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

Monday, December 31, 2018

Imagine Fewer Dragons (and More Data): Initial Reactions to the Film Believer with Dan Reynolds and John Dehlin

While returning to the US for Christmas, I looked at the selection of movies on my United Airlines flight and noted that one of their many films dealt with a specific religion, mine. The film, Believer, had this description (listed also at UnitedPrivateScreening.com):
Believer follows Mormon Dan Reynolds, frontman for the Grammy® Award-winning band Imagine Dragons, as he takes on a new mission to explore how the Mormon Church treats its LGBTQ members.
One can easily guess that this documentary, tracing Dan's decision to launch the LoveLoud festival in Utah to support LGBTQ people, is intended to be critical of the Church. It was critical, but I'll have to admit I thought it was well done, interesting, and made some important points. I enjoyed much of the film, in spite of occasional serious objections to what was said. Further, I really enjoyed learning more about Dan Reynolds and his life. I found him to be quite likable and was especially impressed with his wife (now ex-wife, sadly), Aja Volkman. Both are fascinating people. I am deeply sorry that they are now divorced.

Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
First, a disclaimer. I'm not a big fan of popular music and have only been to a few big-name concerts in my life, mostly in my youth, including John Denver, Elton John, Seals and Croft, and most recently, Imagine Dragons, which two of my sons introduced me to. The Imagine Dragons concert was a couple years ago in Shanghai. Spectacular! I've only bought a tiny handful of rock albums, with Imagine Dragons being the latest (purchased a few years before the concert) and perhaps my most listened to. So I'm a fan of Imagine Dragons. I am also a fan and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And in spite of being frequently condemned for my stance as a conservative Latter-day Saint, which apparently makes me a troglodyte and hater of all things progressive, I count among my friends several people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender and value my time and association with them, in spite of many differences and some things I cannot adequately understand based on my inexperience and my views.

Second, I hope all of us, whatever our social, political, or religious beliefs, will love and be kind to those who are LGBTQ. May we all oppose hate. I want those with suicidal thoughts to get the support and love they need, and to know that their lives matter. I will agree with John Dehlin on this point. (If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

As for opposing hate, however, I worry that some seem to define hate as any anything they disagree with when it comes to their political or social agenda. To question a redefinition of marriage will be inappropriately viewed as hate by some, along with opposition to unrestricted abortion and a host of other programs, policies, and agendas. The inability of people on both sides of many issues to have civil conversations with political, social, or religious opponents is highly troubling to me. There can be well-reasoned alternative views founded on something other than hate. Ironically, some troubling displays of hate, anger, and outright violence in our society can be found among groups loudly proclaiming their opposition to what they call hate.

Third, my initial thought was curiosity about United Airlines and their selection criteria. Was there now a new and welcome openness about religion in their offerings, with a variety of films dealing with specific religions? As I thumbed through their extensive list of offerings, I didn't see anything that might be viewed as a critical expose of, say, the problems in certain variations of Islam or Islam's attitudes and treatments of LGBTQ members. Was this some kind of oversight at United? Maybe that will be next month.

I also didn't notice any films offered that delve into problems within Catholicism or the harms critics might ascribe to Evangelical Protestantism and their attitudes on LGBTQ issues. Buddhism, Shintoism, Jainism, Daoism, etc. all have their problems or weaknesses, but I didn't see any documentaries to help shame them into healthy progress. It looked like the faith often improperly called "Mormonism" is the only religious topic that United wishes to offer their viewers. Were they also playing "Meet the Mormons" (or "Meet the People Formerly Known as Mormons")? No, the sole selection related to religion, as far as I could tell, was one that is designed to be critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In this day of hyper-sensitive efforts to not offend others, criticizing my religion always seems like the only safe exception. For those concerned about LGBTQ issues, it should be obvious that there are larger Christian groups with similar views and large religious groups outside of Christianity with harsher views. But I suppose they lack famous rock stars among their members willing to take them on. For that, the likeable and influential Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons may be a true pioneer, and perhaps this film will be the first step in United's own pioneering efforts to bring religious debate into their entertainment mix. I am anxious to see what other religions might be targeted on future flights, but suspect there will be many more frequent flyer miles to go before I sleep through those films.

The Right Dragon to Slay? Imagine More Data

Now about the film itself. As likable as Dan Reynolds is and as interesting as the documentary was (I loved seeing Dan's household and family up close), and as glad I was to see some of the positive results that Reynolds' LoveLoud festival has brought, there were some bold statements that I feel are misleading. From the beginning to the end, there are assertions that the Church and its policies are to blame for the high suicide rate among LGBTQ people in Utah. This goes without saying for many of our critics, but it also may go without solid evidence. There may be some improper assertions about the cause when there can be many complex factors. On the other hand, there definitely is a problem in Utah that needs more attention, whatever the cause, and if LoveLoud is helping Utahans to be more aware of the problem and the need for more steps to address it, then that's terrific.

The film begins with and often repeats the statement that youth suicides have skyrocketed in Utah, and then implies or directly alleges elsewhere that the Church is to blame--a statement that is not necessarily fair or scientifically supportable. Then we have John Dehlin, featured prominently in the film, a man famed for his opposition to the Church and his tactics of encouraging criticism in others, claiming that no other place in the country has seen the tripling of suicide rates seen in Utah, and that it all began around 2007/2008, the time "when the Church declares war" on LGBTQ people. Over and over, we are told that it is the Church that is causing so many LGBTQ people in Utah to commit suicide, and that bold and brave efforts are needed to pressure the Church and educate its members so that we can, as Reynolds put it, finally get the Prophet to go pray and "get a revelation" to reverse the backward and dangerous policies of the Church and thus help the Church to do the obviously right thing.

The graph below is shown in the film as Dehlin talks about the rapid rise in suicide rates in Utah allegedly due to Church policies. This comes from the blog post, Daniel Parkinson and Michael Barker, "The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide," Rational Faiths, Feb 25, 2016. This post compiles a variety of evidences that seek to link Church policies and culture with Utah's suicide problem and should be considered as we seek to understand the issues and causes of the crisis. What I find puzzling is that Dehlin insists that Utah's serious spike in suicides in 2007-2008 with the support for Proposition 8, but it looks like 2012 is the critical year. Perhaps there is some other study that make 2007-2008 look more dramatic in its impact, but this chart doesn't seem to fit the rhetoric. But again, regardless of the cause, that's an ugly curve that should make all of us more aware of the risks that our youth may face.

