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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Ignore Complexity: A Broad Look at a Basic Book of Mormon Issue

The more complex a machine is, the more beautiful and awe-inspiring it can be. Great Swiss watches, though far beyond my budget, inspire me with their craft and brilliance. In my mission in Switzerland, I often enjoyed looking at them through shop windows. How can so much be so reliably and accurately executed in so little space? They are modern marvels.

The machinery of a cell is even more inspiring, with the endless array of machines within the machine that build, transport, repair, verify, and disassemble to keep the intricate gears of life rolling in mind-numbing order. Then the products of the numerous differentiated cells of the human body leave me simply overwhelmed. Just looking at any of the minute mechanisms within, such as the complex of about 25 proteins in the plasma of our blood that can self-assemble on demand to form blood clots. Cooler and more practical than the Transformer robots of modern movies.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon is something else to consider. It is complex in much the same way that the Bible is, for it reveals many different sources and authors that have been brought together to tell a grand story. We should respect the complexity of Bible origins clarified through the scholarship related to the Documentary Hypothesis, regardless of how accurate the specific conclusions and dating of the individual sources may be. If the Bible as we have it today had been lost for centuries and were to be regenerated by a single man stepping forward with what he claimed was a legitimate Bible text, the complexity of that document would be difficult to explain as a modern fraud. Even if all we had to work with were an English translation such as the KJV text, we could see the evidence of many different source documents and different voices that gave us a complex text.

A great overview of the issue of complexity in the Book of Mormon comes from this recent video at Book of Mormon Central:

The Book of Mormon is much like the Bible in this regard. It has complex origins with many writers from across a broad period of time, documents from multiple sets of plates, with many different genres and styles of writing, and distinct voices in spite of a unifying English language style. The deep intertextuality, the consistent geography, the stories within stories that remain consistent, the clean and consistent details about sources, the abundant Hebraisms and ancient poetical elements, all demand much more respect than it has received from the world.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon would demand respect if it had been a lifelong project with many careful revisions over a period of years, but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat? This is a miracle that remains unexplained in spite of all the efforts of critics to find potential sources, maps, scholars, anything that could help. Yet it was created in an information vacuum far from a library and, again, simply dictated to scribes by a man without a manuscript or even a Bible to quote from when dealing with Bible-relevant passages.

How does such clock-like precision in the text arise from chance mutterings from a hat unless what was happening is what Joseph and his witnesses said: a marvelous work and a wonder from God, divinely aiding Joseph in delivering the translation of an ancient text almost as complex as the Bible?


C T said...

I'm a voracious reader. One thing I notice over and over in fiction is that authors seldom master giving different ways of speaking to different characters. Yet the Book of Mormon has very clear differences between its characters' ways of speaking. I even recognize those differences through a translation into another language like German or Polish. It's fascinating evidence of either Joseph's literary genius or the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an amalgamation of many people's words. I think Joseph Smith was great, but he has never seemed like a genius to me.

Anonymous said...

I had a thought in regards to this today:

“but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat?”

The assumption in this statement is that Joseph dictated the BoM in this short amount of time out of thin air—that he was either translating or fabricating the story in real time as his scribes wrote it down. There is evidence from Lucy Smith that Joseph workshopped his tales for years in front of his family, which information I have shared in previous posts. I realized today that there is corroborative evidence of this in the experience of Oliver Cowdery when he tried, and failed, to translate. Consider this language from the D&C (emphasis added by me):

7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

These passages provide us with a glimpse into Joseph’s translation process. To me it’s obvious from this language that he thought beforehand about what he was going to have his scribe write down—enough so that he was able to feel he had received confirmation from God that what he was to say was correct. I’m not sure how one could have such confidence without some form of preparation. Combine this with Lucy’s description of him relating the Nephite’s dress, mode of travel, etc, and it’s pretty clear that the book wasn’t created in a mere 70 days out of a hat.