Gold Plated Enigma

by G
[here’s what my Book of Mormon looks like on the inside]

Something I struggled with when re-negotiating my faith in the church, was to find the exact location of the Book of Mormon in the grand scheme of my personal beliefs. The generally accepted stance from the pulpit goes something like ‘if it is not what we say it is, than everything else is a lie too.’ Well, I do not believe the Book of Mormon is what ‘they’ say it is. Then again, I don’t believe the all-or-none rhetoric surrounding it either.

What an enigma it is, the Book of Mormon, claiming to be a history of an ancient people on the American continent and also a religious book, containing the teachings of Jesus and his prophets. The account it weaves is extensive giving details of monetary exchange rates, record keeping practices, war strategy, political maneuvering, and the discovery of earlier civilizations; along with prophesies about the birth of Jesus (almost 600 years before his actual birth), accounts of the formation of christian churches, and theological treatises on subjects like faith, baptism, receiving answers to prayers, and the atonement of Christ. It is a tale of epic proportions, produced in a very short amount of time by an ‘uneducated’ man in his early twenties. That, of course is a big arguing point of true believers; Joseph Smith could NEVER had made this all up, never in a million years! On the other hand, the historical and scientific evidence against the Book of Mormon is hard to ignore, like the doubtful DNA link between native Americans and Israelites, and the lack of archeological evidence for the kind of civilization described in the Book of Mormon. (The recent one-word change to the Introduction stirred that controversy anew.)

George Cannon (father of Elder George Q Cannon) said about the Book of Mormon “an evil man could not have written it, and a good man would not have written it unless it were true and he was commanded by God to do so.” [Paraphrased.]

An Anti-Mormon preacher I ran into on my mission  said the Book of Mormon was the most trivial piece of trash he had ever read.

Mark Twain called the Book of Mormon ‘Chloroform in print’ because of it’s ability to cause him to fall asleep.

And personally, the Book of Mormon has put me to sleep quite a few times.

Then again, at other times it has captivated me, caused my soul to burn.

I’ve read the Book of Mormon about eight times. Once or twice before my mission, several times during, and a few more times afterwards. I had hundreds of passages  memorized (including the whole book of Enos.)  I had never doubted it’s authenticity. Ever.

Then,  a while back when President Hinkley issued the challenge for everyone to read the Book of Mormon cover to cover by years end, I found something had changed. Every time I sat down with the book to work on that goal, I found myself increasingly disturbed and agitated about what I was reading.  Questions of history, of perspective, of doctrinal loop holes and pitfalls jumped out at me from every verse.  Eventually I realized it would just be better if I gave it a rest.  I put the book down indefinitely. Others would talk about how much their testimony had been increased by fulfilling that challenge, and I would just nod and not say anything because for me, it seemed, reading the book was destroying my testimony.

Well, that testimony still got shattered. And I find myself even more conflicted as I try to find a context for this collection of words and stories. What is the answer to the question of the Book of Mormon?

I enjoyed this post over at the Cultural Hall, portions of an interview with Greg Prince in which he puts forth an alternate reading of the Book of Mormon. He posits: “Perhaps the most prevalent viewpoint in the church is either the Book of Mormon is a literal history of the Americas before Columbus or it’s wrong. There is an alternative somewhere between those two.”

Prince goes on to suggests that perhaps the Book of Mormon is more of a revelation instead of a translation, perhaps a ‘fiction’ inspired by God for the purposes of teaching and helping mankind (“…a metaphorical Book of Mormon, if you will…“) Prince recommends the reader “Get inside of it and grab the truth that’s in there, regardless of the form that it’s in, regardless of how it got to be in [there].”

It’s a thought.
Perhaps someday I’ll take up the book again with this new lens and give it another try.

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19 Responses

  1. PHannie says:

    G, I understand your experience with the Book of Mormon when President Hinckley gave the challenge. I am new to reading The Exponent. I found it not long ago. I haven’t read your previous experiences about the loss of testimony and would like to understand better.

  2. G says:

    hi PHannie (heheh, just had to say your handle makes me smile) thanks for stopping by. and for wanting to understand better.

    here are a few posts I have written that touch upon my loss of testimony; my thoughts on Christ, the LDS church and motherhood, feeling spiritually dirty, negotiating this with my spouse, and finally, recently deciding to come back to church.

  3. Caroline says:

    G, I really like Prince’s take on the BOM. I for one have never really cared much whether it is historically accurate or whether it is a literary creation. Like Prince, the power of it, it seems to me, should be in the message it communicates. And if it inspires people to be better and to feel closer to God, then I’m happy to consider it inspired in some sense, whether or not it represents literal truth.

    Love that picture of your scriptures, G! Makes me a bit abashed – I’ve never attempted to delve into that text at anywhere near that level.

  4. Kiri Close says:

    Who knows if it’s true? I still don’t, but I’d by lying if I said the BOM & other ‘standard works’ didn’t help me at times.

    I just do my best with it, & years ago, I gave up trying to prove its authenticity (to myself & others).

    However, unless there’s a new edge taught about it in Sunday School, Institute, or elsewhere, I get quickly bored outta my head.

