Truth and the Book of Mormon

May 19, 2015

I stumbled across a series of articles about “fringe” historical and religious beliefs by Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, over on Patheos. Basically, he discusses the tendency of iconoclasts to portray the academic community as totally resistant to change because of their heavy investment in the prevailing paradigm. Naturally, then, those who reject the scholarly consensus often see themselves as courageous champions of truth who will eventually be vindicated. Mind you, this phenomenon isn’t unique to anti-academic outsiders, but is pretty common among those who fight against what they see as powerful consensus. Heck, a lot of Mormon critics I know see themselves as bravely shining the light of truth on entrenched Mormon beliefs. Recently, someone accused me of hubris, complaining that I think I “get it” and no one else does, so perhaps I am not immune to this.

Anyway, in his first piece, “I Want to Believe,” Jenkins begins by discussing a common claim by people advocating fringe theories: the powers that be are suppressing or ignoring vital evidence that challenges the current consensus. As he says, though, there are good reasons for the consensus. Writing about a book that posits a married Jesus, Jenkins writes:

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

In short, the consensus is based on the accumulation of credible sources, not on the suppression of data. In his next article, “Outliers and Iconoclasts,” he introduces a legal standard for establishing the credibility of a source:

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

He notes that none of this involves appeal to authority. Scholars can and are mistaken, but, as he shows, in “The Monte Verde Principle,” the consensus changes when the evidence compels it to change. He notes that the discovery of the Monte Verde archaeological site challenged the prevailing paradigm and eventually overthrew it in what Thomas Kuhn would call a scientific revolution.

Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.

That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.

You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.

To my surprise, in “Mormons and New World History” and “Wandering over the Plains of the Nephites,” Jenkins goes on to use Book of Mormon apologetics as an example of fringe pseudoscience employed to bolster claims that are “simply not factually correct in any particular.” Some of my readers might expect me to pile on in scorning Mormon apologetics, but that’s not what I found interesting about Jenkins’s article. Yes, he correctly explains that an extraordinary theory must have its “Monte Verde,” or some clear evidence supporting it before it can be accepted. In his view and that of most scholars, the Book of Mormon has none. That said, however, he doesn’t dismiss Mormons as simple-minded rubes with misguided faith. In fact, he expresses no opinion about the spiritual truth of Mormonism:

I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.

This is pretty much my view. I don’t see any evidence that supports an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon, but I cannot make any categorical statements about someone else’s faith being “true” or “false.” Obviously, I agree with the scholarly consensus about Book of Mormon claims, but I know and respect a lot of people who believe wholeheartedly in Mormonism, regardless of credible evidence or lack thereof. They feel their beliefs are based on solid grounds, both “scientific” and spiritual, as I feel mine are. That we disagree on the credibility and importance of different kinds of evidence does not mean either side is necessarily arrogant in believing we are right. That’s just human nature.

It will be interesting to see where Mormon apologetics goes from here. From what I can see, the arguments are all about possible and plausible scenarios, not about solid evidence–a Monte Verde–in favor of the Book of Mormon. I don’t expect such evidence will be forthcoming, but you never know.


Anzac Day

April 24, 2015

Tomorrow, April 25, is Anzac Day, which memorializes men and women of the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand who have lost their lives in military service. The name comes from ANZAC (the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), who fought for the British in World War I. These soldiers became known as “Anzacs,” and the name has endured.

The web site for the Australian War Memorial gives a good overview of the Anzac experience in World War I:

When war broke out in 1914 Australia had been a federated nation for only 13 years, and the new federal government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. When Britain declared war in August 1914 Australia was automatically placed on the side of the Commonwealth. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.

The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated from the peninsula, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. More than 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed. The Gallipoli campaign had a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who died in the war.

Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the “Anzac legend” became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future.

In Australia, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” memorialized the loss, although it’s not well-known in the US. (In a minor bit of heresy, I prefer the version by the Pogues).

Although Anzac Day was marked in 1916, a year after the landings at Gallipoli, the commemorations did not become officially recognized national memorials until the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, several traditions had been established in marking the day. In Australia, the day begins with the Dawn Service, which is about what it sounds like: a usually religious ceremony with a hymn, a prayer, two minutes of silence, and a bugle playing “Last Post,” which is analogous to the American “Taps”). Many people partake of “gunfire breakfast” (coffee and rum), which it is said soldiers would drink before battle to help build courage and calm nerves. At 10:15 a.m., a national ceremony is held at the Australian War Memorial.

I was first made aware of the Anzacs and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign when I was 16 years old. My friend and I went to see a movie (I don’t remember which one), but it was sold out. The other film showing that evening was “Gallipoli,” and from the posters we deduced it was a war film starring Mel Gibson, whom we had seen in “Mad Max.” So, we bought our tickets and walked in. When we left the theater, my friend said he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. So did I. Years later, when I was teaching freshman composition at Brigham Young University, I showed the film to my classes as a way of introducing them to analyzing art and literature.

Director and co-writer Peter Weir (better known for directing such films as “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “The Truman Show”) uses the conventions of war movies and then turns them on their heads. The first half of the film is a typical coming-of-age buddy film, with the two leads (Gibson and Mark Lee) going through silly and humorous adventures in trying to join the cavalry, and then shipping out to Egypt for basic training. But with an ominous blast of a ship’s foghorn as it arrives in Anzac Cove, Turkey, the film shows us in unsparing detail the brutality and senselessness of war. The final shot of the film is indelibly etched in my brain. I remember several students at BYU leaving the classroom in tears, and some expressed anger that I would show something so brutal to them (keep in mind the film is rated PG, so it’s remarkable that Weir makes such an impression without being overly graphic).