Chart used in the film from Parkinson and Barker. Click to enlarge.

Suicide in any group is a complex factor. In my view, it is not enough to say that half of Utah (51%) is LDS, and therefore Utah's high suicide rate must be due to the Church, as seems to be the approach a time or two in the film. The first obvious question that must be asked is how does suicide rate among LGBTQ people vary as a function of religious affiliation and religious activity within that affiliation? Is suicide uniquely high for Latter-day Saints only? For active Latter-day Saints only? For those in active LDS families? Do the non-LDS people of Utah have much lower suicide rates? For all the quoting of statistics in the film, a plausible case against the Church is not presented. John Dehlin in a highly staged Skype video call with Dan Reynolds quotes Edmund Burke and calls for good men like Reynolds to stand up against evil (the Church or its policies), but is the Church really the source of increased suicides? Is the Church the evil dragon that brave warriors like Reynolds must fight? Perhaps we need to imagine fewer dragons and obtain more data to actually understand causes and cures, otherwise we may slay the wrong creature.

First, though, whatever the cause, the issue of suicide among LGBTQ  youth is alarming, but it's not just a Utah problem. Summarizing several studies across the US, the Trevor Project lists the following findings:
  • LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
  • LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
  • Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth.
  • Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.
  • In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
The last point is an important one for any family with LGB youth, LDS or otherwise. Rejection and hate will hurt. Love is essential. I can cite my own parents as a wonderful example of acceptance of love toward one of my brothers who left the Church. I believe their steady love has been a valuable factor for him, as it has been for me in my own life in times of trouble. If Dan Reynolds' work helps LDS families remember to love their children even when they are surprised and saddened by the direction they go, whether it involves sexuality or any other issue, much good can be done.

While policies regarding same-sex marriage in the Church may understandably contribute to stress and a sense of rejection for some, the broad issue of elevated suicide for LGBTQ people is not unique to Utah Latter-day Saints or conservative Christian religions. It's far more extensive and complicated than that. But as noted with the Parkinson and Barker report cited above, there are some indications from a variety of angles that can be used to link the Church to the problem, but here I worry that  activism can influence too much of the analysis.

As a reminder of the complex nature of the issues before us and the difficulty of ascribing causation to observed trends, consider Sweden. Sweden, of course, is widely proclaimed as a progressive society and is a nation where LDS shaming and BYU expulsions are negligible factors. Nevertheless, suicide among same-sex couples is significantly higher than for opposite-sex couples. Peer-reviewed research on this issue was recently published by Charlotte Bj√∂rkenstam et al. in "Suicide in married couples in Sweden: Is the risk greater in same-sex couples?," European Journal of Epidemiology  31/7 (July 2016): 685–690. Here is the abstract:
Minority sexual orientation is a predictor of suicide ideation and attempts, though its association with suicide mortality is less clear. We capitalize on Sweden’s extensively linked databases, to investigate whether, among married individuals, same-sex marriage is associated with suicide. Using a population-based register design, we analyzed suicide risk among same-sex married women and men (n = 6456), as compared to different-sex married women and men (n = 1181723) in Sweden. We selected all newly partnered or married individuals in the intervening time between 1/1/1996 and 12/31/2009 and followed them with regard to suicide until 12/31/2011. Multivariate Poisson regression was used to calculate adjusted incidence risk ratios (IRR) with 95 % confidence intervals (CI). The risk of suicide was higher among same-sex married individuals as compared to different-sex married individuals (IRR 2.7, 95 % CI 1.5–4.8), after adjustment for time at risk and socioeconomic confounding. Sex-stratified analyses showed a tentatively elevated risk for same-sex married women (IRR 2.5, 95 % CI 0.8–7.7) as compared to different-sex married women. Among same-sex married men the suicide risk was nearly three-fold greater as compared to different-sex married (IRR 2.895 % CI 1.5–5.5). This holds true also after adjustment for HIV status. Even in a country with a comparatively tolerant climate regarding homosexuality such as Sweden, same-sex married individuals evidence a higher risk for suicide than other married individuals. (emphasis added)
This threefold increase in suicide for same-sex married men vs different-sex married couples in Sweden is consistent with 2015 data reported for gay/lesbian/bisexual youth in Wyoming, a state with significant LDS influence (11.6%):
In 2015 , Wyoming High School students who self-identified as lesbian,  gay, or bisexual were significantly more  likely to report they had seriously considered attempting suicide (54%) or  had attempted suicide (37%) in the past  twelve months compared to students who identified as heterosexual (16 % and 11%  respectively).
For suicidal thoughts, comparing gay, lesbian, and bisexual students we have 54% vs. 16%, slighter over threefold, and for attempted suicide, we have 37% vs. 11%, also over three times as great in Wyoming. 

Regarding US data, Mike Parker writes in "Gay Youth Suicides in Utah," FAIRLDS.org, October 11, 2017:
If it’s true that Mormonism is driving youth suicides in Utah, then we should see a similar suicide rate among youth in other states dominated by religions that are similarly opposed to gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage. But we don’t: The suicide rates for ages 10 to 24 in Georgia (9.18, #33), South Carolina (9.91, #29), West Virginia (8.88, #37), Alabama (9.56, #32), and all other Southern states as well, are all lower than Utah’s rate. Religious acceptance of homosexuality is at least as low in those states as it is in Utah; why the dramatic difference in youth suicide?

And the reverse must also be true: States with broad acceptance of gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage must have lower rates of teenage/young adult suicides than Utah; right? Then why does fairly liberal Colorado (16.69, #5) rank just barely ahead of Utah? And why does South Dakota (25.22, #2) differ so much from North Dakota (7.81, #42), when the two states have nearly identical cultures? And why has Utah seen teen/young adult suicides increase by 66% between 2001 and 2015, but Oregon (+78%) and Washington state (+68%), where gays are supposedly warmly embraced, have had higher rates of increase in youth suicide in the same time period?

And, most telling of all, why has the national suicide rate for teens/young adults gone from 6.95 in 2001 to 9.15 in 2015 (an increase of 32%), when acceptance of the gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage have increased dramatically throughout the United States during the same period? Wouldn’t we expect to see a decrease in the nationwide suicide rate of youths, including gay youths?

