Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Scimitars in the Book of Mormon

Regarding "cimeters" or scimitars, some anti-Mormon publications have alleged that scimitars were unknown in Book of Mormon times, and were not invented until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. This is another argument based on inadequate research. If the term "cimeter" refers to a curved sword, such weapons were in use in the Middle East well before 600 B.C. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of New York (a fabulous reason to visit New York!) has a curved Egyptian sword from the 23rd Dynasty, 893-870 B.C. This and a large body of additional evidence on the use of scimitars in ancient times is given by Dr. Paul Y. Hoskisson in "Scimitars, Cimeters! We Have Scimitars! Do We Need Another Cimeter?" in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), pp. 352-359. In light of the abundant evidence, Hoskisson says, "There can be no question that scimitars, or sickle swords, were known in the ancient Near East during the Late Bronze Period, that is, about six hundred years prior to Lehi's departure from Jerusalem." Evidence of scimitar-like weapons in Mesoamerica is presented by William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill in "Notes on the Cimeter (Scimitar) in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, pp. 360-364. Also see "Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon" by Matthew Roper, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999, pp. 34-43.

Wikipedia's article on scimitars states the following, as of June 30, 2007:
Scimitars in history
In the form of the khopesh, the scimitar started playing a sometimes significant role in Middle Eastern warfare more than two millennia before the advent of Islam. Famed scholar and Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass asserts that the Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty (circa 1600 B.C.) used new weapons technologies borrowed from the Hyksos, including "the scimitar" as important tools in fostering Egypt's regional domination which characterized much of the New Kingdom period [Zahi Hawass, Tutankhamun And the Golden Age of the Pharoahs, Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2005, p. 21-22]. Some might judge the Hawass' use of the term anachronistic but nonetheless this provides evidence for the use of something akin to the scimitar in well before the development of the Persian shamshir.

New Data on Utah and Bankruptcies: Tithing Linked to Lower Risk

A new study shows that Utah's relatively high rate of bankruptcy isn't directly tied to the LDS faith. In fact, non-Mormons in Utah are somewhat more likely than Mormons to go bankrupt, and those who pay tithing are about 1/3 as likely to file bankruptcy. The key factor in the high bankruptcy rate may be the large family size that is typical in Utah. More children means more financial stress. This could be a cultural and not purely religious factor, since both Mormon and non-Mormon families in Utah tend to have large families- it's a family oriented state. In any case, having 50% more children per adult than the national average clearly leads to financial stress and higher bankruptcies. But there's a positive side to this: "nationally, households with children are 300 percent more likely to file for bankruptcy than households without children. But in Utah, that percentage dropped to 191 percent." So even though having kids puts you at financial risk, the risk may be lower than normal in Utah.

My experience in working with many people in the Church confirms one thing: to reduce financial trouble in your life, pay tithing. Even without the divine blessings that definitely occur in some cases, the discipline that tithing imposes really helps many people manage their finances better. And if you can learn to pay 10% as tithing, in many cases you should also be able to make the sacrifices needed to also put away at least 10% as savings.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Dangers of Studying Other Religions

Some of our critics warn their congregations against reading the Book of Mormon, and with good reason: in spite of being such an obvious and moronic forgery, utterly devoid of value, without a single redeeming virtue, it is a powerful conversion tool that has transformed millions of lives, brought people to Jesus Christ, and helped people find meaning and joy. Can you imagine what might happen if it weren't such obvious trash?? I can understand why other ministers would be concerned about the dangers of exposure to such literature, literature that make make members of their flock drift away. It's actually fairly logical for them to tell their people to not read the Book of Mormon, and especially not to pray about it. There is real danger, from their perspective.

These dangers cut both ways, and this month my family was shaken by the effects of some non-Christian religious materials I had in my home. I didn't think I would be putting my family at risk just by having a couple books on Eastern religions in my basement - famous last words. Tragically, our little granddaughter, who just turned one year old but is extremely precocious, got a hold of the books and studied them. The photos below show what happened the next day at the park. If the winds had been a little stronger, who knows how far she would have drifted. She was about 8 feet above the ground when I snapped these shots, shortly before my tall son was able to catch her. Now her parents keep her strapped down much of the time, especially when driving. It might be years before they dare to leave her completely unattended.

Whatever you do, please don't let your kids meditate over Eastern religious materials - especially the uplifting stuff.

My granddaughter doing Transcendental Meditation in the woods.

Note: In fairness to my son, I should admit that I edited my son's hands out of the image. She was having fun being tossed, but it wasn't dangerously high.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Understanding the Mountain Meadow Massacre: Historical Insight from Richard E. Turley, Jr. vs. the Deception of September Dawn

The trailer of September Dawn shows that a truly deceptive and hostile film is being unleashed to stir up anger and fear about the Mormons. I think Latter-day Saints need to be prepared to discuss what actually happened, including the fact that the evidence shows Brigham Young absolutely did not authorize the massacre and actually insisted that there should be no meddling with the immigrants, who should be allowed to pass through in peace. While I anxiously await a new book to be published by Richard Turley and others, we do have a new advance article from him, "Remembering the Mountain Meadows Massacre." It will be in the September Ensign but is available online now at LDS.org (a copy is also available at LDSMag.com (Meridian Magazine)). Here's one excerpt:
President Young's express message of reply to Haight, dated September 10, arrived in Cedar City two days after the massacre. His letter reported recent news that no U.S. troops would be able to reach the territory before winter.

"So you see that the Lord has answered our prayers and again averted the blow designed for our heads," he wrote.

"In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements," Young continued, "we must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of[.] [I]f those who are there will leave let them go in peace. While we should be on the alert, on hand and always ready we should also possess ourselves in patience, preserving ourselves and property ever remembering that God rules."