    Typically, like many LDS, I’ve known the basic stories & morals inside out since primary–pretty redundant reading overall. It’s nice sometimes, though, to be inspirationally reminded by my reading it.

  5. Kiri Close says:

    PS–& may I add that my own personal questioning of it has made it more interesting to read over the years.

  6. Andrea says:

    I watched a show on Explorer about the lost civilizations of the Amazon. Wow, I was impressed by the things they found that matched the BOM stories. Don’t you feel sometimes that people can prove or disprove just about anything? I’ve heard both sides. People have agendas and put so much spin on everything they touch: politics, history, global warming, economics,etc. It’s human nature.

    I can’t help but question everything. That is the quality that has brought many of us to Exponent. In the end, my analysis of the truth of God, the church and the BOM is very simple and juvenile. It may or may not help, so I’ll throw it out there: True, or untrue, I don’t have anything to lose by believing (ok, my sanity sometimes, and 10%). If true, I have a lot to lose by not believing. Done! I just made a choice, and now I have to put some of my questions to rest for the sake of my peace. Most of it seems to hang together for me. I admit, my view is a tad bit fear-based. I know God will judge everyone fairly; I’m not afraid of going to hell or anything if I don’t believe. This outlook just simplifies the decision for me.

    I’ll always question, and never have the comfort of the blind faithful, but I’m sticking with it.

  7. S.Faux says:

    G:

    I have always appreciated the following quote by R. Dennis Potter, given in August of 2003 as a paper to the Sunstone Theological Symposium entitled, “Liberation theology in the Book of Mormon.” In the paper he wrote these brilliant words:

    For Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon should not be a mere historical record that could be confirmed or disconfirmed by archeological, linguistic, or genetic evidence. Nor is it an inspired fictional story. It should be a sacrament that points beyond itself to the divine. That is, God reveals himself in the book. To test it as a historical document, to treat it as a mere fiction, or to read it as a proof text for a dogmatic theology is profane. We shouldn’t [superficially] read the book. We must live and breathe it. Only in this way will the text transform a fallen world and not merely describe its condemnation.

    As for me, I do NOT read the scriptures (any of them) for historical lessons, but I do read them for inspired lessons for improving my life, learning about the ways of Jesus, and understanding doctrine.

    The Book of Mormon is NOT designed to be tested by science. It is NOT a scientific book. On the other hand, it is designed for individuals who want to “awake and arouse [their] faculties even to an experiment upon [God’s] words” (Alma 32:27).

    To me, looking at the picture of your Book of Mormon is sufficient evidence that you have been experimenting upon the word. Proceed ahead and best wishes.

  8. Jenn in Boise says:

    G:

    I am one of those who really doesn’t have a testimony of where the BoM came from. Or should I put it this was way it doesn’t matter where it came from, wither it is a work of fiction or exactly what the Church clams it to be. I have read it a number of times and know that there is much wisdom to be learned from it. I love it as a book of scripture for all the truths it proclaims. I also don’t think any scripture is an exact history of any civilization.

    If someday it is proven to come form from Joseph Smith’s imagination so what, it has brought wonderful blessing into my life.

  9. elizabeth-w says:

    Love S. Faux’s comment/quote. That’s about where I sit now, too. But I totally get your point, and spent my adolescence and almost all of my adulthood thinking the same arguments (doctrinal loopholes, etc).

  10. Tom D says:

    G,

    I’m sorry that you are having testimony problems. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. I have known that since my mom read me the 16 volume illustrated version. Reading the Book of Mormon myself 60+ times in the 20 years since my mission has only confirmed that more.

    The Book of Mormon has not changed. I would respectfully submit that *you* have changed. I have certainly changed over the years. It is a continual struggle to b e diligent in my duty and keep free from sin that I might always have the Spirit with me.

    I have tried diligently to follow the counsel of President Benson in reading from the Book of Mormon every day. I aim to do half an hour of BofM reading each day, though often lately it has just been 1 chapter at night. I know that this has blessed me and my family. I recommend that you do that too. I have confidence that it will bless you as well.

    Could you be more specific about these “Questions of history, of perspective, of doctrinal loop holes and pitfalls”? I have not found any questions about the Book of Mormon that could not be resolved. It is frankly a miraculously true book.

    I am sure that mistakes in it, but as best I can see they are quite trivial (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2004/10/12-answers-from-royal-skousen/).

    I think that Greg Prince’s “inspired fiction” theory is both dangerous and unnecessary. Why can’t it be the translation of an ancient book just as Joseph Smith and everyone who helped him said it was? Postulating it to be inspired fiction undermines its clearly stated purposes including its central testimony of Christ. The quote of Prince that you cite here sets up a rather misleading dichotomy.

    I am sorry that you have set the Book of Mormon aside. It is still true. I hope you come back to it and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints soon. Take care.

  11. Andrea says:

    Ok G, so we’re a bunch of Mormons and we’ve been programmed to try and save you. We can’t help ourselves. Bear with us.