The problem here is that suicide is complex, and rarely boils down to a single issue. The narrative that Utah culture and religion are a significant cause of teen suicides in the state isn’t backed up by the evidence, does a disservice to the people of the State of Utah, and does a disservice to people of faith.
To review US data, see the CDC report on suicides by state in the US. Utah ranks high, along with all of its neighbors, whether conservative or liberal. What I wish we had was more data on the specific faiths and level of religious activity among the victims of suicide, combined with data on LGBTQ victims. Is such data available anywhere now? I haven't seen it. However, I am aware of data suggesting that states legalizing same-sex marriage before 2015 saw a 7% decrease in high-school student suicide attempts, with roughly a 14% decrease for LGBTQ students. See Julia Raifman et al., "Difference-in-Differences Analysis of the Association Between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts," JAMA Pediatrics 171/4 (April 2017): 350-356; doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4529. Causality is debatable, but it's consistent with a positive legal environment having some helpful impact.

But for the specific challenges found in Utah and within the Church, can we really properly say that LDS policies are the key problem? Is suicide in Utah among LDS LGB youth truly higher than for non-LDS LGB youth? And if so, is there anything of substance to show a link to the Church as the right target to pursue? I would welcome more data.

Something More in the Motivations Behind the Film? A Minor Aside

Reynolds is presented as a warrior for truth and love whose motivation to stand up against the policies of the Church was motivated by his big heart. This motivation appears to be relatively recent, starting with his marriage where lesbian friends of his wife refused to attend a marriage to a Latter-day Saints due to the Church's support for Proposition 8. After the startling discovery that being LDS was highly offensive to his wife's dear friends, there was gradual recognition that suicide among LGBTQ people is way too high in Utah and allegedly caused by the Church.

Reynolds' journey includes a series of encounters with tragic stories, including that of a young man at BYU who was expelled for violating  the moral code by having sex with his girlfriend. As I recall, this may have been just once or a few times, followed by confession of the sin. I don't know the details behind the decision so cannot judge whether the consequences were overly harsh, though (of course) it sounds that way as presented. Depressed after being ousted from BYU, the young man committed suicide.

I agree that this suicide was a terrible, tragic result and wish it could have been avoided. I do not agree that abandoning the moral code that we believe comes from God is the way to deal with such tragedies or to enhance the overall mental and physical well-being of BYU students. I'm all for increased resources and attention to those facing disappointment and grief, whether it's from repercussions of violating the honor code or failing academically or encountering other sorrows that shatter our dreams. Love and support is needed by all of us in our most painful times. But the existence of or the potential for such pain doesn't mean that the rules or systems we may collide with need to go.

I am puzzled as to why the film neglected to point out that Reynolds, like the expelled student he mourns, was also kicked out of BYU for the same reason, or possibly a more egregious form of that reason. In the opening moments of Dan Reynolds' interview by Ellen DeGeneres, he openly explains that he is upset at the Church for kicking him out of BYU after having had sex with his girlfriend for four years. That would seem to be highly relevant to the film since he has raised a similar case as an example of what's wrong with the Church. Was this information withheld to reduce the chance that the target audience might suspect that Reynolds' has a long-standing grudge against the Church's moral code? Is there fear that an LDS audience might think he wants to change not only Church policies relating to homosexuality or same-sex marriage but the law of chastity in general?

In his interview, he criticizes the Church for the "needless shame and guilt" it caused him and causes others when they clash with such moral codes (of course, if unwilling to abide by the honor code, students have always been free to go to any other university where laxer standards exist). "Why is this thing that feels right also something that gets me kicked out of college and shames me and my community and made me feel all this guilt?" This is a question that can be asked by those caught up in numerous behaviors that religions besides ours view as unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful, harmful to society, etc. From gambling to drug abuse to pedophilia, the world's vices can "feel right" at the time and can bring guilt and shame when consequences follow.

Reynolds said that this painful experience of being expelled was his first recognition that he felt something in the Church needed to change. It apparently wasn't more love for LGBTQ people that he suddenly felt was needed at that time, but would seem to be an abandonment of the Church's fundamental teachings on the law of chastity. Is his target the law of chastity per se? Or perhaps moral codes in general and consequences for breaking them? Or is his target simply just the Church? I don't know. Based on the film, Dan's motivations for speaking against the Church's policies seem driven by sincere concern for LGBTQ people who are at elevated risk for suicide.

May his efforts with the LoveLoud festival reduce suicide risk in Utah and elsewhere, and help all of us be more sensitive to the risks and sorrows that others may face.

Religion and Suicide

The assumption that shame from religious policies increases suicide is repeated in the film and in many other sources, but in my opinion without reliable data. In fact, such assertions fly in the face of evidence showing positive impact of religion in reducing suicide risk for those who attend faithfully. Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University, and Director of the Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing at Harvard’s Institute of Quantitative Social Science, explains in "Does Religious Participation Contribute to Human Flourishing?" at Big Questions Online:
[R]ecent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Psychiatry and in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine indicates that regular religious-service attendance is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including: a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression. These studies, from my colleagues and me in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study of approximately one hundred thousand nurses with data collected over several decades. The results confirm associations between religious-service attendance and health previously reported in the research literature. 
But does this also apply specifically to Latter-day Saints? I hope so, but again, I would welcome more data. Fortunately, suicide rates versus levels of activity in the Church your young males was explored in a previous study (kudos to John Mansfield for this tip). See Sterling C. Hilton, Gilbert W. Fellingham, and Joseph L. Lyon, "Suicide Rates and Religious Commitment in Young Adult Males in Utah," American Journal of Epidemiology, 155/5 (March 1, 2002): 413–419, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/155.5.413. Here is the abstract:
Previous studies have used population data to demonstrate an inverse association between suicide rates and religious commitment. This report examines Utah suicide rates for young men aged 15–34 years, stratified by their membership in and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the predominant religion in Utah. All state death records for males from 1991 to 1995 were obtained and linked to LDS church deceased membership records to obtain a measure of religious commitment that is not self-reported. Religious commitment for LDS church members was determined by age-appropriate priesthood office. Of the 27,738 male deaths reported, 15,555 (56%) linked to an LDS church record using a probabilistic linking program. Using active (high religious commitment) LDS as the reference group, the less-active (low religious commitment) LDS group had relative risks of suicide ranging from 3.28 (ages 15–19 years) to 7.64 (ages 25–29 years); nonmembers of the LDS church had relative risks ranging from 3.43 (ages 15–19 years) to 6.27 (ages 20–24 years). Although the mechanism of the association is unclear, higher levels of religiosity appear to be inversely associated with suicide. [emphasis added]
Also consider Kanita Dervic, M.D., et al., "Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt," The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dec 2004; https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2303. Abstract: 
OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim’s social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention. METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.
RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.
On the other hand, a study of Austrians indicated that the impact of religion, often found to be helpful in reducing suicide, can also be a risk factor. See Karl Kralovec et al., "Religion and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Austrians," Journal of Religion and Health, 53/2 (April 2014): 413–423. Their study of the effect of religion on suicide risk in a sample of 358 lesbian, gay and bisexual Austrians found "religion was associated with higher scores of internalized homophobia, but with fewer suicide attempts. Our data indicate that religion might be both a risk and a protective factor against suicidality in religiously affiliated sexual minority individuals." Also see NPR's summary of several studies, including some mentioned above, that suggest that tolerant legislation on same-sex marriage can have a helpful impact on suicide among LGB youth, though the problem remains severe.