When Haight read Young's words, he sobbed like a child and could manage only the words, "Too late, too late."
Turley's research provides important insights into the mistakes of Isaac Haight and the conditions that allowed other local people to be drawn into the tragedy. There are lessons that we must never forget: the dangers of deception, the dangers of "just following orders", and the insidious evil of violence for anything other than self-defense.
Today, some massacre victims' descendants and collateral relatives are Latter-day Saints. These individuals are in an uncommon position because they know how it feels to be both a Church member and a relative of a victim.

James Sanders is the great-great-grandson of Nancy Saphrona Huff, one of the children who survived the massacre. "I still feel pain, I still feel anger and sadness that the massacre happened," said Brother Sanders. "But I know that the people who did this will be accountable before the Lord, and that brings me peace."

Brother Sanders, who serves as a family history consultant in the Snowflake Fifth Ward, Snowflake Arizona Stake, said that learning his ancestor had been killed in the massacre "didn't affect my faith because it's based on Jesus Christ, not on any person in the Church."

Sharon Chambers of the 18th Ward, Ensign Salt Lake City Utah Stake, is the great- granddaughter of child survivor Rebecca Dunlap. "The people who did this had lost their way. I don't know what was in their minds or in their hearts," she said. "I feel sorrow that this happened to my ancestors. I also feel sorrow that people have blamed the acts of some on an entire group, or on an entire religion."

The Mountain Meadows Massacre has continued to cause pain and controversy for 150 years. During the past two decades, descendants and other relatives of the emigrants and the perpetrators have at times worked together to memorialize the victims. These efforts have had the support of President Gordon B. Hinckley, officials of the state of Utah, and other institutions and individuals.

Among the products of this cooperation have been the construction of two memorials at the massacre site and the placing of plaques commemorating the Arkansas emigrants. Descendant groups, Church leaders and members, and civic officials continue to work toward reconciliation and will participate in various memorial services this September at the Mountain Meadows.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

RIchard Bushman: Eloquent Discussion of the Church on the Pew Forum

Mail from a couple of sources has pointed me to "Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?," a Pew Forum discussion back in May with Richard Bushman discussing the Church and answering numerous questions from journalists and others. Great discussion of topics stemming from public misgivings about Mormons, especially Mormons in politics. Fascinating reading!

One brief excerpt:
That split image applies also to Mormonism's history, which also divides right down the middle. We think of the 19th century as a time when Mormonism was radical in about every dimension you can imagine, while in the 20th and 21st centuries Mormons are considered conservative in about every dimension you can imagine. When Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a place to deliver a commencement address to a safe audience, he wrote to Brigham Young University. He gave the talk there this year.

The interesting thing is that this switch from radicalism to conservatism occurred in such a short period of time, from about 1890, when polygamy ended, to about 1910, after the Reed Smoot hearings, which I'll talk about a little more later on.

So the question is, Which is the true Mormonism? Which is the one that is most likely to affect Mitt Romney?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cramming for the Eternal Salvation Quiz: One Wrong Theological Answer and You're Doomed

Do you ever get frustrated with those who seem to say that Mormons are doomed because they've got some detail of theology wrong? Our failure to understand and accept Trinitarian notions is a common example, along with a host of scriptures where critics find that their interpretation differes from ours - thus demonstrating that we "worship a different Jesus" or are nonchristian or just simply doomed to suffer in hell. That Eternal Salvation Quiz is a tough one - one wrong answer and you're doomed.

One of my favorite books for addressing such issues is How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation by Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997, 228 pp). Blomberg is an Evangelical Christian scholar who takes on a series of topics in conversation with Professor Robinson from BYU. It's a fascinating read as they civilly discuss the similarities and differences in their beliefs. This book can dispel many misunderstandings among our fellow Christians who have been deceived into thinking that we don't believe in Christ. It can also be helpful for Latter-day Saints seeking to better understand and defend our religion.

Here are a couple excerpts from Stephen Robinson in a section on Christ and the Trinity:
Evangelicals often accuse Latter-day Saints of worshipping a "different Jesus" because we believe some things about Jesus than cannot be proven with the Bible. However, I would point out that John thought Jesus was crucified before Passover (Jn 19:14, 18:28), so that the Last Supper was not the Passover mean, while Matthew, Mark and Luke say Jesus ate the Passover with the disciples and was crucified the morning after (Mk 14:12; Mt 26:17-19; Lk 22:13-15). Is John (or the Synoptics) writing about "a different Jesus," or do they simply disagree on the details concerning one Jesus? If some Christians think Jesus had siblings and other Christians think he did not, or if some think he stayed in Egypt for years while other think it was merely weeks or months, do they worship different beings? If I think Jesus liked his veggies and you think he didn't, are we therefore talking about two different people? . . . This charge, that people worship "a different Jesus" if they disagree over any detail of his character or history, is simply a rhetorical device, a trick of language. (pp. 136-137)
Brother Robinson asks some good questions here. I've seen abundant recent evidence that for many of our religious opponents, the answer to these questions would be "YES - of course you're not Christian if you disagree with us on some detail." One Christian critic recently told me that Satan's main tool is slipping in a little error with a lot of truth, just like adding a drop of poison to an otherwise wholesome plate of food. If 99% of our faith is right but we have 1% error, then it's from Satan and we're not Christian . I quickly gave up on that person lest I shake his faith completely by exposing him to the fact that significant portions of his faith be shown to be not only in sharp disagreement with other equally legitimate Christian faiths, but also to have questionable and apparently man-made origins. And I have seen MANY critics, including ministers and supposedly highly educated people, take a single verse of scripture such as John 4:24 (God is spirit) and use their interpretation of that verse (often not even appreciating that significant interpretation was being done!) to argue that we aren't Christian because we interpret it differently. And the irony is that their interpretation is typically based on theological and philosophical developments that came centuries after the Bible, leading to conclusions and perspectives that would be highly bewildering to men like Peter and Paul of the New Testament.

