The Thing about the Book of Mormon Is…

…from my wishy-washy postmodern perspective, it’s whole lot harder to deal with than other holy books.

The Bible?  Sure, I might not be invested in the idea that Adam and Eve were actual people who lived in an actual garden, or that an actual flood came along and swallowed up the entire earth — but at least I know the Jews really did exist and that the Old Testament is their book; and that the Christians really did come along later, and that the New Testament is theirs.

The Doctrine and Covenants?  Okay, so that whole D&C 132 thing might be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no question that Joseph Smith was a real dude and the Latter-day Saints were real people and, in the end, who am I to say what God did or didn’t tell them?

Even the Qur’an and the Veda and the Tao Te Ching can be regarded with this same sort of “open” perspective.  Maybe God did inspire their authors to say what they said, to write what they wrote.

But the Book of Mormon is harder.  Much harder.

Because the Book of Mormon claims to be an actual, translated text of an actual, literal people.  People who may or may not have really existed.

There’s just no way around it.  Unlike the other books, where you can make the argument that God was speaking in His own way to those people at those times — and they might have gotten the message right or they might have gotten the message wrong — the Book of Mormon has far less wiggle room.  If it is of ancient origin, it becomes much harder to deny the literal truth claims of Mormonism.

And if it isn’t…

Well, it doesn’t look too good for Joseph Smith.  Either he was a fraud or he was a loony.  I recognize there’s some middle ground there — that the stories of the Book of Mormon’s origins were well-meaning fibs or that he had something ancient acting as a springboard for his revelation, even if it wasn’t the golden plates per se — but it’s a far more difficult case to make.

That’s why the Book of Mormon is such a pain in my ass.  I want to put it in the same category as the other holy books.  I want to approach it as “symbol” and “myth,” like I do with most everything spiritual this side of the Resurrection.  But it won’t let me.  It shouts at me, claws at me, buries itself under my skin and starts itching.  Make a decision, it says, take a stand.

And the worst part?

If I’m a believing Mormon, this is just greater proof of its verity.  If I’m a disbeliever, this is just greater proof of its falsehood.

I’m beginning to think that Elder Holland was on to something when he said that the Book of Mormon is the great stumbling block — though I would argue not just for those leaving, but for those coming in…and even those who want to stay put, but are trying to renegotiate their position in the community.

At least I keep tripping over it.

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About Katie L

Thirtysomething wife, mother, writer, runner, believer, and lover of good food and bad movies.
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65 Responses to The Thing about the Book of Mormon Is…

  1. Katie L says:

    I want to add that I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing — I think it’s entirely possible that the Book of Mormon is doing precisely what God intended it to do — but it is a fascinating conundrum.

  2. Kullervo says:

    My gut says you are seriously buying into a false dichotomy.

  3. Katie L says:

    I don’t know. I don’t buy into a false dichotomy with the other books. I know there are ways around it, but the fact that the BOM is more concrete and spectacular in its claims makes it harder to fudge on.

  4. Kullervo says:

    The Bible is quite concrete and spectacular in its claims. World flood.

  5. Katie L says:

    The main difference is that Moses is writing about the flood millenia after the events supposedly occurred…so if he’s a little hazy on the details, who can blame him? My approach to scripture does not require its writers to be accurate historians to be valuable.

    Joseph Smith, on the other hand, said it happened to him, that he experienced it first-hand. You don’t get as much leeway to be mistaken on the details when you’re saying stuff like that, you just don’t.

    Having said that, I guess Moses does say that he parted the Red Sea. And there are plenty of other Old Testament miracles that were presumably recorded as they happened. And those are pretty spectacular claims.

    I don’t know, there’s just something hard about having your sacred myths so recent.

  6. Jared C says:

    Many scholars would consider the Bible as questionable as the Book of Mormon in its historical claims. The Jews may have existed for the last six thousand years, but their true history is most certainly not in the bible. It can be argued that almost every book is filled with fabrications made for political or religious purposes. Then again, some argue that it is the literal word of God and true in all respects. Its the same dilemma.

    However, whether or not the book is “true” in the historical sense may not ultimately matter if God is available through what it says.

  7. David Clark says:

    Many scholars would consider the Bible as questionable as the Book of Mormon in its historical claims.

    No, they wouldn’t. Does the Bible contain things that are not historical? Absolutely. However, the fact that I and biblical scholars can assert that with some degree of confidence is because the Bible has a context. It’s from the context that one can see which parts are not historical. Having a context also allows one to assert that the Bible does contain things that are historical. And for me the most interesting part is that the context provides reasons as to why unhistorical things were included in the Bible.

    You can’t say anything like that for the Book of Mormon because it has no context. Zero. You can’t place it anywhere in ancient America, which is why so many BofM apologists mostly engage in ad hoc arguments as to why you shouldn’t expect the BofM to have a context.