Religion, policies, family response, peer response, state and local environments, and a host of other factors can have an impact on suicide for youth and for LGB youth in particular. There's a problem that needs more attention, more love, and more data. Religion's role may be much more positive than commonly recognized, in spite of the tendency by some to assume that the Church's failure to support gay marriage inherently represents hate that makes many young people more likely to commit suicide. Of course, at the same time I can agree that such policies can be viewed as horrific by those they most affect and can contribute to anger and a sense of rejection. If that is contributing to suicide in populations already at risk for elevated suicide, then I am deeply sorry. Do such risks outweigh the helpful benefits of religious faith that can greatly reduce suicide? What are the real factors causing the complex results we see? For such issues, more data and fewer hasty conclusions are needed, in my opinion. But in any case, more kindness and love to those around us is always needed.

Overall, Believer is a highly interesting and entertaining documentary, though I'm not convinced Reynolds really counts as a believer, nor that he has picked the right dragon to slay. It's quite a coup for John Dehlin, so congrats to him for scoring such a major media victory, and while I disagree with John on many issues, I will gladly agree on the need to elevate our attention and kindness to those at risk in our midst.

Related resource: "Suicide in the United States," Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Town of Palmyra vs. the City of Helam: A Subtle but Meaningful Contrast in Communities and Culture

A couple days before Christmas when it was Joseph Smith's birthday, I reflected briefly upon his life in rather small towns in New York and elsewhere prior to publication of the Book of Mormon. An interesting issue there is the way Joseph described these communities and the sharp contrast between his terminology and the nature of communities in his environment relative to what we find in the Book of Mormon.

I recently discussed the nature of Book of Mormon communities and their relationship to both communities in Joseph’s days and those of ancient Mesoamerica in the article, “Orson Scott Card’s ‘Artifact or Artifice’: Where It Stands After Twenty-five Years,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 253-304. Card's article looked at many subtle issues in the Book of Mormon, drawing upon his experience in the many ways in which the worldview and environment of an author of fiction inevitably reveals much about the culture surrounding the author,  making literary frauds very difficult to pull off. Among the many issues considered by Card is the difference in social and neighborhood relationships between American society and that of the Book of Mormon and Mesomaerica.

Card observed that kinship and lineage were dominant social factors in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, in contrast to American society. Card also considers the nature of employment, where the Book of Mormon suggests that agriculture and other economic activities were highly communal or under direction of elites in contrast to the way people pursued employment in Joseph’s day. Further, Card was impressed with the “instant cities” that Captain Moroni created. Alma 50 describes Moroni’s frenetic city-building activities, including the way he “began a foundation of a city” named Moroni (Alma 50:13) and also “began the foundation for a city” named Nephihah (Alma 50:14) among other cities that he built in a short period. This seems bizarre if read from the perspective of Joseph’s environment but is plausible from a Mesoamerican perspective, as Card argues and as we discuss further below in light of more recent research.

Since 1993 there has been further investigation in the field of Mesoamerican neighborhoods and the relationship between rural households and urban centers. A relevant book from 2012 is Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities by M. Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, eds. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012). The book begins with a detailed review article by Michael E. Smith and Juliana Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica” (pp. 1-26), discussed below. Also of interest in the same volume is the chapter of Gary M. Feinman and Linda M. Nicholas, “Compact Versus Dispersed Settlement in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica: The Role of Neighborhood Organization and Collective Action” (pp. 132-55), which examines ancient Mesoamerican societies in terms of social structures, looking at the dispersed, agrarian communities and more compact communities, and examining the impact of population density on political structures. Neighborhood ties and structures became especially important in forms of rule more corporate or collective with shared power and “broadened voice,” for neighborhoods would be the focal point for such collaborative action. The work of Feinman and Nicholas may be helpful in contemplating what the Book of Mormon may mean when it speaks of the role of “the voice of the people” in decision making and politics.

Smith and Novic in the introductory chapter of the volume discuss the diverse nature of neighborhoods and district organizations in ancient Mesoamerica, where urban centers were much more sparsely populated than large cities in the Old World:
Since the publication of Bullard’s paper, several archaeologists have discussed Lowland Maya settlement clusters, but without considering their possible role as urban neighborhoods (e.g., Ashmore 1981; Pyburn et al. 1998). The first to associate [Lowland Maya settlement] clusters with neighborhoods was Cynthia Robin (2003: 330–331), who notes that “neighborhood focused research is perhaps the least investigated direction of Maya household archaeology” (p. 331). Perhaps Mayanists tended to avoid the topic of neighborhoods because that concept was associated with the crowded cities of ancient Mesopotamia or the Islamic world. Yet, the low density tropical cities of the Maya manifest a very different kind of urbanism (Arnauld and Michelet 2004), one that Roland Fletcher (2009) called “low density agrarian based urbanism.” (Smith and Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica,” 11–12.)
The systems described seem to be compatible with Book of Mormon structures, where nobles and elites still wielded influence at various levels of society, with kings under kings among the Lamanites or lesser judges under higher judges in Nephite society. Nobles and elites wielded influence while also representing somehow and sometimes “the voice of the people.”

The low density of urban population resulted in unclear transitions from hamlet or neighborhood to city, allowing for the kind of “instant cities” that impressed Orson Scott Card as another way in which the Book of Mormon revealed a type of society foreign to Joseph Smith. The ability of military commanders to create entire new fortified cities in critical areas is a foreign concept to American society but makes sense in a society accustomed to forming cities from sparsely populated areas based on the model of “low-density agrarian-based urbanism.” The low density areas in a particular region could be unified under control of a military leader or other elite leader to create an instant low-density agrarian-based urban center (“instant city”) that might only need some of Moroni’s earthen banks for fortification to provide military advantage.

In Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson has pointed out that the term for “city” in Mesoamerica “was applied on a conceptual, not just a functional basis” (John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013), 298). Further, cities there “seem to have been planned and designated as such from their founding” (ibid., 297–98). Sorenson notes the parallel to Alma’s “city” of Helam that was designated as such with a population of only about 450 people (ibid., 295). Small agrarian gatherings in strategic areas likewise could easily have been turned into “instant cities” by Captain Moroni to support military goals, consistent with Card’s observation on a Book of Mormon phenomenon inconsistent with Joseph Smith’s environment.

Incidentally, the units of town and village are both mentioned in the Book of Mormon but only twice in Mormon 4 and 5, while the unit of city has about 400 mentions. Joseph’s life was spent in villages and towns. In his own history, he writes that he was born in the town of Sharon in Vermont (Joseph Smith—History 1:3) and then later moved to Manchester, which he calls a village (Joseph Smith—History 1:51). We also read that Martin Harris was “a resident of Palmyra township” (Joseph Smith—History 1:61). Palmyra had around 600 people when Joseph’s family moved there (Donald L. Enders, “‘A Snug Log House’: A Historical Look at the Joseph Smith Sr., Family Home in Palmyra, New York,” Ensign (Aug. 1985)), but thanks in part to the opportunities created by the Erie Canal, its population had grown to about 4,600 by 1825 (Bob Lowe, “A Brief History Of Palmyra,” PalmyraNY.com, 1998).

The township of Palmyra was much larger than Alma’s city of Helam and perhaps much larger than the “instant cities” Captain Moroni founded or organized. The Book of Mormon terminology as well as the curious ability to found cities almost instantly is outside of Joseph Smith’s environment and culture but consistent with a Mesoamerican city. Further, the concept of “cities” among Native Americans and especially large, advanced cities like Zarahemla can be considered outside of Joseph’s environment and outside of the common knowledge of his day, though earlier works from European writers such as Alexander von Humboldt made some aspects of Mesoamerican antiquities known in better educated circles (see my LDSFAQ page, “Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon: What Could Joseph Smith Have Gleaned?

As for the apparent similarities to Joseph’s culture, Card addresses one of the most common issues pointed to by critics, the selection of judges. Some read “voice of the people” and think of ballot boxes and a highly egalitarian society with separation of powers according to the US Constitution, but this suspiciously modern feature turns out to be based on imported assumptions. A more careful reading of the text indicates that something much different than American elections and American democracy took place in Nephite society. Card urges us to look again:
But in the Book of Mormon, the judge not only judges people but also enforces the law and directs the gathering of taxes and supplies and sending them in support of the armies. Not your normal, traditional role. He enforces traditional law, but when new laws are needed, the judge makes them! Where in American life of his time would Joseph Smith have seen this?

How are these judges selected? We hear of almost no contested elections. On the contrary, judges seem to nominate their successors. With few exceptions, the judge serves until death, and is usually succeeded by a son or brother, or by a member of a family that has previously held the judgeship. Now, except for the Adamses, there were no dynasties in Joseph Smith’s America.

The judges actually function as elected kings. The old pattern of government still endured, they just had a different method of choosing the guy in charge. Mormon pointed out the difference, which meant he stressed the election of the judges by the voice of the people, never questioning that authority should stay in only a few aristocratic families and that judges should have monarchical powers. Far from being a mistake in the Book of Mormon, this is one of the places where the Book of Mormon makes it clear that it does not come from 1820s American culture. Even the best of hoaxers would have made the judges far more American.
Brant Gardner’s later treatment of the “voice of the people” and the role of judges in the Book of Mormon would show much greater affinity for Mesoamerican concepts than for the democracy of the young United States (Brant Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 245–53).

A recent observation related to the reign of judges and the “voice of the people” in the Book of Mormon comes from new evidence that ancient Mesoamerica cultures sometimes had less autocratic and more collective or “democratic” rule. This recent discovery seems to greatly amplify the role of collective rule mentioned above by Feinman and Nicholas.33 Science writer Lizzie Wade reports:
Now, thanks in part to work led by … Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives.
These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found — or assumed — in most early societies. Building on Blanton’s originally theoretical ideas, archaeologists now say these “collective societies” left telltale traces in their material culture, such as repetitive architecture, an emphasis on public space over palaces, reliance on local production over exotic trade goods, and a narrowing of wealth gaps between elites and commoners.

“Blanton and his colleagues opened up a new way of examining our data,” says Rita Wright, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City who studies the 5000-year-old Indus civilization in today’s India and Pakistan, which also shows signs of collective rule. “A whole new set of scholarship has emerged about complex societies.”
“I think it’s a breakthrough,” agrees Michael E. Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “I’ve called it the most important work in the archaeology of political organization in the last 20 years.” He and others are working to extend Blanton’s ideas into a testable method, hoping to identify collective states solely through the objects they left behind. (Lizzie Wade, “It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas,” Science (website), March 15, 2017)
Blanton’s paper has this intriguing abstract:
During the central Mexican late Postclassic period, the Aztec Triple Alliance became the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Yet ancient Tlaxcallan (now Tlaxcala, Mexico) resisted incorporation into the empire despite being entirely surrounded by it and despite numerous Aztec military campaigns aimed at the defeat of the Tlaxcaltecas. How did it happen that a relatively small (1,400 km²) polity was able to [Page 270]resist a more powerful foe while its neighbors succumbed? We propose a resolution to this historical enigma that, we suggest, has implications for the broader study of social and cultural change, particularly in relation to theories of state formation and collective action. We find it particularly interesting that the Tlaxcaltecas abandoned a key tenet of traditional Nahua political structure in which kingship was vested in members of the nobility, substituting for it government by a council whose members could be recruited from the ranks of commoners. To achieve such a significant deviation from typical Nahua authority structure, the Tlaxcaltecas drew selectively from those aspects of Nahua mythic history and religion that were consistent with a comparatively egalitarian and collective political regime. (Lane F. Fargher, Richard E. Blanton, and Verenice Y. Heredia Espinoza, “Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan,” Latin American Antiquity, 21, no. 3 (September 2010): 227–51)
We look forward to further research into the intriguing possibilities of collective government in portions of the ancient Americas, including systems that may be closer to Book of Mormon times. Meanwhile, what was once thought to be a dead-giveaway of the Book of Mormon’s modern origins, the reign of judges with their reliance on “the voice of the people,” upon closer scrutiny is not only radically different than what Joseph knew but now appears to be an authentic ancient artifact (albeit an exceptional one) of Mesoamerica, not a fruit of Joseph’s artifice. For future scholars to better understand Book of Mormon “democracy,” they would be wise to use a lens focused on ancient Mesoamerica and emerging research on ancient political systems there.

