomon is a reference to the "tower of David," but nothing about the glory of that king.

Critically, David is not mentioned at all in the very Jewish books of Esther, Lamentations, Daniel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi. Once we get past the David-heavy books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the Psalms, there are just as many books the don't mention David as there are those that do. Even Daniel and Malachi, in spite of eschatological and messianic views, never cite David.

If a large fraction of Old Testament writers fail to mention David at all, do we really need to reject the Book of Mormon for having just 7 "paltry" occurrences of the name David? Granted, three of these come from citations of Isaiah (and hardly count since they are "plagiarized," we are told), but the name and influence of David is not entirely absent.

Beshears sees validation for his tool in the emphasis given to David in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels (e.g., six mentions of David in the genealogy in Matthew 1), but Beshears never mentions David's neglect by multiple Jewish authors. The Gospel of John mentions David twice but in only one verse (John 7:42). Paul mentions David three times in Romans, but not at all in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy. There is one paltry mention in 2 Timothy, none in Titus nor Philemon, then two in Hebrews. There is no mention of David in James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, the three epistles of John, and Jude. Revelation has three mentions.

Beshears' tool would seem to eliminate a large portion of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament, which I trust he will see as an undesirable outcome (see, for example, Deut. 4:2 and Rev. 22:18–19).

Beshears' methodology for rejecting the Book of Mormon, however logical it may appear to its inventor, seems hopelessly flawed.

More Than Meets the Eye in Book of Mormon Allusions to David and the Psalms

David and the Psalms, however, may not be as absent in the "mormonic text" as Beshears thinks. His claim that no Davidic psalms are quoted may be incorrect, and David as an archetype may be present in places Beshears has missed.

One scholarly work related to David and the Book of Mormon considers Nephi's apparently deliberate allusions to the story of David and Goliath. See Ben McGuire, "Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 18/1 (2009): 16–31. The basics of this work were first made public in a presentation at the 2001 FAIR Conference. McGuire reviews scholarship on the role of allusions and the use of markers and other tools to call attention to deliberate parallels. His analysis provides a strong case that the Book of Mormon's account of Nephi slaying Laban has been patterned after the biblical account of David, employing similar language and themes:
In addition to the marking elements discussed above, we see another pattern: All of the thematic parallels exist in the same order in both narratives. First, we have the introduction of the antagonist, who is described in terms of his feats of strength and who inspires fear. Then the protagonist responds, claiming that there is no need to fear—the God who has historically acted on the protagonist’s behalf will again act to destroy this threat, not only to save the protagonist, but also to ensure that God is recognized in the future. Next the antagonist and protagonist meet, and the text announces to us that the antagonist is delivered into the hands of the protagonist by God. Finally, the antagonist is reduced to a helpless state, and the protagonist takes his enemy’s sword, pulls it from its sheath, decapitates the antagonist, and then gathers his foe’s armor as his own.
Parallel Passages in 1 Samuel and 1 Nephi

1 Samuel 17:4–7, 11
1 Samuel 17:32
1 Samuel 17:34–37
1 Samuel 17:45–46
1 Samuel 17:51
1 Samuel 17:54
1 Nephi 3:31
1 Nephi 4:1
1 Nephi 4:2–3
1 Nephi 4:6, 10–12, 17
1 Nephi 4:9, 18
1 Nephi 4:19
The thematic elements follow a relatively simple structural parallel. This parallel being sustained throughout the entire narrative text is a strong indicator that the Book of Mormon narrative is reliant on the biblical text.
Part of Nephi's purpose in patterning his conquest of Laban after David and Goliath is to establish his rightful role as king over the Nephite people, a claim that was strongly disputed by his enemies. The sword of Laban, like the sword of Goliath, would become a revered symbol of Nephite authority and of God's deliverance of the Nephite people. The allusions to David in the Book of Mormon are meaningful and strong, and may help temper some of Beshears' concerns about the Book of Mormon.

The Psalms also may be more present in the Book of Mormon than Beshears realizes.

Are the Psalms Largely Missing in the Book of Mormon?

Beshears' literature review did detect one LDS scholar (out of many others who could have been cited) who claimed to find evidence of many allusions to the Psalms in the Book of Mormon. Beshears targets John Hilton III, “Old Testament Psalms in the Book of Mormon” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 291–311 (the book is available online). Hilton provides a list of 43 apparent citations of various Psalms in the Book of Mormon. Beshears, however, is unimpressed and finds the use of similar language to be evidence not of allusions to the Psalms in an ancient record but to be easily explained as the fruit of Joseph Smith's exposure to the King James Bible. Indeed, the fact that the very words of the King James Bible occur in the Book of Mormon raises a serious problem and points to deliberate plagiarism by Joseph rather than a translation process coincidentally giving the exact same words found in the Bible.
[T]he supposed psalmic allusions Hilton brought forward align with the KJV, which is a serious concern for his hypothesis. As with the "Isaiah Problem," these ancient echoes of the Psalms are translated in the same manner as a seventeenth-century English translation, often word-for-word. For example, Hilton cites the following phrase from Jacob 6:6; "today if ye will hear his voice harden not your hearts." If this truly is a psalmic allusion, then it is an obvious reproduction of the KJV Psalm 95:7-8, "Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart." Likewise, the phrase "none that doeth good . . . no not one" in Moroni 10:25 matches exactly with both the KJV Psalms 14:3; 53:3 and Romans 3:12, stepping beyond the mere repurposing of OT Psalms and into the NT Epistles as well. This observation would not come as a surprise to Hilton. In fact, the identical reproduction of the KJV Psalms in the BofM is the reason he found these supposed psalmic allusions in the first place (by running word analysis software).