    There really is a qualitative difference between someone saying that “The Bible contains unhistorical material” and “The Book of Mormon contains unhistorical material.” Having spent a lot of my time investigating both positions, it really pisses me off when Mormons just blithely assert that both positions are entirely equivalent, so let’s just all make a blind leap of faith and continue on in the tradition in which we we currently find ourselves.

    The Jews may have existed for the last six thousand years, but their true history is most certainly not in the bible.

    Terminologically, you are way off. The earliest point at which one can call people “Jews” is post-exile. Before then you need to use the term “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” In the Bible this means looking at the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, Zecharaiah, Haggai, and Malachi for history of the Jews. Most scholars accept the main historical points of these books. Sure, they contain exaggerations and biases, but so does almost every single ancient document.

    But, even assuming you really mean Israelites, there is still some history about them as well. Again, because of context, you can sift the wheat from the chaff. Critical scholars are actually in agreement as to what is and what is not historical for large chunks of the Old Testament. Most of the arguments now are over what is historical in the early Israelite monarchy.

    The main problem for people trying to understand the Bible is that it resists simple solutions. Conservative believers dearly want it to all be history. Others upon hearing that some of it is not historical dearly want to be lazy and just conclude that it’s all junk. The problem for both sides is that truth is somewhere in the middle.

  8. Kullervo says:

    I don’t know. I don’t buy into a false dichotomy with the other books. I know there are ways around it, but the fact that the BOM is more concrete and spectacular in its claims makes it harder to fudge on.

    If you are relying on the historicity of the Book of Mormon to be evidence that Mormonism’s truth-claims are true without exception, then okay. You have the either-or. But that’s because you are evaluating a dichotomy you imposed on the facts, i.e., that it is either 100%-true or something-other-than-100% true. But that’s an arbitrary imposition.

    Change your rubric: in what way and to what degree does Mormonism express truth? Zap! You are let out of the dichotomy trap. Maybe the events of the Book of Mormon are entirely ahistorical. It can still contain truth, and can still be of divine origin. Maybe not, if you accept the definitional constraints that the General Authorities publicly set on truth and divine origin, but what if you don’t completely accept those? What if the General Authorities are not always right?

    I will grant you that simple dichotomies are more compfortable, but they’re pretty much always at odds with reality, or at the least they obscure–brutally obscure–the massive spectrum of meaning and truth that reality comprises.

    Even if the narrative of the book of Mormon is completely ahistorical–and let’s face it, it amost certainly is–that laone does not rob the book of Mormon or the Church of all spiritual value, unless you buy into an arbitrary criteria for “spiritual value.”

  9. BrianJ says:

    David Clark: I think your comment is very applicable to scholars, and there’s probably nothing I would dispute in it. But I don’t think it’s totally applicable to Katie’s comment. Which, of course, is fine because you weren’t responding to Katie, you were responding to Jared (who was responding to Katie).

    I think what’s relevant to Katie’s comment is that the Bible suffers in many of the same ways as the BoM. Not ways that should bother a scholar, but they should bother someone approaching it as an “authoritative source.” As you say, it’s interesting to consider why Bible authors would include events that never happened, but that’s not interesting to a “believer”. It’s disturbing.

    “The main difference is that Moses is writing about the flood millenia after the events supposedly occurred….”

    Except that it probably isn’t even Moses writing about it. It’s some unknown person(s) who is pretending to be Moses writing about it…. And then there’s those parts where the Bible was written to look like some prophet foresaw some future event, but then the scholars show that maybe the “prophecy” was recorded after the event took place. Etc.

    But I agree with Katie’s original post: there is a dichotomy that—if not mandatory, as Kullervo points out—is nevertheless a pretty standard and obvious dichotomy to face. You don’t have to be a crazy-genius to come up with that dichotomy.

  10. BrianJ says:

    (If anyone can make sense of my comment, let me know. I’d like to know what I just wrote. Clarity fail.)

  11. Jared C says:

    David, while I don’t have any precision in my description, and I think in general, the Book of Mormon is far less reliable in its historical claims, I think my point is right on.’

    When you are talking about relying on the words of the bible for truth and understanding of God, both the Book of Mormon and the Bible fall far short of anything that could be considered reliable on a historical basis. The problem I find with many theologies is that they rely on a level of literal accuracy in scripture that simply cannot be supported by external historical data. When you are talking about what God said, if you don’t have a certified transcript you have to use some other method, other than the words on the page, to determine whether to trust those words. Both the Bible and the Book or Mormon fail the history test. The BOM may get a 10% or even 2% and the Bible gets a 59% but both fail.