  12. Andrea says:

    Hey Tom D, I just read your post on FMH’s re: gay marriage/Prop 8. It had a similar tone to your post here. Are you really going to waste all your time on these boards trying to save all of us?

  13. Kiri Close says:

    Tom D,

    When you end your spiel with “Take care”, it reads rather hostile, rather than endearing.

    It’s almost like when someone insincerely says “Thank you”, but they really mean “F**k you”.

    Can you further explain why I might be feeling this way when I read your recent entry above?

  14. mb says:

    Any good historian will tell you that history, written under divine inspiration or not, is subjective and far less than 100% accurate. Add to that the knowledge that written history, when it is abridged and translated, decreases in accuracy and you have a clear and reasonable case for feeling somewhat skeptical about the historical accuracy of the book, even if you, as I do, believe in it’s divine origins.

    I do not depend on the reality of a universal flood for my ability to believe in the divinity of the Bible or the truths it teaches me. I can live with the contradictions between the God perceived by ancient Israelites as they entered Canaan and the God Jesus taught in his intercessory prayer. I long ago learned to let the things that don’t jive with my understanding of history or perception of deity go in order to reap the truths in that book, understanding that the historical accounts and perceptions are the honest attempts at truth telling by people of imperfect understanding like myself (and Paul and lots of others).

    I think I should cut the same slack for the various authors of the words found in the Book of Mormon as well as Mormon and Moroni and Joseph Smith who worked to get it into it’s present, abridged form. They were divinely inspired and also human and inaccurate. And I think most of them would freely admit that.

    I certainly am bothered by occasional annoying twinges with the questionable historical confusions or doctrinal loopholes but I hope I am learning to require less perfection of the book as well as of myself and others. Hopefully I am learning to pick up the wheat and gently blow the chaff away.

  15. Debra says:

    Hi:

    I am new to posting on this blog, so please forgive me if this post is troubling to anyone.

    Growing up out of the LDS Church, and having joined in my early 20’s, I have a somewhat different take on the historical accuracy questions re; the BoM.

    I loved the quote shared earlier from Dennis Potter, describing the BOM as a sacrament, in that is points beyond itself to God.

    I have studied and taught this book extensively over many years, and my experience is that it is a living book, ie, a living vehicle for communication and communion with Deity – a living oracle, if you will, that is a gateway into the Divine Presence and into communication with Heavenly Father/Mother.

    This is it’s power and purpose, I believe, and whether or not it is historically accurate in every point is tangential and beside the point to me.

    We have a tendancy to be quite literalistic in our thinking in the Church, on many subjects, perhaps most notably in our approach and understanding of scripture.

    Being a life-long student of other major sacred texts, including other insights from our friends and family in other faiths, I have learned that often the deepenest meaning, significance and power in sacred texts is found when I view them symbolically, and seek the deeper insights found in the symbolism hidden in the literal words and stories.

    I have discovered rich, juicy and deeply satisfying meaning, personal application, and communion in the major stories in the Bible and BoM, when I read them through a symbolic lens.

    Perhaps seeking the symbolic meaning in the scriptures might be a fulfilling and enriching experience for you.

  16. EBrown says:

    The problem with the BOM as an historical document is not that it is not historically accurate in “every point” but rather that it is not historically accurate in any point. It is a 19th c. document, and not a particularly well-written one at that. Of course, I discount fairy tales in the Bible as well, but it cannot be denied that the Bible contains the fairy tales of a people who actually existed and interacted with other groups that actually existed.

    As for symbolism, I’m with Flannery O’Connor, “If it’s just a symbol, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

  17. Jana says:

    For many years I used the scriptures primarily as conduits for inspiration, rather than finding meaning in the words and stories themselves. I read them daily and found that my practice functioned more as a daily meditation than as a means for understanding the specific stories or events in a historical way.

    I believe that the ways we use, interpret, and/or make meaning of the scriptures are as individual as each of us are. And these will also change over our lifetimes, too.

  18. Jennifer says:

    I’m not sure the post about Greg Prince’s interview is all that interesting. It may as well be an interview with a Catholic. The guy is about as active as you are G. Maybe less.

  19. Kelly says:

    I tried walking that middle road for a while. “Ah, well, it doesn’t matter if Joseph Smith’s claims are true, it just matters that it inspires me.” But where it all falls down is that it’s absolutely critical to the validity of the church. Either an angel appeared and eventually gave Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith was one of the biggest frauds in history. That distinction can’t be blurred.

    And do I really want to give ten percent of my income, the majority of my free time, and my lifestyle to an organization if it is founded on lies which are never fessed up to by the men in charge? Is it really honorable to subtly shift language over the years to become more palatable but never owning up to the major mistakes made? It’s like the Catholic church condemning sexual abuse by priests but not publicly condemning and excommunicating the abusers. Sure there might be some enlightening ideas in the Book of Mormon, but if that’s all you take it for then you’re not a Mormon. The church’s fundamental claim to be the only path to the highest level of the afterlife requires a belief in the Book of Mormon as a literal history. The circular logic required to dismiss the problems of the BOM is exhausting, and I walked away from it a long time ago.

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