Instant cities and tiny gatherings labeled "cities" don't reflect Joseph's worldview. They don't reflect his own use of language nor the ways of his culture and era. But they are consistent with what we are slowly learning about the way communities operated in ancient Mesoamerica. Ditto for the political system responsive to the "voice of the people" that is not American-style democracy. These subtle details of Mesoamerica and the relationship or lack thereof between the communities of the Book of Mormon and Joseph's environment are worth considering as we further investigate the increasingly remarkable and ever subtle Book of Mormon.

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Six Brown Eggs": A Christmas Blessing from Leo Munson, a Shopkeeper in Southern Utah

Yesterday in Sacrament meeting in the Appleton Second Ward of Appleton, Wisconsin, the Stake President, Nathan Munson, shared a Christmas story involving Leo Munson, his ancestor from Escalante, a small town in one of the most beautiful parts of Utah. The story, "Six Brown Eggs" by Jennie Spencer Baty, was published in a southern Utah newspaper and has been reprinted recently in A Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (2012, available on Amazon). I'd like to share this as Christmas approaches, hoping we might always look for opportunities to be generous with whatever we have to offer others in need, recognizing that small acts of kindness might serve as small miracles that give lasting blessings to others.

It was the Great Depression. My father and two of his younger brothers were wool growers in southern Utah.

The bottom had dropped out of the wool business, as it also had for cattle and sheep. There was no money. We could neither sell anything nor buy anything.

Papa was almost always at the sheep camp, even at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And since our mother had died when the youngest sister was born, we children were alone. Year after year, we took care of ourselves. We planned our own Thanksgivings and Christmases. But we missed our father. We felt things were not quite fair.

This year, one of his brothers said he would relieve our father at the sheep herd. Our father, our dear papa, would be home! We were overcome with joy. We planned all the things we could do for our marvelous Christmas!

My sisters, Melba, Emma, and little Verle, dragged out the bedraggled Christmas decorations and made the house festive. Jesse cut and stacked armloads of wood on the back porch. He killed a fat hen and left her hanging to drain and freeze. I would dress her for Christmas dinner. I saved the eggs. The hens seldom laid eggs in the cold winter, so I saved every one to make custard pies for Papa.

Papa loved custard pies.

Then we learned that Papa's brother did not go to the sheep herd. He was home with his family, as always. Papa would not be home. Christmas lost its meaning. There was no money and no way of getting any to buy presents. We had made so many happy plans. For a few moments, our world seemed to fall apart.

At fifteen, I was the oldest. My sisters looked at me with wondering eyes— eyes that said, "Jennie, can't you do something? Won't we have any kind of Christmas?"

I went to the pantry to hide my tears. Inside were the six brown eggs; I just looked at them. Then I looked again at these big, brown Barred Rock eggs. Eggs were as scarce as money. Why, those eggs were valuable! They were a dollar, a whole dollar! I laid them carefully on a folded towel in the brass kettle.

My sisters stared at me as I put on my coat and hood, and pulled on my overshoes. They saw my beaming face, and their faces brightened. "Be careful with the fire," I said at the door, "but keep it going. Santa Claus is at the store, and I'm going to see him."

I ran like the wind, plowing through snow that came over the top of my overshoes. What if the stores were all closed? "Oh, dear Heavenly Father," I prayed, "please, please help me."

The stores were dark. All the storekeepers and the clerks had gone home. But then—a flicker of light in Leo Munson's store sparked my hopes. I literally fell through the door as Leo opened it to go home. I held on to the eggs, and, miraculously, none of them were broken.

Leo looked at the eggs, then at me holding the bucket out to him and trying to explain why I was there. I heard myself blurting, "Christmas, Leo, for Jesse and my little sisters. This is all I have. Are they—are they worth a dollar?"

Leo understood, probably far more than I knew. "Don't say another word Jennie," he said. "A dollar! I haven't been able to buy an egg in town. No one will sell any. My wife wants eggs for Christmas."

He got sacks and put the things we needed most in them: gloves, socks, stockings. He filled the sacks up even with some store candy and five big beautiful oranges. "One of those oranges is for you, Jennie," he said. "Merry Christmas!"

I thanked Leo and thanked him again. Then, with those big, full sacks, I stumbled out the door.

There was no deep snow, no cold wind, no ice, nor sagging, cracking trees. Violets were blooming, and birds were singing, and I walked on apple blossoms. Home to Christmas, bought with six brown eggs—and some help from Leo Munson.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

How a Near Miss on a Shanghai Runway Gave Me a Lasting Spike in Gratitude

A little before the Thanksgiving holiday, I was taking a flight back to the US to help a sister of mine as she was about to have a toe amputated. I would only be there shortly, but would be needed. Then I would also need to attend a wedding in Salt Lake. The timing had worked out so well to be able to help in both places. I was excited to be able to go.

My sister's story is one I should mention in more detail later (she wants me to share this), but please note that if one of your toes has a strange bruise under the toenail that slowly expands and doesn't go away for months, if may not be a bruise. Seven doctors over a 5-year period told her it was nothing to worry about, including a dermatologist who ridiculed her for thinking it might be cancer or something serious. Fortunately, she finally met a melanoma expert who was horrified to see all the classic signs of sublungual melanoma, the deadly cancer that killed Bob Marley. He waited too long before recognizing that it was something serious. For my sister, fortunately, it appears that the melanoma was caught in time and had not spread beyond the toe. Amputation of just a toe is a painful loss, but she has much to be grateful for.

I experienced a surge in gratitude a few hours before reaching my sister, and I owe this gratitude in large part to Delta Airlines. I was on Delta flight 582 from Shanghai to Detroit, excited to be moving and even more excited to have been given an open bulkhead row seat with spacious legroom thanks to a kind flight attendant after I realized that the extra legroom I paid for wasn't quite enough for my long legs. As the rapidly moving plane was just beginning to lift up from the runway, suddenly the brakes went into action.