Is it likely that Moroni, having been raised in mormonic Jewish culture without a copy of the book of Psalms for nearly a millennium, in the fifth century CE suddenly alluded to the Psalms, by writing in non-extant "reformed Egyptian," words that happen to be translated into English in the nineteenth century by Joseph Smith as, "none that doeth good . . . no not one (Moro 10:25)," a verbatim copy of the KJV translation of Psalms 14:3; 53:3 and Romans 3:12? Or is it more likely that a nineteenth-century author drew from his knowledge of the KJV translation to construct Moroni's epistle? (p. 43)
Incidentally, there is no reason why the pre-exilic Psalms could not have been on the brass plates. Beshears argues that since the Psalms are not listed as being on the brass plates, they implicitly were not part of the Nephite canon (p. 41), but there is no reason to believe that Nephi has given an exhaustive catalog.

Beshears' tool for cutting bogus texts is a two-edge sword, with one edge that can swiftly cut away bogus "mormonic" text when it lacks the presence of the Psalms, and another edge that can just as quickly slice through any "mormonic" text that dares to "plagiarize" from the Psalms. The Book of Mormon is doomed with this two-edged standard. I wonder how New Testament writers might fare?

Beshears is generally critical of Hilton. He finds Hilton's collection of 43 phrases linked to the Psalms to present an "insurmountable problem" for the Book of Mormon apologist since there is no way to tell whether these faint echoes are intentional or accidental, or whether they simply come from Joseph Smith regurgitating phrases he had heard for years from the Bible or other popular sources like John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:
For example, the phrase "pains of hell" [found in Psalm 116:3 and Jacob 3:11, and Alma 14:6, 26:13, and 36:13] was a common colloquialism used by popular figures such as John Bunyan and George Whitfield [sic], both of whom would have been well-known to nineteenth-century Americans. The fact that the phrase only appears once in the entire KJV Bible (Ps 116:3), but multiple times in the BofM (Jacob 3:11; Alma 14:6; 26:13; 36:13), indicates that the BofM was influenced more by the frequent nineteenth-century use of the phrase rather than ancient writers alluding to the original psalmic expression. (pp. 42–43)
My search of Pilgrim's Progress reveals "pains of hell" was used precisely once, and the two-volume set of George Whitefield's sermons reveals the term twice. Both undoubtedly got the term from the Psalms. Is their scant use of the term truly evidence that the they are a more likely source for the "pains of hell" in the Book of Mormon? More to the point, is their scant use relevant at all to Beshears' thesis? Even if Bunyan had used the phrase hundreds of times, is that evidence that the Book of Mormon lacks references to the Psalms, which is what Beshears argument is supposed to be?

Note how Beshears' argument has shifted. His thesis was supposedly addressing whether allusions to the Psalms are found in the Book of Mormon, as he says we should expect if the "mormonic" text came from real ancient Hebrews. However, when similar language from the Psalms is presented by Hilton, the sole author he considers among the many who have treated various aspects of the Psalms in the Book of Mormon, Beshears then dismisses that evidence because those phrases could equally well be found in Joseph's environment. Lack of allusions to the Psalms damns the Book of Mormon for not being like the Bible, and apparent references to the Psalms damns the book for being too much like the Bible due to Joseph's plagiarism of related phrases. This appears to be the real insurmountable problem before us.

Missing Key Analysis from Hilton

What especially troubled me in Beshears' dismissal of Hilton's work was his failure to consider the bulk of Hilton's analysis where we have the strongest, most valuable aspects of his work. Perhaps Beshears felt there was little of value after looking at the list of 43 parallels in the first half of Hilton's paper, but the neglect of the rest of Hilton's paper strikes me highly unfortunate.  In the portions overlooked by Beshears, Hilton explores in detail (1) how Jacob makes clever and appropriate use of Psalm 95 to bracket his book, and (2) how Nephi's Psalm makes extensive use of the Psalms in his own very genuine psalm. Both of these issues point to much more sophistication than a Bible-versed ignoramus plucking random phrase from memory as he dictates out of a hat.

Nephi's Psalm in particular would have been a vital issue to be considered in Beshears' thesis. Nephi's Psalm has been an important topic in LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon for many decades, but it was not mentioned, nor is there even any reference to 2 Nephi 4, where the influence of the Psalms is readily apparent and more sophisticated than even skilled readers of the Book of Mormon may realize. These kind of mistakes happen in research, especially when one is rushing to meet an unrealistic deadline or when one is over confident of his or her position. Ideally, Beshears' graduate advisor would have caught this gap after glancing at the key Hilton reference or, even more ideally, through some exposure to LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon or online searching. For example, using either Google or Yahoo!, references to "Nephi's Psalm" with a great deal of useful information appear in the first 10 hits when I enter search phrases like "Psalms Book of Mormon" or "Are there Psalms in the Book of Mormon?" or even just "Psalms Mormon." Such information might have significantly changed Beshears' assessment.