So yes, Brother Robinson, if two alleged Christians differ on some detail about Jesus, it's clear that one of them believes in a different Jesus and is headed for eternal damnation. Actually, both of them if they are Mormon. You see, our actions have nothing to do with our eternal state, just the accuracy of the theology in our heads, and since Mormons think they have to believe in Christ AND seek to follow Him (the correct is just "believe"), they lose all benefit of believing due to the fatal error of thinking they should also follow and obey. Nice try, but Mormons lose. They and anyone else who don't score 100% on the Eternal Salvation Quiz (ESQ) will suffer in hell forever. So study up!

Robinson also addresses a number of issues where Latter-day Saints aren't fully comfortable with Evangelical views. The issue of the Trinity is a great example. Robinson notes that key terms in the creeds (such as inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, insperably, and subsistence) aren't in the Bible, so how can they fairly be used as a test for biblical orthodoxy? (p. 137) "If the biblical teaching about the Trinity really is imprecise or ambiguous in some respects and may as a result be coherently interpreted in more than one way, then by what authority do the councils "amend" it?" (pp. 137-138). Is there a risk of men adding to scripture here?

I would also ask if the Bible is the ultimate authority and all that we need, then how is it that our sola scriptura Christian brethren condemn as nonchristian because we don't fully agree with the language in post-Biblical creeds hammered out by bickering men four centuries after Christ? Robinson points out that the LDS view on the nature of God has pretty strong biblical support.
For example, in support of the subordinationist view of the LDS and of the early Church Fathers, I can refer among many other passages of scripture to John 14:28, where Jesus flatly states, "My father is greater than I." What biblical passages can the "orthodox" cite that state in equally clear language the opposing view as formulated at Nicaea and Chalcedon, that the father and the Son are "eternally co-equal"? There are none. This view can only be arrived at by first accepting the Greek concept of deity and then working backward to reinterpret the Scriptures. Latter-day Saints perceive this as the tail wagging the dog of Scripture. (p. 138)
Again with some irony, those who demand acceptance of post-biblical creeds to be considered Christian also commonly condemn Mormons as nonchristian cultists because we have "added" something to the Bible. Do any of our critics sense something awkward in that position?

Robinson makes a wise statement on p. 141:
If we would each admit that we share a common acceptance of the Bible while rejecting the other's additions to it (the councils and creeds on your side and the revelations of Joseph Smith on mine), we would find we share far more than we dispute. This could serve as a ground for cooperation, dialogue, and increased tolerance and respect. . . .

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Appalled at Hollywood's Marketing to Christians

The trailer to the film Evan Almighty offended me more than most of the R-rated movie trailers. Does Hollywood think believing people are a bunch idiotic buffoons who have no real reverence for God, and that we'll pay to watch our faith mocked (probably without even realizing it)? Yes, clearly. And maybe there are millions of you out there. But most faithful Christians and Jews have profound respect for God, and ought to be appalled at flippant portrayals of Him as a comedian with nothing more profound to say than slogans from popular bumper stickers.

I felt a lot less alone (though still on the uptight side) in my reaction after reading the comments of a non-believer who has the intelligence to understand what religion is about and how grotesque this Hollywood exploitation of religion is. Jump over to Slate and read David Plotz's review, "Just Say Noah: Evan Almighty's appalling effort to pander to religious moviegoers." Mr. Plotz's reaction resonated strongly with my response to the publicity of this allegedly "family film" (don't damage your children's respect for God and religion by taking them to this offensive film, which I refuse to see).
Universal has hired a religious marketing firm to sell Evan Almighty to churches and religious leaders, hoping to capture the same hundreds of millions in Christ dollars raked in by The Passion, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Bruce Almighty. If they succeed, it will be tragic, not because Evan Almighty is unfunny (although it certainly is), but because it will validate Hollywood's embarrassingly stupid approach to religion and faith. If I were a believing man, movies like Evan would make me long for the days when Hollywood just ignored God. . . .

No, what's disturbing about Evan Almighty is its flaccid approach to faith. All that is compelling, moving, and profound about the Noah story has been systematically excised. In the Bible, God chooses Noah to survive because Noah is a righteous man. But Evan is faithless and stupid, and comes to believe in God only because God hammers him over the head with about 137 miracles. Any moron will believe when an omnipotent divine being appears in the back seat of his car and starts sending him pairs of lions and giraffes. The lesson of the Bible is that faith is hard, and unrewarding, and painful. Faith is belief when there are no giraffes.

Shadyac told one early screening of religious leaders that he wants to use the film "to spread the idea of the good news." But Evan Almighty also strips away anything Christian (or Jewish) about the story and replaces it with a message of universal hokum. God's entire instruction to his flock? Practice "acts of random kindness." (Look at the initial letters of that phrase.) That's not religion or even morality. It's a coffee mug slogan. The proof of Evan's redemption is that he starts to like dogs.

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but Evan Almighty makes me miss The Passion. It was a sadistic, horrifying movie, about a bloody and terrifying book. But Mel Gibson captured the sense of the story, the ideas of suffering and sacrifice that undergird Christianity. Evan Almighty is evidence that Hollywood wants the trappings of faith in movies, but without the substance.
Plotz misses the offense that Christians and Jews should feel at the ludicrous and most truly vain depiction of God in the film, a painful feature of the earlier Bruce Almighty travesty and several other Hollywood movies featuring God portrayed by a comedian in a comic manner. But he is keen in picking up on some key problems that I hope will give you the faith to spend your money on something else besides Evan Almighty.

The McCain Camp Smear on Mormons

Some people helping Senator McCain's campaign are quietly providing helpful new information for those seeking to better understand Mormons: Mitt Romney's church (the "Mormon Church") is actually supporting terrorists, Mormon leaders are like the Taliban gang, and Mormons are not Christians. (Sloppy journalists at the Boston Globe left out the part about our weekly child sacrifices and our dislike of rock and roll music - also sure to be key talking points for Senator McCain's whisper campaign.) So there's the foundation of hope for McCain: bringing Americans together to reject anti-American, unchristian, pro-terrorist oppressors of women and promoters of violence.