It was a dramatic stop. My book on an open seat next to me was thrown to the floor. It was incredible to see how quickly we could go from take-off speed to a full stop with the impressive action of powerful brakes acting on each of 18 wheels along with other changes made by a remarkably expert crew. They executed a challenging operation perfectly, rapidly bringing the plane to a halt with amazing stability. I learned later that 4 people have to operate various instruments to make this happen. The technical effect was remarkable.

What had just happened was actually much more dramatic than just the exciting deceleration. It was disaster averted. See "Disaster Averted at Shanghai Airport Thanks to Fast-Acting Pilot." We would learn that as our plane was about to go airborne, another plane from Japan Airlines improperly crossed our path on the runway. To avoid a possible collision, our pilots hit the brakes. Their fast and expert reaction may have saved the lives of all of us on the Delta plane and those on the Japan Airlines flight was well.

Now emergency personnel need to check brake temperature to see if we were OK to try again. After an hour or so, we were told that the flight had to cancelled. Later I would hear that a tire had burst and that there may have been brake damage. We would have to go back to the airport, and it would take another hour to get clearance for the plane to move. Once inside the airport, we would find that we would have to exit through customs, a process that would take about 30 minutes, and then would have to start all over again to get a ticket and come back in through customs and security. Each delay reduced the chance of catching another flight. 

However, as I faced all these delays that would normally irritate the daylights out of me, I just smiled and felt a wonderful sense of gratitude to even be alive. Living with delays and frustrations suddenly seemed like such a great option compared to being a charred corpse on the runway, not to mention the horrific thought of my precious Chinese science fiction book smouldering and my Macintosh computer smashed beyond repair. 

I called Delta on my cell phone while waiting to get through customs to exit the airport, and was told that the next flight they could get me on would be the following day, too late to help my sister before her surgery or to drive her to the hospital. I wasn't frustrated, but had to keep trying, so I explained the medical situation I was needed for and asked if there was any other way. Mercifully, after a long hold, the agent received approval to move me to United Airlines. There was a flight leaving in about 90 minutes. And it was going directly to Chicago, where I needed to go, not to Detroit followed by a connecting flight. I had just enough time to catch the United Flight. In spite of all the delays, I ended up arriving in Chicago 30 minutes earlier than I would have with my original less expensive flights, and I didn't have to pay anything for the change. That 30 minutes ended up making an importance difference in my efforts to help my sister and her son that evening (time to buy some much needed food on the way). And in any case, wow, I was alive!

It's been a month since that event, and yet the effect has lingered, cropping up in surprising ways. Things at my work are difficult at the moment, and yet I find myself continually grateful and especially grateful for the people around me. Their weaknesses have grown smaller and their skills and contributions have expanded in my mind. I just did performance reviews for my little team and it was very hard to be critical and I found myself getting perhaps overly effusive in praise. Good for them! 

My love of science has recently led me to continuously reflect on the miracles of this world. My digestive system, the ability to hear, vision, the blood clotting mechanism, the incredible sci-fi-like transformer agent called the spliceosome in our cells that cuts and pasts chunks of DNA to create new and useful proteins far in excess of the number of proteins one would expect us to have, the structure of fruits, the bark of trees, the sun itself -- all these things cause me to marvel and rejoice more than ever as I contemplate the miracles and design of our mortal world. How is it even possible? I have so much to rejoice over, in spite of some reasons for sorrow and concern at the same time.

I hope I can keep this sense of gratitude. I know I've had near misses many times in my life, but somehow this event really triggered a new awareness of just how precious our time in mortality is, even though this is a rough time of trial and not our intended final destination. But it's great to be here and to have a chance to get some more things done in whatever time I have left. It's a precious adventure!

Thanks, Delta, and thanks primarily, of course, to the Lord for the many miracles and kindnesses we have been given, including the basic gift of life itself, however difficult it may be at times.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

It Depends on What the Meaning of "It" Is: Reconsidering the "Burning in the Bosom" and "Studying It Out" in Doctrine & Covenants 9

For years many of us have read about the "burning in the bosom" in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 and interpreted it to mean that Oliver Cowdery, in a failed attempt to perform translation of the Book of Mormon, was being told that he needed to first apply himself to study and work out a tentative translation on his own before getting a "yes, that's right" answer via the "burning in the bosom." It's a model that has been used for decades to explain how revelation works, but is one that may be based on a misreading of scripture and one that might not provide a useful description of how most people experience revelation in their lives. The concept of studying and doing our part in seeking divine guidance is certainly reasonable, but there may be significant gaps in how many understand the context and primary message of Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9. Of particular importance to me is what this passage probably doesn't say about how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done.

Stan Spencer offers careful analysis of the revelation in question to help us answer critical questions about revelation (yikes -- there I go, accidentally showing that chiasmus can show up by accident, but that's another story). Leading with a gentle, understated abstract, Stan Spencer begins a vitally important essay in "The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 219-232:
Abstract: Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9 is conventionally interpreted as the Lord’s description of the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. A close reading of the entire revelation, however, suggests that the Lord was not telling Oliver Cowdery how to translate but rather how to know whether it was right for him to translate and how to obtain the faith necessary to do so. Faith would have enabled Oliver Cowdery to overcome his fear and translate, just as it would have enabled Peter (in Matthew 14) to overcome his fear and walk on water.
Spencer's mention of faith is based in part on verses in the preceding section, where we learn of Oliver's desire to also translate the Book of Mormon. In response, the Lord tells him this:
Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate … and according to your faith shall it be done unto you. (Doctrine and Covenants 8:10–11).
Oliver is being told to ask in faith if he wishes to be able to translate. That may be an important precursor to understanding the Lord's response to Oliver's failure in some kind of translation attempt, a response given in Doctrine and Covenants 9, where we read that he "began to translate" (vs. 5) but failed. Then comes additional instructions, shown here with emphasis from Spencer:
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 be 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.
Spencer argues that a critical question for understanding this passage is what "it" refers to. He notes that traditionally, Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage to describe how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done, suggesting that one had to study the plates and come up with a proposed translation, then verify it with a burning in the bosom experience. But that is clearly not how Joseph did the translation, based on every account from various witnesses. The plates were not open and exposed during the translation. He was not poring over the text and figuring out what the characters meant, but looking into a seerstone (or into the Urim and Thummim early in the process),  to see something, using a hat to shut out extraneous light, and then based on whatever he saw or experienced, he dictated text to his scribes. This process was rapid, giving us the large text of the Book of Mormon over a remarkably brief period of time. It did not seem to involve the slow, tedious practice of trying to figure out each character one by one and seeking confirmation for proposed translations. So what is meant by "study it out" in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8?

