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

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Lessons from China: Move Up a Floor to Expand Your View

There's a simple but beautiful poem from China's Tang Dynasty by the poet Wang Zhuhuan (王之渙) who lived around 700 AD. The poem is entitled 登鹳雀楼 (Dēng Guànquè Lóu) which can be translated as "Climbing the Stork Tower."


A possible translation is:
The sun sets behind the mountains, 
The Yellow Rivers flows into the sea. 
If you wish to add a thousand miles to your perspective 
Climb up another story.
Sometimes when we face trials of our faith that weaken our testimony (apparent clashes of science and religion come to mind, or some of the other challenges raised by critics of the Church), it is because we're viewing the problem before us in the wrong way. Sometimes we need to broaden out perspective by moving up a level and then examining things again. We can make that move through prayer, through humble service and other means of working with the promptings of the Spirit, though scripture study coupled with study of other helpful sources (sure, give my LDSFAQ or Mormon Answers pages a try), and though the patient exercise of faith.

When we are faced with doubts, at least have the faith to turn to the Lord in prayer and ask for guidance. Small miracles can come as we let Him move up a story or two so that when we view the problem again, we can see things a little more as they are. The painful puzzles and frustrations with mortal error may still be there, but from a higher perch we may better appreciate the grand things of the Gospel landscape--sun, mountains, rivers and sea--that remind us of the miracles we have been blessed with and the majesties of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. Keeping the big picture in mind can help us not be detoured or overly distracted by the unpleasant bumps in the road. And sometimes we find that problems we saw as gaping flaws and weaknesses can become sources of strength when properly understood.

Climb a story or two and explore those issues again. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Arabia's Hidden Valley: Guest Post by Warren Aston


A strictly scientific look at Khor Kharfot
as a candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful

Warren P. Aston 
Copyright 2013

Regular readers will be aware that most LDS researchers have long regarded the inlet of Khor Kharfot in southern Oman as the most plausible location matching Nephi’s very detailed description (1 Nephi 17:5-16, 18:1-8) of “Bountiful,” the place of abundance where he built his ship. Despite this, as of early 2013 most of the basic scientific research into the geology, fauna, paleo and modern flora and archaeology of the place remains to be done.

Over several decades of exploration and research at the site, I have benefited from the generous assistance of many non-LDS scholars. Indeed, most of the data we have about the place has come from non-LDS researchers. For example, the only proper archaeological appraisal of Khor Kharfot ever made was by an Italian archaeologist back in 1992. None has been done since.

The site is now threatened by development and is already under stress. Most of the abundant water run-off from the surrounding mountains has been diverted to local villages and no longer reaches the inlet. The large trees there are dying and the vegetation is visibly changing.

In the hope that additional non-LDS scholars will recognize that Kharfot deserves attention for reasons other than what may have happened there 2600 years ago - and become involved in teasing out the parameters of the place and placing it on record - I have published a paper titled “Arabia’s Hidden Valley: A Unique Habitat in Dhofar Captures Arabia's Past.”

The paper has just appeared (in print and online) in English and Arabic from one of the leading organizations encouraging the awareness and conservation of wildlife in the Middle East, the Dubai-based Wildlife Middle East News (www.WMENews.com).

In the paper, I examine Khor Kharfot from strictly scientific perspectives, pointing out the unique features of this truly special place and the looming threats facing it.

Click on this link for the color PDF of the paper:

--Warren Aston

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Can Ezekiel Pass the Deuteronomy 18 Test?

Some of our critics proclaim that a single apparently failed prophecy is all it takes to reject a prophet, according to their application of a test based on Deuteronomy 18:22. It reads:
When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
This doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet. James L. Mays, editor of Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988, p. 226), writes:
Prophecy in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a prophet's overall performance.
The problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways or at times much later than anticipated by the hearers. Moreover, God sometimes appears to reverse certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
Be careful in how you apply Deut. 18:22, for you threaten to reject some true prophets in the Bible! There are examples where a true prophet prophesied something which did not happen as he stated, to the best of our knowledge. An example is found in the story of Jonah, who was told by God to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah prophesied that the people would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4) - no loopholes were offered, just imminent doom. God changed things, however, when the people repented and He chose to spare them - much to the chagrin of that imperfect (yet still divinely called) prophet, Jonah. Jonah, in fact, was "displeased ... exceedingly" and "very angry" (Jonah 4:1) about this change from God, perhaps because it made Jonah look bad. In spite of an "incorrect" prophecy and in spite of the obvious shortcomings of Jonah, he was a prophet of God and the Book of Jonah in the Bible is part of the Word of God. Yet if that sacred text had been lost, only to be restored by Joseph Smith, perhaps as part of the Book of Mormon, it would be assaulted as the most damning evidence against Joseph Smith. Just imagine how the critics would dismiss the Book of Jonah as being evil, contradictory, ludicrous, anti-Biblical, unscientific, and unchristian (of course, there are plenty already who reject it as it is, unable to believe major parts of the story).