A fraction of Hilton's section on Jacob and Psalm 95 is provided here for convenience:
As we will see, sections of this psalm play a key role in Jacob’s book. In Jacob 1:7, he records, “Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest, lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.” The italicized portions of this verse bear a clear connection to Psalm 95:8 and 11, which state, “As in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness . . . Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.”
This shared text cannot be coincidental. This is doubly the case when we see another allusion to Psalm 95 at the end of Jacob’s record. In Jacob 6:6, he exhorts, “Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die?” These words directly echo Psalm 95:7–8: “To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart.”  Thus Jacob alludes to Psalm 95 at the beginning of his book (Jacob 1:7) and as he nears the end of it (Jacob 6:6).  Moreover, these introductory and concluding allusions use adjoining phrases from Psalm 95.  Psalms 95:7–8 reads, “To day if ye will hear his voice harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness.” In Jacob 1:7, Jacob quotes the latter portion of these verses “as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.” In Jacob 6:6, he uses the first phrase, “Today if ye will hear his voice harden not your hearts,” thus alluding to both halves, but reversing their order.

Both Jacob 1:7 and Jacob 6:6 are portions of texts in which Jacob directly addresses readers. They are not part of a continuous discourse; rather, they are broken up by Jacob’s sermon at the temple (Jacob 2:1–3:11) and his recording of the allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5). Because Jacob is addressing the reader at each of the bookend allusions of Psalms 95:7–8, I believe he uses these two statements to cohesively communicate to readers of his book two of his core themes, those of not hardening our hearts and of coming unto Christ. As I will demonstrate, Jacob uses textual connections to Psalm 95 to develop these themes….
Hilton's analysis becomes even more interesting in the next section, "The Old Testament Psalms and the 'Psalm of Nephi,'" also completely neglected by Beshears, where Hilton treats the numerous allusions to the Psalms in what is widely called "the Psalm of Nephi" in 2 Nephi 4. I'll share the beginning and ending paragraphs to indicate some of what was missed:
The previous section focused on Jacob’s use of one psalm throughout his entire book. I now discuss Nephi’s use of a variety of psalms in one small part of his record, which is popularly called “the Psalm of Nephi.”  S. Kent Brown has called this passage (2 Nephi 4:17–35) “a most poignant depiction of Nephi’s own struggles with sin and with feelings about rebellious members of his family.”

It has been noted previously that the Psalm of Nephi shares several features with ancient Hebrew psalms. For example, Matthew Nickerson states that “Nephi’s psalm plainly follows the format and substance of the individual lament as described by Gunkel and elaborated upon by numerous subsequent scholars.”  Brown points out that Nephi’s psalm “exhibits poetic characteristics found in the Old Testament.”  Steven Sondrup finds that “in the ‘Psalm of Nephi,’ just as in Hebrew poetry . . . logical, formal or conceptual units are set parallel one to another.”

In addition to these overarching literary patterns, the Psalm of Nephi shares a surprisingly large amount of text with the Old Testament Psalms. It appears that Nephi (perhaps intentionally, or perhaps because of his familiarity with Psalmic material), drew on phrases of lament, praise, and worship from the Psalter as he composed his own words. Of the 660 words comprising the Psalm of Nephi, 127 (approximately 20 percent) are key words or phrases that are also found in the biblical Psalter. While some of these key words or phrases are used frequently throughout scripture … others are significant, and appear only in these two pericopes. The concentration of references to Psalms may indicate intentionality on Nephi’s part as he wrote these words.

[The body of Hilton's analysis commences here, but we will jump to his concluding comments in this section.]

When the multiple connections to Psalms are added together, Nephi could have alluded to potentially forty seven different Psalms in just eighteen verses. It stretches one’s imagination to believe that Joseph Smith could have been responsible for making all of these connections, particularly with the understanding that the Psalm of Nephi may have been translated in less than two hours. While some sections of Nephi’s soliloquy have relatively few allusions to Psalms, in other sections the number of connections is impressive. For example, 40 percent of the words in 2 Nephi 4:29–32 also appear in Old Testament Psalms (54 out of 135 words). I believe these allusions stem from Nephi’s mediations on the Psalms and that the high concentration of psalmic references in this pericope indicates that Nephi had access to them (either from the plates or his own cultural experiences in Jerusalem). Nephi’s apparent familiarity and love of the psalms can provide motivation for Latter-day Saints to follow Nephi’s example and become deeply familiar with the language of praise and worship as found in the Old Testament Psalms.
If allusions to the Psalms were random parallels from Joseph recalling related language, as Beshears suggests, we would expect to find them scattered randomly throughout the text. The distribution is far from random and shows a great concentration in the writings of those closest to the brass plates and early Judaism, especially Nephi and Jacob. Beshears does not discuss this issue that I feel is consistent with a historical ancient Semitic text from multiple authors with varying degrees of familiarity with the brass plates.

The scholarship on the Psalm of Nephi is truly impressive. It not only abounds in references to the Psalms, but includes meaningful examples of chiasmus and other forms of parallelism including paired tricola and even, tentatively, apparent cases of Janus parallelism (a newly discovered but intriguing aspect of ancient Hebrew poetry), as I have previously discussed here. It is a gem and directly contradicts Beshears' claims that the Nephites were inexplicably unaware of the Psalms, and adds meaningful evidence to the case for the authentic ancient nature of Nephi's writings.