It seems kind of pathetic to recommend a film to commemorate the pointless loss of so many lives, but it seems to me that it’s easy for me, at least, to become pretty detached from the horror and suffering that is everywhere in the world. I read about car bombs and mass executions and drone attacks, and because I don’t know the people involved, it doesn’t touch me as it should. I’ve never had a good friend or relative killed in military action. My dad’s stepfather was a career cook in the Air Force, serving in England in World War II and in Korea, and my father-in-law was a self-described “pencil pusher” in North Africa in World War II, where he was never in combat. I can’t imagine sending one of my sons off to war, let alone having them killed. But it happens all the time. Even in places where the United States is not supposed to be in combat, such as Afghanistan, our young men and women are still being killed.

War isn’t going to end anytime soon. It seems to be the default human condition to be in conflict with one another and will likely be so as long as our species survives. But days such as Anzac Day remind us that war is not something to be glorified or celebrated, and the numbers on the casualty lists represent real people with real lives lost. But we can and should remember and honor those who gave their lives for us.


Bad Prose of the Day

April 7, 2015

http://www.koco.com/news/okc-police-1-shot-after-home-invasion/32219556

“Police said the homeowner was shot and killed after being transported to an area hospital in serious condition.”


Top Ten Things Overheard When President Obama Met with LDS Leaders

April 3, 2015

10. What do you mean, was it my mother or father who was “white and delightsome”?

9. We wanted to invite some prominent LDS Democrats to meet with you, but we couldn’t find any.

8. I really appreciate the family tree. I had no idea you could trace my ancestors all the way back to Cain.

7. What were you thinking, building a mall?

6. That’s a tie pin, not an emblem of my power and priesthoods.

5. Which one are you guys, again? Xenu or Moroni?

4. Does that jello have ramen noodles in it?

3. No, I’m not interested in Melaleuca.

2. That’s not the five points of fellowship; it’s just Joe Biden greeting an intern.

1. Why do you keep calling me the “so-called president”?


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


The Divide in Nauvoo

April 1, 2015

I can’t recommend enough this blog post from my friend Roger Launius:

Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

One quote stood out to me:

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

Growing up, I heard the tales of murderous mobs attacking the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and it never occurred to me that there was anything to the story beyond religious bigotry and hatred. But there is always another side to every story, and as Roger explains, the “mobs” and their supporters adopted their own myth of patriotically standing up for liberty against despotism. It’s a common human thought process: you protect yourself by seeing the divide between you and your enemies in the starkest terms possible. That way, you don’t have to listen to their concerns, let alone consider those concerns legitimate in any way.

But in doing so, you don’t learn from history, and you tend to repeat it. I’m reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides have so successfully dehumanized and delegitimized the other that the conflict seems destined to continue in an endless cycle of repeated history.


Recommend to Be Required for Conference Attendance

April 1, 2015

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced today that, beginning with next week’s April general conference, no one will be admitted into a conference session without a special, single-use, conference recommend.

“We wanted to make conference an even more special experience,” explained church spokesperson Dale Overtsen. “When members realize they need to be spiritually prepared and worthy to attend these sacred gatherings, they tend to understand that these are not ‘just another meeting.’ ”

The construction of the Conference Center, completed in 2000, has made it possible for many more church members to attend conference sessions. As with all things, Overtsen explained, “perhaps familiarity and availability have made conference seem like something routine and mundane. The Brethren feel the new recommend policy will go a long way towards reversing this perception.”

As in years past, members wishing to attend must have a valid ticket for a specific session. This April, members wishing to secure tickets must meet with their bishop and stake president to assess worthiness and ensure willingness to adhere to church standards while in attendance. Members traveling from other locations can obtain a recommend from a special kiosk just south of the Salt Lake Temple, where there will be bishops and stake presidents specially set apart for temporary recommend duty.

When asked what questions are asked for the recommend, Overtsen declined to provide specifics but said, “Generally speaking, we want to make sure that members are dressed appropriately and covenant to maintain a reverent, spiritual atmosphere inside the Conference Center.”

Overtsen suggested that the recommend questions might be compared to Brigham Young University’s Honor Code, in which students agree to maintain dress and grooming standards and follow the church’s teachings and commandments. “We haven’t seen a lot of flip-flops or facial hair at conference,” Overtsen said, “but it happens. And we certainly want to avoid any unseemly displays or outbursts in what should otherwise be a very reverent and spirit-filled meeting.”

Asked if the recommend requirement reflects the church’s concern with rumors that an organized group of dissenters plans to oppose the sustaining of church leaders, Overtsen was emphatic: “We don’t change our policies because some loud-mouths, probably in flip-flops and beards, think they can get attention by publicly opposing the Lord’s anointed. This has nothing do with that at all. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of such a plan until you mentioned it just now.”

Overtsen said he was “confident” that there would be no trouble at the conference this year, “other than those so-called Christian yay-hoos outside the gates. Inside, everyone will be facing the same way, as always.”

 


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