The prophet Ezekiel provides another example of how true prophets may err or give prophecies of uncertain accuracy. In Ezekiel chapters 26, 27, and 28, we read that Tyre (a fortified island city) would be conquered, destroyed, and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The riches of Tyre would go to Babylon (Ezek. 26:12). Nebuchadnezzar's army did lay siege to Tyre, and its inhabitants were afflicted, apparently so much that they shaved their heads bald, as prophesied in Ezek. 27:31. However, the 13-year Babylonian siege apparently was not quite as successful as Ezekiel had predicted, perhaps because the land-based tactics of Babylonian sieges were less effective against a fortified island city with significant maritime power. The result of the siege may have been a compromise or treaty rather than total destruction and plunder, for Ezekiel 29:17-20 reports that the predicted plundering did not take place. Almost as if in compensation, the Lord now announces that He will give Egypt to the Babylonians, which is the theme of chapter 29. Here are verses 17-20:
17 And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
18 Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it:
19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army.
20 I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD.
Yes, Tyre was eventually destroyed, but its complete destruction apparently did not occur during the Babylonian siege, and certainly the Babylonian army did not get the riches of Tyre as has been prophesied. It is Ezekiel himself who reports this "prophetic failure." (The analysis above is derived from an article by Daniel C. Peterson in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1995, pp. 49-50.)
D.C. Pyle has also commented on Ezekiel's prophecy of Tyre:
Of course, my favorite part of the prophecy against Tyre is the part found in Ezekiel 26:14 and 27:36, where the Lord states that Tyre would "not be rebuilt" and "exist no more forever."
Of course, after it was left unconquered by the Babylonian armies, it eventually fell to the Greeks under Alexander and was destroyed by his armies.
But then, the city which was never to be rebuilt forever rose again to wealth and power in 125 BCE! During the Roman period, the city rose to even more prominence and had a Christian community living in the mainland portion. Muslims reduced the city to ashes in 1291. It was rebuilt again sometime after this. In 1983, it had an estimated population of 23,000.
The prophecy stated that the place would "be a bare rockface for spreading nets and would never be rebuilt" but today, the place has become a fairly important maritime center.
To those who refuse to believe that Tyre still exists today, pictures can be see at http://tyros.leb.net/tyre/index.html. Note that there are many buildings - it has been rebuilt. A literal interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy coupled with a belief in Biblical inerrancy leads to obvious problems.

My purpose in discussing the prophecies about Tyre is not to question the truthfulness of the Bible (it is true - we just need to struggle to understand it properly, as we must with all scripture and all prophecy, and we need to understand its potential limitations). My primary purpose in discussing Tyre is to point out that an overly critical attitude and a strict application of Deut. 18:22 may reject even true, Biblical prophets. If we try hard enough to find reasons to reject a prophet, we will surely succeed - but beware lest we judge unwisely and reject those whom God has sent and anointed, even though they be mortal and fallible. As for Tyre never being rebuilt, I think it's fair to mention that Hebrew writers used extreme words like "never" or "all" or "forever" in a rather loose way. Tyre was "never" to rebuilt and animal sacrifices were to continue "forever" - but these expressions can best be understood as figures of speech rather than absolutes. But if we're going to take the reasonable, thoughtful path of understanding the Bible rather than looking for apparent flaws to condemn it out of hand, we should extend the same courtesy to the Book of Mormon and the words of modern prophets.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Kermit Gosnell, Puppy Killer: High-Profile Story from an Alternate Universe

In a not-too-distant parallel universe, nearly everyone in America has been following the gruesome details during each shocking day of the trial of Kermit Gosnell, puppy killer. For decades, Kermit has been running a pet clinic in which he helped owners get rid of unwanted pets--not by putting them up for adoption, but by slaying them. He not only conducted questionable and cruel late-term pet abortions, but he sometimes killed living, viable, newly born puppies with scissors who otherwise would have survived his hideous "medical procedures." In that alternate universe, watching TV or picking up a newspaper was becoming much more unpleasant than normal with the non-stop sensational coverage that focused on the gruesome, bloody, and stomach-turning details of Kermit's massively profitable business. For millions, the logo of Gosnell's clinic coupled with Gosnell's scissors would become almost as vivid as the swastika as a symbol of ultimate evil. Fortunately, outraged Americans would remember the victims, would be shocked by their previous indifference to late-term and newborn puppy slaying, and would stand up to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Organizations that had promoted that lucrative business model were left despised and unfunded.