    The fact that the bible contains some reliable history or even if it was 100% reliable on most major historical events, doesn’t help when its clear that many events just don’t match up with history. If the Bible contains exaggerations, falsities and unsubstantiated accounts, how is it better as a precise theological document than one guy just making stuff up. The historical accuracy and cultural reverence, if anything, would cause you to be more skeptical.

    Therefore, based on historical accuracy alone the Bible is no more reliable as religious truth than the Book of Mormon.

    Thus, going back to mine, and apparently Kullervo’s point, there may be a way to descern divine truth from flawed and unreliable historical documents. And such a method would be the only way you are going to get anything worth trusting out of the Bible or the BOM.

  12. Jared C says:

    Brian, Given that your comment is unclear, i am just going to interpret it to mean it supports my position completely.

  13. Kullervo says:

    But I agree with Katie’s original post: there is a dichotomy that—if not mandatory, as Kullervo points out—is nevertheless a pretty standard and obvious dichotomy to face. You don’t have to be a crazy-genius to come up with that dichotomy.

    But the dichotomy is not somehow inherent to the text. The fact that it is a commonly perpetuated dichotomy doesn;t make it any less of a false one.

  14. Katie L. says:

    It’s like: it’s easier for me to say, such-and-such prophet or apostle thought he heard such-and-such message from God, but he could have been wrong; than such-and-such prophet thought he saw such-and-such-angel who delivered such-and-such golden plates which he claimed to have in his actual, physical possession for such-and-such length of time, but he could have been wrong.

    I know they’re on the same spectrum. I’m just saying end of it is harder for me to reconcile.

    And for the record, I am NOT saying that God DIDN’T say any given thing to any given prophet, nor that Joseph Smith DIDN’T have the golden plates. I’m just saying that if it turns out there’s a crossed wire somewhere, one is easier for me to reconcile than the other.

  15. David Clark says:

    I think what’s relevant to Katie’s comment is that the Bible suffers in many of the same ways as the BoM. Not ways that should bother a scholar, but they should bother someone approaching it as an “authoritative source.” As you say, it’s interesting to consider why Bible authors would include events that never happened, but that’s not interesting to a “believer”. It’s disturbing.

    It can be disturbing. It will always be disturbing to a fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, which unfortunately is really the only approach the LDS church offers.

    As has been pointed out the 100% true/100% false approach needs to be jettisoned. Take two examples. I reject the historicity of the Book of Genesis and The Book of Mormon. The difference is in what I must conclude about the authors of each book. If I assume the most charitable thing about the authors that fits the evidence where does that lead me? In the case of the Book of Genesis, the author is very clearly a person or persons in the Ancient Near East who knew a lot of myths, legends, and oral traditions and organized them into a theological narrative. There was no archaeology or library for the author(s) to check their work. So, they did the best they could and wrote the book. So, on the most charitable explanation the author(s) did the best they could with the material they had.

    But once you reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the most charitable explanation for Joseph Smith is that he was a pious fraud. He didn’t do the best he could, he just made it up. He wasn’t collecting oral traditions or legends. He wasn’t writing history as best as one could for the time period, he was making it up.

    In the case of Genesis the author is a fellow believer who unfortunately got it wrong. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the author is knowingly deceiving me. Granted, it may be for a higher purpose in his mind, but it’s still deceit.

    Therefore, based on historical accuracy alone the Bible is no more reliable as religious truth than the Book of Mormon.

    Since no amount of historical accuracy generates faith in God, I agree with you there. Academic history is usually accurate, but it doesn’t generate faith.

    Ability to discern historical accuracy is still important for two things. First, I think purposeful historical inaccuracy undermines faith in the author. If someone is a liar, I don’t think I should trust them about anything, including what they say about God. However, if someone unknowingly gets something wrong, I can still trust what they say about other things. They are not liars, therefore I can trust them when they are speaking about things when they are not ignorant. The interesting thing about when the Biblical authors are ignorant is that it does tell us something about what their beliefs are. Since I consider myself to be on the same spiritual path as they were, this can inform my beliefs.

    Second, context is important not so much for faith as for understanding. I want to understand the scriptures I believe in. And, the only way to understand any text is to put them in context. By putting the Bible in context, I have a check against my own inclination to read what I want to see into the Bible. It’s not foolproof, but it helps. The problem with the Book of Mormon is that since it has no context, you almost can’t help but read into it what you want to see. This is the reason that most modern Mormons think the BofM agrees 100% with current Mormon doctrines, because they naturally read them back into the BofM. But this isn’t understanding the text, it’s masturbation.

  16. Jared C says:

    If it is of ancient origin, it becomes much harder to deny the literal truth claims of Mormonism.
    And if it isn’t…
    Well, it doesn’t look too good for Joseph Smith. Either he was a fraud or he was a loony.