McCain's political team and other campaign teams have an interesting pattern of making bigoted statements about Mormons and then issuing apologies later, explaining that it was just a joke or misunderstood. We must stop this kind of bigotry and name-calling, and I'd like to apologize in advance for any of us Mormons who make rude statements in reply, such as stating that religious bigots are a bunch of ninnies. Oops! That won't happen again. Ninnies. Or again.

Some excerpts from the Boston Globe (Boston.com) (page 1 and page 2):
Gathering for their April meeting at the county courthouse, Republican activists from Warren County, Iowa, planned for this summer's county fair and vented about illegal immigration.

And then the county chairman for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, Chad Workman, made an unexpected digression: He took direct aim at Mitt Romney's religion, according to four people at the meeting.

Workman questioned whether Mormons were Christians, discussed an article alleging that the Mormon Church helps fund Hamas, and likened the Mormons' treatment of women to the Taliban's, said participants, who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting freely.

One participant summed up Workman's argument this way: "The fundamental flaw of Mitt Romney . . . was that he was Mormon, not because he thinks this way or that way on one issue."

Workman did not return calls seeking comment. . . .

Romney has faced repeated slights against his religion from other quarters as well. A Florida televangelist, Bill Keller, told followers recently that a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan. And a small group of worshipers from the Faith Christian Outreach Church in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, has been going door-to-door distributing a DVD that takes a critical look at the Mormon Church.

"Our concern was simply that Mormonism has continued to try and pass itself off as a Christian religion, which it is not," said Monte Knudsen, senior pastor at the church, who insisted the effort was not aimed at hurting Romney's candidacy. . . .

Romney's detractors have also used e-mail to stir suspicions about his faith. One note sent to South Carolina voters warned of the "dark suspicions" about Mormonism, telling recipients to "trust your instincts" because "Mitt Romney has a family secret he doesn't want you to know," Salon, the online magazine, reported recently. The "secret" was the long-acknowledged fact that Romney has polygamous ancestors, Salon reported.
Again, deprecating terms such as "religious bigot," "son of Belial," "loser" and "ninny" are contrary to the lofty editorial standards of this blog and will not be tolerated again, even when blogging about them - especially religious bigot ninnies.

Disclosure: I'm not associated with the Romney campaign and actually lean toward a different candidate, but am appalled at the religious bigotry shown by some of Romney's opponents (you know, the religious bigot ninny types).

Friday, June 22, 2007

How Could Joseph Smith Have Known of Ancient Civilizations in the Americas?

I'm thrilled to see that FARMS (the Maxwell Institute) offers a good selection of free books online. One of my favorites there is Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch. A chapter by John L. Sorenson is "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," which begins with this thought-provoking passage:
Some statements in the Book of Mormon about ancient Near Eastern lands, concepts, and activities might have been incorporated into the Nephite text because a nineteenth-century writer, such as Joseph Smith Jr. or Sidney Rigdon, knew about ancient lifeways through reading the Bible or secular sources accessible before 1830. But once the Book of Mormon story claims to be taking place in an American setting, such an argument makes no sense, for nobody knew enough by 1830 to get so many facts right. At point after point the scripture accurately reflects the culture and history of ancient Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America). Where did such information come from if not through Joseph in the manner he claimed? Literally no person in Joseph Smith's day knew or could have known enough facts about exotic Central America to depict the subtle and accurate picture of ancient life that we find as background for the Book of Mormon. In this paper a look at a dozen or so characteristics of Mesoamerican civilization that are mirrored in the Book of Mormon will illustrate why this question is appropriate.

Joseph Smith could not have known in 1830 from published books or his contemporaries that an ancient civilization had existed anywhere in the Americas. To all settlers of the western New York frontier, an "Indian" was just a savage. If young Joseph took his ideas for the Book of Mormon from his neighbors and their cultural milieu, as many critics maintain, we would expect him to have rather similar notions of America's indigenous peoples. Yet the Book of Mormon characterizes itself as a record from a real civilization (which included not only "the Nephites" but also "the Lamanites," as shown by Mosiah 24:1–7 and Alma 21:2). New York frontier dwellers did not attribute civilization to the native American peoples they knew anything about. Joseph Smith himself was surprised to learn in 1842 from reading the sensational book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (published in 1839), that there had once been a spectacular ancient civilization in Central America and that, at least in superficial terms, it agreed with the cultural pattern characterized in the Book of Mormon.

In the early nineteenth century, knowledge of the geography, history, and cultures of most of the world, and particularly of the Western Hemisphere, was very limited on the U.S. frontier and only somewhat better in the cities along the eastern seaboard.1 Orson Pratt, an early leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is accurate in his recollection in 1849 that "no one will dispute the fact that the existence of antique remains in different parts of America was known long before Mr. Smith was born. But every well-informed person knows that . . . most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original—that most of the forty-four cities described by [Stephens's book] had not been described by previous travelers."2 Stephens's biographer makes the same point: "The acceptance of an 'Indian civilization' demanded, to an American living in 1839, an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent [e.g., of Central America] 'civilized.' In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts—savages."3 So Joseph Smith was surprised when, in 1842 in Nauvoo, he and his associates read Stephens's book. A comment in the Times and Seasons, the newspaper that Smith edited, clearly reflects that fact: "Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all . . . by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. . . . Who could have dreamed that twelve years could have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon?"4
A related page of mine is What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica? The critics say it was all clear to anyone who frequented your average vast frontier library, but when you look at the writings that were actually available and consider what was actually known, the description of ancient civilization in the Americas found in the Book of Mormon is surprisingly impressive - something that many people overlook.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


MormonEvidence.com is an easy way to get to my page on Book of Mormon Evidences. Just in case anyone wants to know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

S. Kent Brown on Lehi's Trail in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon

S. Kent Brown's impressive chapter, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon is available online from the Neal Maxwell Institute (FARMS). That outstanding book, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, is one of many online books available at the Maxwell Institute.