Meanwhile, there are many other intriguing examples of Psalms being used in the Book of Mormon. See, for example:

If Any of You Lack Wisdom

According to Beshears, "the mormonic Hebrew Bible appears not to have contained the book of Psalms or any other 'wisdom literature'" (p. 41). But the purported lack of "wisdom literature" does not fit scholarship on the Book of Mormon revealing that themes from the "wisdom literature" play an important role. Wisdom themes in the Book of Mormon were noted long ago by Nibley and have been noted in many ways since then. See, for example, Taylor Halverson, "Reading 1 Nephi With Wisdom," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 279-293, who offers this abstract:Nephi is the prototypical wise son of the Wisdom tradition. As Proverbs advocates that a wise man cherishes the word of God, so Nephi cherishes the words of the wise. Nephi’s record begins with a declaration of his upbringing in the Wisdom tradition and his authenticity and reliability as a wise son and scribe (1 Nephi 1:1–3). His is a record of the learning of the Jews — a record of wisdom. If the Wisdom tradition is a foundation for Nephi’s scribal capabilities and outlook, perhaps the principles and literary skills represented by the scribal Wisdom tradition constitute the “learning of the Jews” that Nephi references so early in his account. Thus, if Nephi’s is a record of the learning of the Jews — a record of wisdom — we would be wise to read it with Wisdom — that is, through the lens of ancient Israelite and Middle Eastern Wisdom traditions.

Other sources discussing wisdom themes in the Book of Mormon include:
The alleged lack of "wisdom" in the Book of Mormon may simply be due to inadequate review of relevant literature.

The Lack of David in the Book of Mormon

While Beshears' reasons for rejecting the Book of Mormon fail on multiple counts, his basic question is fair: Why is David not given more emphasis in the Book of Mormon? And in particular, I would extend the question to ask why Book of Mormon kings are not evaluated by comparison to King David, when that seems to be the standard applied in evaluating many of the kings in the Bible. The righteous kings like Benjamin and Mosiah are richly praised, but not by comparison to David. Why not?

First, a basic problem here is assuming that there is a "typical" type of Bible text that should be found wherever we look in the Bible, when that is clearly not the case. As mentioned above, a large number of books in both the Old and New Testament fail to mention David at all. Clearly there is not a uniform urge to turn to David and the Davidic covenant of an everlasting throne in Jerusalem, even in books like Daniel that look forward to the end days and the final victory of God. For example, the wisdom literature, a type of literature Beshears errantly claimed was absent in the Book of Mormon but in fact shows a strong influence, tends to ignore the Davidic covenant, as Daniel Peterson noted in his widely cited exploration of some aspects of wisdom traditions embedded in the Book of Mormon:
Biblical scholars recognize a genre of writing, found both in the canonical scriptures (e.g., Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon) and beyond the canon, that they term “wisdom literature.” Among the characteristics of this type of writing, not surprisingly, is the frequent use of the term wisdom. But also common to such literature, and very striking in texts from a Hebrew cultural background, is the absence of typically Israelite or Jewish themes, such as the promises to the patriarchs, the story of Moses and the exodus, the covenant at Sinai, and the divine promise to David. There is, however, a strong emphasis on the teaching of parents, and especially on the instruction of the father. (Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” p. 209; emphasis added.)
Since the wisdom-heavy founding documents of the Nephite people paid little attention to the Davidic covenant, it should not be a surprise to see other writers like Alma follow suit in their emphasis of similar themes (including the exodus, not normally emphasized in wisdom literature but obviously an important issue for Nephi and Lehi as they made a literal exodus to a promised land) and a lack of emphasis on the Davidic covenant. This is not to say that any Book of Mormon author wrote exclusively in the wisdom tradition, but there is a significant thread of wisdom influence in the book.

Several more noteworthy factors may contribute to the relative lack of interest in David among Nephite writers. Lehi was not a Jew from David's tribe of Judah, but was descended from the tribe of Joseph, probably with roots in the northern kingdom, where there was less respect for descendants of David on the throne in Jerusalem. More importantly, Lehi may not have accepted some aspects of Josiah's reforms that began in 622 B.C. These "Deuteronomist" reforms, triggered by the "discovery" of a book of the law in the temple, believed to be the source of our Book of Deuteronomy, sought to impose centralized worship in Jerusalem and may have introduced the concept of the David covenant — the idea that God would always keep a king descended from David on the throne of Jerusalem, no matter how bad those kings might be. Josiah's reforms were actually violent, causing many priests to be killed and sacred relics from the temple to be forcefully destroyed.

Non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker argues that Josiah's reforms were largely destroying many of the things in the old Jewish faith, including the idea of the temple as the place where the presence of God could be encountered, the idea of visions and angels that minister to prophets, and the wisdom tradition (see Margaret Barker, "What Did King Josiah Reform?" in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. Jo Ann H. Seely, David Rolph Seely, and John W. Welch [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2004] 538). If so, Lehi the man of visions, the seeker of wisdom, would naturally be at odds with the Deuteronomists and their scribes, who shaped a great deal of the Bible. Also see Neal Rappleye, "The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 87-99.

I also recommend 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, where Barker points to many ways in which the writings of Nephi comply with results of her own research about pre-exilic Jewish religion. She argues that the reformers, the Deuteronomists, took out much in early Jewish faith during their violent purges.