Spencer explains that "Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 indicates the need to 'study it out' and ask 'if it be right,' but there is no obvious antecedent for the pronoun it in the revelation that is consistent with the conventional theory." Through analysis of the context of this verse, Spencer offers and evaluated an alternate interpretation:
A more conservative interpretation of verses 7–9 would be in accordance with the predominant theme of the entire revelation — namely, whether and when it is right for Oliver Cowdery to translate. Perhaps, in these verses, the Lord is telling Oliver Cowdery that before he asks for the privilege to translate, he must find out if translating is the right thing for him to be doing at the time.
In other words, "it" refers to the privilege of translating, and is not meant to say anything about the way the translation was actually done.

I can't imagine how Joseph would have worked out a proposed translation of anything on the gold plates by himself. The translation, if indeed through the power of God, surely must involve information being delivered to Joseph.

Now there are still two schools of thought that can contend over how this happened, one holding that what was delivered was an impression about the meaning that Joseph had to formulate in his own words, while another view is that actual words may have been delivered that Joseph could read or dictate directly.

The first view, the "loose translation" school, is what many of us have assumed for years, but increasingly, in my opinion, analysis of the dictated language suggests it was not Joseph's words nor in his Yankee dialect. Further, the tight textual relationships within diverse portions of the Book of Mormon and its extreme intertextuality with the Bible also suggest some form of tight control in verbiage rather than Joseph constantly looking for his own words to express impressions. These are issues we've addressed elsewhere here, but for now what I wish to emphasize is that the most plausible meaning of "it" in Doctrine and Covenants 9 leads away from the widely repeated assumption that it is telling us something about how Joseph did the translation, or how Oliver should have done it.

If Joseph was indeed seeing text and not just getting impressions, this helps explain the rapid pace of dictation, the distance between his language and the language of the dictated text, the tendency for highly precise allusions and citations within the Book of Mormon and relative to the Bible, and the ability of many intricate word plays and Hebraisms such as chiasmus to survive the translation. What was dictated was an incredible miracle, done without manuscripts or notes or even a Bible to cite, and it was done right before our eyes (or rather, the eyes of multiple witnesses), with evidence that remains visible right before our eyes today.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

All Shook Up Over the Elvis Book of Mormon News

It's Heartbreak Hotel time for any of you who have been inspired by the story of Elvis Presley's deep appreciation of the Book of Mormon, supported by a copy of the book that contained his signature and extensive notes. Sadly, the Elvis edition of the Book of Mormon, upon closer examination, has been ruled an obvious forgery. See the LDS.org story by Keith A. Erekson, Church History Library Director, "Elvis Presley–Signed Copy of the Book of Mormon a Forgery, Historian Says," also available at Meridian Magazine.

It's a warning to not give much weight to faith-promoting stories that are not adequately substantiated. It's also a warning that believers can be too eager to accept questionable evidence that we find comforting. What a shame that someone created this forgery in the first place. Come on, people, don't be cruel!

I'm happy to report, on the other hand, that extensive, word-by-word, line-by-line examination of the Original Text of the Book of Mormon, the Printer's Manuscript, and analysis of numerous statements of witnesses of the translation process and of the text itself continue to add growing evidence that the translation of the Book of Mormon was not a fraudulent story but truly was a miraculous fruit of oral dictation, hour after hour at an amazing pace, giving us the intricate text we have today, loaded with growing evidences of ancient origins beyond anything scholars or farm boys could have fabricated in 1830. Stick with the original and don't be bothered or misled by peripheral issues like Elvis' alleged infatuation with the the book. 

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Last Section of the Words of Mormon May Be Part of the Book of Mosiah

The Book of Mosiah begins in a puzzling way relative to the other books before it. For a book that is supposed to be connected to Mosiah, it starts with a reference to King Benjamin, not Mosiah. Further, right before the Book of Mosiah, there is also a strangely sudden transition in the Words of Mormon that also makes reference to King Benjamin. Both the ending of the Words of Mormon and the beginning of the Book of Mosiah seem awkward or unusual. However, recent examination of the manuscripts from the Book of Mormon translation leads to the possibility that both of these awkward sections were affected by the loss of the 116 pages, and in fact, the ending of the Words of Mormon may actually be a fragment from part of the Book of Mosiah, whose opening words are missing.

What is now our beginning of the Book of Mosiah apparently was labeled as Chapter 3 in the original text. Understand the loss and its influence on the text can be meaningful in several ways. See Jack M. Lyon and Kent R. Minson, "When Pages Collide: Dissecting the Words of Mormon," BYU Studies, 51/4 (2012): 121-136. This is also available at the Scholars Archive at BYU. The authors explore details from the original manuscript and the overall composition of the Book of Mormon, and extract interesting insights that lead to the following conclusions:
Without the benefit of Royal Skousen’s landmark publications on the original Book of Mormon text, scholars have previously described Words of Mormon verses 12–18 as a “bridge” or “transition” that Mormon wrote to connect the record of the small plates with his abridgment from the large plates. Based on the now-available documentary evidence, that analysis can be seen as faulty—an attempt to explain what should never have needed explaining. There is no “bridge” between the small plates and the rest of the Book of Mormon. There is only the Words of Mormon itself (consisting of verses 1–11), where Mormon simply explains why he is including the small plates with the rest of the record.19 The verses that follow (12–18) belong in the book of Mosiah.

So, in conclusion, here is the text of the Words of Mormon and the beginning of Mosiah as it should be (and originally was):
The Words of Mormon

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites. . . .

And they were handed down from king Benjamin, from generation to generation until they have fallen into my hands. And I, Mormon, pray to God that they may be preserved from this time henceforth. And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

[The Book of Mosiah]

[Chapter 1: In lost 116 pages]

[Chapter 2: First part in lost 116 pages]

. . . And now, concerning this king Benjamin—he had somewhat of contentions among his own people. . . .
Wherefore, with the help of these, king Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul, and also the prophets, did once more establish peace in the land.

Chapter 3

And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the People which belonged to King Benjamin . . .
Unless the original manuscript pages for the Words of Mormon and the beginning of the book of Mosiah someday come to light, we may never know precisely what happened to this text during the translation of the Book of Mormon. However, this paper provides a new explanation of what may have occurred—one that makes sense based on the documentary and textual evidence. This may seem like a small matter, but it could have important ramifications for study and scholarship, and the closer we can get to the original text of the Book of Mormon, the better we will understand the meaning and history of that sacred record.