S. Kent Brown examines many details about Lehi's journey through the Arabian Peninsula, making some points that should be well known to many of you, but offers many additional insights. Here is one except regarding the significance of the eastward turn in Lehi's journey, right after the group has buried Ishmael at the ancient burial place of Nahom/Nehhem.
The most important piece in this section concerns Nephi's note that "we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth," after events at Nahom (1 Nephi 17:1). This geographical notice is one of the few in Nephi's narrative, and it begs us to examine it. We first observe that, northwest of Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabean kingdom of south Arabia, almost all roads turn east, veering from the general north-south direction of the incense trail. Moreover--and we emphasize this point--the eastward bend occurs in the general area inhabited by the Nihm tribe. Joseph Smith could not have known about this eastward turn in the main incense trail. No source, ancient or contemporary, mentions it. Only a person who had traveled either near or along the trail would know that it turned eastward in this area. To be sure, the longest leg of the incense trail ran basically north-south along the upland side of the mountains of western Arabia (actually, from the north the trail held in a south-southeast direction, as Nephi said). But after passing south of Najran (modern Ukhdd, Saudi Arabia), both the main trail and several shortcuts turned eastward, all leading to Shabwah, the chief staging center for caravans in south Arabia. One spur of the trail continued farther southward to Aden. But the traffic along this section was very much less than that which went to and from Shabwah. The main trail and its spurs ran eastward, matching Nephi's description. Wells were there, and authorities at Shabwah controlled the finest incense of the region that was coming westward from Oman, both overland and by sea. It is the only place along the incense trail where traffic ran east-west. Further, ancient laws mandated where caravans were to carry incense and other goods, keeping traffic to this east-west corridor. Neither Joseph Smith nor anyone else in his society knew these facts. But Nephi did.

I have omitted several footnotes from the text, but you'll find them in the original. There is much, much more to be digested.

Again, I think it is vital that Latter-day Saints understand the strength of the evidence that comes from the Arabian Peninsula. There are plenty of questions, such as which of the two interesting candidates for Bountiful in Oman is the best fit - but remember, the critics used to claim (and some still do) that there couldn't possibly be a place like Bountiful in Arabia. And now we have the luxury of debating the merits of two reasonable candidates with plush vegetation and other features from First Nephi. If our highly educated critics couldn't figure out the plausibility of Bountiful in the twentieth century, what chance did Joseph Smith have in the early 1800s?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Parable of the Duck

I saw an unusual duck this week right after dropping my youngest son off at his school (yes, it's summer vacation here, but he's being exiled for a week to the wilds of Wichita as punishment for the freshman prank of hanging out with a forensics gang and qualifying for the national forensics competition). I don't know much about ducks, but it sure looked interesting, sitting there in the middle of a containment pond near the high school. Since I've often regretted not stopping to take advantage of photo ops, I pulled the car over, dashed across the street and quietly approached the fence around the pond in order to take some photos.

The strongly colored beak of the duck caught my eye. While he was too far away to see in much detail, the 10x zoom on my camera would allow reasonable photos to be taken. I was happy to be capturing such an interesting duck. I took a few shots, then tried a different position, different angles, different camera settings. Lots of fun! The duck didn't seem to mind, and just kept floating in the middle of the pond, apparently content to be near a pile of duck weed or something green. He shifted position gently as the winds changed, but otherwise didn't seem too nervous.

I had a lot of work to do and really couldn't afford the delay of shooting a bunch of photos, but felt it was worth it for such an unusual find.

Later in the day when I looked at my photos, I was pleased with the results. But something about this duck struck me as I zoomed in. Ah, yes, the eyes. Looking into those cold, blank, beady eyes reminded me of some past conversations with religious bigots. No, that's not fair - this duck actually seemed rather benign. Benign in the sense of inanimate. Inanimate? Good grief, this was a decoy.

I had been decoyed, suckered into wasting my time on a wild duck chase. I was so intent on framing the photo, capturing the colors I wanted to highlight, and exploring different angles to tell some kind of story that I never bothered to actually understand what I was photographing. It wasn't a duck at all. Had I been more observant, I would have realized that it wasn't swimming or moving its head or doing anything except shifting in the wind. It was a stupid floating decoy, but I was so caught up in photographically sharing what I thought I had found that I never bothered to grasp what was in plain sight before me.

My snap judgment on first glance - "this is a pretty duck" - was all that I allowed into my head, in spite of the stream of neglected evidence that came during my subsequent but distracted observation. Like I said, I don't know much about ducks, and as a result of my little diversion, I realized that I know even less than I thought.

Now this event can be applied in many ways, but here's one spin. Many people make snap judgments based on their first glance at a subject that they know very little about, and hold that errant opinion even after they think they have explored many angles and done a lot of observation. I see some of this among parts of the anti-Mormon crowd and the "anti-cult" gang. While there are plenty of us Mormons who don't know enough about their own faith, the problem is especially serious among those who think they have spotted a cult and spend all sorts of time "observing" and denouncing the Church, ignoring the steady stream of data before their eyes that might suggest what they have found is not a demonic organization, a scary cult, a source of evil, or anything to bemoan at all. Through the decoys of men, they've been deceived, suckered into fighting against something wholesome, perhaps even something with divine origins (in spite of the many failings of the humans within it). If they would only look carefully and observe with a more open mind, they might realize that their anti-cult efforts are a horrendous waste of their time, and worse.

Don't be fooled by imitations or deceived by decoys. Look for the real thing, the one with wings.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Alma 36: What's So Special About It?