    It’s similar to C.S. Lewis’ dichotomy that either Christ was actually God or a madman. Its not that simple really.

    Even if the Book of Mormon was completely proven true, you still could deny many of the claims of Mormonism.

    The dichotomy depends on the assumption that God does things in some orderly and organized manner. There are hundreds of links were the Mormon Church could have “went” astray, even if the Book of Mormon was true.

    Most of the Book of Mormon was “divined” outside of the presence of the plates. Again, this assumes that there are no flaws in this process. Joseph could have simply mixed up the message enough on the historical front but got the “spirit” of the book correct. He could have been receiving 90% divine message but would consistently throw in his own take on things. Given the fact that its often difficult to distinguish spiritual messages from internal impressions, Its plausible that the BOM was written down with almost no historical integrity but still could be a phenomenal revelation from God.

    My point is not to argue for this position, but simply to point out that the typical “all or nothing” dichotomy is based on a lot of assumptions that are not really established.

  17. Jared C says:

    s. First, I think purposeful historical inaccuracy undermines faith in the author. If someone is a liar, I don’t think I should trust them about anything, including what they say about God.

    David, If the author of the Gospel of John was a pious fraud (which appears likely) what is the conclusion about the work, and why?

    I think that if your theology depends on the literal historical accuracy of scripture, you are in trouble. Especially when subsequent scripture is developed over thousands of years. The mistakes of the earlier scripture will compound and twist in later scripture.

  18. David Clark says:

    If the author of the Gospel of John was a pious fraud (which appears likely) what is the conclusion about the work, and why?

    I have not seen any scholar give evidence for the Gospel of John being a pious fraud. Just to be clear by what I mean by pious fraud, I mean knowingly telling a lie for some higher and/or holier purpose. I don’t see the author(s) of John doing that. There are reasons why whoever wrote the gospel of John told a very different story than did the authors of the Synoptics, but none involve a pious fraud.

    I think that if your theology depends on the literal historical accuracy of scripture, you are in trouble.

    Did I assert this anywhere, or are you responding to something else?

  19. Jared C says:

    I see the authors of John doing that. They are clearly telling that things happened in a particular way when they have no idea really whether they happened in that way or not. They are doing this for the holy purpose of presenting the Gospel in a particular way. Then you have a second author going back and changing stuff, trying to pass themselves off as the first author, or trying to piggyback on the authority of the first work. Either way, it seems that the content may be dubious if you judge by the author and their possible intentions.

    with regard to religion based literal historical accuracy I was just throwing that out. . . . the rhetorical “you” rather than you specifically.

  20. BrianJ says:

    David Clark: “So, on the most charitable explanation the author(s) did the best they could with the material they had.”

    Yeah, I can see what you mean—if we offer the books/authors our most charitable reading. The more skepticism or cynicism we apply to their motives, however, the less there is a difference.

    Take how we might skeptically/cynically view the author(s) who wrote about the massive Hebrew Exodus that may never have happened, or those who (maybe) recorded “Isaiah’s” prophecies about the Babylonian captivity after the captivity had taken place. We no longer conclude that they were “just doing the best they could with what limited resources they had,” and instead we (might) conclude that they knowingly made it all up—just like Joseph Smith.

  21. BrianJ says:

    Kullervo: the more I think on this, the less I think there is a false dichotomy. I want to think on it a bit more before I formulate a response, so take this as my bookmark.

  22. Katie L. says:

    But once you reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the most charitable explanation for Joseph Smith is that he was a pious fraud.

    Yeah, I’m not sure I buy that. Maybe he was sincerely delusional or a mystic of some kind. Those seem like more charitable explanations to me.

    Kullervo: the more I think on this, the less I think there is a false dichotomy. I want to think on it a bit more before I formulate a response, so take this as my bookmark.

    This is me hoping your explanation doesn’t completely stress me out. ;-)

  23. katyjane says:

    “It’s like: it’s easier for me to say, such-and-such prophet or apostle thought he heard such-and-such message from God, but he could have been wrong; than such-and-such prophet thought he saw such-and-such-angel who delivered such-and-such golden plates which he claimed to have in his actual, physical possession for such-and-such length of time, but he could have been wrong.”

    Katie, is your problem with the historicity of the BoM about whether or not it happened, or whether or not the plates were received the way that Joseph Smith said?

    Because couldn’t it be entirely possible that it all happened just as Joseph Smith said, but that he was wrong about it being about an actual people, or wrong about it being about an actual people in the Americas? I mean, it’s a romantic idea… but then again, when Columbus hit the Americas, he thought that he was in India… people make mistakes about locations.

    Or, you know, maybe it was all made up. So what? It’s a powerful book, and the Church has grown into a force for good that has transformed people’s lives. If its beginnings were rough, who cares? My beginnings were sort of rough too, but have overcome them.