Back in our universe, most Americans have been spared any exposure to the horrific details of our version of Kermit Gosnell and his shop of horrors, where the victims had the misfortune of being humans instead of puppies. As a result, the seats reserved for the media at the Gosnell trial were largely empty. Major outlets gave it almost no coverage until bloggers made it impossible to ignore, and even after the impossible-to-ignore verdict came out,  the New York Times would continue to prefer its previously called out and willfully incorrect term "fetus" to describe the living infants murdered outside the womb, humans who were just as much a fetus as you and I are.

Because Gosnell's late-term pre-natal and "post-natal fetuses" were of the wrong species, their deaths had to be ignored for the most part in order to advance the ultimate good of "choice." Gosnell has now been convicted on three counts of murder (not choice), and his story raises many serious questions that merit some attention. I hope the story will break past the faithful censorship of the mainstream media. If only the victims had been puppies (no, I don't wish such atrocities upon any mammal!), maybe the media would have cared.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Surprise Encounter in Australia: Meeting Warren Aston, Author of My Favorite LDS Book

Preparing my last post about an article by Warren Aston resulted in two things. One, I learned that Warren lives in Brisbane, Australia. Two, I wanted permission to use a photo from his article. So I emailed him asking for permission, and mentioned that I would be in Melbourne in a couple of days to speak at a conference. Warren replied and said that strangely, he would be in Melbourne for a few hours today, his first time in many years. Wonderfully, I had time to meet up with him today and am so grateful for it. In our brief meeting, I learned a lot about his passion for research in the Arabian Peninsula and his frustration for the lack of additional research beyond his work and some initial ventures by a few others. Many more people ought to be supporting and advancing exploration and protection of the amazing site at Khor Kharfot and related Arabian Peninsula sites. There is much more to learn and discover, and a great need to prevent further vandalism and environmental loss, especially at Khor Kharfot, which is drying up due to recent redirection of its water supply by the local government.

I was also delighted to learn that a follow-up book is about to come out, adding many more details to the story first laid out in his groundbreaking book, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey Across Arabia to Bountiful, the book that I treasure as my favorite LDS book of all (apart from the Bible and the Book of Mormon). The new book will be Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon. It will be about four times as long as the first book with numerous new photos and results of new research. Can't wait!

Warren's example shows how a lone member can fill the giant gaps left by the pros and make a huge difference. What tenacity and persistence! What an honor it was to meet him and learn from this humble, visionary man who looks forward to a day when many more people will value research and exploration into the things of the Book of Mormon. If you'd like to help fund some further exploratory work, let us know. And perhaps you'd like to go on one of his twice-a-year tours that explores key sites in Israel and Oman. If possible, I would like to go on the next one in October.

Here's an early promotion video for his new book. A new preview video will be released soon. Don't miss it. Early in the video, you will see Warren himself. Warning: there's a brief flash of camel violence in this clip. But I don't think any humans were actually harmed.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Biodiversity at Khor Kharfot, a Leading Candidate for Ancient Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula

I think the average LDS person still has little appreciation for recent discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula over the past couple of decades that provide interesting evidence for plausibility of the Book of Mormon account. These discoveries also strengthen our understanding of the text. For those following such Book of Mormon issues, take a look at Warren Aston's article in the latest issue of Wildlife Middle East (vol. 6, no. 4, March 2013). Warren's article, "Arabia's Hidden Valley: A Unique Habitat in Dhofar Captures Arabia's Past," does not mention the Book of Mormon or LDS issues, but the site he treats in his secular article is also a leading candidate for ancient Bountiful that is found nearly due east of the ancient burial place Nehhem/Nahom, as Nephi wrote in his First Nephi account of crossing the Arabian Peninsula. 

His article, the cover story for this edition of the publication, includes some great photos of the Khor Kharfot site at the mouth of Wadi Sayq, and also discusses biodiversity in this region. Photos of native figs and dates are included, as are some photos of the large freshwater lagoon that would have been a big part of why a weary band of travelers might call that spot Bountiful. Knowledge of the biodiversity there helps us better appreciate what Lehi and Nephi may have found, though some things have certainly changed since 600 B.C.

I had some trouble downloading the PDF file for the newsletter, and if you also have trouble, let me know and I can email you the PDF file directly.

You can also access current and past articles from Wildlife Middle East at http://www.wmenews.com/newsletters.php.