Here's a photo of one of my favorite sections of the Book of Mormon - Alma 36. Anyone know why Alma 36 may be my favorite chapter in the Book of Mormon? And why I think it's a chapter that needs to be discussed in any debate on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tip from a BYU Grad on Saving $ on Textbooks

For those of you heading to college later this year, here's a tip on saving money on your textbooks: shop around. Go to Half.com, Amazon, or other sources of used books online and find your textbooks there for MUCH LESS than you'll pay at the university bookstore. My savvy daughter-in-law, a recent graduate of BYU, found that by shopping around, she could buy many textbooks for less than than the bookstore buy-back price and actually make a little money on textbooks.

I don't want to pick on any particular bookstores, but there are some that appear to have tried to reduce online competition for books by delaying publication of the list of required books until about one week before classes start. (Other excuses are offered, of course, such as the indecisiveness of professors who are always changing their minds, forcing bookstores to delay publication until the last minute - apparently professors were a lot more decisive before Half.com became available.) Never fear! It's usually no problem to receive your textbook a few days after class begins. Many professors are understanding about this, and some of the best ones will specifically choose the penultimate edition so you will be more likely to find it in used form.

Textbook prices are an atrocity (except for any that I may author in the future). I hope you'll be able to avoid some of the gouging through used books.

I kept most of my engineering and math related textbooks. They collect as much dust now as they did the month after I graduated. It's hard to say that I would do things differently because I love books, but really, only a few required textbooks were ever of any value, and that was partly because I taught some related courses. Ask professors and others with experience which ones are likely to be classics and gems to keep, and sell back the rest to your bookstore, hopefully for more than your paid online. And take the money you save and spend it on valuable books that will help you for years to come. I'd recommend Nibley over Nabokov, for example, but you decide.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Chemical Engineers: AIChE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Nov. 4-9, 2007

On a non-religious note, I'd like to encourage any of you chemical engineers or others with an engineering or chemistry orientation to come out of the closet and join me in Salt Lake City for the Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The quality of this meeting has improved dramatically in recent years. We expect 4,000 attendees and over 700 technical sessions. Lots of great networking and learning opportunities. Hope you join me!

I'll be chairing a session on intellectual property strategy and one on "smart forest products" (RFID, smart packaging, etc.). The Forest Products Division of AIChE will also be having a gathering of some kind and would welcome prospective new members (I'm acting chair - it's a good but small group). The Forest Products Division was advancing biorefineries and fuels from cellulose long before those topics became hot. And there are other fascinating areas we are promoting.

There will also be a Christian fellowship breakfast that will be scheduled one morning - still waiting for details. Great chance to learn from some terrific and committed Christians in academia and industry. The discussion last year covered science and religion, offering some great insights from thought leaders in the field.

Not sure if there will be a ChemE Pride march through downtown Salt Lake or not, but who knows? We may be geeks, but most of us are not too ashamed of our identity.

Amazing People with Disabilities: Emmanuel Yeboah and Many Others

I've often been inspired by the courage and general goodness I've seen among people who have faced severe challenges in life due to physical and mental disabilities. Regarding those with mental disabilities, one LDS man with significant experience serving and working with them told me that "they are happier than we are." In general, the people with mental disabilities that he knows and works with are not obsessed with the vain things of the world, nor filled with the pride and arrogance that withers the minds of so many of us. So who should be learning from whom?

Overcoming physical disabilities is a topic also rife with inspirational examples. The story of Emmanuel Yeboah (featured prominently in today's Investors' Business Daily) is one that inspired me greatly. Emmanuel was born with a missing tibia, giving him only one leg to walk on. His mother told him to take him to the forest to die or to just kill him (the Planned Unparenthood folks have an office in Ghana, I guess), but she refused to. His father thought the family had no chance with a disabled son like that, so he abandoned his son and wife. But his mother taught him to press forward in life and be his best, and not to beg. Emmanuel went on to bring hope to millions in Ghana as he undertook a heroic bicycle journey across Ghana using only one leg to pedal. His mission garnered international attention and he continues to be a significant figure helping the huge population of disabled people in Ghana and elsewhere. The trailer for Emmanuel's Gift gives a short overview of what Emmanual Yeboah has accomplished.

The disabilities and trials that we are given in life are sometimes opportunities and blessings, if we will only let the Lord work his wonders through us. And for the parents of those with severe disabilities, whose lives become lives of unseen compassion and service, I have also seen remarkable transformations that this experience has brought into their lives.

How silly our focus on status and material goods will seem one day. May we work to be the people we are meant to be, to serve and love one another, and to learn lessons from those who face physical and mental disabilities (far less harmful than the self-inflicted spiritual disabilities of those who seem whole).

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mormonism and Intelligent Design: Richard Sherlock's Essay

"Mormonism and Intelligent Design" by Richard Sherlock makes some excellent points, adding a reasoned and broad perspective to an emotionally charged topic. He defines intelligent design broadly, seeing it as a spectrum of ideas that stand in opposition to belief in pure materialism and accidental causation of life and the universe, rather than the ideology of any single author or institution. As a Latter-day Saint and as someone involved in the sciences, I reject randomness as a sufficient explanation for this world of ours, and agree that there are many forms of evidence for divine intervention.

The Patience of the Prodigal Son's Father: Always Looking, Waiting, with a Fatted Calf Ready for the Feast

In Alfred Edersheim's masterpiece, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he offers some insights to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
Nor would he go back with the hope of being reinstated in his position as son, seeing he had already received, and wasted in sin, his portion of the patrimony. All he sought was to be made as one of the hired servants. And . . . he would preface his request by the confession, that he had sinned 'against heaven' - a frequent Hebraism for 'against God' - and in the sight of his father, and hence could no longer lay claim to the name of son. The provision of the son he had, as stated, already spent, the name he no longer deserved. This favour only would he seek, to be as a hired servant in his father's house, instead of in that terrible, strange land of famine and harshness.