  24. David Clark says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure I buy that. Maybe he was sincerely delusional or a mystic of some kind. Those seem like more charitable explanations to me.

    Mystic would be more charitable, but Joseph Smith never showed a single mystical inclination in his entire life. Mystics transcend the flesh, they don’t boink upwards of 30 women in a three year period. Mystics are solitary, Joseph was always building cities with him at the very center of power and influence. Mystics are allegorical and metaphorical, Joseph was always concrete and literal. So it would be more charitable, but the data don’t fit.

    As for delusional, I don’t see how that is more charitable towards Joseph or more reassuring to the faithful. Pious fraud means that someone knowingly lies for the greater good. Delusional is just crazy and doesn’t know what they are talking about. But, if delusional fits better for you, go for it.

  25. David Clark says:

    Yeah, I can see what you mean—if we offer the books/authors our most charitable reading. The more skepticism or cynicism we apply to their motives, however, the less there is a difference.

    To be faithful seems to imply that one gives things the most charitable interpretation. If you start from the most skeptical or cynical viewpoint possible, you will always destroy your faith. So, if that’s the case, skip the trouble and just embrace atheism.

  26. David Clark says:

    I see the authors of John doing that. They are clearly telling that things happened in a particular way when they have no idea really whether they happened in that way or not. They are doing this for the holy purpose of presenting the Gospel in a particular way. Then you have a second author going back and changing stuff, trying to pass themselves off as the first author, or trying to piggyback on the authority of the first work. Either way, it seems that the content may be dubious if you judge by the author and their possible intentions.

    I see where you are coming from. I think your analysis may have some flaws in it. The way I see you coming at that conclusion is in two steps. First, you identify separate authors in John by a redactional analysis. Next, you assert that this redaction is not historical because John does not agree with the more historical synoptics. This is the standard methodology to then start a social and historical analysis of the Johannine community. The problem with using this data to call John a pious fraud is that there is no evidence that the Johannine community knew about the synoptics. As far as they knew they were simply refining and oral traditions as time went on. In other words as far as they knew, they were doing the best they could.

    Alternatively one can analyze the Johannine community on the assumption that John is really a story about the Johannine community, merely using the story of Jesus as a narrative device. But again, you can’t call that a pious fraud because you have already assumed that they knew they were not producing a historical document.

    If there is another way you come by this conclusion, I’d like to know the details so I can analyze them.

    The problem with Joseph is that he was very concrete and said a lot about what he was doing with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. There is less guess work and less wiggle room.

  27. BrianJ says:

    David Clark: “If you start from the most skeptical or cynical viewpoint possible, you will always destroy your faith. So, if that’s the case, skip the trouble and just embrace atheism.”

    I think I wasn’t clear enough, and that led you to two incorrect assumptions about what I am saying. To clarify:

    a) What I’m saying only applies if one assumes/accepts/concludes that the Bible and BoM are not historically reliable; i.e., are not “real” histories.

    b) I wasn’t suggesting that anyone should approach religion from the most cynical or skeptical view. I was only contemplating how increasing amounts of skepticism/cynicism eventually narrow the gap between the “non-historical Bible” and the “non-historical BoM.” And I believe that that gap narrows to essentially zero long before anyone reaches full-blown atheistic skepticism or anti-religion cynicism.

    “To be faithful seems to imply that one gives things the most charitable interpretation.”

    This is probably a topic for another thread, but I think this is too strong. I think there is room for skepticism and cynicism in faithful religious study. Or perhaps I would just change one word and say, “To be hopeful seems to imply….” (But maybe we’re just playing with different definitions of “faith”, as is often the case—there are like 50 definitions of the word!)

  28. David Clark says:

    @BrianJ: Ok, that makes more sense.

  29. Jared C says:

    Mystics transcend the flesh, they don’t boink upwards of 30 women in a three year period.

    There were/are plenty of mystics who are sensual. Sex can be among the most mystical of experiences.

  30. Jared C says:

    Regarding John. or perhaps more appropriately Matthew.

    If you write that Jesus said “X” without knowing for sure that Jesus said X, simply because you believe X is the right position then this is not history, its propaganda.

    It may not be fraud, but it may be even more insidious in twisting the “truth”.

    When an author drafts outright apocrypha it seems just unreliable as someone who writes complete fiction.

  31. David Clark says:

    There were/are plenty of mystics who are sensual. Sex can be among the most mystical of experiences.

    Awesome apologetic, the BofM is true because Joseph was a mystic! The proof? He had sex with lots of women!

    On a more serious note. Could you please provide references for sexual mysticism inside the western and specifically Christian tradition? References to Hindu or Indian mysticism don’t count here. Also, sexual imagery (as in Song of Solomon or Kabbalah) doesn’t count. There have to be people actually humping and calling it mystical.