Modern scholarship on the origins of the Bible, including the theories related to the Documentary Hypothesis, provides some related insights that can help us understand the significance of the David Covenant that Beshears expects the Book of Mormon to emphasize. In Richard Elliot Friedman's famous Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper Collins, 1997, originally published 1987), the mystery behind the centralization of worship and the Davidic covenant is unraveled in several intriguing steps (see, for example, pp. 91–124). There is a mystery here, for in spite of the strict command in Deuteronomy to centralize worship in Jerusalem, we find David, Saul, Solomon, and Samuel making sacrifices in other places as if they had no awareness of this fundamental command attributed to Moses. This and other issues have led multiple scholars to conclude that the long-lost book of the law that was mysteriously found in the temple during Josiah's reign was in fact composed at that time, being written by someone close to Josiah. And textual and thematic evidence also suggests that the author or school that produced Deuteronomy also produced the following six books: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. The Davidic covenant given in 2 Samuel 7 was part of that effort. This comes from the Deuteronomists, and not from the other sources proposed for the Bible in the various versions of the Documentary Hypothesis. The Davidic covenant only makes sense if it was written before the exile, when the confident Jews felt the holy city of Jerusalem could never fall. Lehi, warned of Jerusalem's destruction, obviously did not see things that way.

An interesting thing about the Deuteronomists, according to Friedman, is how much emphasis they give to David. In their writings, every king is evaluated by comparison to David. But that emphasis stops after Josiah, possibly because the bulk of the Deuteronomists writings (most of seven books in all) were done in the day, with only minor additions required to cover the tragic fall of Judah and the last four disastrous kings following Josiah. Friedman explains:
That is not the only thing that changes after the story of Josiah. King David figures in a fundamental way in the Deuteronomistic history. Half of the book of 1 Samuel, all of the book of 2 Samuel, and the first chapters of 1 Kings deal with his life. The majority of the kings who come after him are compared to him. The historian states explicitly, several times, that because of David's merit even a bad king of Judah cannot lose the throne for the family. Especially among the last few kings down to the time of Josiah, the historian reminds us of David. He compares Josiah himself to David, saying, "We went in all the path of David his father." … Altogether the name David occurs about five hundred times in the Deuteronomistic history. Then, in the story of the last four kings, it stops. The text does not compare these kings to David. It does not refer to the Davidic covenant, let alone explain why it does not save the throne now the way it did in the reigns of Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijam, and Jehoram. It does not mention David at all.

Thus two common, crucial matters in the Deuteronomistic history — centralization and David — disappear after the Josiah section. (Friedman, p. 115)
Friedman explains that caution is needed in applying arguments from silence, but here the silence is deafening. When every king is compared to David, and then suddenly the last four kings are not, and when centralization is viewed as essential up to Josiah and then suddenly is not, "we have evidence of a real break and a change of perspective that are connected to that king" (p. 115).

While there are some details in the Documentary Hypothesis that can easily be questioned, especially the dating for various sources, the possibility of multiple versions of documents and competing agendas influencing the Bible is actually consistent with information we obtain from the Book of Mormon, not only in terms of how ancient sources were pulled together, but in terms of its report of loss and change that would occur in the records of the Jews.

However the Bible was composed, there is strong evidence that references to David and the Davidic covenant are highly nonuniform in the Bible, and are most concentrated in the documents that are considered to be most influenced by the Deuteronomists. Seeing Lehi as an adherent to the old visionary ways opposed by the Deuteronomists can also help us understand why he might not have bought the new agenda of centralization and the new emphasis on the confident claims of those touting a David covenant that would keep the throne safe, no matter what. The Book of Mormon's relative silence on David, though not as silent as many other legitimate biblical books, is consistent with the view that 1 Nephi accurately portrays the complex religious differences and tensions present in pre-exilic Jerusalem, with some groups not accepting the new reforms and possibly not accepting a new emphasis on security through the Davidic covenant.

As for the centralization of worship that Josiah imposed, Lehi and Nephi obviously had no qualms with ritual worship outside of Jerusalem, even to the point of building a temple in the New World, just as Jews at Elephantine in Egypt did. In fact, Lehi was so at odds with the reigning religious establishment in Jerusalem that his life was in danger. His "apostasy" likely included rejecting some aspects of Josiah's reforms that began just a few decades before his exodus. Again, what we find in the writings of Nephi makes a good deal of sense in the context of pre-exilic Israel, based on research from Margaret Barker and many others.

Joseph Smith could have known none of this. If he were making up the Book of Mormon based on average familiarity with the Bible in his day, or even above average graduate-student level familiarity with the Bible in our day, it is indeed reasonable that we would expect him to pick up on the extensive mentions of David, most of which occur in Deuteronomistic writings, and to then imitate that in the Book of Mormon.

Beshears' puzzlement about David in the Book of Mormon is entirely understandable. It is only through deeper understanding of the complexities behind that statistics on David's name that we realize the Bible is highly nonuniform regarding David, that there are reasons for sudden changes in the text regarding David, and that there may be good reasons why historic ancient faithful Hebrews from the tribe of Joseph, ill at ease with the southern Kingdom Jews and their recent violent religious reforms, might not follow suit with the Deuteronomistic writings and their constant awe for David. Those Hebrews, clinging to the old ways of prophecy, revelation, temple worship, and wisdom literature, would respect David as a great but fallen king, and could be frank about his disobedience without betraying their Hebrew roots. They could appreciate the parallels between the young righteous David and Nephi, and could name a land after David, but had no need to make David a touchstone of their faith.