But the result was far other than he could have expected. When we read that, 'while he was yet afar off, his father saw him,' we must evidently understand it in the sense, that his father had been always on the outlook for him, an impression which is strengthened by the later command to the servants to 'bring the calf, the fatted one,' as if it had been specially fattened against his return. As he now saw him, 'he was moved with compassion, and he ran, and he fell on his neck, and covered him with kisses.' Such a reception rendered the purposed request, to be made as one of the hired servants, impossible - and its spurious insertion in the text of some important manuscripts affords sad evidence of the want of spiritual tact and insight of early copyists. The father's love had anticipated his confession, and rendered its self-spoken sentence of condemnation impossible. 'Perfect love casteth out fear,' and the hard thoughts concerning himself and his deserts on the part of the returning sinner were banished by the love of the father. And so he only made confession of his sin and wrong - not now as preface to the request to be taken in as a servant, but as the outgoing of a humbled, grateful, truly penitent heart. Him whom want had humbled, thought had brought to himself, and mingled need and hope led a suppliant servant - the love of a father, which anticipated his confession, and did not even speak the words of pardon, conquered, and so morally begat him a second time as his son. (Chapter 17 of Book IV of Edersheim - emphasis mine)
I was especially touched by the insight that the father must have been on the lookout for the son to have spotted him "afar off." And it seems that he had been constantly prepared for the feast upon the son's return, having kept a fatted calf ready.

This reminds me of some great parents I know who have a child who wandered. They have been patient and loving, always waiting and watching for the time when the child might return, ready to celebrate and forgive and help heal at the first opportunity. And of course, it is how our Heavenly Father is toward us, always waiting for the first sign of our desire to return to Him, ready to receive and forgive and rejoice over the lost son or daughter who may come to their senses and desire to repent and return.

Monday, June 04, 2007

YouMormon.com: Ideas?

With the popularity of YouTube, I've noticed some other businesses pick up the "You" prefix - YouMail.com, for example (cool service to customize the answers your cell phone provides to people, based on who calls you). So naturally, I couldn't resist picking up YouMormon.com. Did it just a few minutes ago. It will soon forward to my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) area for now, but I'd like to do something else with the domain. Any ideas?

Mormon videos, perhaps, but what about a site where people can nominate "honorary Mormons" or report unusual Mormon sitings? Or perhaps compete to win prizes such as tithing rebates? Or tips on what wards are best for people moving into an area? Ideas and collaborators are welcome!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Arabian Peninsula and the Book of Mormon: Jedidiah Morse Explains All?

Here is a portion of Jedidiah Morse's 1828 map of Asia showing the Arabian Peninsula (available from the David Rumsey collection of historic maps). So if Joseph somehow managed to gain access to this map, could anyone suggest how he would use this to craft the remarkably plausible description of travel through the Peninsula in First Nephi 16 and 17? You know, directions, place names such as Nahom, plausible locations for Bountiful, Shazer, and the Valley of Lemuel, and so forth?

Somehow this map must hold the answer, but I need a little help to see how. Maybe the answer is in the earlier book of Jedidiah Morse, Geography Made Easy. It can be viewed online. I've been looking through it but don't see anything that Joseph Smith could have used to fabricate his gems in First Nephi. Can you offer any help? Help is what I need in order to respond to this recently received email:
You write like an intelligent person. How is it you are still mired in LDS quicksand. Your comments on how Joseph Smith knew so much about the Arabian peninsula is without merit.

There existed in his time a school book entitled Geography Made Easy, Jedidiah Morse,1813. Smith lived just 2 miles from Palmyra,NY. Where there were several bookstores and a library. No record of his visit though. He also received regularly the Palmyra Register, and later the Wayne Sentinel. The offices of which served double duty as a library. He had ample access to this information.

Not a very big leap of prophecy. More than a small step.
How do you respond to this fact!
I'm missing something here, so I'd appreciate your help. Just how does Jedidiah Morse provide Joseph Smith with the information he needed to impress so many of us over 150 years later with the apparent "direct hits" in the Arabian Peninsula?

Update: My search through Jedidiah Morse's Geography Made Easy has proven to be most disappointing. Was there a secret companion volume that Joseph might have used? After patiently downloading the 26 megabyte PDF file containing the scanned book (click here and then click on the "PDF" button), I was expecting a lengthy discussion of Arabia to be among its 337 pages. Instead, there is one short page of text and one map of Asia, neither of which I found helpful. The text and map are below, with a zoomed-in section showing Arabia. Click to enlarge.

While the colored map that was printed in 1828 shows "Felix Arabia" along the southern coast, we do not have that feature in the black-and-white map in Morse's earlier book. But we do have a mention of "Happy Arabia" (Arabia Felix). Was this enough to guide Joseph Smith?
The middle, called Arabia Deserta, is overspread with barren mountain, rocks and sandy deserts. But the southern parts, deservedly called the Happy, although the air is hot and unwholesome, is blessed with an excellent, and very fertile soil, producing balm of Gilead, manna, myrrh, cassia, aloes, frankincese, spikenard, and other valuable gums; cinnamon, pepper, oranges, lemons, etc.
Hmm, I'm struggling with this. There doesn't seem to be much guidance given as to how one goes from Jerusalem to Bountiful, or where Bountiful is. Instead of Bountiful on the eastern coast, where excellent candidates exist, the best we can do based on Morse is head for the more southern parts - but how to get across all the barren rocks and sandy deserts of the middle section? And once we get to the south, mind you, we might expect a fabricated Book of Mormon to have Laman and Lemuel whining about the "hot and unwholesome" air, while Nephi says something like, "Behold, we did rejoice in the spikenard and other exceedingly precious gums," accompanied by an occasional miracle of healing with the balm of Gilead, perhaps after Lemuel pummels him with lemons. But such inspiring drama based on Jedidiah Morse seems conspicuously absent from the Book of Mormon, while Nephi's tale seems utterly unrelated to anything Morse describes.