  32. David Clark says:

    Regarding John. or perhaps more appropriately Matthew.

    Actually, I think John makes the case better that you want to make, but we’ll take Matthew.

    If you write that Jesus said “X” without knowing for sure that Jesus said X, simply because you believe X is the right position then this is not history, its propaganda.

    According to the 4 source hypothesis (the most widely held among scholars), Matthew composed his gospel from the written book of Mark, from a written form of the sayings gospel “Q,” and the oral tradition, which in Matthew’s case scholars call “M.”

    Matthew follows Mark pretty closely, i.e. he relies on prior written histories (which is a good thing last I checked). Scholar’s hypothesize that Matthew did not follow “Q” as closely as did Luke. Let’s grant that supposition. He mainly used “Q” in things like the Sermon on the Mount. Here he is following standard Hellenistic historiography, of injecting verisimilitude into a history by attempting to reconstruct what was said by the person using the best available sources (in Matthew’s case “Q”, this is no different than Thucydides putting a funeral oration speech into the mouth of Pericles in his History of the Peloponnesian War).

    That leaves the oral tradition. But again, you have to look at how history was done in ancient times. Take Herodotus, he mainly did history by asking people what they remembered had happened, or what they had heard had happened, and then wrote it down. My point is that in ancient times oral tradition was simply how history was done, and oral tradition was not seen to be a defective source.

    Now is this how history is done nowadays? No. Would Matthew flunk History 200 at BYU? Yep. Does this make him a fraud or is he doing something insidious? Nope.

  33. Katie L. says:

    I don’t know, David. I think there’s evidence that Mormonism contains content from the ancient mystery traditions, so even if there aren’t Christian mystics boinking one another, from what I understand (which is admittedly basically nothing — I’m just some chick posting on a blog at midnight) I think there is some precedent for this kind of thing in the mystery traditions. Isn’t there?

  34. Jared C says:

    Also, sexual imagery (as in Song of Solomon or Kabbalah) doesn’t count. There have to be people actually humping and calling it mystical.

    You think people were not actually humping? I am am sure Solomon had epic sex.

    This seems like one of the plain and precious things that the Christian tradition missed.

    And why do other traditions not count? Just because Christian missed the boat on sexual mysticism doesn’t mean that it isn’t real does it?

  35. Jared C says:

    Awesome apologetic, the BofM is true because Joseph was a mystic! The proof? He had sex with lots of women!

    Thanks. I think it kicks ass too.

  36. Jared C says:

    My point on the synoptics is not that they intended to be frauds but that blind speculation based on sketchy sources can lead to mistakes and misrepresentation as inevitably as fabrication.

    The overarching point is that the Gospels are only trustworthy if they contain spiritual truth, not because they are the best source about the life of Jesus.

    Then again, if an intentional apocryphal writer is true to the spirit it may not matter what historical details he makes up or screws up.

  37. Katie L. says:

    Also. Why is humping automatically excluded? Humping can be totally mystical. It doesn’t take a tradition to figure that out.

  38. Katie L says:

    Katie, is your problem with the historicity of the BoM about whether or not it happened, or whether or not the plates were received the way that Joseph Smith said?

    My main problem is with whether or not the plates were received the way JS said. If the book itself is not historical but the plates are, I reckon there are ways to be okay with that: maybe Joseph mistranslated some stuff, or Mormon and Moroni mis-compiled some things, or Joseph got the location wrong or whatever. But if he invented the whole thing about the plates…I don’t know, it bugs me.

    I like what you say about rough beginnings, though. That’s a valid point.

  39. Kullervo says:

    The fact that the Book of Mormon is likely a completely novel innovation does not mean it is devoid of spiritual value.

    Joseph Smith is far from the first or only spiritual/mystical innovator to claim an ancient source for his innovations. In fact, it’s an unfortunate but nearly universal pattern. But a spiritual idea is made valid not by its age but by its efficacy.

    Carlos Castaneda certianly made up Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman. But if Castaneda’s ideas have spiritual efficacy, they have spiritual efficacy. The fact that he spun a yarn in the process does not make the substance valueless.

  40. David Clark says:

    And why do other traditions not count? Just because Christian missed the boat on sexual mysticism doesn’t mean that it isn’t real does it?

    They don’t count because Joseph Smith would not have known about them. Therefore, you can’t use it as an explanation for why he would practice sexual mysticism.

    If you want to argue that he got it by “revelation” then you still have to show that he thought of it as mystical. Got any evidence for that? Every single piece of data seems to support the idea that wives and sex was for Joseph concrete, literal, and quite frankly transactional.

    But, believe whatever you want to believe.