When we consider Beshears' valuable questions in light of broader scholarship, we see that once again, we may have an interesting reversal on our hands, where a sloppy blunder in the "mormonic" text that allegedly disproves its historicity in reality leaves it in a surprisingly strong position.

Overall, I appreciate the meaningful questions posed by Beshears, but am gravely disappointed by the neglect of Nephi's Psalm and many other relevant issues, and fear his work is more driven by an agenda rather than a genuine inquiry into the issues before him.  I hope it can be updated and revised in light of some of the issues I raise here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

As Good as Money in the Bank? Time to Worry More

A friend of mine, an attorney, had a job in California for a year and for convenience opened a bank account there with Wells-Fargo. He paid California income taxes that year, then left California and continued working in another state. He still had over $20,000 in his account. About three years later while he was in California again, he went back to a local branch office and asked to take his money out of his account. No need -- there was nothing left.

He learned that the State of California had assumed he was still working there and should have kept paying state income taxes as he had done one year, so they did the natural thing: estimated how much he should have been paying, then reached into his bank account and took their fare share, which turned out to be everything in the account. He was aghast. He explained (I think this was to a Dept. of Revenue official) that he had never been notified of any problem. Why hadn't he been warned? "Oh, if we warn people, they will move money out of their account so we won't be able to take it." No due process. The State will take it wants when it wants from your bank, based on whatever wild assumptions some bureaucrat makes.

The day before I heard this story from my friend, I was reading a newsletter from Simon Black of SovereignMan.com. His mother, a quiet, normal US citizen who has been a loyal customer of her local bank for 20 years or so, suddenly found her funds had been frozen by the bank. She couldn't make payments or take any money out. She learned that the bank had detected an "unusual transaction" and thus locked down her account. The unusual transaction? A $300 donation to support the Trump campaign. Definitely unusual, but not a direct threat to national security, regardless of how dangerous you think the new President is. I'm not sure how long it took or will take for her to get her money back, but that this can happen at all is troubling.

If your bank account(s) were shut down or emptied by some government or bank official on a power trip, or wiped out by a hacker, would you be able to get by while you tried to resolve the problem? Could you survive for couple of months without access to electronic funds? It's a question you need to ask yourself. Yes, food storage is going to be important in such times. But one of the other vital steps you should take right away is to store some cash in a safe place. Cash is freedom, which is why tyrants these days despise it and paint it as merely the tool of terrorists and drug lords. Cash can't be whittled away by negative interest rates (that insane, horrific idea is spreading to much of the world and may come your way soon) to support the spending dreams of tyrants. There is a war on cash globally, but for now, it's still legal in the US to have it and use it, so I recommend you get some.

Banks in the US are now viewed by the government as the first line of defense in tracking down criminals. They are required to turn over all sorts of personal information to the government and to make all of your funds available for their control, at their whim.The US has been lucky so far, but people all over the world have experienced the dangers of trusting banks. In Malta, a government that had spent way too much needed more, and simply gave itself the right to reach into bank accounts of high-income people (governments love to justify their actions by saying that their theft is only being done on the rich, to make them pay their fair share -- but almost all of us can be defined to be rich when thieves in power get greedy). In Greece and many other nations, economic crisis was met with sudden restrictions on how much could be taken out of a bank account. And in many, perhaps most US banks, if only about 1 or 2% of the average customers want to take out all their money, the bank could be brought to its knees.

In fact, in the US, the total amount of printed currency is estimated to be less than 5% of the digital assets people have, so imagine what would happen if a large number of people wanted to get their hands on actual cash instead of leaving money in a place where bureaucrats, errant bank officials, or hackers with the CIA's ultimate tools could reach in and take everything? There is not enough physical money to handle a relatively small exodus from digital accounts. There is not enough physical cash or bank capital to handle a significant economic crisis or a mild run on the banks.

When your money is in a bank, it's no longer your money being protected by the bank. It's money you have lent to the bank in hopes that it will be there when you need it. It's not enough to trust your local bank officials, even if they are remarkably honest people. You also need to be able to trust your government, and to trust the future of the US economy, if you want to trust that your money in the bank is safe. Until then, recognize that it can all vanish in a hurry, or maybe just a little at a time, but it's not nearly as secure as you might think.

There are other steps to consider. Multiple accounts might help. An overseas account in a much safer bank than typical US banks would be wise, but is now almost impossible for Americans due to the burdensome requirements the US government imposes on foreign banks in the name of cracking down on criminals (FACTA, etc.). There are a few places where it is possible, but generally nobody wants to talk to an American looking to have a Plan B for when the next economic crisis sweeps the States. As always, let me also suggest that if you can, some precious metals can be useful, maybe even stored in an offshore location like Singapore (Simon Black recommends that). And yes, please keep working on your food storage and emergency preparedness.