Joseph Smith, ever the reckless plagiarizer, didn't even have the courtesy to borrow a few of the place names that Jedidiah offered on his maps (why not mention Sana, Medina, Mecca, or especially Mocha?), stubbornly sticking with names like Shazer, Nahom, and Bountiful. And foolishly, Joseph insisted on having Lehi's crew traipse straight through the middle section of Arabia (following a south-southeast direction that would later be understood to be completely plausible), and then, having buried Ishmael at Nahom (the name corresponding to an ancient burial site and an ancient tribe in that region, verified by the modern discovery of engraved altars from that era), Joseph completely disses Morse by failing to continue south into Happy Arabia, but instead has Nephi turn nearly due east - in a strangely plausible manner that precisely bypasses two major sections of the vast Empty Quarter, heading for the eastern coast, where they encounter Bountiful, a place so pleasant that Laman and Lemuel don't want to leave, a place that now, long after Joseph's day, appears remarkably plausible. Perhaps the hot and unwholesome air of Happy Felix scared Joseph off. But I still insist it was a missed opportunity for our careless fabricator, even though you have to admit he got awfully lucky with his wildly uneducated guesses about the Arabian Peninsula. So lucky it's almost as if First Nephi were written by someone who actually traveled through the Peninsula and saw places like the Valley of Lemuel, Shazer, Nahom, and Bountiful, where the arguably plausible candidates are indeed nearly due east of the ancient burial place Nahom/Nehhem/Nihm.

Frankly, Joseph Smith's vast frontier library might as well have burned its copies of Jedidiah Morse's works, for all the good they did him. But that's just my opinion, and I am still struggling to find an answer for our friend who is convinced that Morse gave Joseph Smith all he needed for the lame "revealed" text in First Nephi dealing with the journey through the Arabian Peninsula. Any hints? Am I missing something? Did Morse, like Solomon Spaulding, have a secret second manuscript with the real stuff that Joseph stole? Perhaps Arabian Geography for Dummies and Charlatans: The Hidden Manuscript?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Let's Drive Out the Mormons Again - But This Time, Do It in Style

On an old post, " Have Anti-Mormons Won the War?," a helpful Christian brother explains why driving Mormons out of Missouri and other states made sense - and presumably why it might still make sense today. You see, people recognized that we were a "cult" (you know, a religious organization having - gasp - different beliefs). Guess I never quite thought of it that way, but now it makes total sense. Here is the May 30, 2007 comment:
The mere phrase 'Mormanity' has to send chills up normal people's spines. There are reasons proponents of the so-called 'religion' of Mormonism were expelled from points East of the Missouri River in the 19th century...it was recognized as a CULT! Yet, here we are, in the 21st century - and they have grown from cult to 'religion'...I ask you to compare this to Scientology. Really look into the stupid beliefs of both of these 'religions' and then, look at ancient Egyptology. I guarantee you will be impressed.

The connection to Mormon and Egyptology is closer than anything involving Scientology... just citing examples of unbridled imagination gone wild.
While these insightful comments shed light on our history, they do raise one serious concern. Is the title of my blog sending chills up your spine? Come on, at least a handful of you should be "normal people" who stumbled here accidentally after Googling some normal topic (something like "al sharpton yucatan salt"). So when you saw the dread word "Mormanity," was there a chill? Did it go all the way up your spine or just peg a couple of vertebrae before petering out?

Understanding that it's natural to drive out and kill people who belong to a "CULT!" not only provides the necessary framework to rationalize the alleged "persecution" of the Mormons, but also helps us better appreciate the rational response of the Roman Empire to early Christianity. As I explained in my response,
And there was a reason Christians were slaughtered by Rome: they were recognized as a CULT!! And being the tolerant neighbors that they were, the Romans who did not agree with that new religion did the logical thing and tortured the Christians. So, as our anonymous "Christian" friend points out, it's OK to exterminate those who belong to a different religion - you know, a "CULT!!"

But I can understand why the Romans would be so insanely angry at Christianity: just look at all its ties to Egypt and Egyptology. Belief in an afterlife, belief in immortality, belief in judgment and resurrection, belief in heaven, belief in the soul of man, the use of a cross (ankh) as a symbol of conquering death, the use of temples and shrines for cultic practices, ceremonies of washing, an established priesthood, belief in the Creation by a supreme being, etc. Man, that's spooky - and so similar to "Mormonism." In fact, early Christianity and Mormonism have dozens of things in common - things that are no longer part of mainstream Christianity - so much so that it's really frightening. In addition to driving out Mormons, perhaps we should also go after early Christians as well, once we find them.
Or, as I'm sure has crossed the mind of our anonymous poster and Christian friend, perhaps we should just focus on once again driving out those modern Christians who actually belong to a "CULT!" - the Mormons. After all, they have some parallels to Egyptology. Who would want that in their neighborhood?

I have to admit that driving out the Mormons makes sense, now that I have faced the irresistible logic of our opponents. And I'm willing to cooperate and be driven out - as long as we are driven out in style. I want to go in a Ferrari Enzo, but could settle for a Pagani Zonda C12 F. My wife will be driven out in a Lamborghini Murcielago. For my sons, we'll take 1 BMW Z3, 1 Porsche Carrera GT, and 2 Bugatti Veyrons. And then we'll need a few more for my daughter-in-law and the granddaughter, plus a couple of Hummers and SUVs for my books and other essentials, and a semi for the food storage. As long as your church anti-cult budget can do the job properly, my Mormon family is ready to cooperate and be driven out whenever you're ready. And once we get into our new and fully loaded vehicles, with proper transfer of titles and full gas tanks, you can even torch our home. I know that's an important and traditional part of the deal.

Face it, we need to go. We've got stupid beliefs - different beliefs than yours, for goodness' sake - and perhaps even some ideas related to ancient Egypt. And a touch of Canadian influence, too (plus I like Thai food and enjoy hummus). Really, it's time to purify the neighborhood. But we'll need some real wheels for the trek to wherever - no lame wagons this time. And where will we go? We'll follow the example of our ancestors, I suppose, and head to some forsaken corner of Mexican territory. Puerto Vallerta, here we come.