  41. Jared C says:

    I think he could have got it by having great sex. Reading a book seems like the worst way to have mystical sexual experiences:

    “Ok honey, it says in the manual that our minds will expand and new horizons of thought if we just do this . . .um, can you make out this diagram, where is my leg supposed to go? “

  42. Jared C says:

    Every single piece of data seems to support the idea that wives and sex was for Joseph concrete, literal, and quite frankly transactional.

    I don’t think the evidence supports this. The fact that women remained extremely devoted to JS despite his “non-exclusive” sexual relationships shows that he definitely had some mojo. Most of the women he got with had more to lose than gain by having sex with him, which shows that he was touching them a, shall we say, less practical level. The fact that at least some of them felt that God himself was leading them to the sexual union would have been highly likely to make the event more spiritual.

  43. Jared C says:

    I really do wish they would have had at least one love scene in the temple square Joseph Smith movie. I think they are just missing something without it, and I think it would broaden its appeal to the mass audience.

    I think a well done biopic about Joseph Smith would make great cinema, maybe have Daniel Day Lewis play opposite Kate Winslet.

  44. Kullervo says:

    I really do wish they would have had at least one love scene in the temple square Joseph Smith movie. I think they are just missing something without it, and I think it would broaden its appeal to the mass audience.

    Perhaps with full frontal nudity. And loads of violence. Not in the same scene, mind you; it’s not True Blood after all.

    But wouldn;t it be better if it was? True Blood is awesome, that’s really all I’m trying to say.

  45. Jared C says:

    Well you could revise the whole thing and re-make the Joseph Smith story into someting akin to “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. . . with more sex.

  46. Katie L says:

    This is why it’s sad Richard Dutcher never got around to making his movie about Joseph.

    Also, I reiterate my point about the ancient mysteries and sexuality with this highly authoritative link.

  47. Kullervo says:

    Well you could revise the whole thing and re-make the Joseph Smith story into someting akin to “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. . . with more sex.

    That’s an awesome movie.

  48. Katie L says:

    My point? Just because Joseph didn’t mine Christian tradition for celestial marriage doesn’t mean he didn’t have access to other spiritual resources that served as a springboard.

  49. Kullervo says:

    Sexual mysticism isn’t some kind of wholly obscure Oriental thing that Joseph Smith never possibly could have heard of. It existed in the ancient mediterranean world and has popped up a bunch of times since then. Greco-roman myth is loaded with sexuality. Plus, let’s be honest; it’s not really that hard of an idea to just come up with.

  50. Jared C says:

    If its “true” mysticism, you shouldn’t have to read about it at all, you should be able to just able to be in tune with the spiritual during your life experiences.

    Most things can produce mystical/spiritual experiences if you approach them that way.

  51. Jared C says:

    If its “true” mysticism, you shouldn’t have to read about it at all, you should be able to just able to be in tune with the spiritual during your life experiences.

    Most things can produce mystical/spiritual experiences if you approach them that way.

    Especially those as powerful as sex.

  52. Jared C says:

    . . . or watching The Outlaw Josey Wales” That is almost as inspiring as much as High Plains Drifter

    I think if you watched those movies straight you would experience some portion of the divine.

  53. Kullervo says:

    Of course, Jared is right: mysticism is the direct, personal experience of the divine. And it can certainly be had during the viewing of a number of Clint Eastwood movies.

  54. Kinda jumping in here late, but this topic has a lot to do with a course I am taking on the Book of Mormon right now. One of the concepts we discussed early on was what is meant when we say something like “‘The Book of Mormon’ is true.” There are three ways to interpret the word “true”:

    1) historically accurate
    2) authentic
    3) True, as in touching on Truths revealed by God

    As has been pointed out, the first point is rather irrelevant when it comes to religious texts. The Bible has plenty of shortcomings when it comes to historical accuracy, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the lessons, stories, and doctrines.

    As an authentic book, the Bible can be safely said to fall into that category. It is an authentic collection of ancient writings from the Judeo-Christian world. My guess is that the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is where the difficulty is coming in to play for Katie. We don’t have any way to “prove” its authenticity because it clearly states that peoples whose histories it purports to share are extinct. We have this vague notion of the peoples of the Book of Mormon being among the ancestors of Native Americans, but even that notion has changed quite a bit. While there are plenty of Mormons who believe that the descendants of Lehi, Mulek, and Jared were the only ones present, the text itself indicates otherwise if read carefully. So what we have are a handful of tribes who ended up killing each other off, for the most part, and the few remnants mixing with the other peoples. Other peoples who didn’t keep written histories for the most part. So the authenticity is basically impossible to prove. Or, rather, the authenticity of the record created by Mormon and Moroni. There is also the issue of whether or not Joseph Smith authentically had a set of gold plates. What was on them is irrelevant at this point. What we are asking is, no matter what was on them, were there actually plates of gold in his possession? The 3 and 8 witnesses attested that there were, but they could quite easily have been in on the hoax so, in this case as well, the authenticity is impossible to establish.