These things matter and can be a difference between disaster and mere grievance, or the difference between helping your family and your neighbors solve problems in times of trouble rather than being part of the problem.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Creation and God's Love: Hints from a Surprise Encounter with a Geologist

On Sunday I'll be speaking at District Conference for the the Shanghai International District on the topic of the Creation. I'll begin with a journal entry of mine from August 1995:
I'd like to share a recent experience with you that points to the kindness of God and perhaps His desire for us to appreciate the wonders of His artwork in nature. I just got back from a wonderful vacation in the western United States (mostly southern Utah), where the wonders of God's creation can overwhelm the observer. (The majesty of one location -- Cedar Breaks National Monument -- literally brought my wife to tears.) A geologist and relative of mine, Paul Crosby, had taken us on a brief tour around the St. George area, explaining some of the processes that had created such strange beauty. A few days later, my three-year old son and I were walking along a deserted trail (once a road) on Butler Hill, right next to the Wasatch Mountains [near Big Cottonwood Canyon] by Salt Lake City. I was surprised at the huge variety of rocks I was finding -- igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary, in many colors and shapes. I paused and examined the setting and the beautiful mountains and wondered how such variety was possible on that former shore of Lake Bonneville.
As I looked over the valley and recalled the inspiring morning with a geologist a few days earlier, I wished that I could talk to a geologist again to better appreciate that part of God's creation. My son and I then returned to picking through the many rock piles, looking for treasures of beauty. Just moments later, a man and his dog strolled by on that isolated lane. He interrupted us, saying, "I noticed that you are looking at the rocks here." Before I could say anything, he began to explain why there was such a variety of rocks to be found. The road that once went up this hill had been closed off by dumping random truckloads of rocks from around the state of Utah -- whatever rocks Salt Lake County happened to have it its trucks. As a result, there were varieties of lava rock from southern Utah, rocks from the Oquirrh mountain range, granites from Alta Canyon, metamorphic rocks from elsewhere in the Salt Lake area, and even some loads containing Indian artifacts.
I was impressed and asked him how he was so well informed. "I'm a geologist for the State of Utah and have studied this area." Thrilled, I bombarded him with a number of other questions before he had to go, thus learning the identities of many of the rocks that had stirred my curiosity. It was a true treat for me -- and a marvelous blessing.
The Lord may seem to ignore most of our foolish pleas and may choose to let us suffer pain and disappointment for our own good, somehow, but through it all His loving kindness shows in marvelous ways. That gentle but flagrant act of kindness -- sending a geologist to visit me on an isolated stretch of long-closed road -- shows me something about the loving Parent we worship. Not only is He kind, but He wants us to know about His works and appreciate them -- even to the point of sending a geologist our way at just the right time.
Blessings of love, comfort, and knowledge, the tender mercies of the Lord, can come in quiet, easy moments or in times of turmoil even as we are in distress and the powers of darkness rage against us. We may not find the relief we want now in our biggest trials here in mortality, but we can find treasures of knowledge, inspiration and evidences of God's love.

It was in what may have been Joseph Smith's darkest hour, after months of suffering in the cold, gloomy prison called Liberty Jail, when he turned to the Lord in anguish, as recorded in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants from March 1839, and wondered where God was and how He could ignore the cries of the suffering Saints who had been driven from their homes by violent mobs. The Lord answered but did not remove the problems. But He did give assurance and revelation. Interestingly, part of this assurance and revelation dealt with the wonders of the Creation and the details that would be revealed in the future:
26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;

 27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;

 28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.

 29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 30 And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—

 31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—

 32 According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest.
God seems to care about the details and wonders of the Creation, and I think we should, too. These words in Section 121 echo a previous revelation from 1833, recorded in Section 101, when the Lord hinted at what would be revealed in the great Millennium about the glory of the Creation. But what good is that to those who will have died already? Do they miss out on those blessings? Section 101 kindly reminds us all of us can participate in those blessings of knowledge and glory and that we need not worry about missing out, though patience will be needed:
32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—
 33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof—
 34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.
 35 And all they who suffer persecution for my name, and endure in faith, though they are called to lay down their lives for my sake yet shall they partake of all this glory.
 36 Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.
The knowledge the Lord wishes to share in the future about the Creation is described as "most precious," and is part of what the Lord describes as "glory" of which we can partake. This earth, this galaxy, this cosmos, are majestic and glorious and to know them is to encounter the glory of God in a sense.  This is knowledge to seek, to yearn for, to treasure, and today, more of that is already available than ever before in human history. What a wonderful time to be alive!

And yet what a trying and difficult time for many, a time that challenges us to do more to bring relief and hope to other, to do more to proclaim peace, to do more to prepare for trouble ahead, to do more to resist the evil and pain that interrupts the joy that should be found in our lives. There are still greater trials ahead for this planet and far more tears to be shed, though none of us will have to descend below what Christ has taken upon Himself in bearing our sins and tasting our pains in His infinite Atonement. The great Creator Himself, the Son of God who carried out the Creation under direction of the Father, also took the pains and anguish of our sins upon Him that He might be able to comfort us and bring true deliverance in the end thus fulfilling the grand purposes of the Creation. That is the greatest source of glory in God's creative work.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cabbie Fail: A New Convert Learns the Blessings of Kindness

Yesterday a new convert in one of the Shanghai area branches shared a story she experienced shortly after her baptism. The woman is from Shanghai, married to a foreigner. When she chose to be baptized, her Chinese parents thought it was a bad idea and were very skeptical. Shortly afterwards, she organized a trip in which she took her parents and husband on a trip to Nanjing.