    What about the third case? Does the Book of Mormon contain Truths? I believe it does. Many others believe it does, too. Even those who don’t accept Mormonism will accept that there are Truths contained in the book. So even if Joseph Smith were a fraud, he could have shared Divine Truth through the book that he wrote and distributed.

    I don’t believe he was a fraud. I do believe the Book of Mormon to be an authentic account of the dealings with God of a group of people somewhere on the American continent(s). And I believe that the book contains many wonderful Truths. But I also believe that it is not necessary to write off everything because of one error. Which is all a very long way of saying that I reject the dichotomy of all or nothing.

  55. Kullervo says:

    Fine and good, but how do you feel about The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly?

  56. Katie L says:

    Thanks, Alex. I like your response and approach.

    I haven’t watched many westerns, but I must say I am kind of in love with the new True Grit by the Coens. Best movie I’ve seen in years.

  57. Jared C says:

    Best line from Josey Wales: “To hell with them guys, buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.”

  58. Pingback: BoM vs. BOM | Burning At The Stake

  59. Katie L says:

    A question for Alex, after re-reading your response: if you found out that JS somehow fabricated the story of how he got the gold plates (thereby making it inauthentic), would you still consider it spiritually true enough to have value? Or would that be a major game-changer for you?

  60. Kullervo says:

    For the record, the the Vedas (and Upanishads) and the Tao Te Ching are not necessarily claimed by their believers to be revealed scripture. Lots of eastern religions are conceptualized as discovered religions, not revealed religions. That kind of thing takes a whole lot of burden off of a sacred text, btw.

    Anyway, who says a sacred text’s spiritual value is determiend by whether God dictated it? That’s not a natural or self-evident criterion; it’s a questionably self-interested one pushed by religions who claim that their sacred text was dictated by God. Its like Christians who claim that only an omnipotent uncreated god (i.e., a god that matches their conception of God) would be worthy of worship, or the Mormon Church telling you that the Mormon Church wil never lead you astray.

  61. Katie L says:

    Wow, this post and conversation is SO interesting to look back on. :)

    I agree with all y’all now. What a year and a half it’s been to get to this point.

  62. Jared C says:

    I bet all it took was to watch The Outlaw Josey Wales a time or two.

  63. Jared C says:

    Anyway, who says a sacred text’s spiritual value is determiend by whether God dictated it?

    There is enough magic in life that you could make a sacred book out of almost any writing that reflects it or effects it. Once you see a writing as sacred, for whatever reason, it will start affecting how you see things. Believing the Book of Mormon or the Book of Genesis reveals sacred truth makes you think about life and the world differently, whether or not you believe it all actually happened.

    Joseph Smith once said that everybody was entitled to their own seer stone if they wanted it. I tend to think he was on to something.

  64. Kullervo says:

    There is enough magic in life that you could make a sacred book out of almost any writing that reflects it or effects it.

    I’m gonna disagree. While I recognize that there’s goign to be some subjectivity in how sacred things resonate with different people, I assert that some writings contain an essential quality of sacredness (or a degree of that quality) that others do not.

    I understand the problems with verifying this position, but I am taking it anyway.

  65. Jared C says:

    I agree that the categorical statement that any book could be sacred goes too far. I am not going to argue that a script of an episode “Wizards of Waverly Place” would support considering it to be scripture. But I think you could make scripture out of The Little Red Hen or Moby Dick. I agree that some writings “contain an essential quality of sacredness” and other do not to the extent that they actually represent some reality in a compelling way or a certain human style. I have heard it said that a myth is not the story of something that never happened, it is the story of something that happens over and over again.

    By giving ordinary stories mythic/scriptural status, it can often underscore the truth that they contain and allow us to act on them in ways that we would never do if we didn’t consider them extremely important. In my opinion, the best, and most deserving of sacredness are those that lead us to good lives and societies rather than bad. Some stories that are considered sacred should be vilified as evil.

    The practice of scripturalizing stories is applicable in all kinds of circumstances and a lot of different kinds of literature can support it for good or ill. Stories that allow us to order and recognize things that happen to us, or could happen to us (life, death, reproduction, work, sorrow, war, sex, love, hate) can act to shape our lives if we take them seriously. If we don’t, they are just entertainment or academic inquiry. The Book of Mormon has a compelling back story that allows people to take its stories very seriously, which has made it a compelling force in the lives of millions.

    I think if we can develop a practice of identifying or even simply deeming stories to be sacred. deemed other literature sacred, even fictional accounts, this practice could be a powerful way of connecting with the world and making life meaningful in ways that we have choice in, rather than simply adopting the objects of reverence put in front of us.

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