As part of her detailed preparations to make everything perfect, she had arranged for a cabbie to meet them at the train station and take them to their hotel. The cabbie called 30 minutes before they arrived and said he was waiting. She explained he would need to wait. He waited, but when they arrived they could not find him. This began a lengthy comedy of errors with the cabbie explaining where he was and with them explaining where they were, repeatedly sharing descriptions and even photos of where they were. It was a hot, humid day and after about one hour of frustration trying to find their cabbie, they gave up and took another cab.

Based on some of the details she shared, it sounded like they were at Nanjing South station and the cabbie was at the main Nanjing station to the north, since he mentioned he could see a lake from his location and they could see no sign of a lake. But the old station itself is big, complicated, with messy traffic, and perhaps they were both at the main station.

In any case, the woman told the cabbie that she would pay him electronically. Cabs are often hired using one of a couple different phone apps and payment can then be made electronically. The father objected and said that she should not pay him and that she should give him a bad rating on the app. She should not throwing away her money and treat such bad service with kindness. The woman felt that she might have acted this way before her conversion, but now she felt a desire to be kind to others and recognized that money was not that important. Because of her new faith, she chose to be patient with the cabbie, to pay him for his time and attempted service, and to be forgiving.

Three days later, when it was time to move on, she used a different software tool to order another cab. As she and her family got in, the cabbie remarked that they seemed to have a Shanghai accent and asked if they were from Shanghai. Yes. Then he asked if they were the people that had tried to find him at the Nanjing train station three days earlier. Yes! It was the very same cabbie, out of thousands in Nanjing, a city of 8 million people (yes, 8 million) and thousands of cabs, I would say far more than any American city. Because she had treated hm kindly before, he was happy to see them. She was happy to see him. And if I understood correctly, her parents were happy with what she had done. "We were all happy."

This was a tender mercy of the Lord, in my opinion. An impossible little coincidence to show her family the blessings the Gospel had brought to her life and to remind her, her family, and all of us that the strangers we interact with are our brothers and sisters. We should never use the illusion of anonymity to justify unkindness to another person. We should never justify poor behavior with the delusion that we will never see someone else again. May we be patient with others and always kind. And may we also realize that sometimes the error we think we see in someone else is because we are standing in the wrong place.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Slot Machines and Video Games: What You Need to Know About Their Addictive Design

The lives of some people very close to me have been shaken by one man's long-denied gambling addiction. I can't go into details. As in many cases, there is a complex mix of mitigating and exacerbating factors and I think I can understand what the man is going through and why he feels what he is doing is the right thing for him. But in light of its impact on his family and his career, I wish he had pursued a different path. In light of what I have seen gambling do to others in the States and here in China, I detest that institution and the vermin of the industry who prey on the vulnerable.

The gambling industry's primary source of profit is the slot machine. It is amazing how addicted people become to slot machines, sitting in front of them for hours and hours as their savings or borrowings are whittled away. The Atlantic Monthly has an excellent read about the design of video games and their deliberately designed features aimed at creating and rewarding addiction. Please see "How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts" by John Rosengren. I feel it's important to understand how the Adversary and his corporate allies have so artfully and craftily designed these systems to destroy their victims through addiction. In fact, this would be a good article to discuss with your kids, with your home teaching families (as I have done in one case so far), and others in your ward and circle of friends. It's a painful read because of the gritty details in a few lives shattered by gambling, but I think you will benefit, especially from the background information about the industry and its designs on you and your loved ones.

There's a science to the design of addictive slot machines. A profound understanding of human psychology and the response to various forms of stimulus is employed to keep people hooked. The principles used are similar to those employed in modern video games. They are designed to keep people playing for long periods of time. It's a design that creates addicts. Here in China, where a large fraction of the young men show signs of addiction, it is greatly damaging their lives. Video game addiction is less costly than gambling. There are probably very few suicides and less financial fraud driven by this addiction compared to gambling. But too many people quit advancing intellectually, spiritually, and perhaps even physically (less exercise) as they get pulled into the empty illusory world of video games. (Tip: If you are giving up sleep, work, school, and social interactions in the physical world to spend every possible minute gaming, you may have a problem.)

Many LDS families struggle with this challenge. What are the best practices parents can take to reduce the risk of addiction? Some of the more successful families I know have strict rules to limit TV and games and do much to encourage other activities like reading, sports, and other aspects of a healthy life. What are your suggestions?

Update: Yes, I recognize that there are important differences between gambling games such as slots or video poker and gambling-free computer games. Computer games have been used to teach useful schools, can be wholesome and fun in social settings, etc. But addiction can be devastating. I've seen too many bright people drop out of school, perform poorly at work, and show general lack of motivation for anything except video games. In one case I was close too, a young man with a great new job lost almost everything due to the after effects of research fraud driven by his addiction to a really stupid video game.

Measuring video game addiction is challenging and controversial. Is addiction a genuine problem in just 0.5% of video game players, as mentioned in a valuable article from Psychology Today?  That number seems surprisingly low compared to the number of parents I see who believe that their kids are addicted to video games and compared to the number who seem to me to be messing up their lives with excessive, compulsive video gaming. But perhaps the level of addiction considered there is more extreme, especially given some of the examples of tragedy mentioned there. If not 0.5%, is the level of addiction closer to the 3% or 8% figures from studies mentioned in an article in the Economist? Or is it 50% (here in China, for example), which still may seem low in the eyes of some parents, educators, and bosses frustrated with the vigor-impairing apparent addictions in those they are trying to strengthen and motivate? If you have a reliable measure, let me know.